A Failed Romance, Long Lockdowns and a Friend’s Suicide in India
NEW DELHI — When Rebel ran away, my friend set up a search party to look for him in Sanjay Van, the sprawling forest in India’s capital and a place full of hazards for the missing: scorching temperatures and scarce water, sharp-fanged golden jackals, and marauding gangs of pariah dogs.
My friend ordered the five of us in the rescue group to disperse in different directions, with strict orders to report any possible sighting.
About 90 minutes later, my friend emerged victorious from the prickly brush, his calves full of tiny cuts, with Rebel, my 50-pound dog, cradled in his arms.
Through the long days of the pandemic and its strange aftermath, my friend often held me up, too. He was the constant voice on the other end of the line through the lonely lockdowns.
He was a patient listener as I processed the fallout from my divorce. He was my cheerleader when I decided to give up alcohol. His concern was palpable when my mother had a stroke. He always showed up, accompanying me to a diplomat’s dinner, or to assemble a standing desk, or just to give me a hug.
He did so until six weeks after Rebel’s rescue this spring. Then, I drove to a cremation ground just outside Delhi and watched my friend’s body burn. He had killed himself at 34.
India has the world’s seventh-highest suicide rate per capita, according to the World Health Organization. But suicide remains a largely taboo subject here, as it does in many countries, not often discussed or explored by families, teachers, politicians or the media.
For many traditional Indian families, mental illness is a source of shame. Those suffering from depression are often quietly sent not to doctors or psychologists but to clergy members or shrines, such as the Hindu temple Mehandipur Balaji, where people are committed to undergo faith healing.
The problem of suicide among farmers in India has received much public attention in the country, and for years, the government has tried to address what is often attributed by victims’ families as the cause: distressing levels of debt. For those outside the farmer demographic, however, attention on suicide and resources to prevent it are scarce.
I met K., my friend — I am withholding his full name out of respect for his family’s desire for privacy — the way so many strangers do these days: on a dating app. A handsome and well-traveled robotics engineer, he was as comfortable in Singapore, San Francisco and Munich as he was in Gurugram, the well-off suburb outside Delhi where he lived with his family. He loved food, theater, Formula 1 and Abba.
He was also a news junkie who peppered me with questions about my work as a journalist. When I joined The New York Times in 2020 as a South Asia correspondent, he sent me a cake embossed with the newspaper’s gothic “T.”
While work had taken us both all over the world, he had reluctantly decided to settle in India to manage his father’s company, and, as the first born, to act as the self-appointed caretaker of his parents’ health and his younger brother’s ambitions.
I asked him once during our few months of dating whether his parents — his father is Hindu, his mother Sikh — were gunning for an arranged marriage. They had lost any hope of that, he said with a laugh. Still, his mother did have a rule for her two sons — no B.M.W.s: No Black, Muslim or white women. That was difficult for me to hear, but not a surprise.
A survey published in 2016 found that only about 5 percent of marriages in India occur outside caste. Marrying across religious, ethnic or national divides is even rarer.
In recent decades, India’s embrace of globalization has transformed its economy and the way hundreds of millions of people live. But social conventions around relationships have resisted change, according to Sonalde Desai, a social demographer at the University of Maryland who worked on the 2014 survey. While she was unfamiliar with the “B.M.W.” abbreviation, Ms. Desai thought that the sentiments behind it were not uncommon in India.
Having a sense of all of this, and being disqualified by his mother’s rule, K. and I quickly transitioned to friendship, and soon after that, the coronavirus pandemic arrived in India. Though we had known each other only a few months, he assured me that if I fell ill, or needed anything, I could count on him. His confidence was a great comfort.
With most public places closed, K. and I had to get creative about entertainment. We paid a family to let us swim at a mango farm with a pool. And we ventured out into Delhi’s remarkable forests and parks with Rebel.
Our favorite was Sanjay Van because its ample tree cover provided shade, and its dirt paths led to an ancient city wall with a spectacular view of Qutub Minar, the world’s tallest brick minaret. We talked about family and work and relationships.
One day in January 2021, he sent a text. “Hey,” he wrote. “I know I’ve been kinda avoidant lately, so thought I should tell you. I’ve gone through a bit of a personal crisis.”
He said that it was a long story. I told him I was up for hearing it.
“Mine’s a tragedy where I’m the villain and the victim both,” he wrote.
He had just come back from a trip to Chandigarh, a city in northern India.
During the first few months of the pandemic, he had secretly been dating a woman from Chandigarh around his age who quickly informed him that her parents wanted her to marry that year. He hesitated, and she broke things off.
He spent the next few months miserably mulling about whether the two of them were really compatible. She had no aspiration to work, and he was a workaholic. She was drawn to the esoteric, while he was a scientist who prided himself on his agnostic rationality. And yet in the end, he realized he was in love and wanted to marry her. He drove with his father to sit down with her family to plan a wedding.
He arrived precisely one day late: She had agreed to an arranged marriage with someone else the night before.
A few days later, he showed up at my house for a walk looking haggard. He was devastated because of a relationship none of his friends had even known about until it was over. Because the woman’s parents would have been furious to find out she was seeing a man she wasn’t engaged to, K. had told no one about his relationship.
K. felt he had failed, a failure that he saw as condemning both him and her to a lifetime of unhappiness. He also felt the whole episode — and his continued bachelorhood — brought shame to his family.
In his view, his initial inability to commit to marriage was a major letdown for his parents and an obstacle for his brother, whose attempts at an arranged marriage were not yet successful.
I was struck then and in the following months by how determined he appeared to be to shield his parents from any pain or disappointment, often at his own expense. Just what a toll on his mental health this was taking became apparent when he shared with me a text message he had sent earlier to his ex.
“I know that my mistake and delay has been fatal for my own life’s happiness,” he wrote. “It’s something that I’ve struggled coming to terms with — my fatal error.”
In his final months, K. spent a great deal of his spare time overseeing the construction of the new home his parents were building. His mother later told me that she and K.’s father hoped to live there with their sons and their wives and eventual children, as a traditional Indian joint family.
By February of this year, K. was seeing a psychiatrist, arranged by his father at the time of the breakup, who K. told me was briefing his parents on his condition. He was also getting back in shape with Krav Maga, the Israeli martial art, and was even going on dates. He laughed more easily, and rarely talked about his ex.
When my mother came to Delhi to visit in May, K. fretted over what gift to bring her, settling on six boxes of tea. We all went to dinner. He ate my dessert, and laughed at my jokes. I thought he had turned a corner.
So the decision that he would make just days later was the most terrible shock of my life.
In northern India, one is often hostage to the environment, with little choice but to hunker down inside to escape. In late autumn through the winter, the region is shrouded in toxic smog. After a brief spring, it experiences ferocious heat, which this year was incandescent.
I tried to escape to the Himalaya foothills, but there were forest fires. A few days before he died, K. sent me an article on the heat wave, the worst in 45 years.
“India ain’t easy,” he wrote, and I had to agree.
For K., the heat and the need to hunker down meant being home with his parents and brother, where little could be confidential and the lack of privacy could be suffocating.
As Geetanjali Shree writes in her Booker Prize-winning novel, “Tomb of Sand,” about a joint Indian household:
Nearly four years into my stint in Delhi, K.’s unhappiness in the months before his death crystallized for me the tension between modern Indians’ aspirations, and the old and unchanging expectations of family that weigh on them so heavily. It was in this cramped space between opportunity and duty that my friend felt trapped.
It is impossible to know, ultimately, what drives a person to suicide, and I have come to appreciate that I will never really understand K.’s despair, and all that may have fed into it.
Still, K. remained hopeful that he could get over the ending of the relationship.
“I guess I’m still hoping for a miracle,” he wrote. “Hope is a terrible thing.”
Our last conversation on May 1, the night before he died, revolved around solar energy and other technology that might save the planet. It turned out nothing would save K.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.