Mourning Payal Tadvi

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on June 28, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

Anti-hubris: The suicide of Payal Tadvi, a postgraduate medical student attached to a Mumbai hospital, yet again exposes the scourge of prejudice   -  vibhav birwatkar

In an ideal world, we would be cheering a woman like the young doctor who rose above her social background to realise her dream

For the last few weeks I haven’t been able to get Payal Tadvi out of my mind. I keep thinking, again and again, what sort of dark space this young woman of 26 had descended into that it led her to take her life. And I also think of how short public memory is, because that decision of hers — made out of anger, frustration or some desperation we will never know of — has already become a thing of the past.

Last week, I sat in on a student convocation at a university near Delhi where I teach a short course. The hall where the nearly 300 graduating students had gathered for the ceremony was abuzz with excitement. Parents, siblings, grandparents, friends — all jostled with each other for space as the newly minted graduates re-pleated saris, styled turbans, adjusted veshtis and then queued up to receive their degrees.

Tadvi must have been part of just such a convocation not so long ago. Excitement, joy, nervousness, a kind of fear of what lay ahead and yet a sense of finally having made it... her heart must have been filled with these emotions.

Perhaps there was something else too — something that does not occur to those who take privilege, achievement and their expected outcome — success — for granted. It probably was the knowledge that the place where she stood was not just her own but that of her community too.

India’s former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian was the chief guest at the convocation I was at. He spoke to the students about the choices and responsibilities that lay ahead of them. He referred to the fewer choices and opportunities that the people of his generation had.

Recent developments have cracked open a world of aspirations, one where dreaming, reaching for the sky, wanting to do not one but many things, seem achievable. Yet, the challenges are not small. Artificial intelligence and robotisation, for example, are taking away jobs. Borders are shutting off spaces just as movement is becoming a constant.

As I listened, my thoughts turned again to Tadvi. For this young woman, this is precisely how the world must have seemed when she began to work towards her dream. What had eluded her parents’ generation, seemed to be within her reach. Also, her marriage to a colleague must have filled her life with more hope. But she had not bargained for the one thing that defeated her: The irrationality of prejudice, the violence and hatred of caste, the hubris of class. Her colleagues — all women — displayed this in ample measure. And a valuable young life was lost.

Will this be a lesson to us? I hate to say this, but no. Prejudice, hatred and violence have become so much a part of our lives that we tend to not pay them attention. But it’s not just that. There is also something else that is increasingly worrying: For many who do not come from privilege (and, sometimes, even those who do), the extreme step of taking their own lives seems the only way of drawing attention to injustice.

I’ve often wondered at this. Somehow the thread that holds them to life is so tenuous, its hold so fragile, and yet so precious, that it’s the one thing they seem to have to bargain with an unjust world, the one weapon they can use. In the collective clamour that is so much a part of our internet-led lives today, the reality that lies beneath is of a deep aloneness.

Tadvi’s story keeps coming back to me for another reason. I’m not sure if this is illusion or reality, but, increasingly, I find parents, particularly the poor, desirous of helping daughters achieve their dreams.

Back from the convocation, and talking to the painter working on the walls in my house, I listened to his story.

“I have only one daughter,” he said, “and she has just qualified to become a junior nurse midwife. I want her to be close to her mother in the village for a few years and then come to Delhi to see what a big city is like. To live here and make her life as an independent woman.”

Independence, a job, a life of her own — this is something that parents now dream of for their daughters too.

In an ideal world, we would be cheering these women, not mourn them.

Urvashi Butalia   -  BUSINESS LINE


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan; email at

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Published on June 28, 2019
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