Although the subjects of suicide and depression do not make for comfortable reading, the reality is that many individuals in our society are either directly or indirectly affected by mental illness in general, as well as depression and suicide in particular. According to an article that appeared in Our World in Data, the statistics are as follows: 10.7% of individuals in the world suffer from a mental health disorder, whilst 3.4% suffer from depression. Presumably, amongst the roughly 10% of the world’s population that suffers from mental health disorders, a proportion of them have suicidal thoughts and tendencies.
Onkar Sharma's powerful collection of poems, Songs of Suicide was inspired by his mother's struggles with depression and suicidal tendencies. In the moving introduction to his poignant collection, Sharma refers to his mother's attempts at suicide and the lyrical nature of his creative writing. He states, “This is the reason why I also call these songs as modern ballads. In short, this is a tribute to the troubled souls and, therefore, an effort to develop an understanding for the poor men and women whom we might have seen or heard of attempting to kill themselves.” Sharma dedicates his book to both his parents, but in particular, it is a tribute to his mother and the suffering she experienced due to mental illness and suicidal tendencies.
Songs of Suicide begins with a long, meditative poem that sets the tone for the collection: “Panchatatva – The Five Elements”. This is a reference to the Five Elements of Life, a central belief of Hinduism. The five elements are: Prithvi (Earth), Jal (Water), Agni (Fire), Vayu (Air), and Akash (Space). The author’s religion, then, plays a significant role in the collection as a whole. In the opening to what could be viewed as a quintet, (subtitled “the holy jal”) Sharma refers to a man walking on a bridge who is contemplative as he “stopped in the centre / to overlook at the eerie waves” and then reflects “at the crossroads of life and death”. The five-part poem concludes with the subtitle, “the purifying agni”, which could allude back to the Introduction when the author refers to his mother’s unsuccessful attempt to kill herself with kerosene and lighting herself on fire. There is a direct reference in “Sensitive Mind” with these lines: “the only way out is to put everything to rest / by pouring kerosene on the head and lighting it up / to char the dreadful thoughts once and for all.” The interconnectedness of suicide as an act and death as a result is presented in “Suicide Pact: Killed Children Demand Answers”, with this rather dark opening: “burning like the fires red / and speaking of the souls dead”.
Despite the overall theme of suicide and the ramifications for all involved, an overarching motif in the collection is love in its various forms: familial, physical, spiritual, and sexual. In the visceral poem, “Live-In No More,” the author wonders, “what stirred you to call my fondness an act of rape?” In the lyrical ode, “Woman In The Metro,” Sharma paints a picture with these words: “why does she stand close to me but not utter a word? ... a glimpse of the woman unknown”. The complex theme of love, longing and lust is clearly and erotically depicted in “Before I Met You”. The author writes, “before I saw you at the bookstore on a monsoon day / i was nothing but a light bulb without the electric wire”. In “Good Bye” the depiction of physical love continues with Sharma writing, “it burns in longing / and singes in desire.” In the touching poem, “Water Of A Pond,” the author poetically ponders: “I am the water of the pond, right now / squirming to blend with a river, but how?” This appears to be an allusion to one of the elements of life, jal (water), and its intricate role in our lives from birth to death.
Other poems also create specific images in the reader’s mind. For example, in the following poems the author eloquently writes: “but warnings fall on deaf ears” (“Deaf Ears”); “death is as charming as you, ay, my fair deception" (“Strange Woman Of The Highway”); “i feel like i’m dying on the slopes / and committing suicide sans the hopes” (“Let My Journey Be My Destination”); and “now i’ve a long journey ahead / away from this earth and into the dead.” (“The Last Words”). One of the most personal and moving poems is an ode by the author to his mother, “Good Bye Mom!”, in which he states: “i cannot lug the weight / of your hopes and failures / beyond this point.” Although many of the poems are quite deep and rather disturbing due to the subject matter, Sharma reminds the reader that there is always hope. In the aforementioned lyrical poem, “Water Of A Pond,” the author writes: “i want to experience the loveliness of divine light / i want to experience the beauty of eternal light.”
The subject of suicide is a sensitive and disturbing one, and people tend to shy away from it unless, or even when, confronted with it on a personal or familial level. In the postscript, Sharma writes, “Feelings of suicide are universal. But a majority of humans are able to overpower them by simply engaging in regular chores and endeavouring to search peace in disquietness, hope in despair and order in chaos.” The author makes reference to his own suicidal thoughts when he failed an extremely important matriculation exam. He states, “Thoughts of suicide began to fetter and encroach upon me steadily. I wished to be dead, invisible, run over by an unruly truck or washed away by a roaring river.” Fortunately, Sharma had the wherewithal personally to overcome the suicidal impulse, and he soldiered on due to faith, hope, and love. This collection should be read by anyone who cherishes poetry in general, and in particular by those whose loved ones have dealt with mental health issues and/or suicidal impulses.
Songs of Suicide can be purchased here.
 “Mental Health” (Saloni Dattani, Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser; April 2018, updated 2021)