Is there a nation on earth in which religious beliefs and traditions play a more important, and more complex, role in daily life than India? At the same time, journalists have told me that it's almost impossible to write about many religious topics in India, especially in the country's own media.
Why is that?
To be blunt, there are issues that, as a Muslim student told me in a "Blind Spot" book forum in Bangalore, are too dangerous to cover, at least in explicit terms. If journalists write about some religious subjects in our newspapers, he said, then "people are going to die." Thus, reporters write about "community violence," instead of conflicts linked to religion. Their local readers know how to read the code.
Another key word in this code is "traditional." Hold that thought, as we dig into a BBC report that ran online with this headline: "Why are India's housewives killing themselves?" Here is the overture:
More than 20,000 housewives took their lives in India in 2014.
This was the year when 5,650 farmers killed themselves in the country.
So the number of suicides by housewives was about four times those by farmers. They also comprised 47% of the total female victims. Yet the high number of homemakers killing themselves doesn't make front page news in the way farmer suicides do, year after year. ... The rate of housewives taking their lives -- more than 11 per 100,000 people -- has been consistently higher than India's overall suicide rate since 1997.
This is all most strange, since -- as explained by a key source, Peter Mayer of the University of Adelaide -- marriage usually is linked to lower suicide rates. So what is happening in India?
Get ready for that key code word.
A study published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2012 found that the suicide rate in Indian women aged 15 years or older is more than two and a half times greater than it is in women of the same age in high-income countries, and nearly as high as in China.
Married women are part of the cohort. Mr Mayer, author of Suicide and Society in India, and co-researcher Della Steen, found that the "risk of suicide is, on the whole, highest in what are probably the first or second decades of marriage, that is, for those aged between 30 and 45".
"We found that female literacy, the level of exposure to the media and smaller family size, all perhaps indicators of female empowerment, were correlated with higher suicide rates for women in these age groups."
Also, the researchers say that suicide rates among housewives are lowest in the most "traditional" states, where family sizes are big and extended families are common.
Now, what is implied in the word "traditional"? To cut to the chase, are the most "traditional" families in India Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or what? Or is the story saying that traditional forms of ALL major religions in India are linked to lower suicide rates among women?
How does one avoid asking questions about this religion ghost in a culture as faith-soaked as India?
Let's keep reading. Mayer is convinced that the higher suicide numbers are linked to the struggle, in certain parts Indian culture, to changing patterns in family life and education, especially among women. There's evidence that modern and "traditional" women are clashing. Thus:
An educated daughter-in-law was more likely to "forge a strong alliance with her husband and persuade him to break off from his parents and set up a nuclear family on their own", according to one study by Joanne Moller.
Dr Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist and professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine also noted:
"Many women face arranged marriages by force. They have dreams and aspirations, but they often do not get supportive spouses. Sometimes their parents don't support them either. They are trapped in a difficult system and social milieu," he says.
"The resulting lack of romantic, trusting and affectionate relationship with your spouse can lead to such tragedies."
Now, is the team at BBC really arguing that religious traditions and teachings have nothing to do with the formation of marriages and families in Indian life? Since when?
And what about life in the nation's radically different religious communities? Are there no differences in these tragic patterns, let's say, between Hindu families and Muslim families? What about in the much smaller Christian community? What about patterns among the poor and the rich?
In the end, the story never mentions religious traditions at all. Period.
How is that possible? I mean, we're talking about India. Was that subject too hot to handle, on this sensitive topic?