I use the phrase “these unprecedented times” because I don’t know how to verbalize what we are going through in specific terms, in a way that somehow manages to capture the scope, horror, and the sheer variety of cataclysmic events that have been barraging our lives over the last few months. “Normalcy” seems like it had played out in a parallel universe, or in another lifetime. It doesn’t seem like it was just yesterday. Eons have passed by in a matter of weeks.
Questions around mortality have been on my mind a lot more than usual these days. The news, the rising number of fatalities – due to COVID as well as due to bad governance, institutional murders, systemic exploitation, societal apathy, natural disasters, man-made disasters, you name it – have of course played a big part in that. Having a terminally ill family member, slowly fading before you make it worse. Having a beloved friend veer to the very brink of death and return makes you reel at the prospect of irrevocable finality that death brings with it. It makes you think about deaths that are avoidable, deaths that are inevitable, and avoidable deaths that become inevitable due to how terrible we are as human beings, and the terrible systems we have set up and continue to support that thrive on killing other people.
I’m talking about the rampant deforestation in the name of “development”, the massive mishandling of the lockdown that put thousands of contractual workers around the country in mortal danger, the tendency to look away every time a member of a community we do not identify with gets beaten up or raped or lynched, and so, so much more.
I’m talking about the lack of grace, compassion, and empathy we display in our day to day interactions with the people around us – whether online or offline, the emotional abuse we subject people to with no regard for their mental health just because we don’t have any idea how to deal with our own unresolved issues or the simple thoughtlessness and neglect that characterizes our daily lives when we forget to check up on our “loved ones” for months on end because we’re “busy”.
Why am I talking about this today? Because of the fact that Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise brought forth the often-discussed-and-rarely-followed-up topic of depression into our news feeds yet again? Maybe. Farmers have been killing themselves for years now; student suicides have been on the rise; queer folk killing themselves is news that follows us with devastating regularity – besides being devastating in its regularity. But if it is a celebrity’s demise that will get us to engage in this conversation, while we shrug our shoulders at all those other – equally painful – deaths, at the loss of equally valuable lives, so be it. I’ll take that.
Deaths by suicide are avoidable. But we have to do our bit in order to ensure the person concerned avoids the option of suicide. Or better still, doesn’t even consider it. Yes, we are busy. Yes, we are all in the throes of each of our unique battles, both mental health and otherwise. But does that mean we stop reaching out to people and just talking? Do we not need help too? Regardless of who is standing beside us, do we not need support from anyone else? From the people, we claim to love and would want by our sides in good times and bad? Do we not need to nurture those relationships in these times, when the world is literally forcing us all apart from each other? Do we not care enough to even check up on our friends and families? To ensure that they are not drowning, floundering, struggling to stay afloat within themselves?
The inevitable deaths will happen. It happened a year back to the day when my grandmother left us. It will happen one day in the future when my uncle will finally succumb. It is happening all around us really, except they have become mere numbers to us now – a dehumanized static. And they hurt, but we reconcile ourselves with them because they are inevitable.
It is the avoidable deaths that we fight for, rage against the futility of, try to prevent from recurring in the future. It is the avoidable deaths that the BLM movement has risen in anger against, that has shaken the Indian middle class out of its blissful slumber and given a good hard look at its class, caste, and labor privileges, that environment lovers are decrying in Dehing-Patkai, in Tinsukia, in Vishakhapatnam, in Australia and the Amazon rainforests. It is the avoidable deaths of Rajput and his ex-manager that we are mourning today.
There are a lot of promises in social media too, a lot of mental health awareness posts and mental health helplines. But will we follow up? Will we be better human beings? Will we stop pushing each other into pits of self-isolation triggered by our haze of obliviousness and apathy? Will we commit ourselves to help each other avoid these potential deaths in the future instead of making pointless social media posts screaming “Cancel 2020”?
You can’t cancel death. But you can avert some if you care as much as you say you do. These are unprecedented times; we need to be unprecedented in our kindness, compassion, and thoughtfulness for each other. Let’s do better. Let’s be better. Or at the very least, let’s just try, one day at a time.
Remember, we all need someone to talk to!
Enakshi Nandi is a research scholar with the Centre for Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Her specialization is in Queer Linguistics in the Indian subcontinent, with a special focus on the question of gender and how languages are negotiated by its speakers to create a self-affirming identity out of another language that is mired in the politics of erasure, derision, and silences.