Oct 29, 2012, IBNLive
She was walking just a few feet ahead of me in the deserted bylane near the Parsi colony across from our colony. Her gait was slow and I could hear some moans and some words that sounded like self loathing. The sniffles I heard soon became body-wracking sobs, loud enough for anyone in the vicinity to hear. But there was no one other than me around and it seemed she didn’t know I was there. When the sobs grew louder and louder, I decided to intervene. Quickening my pace, I reached out and asked her if I could be of any help. As she discovered she wasn’t alone in her sorrow, a look of shame and helplessness crossed her face. She just nodded her head and ran away.
This was my first encounter with what I now call the public display of despair in Mumbai. Look carefully around the next time you are in the BEST or the local or just walking down the road. There would be a young girl weeping silently as she clutches her handbag close to her chest. There may be some old man rubbing his eyes, taking deep breaths and shaking his head.
In the Parsi colony mentioned above, there is an old man. Aged around 80, he lives on the top floor of the four storeyed building and rarely comes out to the balcony. But when he does, the entire area knows about it, because he comes there only to rant at the world in general. Standing there on the balcony, he shouts about the injustices in the world and the evil within others, loud enough for everyone within half a kilometer to hear. With no one to listen to, or talk to the old man, this is probably his way of having some sort of human connection.
Or take the example of the schizophrenic woman who has got hold of numbers of some of us reporters. She repeatedly calls us up at an interval of 3-4 months, telling us how her neighbours have conspired against her and have made holes (yes holes) in her flat. She claims they want to drive her out of her property. Some of us, concerned at her condition, have asked the local DCP to go check the place out. Every time the police has told us that the woman is old and unstable and thinks everyone is out to kill her. She sits alone in her apartment, half blind, imagining that everyone is out to get her. She looks suspiciously even at the counsellors who have tried to reach out to her.
These are just a few of the various faces of loneliness and despair in this city. While a growing spate of crime against senior citizens has made the police launch and outreach programme, there still isn’t much talk of young and middle aged professionals living alone in the city. There is some awareness now about the little children who battle loneliness and depression. The past few years have seen the launch of many helplines in the city. Some of them report an increase in the number of people on the brink of suicide, calling them.
In a city where you are always surrounded by people, there is still stigma attached to acknowledging that most of these are just faces in the crowd, people you regularly give a blank smile to. The people you spend most time with are your office mates and no one spills their personal misery out to co-workers, however close you may be. Friends and family for many here live in a distant hometown. You acknowledge your neighbours, but you don’t know them. It is this isolation that makes even a small setback look like the end of the world. A fight with a lover, a rebuke from the boss, a joke at one’s expense in the cafeteria, all this could lead to people taking their lives.
Apart from food and water, perhaps man’s biggest need is belonging. But it is something very rare in a fast paced city like Mumbai. Open spaces where people could bond are very rare here. Families of 5-8 live in match box sized apartments. There is always somewhere to reach within time and something chore to be finished. With the financial situation worsening, career stability, the one thing people in Mumbai relied on, is also now at stake. There is no one to listen to the teeming millions at CST or say something to them that would reassure them that there is some worth in their entire struggle after all.
Only those who try to get themselves a sense of purpose despite the obvious sense of chaos and futility, manage to get over this malaise of loneliness and depression. It is easy to feel like a Kafkaesque insect in this city. Can something be done to infuse more of a sense of their own worth in the people of this city? Counsellors and doctors have been crying themselves hoarse about this for long now. But is anyone listening?