Talk Me Off the Ledge, Please

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Talk Me Off the Ledge, Please

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

S

he didn’t want to jump but here she was, perched precariously on the window ledge, one hand gripping the rail, the other holding on to her phone. The house was empty, just like the day her uncle had forced himself on her.

“You are the first person I am telling,” she whispered into the phone. On the other end of the line, Manohar was listening. All he said was, “Yes, I am here,” and she sobbed her entire story to him. As she recounted the heartbreak and self-loathing that gripped her, she told him how she’d realised a horrible truth. All the playground shenanigans, the bedtime stories, were never innocent. Her uncle had been molesting her for years. She sobbed uncontrollably as she reeled under waves of shame and horror.

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“Do you want us to call anyone for you,” asked Manohar. There was silence at the end and then she replied, “Yes, I want to talk to my grandmother.” He motioned to a colleague and the number was dialled. Manohar gently put the phone down as the grandmother took over.

The next day, the office of the suicide prevention helpline received another call. It was the girl’s grandmother. She wanted to let them know that her granddaughter was safe. And, she wanted to say thank you.

***

There is nothing about the non-descript flat in Dadar East, which gives away its identity as the centre for a suicide prevention helpline. The two tiny rooms in a crumbling apartment complex are noisy. It’s not its three occupants who are causing the racket. The building is a stone’s throw away from Dadar station, the most crowded train station in Mumbai, and keeping the noise away is impossible.

Samaritans Mumbai started the phone helpline 23 years ago. Since then not much has changed except the faces of the volunteers and the upgrade of the phone from rotary dial to push buttons. Two phones sit on the desk and two volunteers are right now on call. The helpline is only functional for six hours a day, between 3 pm and 9 pm. Manohar hopes that he will find enough empathetic volunteers to extend the hours till midnight. Until then the city, which leads the ledger board of suicides in the country, will simply have to make do.

Chad Varah, an Anglican priest in the UK, who founded The Samaritans as the first suicide prevention helpline of the world, did so after learning about the death of a teenager. The girl had killed herself on the first day she started menstruating. She saw it as God’s punishment for her sins. “I will die soon,” she was sure and decided to take her own life instead. If only she had someone to talk to, thought Varah, as he heard of the tragedy and decided to create an organisation which would be that listener.

Today it is Farzana’s turn to be the listener at the Dadar centre. She is a talkative middle-aged woman, covered in noisy trinkets. Farzana is also blind.

The phone rings and she picks it up. Like most callers, the person on the other end is silent. But she is not fazed; she has been trained to handle such situations. She simply says, “Take your time, we are with you.”

The silences are often long, sometimes they run into hours. But the volunteers will never cut the call. Their presence, however feeble, can be the difference between life and death.

Chad Varah, an Anglican priest in the UK, founded The Samaritans after learning about the case of a teenager, who had killed herself on the day she started menstruating.

Turns out, the caller is a man, a 72-year-old from the city. Most people who call the helpline do not reveal their name, age or location. But this man tells Farzana everything. He does not want to hide his identity. He is afraid that he has already lost it to old age. His limbs don’t function anymore, his family seems to be oblivious, even though they live in the same house and the loneliness has become unbearable. Wouldn’t death be better than this?

Farzana cannot answer that. The rules do not allow her to. She cannot tell him that suicide is not the way out; she cannot tell him that his children are wrong for treating him with indifference. She answers him with, “How are you feeling about it?”

Manohar has taught her well. He started as a volunteer with the organisation and now is at the helm of it. The now-retired banker has manned these helplines for the past 16 years and heard countless stories of despair, most of which he remembers. He remembers the gay man who told him that he cannot live with the realisation that he is attracted to men, the popular actor who struggled to cope with the loss of his parents and now, increasingly desperate farmers who are grappling with an imminent drought and an indifferent government.

Manohar recounts these stories of distress in a calm, almost cheerful voice. He works out of a sparse office, furnished with just two chairs and a table. This grey-haired, soft-spoken man has often been the difference between life and death for many of the city’s tortured souls. Their tales of woe don’t seem to have weighed him down. The stories, he says, take an emotional toll on him but since nobody has ever killed themselves on his watch, Manohar sleeps well at night, knowing he has made a difference.

But how, I ask, does he know that nobody has died? His reply is rather practical – he’s always been able to say “goodbye” at the end of every call. What about later, I wonder? But the rule at Samaritans Mumbai is to never call back. Whether it’s a rule derived out of principle or practicality of an understaffed office, is unclear. The organisation only does a follow up when the caller exhibits symptoms of mental illness. Otherwise, Manohar and his team are just “befrienders” – nothing more.

The befrienders are neither counsellors, nor friends. Just a voice at the end of a telephone line that assures you that they will listen to anything you want to say. They will listen but they will never tell you what to do. Right at the training stage every befriender is taught the central tenet of the Samaritan system – the caller does not lose the freedom to make his own decision, including the decision to take his own life. The approach has often been criticised as callous. But Manohar is not fazed. He believes self-expression is all it takes for the moment of madness to pass, the moment where you decided to end this life.

If talking is indeed all it takes for the moment to pass, then there is a crying need for such organisations today. Maharashtra is the state with one of the highest rates of suicide and the number of people who took their own lives in Mumbai alone rose by 12 percent in 2014.

Fifteen people kill themselves every hour in India and those numbers will keep rising. Farzana and Manohar can do nothing about it. All they can do is hope that before jumping, someone will dial 65653267.

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