The Suicide of Sense

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 ( 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?

13 thoughts on “The Suicide of Sense”

  1. Will be reading this again and again and again.

    Thank you for explaining this in a way where it hits home and right between the eyes.

    Thank you!


  2. Hi Sunalini,

    The problem is not just with pop psychologists. University psychology departments everywhere (I can vouch for at least two countries other than India) seem to start with the kind of hypotheses that these pop psychologists are offering us. I am yet to come across any serious study by researchers in other humanities and social sciences on suicides as social and geographical events rather than individual local events. There are a few here and there but then they are mostly after the fact — for example many years after Singapore started herding kampong populations into highrise housng, in the late 60s and early 70s – the local press started reporting what they called high-rise leaps. After a few years, some sociological studies on high rise housing in Singapore started making substantial references to them in the context of explaining the social tensions that arose from the shift. But even these were never about suicides per se.

    There is an urgent need in India to bring violent death in urban settings to sociological research agendas.


  3. Oh I absolutely agree with you, Anant. Not only sociological agendas, but the entire range of the human sciences would benefit from “bringing violent death to research agendas”. In fact, I was thinking of your analysis of political suicides post-YSR and the farmer suicides when I was writing this, and also of a friend of mine who has been researching self-annihilation as political strategy. If we add suicide bombing to the list and examples such as your singapore case, then its clear that suicide is nothing short of an epidemic in the contemporary world. I am also arguing that even when the suicide appears as a really really individual, isolated case, how can one not look at that person’s life as a series of events produced by the world she/he lived in?
    And yes, the origins of the problem lie in psychology itself, at least in the dominant stream of psychology as it is practised/preached today. That is the insight offered partially by lacan and foucault, but really by deleuze and guattari, that the great conservative turn of freud and modern psychoanalysis was the creation of a daddy-mommy-child triangle as the holy trinity of causation regarding all mental illness. One can debate this particular reading of freud, but there is no denying, to my mind, the incredible popularity of this abstracting, apolitical notion in our world, filtered through pop-psychology and media into ordinary discourse. Its interesting to see, however, how in non-western contexts this idea does not take root easily, but has to be reinforced continually through the proliferation of psychologists and counselling practices…which is why the intersection of psychology and ethnology is always difficult and fraught.
    laddoo, who is asking this question? you, the particular person to me, the particular person, here and now, today, or you the member of society to me the member of society? I think its impossible for me to give a general answer to this question. What do you think? I do think nobody should have to take their life, but equally that nobody should have to live in this insanely alienating world either. What I do think is fascinating is how it is ok for nations/religions/armies/groups/doctors/courts to have the power of life and death over us, a power that is continuously being exercised; but when a person exercises this power over their own life, we won’t tolerate it. Why does it bother us so much? The answer must be complicated, but worth asking the question I think.
    Anand Bala, thank YOU! your encouragement is much appreciated :)


  4. But is the theory really that the familial category is, as you say “hermetically sealed”? Or is family itself contingent on economic or political structures so that when family is discussed politics intrudes naturally?


  5. Which ‘theory’? There are many; certainly, I am arguing for something like the one you described (except instead of saying that the family ‘intrudes naturally’ I would simply say that the familial sphere is always-already political, that it is constituted by politics in an original, primeval way). But there is another belief/theory of the familial category – the one I am contesting – it may be found in the route taken by popular Freudian practices, and occasionally by Freud himself – which crudely put, believes that a ‘healthy’ (moderately neurotic/anxious but not dysfunctional) adult is formed through primary repression (of sexuality), which in turn stems from the uncomfortable memory of Oedipal guilt. This route, which traces all adult fears and anxieties (and achievements too) to a historical myth, and to the daddy-mommy-child triad. Its a long and complex story how we came to reify the nuclear family in the contemporary age, but proof of this reification can be found continuously around us – government policy (the idea for instance that an educated mother produces an educated child, or the deeply conservative principle on which micro-credit is based – the idea that a woman borrower will stabilise family finances), popular culture (advertisements that reinforce the daddy-mommy-child triad), and pop-psychology (the popular and only partly facile response when somebody acts ‘crazy’, “did your mother not hug you enough as a child”?

    The material sociological ‘fact’ is that larger, more kinship-based families have steadily given way to the nuclear family; but this development has been subjected by modern psychoanalysis to a double inversion if one may call it that – whence the modes of relation, meaning and affinity that were distributed among a larger social field were locked exclusively within the nuclear parental-child relation. This, as you hint, was not a natural development, but required a formidable ideological and practical apparatus to be put into place, as I mentioned above. As with everything else, it is on the margins of the social field (on the bodies of the seriously ‘mentally ill’) that the operations of power exercised by psychoanalytical practice become crystal clear. These bodies are sought by modern medicine to be rehabilitated within the familial realm, because their illness, their ‘lack of adjustment’ is a direct threat to the deep co-dependence of the modern family and industrial capitalist modes of production.


  6. SSM, thanks for bringing to my notice this tragic incident. No answers again, but I want to quote Kay Redfield Jamison, a similarly celebrated, numerous award-winning professor at ivy league universities in the united states, a pioneer of research on mental illness and herself a lifelong patient of manic depression or bipolar disorder. Jamison’s book ‘An Unquiet Mind’ describes her struggle with her illness, her attempts at suicide but also her final calm acceptance of who she was, and what makes her ‘tick’.

    (From Wikipedia) Jamison, in an interview, said she was an “exuberant” person, yet she longed for peace and tranquility; but in the end, she preferred “tumultuousness coupled to iron discipline” over leading a “stunningly boring life.” In her memoir An Unquiet Mind, she concluded:

    I long ago abandoned the notion of a life without storms, or a world without dry and killing seasons. Life is too complicated, too constantly changing, to be anything but what it is. And I am, by nature, too mercurial to be anything but deeply wary of the grave unnaturalness involved in any attempt to exert too much control over essentially uncontrollable forces. There will always be propelling, disturbing elements, and they will be there until, as Lowell put it, the watch is taken from the wrist. It is, at the end of the day, the individual moments of restlessness, of bleakness, of strong persuasions and maddened enthusiasms, that inform one’s life, change the nature and direction of one’s work, and give final meaning and color to one’s loves and friendships.

    I imagine Andrew Lange may have found some resonance in Jamison’s words.


    1. Thank you, Sunalini.

      One can only wonder what a great man like Prof. Lange would have thought about these words, but I can say that they find a ready resonance in my mind.

      I wonder when we will be mature enough as a society to talk about this. Huxley in his book ‘Island’ seems to claim that the Indian mind is mature enough to atleast discuss this issue, but I doubt if this society will ever be kind enough to even ponder such questions. To Indian society, it is only about winning and losing.

      I’ll stop before I sound helpless and hopeless.


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