Karnataka has a large number of privately run medical and engineering colleges, to which flock students from all over the country. They come in the summer, when, for days upon end, their anxieties and hopes are splashed over the front pages of the newspapers in Bangalore. Every year, two kinds of stories make most of the headlines—battles between the government and private colleges, on how much the latter can charge as fees; and struggles within the colleges, as to how many seats will be allocated to ‘out of state’ students. To these familiar staples has now been added a third kind of story—featuring the suicides of disappointed candidates.
The taking of one’s own life is the most private of acts, but, as the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out, the incidence of suicide varies widely across societies and historical periods. The psychological dislocation that causes one to kill oneself has deep social roots. In industrializing societies in particular, the rate of suicide tends to rise. The causes are various: the dissolution of social bonds as individuals move away from their family and community; the faster pace of life; and the growth of overweening ambition. In Durkheim’s inimitable words (here translated by Steven Lukes), with the ‘development of industry and the almost infinite extension of the market…, from top to bottom of the scale, greed is aroused unable to find ultimate foothold’. In modern towns driven by commerce and enterprise, men lose ‘the taste and habit of domestic solidarity’. Individuals ‘are less close’, as ‘the cold winds of egoism freezes their hearts and weakens their spirits’. As a consequence, ‘the bond attaching man to life slackens because the bond which attaches him to society is itself slack’.
Thus late nineteenth-century France, and thus also early twenty-first century India. It should come as no surprise that Bangalore, India’s Silicon City, is also India’s Suicide City. It is claimed that as many as 2000 cases are registered every year, accounting for 17% of all the suicides in the country. Notably, almost as many women as men attempt to take their lives. So far as gender is concerned there are no significant biases, but with regard to age and profession they certainly are. A majority of suicides are of those between twenty and thirty years of age. Very many of these are of software professionals.
Behind these very individual tragedies are some very social processes. Within a generation, this sleepy cantonment town has been transformed into a bustling metropolis. No city in India, and possibly even the world, has changed quite so much so soon. The most striking manifestation of this is in the city’s skyline; with the lovely little bungalows that once were Bangalore’s signature giving way to large apartment complexes and even larger shopping malls.
Fuelling this transformation of the built environment are changes in economy and society. A rapid rise in incomes has led to a still more rapid rise in desires. The young in Bangalore want a great deal more success than did their parents; and they want it more quickly. These ambitions are stoked by the press, which gives disproportionate coverage to men and women who are young and yet famous and rich—or rather, famous because they are rich. At least in Bangalore, the media has time for only three kinds of heroes: beauty queens, cricketers, and software titans.
But not everyone can become a beauty queen. (And even those who do despair of what will become of their life afterwards. Bangalore has produced its fair share of Miss India’s, one of whom recently committed suicide.) Nor can there be more than a handful of software billionaires, either. Bangalore has perhaps a hundred thousand code writers who earn a considerable salary by Indian standards, a multiple of what their parents could ever hope to earn, but, for all this, still way below their expectations. The gap between ambition and reality has never been higher. The social and pyschological costs of failure have never been higher, either.
Hence, perhaps, the increasing propensity within the young of Bangalore to kill themselves. But the cases reported this year point to a new phenomena—that of suicides among boys and girls before they have even started work. One reason for this, surely, is the prejudice among South Indian families against education in the humanities. At home, kids are told that engineering (and, at a pinch, medicine) are the only worthwhile subjects. Once, Art and Literature were permissible for girls who wished to get married. But now they too want to work, for which the mandated route is to join an engineering college. The mere denial of admission is then provocation enough to end their lives.
The city of Bangalore is one suicide centre of modern India; the rural hamlets of Andhra Pradesh, a second. In the one case, the victims come chiefly from the professional classes; in the other, they are of the labouring poor. Since the mid nineties there has been a massive spurt in farmers’ sucides—900 in the last five years according to one estimate, more than 3000 according to a second. The bulk of these suicides are in the 35-45 age bracket. Unlike in Bangalore, where the casualties are roughly even by gender, in the Andhra countryside they are mostly males. The cause in many cases is the inability to repay loans accumulated over the years.
There has been some sensitive field reporting of these incidents (notably by P. Sainath in The Hindu). But there has also been commentary that has been less helpful, or one might say, more ideological. One commentator speaks of the ‘suicide economy of corporate globalization’; another says that ‘globalization is killing the people of India’. They go on then to provide an indictment against the familiar demons of the Left: the WTO, the World Bank, Multinational Corporations, all working together in a conspiracy to murder the Andhra peasant.
Things are probably more complex. There is, for example, the fact that there have been four successive years of drought in the Deccan; for which one can scarcely hold the World Bank responsible. Again, there is clear evidence that, in the aggregate, the incidence of rural poverty has gone down in the past decade; the decade, precisely, of globalization and liberalization. However, while liberalization has generated wealth it has not distributed it evenly. More crucially, it has created great expectations among all sections of society; even, or perhaps especially, among those it leaves out. Because some ‘feel-good’ others ‘feel-bad’; so bad, in fact, that they go so far as to take their lives.
In stable, so-to-say ‘traditional’ societies, suicide rates are never very high. Although comparative historical data are hard to find, I suspect that in India these rates have been even lower than usual. For example, creative writers and sportsmen are both notoriously prone to suicide—but there are no Indian equivalents of Yukio Mishima or Sylvia Plath, and no Indians profiled in David Frith’s classic study of cricketing suicides, By Your Own Hand.
In premodern India, the bonds of family and community provided succour in times of distress. This was true in city as well as country. Middle class families always had room for failures: for the boy who could not pass his exams, yet was treated with affection, and even indulgence, by those around him. And while rural indebtedness has been endemic in Indian history, prior to the last two decades one did not hear of farmers killing themselves on that account alone.
There was however, one striking exception: the form of ritual suicide known as sati. But this was restricted to the upper castes; and was not very widespread among them either. Above all, it was a form of coercion; not a voluntary taking of one’s life (as modern suicide is), but an act forced upon one by custom and tradition.
The rash of suicides in city and village is a qualitatively new development in our history. We sense that the tragedies are as much social as they are individual. But we know very little of what lies behind them. What we now await, in sum, is an Indian Durkheim.