Mumbai has been in the grip of a wave of student suicides this past month. According to the Mumbai Mirror, as many as 25 suicides have taken place in the city in the new year, most of which have been by students. As expected, the media has tripped over itself reporting every sordid and tragic detail of the students’ personal lives, and public anxiety in Mumbai is climbing to the level of all-round hysteria. The general consensus is that there is too much pressure on young minds from schools and parents; the Maharashtra State government has reacted by issuing directives to all eight regional education boards in the state asking principals to arrange workshops to identify depressed students and urge them to seek psychiatric help. State education minister Balasaheb Thorat has promised a stress-free curriculum in school boards, and followed this up by a new rule that allows failure in one subject for an overall pass result in the SSC. A south Mumbai hospital has recruited a former depressive who has a history of three suicide attempts to counsel others against suicide. The Thane Mental Hospital has in the meanwhile gone one step ahead and created what they call a ‘20-minute anti-suicide psycho drama skit’ to be performed on the streets and in educational institutions. According to hospital superintendent Dr. Sanjay Kumavat, the skit will focus on the trauma that family members go through when a child commits suicide, and the ‘problems created by such a situation’ (Mumbai Mirror Jan 18th 2010) – this will hopefully prevent them from taking the proverbial ‘drastic step’.
As anybody who has ever been close to suicide knows, and as I have written (http://sacredmediacow.com/index.php?s=sunalini+kumar) in another context, suicide is complex, complicated business; often a final show of rage, revenge and hopelessness against the world, the end-product of a whole lifetime of events and thoughts. I can’t help wondering: why would a young person contemplating this act (presumably under intense, unbearable pressure) be dissuaded by emotional blackmail regarding the trauma her parents will go through? Anyway, that is a minor issue; what I am finding really difficult to digest is the spate of pop-psychology and pious, holier-than-thou and dare I say it? smug advice from civil society. Pritish Nandy (Bombay Times Jan 20th 2010) would have us believe that the problem is we have a low tolerance for losers, and imagine (Nandy asks us) what a dull world it would be without losers? In an article riddled with the words ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ does Nandy (himself the head of a massive media empire) in all seriousness want us to miraculously, somehow root for the latter? Nandy claims he went to a school there were always more people rooting for the losers, for the underdog. Really? Where did he spend his youth I wonder…that school was probably a really exclusive public/boarding school which admitted children from the cream of society through a ridiculously elite admission process, only to then teach them about the value of failure. By the way, isn’t the underdog the favourite only when he has a chance of winning? Suppose the underdog lost all ten matches out of ten and was out of the tournament, what would we call him/her? Doesn’t matter, really, because we wouldn’t remember, would we? Those are the values of the world we inhabit. But apparently, according to Nandy, the problem is that we celebrate success instead of excellence; success is momentary, whereas excellence is a lifelong quest he says eloquently. Apparently excellence “allows you the space, the bandwidth to accommodate other equally gifted people.” Here we are really talking; so Nandy is not really interested in everybody; he is interested in everybody gifted. But, we must ask if we have to get our heads around the tragedy of the suicides, what about those who have nothing? Nandy says, “Our heroes were artists of the game, not statistics hunters. Style, not success defined the sportsman.” So root for the stylish, not the successful….?? Style itself is a matter of success in some department, is it not? So what of those who have, according to reigning world standards, miniscule style, miniscule money, miniscule grades, miniscule romance, miniscule prospects, miniscule charisma? We are talking of at least five of the six billion on this planet. Lets state it squarely and baldly for the camera – we live in a world that produces 5 losers for every winner, and I am being really, really generous here. In a similar vein as Nandy, Ronnie Screwwala, head of UTV (another media biggie), while speaking to a young reporter about his own spectacular success, says kids should just take it easy, adding that he too failed in his ‘inter’. Coming from you, Mr. Screwwala, a little difficult to take this advice seriously. You see, all kids don’t have your luck/advantages. When people read this article, they won’t look at the one little line that says ‘take it easy’. They will absorb the fact that you are only being heard because you are you. The head of UTV. Similarly, many people have said it is pointless to blame the film ‘3 Idiots’ for inspiring what are being called copycat suicides in Mumbai, because the character of Aamir Khan in the film actually celebrates following your dream, even if it is obscure. Well the problem is humans are not primarily literal creatures. The ostensible message of the film (success is not important) is coded and wrapped in all kinds of other messages. First, it is a wildly successful film. Box-office smash hit. Two, it is successful because of the prior success of its main star, Aamir Khan. The celebrity. Three, it is successful because of the prior success of the producer and director, Vidhu Chopra and Raju Hirani. Four, it is successful because of the prior success of the writer, who became a little more successful by having a public spat with the producer. Five, it is successful because Aamir looks the best, has the most screen time, the best lines, gets the (only) heroine, holds four hundred patents and wait, actually also tops the engineering institute after all his advice about following your heart. You see, he just got lucky because his heart was already in engineering. But wait, maybe I am being unfair, after all he throws it all away to go and live in Ladakh. Only to be chased till that end of the earth not just by his friends and his long-lost love who miss him desperately, but by the geek who wants him to sign a multi-million dollar contract for his patents. Terribly unsuccesful, poor Aamir in this film – living in paradise and being hounded by money, friends and romance.
If we take a look at the student suicides in Mumbai, its clear that all of them took place in lower middle class or middle class households, in what are misleadingly known as the ’suburbs’ of the city – Thane, Vashi, Mulund, Dombivali, Kalyan, Trombay, Ghatkopar…not suburbs, but in actuality, the more precarious, impoverished hinterlands surrounding the shiny Mumbai that appears on page three. On the page that Nandy and Screwwala live in. How is it that the real world – class, exclusion, hierarchy – never features on the discussions about these kids who are hanging themselves? Once in a while, in the midst of blaming parents and schools (extreme case of which involved a school principal and clerk being arrested for sending a kid home for bunking class – a kid who eventually hanged himself), there will be a small mention of the intense pressure that the actual, throbbing, real world puts on everybody. Us. The world – the whole wide, ridiculous universe in its geographic and historic specificities – not just evacuated, empty categories like ‘Parent’ ‘Depression’ or ‘School’. But it will quickly be glossed over by emerging consensus that it was parental pressure that did it. The solution? According to Mumbai psychiatrists, the media and the government, more parent-child interaction. Ok, so more interaction between the kid who lives in a daily crush between siblings, other immigrant neighbours, the morning fight over the water supply, the 7 am virar-churchgate local, the impossibly expensive new jeans at the saturday bazaar, the apathetic teacher at his government school, the girl on the train who never looks back and yaaaaarrrr, somehow making it to the Oberoi Mall in Goregaon by 6 pm so he can get a glimpse of the impossible – Salman Khan on a promo visit for Veer; and the parent who lives in the same daily crush, give or take a few variables? Even if we forget class for a minute, parents and teenagers and school principals are not homogenous categories. There are a million variables that go into making one tragic statistic. Only some of them have to do with parents and schools. And parents and schools in turn don’t exist in a vacuum; they are produced by the same society that produced competition and success.
I did find one article that blamed not just parents, but society directly and squarely for ruining kids through pressure, and with the tantalising and oppressive ever-present pseudo-possibility in our age of getting rich/famous. But surprise surprise, it was about China. So we can say this about China, but not about ourselves. We cannot ruin the party called The New India. Period. Actually the article quoted research was by a group of British researchers who concluded that apart from modern pressures, it was ‘the one-child policy of China, Confucian traditions of respect for parents and elders, filial piety, obedience and discipline’ that led to the suicides. I wonder, would the researchers say the same about British teenage suicides? That it was all of Britain itself that did it? That it was British traditions of feudal classism, obedience of authority, fascination for the royal family and public school discipline that did it? I doubt it. It would be some more identifiable, finite but abstract factor. Oh yes, that mythic thing called peer pressure that mysteriously afflicts some British teenagers.
The thing that is really clear in the coverage of the suicides is the necessity of the hyper-competitive, insanely driven, highly hierarchical world to maintain public discourses and abstractions of equality – universal, empty normative categories – The Actors – Student. Parent. The Problem – Anxiety. Depression. Peer Pressure. Curriculum. The Solution – Counselor. Parent-Child Interaction. Reading Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s masterpiece Anti-Oedipus right now, it strikes me that that the greatest hoax of the twentieth century is indeed the category of the hermetically sealed category of family, along with the attendant universal categories of parenting, childhood and teenage. By taking the focus away from the complexity of social processes and real historical-geographic constellations of power, exclusion, privilege, desire, fantasy and loss that a person would experience from the day she was born, we have the idea of the normative, adequately adjusted, moderately psycho-analysed individual whose deepest fears and possibilities emanate from childhood and parenting experiences. Never was an idea more conveniently apolitical for the capitalist imaginary. So invested are we in the idea of the universally functional well-adjusted family rearing non-suicidal adults that the Government of the province of Victoria in Australia recently started sending super-nannies to disturbed families, to teach them parenting skills. I say send the bloody nannies back to the government, to fix the government. And the companies, the media houses, the war-mongering, death-worshipping dog-eat-dog world. Who will fix their insanity?