*Ours But To Do and Die: The Culture and Politics of Death in India

Ours but to do and dieThe news that flashed across television screens a few days ago had a numbing familiarity about it:  ten people had been killed in a bomb blast outside the Delhi High Court, scores more were injured.  It was only some weeks ago that multiple bomb blasts, engineered by another terrorist outfit, caused havoc and panic in Mumbai, a city that, in the clichéd view, has learnt to rise above such atrocities and display a resilience that ought to put a dent in the armor of terror itself.  Since in this matter as in nearly all others the middle class Indians whose voices are heard in the media have embraced American idioms of expression and thought with a frightening fidelity, we have designated these dates as 26/11, 11/7, 7/9, and so on.  But, try as we might, our 26/11 or 11/7 or 7/9 can never have the resonance that 9/11 has come to acquire around the world, and that is not merely on account of the immense scale or gravity of what transpired when the Twin Towers were brought down and the Pentagon, the very seat of orchestrated terror masquerading as the guardian of world order, itself became susceptible to a sudden suicide attack.  The French have always displayed an admixture of admiration and disdain for things American; and, yet, when 9/11 occurred, Le Monde, the custodian of French intellectual republicanism, unequivocally declared that ‘Now we are all Americans’.  Are there people around the world who, after the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the 2007 terror strikes on Mumbai’s trains, or the Delhi High Court bomb blast, have been moved to say, ‘Now we are all Indians’?

Political commentators in India and its educated élites more generally have long complained that no one pays much attention to India’s claims that it is spectacularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks.  Indians like all others deplored the events of September 11, 2001, but some might have thought that the attacks would have the desirable effect of awakening the world to the threat of Muslim terrorists.  It cannot be doubted that the Hindu chauvinists who launched the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, barely six months after the attacks of September 11th, did so with the conviction that the world would barely take notice of atrocities that targeted Muslims –– among other things, September 11 succeeded remarkably well in rendering terrorism synonymous with Islamic terrorism.  The multi-pronged attacks on a number of Mumbai’s landmarks and buildings in 2008 were perhaps the first occasion when the world took notice of the problem of terrorism in India, but it is doubtful that the terrorist strikes this year, in Mumbai and Delhi, have created more than a fleeting impression.  No one outside India much cares, notwithstanding the customary messages of concern; in India itself, people have been inured to violence, and the threshold for what are considered acceptable levels of violence has been raised.

The most familiar part of the story, then, is very simply captured in the feeling that was often voiced in colonial times and is increasingly encountered in people’s anguished voices:  human life has little value in India.  There are variations on this argument, of greater or lesser subtlety.  For the middle class, one piece of evidence predominates over all others:  if America has thwarted all attempts at terrorist attacks since 9/11, why cannot India do the same?  How can we overlook the ignominy of repeatedly being made to look like fools? One school of thought takes refuge in the view that the Indian state is alarmingly inept when it is not corrupt, and that standards of security and safety have been seriously compromised ­­–– not only in the matter of counter-terrorism, but with respect to safety on our roads, railway tracks, and in our skies.  Another school of thought highlights the contrast with the US to different effect:  if in India human life appears to be cheap, the US has a singular obsession with accounting for every American life, particularly the lives of those who serve the country.  Consider, for example, that more than six decades after the conclusion of World War II, there is still an active mission along the borders of India and Burma to search for Americans ‘missing in action’.  The Indian state barely has time for its living subjects, many of whom have never remotely been accorded the dignity of being viewed as citizens:  indeed, a great many people, in the extant ideology of development, are so much waste that has to be shunned aside.  In the colonial anthropology of India, the individual as an atom did not exist; only collectivities –– masses of people shaped by their caste, religion, ethnicity, linguistic background –– were to be found in India.

The social Darwinism that began to mould India 150 years ago remains a vibrant part of our middle class sensibility.  The generation of colonial officials writing shortly before independence remained convinced that the ‘rising flood of human beings’ was the principal cause of Indian poverty and the reason why the British had been unable to raise standards of living. The grim Malthusian reading of India that, whether expressly or tacitly, still informs most middle class perceptions of the great unwashed has not departed very much at all from this view.  With 1.2 billion people, some might think of India as a country that has always registered significant population growth, but that is far from the truth.  For close to two hundred years, British rule in India was book-ended by famines –– ten million perished as hunger, anomie, loot, and confusion accompanied the British takeover of Bengal, and another three million were sacrificed to save the world from the peril of Nazism and Japanese militarism –– and in between epidemics, disease, war, and other famines took a massive toll of human life.  While life expectancy in Britain, most of Europe, and the United States increased significantly from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, in India it declined from 24.6 in 1871-81 to 20.1 in 1911-21, and on the eve of independence life expectancy was still less than 30.

Death seems, then, to stalk this ancient land.  If famines, as these are ordinarily understood, no longer strike India, and life expectancy has increased to the mid-60s, malnutrition remains endemic, afflicting close to half of the population.  The advocates of ‘Shining India’ crow over India’s economic growth, but India also leads the world in infant mortality, fatalities from road and train accidents, HIV/Aids infections, and much else that the country would rather not advertise to the rest of the world.  The colossal loss of lives at construction sites, mines, hazardous waste sites, shipbuilding docks:  all this remains largely undocumented, on the rare occasion dignified by mention in a newspaper or a footnote in a human rights report.  Tens of millions of females are, in the euphemism made popular by Amartya Sen, ‘missing’.  Some degree of ‘concern’ for the poor has now become part of the sanctified middle class sensibility, but the conviction persists that the poor will always remain poor.  The middle class has even come to hold to the view that the poor do not experience death as it does, and that the loss of loved ones means comparatively little to those who are both accustomed to sudden death and have, by giving birth to a large number of children, taken out insurance to guard against Yamaraj’s unexpected moves.  We give little thought to the fact that the poor cannot afford the luxury of long mourning; tears are not theirs to shed, work lies ahead:  ‘Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.’

Whatever the merit of those views which dwell on India’s demographic excess, Social Darwinism, the great gulf between the rich and the poor, the callousness of the state and the grinding ineptness of government machinery, or the supposed absence of the individual in Indian culture, they do not take stock of how death is experienced and the changing contours of the culture of death.  The course of the long history of attitudes to death in the West was to culminate, Philippe Aries argued in a seminal book on the subject in 1976, in a concerted attempt to obscure the social reality of death.   Throughout the nineteenth century, improvements in sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition, besides the more celebrated innovations in medical care, led to enhanced life expectancy and it seemed as if the moment of death could be forestalled.  Yet this grand narrative of progress was to be rudely disrupted:  the trench warfare of the ‘Great War’ which saw millions of young men being sent to death like so many sheep being taken for slaughter, and the nearly countless dead of the World War II, deepened the resolve in the West to restore the pact which would render death, as Aries terms it, ‘forbidden’.  The entire care of death in the West has, over the course of the last few decades, been turned over to professionals and managers.   The loud mourning that characterized the 19th century has been replaced by quiet funerals; to the extent possible, death has become sanitized.  Responsibility for the patient is handed over to nursing homes and, of course, hospitals.  Ivan Illich, in a devastating critique of the modern culture of death in the West, called it ‘the medicalization of death’.

India presents the greatest possible contrast with the ‘death of death’, and not only because, however much we may attempt to banish the dead from our lives, there are people dying in our midst –– from malaria and dengue fever, untreated and undiagnosed illnesses, accidents at factories and industrial sites, and so on.   In every middle class family where there are cooks, drivers, maids, and washerwomen, there are such stories to be told.  Death is everywhere in more ways than we imagine.  The dead are taken through the streets to the cries of ‘Ram nam satya hai’.  The dead continue to exert a visceral presence through the living, through elaborate funerary rites as much as the fact that males and females of Hindu families might become walking signifiers of death.  If males shave their heads and facial hair, the upper caste Hindu woman who enters into a state of widowhood is recognized by her simple clothing and renunciation of the right to adorn herself.   Banaras is the City of Light, but it must also be unique among the world’s great cities in being devoted to death; one goes to Banaras to die.  Banaras is the great cremation ground; and in its midst, along the riverfront, is Manikarnika, the epicentre of the dead.  Where most other cultures bury their dead, Hindus burn their dead.  This must be one reason among many, as I have elsewhere written, for the supreme indifference of Hindus towards their own history.  The body –– the physical body, the body of history ­­­­–– is placed on the funeral pyre for all to see; and when it has been burnt to ashes, those who make their living off the cremation ground sift through them in search of valuables.

The dead and the living, as the Mahabharata instructs us, are knotted together:  in the words of the Shanti Parva (175.24), ‘Death is connected with life from the moment one is born’.  The Mahabharata is also clear that one may suffer a psychological death long before the biological fact of death stares one in the face:  death takes many forms, among them hatred and greed, anger, and the drunkenness of the mind (Udyoga Parva 42.7).  Beyond all this, as the Mahabharata recognizes only too well, there remains the one insuperable fact of life.  When it comes to death, the human instinct is always to think of the death of another, not the death of oneself.  In the justly famous passage of the Mahabharata that has come to be known as the ‘Yaksha Prasna’, Yudhisthira is asked what is the most wondrous thing in the world.  All around oneself, says Yudhisthira, one sees death and the fire of destruction, countless number of living beings taken to the beyond; and yet one persists in the belief that one alone is immortal.

5 thoughts on “*Ours But To Do and Die: The Culture and Politics of Death in India

  1. Thank you for this post. There is a concerted and laughable enterprise underway in India as well to banish death. I was told with enormous confidence recently by someone in the ‘healthcare’ profession, that the first Indian to live over 200 years has already been born!

    I know you have written at some length over the absence of Gandhi from post colonial scholarship, to say nothing of other fields, but I think here too the question of death is crucial. Ultimately, at least in my reading, for Gandhi, a moral life is a finite life and death is neither to be feared nor avoided. This is yet another reason Gandhi really cannot be placed on the modern continuum of political positions from liberalism to radical anarchism, and Orwell had noticed this as well. Perhaps this is one reason why scholars are so averse to taking Gandhi seriously.

    Curiously, someone who comes very close to espousing Gandhi’s (and actually of course this position in Indic thought predates Gandhi by centuries) position on death is J K Rowling, especially in the seventh Harry Potter book. Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster, attaches neither an excessive value to life, nor betrays an excessive fear of death. He explicitly likens death to the conclusion of one journey and the beginning of another. I don’t know whether Rowling is drawing on some marginal European cultural strain, or whether she got this from Indic thought.

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    • Hi Aniket,
      As I have not read the Harry Potter novels, I am not in a position to comment on whether Rowling espouses a position somewhat akin to Gandhi’s views. I am in general agreement with your reading of Gandhi. Whatever someone in the medical profession in India might say, death is too overt a fact of life in India at present.

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  2. Pingback: Ch 5: Human nature — The hierarchy of needs | Kimber's meanderings

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