This appeared in Asian Age today....
What really happened to Jacintha?
A couple of days after the news of nurse Jacinta’s tragic death in her quarters near the King Edward VII’s Hospital in London, I was having dinner with two very bright Australian ladies. What began as a light hearted gossipy session involving Liz Hurley and Shane Warne, soon transformed into a serious discussion on ‘The Prank’ that cost Jacintha, a mother of two her life. Since that prank was the brainchild of two Australian radio jockeys, inevitably the conversation took a sharp turn. One of the ladies couldn’t stop chortling over how the RJ’s had embarrassed the Queen by mimicking her voice and accent, while the other applauded the genius of the RJ who pretended to be the Queen’s pet Corgi barking noisily in the background. The ladies also mocked the lax security at the London hospital and laughed at the ease with which the pranksters were connected to the nurse on duty ( Jacintha), who naively believed she was indeed talking to the Queen of England. Before our conversation was further reduced to a monumental joke, we quickly got back on track and spoke about Jacintha. The ladies were slightly confused. It was a perfectly harmless trick which went terribly wrong, insisted one. The other said it was all the fault of the silly telephone operators at the hospital for putting through a supposedly ‘royal’ call that had not been screened. Both these opinions are largely acceptable. But that still leaves a dead woman, with grieving family members who are unable to make the slightest sense of what really happened. Why did the forty-six year old hang herself three days after the hoax hit the headlines? The answer is pretty simple : it was a cultural thing. Perhaps , even a deeply Indian or Asian one. This ‘thing’ has a name. It’s called ‘sharam’. And ‘sharam’ really does not translate well. It is more, much more, than mere ‘shame’. Sharam is such a complex emotion , it defies transliteration . Sharam goes well beyond ‘disgrace’. It encompasses family honour. Just as ‘naam’ and ‘izzat’ do not mean just ‘name’ and ‘self-respect’. Had Jacintha been an English nurse, her response to the scandal would almost certainly have been different. Perhaps,she would have shrugged and laughed it off. She would most certainly have worried about hanging on to her job. Or, she would have jauntily phoned a tabloid and tried to make some money out of the story. She might also have received offers to pose topless , enter Big Brother’s house, host a talk show, appear on prime time… write her memoirs. She would have been converted into a grotesque mini-celebrity…. and cashed out. But our Jacintha saw the whole episode through a desi filter. It filled her with sharam…. and she paid for it with her life.
That filter is hard to understand if you aren’t Indian. There are those who’d argue it was really very foolish of Jacintha to commit suicide for something that wasn’t even her fault. All she did was transfer that bloody call to a colleague. No big deal, right? Well, clearly Jacintha saw it differently. It was a big deal for her. Such a big deal, in fact, that she preferred death over the ignominy of facing the world as ‘the nurse who fell for a prank call’. One wonders what she must have gone through during those three days after the story hit headlines across the world. Did she feel that humiliated, that devastated, over what was nothing more serious than a tiny human error? Was she over sensitive as an Asian person? Another woman , even an Indian one, may have brazened it out and waited for the tabloids to pounce on another sensational story. But Jacintha held herself solely responsible for the gaffe. The troubling aspect of this sad story is again connected to cultural cross signals.There are those who’ll ask howcome neither Jacintha nor her colleague could figure out that the persons they were talking to were not the Queen and Prince Charles in the first place? Shouldn’t that have been obvious from their accents? Aha – this where the problems kick in. Jacintha really couldn’t tell between a posh British accent and a fake Aussie-trying-to-be-posh one. She simply did not know the difference! An English nurse may have seen through the joke and disconnected. But sweet, trusting Jacintha fell for it . We shall never know the depth of her self-degradation as she created a noose with a scarf and hanged herself, rather than face the taunts and jeers of her colleagues.
It all boils down to identity and a sense of belonging. Jacintha may have been a superb nurse (or else she would not have been working in such a top drawer hospital). But her training as a nurse didn’t include some other training – which includes the ability to deal with situations that are peculiarly English or in this case, Australian. Nobody takes such calls seriously. Young people from different parts of the world make similar ones all the time. Jacintha’s upbringing didn’t prepare her for this. She thought she had failed, and failed miserably. Eventually,the ‘sharam’ of it all would have killed her anyway. She preferred a shorter cut. Jacintha opted for instant death.Bechari Jacintha.