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How Ghalib Helps Us Understand Suicide And Depression In 2018

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This month had some pretty shocking suicide stories in the news, and this article is about what Ghalib’s poetry tells us about suicidal people. If you are from the Indian sub-continent (be it India or Pakistan), you must have come across Mirza Ghalib’s poetry/ghazals at some point in your life.

I got acquainted with Ghalib’s Shayari as my mom and dad used to listen to his ghazals when I was a child. Growing up, my interest developed in his poetry so much, that my first book ever purchased (out of syllabus) was that of Mirza Ghalib’s shayari with English interpretations.

I have spent my entire life listening to and learning from Ghalib, and I still keep finding new meanings in his long written verses. Ghalib’s poetry is like a treasure that unveils itself by the passing of time; when a certain incident happens in your life, you understand and learn something from his works.

If you haven’t read his autobiography or watched Naseeruddin Shah’s starrer film “Ghalib”, you may not know that Ghalib had an immensely depressing life.

Apart from becoming an orphan at a young age, he also suffered tremendously from the deaths of his children. Losing one child is loss enough that people take lifetimes to grieve for, Ghalib lost seven children, some at birth and some after.

When one of his baby boys died, he was so deeply shaken by this loss; he wrote these lines:

Na tha Kuch to Khuda tha, kuch na hota to khuda hota…

The whole nazm is absolutely mesmerizing; it takes you into a completely different state of mind to understand it. However, the one that I want to discuss specifically for this article is this:

Hua jab gham se yun be his, to dar kya sar ke katne ka?

Na hota gar juda tan se, to zaano par dhara hota.

To understand this, you have to understand the mental health of Ghalib at that particular moment. He loved his wife, but he always wanted a family, children of his own. He had lost not one but many children by now, and it was the day of Eid, the festival celebrated at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. His entire neighbourhood was celebrating; there are sweets and lights and laughter everywhere while Ghalib had just returned from burying his child at the Kabrastaan (graveyard).

At this moment, sitting in the dark, Ghalib was questioning his entire existence and tried his best to express that sentiment.

In these verses above, Ghalib is asking- if one has already befriended pain and misery, then why to be afraid of death/beheading (implying that death can’t be more painful than the sorrow or loss that he was suffering at that moment).

He then continues to say- if the head wasn’t cut off, it would be on his knees sobbing and crying and begging to God for help. (also referring to the sajda/laying head on the ground by the knees which is one of the actions Muslims perform during namaz).

The thing to notice here is that Ghalib is comparing death to the life of sorrow without overtly saying anything about suicide, but one can assume why Ghalib would be even talking about this since he wasn’t sick or that old at that point in time.

Throughout this short nazm, Ghalib is comparing death to the life of sorrow and kind of convincing himself that life/living doesn’t really matter. He is asking – what ifs…

The absolute GOLD here, a precious takeaway for us, years after Ghalib’s death, is this sentiment that helps us understand the state of a suicidal person or someone in depression.

When someone is suicidal, nothing else in the world matters. The pain, the suffering, and misery is too blinding for them to notice anything else around them. Ghalib has constantly said death is better than a life of sorrow. And this is the mindset of those contemplating suicide.

This month we lost two celebrities and a young person to suicide in Mecca. The celebrities were acclaimed designer Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the famous chef.

After their suicides, people kept questioning why would someone with so much name and fame and wealth commit suicide? Bourdain’s own mother told the media that there was nothing in the world her son did not own. He had everything, she said.

Other people’s narratives ran from plain ignorant to downright cruel saying things like “they will go to hell”, etc. From a religious but science believing point of view, I have learned that suicide is one of the last symptoms of a mental illness. The person contemplating suicide is not doing it for fun. An outsider cannot understand what is going on in the mind of a suicidal person, none of us can, but Ghalib did an excellent job by giving us this jewel of a verse above. It explains such a complicated and difficult sentiment into one simple line- death seems better than this life of sorrow.

So for the rest of us who don’t understand depression, suicide, and other mental health issues, the easiest thing to do is to know that the person contemplating suicide is unable to see the benefit of living when they compare it to the relief that comes with death. It is not a decision someone takes lightly, most people contemplate long enough and weigh this life of pain and the end of all things with death. And when one finally takes that last step to end their life, they have chosen not to suffer anymore.

And for those of you who still claim hell for suicidal deaths, I think we all have our own versions of what God means (to us) and the God that I believe in certainly does not punish people suffering from mental illness. He doesn’t get a kick out of doubling their misery.

I want to end this piece by saying that, pain is a highly subjective sentiment. I see people often comparing someone’s problems by theirs and saying “oh that’s nothing, live my life, and you’ll know”.

The thing to understand is, everyone’s capacity to handle pain is different. What may seem trivial to you could be devastating to someone else. Hence, please don’t judge people with mental health issues and if you want a world where people don’t commit suicides, learn to empathise and reach out to your loved ones.

As Ghalib wondered, yun hota to kya hota… I wonder, what if, people didn’t judge other people and offered love and support instead?

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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