Thereby hangs a tale

The suicide of Jacintha Saldanha after a hoax call by two Australian DJs will remain a socio-psychological mystery until the inquest in March. Farrukh Dhondy writes.
UPDATED ON JAN 04, 2013 07:19 AM IST

The inquest into the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha has been postponed until March. The world knows that Saldanha was the victim of a hoax call by two Australian radio disc jockeys (DJs) while she was the chief nurse at the King Edward VII hospital where Kate Windsor (née Middleton) was being treated for morning sickness.

The DJs posed as Queen Elizabeth II, the grandmother-in-law of Kate and as her father-in-law Prince Charles. Nurse Saldanha fell for it and dutifully passed on the call to the nurse who could directly report on Kate's current condition.

Morning sickness occasioned by pregnancy, however severe, is not in the big league of illnesses and there couldn't have been too much to say. It was not even as though it was deemed a risky pregnancy. It was an unpleasant illness but considered routine.

All news of Kate's condition was eclipsed by the fact that nurse Jacintha, a British immigrant from Mangalore, committed suicide by hanging herself in her nurse's quarters after the Australian radio station transmitted their hoax call.

The newspapers report that Saldanha left three suicide notes. The contents of these will not be revealed till the inquest takes place. Did falling for the hoax call cause Saldanha to kill herself?

Without wishing to be callous, trying to judge events from a common-sensical point of view, it seems absurd that one would kill oneself, leaving behind two children 17 and 14, because some idiot Australians had managed to lure you into believing that their mimicry was the authentic voice of the Queen.

It's not as though she was the butt of a practical joke. The administration of the hospital has clearly and loudly stated that no action was taken against the nurses who accepted or acted on the hoax call. Saldanha was not reprimanded, disciplined or sanctioned in any way. Undoubtedly, questions were asked which she answered but the hospital has indicated that they feel their staff acted with the best possible motive and quite correctly.

Suppose the callers had been the Queen and the Prince of Wales. It is totally credible that in this circumstance they would have behaved like normal human beings and made a phone call to the hospital to enquire after their precious Duchess.

The suicide remains a mystery. Killing yourself by hanging, even though as a nurse one probably has access to a cornucopia of lethal drugs, seems an unfathomable reaction to being fooled by a silly hoax. So why?

Kate's pregnancy was, as royalty is in tribal Britain a central focus of idle curiosity, big national news. Some of the commentary on her pregnancy featured the question of succession to the throne. If Kate's baby is a girl she will automatically be the person to be Queen after Prince Charles and her father Prince William, unless Kate subsequently gives birth to a boy who will then supersede the girl's entitlement.

But in contemporary Britain there's another big 'unless'. Public and political opinion is in favour of changing the law of primogeniture so that if the royal girl-child is older she would retain her place in the succession even if a younger brother were born.

The pressure of news may have caused nurse Saldanha to feel that she was in some dutiful sense part of the circus on which the world's attention was focused. Then came the hoax call and the feeling that she had had a direct request from the Queen. Then the revelation that it had all been a hoax. Even so, facing people who may have said 'ho ho, you fell for it' shouldn't have occasioned the degree of shame that would lead one to kill oneself.

A recording of the hoax call was transmitted and in my judgement the DJ hoaxers didn't convince me that they were the Queen or Prince Charles. The accents and idiom were just wrong. But Saldanha was not to know. Perhaps she felt she had betrayed a trust and felt so deeply about a duty to the royalty that she took the tragic, drastic and horrific step.

Saldanha was an innocent party. Not so Captain Rustom Nagarwalla who, in 1971, phoned the State Bank of India imitating Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's voice and asking the duty cashier to hand over Rs. 60 lakh to a Bengali contact who would collect the money. The bluff worked and the money was handed over. When the hoax was exposed by the cashier himself, Nagarwalla was arrested.

Opposition parties at the time pointed the finger at the PM, accusing her of corrupt practices. The incident was followed by two deaths - the investigating police officer died in a car crash soon after and Nagarwalla, who was arrested and jailed, died in custody a year after, allegedly of a heart attack.

Nagarwalla's hoax had a point. He was allegedly exposing corruption in high places. Forty years later the two deaths that ensued may still be considered suspicious.

The suicide of nurse Saldanha remains, perhaps until the inquest, a socio-psychological if not a forensic mystery.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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