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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Depressed? Perhaps - but by whom? (in re: Manu Joseph. Again. Sigh.)

Dear Mr. Joseph,
I write as a reader in long standing of the penny-dreadful fiction you peddle as analysis. I once had occasion to describe your writing as "un-researched and pseudo-elitist drivel"; my exasperation had since declined, to be replaced by reluctant amusement. Your piece on depression as the cause of Rohith Vemula's suicide, however, slimes its way below even that low bar. The elitism, for one, is far more blatant, as the piece reeks of that old-as-our-civilisation desperation to attribute injustice to anything but caste
You could have done it, you know? You could have argued his treatment was a function of his politics, and that has caste would have been no issue if only he had remained suitably meek, not challenging the power of those who see command as their birthright. It would have been an egregious simplification - but at least a plausible one. But no. You had to conjure up something that would let you ENTIRELY avoid discussing the conduct of the University of Hyderabad, of the Hon'ble Ministers Dattatreya and Irani, and to mention the ABVP only in the most oblique terms. Ideally, something that would let you slip in some victim-blaming, for good measure. And so you settled on that other tired canard: what about mental illness? In itself, an enormously valid concern, but your manipulation of it is so disingenuous, boring, and infuriating as to be devoid of any redeeming value whatsoever.
In the process, you do such vast disservice - to Rohith's memory, his life, his friends, and his cause in particular, and to any nuanced understanding of casteism, academic freedom, healthy political participation, mental health, or suicide in general - that I find myself compelled to provide a point-by-point response. (Unlike you, I won't arrogate to myself the authority to explain what Rohith's suicide "means": I have no great faith that my interpretation of his writing is correct, but I am exponentially convinced that your reading of his character and motives is wrong. Also poorly argued - and again, that's by the low standard of your own past writing.) To pithily counter your copious errors would demand weeks of research and writing; I confine myself here to the six most blatant.
1. Your assertion that "Nothing in the entire note points to anything other than the storms within that may have pushed him to his death". I assume you have read the full text of Rohith's suicide note, from which you quote a few excerpts?" I'm curious: how does one have even a passing acquaintance with the history of caste in India, and read the phrase "... life itself is curse[;] the fatal accident of my birth." from a Dalit scholar as signifying or relating to nothing beyond the author's life?
2. Similarly, you cite Rohith's efforts to absolve everyone but himself of any role in his act. Having quoted an earlier letter where he suggested the VC help Dalit students drug and hang themselves, you do understand that he was skilled in the use of black humour? Knowing that, does the fact that he prefaced this absolution with the phrase "I forgot to write the formalities" suggest anything? (To my mind, that is exoneration a la Shakespeare's Antony, more damning than any accusation.)
3. On your new-found expertise with mental health. (That was sarcasm, in case the concept genuinely escapes you.) First, "clinical depression" is not a thing. There are diagnoses for various disorders of the mood/affect, including a variety of depressive disorders. (Brandishing "clinical" as if it were a technical term makes your self-anointed expert act less credible, not more.) In any case, the relation between depression, other mental illness, and suicide, is considerably more nuanced than you suggest. Depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide are correlated, but not inevitably linked; all three are also often comorbid with various forms of personality disorder. The direction of causality among these conditions is difficult to establish even in comparative studies. Among those diagnosed with depression (or "clinically depressed", to use your preferred term), many neither contemplate nor commit suicide; for instance, depression can manifest as a depletion of motivation, in which condition even suicide can be too much work. 
4. in turn, suicidal ideas and fantasies aren't particularly uncommon among otherwise healthy and content persons. They can be even more common among those who feel alienated from society - witness Durkheim's work on anomie. In any case, among those who do contemplate suicide with some depth or regularity, including those who go on to attempt suicide, few are even remotely concerned with "a sensible reason to end their lives". That decision is typically at least as emotional as rational, and the emotions involved are those of frustration, fear, powerlessness, or loss of hope. Only the last of these is a typical symptom in depressive disorders. It is not - as you claim - "in the nature of clinical depression that it is in constant search for reasons to bring the pain to a close"; indeed it remains unclear what "pain" (if any) is associated with depressive disorders at all. (Conversely, is it difficult - given the University of Hyderabad's Kafka-esque persecution of Rohith and his colleagues - to see what might have prompted frustration or a sense of powerlessness in him?)
5. Connoisseurs of your writing are well-acquainted with your talent for conjuring straw men, the better to burn them down while allowing the true culprits to escape in the smoke. In this case, I had imagined there was no room for this gambit, but you are truly irrepressible: "Poverty is a factor, not a cause" in Rohith's suicide, you say! Here is an attempt at sleight of hand with both hands empty, more pathetic than hilarious; it would be heroic were it not delusional. I won't even start to debunk this line of reasoning, because no one ever suggested Rohith's suicide was caused by his being poor! 
6. The grand finale: the victim-blaming. In all your wisdom, you pronounce that only "extraordinary atrocity or tragedy" can drive an otherwise non-suicidal person to suicide. You have some examples of what constitutes such "extraordinary" events (what a delightfully vague term, this "extraordinary"). By implication, if Rohith faced no such exceptional strain (which seems, at least to you, an open question), then his choice of suicide must be at least partly attributable to an underlying mental illness. By way of response: I worked with a crisis intervention helpline, and by far the largest number of calls we received were from teenagers and adolescents stressing over examination results. Shall we blame the youth for being fickle? Blame society for making exams an "extraordinary atrocity"? Or recognise that the subjective element in threat perception makes external judgments of stressor severity meaningless?

Look, I know I'm expecting too much. What I've presented here are examples of nuanced arguments, and nuance is a virtue you have scrupulously avoided in even your most immodest and unguarded moments. I'll settle, instead, for pointing out that mental illness as a tool for dismissing genuine social and political concerns just doesn't work the way you seem to think it does. Anyone who examines how Rohith was treated at the University of Hyderabad will see the injustice of the University's actions, irrespective of what we think of his mental health. (Meanwhile, your insinuations annoy the heck out of anyone who knows the first thing about mental health itself.) 
In short, to the question you raise - what if Rohith's suicide was driven by depression - the only possible answer is: so what if it was? Perhaps there was indeed a sickness in Rohith's mind, and if so, perhaps it did contribute to his decision to take his own life. To acknowledge this possibility is not to diminish him, his act, or its significance - because this sickness did not spring up, fully formed, and devoid of context. It was a sickness of our politics - of campus politics in particular - that came to afflict him to such fatal effect. As to caste, given its centrality to both oppression and politics in India, there is little doubt of the role it played in Rohith's specific experience: while neither sickness nor suicide were pre-ordained, that particular fatal accident of birth would remain salient throughout his life.
If logic cannot persuade you to nuance, might grammar succeed? As a writer, it cannot have escaped your notice that "depress" is an active verb, suggesting an actor - a subject - by whose actions the subject is "depressed". Before writing this latest travesty, perhaps you could have considered the etymology of the Sanskrit word Dalit, and how it relates to the Latin roots of "depress" (push down), "repress" (push back), "oppress" (push against - and, in literature, smother)?
To argue that someone is depressed is not to rule out the possibility that this condition was the result of unjust force.

1 comment:

  1. Very well put together ameya. It was while having a discussion at college that a few friends too were making the point that, rohith's death as a tragic as it may be was a simple case of suicide. Nothing more, nothing less.