With the mighty Sabarmati river flowing behind and a black burqa draping her dimpled face, Ahmedabad girl Ayesha took a pledge. In the three-minute video she recorded, Ayesha also heaped encomiums on the timeless river, saying “Yeh khoobsurat nadi hai aur umeed karti hoon yeh mujhe apne mein sama legi (This is a lovely river and I hope it absorbs me).” In a way, she was keeping Sabarmati witness to what she did. Sabarmati, according to Hindu mythology, was created when Lord Shiva brought the goddess Ganga to Gujarat. For centuries it has witnessed good times and bad.
Many of us who grew up north India were first introduced to Sabaramati through the Asha Bhosle song Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamal, a paean to Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful, non-violent struggle for freedom. The Mahatma had chosen the banks of Sabarmati for his ashram or a laboratory in experiments with truth. In doing so, the apostle of peace pitchforked the placid river to global map. No tour of the places associated with Gandhi in India is complete without a visit to this humble abode of the peace messiah. Ironically, the young Ayesha decided to end her life by jumping into this iconic river. The river which has been blessed by rishis, hermits and sacred souls and adored by poets and writers over centuries.
It is wrong, almost criminal, to pigeonhole Ayesha’s pain to just one disturbed young woman. The malaise that consumed her is pervasive, silently killing our society from within. Dowry is not a new curse-afflicted custom. It is a criminal practice being pass off as gifts, tohfa or kanyadaan.
Its root lies in the patriarchal more where daughters are considered paraya dhan (a thing to be gifted off in marriage). And it is customary that we must give a chunk of material wealth to the man or the family in which we marry her off. Just as tough anti-rape laws are not proving deterrent and rapes have acquired pandemic proportions, dowry-related atrocities keep hitting the headlines frequently despite presence of tough laws to deal with domestic violence. While I was an undergraduate, I dashing off many angry letters to the editor in national dailies, condemning atrocities against women, including torture and murder for dowry. Three decades down the line, we are still discussing the curse.
But here the issue is not just dowry. It is more than that. In the video clip Ayesha is heard saying, “kya pata Jannat mile na mile (I don’t know if I will enter heaven).” She committed suicide, right? Now, no Islamic theologian, school of thought, Quranic injunction or Prophet saying, justifies suicide. In fact, committing suicide is haram or forbidden. Which is why acts of suicide bombings perpetrated by so-called jihadists are condemned and not condoned. Did Ayesha know that her act of taking her own life may enter the realm of a forbidden act? A viral audio clip, recorded moments before she jumped into the river, has Ayesha’s parents telling her not to take the extreme step. But is it easy to dissuade a person from taking the extreme step if he/she is determined to commit suicide? The answer is a big “No.” One wishes Ayesha had enough human resources at her disposal for counselling. One wishes someone, maybe farishta, an angel, had appeared there to intervene and save her in the nick of time. One wishes a lifeguard, a cop was patrolling the river banks and saved her from drowning.
Our moth-eaten, fragile, fungal-infected society has nothing to offer to the disturbed Ayeshas of the world. We are too self-centered, too-occupied with our own daily routines to spare time to talk to our vulnerable youngsters. Poor marks or failure in exams, rejection in love, fight with spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend are reasons enough for our youths to slash their wrists, consume poison, hang from the ceiling fans, come under the running trains or jump into rivers and seas for watery graves. No preaching that ‘life is beautiful’ and ‘tomorrow never dies’ will help such disturbed souls unless we catch the bull with its horns. The malaise is deep-rooted and the issue a complex one.
After the soul breaking video of Ayesha went viral, I spoke to a cross section of Muslims. Almost all of them agreed counselling of youths is a must. And it must start immediately. I have a suggestion. Every city, mohalla, town and village have mosques within the pockets Muslims live. The mosques are utterly under-utilized. Except for five times a day, the mosques remain unoccupied. Each namaz, except on Friday, doesn’t last more than an hour. So, what do you do with these huge spaces rest of the time? They remain locked or in some Quran classes are held. Now is the time to open them to community’s welfare. Appoint a trained psychologist-counsellor in each mosque. The trustees of the mosques may be reluctant to pay these counsellors as most of them find it difficult to even pay the imams and the muezzins. The salary of counsellors will come from donations of the community members.
A couple of years ago, I did a story about mosques in Mumbai. The headline was “Airconditioned mosques, impoverished imams.” The mosques are lavishly decorated with marble flooring, costly sparkling chandeliers hanging from ceilings and air-conditioning keeping the prayer halls cool during summer and heaters making them warm during winter. If money is the problem, switch off the air-conditioners and hire counsellors instead. Women counsellors too should be appointed. Since it is taboo to have men and women together at a majority of the mosques, keep alternate days or different timings for male and female visitors.
Our youngsters are increasingly becoming impatient. And are under pressure. Though it is difficult to keep children away from smart phones these days when they are being taught online, parents must also watch out and ensure their children don’t see harmful stuff online. There are games and shows that only encourage young impressionable minds to do things harmful for mental and physical wellbeing.
And the best antidote to suicidal tendencies among youngsters is to talk to them. Sometime ago, writer Chetan Bhagat said this in a column, advising youths to get off social networks. In Aurangabad (Maharashtra), a 9th standard student, Maryam Mirza, has started a mohalla library. Now it is being replicated elsewhere in Maharashtra. Encourage children to read, not just what is in their syllabus, but beyond it. Let them explore and enjoy the immense joy and satisfaction reading books gives. This way they will grow up into healthy individuals with abilities to endure stress and failures.
If we don’t break our slumber and don’t arise and act now, Ayesha will not be the last to commit suicide. Her father’s video message has gone viral. In it he says:”Bahut ho gaya Hindu-Muslim. Ab Ayeshas ko bachao (Enough of Hindu-Muslim. Now save Ayeshas of this world). Heed the pleas of a broken man who has just lost his daughter to a demon.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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