• Rising female literacy and increased independence are at odds with traditional expectations of women in India. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Rising female literacy and increased independence are at odds with traditional expectations of women in India, and the pressures are leading many to take their lives.
Kali Hughes

9 Sep 2016 - 9:29 AM  UPDATED 9 Sep 2016 - 9:29 AM

Reggae music plays on a rooftop cafe overlooking the Himalayas as I wolf down a beetroot curry. Across the table, Prakash is chewing his way through the seven stages of grief.

At 27, Prakash (not his real name) is tragically too young to be a widower, but in December last year he celebrated his wedding and 10 days later his young bride was dead.

Prakash is tall, at least six feet tall, of high caste and educated. He tells me proudly he was one of a class of only 60 students accepted onto an engineering degree at the prestigious university in Shimla, the state capital of Himachal Pradesh.

Prakash was partnered into an arranged marriage with Aiysha, a professional nurse, also 27. Their families were well-acquainted, good friends in fact, and of equal caste. A suitable match. The pair had known one another from childhood; the union had been set for some time. But Aiysha kept her secret well. Nobody knew of her four-year love affair with another man, a man of lower caste and unacceptable to her parents.

"If only she had confided in me I could have done something. I could have called the whole thing off."

Prakash says he doesn't blame himself but in the next breath he grapples with all the ways he could have saved her life. "I knew something wasn't right but she wouldn't talk to me. She said she was fine but I know her." Dropping his voice, he corrects himself. "I knew her."

I ask him if he loved her. He says he did and then adds "there are many kinds of love."

I made India my home in April 2015 and went back to Australia in December, escaping the high altitude snows. When I returned the village gossip was about a poor girl who had married and shortly thereafter taken her life. The news was shocking.

I clean my plate with a warm chapatti, light a cigarette and pass it across the table. Prakash is still talking as he takes the cigarette absent-mindedly. "I'm fine, you know? I stay strong and keep busy with work. I'm putting the past behind me. It's not healthy to dwell."

A few months is a short time to grieve such a loss, I tell him.

He takes a drag and exhales a string of fraught words entangled in the smoke. "She comes to me in my dreams. I am not sleeping well. Her face is the last thing I see before I go to sleep at night and she is my first thought when I wake in the morning."

"Do you wake with the relief that perhaps it was all a bad dream -"

"Yes, yes -"

"And then, in a split second, remember the nightmare is real?" I ask.

"Exactly that. I thought maybe I dreamed the whole thing and I would turn over and she would be there, asleep beside me."

According to one 2015 study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, girls from nuclear families or married at a very young age are at higher risk for attempted suicide or self-harm. 

He has forgotten we are sharing the cigarette and takes it to his lips once more. "But you know the worst part? The most tiring thing of all is dealing with my parents. I have to act like everything is fine because if they see that I'm in pain they will feel helpless. It would be hard on my mother. Keeping up the act really takes it out of me."

Aiysha had been living independently, working in a hospital in the Kangra Valley, when she had met and fallen in love with this nameless man. But the hour had come to fulfil her bargain to return home and marry.

It's this half-way-to-freedom existence that can push young people quite literally over the edge. Aiysha's death was in fact unusual in that it occurred here, in Himachal Pradesh, where suicide rates are comparatively low. The large, traditional families still provide a support network, an emotional safety net, as long as women remain compliant.

But the new generation of women of marrying age are educated and articulate. They have access to media and role models which empower them to be outspoken when in opposition to their in-laws. Women in the cities are prioritising careers over large families and these values can upset the established order of familial hierarchies.

According to one 2015 study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, girls from nuclear families or married at a very young age are at higher risk for attempted suicide or self-harm. A large number of these attempts are in response to “failures in life, difficulties in interpersonal relationships and dowry-related harassment.”

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Younger generations are trying to both forge independence and maintain a reverence for the established ways of their parents. The state spanning west-central India, Maharastra, is known as 'the suicide belt'  and, while the statistics are influenced by farmer suicides in the agricultural interior, its capital Mumbai is also the home of aspiration and academia. Failure in exams ranks as one of the major causes of suicide.

Meanwhile, up in the hill stations, antique folk costumes are woven on handlooms; regional dialects are spoken and people make their living off the land. The pace remains slow and agrarian. Life is simpler and people want for less.  The women in my village did not receive an education beyond primary school age, but all that is changing. Aiysha had a foot in each world and it ultimately drove her to her death.

In April this year Peter Mayer, of The University of Adelaide and author of Suicide and Society in India, told the BBC that what he called "indicators of female empowerment": female literacy, levels of exposure to the media and smaller family size, all "correlated with higher suicide rates for women."

Aiysha and Prakash are just a microcosm of a wider pandemic. Her parents insist that Prakash should make no mention of the other man and instead prefer people to believe Aiysha was suffering from depression. But even the excuse of depression is problematic.

Earlier this year The Lancet published new data showing India and China bore the highest volume of mental illness in the world and millions are going untreated due to the social stigma and shortage of resources. Environmental conditions and social circumstances contribute to the high rate of suicide as much as underlying psychiatric disorders. And one has been proven to inform the other.

India and China bore the highest volume of mental illness in the world and millions are going untreated due to the social stigma and shortage of resources. 

In 2014 the Indian media reported that 5,650 farmers had killed themselves, seeing no alternative when facing fluctuations in food prices, struggling to meet the cost of seeds and fertilisers and drowning in unmanageable debt.

But at 20,000, the number of suicides by housewives reported by the National Crime Records Bureau that same year is four times that figure. Yet these deaths do not make front page news.

Prakash is showing fatigue but indulges my curiosity. When I ask him about the funeral he says he wore white for twelve days of mourning as relatives and villagers brought offerings to the family home. Pushing his fingers through his hair he nods, yes, he shaved his head too.

He is certain that he must have hurt Aiysha in a past life and that she has now come back intent on ruining this life for him. A deep seated belief in karmic vengeance brings him peace in understanding that, even with the bewildering agony, everything is exactly as it should be.

But from a secular, feminist viewpoint, I can't help wondering whether Prakash is also in some way painting himself as the victim and the dead woman as vengeful perpetrator.

I ask him if he will marry again and he does not have to think before answering. "Nope. No way." He's laughing. He can see I'm surprised at his certainty and adds, "I'm married! I can't just..."

No Woman, No Cry plays through the speakers and he tells me he had a girlfriend once before, years ago, and she died too. It was after they'd broken up, so he doesn't know all the details.

"I think maybe she drank poison. Somebody told me..." he trails off before opening his hands in a gesture of forfeit.

"So, you see? If I marry again who knows what might happen."

He darts for my sunglasses which are lying on the table and puts them on. "I don't want you to see me cry."

For help or information call: 

Lifeline – 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 46 

MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 

Beyondblue - 1300 22 4636 

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