It is widely accepted that suicide is a leading cause of death among young adults in India and among the top three causes of death in the population aged 15-34 years.
Indeed, about ten per cent of the Indian population of 1.2 billion people experiences a form of mental or emotional illness - that is about 200 million people throughout the country.
Such frailty may be exacerbated by traditions of marriage between blood relatives while customs like the now obsolete practice of sati and the still current but controversial Jain observance of santhara may also add to the problem. Such ideologies will surely run strong in the genetic pool for many generations hence.
So we should not be surprised to read Standing on My Brother’s Shoulders, the emotionally-charged account of the early death by suicide of half-Indian Oxford University student Adam Lal by his sister, Tara.
Adam, Tara and their sister, Jo are the children of a strong-minded Anglo-Saxon mother who died of breast-cancer while they were in their teens. Meanwhile their cultured and well-read Indian father suffered – like his own mother - from several related mental conditions and was often hospitalised.
Tara suggests that Adam’s own illness was triggered by a visit to India made before he went to Oxford. I think it had lain dormant throughout his childhood; had been stirred by their mother’s untimely passing and was fully awoken by seeing the environment from which he had sprung.
But Tara’s book is as much about how she coped with her double loss as it is about those whom she loved so dearly and it is difficult to reconcile the introspective emotional wreck she describes in her book with the healthy and courageous individual who features as a senior firefighter at Woollahra Fire Station in New South Wales, Australia.
So I’ll be blunt. My first thought was to compare Tara’s experience with that of family members of other UK suicides, many of them very well-known. The most recent that spring to mind are Jack Landesman, the son of writers, Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman and Anna, daughter of campaigning lawyer, Michael Mansfield.
The British public as well as family members have also had to cope with the so-called ‘suicide cult’ in Bridgend, South Wales. This phenomenon became so bad that the media was asked to refrain from reporting individual deaths in an attempt to stop ‘glamorising’ the situation and to help prevent ‘copycat’ suicide attempts.
So, even in the UK – let alone India – this unbearably painful experience has become so common that it renders Tara Lal’s book overrated by her publisher. I skipped many passages, finding the writing boring, repetitive and really a platform from which professional counsellors and therapists may advertise their wares at its conclusion. It would have been a far better read in different, skilful hands.
* Standing on My Brother’s Shoulders by Tara Lal is published by Watkins Publishing (Penguin Random House) on 15 September 2015. It will also be available on Amazon.com.
© Natalie Wood (01 September 2015)