Sunday, April 15, 2007

Suicide In The Neighbourhood

It was late afternoon, probably around 4 pm, on Ram Navami day. I was lazing around at home, doing the usual things that seven-year-old distracted boys do on lazy holiday afternoons. Suddenly I heard a huge commotion. I saw my mom and the other neighbours on our floor rush to Chetana's apartment. Chetana's mom, it turned out, had doused herself with kerosene and set herself afire after a particularly bitter scrap with Chetana's elder sister, Hansa.

The door to the apartment was clogged by anxious neighbours. Chetana must then have been 12 years old and her sister around 17. Though it was a bank holiday, her dad was at work. When Laxmiben had set herself afire, Hansa had panicked and poured buckets of water on her to douse the flames.

I tried squeezing in between the legs of the elders to get a dekko but was firmly prevented from doing so: the scene was truly horrendous, the lady was screaming, the neighbours were shouting contradictory instructions and Chetana was somewhere in the left corner of the room, wailing.

My tender heart was beating furiously and my mouth was dry. Leaving the commotion I turned back to my home, climbed up onto the bed and reached for the telephone. I dialled 101 calmly, told the Fire Brigade control room that a lady had set herself on fire, gave them the complete address and, when they asked for my name, I bravely gave them that too.

The fire engine was there in minutes and the firemen came pounding up the wooden staircase to the second floor where we lived. They wrapped Chetana's mother, by then silent, in a woollen blanket and took her off on a stretcher. Then they came asking for the guy who had called up. When they asked for me by name the neighbours were surprised.

"Why do you want him?" they asked curiously.

"Because he is the one who called us up," they said.

"He called you?!" they asked incredulously.

"Yes. Why, what's the matter?"

The neighbours pointed to me. The firemen looked at the two-foot-something boy that was me and shook their heads in disbelief.

Chetana's mom died late that evening and I remember my family was so terribly depressed no one felt like touching dinner.

We moved from that apartment building a few years later but I remember that the two sisters withdrew into a shell. They would keep to themselves and refuse to mingle with neighbours. And once we left King's Circle I met neither Chetana nor her sister ever again.

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