news Wednesday, May 13, 2015 - 05:30
The recent death of Aparna Ramabhadra, one of four Sports Authority of India (SAI) rowers who attempted suicide in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, has raised questions on the easy availability of a poisonous and common wild fruit used in the act. Around 20 athletes have taken leave following the trauma and SAI has re-opened its Water Sports Centre after providing counselling. But besides what drove the teenage girls to such drastic measures is a more edible problem, one that Kerala has, willingly or not, never given much attention to. The four rowers, who were staying at a girl’s hostel and training with SAI, did not go in search of complicated methods to take their lives. Instead, they resorted to one of the most accessible poisons in the state - othalanga fruit. Cerbera odollam, commonly known as the “suicide tree”, Pong-pong, and othalanga in Malayalam, is a fruit that resembles a mango. It grows wild along the coast in many parts of Kerala and has the potential to block the calcium ion channels in heart muscles, causing disruption of the heartbeat that ultimately leads to death.   The odollam tree grows to a height of 15 metres, and has large white flowers with a delicate perfume and a fruit that is often mistaken for a mango. The availability and convenience of consumption could be the reasons for its wide usage as a tool for suicide. Out of all the earlier instances of suicide attempts using othalanga, the most alarming one was reported in 2012, where seven teenage girls consumed the fruit.  The Journal of Ethnopharmacology, a US publication, published a study in 2004 that said that more people commit suicide eating othalanga than any other plant in the world. It went on to say that between 1989 and 1999, 537 deaths can be attributed to othalanga poisonings with the annual toll running from 11 to as high as 103. “It is easy to consume this fruit as it does not taste weird when it is mixed with food and it is easily available. This can be the reason why many use the fruit to take their lives,” says Dr CU Thresia, a physician, who has dealt with many cases of toxification. “Earlier Cerberin was hard to detect in autopsy but now it is possible. However, the effect will not be immediate as it takes two or three hours to get the reaction after its consumption,” she adds. The people of Kerala are not oblivious to the poisonous nature of the fruit. In spite of this, it is widely found in compounds of educational institutions and even individual houses, mostly growns as hedges.  Then why is Kerala still obsessed with the fruit? Since this species of tree grows wild in Kerala the state has been exporting its fruit, which is used to make certain kinds of insecticides and pesticides. “These fruits are used to [also] make deodorants it seems. I no longer sell them after my grandchildren were born, since they are dangerous,” says Thomas Veluthedath, a retired upper division government clerk, who used to sell the fruits that grew in his backyard to an agent exporting them to foreign countries. A few years ago, cases of suicide by consuming the fruit were so high that in 2006 the Indian Physchiatrists Society (IPS) asked the Kerala government to discourage growoing of the plant. KR Narendran, a farm information officer in Kozhikode tells The News Minute that there was no government data available as these trees  grow almost everywhere and were hard to keep track of. While there has been no concrete action from the state government, Narendran however said that they were seeing a reduction in numbers as people have started chopping them down in their backyards.