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The theatre of death

We discover empathy by measuring the numbers of dead rather than thinking about the tragic nature of death itself

In times of natural disasters, the reported numbers of the dead acquire a certain unreality to them, especially from afar. Would it have made a difference to our ability to understand the magnitude of the tragedy or the pain and despair better if the final count of the number of dead in the Gujarat earthquake had been 25,000 instead of 20,000? Adam Smith writes: “If [a man] was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.” As we speak about natural disasters, we often provide approximations of the number of dead. We strike 50 here or 83 there from the roster of the living and transfer them to the dead, with the ease of accountants cooking the books.

A hierarchy of heartaches

The recent Kerala and Kodagu floods have been no different. To an extent, the exact number of dead are unknowable. But we speak of the number with a certain glibness. Meanwhile, others compare the number of dead with other disasters as a way of constructing a hierarchy of heartaches. Irrespective of such callousness, what the Kerala floods revealed is how easily our ways of life — our intricately arranged societies, our traditions and practices that took hundreds of years to arrive at — can be swept away in a matter of hours, if not days. While societies such as the Easter Islands, the Anasazi in southwestern U.S., the Polynesians in the Pitcairn Island have been known to collapse due to environmental degradation and natural disasters as a consequence of such degradation, till recently, for many of us, these were intellectual exercises, mere facts of history that were one step removed from the immediacy of our own lives. But this time around, thanks to the virality of social media and the stickiness of images, the prospect of societal collapse and death acquired a vividness unlike any other.

For some others, there is a personal angle to it as well. As images of floating bodies, and individuals struggling against violent waters, spread across social media, for a fleeting moment or two I wondered about the idea of one’s own death, a cessation of all that is, a singularity into which one’s vanities, romances and idealisms spill over never to be retrieved. Suddenly, one is face to face with a certain kind of awe about what death means. Like children who believe that they can control airplanes in the sky by staring hard at them, our beliefs about controlling our lives and our destinies suddenly reveal themselves for what they truly are: tender idiocies that keep us entertained. Then, when this momentous but fleeting idea has receded — to where exactly, who knows — the mind is a curious place to observe. It is no different from a city after a heavy rain. Everything is still in its place, but there is a wetness to it. The world feels a touch too real.

Thinking about death

In our times, to think about one’s own mortality is not just frowned upon — death without a belief in rebirth is a downer, an ontological killjoy — but also more difficult to think about. In parts this awkwardness is not solely because our cultures have progressively lost the ability to speak meaningfully of death, but also because death, or more accurately public demonstration of grief, is subservient to the logic of commerce. For grief to survive publicly, it needs to be deemed marketable, preferably with the banality of a self-help manual. At the minimum, a germ of communicable optimism must be present as a possibility. The market demands that in order for the deaths and grief to survive in our collective memory, they must be represented as events of reaffirmation. We often rely on banal euphemisms like ‘celebrate life’ when the reality is the end of a body, a life, a presence which will never again be touched, sensed, or kissed.

Beyond this world of culture and language, to interrogate death itself, we are also limited by how we frame these questions as a society. Among the educated classes, who are likely to be less religious ones, there is an increasing belief that in order to speak of the infinite (say, death), one must first learn to reflect on the particular (say, an earthquake). A certain form of humility is demanded before one speaks on these matters. This view insists that we must earn the right to be expansive. Listening to such expressions, one can’t help but wonder if these demands on who can speak about death more authentically has come about because we have become a culture that privileges thinking over feeling. We discover our own empathy by measuring the numbers of dead rather than the tragic nature of death itself. We have become critics of our own greatest creation: our lives.

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 2:51:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-theatre-of-death/article24781816.ece

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