Thursday, May 7, 2009

LONELY CROWD by Jo Chhopra

A few days ago, I read this tiny news item in our local paper: “Cafe Manager Kills Self”.

A 23-year-old man allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling fan in his home in Malviya Nagar. The victim, Harsh Saini, was working as a manager in a coffee outlet in Malviya Nagar. Police said a suicide note was found which stated that no one should be blamed for the incident.

It’s the kind of awful little clip one could read every day if so inclined. I usually pass right over them, not wanting to let myself imagine too much of the individual life which had come to such a pass. Somehow, however, this one hit me hard.

I had been to that Cafe a few months ago. I remembered it because Malviya Nagar is an area in Delhi where I seldom go. I was there to meet some film-makers and I was excited because they are creative and buzzy and I was looking forward to our meeting. I was looking forward to it so much, in fact, that I arrived half an hour early and rather than disrupt their morning, I went to have a cup of coffee and catch up on some reading.
Memory’s reach

And I remember the service was so slow I almost ended up being late for my appointment. I remember being mystified by what could be taking so long because I was literally the only customer in the place. And I remember not being inclined to leave a tip but leaving one anyway because I was a waitress once myself and old habits die hard.

I thought about all this when I read about Harsh Saini, 23 years old, and I wondered if he was the one who had made my coffee so slowly that day and whether I had remembered to smile at him and whether I had thanked him properly. I wondered if the depression which finally caused him to take his life had already begun to slow him down and make his work seem futile and pointless.

“Be kind”, Plato said, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Ten years ago, our paediatrician told us that our daughter, Moy Moy, probably had only a few months left to live. Praise the good Lord, our doctor turned out to be wrong, but for most of that year, my husband, Ravi, and I stumbled around as if in a waking nightmare, functioning, but just barely. We seemed to ourselves to be always on the verge of tears, fragile and distracted.

But who knows how we appeared to others? Many people told us later that they had had no idea what we were going through.

One day during that black time, Ravi said he could never treat people casually or unfeelingly again. “When I’m sitting in a meeting in Delhi or attending a conference, no one has any idea what is happening with my daughter. So how do I know what someone else is experiencing? You really can never be sure.”

I work with an organisation in Dehradun for people with special needs. I think about all the parents whose kids attend our school. They struggle bravely and valiantly to give their children a good life in spite of their difficulties, in spite of the lack of community support and acceptance; I think of some of our staff and their hard lives and the way they still show up for work every morning cheerful and ready to care once again for the children in their charge; and then I think of Harsh Saini and all the other faces in the crowds we walk through each day, unaware of their secret griefs and sorrows.

Smile. Be Kind. So simple. So hard.

Working with people with disability makes it easier to do, somehow. The fact that so many of their struggles are obvious keeps us mindful of the struggles the rest of us do our best to hide. It’s tempting to believe that everyone else has it all together, that no one else is suffering or troubled or confused. People with disability help us smash that myth. They stand right in front of us and say: I need your help to get from one place to the other. I can’t hear what you are saying. I can’t see what you are showing me. I can’t understand what you want me to do.
If only...

If Harsh Saini had been around more people with disability, maybe he wouldn’t have needed to hide his worries and fears so effectively that he finally had to kill himself to escape them. Maybe he would have realised that it’s ok to be confused, that others have been there too and would have been willing to grab him by the hand and pull him back from the abyss.

That’s why inclusion is so important. It keeps us human. It reminds us of all that we share in common. It teaches us to look out for each other and to remember that while each one of us has secret griefs and sorrows, none of us is truly alone.