I nearly didn’t see him.
It was dark, and the street lights had gone out a short while ago. I wasn’t surprised –power cuts were common this time of the year. Besides which, you don’t normally expect to see someone climbing the wall of a bridge in the middle of the night.
Of course, once I noticed, it was more or less obvious what he was planning to do. The knowledge made me uncomfortable. I wish I hadn’t seen him in the first place. That way, I wouldn’t have had to think about what to do. I wondered why I took it for granted that I had to try stopping him. It’s his life, after all.
I racked my brains for something to say to him.
“Won’t work, you know. The water’s too shallow.”
He turned around, startled, lost his footing and fell. On the road, thankfully. We looked at each other – me waiting for some kind of response, him waiting for me to go. I stayed where I was.
“I didn’t expect to see anyone here.”
“To be honest, I didn’t either. This is not the sort of thing you expect to run into.”
“Are you going to try and convince me not to do it?”
“I guess I feel like I have to. I’ve read these stories before, you know? Man tries to commit suicide. Stranger comes upon him and talks some sense to him. Man turns a corner and goes back home. It’s such a cliché, but you secretly expect that it would happen to you. That you’d be the stranger in the scenario.”
I had absolutely no idea what I was saying – ad libbing was my strong point — it went with my job description — but this sort of stress test hadn’t happened before. I was making a deliberate attempt to sound nonchalant, as if to trivialize what we were discussing. People who knew me well would’ve noticed that I was talking faster than usual, a sure sign that I was nervous as hell. But he had no way of knowing that. He just stared at me. I suppose he was affronted by the notion that I just saw him as an opportunity to prove myself a great human being.
“I really don’t want to discuss it, okay? And I don’t need to hear platitudes about how it will be better in the morning.”
“I tried it too. Once. A long time ago.”
He was curious, despite himself.
“Same as you. How do you think I knew it wouldn’t work?”
“Felt like a fool afterwards. Not for having tried it, but for having failed. It’s tougher to muster up the courage the next time around.”
He still looked at me, trying to decide what to make of all this.
“I guess after that, I just carried on living. And no, it didn’t get better. Got worse, as a matter of fact. Coz on top of all the shit I had to deal with, I also kept reminding myself that I couldn’t even die properly. Eventually, I just stopped caring, I guess. At some point, it got better, but I didn’t even notice until much later.”
Still silent. I was running out of things to say.
“Listen, all I’m trying to say is, I know what it’s like. A few minutes ago, before I saw you, you were completely focused on what you were about to do, right?”
“I know the feeling. Whatever your reasons to commit suicide, once they take you to the point of making that decision, reason takes a backseat. After that, it’s just a technical problem to solve. How am I going to do it? Will I succeed? What am I gonna put in my suicide note? You wrote a note, right?”
“Do you have it with you?”
“No. No point if it gets drenched or gets washed away.”
I smiled. “You’re a practical man. I made that particular mistake myself.”
He smiled too, weakly. It didn’t reach his eyes. Then again, if it had, he probably wouldn’t have been in the mood to jump off the bridge in the first place.
“I have a friend, a cop. A couple of years after my… well, attempt, I told him about it. He got mad as hell, but listened calmly all the same. Used to specialize in kidnap negotiations, see? He told me something about suicide notes. He’s seen a few. He said, if you’re really so depressed as to want to end your life, then you’re just gonna go ahead and do it. You’ll be so wrapped up in your own misery that you wouldn’t care who else knows it. The guys who leave a note are usually those who are sad enough to consider it, but usually want someone else’s sympathy, or someone else’s hurt, more than they want their problems to go away.”
“I thought so too. He probably just made that up.”
“But think about it. You write a note saying something like: I loved my girlfriend but she left me for someone else, so I’m done with living, goodbye. You could just jump off that bridge without writing such a note. But by writing it, you’re hoping that, at some point, your girlfriend would read it and feel bad that she dumped you. And that she’d repent it, but can’t do anything about it. You won’t be here to see any of it, of course, but that’s how you hope things would turn out when you write that note, right?”
I guess my ploy was working, coz I could see him thinking and nodding. I dunno if the reason I used in my example struck a little too close to home, but he seemed to be getting involved in the conversation.
“Yeah, you’re right. But then, I might just write that note so that the people who love me wouldn’t wonder why I committed suicide.”
“If you cared about them so much, why leave them? Sure, you’re going through a rough patch, but all you’re doing by committing suicide is putting them through a lot more agony, right?”
He thought for a moment, and smiled: “I thought you said no platitudes.” This time, his eyes crinkled just a wee bit.
“You’re right, I’m sorry. Anyway, here’s the thing: like I said, when you were climbing on to that bridge, you were completely focused on dying. Now that’s gone. It’s gonna be tough to try and do this again tonight. Besides which, it ain’t gonna work. Not from here anyway. So I’ll tell you what. Lemme buy you a cup of coffee and you can go home. Try again when you muster up the courage and the focus. I’m not gonna tell you not to do it, coz I don’t know your reasons, and I don’t have any right to tell someone not to try something I tried myself.”
I was going out on a limb here. Until now, I had just been talking to him without actively suggesting any specific action other than jumping off the bridge, like having a cup of coffee. Or trying again later, for that matter. (What the hell was I thinking?) I also think I was doing it badly – somehow, I could see all of this ending up as a bad short story that someone else found clichéd.
But here’s the thing: A lot of these suicide-type arguments work, I suppose, because you’ve followed a particular train of thought further and further until it leads you to that bridge in the middle of the night. It’s a solitary process – how many people do you know who would discuss suicide as an option with their friends before pulling their own plug? It’s like some kind of self-hypnosis.
And I had disrupted it. Maybe just by being there and startling him with the first words I spoke. I had broken his spell. And all that I said after that simply broke it further. I don’t think it would’ve mattered what I actually said, or how I said it.
That’s my hypothesis, anyway. I didn’t tell him all that, though – if he was petulant enough to want to off himself, he might be petulant enough to jump off that bridge just to prove me wrong.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to.
No, we didn’t have coffee. He just got up, brushed the dust off his pants, nodded to me awkwardly, and walked off. I don’t think we had anything else to say to each other. I stayed there for a few minutes, looking out at the water, and walked back to my apartment when the streetlights came on.
Two days later, I came across a paragraph in the City News section of The Hindu:
A twenty-two year old man was found dead yesterday afternoon in his apartment on Nungambakkam High Road. The police confirmed that the cause of death seemed to be suicide, although no note was found. Neighbours confirmed that he had been depressed for the last couple of months, after having been fired from the software firm he was working in.
Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe he did go back and restart his life. I suppose I had to believe that. Like the man says in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, Red. Maybe the best thing there is.”
ps: Yeah, this is an old one too.