Special Gandhi Porn Bus Death Update!
Last month I ignored my number one Indian travel rule and got on a night bus for the 12-hour trip from Dharamsala to Delhi. The first hour of this journey is a steep and winding whirlwind deathfuck down a narrow pine-lined two-laner through the Himalayan foothills -- basically the Indian transit equivalent of playing Russian Roulette with a six-shooter and three bullets. Last spring on the same route, a bus drove straight off the road and off the mountain, killing everyone on board. And that's just the one recent crash I know about; there have been others.
In my case, all my driver did was collide head-on with a minivan. The front of the bus collapsed and the minivan driver emerged bloodied and dazed. After working out the settlement, in cash, right there on the street, we drove for another hour without a windshield and the front fender hanging on by a thread before finally switching buses. In the new bus, our driver got us to Delhi almost on schedule by driving like he just couldn't afford that glass of pesticide.
DELHI -- You have three seconds: Name the world capital of suicide. No, it's not Tokyo and its cubby-holed corporate kamikazes. It's not some vodka-heated TB quarantine Siberian sinkhole. It's not Alaska with its eternal night and 98 percent male population. It's not some lower Midwest rust-belt town running on AFDC checks and backyard meth-lab fumes.
The world capital of suicide is sunny southern India, the same southern India providing most of the happy images featured in India Tourism's new "Incredible !ndia" ad blitz.
In India's southern cone, home to Bangalore's hi-tech yuppies and some of the highest literacy rates in the country, more than 50,000 suicides are reported every year, accounting for a third of the country's total self-snuff-jobs. Nationwide, Indians kill themselves at a clip of one every five minutes.
For a country without much of a native theater tradition, Indians are masters of the dramatic exit. Every week the news margins are packed with the latest single and double-suicides from every corner of the subcontinent. Hangings from water pipes and rotating fans. Soapbox immolations. The pesticide chug. Drowning. Five-rupee razors. Occasionally you'll even read about the ancient and infamous Sati ritual, in which a widow climbs (or is forced) onto her dead husband's funeral pyre, joining him in the karmic cannon blasting them into the next life.
Rarely do Indians jump in front of moving vehicles. If you want an Indian bus to kill you, just buy a ticket.
Suicide is such an institution in India, and cuts across so many lines, that it often seems as socially acceptable as going on Xanax. In February, TV actress Kuljeet Randhawa swallowed poison tablets in her Mumbai flat, leading to ho-hum press accounts that barely mention her method of death, focusing instead on the fact that she was typecast in thrillers. One of Randhawa's co-stars had also killed herself last year, also by poison. Both suicide notes casually cited "stress." No big whoop.
Most suicides, especially in the south, are in the 15 -- 29 age bracket. Young suicides are often love-related, executed via some sort of household poison or, less frequently, by hanging. Anyone who thinks romance is dead -- get it? -- should come to India and camp out for a lovers' suicide watch. Bridges of Madison County types will tear through a box of Kleenex a week just reading the morning papers. In a culture where parental permission is required and often denied on medieval caste or petty family grounds, real-life Romeos and Juliets are everywhere. While young Indians in urban areas are starting to permanently sever relations with their families rather than submit to forced marriages, they just as often choose death over disobedience.
Last week, two young lovers in a rural village killed themselves after their parents forbade them from seeing each other. The boy, Kommu Mallamma, was a backward caste, and the girl, Bolla Linga Reddy, a dominant Yadav. After his parents chewed him out and ended the affair, Mallamma bought some poison tablets and washed them down with a nice tall glass of Fuck All Y'all. Unable to bear life without Kommu, the distraught Mallamma jumped into the deepest well she could find.
Then there are Indian drama queens like the 22-year-old Delhi collection agent who recently tried to kill himself after his girlfriend married someone else. Not wanting to take any chances, he consumed poison tablets -- I think they sell these things in drugstores over-the-counter -- before slashing his wrists. A neighbor found him and rushed him to the hospital, where he was revived and treated.
The teenage years are especially perilous in India, and Marilyn Manson and Slayer have nothing to do with it. Indian adolescents, unable to deal with parental conflict and raised on ridiculously over-the-top Bollywood melodrama, often kill themselves after typical teenage screaming matches with their folks. The fact that the Indian family unit is a claustrophobically tight thing no doubt contributes to this. Newspapers regularly report teenage suicides and note that the dead had "quarreled" with their parents about schoolwork or something before running off and doing the deed when they should have just slammed the door and blasted some death metal. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the leading official cause of suicide in India is "family problems."
Moving up the age ladder, you start to see more self-immolations. Actually, you start to see a lot more self-immolations. So far 2006 has been a banner year for Indians striking the classic Abu Ghraib electrode pose and turning themselves into human fireballs. My money is on at least two burnt protest offerings when Bush rolls into town in early March.
Because of the public nature of the act, a lot of these solo Burning Man festivals get shut down before they have a chance. On January 21, an indebted farmer in Muzaffarnagar doused himself with gasoline and was about to flip the switch in front of the local magistrate's office when the cops tackled him with blankets. That same day in Delhi, some guy tried to light himself on fire in front of the Prime Minister's residence; according to press reports, nobody was ever able to ascertain exactly why. The next day a pushcart vendor in Patiala held a news conference and lit himself on fire to highlight the plight of his fellow pushcart vendors. The images were repeated on all the news shows like it was the 9/11 loop. Meanwhile, in faraway Rajasthan, Raees Khan was so inspired by images of the pushcart vendor's self-immolation that he decided to try it himself. He was saved when his family heard his screams; he too lacked an explanation for his actions when questioned in the burn unit.
In the pantheon of self-immolations, there are those noble anti-Thieu Buddhist monks on one end, and dipshits like Raees Khan on the other.
On the heels of the vendor's self-immolation and his copycat admirer, an Indian cable news channel hosted a roundtable on the news ethics of self-immolations. Should they be aired? Aired repeatedly? Should journalists try to help put out the fires, or just report the story? One bored journalist participating in the roundtable raised the problem of getting the subject to stay still while trying to roast your kebab.
Self-immolation can have its advantages. Take the case of Arunodaya Mohanty, of the eastern city of Bhubaneswar. Last year Mohanty badly burnt himself to protest his firing as a clerk in city government. After a slow and painful recovery, he was released from the hospital last week and immediately threatened to repeat the act. Nobody wanted to call Mohanty's bluff, and he was given his job back.
Then there is India's most famous suicide-de-jour: the farmer suicide epidemic. This one is growing and growing fast, to the point of getting serious international media attention for what it says about issues larger than Indian culture. The farmer suicide story is really a story about globalization. The culprits in this case are pretty clear: climate change and free trade. The combination of crop failures, growing debt burdens, increased foreign competition and rising costs has led to thousands of farmer suicides around the country in recent years. In some hard-hit areas, 100 suicides have been reported within periods of as little as 10 days.
Ironically, the favored method among farmers is to drink the very pesticides they are told will save their crops and get them out of debt.
Take Maharashta, India's cotton belt. The crop has taken beatings from bad weather and the government has been reducing price supports, pushing farmers to sell on private markets where they must compete with imports at lower prices than what the government once promised. Also, farmers have been buying genetically modified Bt cotton, which is more expensive, exacerbating the debt burden.
The Vibharba district of Maharashta is Ground Zero for the recent spate of cotton farmer suicides. In the last few months, more than 300 farmers have killed themselves by drinking pesticide, requiring the construction of emergency centers and post-mortem tents in numerous villages.
Most accounts of the growing farmer suicide epidemic focus on the economics of the situation, as they should. But I can never get past the fact that so many people actually manage to drink pesticide. I need to listen to "Eye of the Tiger" at least twice before throwing down a shot of absinthe. Pesticide? Jesus. Sometimes the farmers don't manage to get it all down or keep it down, and the stuff just corrodes their windpipes and eats out half of their insides, leaving them alive and in unimaginable agony. Is there some sort of unofficial farmer's manual that tells you how to drink the stuff? Are they drunk when they do it? The news reports never say. But if you can drink pesticide, you really want to die, and deserve to.