Past Tense: Jiah Khan
June 05, 2013
When a 25-year-old actor commits suicide, who can speak for her?
One of the last Twitter messages by Nafisa (Jiah) Khan – sent on 20 April and nestled awkwardly under a page of thanks and smileys to well-wishing fans – simply read:
As it is, Khan was found hanging from a dupatta tied to the ceiling at her Juhu home on the night of 3 June 2013. Police announced that the death was accidental. She didn't have a major fan following, but the major news outlets all picked up the story and her name became a trending topic on Twitter the next day. Her roles in Nishabd, Ghajini, and Housefull, opposite superstars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, and Akshay Kumar, had gained her enough of a profile to be missed upon her passing.
And what an awful end! Suicide. A shiver-inducing word, a dreadful deed. Such a beautiful young woman, only 25 years old. Why did she do it? Many expressed shock at the news. Others criticised her choice harshly. Still others criticised those expressing shock as jumping on some sort of mourning bandwagon. Mourning can be ugly, no doubt, but never as grotesque as those who would make light of it.
We can't know exactly why she did it. Suicide seems to happen for so many reasons, and while there are overarching theories (such as those explained in this memorable article on the 'suicide epidemic'), each individual case is unique.
There are trends. Viveka Babaji, a Mauritian model who committed suicide in Mumbai 2010, left a note accusing a former lover. R. Ajay, a Tamil actor who committed suicide in 2011, was said to be in love with a co-star. Jiah Khan's suicide was immediately linked by fellow actor Kamaal R Khan to matters of the heart. If you've ever been in love, you'll know how it can carve up your perception of reality, how it can take you lower than you've ever been. If you're reading this, though, you haven't reached a point at which taking your own life is palatable – for love or any other reason.
Glad we're both still here. I came close once, though, when I lived in Kerala. The details are too painful and embarrassing to admit right now, but I picked up the knife with intent because the hurt inside and the sense of mental isolation became too severe to bear. In the face of overwhelming mental strain, I sought a different kind of pain to occupy my focus. It genuinely seemed like it would be easier that way. A desperate distraction, a lesser evil. More an episode of self-harm than a fully ideated suicide attempt, but it could have ended very badly.
The moment passed soon enough. As I lay in a bed with bandages stopping up my arm, I had the opportunity to reflect on what I had done, and the hurt I could have caused others. This was far more unpleasant than the act itself. To those of you who believe suicide is selfish, worthy of criticism and condemnation, I would say that in some cases – mine, certainly – the idea that what you are doing is selfish has absolutely no bearing on the situation. It is a visceral decision. Whether or not it was a choice, it did not seem like one at the time. The pain exceeded my capacity to cope in a less destructive way.
I can't speak for the dead, of course, or for the countless others who have attempted suicide, or for millions more who have seriously considered it. All I know for sure is what I experienced. It comes back to me with every suicide in the news and holds me back from jumping to conclusions.
Suicide has left holes in most people's lives in some way or another. Perhaps a good way to fill the void is listen to those who most need to speak.
Fifteen minutes after that one-word message — “were” — Ms Khan tweeted an apology. Her BlackBerry had sent the message by itself, it seemed. Just an accident. Can't read too much into it. Even so, I feel a sadness at how final it seems.
A good resource with realistic help for those considering suicide can be found here.