The Theater of Death
In times of natural disasters, the reported numbers of the dead acquire, especially from afar, a certain unreality to them. Would it have made a difference to our abilities to the pain and despair better, if the final count in the Gujarat earthquake had been 25,000 dead instead of 20,000. Thinking along similar lines, in an age when death was more widespread even if news arrived much slowly, Adam Smith wrote about the shifting rules of how the arithmetic of empathy operates: “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 approximate the number of dead to accommodate our inability to remember figures accurately. We strike — a 50 here or 83 there — from the roster of the living to the dead, with the ease of accountants cooking the books.
The recent Kerala and Kodagu floods have been no different. The exact number of dead, to an extent, are unknowable. But we speak of the numbers of the dead with a certain glibness. Others, meanwhile, compare the number of dead between disasters as a way to construct an hierarchy of heartaches. Irrespective of such callousness, what the Kerala floods revealed is how easily can our ways of life — our intricately arranged societies, our traditions and practices that took hundreds of years to arrive at — be swept away in a matter of hours, if not days. While societies have been known to collapse due to environmental degradation and natural disasters that followed it — such as Easter Islands, the Anasazi in southwestern United States, Polynesians in the Pitcairn Island — till recently, for many of us, this was an intellectual exercise, a fact of history that was one step removed from the immediacy of one’s 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, this has also been an opportunity for personal reflections. As images of drowned cadavers 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. This 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 role death performs in human existence. Like children who believe that they can control airplanes in the sky by staring hard at it, our beliefs about controlling our lives, our destinies suddenly reveals for what it truly is: tender idiocies that keep up entertained. Then, when this momentous but fleeting idea has receded — to where exactly, who knows — our minds themselves are a curious place to observe. No different than a city after a heavy rain. Everything is still in its place, but there is a wetness to it. The world reveals itself, but it is now burnished by a sliver of hyperrealism.
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 demonstrations 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 in its ectoplasm. The infrastructure of commerce demands once the natural disaster is past its due date, in order for the deaths and grief to survive in our collective memory, it must find ways to smuggle itself as an event of reaffirmation. We rely on banal euphemisms like 'celebrate life' often 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 epistemological humility is demanded as dues before one speaks on these matters. In a way, this view insists that we must earn the right to be expansive. Listening to this view, one can’t help but wonder if this inversion on who can speak about Death has come about because we have become a culture that privileges thinking over feeling. We discover our own empathies by the measuring the numbers of dead rather than the tragic nature of death itself. We have become critics of our own greatest creation: our lives.