The Song of Suicide

Modern Tamil poet Manushya Puthran’s poem ‘Deaths Behind Bolted Doors’ talks about the blazing social problem of suicides behind the closed doors of lodge rooms in our cities and small towns. The graphic etching in the poem of harrowing happenings one goes through before suicide painfully rends the hearts of readers. But in today’s world, not all suicides take place within solitary confines of closed rooms. Many suicides and murders are telecast in Televisions or web cast on the Internet. Murders in Iraq, the hanging of Saddam Hussein, murders in Virginia..Whether telecast live or recorded, these have great entertainment value among people! The Breaking News value of these events boosts TRP ratings and amasses the advertisement revenue of T V channels.

According to a recent news item in ‘Sunday Times’ almost a hundred of a chat group members enjoyed watching an English man commit suicide live, as it was being web cast. Kevin Whitrick of Shropshire and father of two committed suicide after being insulted on the chat room of paltalk.com by his chat mates to the point of no return. Many Internet sites have chat rooms specializing in abusive chats. Such chat rooms are specially created to enable members to abuse each other and arouse themselves. Participants equip themselves with web cameras and hi-fi sound systems to make the abuse sessions true to life. When the abuses are exchanged over these chat rooms, those feeling guilty go through a catharsis and feel relieved and those with masochistic tendencies feel aroused.

One of the persons who watched the suicide on his computer through the Internet said: “He stood on a chair and tied a rope from the open cross beam of the ceiling and put the loop of the rope around his neck. The audience of the chat room kept abusing him and egging him on to commit suicide. He made no reply and just hung himself to death. At first I thought it was a trick since his legs were not visible on the screen. Then I saw his face blanche and then turn blue.”

Another paltalk.com member said: “I knew Kevin through the site since quite a few years. His id was ShyGuy. I did not expect him to do this. He appeared on the screen to loudly proclaim, ‘I have had enough. You all think I am a load of shit! But not this time’. I wanted to believe that it was an empty threat. But I was conscious that it may be true. Some on the chat room continued to abuse him. I could sense that it was dangerous. A person was shouting to Kevin, ‘Go to Hell....Do it....Hang ....Bloody well hang...put the loop on your neck...Look at the fool! He can’t even do this right.’.....”

In 2003, Brandon, a 21 years old youth died after being encouraged by his chat room-mates to consume excessive drugs. Today there are many internet sites with chat rooms that encourage suicide and help with guidance on ways to commit suicide. It has been discovered that in Britain alone 17 such deaths took place in the year 2001.

It is estimated that in the last 45 years the suicide rate all over the world went up by 60 percent and that one person commits suicide every 30 seconds. A million people all over the world committed suicide in the year 2000 alone and India is among nations with a high rate of suicides. Here one person commits suicide every 15 minutes. South India in particular has a higher suicide rate and every year over 50,000 persons commit suicide here. Most of them are young. In Pondicherry alone, 15 young persons in 15-25 years age bracket end their lives every month.

Kerala which is known as God’s Own Country is the premier state in suicides among Indian states. 32 persons commit suicide every day there. Even there, Idukki District, bordering Tamilnadu, stands first. I was born and brought up there. I remember even today the first suicide I saw as a 10 year-old. One bleak Sunday morning a small time farmer we had known for many years consumed pesticide and fell down dead in front of his mud hut. His widow, draped in a cheap blue saree, held her small son in a tight embrace and cried out with her lungs bursting in sorrow, “Your father is gone, your father is gone”. To this day, every day, the Malayalam dailies come bearing the news of suicides of small farmers from Idukki and Waynad hill regions of Kerala.

One early morning four o clock, while walking the four kilometer distance to the nearest bus stop, I found Govindan’s body hanging from a rubber tree. When my school mate, Babu, with good singing ability and wearing an expression of ever-ready-to-cry on his face, committed suicide by diving into a deep whirlpool, he was just fifteen years old. Years later, his elder brother Prabhakaran Nair hung himself to death in his once-busy-but-now-closed down Tea Shop. Another friend Thangachan was one with whom I used to exchange shirts in times of urgent need. When the news of his suicide came, it was his shirt that I was wearing. For many days after the event, I used to have nightmares of his disturbed soul constricting me!

World Health Organisation cites the easy availability of poisons as one of the reasons for high rate of suicides in farming areas and asks that the availability of poisons be regulated. But in India everything from insecticides to dupattas has become instruments of suicides. WHO suggests that infusing self-respect, trust and confidence in individuals will greatly help in restricting the suicide tendency. It suggests that a social environment, where harmonious relations with family, friends and society are easily fostered, should be created. But above all, it suggests that religion and spirituality help in controlling suicides. How far is this true?

In India, it is in Kerala that propagators of Christianity like priests and nuns are present in large numbers. There, in last 10 years alone, suicides of more than 15 nuns have been registered. Recently, 34 years old Sister Lisa was found to have committed suicide in the foyer of her Nunnery. Her suicide note had shown her frustration in religious life as the reason for her suicide. The Church itself officially cites the same reason as the cause of suicides by nuns!

In fact, the main cause of suicides has been the belief about ‘afterlife’ created by religions. Most of the last lines of suicide notes have been along these lines: ‘I am leaving this world filled with sadness to a world free of sadness’, ‘May God forgive me and admit me into the Eternity’, ‘Here, all my hopes are destroyed, I am going to a peaceful place’, ‘I am going to see Christ in person’, ‘I am returning to my Home’, ‘I will meet you all There’. Most of the people, who commit suicide after losing their hopes about life in this world, do so to attain the Other World Life promised by religion.

On 19th November of 1978, in Jonestown of Guyana, 914 persons of ‘People’s Temple Christian Church’ committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced grape juice. Of these, 276 were children, killed by their own parents! Their ‘prophet’ James Jones said that theirs were not suicides but a journey to Another World of Better Life. In their daily rituals, they had practiced suicide exercises with mock drills of drinking dummy poisons. This is the largest mass suicide in the modern history of man.

Palestinian psychologist Iyad Sarraj, who had closely examined the motivational force of Suicide Warriors of organizations like Hamas and Al Quaida, found they were motivated by the same kind of reason. They all believed that they were not dying but going to a Better Life in heaven (Jannat). The Mullahs convinced the human bombs that after death they will be blessed in Heaven and meet Allah face to face. In an address by Hamas ideologue Sheikh Ismail Al Adwan, telecast by Palestinian Television, he proclaimed: ‘Jehadi, after his suicide, ascends the Heaven and immediately sees Allah. He does not have to wait as a prisoner for a long time in his cemetery. He finds his place in Heaven immediately. He escapes from the need for Inquisition on Judgement Day. He is immediately presented with 72 beautiful maidens with deep dark eyes. He can redeem 70 members of his family from all their sins on the Judgement Day.’

Another megalomaniac Shoko Asahara founded a cult called Om Shinri Kyo in Japan combining Hindu and Buddhist thoughts and got his followers to kill 12 persons with release of poisonous gases in a Tokyo Rail Subway even as he was planning to kill many thousands of people through suicides and murders. The list of religious groups with suicidal tendencies goes on extending with names like Charles Miller Manson, Heaven’s Gate, Davidian Branch, Solar Temple and so on.

Albert Camus had once said: “The only philosophical question before man is why he should not commit suicide.” Suicide is a deeply festering human problem. An environment of depression intensifies it. Beliefs grow it and the religions exploit it. Our faith in life is what guides us everyday. But when our faith changes track from life to ‘afterlife’ fostered and propagated by religion and false spirituality, that is where most of the suicides happen.

Let me come to music. Experience reveals the truth that music is the best remedy for many kinds of mental stresses and strains. Many experts have postulated that music evokes only the good emotions of man. Even on animals and plant life it creates good impact. But even in music, suicide is a perennial theme. There are musical traditions, songs and bands that praise suicide and create mindsets that prompt suicides. Mega Death, Auto Destruction, Suicide Commando, Soul Suicide, Suicide Silence and Suicide Machines are the names sported by some famous Rock Bands. Some well known examples of classical creations with suicidal overtones like ‘Die liebe Farbe’ and ‘Der Muller und der Bach’ have been composed by none other than the great Franz Schubert.

Universally famous rock songs like Metallica’s ‘Low Man’s Lyrics’, Pantera’s ‘Cemetery Gates’, Marilyn Manson’s ‘Count to Six and Die’, R.E.M’s ‘My Last Words’, Sarah McLachlen’s ‘Angel’, Judas Priest’s ‘Beyond The Realms of Death’, Pink Floyd’s creations ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ and ‘The Final Cut’ and Elton John’s ‘I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself’ are all songs in praise of suicide. But it has never been said that these songs have directly provoked fans to commit suicide.

Only one song is said to have induced its hundreds of fans all over the world to commit suicide. That song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ is mentioned as the Anthem of Suicide. While watching Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ I found myself particularly drawn to the notes of the background music of a scene in the film. Later I realized that it was the 1933 score of Hungarian Pianist and Composer Rezso Seress for the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’. Hungarian poet Lazlo Javer wrote lyrics dripping with unbearable sorrow for a score already weighed down by its depressing loss of faith and embittered and agonized ruins of mind. The song harvested its crop of suicides all over Hungary and came to be known as ‘The Hungarian Suicide Song’. After that I heard many different versions of the song. Its music had an indescribably strange way of taking over one’s mind. The lyrics conveyed a deeply anguished desire for death. The song with its repeated lines and music expressing sorrow could easily port one with a stressed mind to depths of depression.

Till the December of 1932, Rezso Seress was a struggling artist swimming upstream to be known as a Composer. Whiling his time as a Pianist in restaurants, he dreamed of becoming a famous composer one day. But his efforts met with repeated failures. His scores were routinely rejected by Music Publishers. His girl friend insisted that he find some paying permanent work. But Seress was confident about his talent. Finally after a stormy exchange of words, his girl friend left him fuming and cursing.

The day after that break was a Sunday. Sitting in his ruined room before his piano, Seress looked at the horizons of Budapest through the window. Outside dark clouds gathered in a foaming sky and darkened the city. It started raining heavily. For him, it was a truly gloomy Sunday. His fingers were flying over the keys of piano randomly. And out of the blue he was playing a strange song of sorrow. It was an exact reflection of his broken state of mind at that time. The dark sky outside became a symbol of it.

Seress captioned the music notes of the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ and wrote the score on an old post card. The music was scored in just 30 minutes. He sent it to the music publishers and waited with great expectation. But this too was rejected. It came back with the note: ‘Gloomy Sunday is strange score, but one presenting disappointment. We regret our inability to publish it.’ Nobody liked the score. Another publisher said: ‘It definitely has a depressing feel that is dangerously pulling. But I don’t think it is pleasing to hear or that anybody will like it.’

But, Seress somehow managed to get it published. As soon as the record was released, it was widely noticed in many important cities. First published as an Instrumental Record, it was later released as a vocal record with lyrics of his friend Lazlo Javer. Later, Sam M. Louis translated and recorded it in English. It did not create big waves till 1936. But a string of suicides in Hungary in the background of World War II brought it wide notice.

Local police, who investigated the suicide of a footwear maker Josef Geller in February 1936, let out the information that his last letter had mentioned ‘Gloomy Sunday’. Then in that one year alone 17 persons who committed suicide mentioned the song in their final epistle. In reality the dire circumstances in which these people committed suicide matched the mood of ‘Gloomy Sunday’. Two of them shot themselves to death even as they were listening to the song performed by a gypsy music group. Many jumped into the cold whirlpools of Danube River to their death clutching papers that had the lyrics of the song. One person entered a restaurant, asked the band for the song to be sung and shot himself in the head listening to the song.

Similarly, one person in Berlin had requested repeated encores of the song by a music group and went back to his room and shot himself in the head. Before this, he had moaned to his friends and relatives that the song depressed him and he is unable to get it off his mind. A girl working in a shop was found hanging in her room. She had a letter with the song written on it near her.

‘Gloomy Sunday’ came on sale in America as well, in 1936. American artistes competed to play and sing the song to suit their style. By the end of the year ‘Gloomy Sunday’ filled the shops in their many forms. Bob Allen and Hal Kemp band were the first to sing and release the song. But it is only the ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung by the famous Jazz singer Billy Holiday and released in 1941 that is popular till date. This song garnered world-wide popularity through Billy’s voice as the ‘suicide song’. To temper the notoriety of the song and to reduce the emotion of frustration in the song, Billy added the lines ‘Dreaming I am only dreaming’. But the song continued its innings as a song of suicide.

The Budapest Police proscribed the song when its appalling consequences became evident. When the strange series of suicides came to be reported, BBC too banned the ‘accursed’ song. The proscription continues to this day. A Radio broadcaster in France had the song and its effects investigated by psychologists. Meanwhile, the list of suicides simply grew. Many radio broadcasters all over the world banned the song. But the records of the song continued to be made and bought avidly by people.

The denizens of people who wrote in their suicide notes that the song should be played in their funeral increased. Though failures of love were cited as the real reason for those suicides, the role of the song in creating a suicidal environment cannot be denied. For example, an eighty years old man played ‘Gloomy Sunday’ loudly and jumped to his death from a 7th floor apartment. In contrast a fourteen year old girl jumped into water and drowned holding a copy of the song in her hand. In yet another bizarre incident a boy who ran away from home heard a beggar singing the song. He stopped his bicycle, handed over all his possessions to the beggar and jumped to his death in the river flowing nearby.

Even as the world was dismayed by the song, composer Seress was aghast. He had not even dreamt of the kind of havoc his song caused. He too felt its tragic consequences. After he became famous, he sent a copy of his song to the girl friend who had left him and waited. Awaited reply did not come. Then came the news. When she committed suicide by drinking poison, she had the copy of Seress’s song by her side.

When asked, what thoughts had moved him while writing the song, Seress replied: ‘I stand before you as a condemned man who succeeded. This notoriety disturbs me. I had cried out all the disappointments that brimmed in my heart in this one song. I believe that others too, like me, see in the song, the sorrows that slashed their hearts.’

There are Swedish, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish versions of ‘Gloomy Sunday’. There are also the versions created by Paul Robson, Louis Armstrong, Sara Lewis Vaughan, Genesis (Phil Collins), Ray Charles and Sarah McLachlen. But among these Billy Halliday’s song is, undoubtedly, the front runner. It sounds like a distant lament that pierces the heart. But the one I like is a recent version sung by the Iceland singer Bjork. She sang it only once on the stage never to sing it again. I have its recorded version with me. It takes the disappointments and sorrows expressed in the song to their height. The background score has been mixed brilliantly. It conveys the ambience of terrible mental depression. Bjork’s version of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ is the reason why I began counting her among great contemporary singers.

Billy Mackenzie, who sang a version of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ in 1982, committed suicide in 1997. A German-Hungarian film ‘Gloomy Sunday, A Song of Love and Death’, a fictionalized version of the way ‘Gloomy Sunday’ was created following Nick Barkov’s novel written in 1999, was a big success. DVDs of this film by Ralph Schubel are now available in the market. It has many versions of the Song.

Most of the people who have heard the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ have spoken on its depressingly deep sorrow and its terrible sense of loneliness. Nature has filled every being with a desire to live and love of life. It is a primordial force. Suicidal tendency, which is its total negation, is equally intense. It is only fitting to say that at the height of a creative moment, that deep and intense suicidal emotion came to occupy Seress’s Song of Pathos.

14th January, 1968 issue of New York Times carried this news.
Budapest, January 13. The Hungarian Composer and Pianist Rezso Seress who created waves of suicides all over the world with his famous dirge ‘Gloomy Sunday’ is learned to have committed suicide. Mr. Seress, a few days after his 69th birthday, committed suicide by jumping out of the window in his room. This incident took place last Sunday.

Sunday is gloomy

My hours are slumberless

Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless

Little white flowers will never awaken you

Not where the black coaches sorrow has taken you

Angels have no thoughts of ever returning you

Wouldn’t they be angry if I thought of joining you?

Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy is Sunday,with shadows I spend it all

My heart and I have decided to end it all

Soon there will be candles and prayers that are said I know

But let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go

Death is no dream for in death I’m caressin you

With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessin you

Gloomy Sunday