In general, death is a social taboo in post-industrial, consumerist society. Nobody is supposed to talk about it in public. It is anathema – though, in comparison, pornography is not. This evasion is a typical characteristic of a society that seeks to conceal reality with spectacle. It is as if the quality of death is nothing more than a consumer choice. Sociologist Norbert Ilias wrote insightfully about the “loneliness of dying”, facilitated by an industry of service providers. In this situation, suicide triggers sharp reactions: individuals who die by it are deemed to have broken the social compact.
Cases of suicide are often attributed to psycho-medical reasons such as depression, emotional or socio-economic stress. But suicide is more than that. It also reflects a distorted sense of the social cohesion and solidarity: to put it simply, the way we die speaks of the dynamics of the society in which we live.
This is something French sociologist Emile Durkheim noted at the end of the nineteenth century, when he proposed a correlation between social pathology and suicide. It is a state of “anomie”, as he called it, which reveals the disintegration of norms and values, an unravelling of the everyday sense of normal, that facilitates a smooth unfolding of life.
Durkheim’s concept of anomie is more than evident in the coronavirus era, where every individual, poor or rich, must contemplate survival alone. Penury, the lack of access to food, and feelings fear, anxiety, and hopelessness are hovering over locked-downed citizens. Without a sense of togetherness and in the absence of hope, living and dying become dreadfully lonely experiences.
This period has witnessed great spectacles, most notably, the call by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to citizens to come out on their balconies on March 22 at 5 pm to applaud, bang pots and pans and blow conch shells to express appreciation for health workers on the frontline of battling the coronavirus pandemic.
From ordinary citizens to film stars, tycoons and sportspersons, they all participated in the exercise. The event was, arguably, a desperate attempt to foster a sense of social togetherness at a time when everyone was being urged to follow social distancing. The craving for hope in the situation of utter hopelessness reaffirmed the point: spectacle matters.
A few weeks later, on April 5 many Indians heeded Modi’s call again to participate in another display of solidarity: they turned off their household lights to illuminate the outside world by lighting lamps at 9 pm for nine minutes. Many parts of India witnessed jubilant fireworks.
But these spectacles have been unable to conceal the fact that the bonds that bind state, civil society, and even family and kinship are fraying. And why not? Covered in facemasks, every individual views everyone with whom they come into contact as a potential career of the virus. There is a tension in casual contact that is a dramatic expression of this suspicion and lack of trust. Every relationship is fraught with risk. With the social cohesion so undermined, community, friendship and relationships could merely seem like user options on a social media site.
While the death of Hindi film actor Sushant Singh Rajput grabbed the headlines, many other reports of deaths by suicide have been published on the inside pages since lockdown began. On May 19, for instance, an Assamese labourer in his twenties stranded in Surat died by suicide in utter despair since he had no work. A month later, on June 16, a 40-year-old migrant worker in Delhi named Harkishan died by suicide after he realised that he could not make ends meet during the lockdown as his vegetablevending business slowed. He did not leave a suicide note.
These and dozens of other suicides reported are not just about psychological factors but reflect a specific character of society. Widespread suffering, which abets suicidal hopelessness, is evident in India today. By attributing the deaths solely to psychological factors, though, society has absolved itself of any responsibility for this loss of life. But in such a society devoid of sociability, everyone is at risk.
Dev Nath Pathak teaches sociology at South Asian University (A SAARC initiative) in New Delhi and is the author of Living and Dying: Meanings in Maithili Folklore.