My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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12 January 2018

On Thirteen Reasons Why, the show & the book, and why we still need our really good teen suicide book

(A version of this appeared in Scroll.)

Do you remember where you were when your life hit a crossroads? I do.

For a brief period, which felt like eternity at the time, I was bullied. It wasn't even the dramatic stuff you see on TV or hear about, it was mostly just occasional put downs (“you're so ugly”) or exclusions (not being invited to a party everyone else was.) It wasn't a big deal, and yet, it was the only deal. My life was consumed by this—I was about thirteen, a difficult age anyway—and I did so badly at school that I had to repeat the year. This was when the crossroads happened: I begged to go somewhere else for school, my parents agreed, and I was sent off to boarding school, where I made the first tentative steps at becoming happy with being myself again. I guess some inner reserve of mental strength I didn't know I had was keeping me afloat—I was deeply unhappy, in the depths of despair and yet, I still welcomed each new day as the gift it was.

Reading (and watching) Thirteen Reasons Why reminded me a little of that time. Every year, around this time of the year—CBSE results, exam time—I read about teen suicides. In this age of live streaming, we can even watch suicides, people broadcasting till the very end. Though Thirteen Reasons Why (the book) was published in 2007, way before live streaming was even dreamt of, the victim, the girl, the second narrator in the book, Hannah Baker, broadcasts her own death on thirteen tapes, naming and shaming the people who drove her to this decision. 


The TV show is a bit more disturbing. While in the book, the boy listening to the tapes; Clay; thinks to himself several times that Hannah could have asked for help, in the show, the shades of grey are less defined. Hannah is hounded with relentless bullying that would make anyone break down, painted in TV screen colours, lingering lovingly on each slap, on each sexual assault. In the book, Hannah's parents are a little absent, all-absorbed in their business, but in the show, her parents are frequently present, talking to her, eating together and yet, she never turns to them. In the book, Hannah takes some pills, the narrative doesn't go deeply into how she dies, but the show has the camera pause on her scared face, her trembling fingers, the lift of the razor as she slashes at her wrists and the blood pumping out of them. (That's not a spoiler, you already know that she dies in the end, don't you?)

A while ago, Instagram banned the use of hashtags that promoted anorexia, like #thinspiration or #proana. It didn't work the way the social media site might have wanted it to: people began to modify their hashtags, like for example, #thinspooo instead of the banned #thinspo. At least they have a dedicated section in their help centre where they address what you can do if you see someone posting threats of suicide or self harm. (You can report the post and also share links they've provided of suicide helplines.) But after reading (and watching) Thirteen Reasons Why, I saw it as a sort of glorified suicide video, except it was pretending it was not. At least in the book, the common markers of a suicidal individual are spelt out (they change their appearance, they start giving away their things), but at the end of the show, you are left feeling as despairing as one imagines the characters must be after listening to the tapes.

In a survey done by the WHO in 2015, India is one of the top 25 most suicidal countries in the world. 17% of all world-wide suicides are Indian, and our rate of suicide for women is the sixth highest in the world. Hindustan Times carried a story with an alarming statistic: every hour, one student commits suicide in India. For not quite the same reasons as Hannah: these suicides are usually related to academics and failing exams.

But books about teen suicide (few and far between) usually deal with love or bullying or some such trouble, starting all the way from Romeo and Juliet, the original suicidal teens. Maybe that's why I'm somewhat disappointed with Thirteen Reasons Why. I wanted it to be more... something. More inner thoughts and less “this is why it happened.” More about the numbness that hits people with depression, teens more than others. I wanted it to address the big black bird of despair that settles over their entire lives. I wanted it to talk about how it feels like an effort to just wake up and face the day. The book makes it too neat—there was a girl, people bullied her, she killed herself. Bullying is awful, a lot of people are driven to suicide through bullying alone, but there is a step three in the middle where your brain says, “Anything would be better than this. Death would be better than this.” Thirteen Reasons Why touches on that just briefly and towards the end, not going much into how a person who was upbeat and cheerful just three chapters ago could become so hopeless.

That's the teen suicide book—and show—I'd like to see.

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