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Communicating death in an Indian village

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 14 August 2013

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Photo by Matt Zimmerman (Creative Commons)

Communicating the occurence of a life event to one’s social group (relatives, friends, colleagues etc.) is something that is seen in most societies around the world. However, the patterns and processes of communicating such events differ between societies. It is not a rarity to find extensive use of Facebook and other social networking sites as major platforms to communicate major life events such as the birth of a child, birthdays (where now reminders from the social networking sites now help to prompt the sending of messages), wedding anniversaries, deaths and so on. Exploring instances of how life events such as news of the death of a close relative or someone important are communicated becomes very interesting and given that one of the areas of focus for the project is to also explore death and memorialization, it definitely becomes an area worth observing.

The death of one of my informant’s grandfather occurred a couple of days ago, right at a time when there was a yearly religious village carnival going on in my field site. This was unexpected, though the village elder who had passed away was paralysed and had been “suffering” for almost a year now. He was 82 years old. The death was now viewed as pollution (theetu) as it had happened right in the middle of a sacred week. Further, given that a lot of money had already been spent on preparing for the celebrations, the idea was to cremate the “dead body” as soon as possible and to go on with the celebrations without cancelling any of the planned events.

Within an hour’s of the death people from at least five to six neighbouring villages and also from the closest city had gathered there to offer their respects to this village elder who had passed away. It was fascinating to see how so many people (between 1500–2000) had assembled within such a short span of time. As it was the death of the head of a lineage (Thala Kattu), the ceremony had to have all the regalia and the ceremonial and ritualistic arrangements befitting the status of the dead person and all this had to be prepared in a very short time. Normally, a dead person’s body is kept in state for at least a day or two so that everyone around the area gets a chance to come  and pay their last respects. Further, the day is also used to make arrangements for the cremation. However, this time it was different, the body had to be taken off from the area as soon as possible as it would halt the religious ceremony. What normally happens over 48 hours happened in just five to six hours. The speed at which communication worked and the news spread was something worth observing/exploring. The reason was very clearly discernible – it was use of mobile technology – cell phone at its best.

The original classical method of spreading the message of someone’s death in this village was to send people in all the four directions to convey the message to their kin in other villages and let the neighbouring village heads know of this, so people could come in to offer their last respects to the dead. Though this was still followed as a ritualistic process in order to maintain their age old practice, the urgency which the situation demanded seemed to be negotiated with the help of cell phones. It was clear that it was a mix of both voice and text that seemed to accomplish things. However, there was a clear distinction of purposes to which the use of voice and/or text was assigned. Communicating the news of death in person to the very senior elderly people and the head of the villages was considered respect and was a formalized unwritten protocol and that was still followed. However, communicating the message of death to middle aged and other elderly people always ensured a voice communication through cell phones as it was once again considered respect to use one’s voice to communicate such messages while text seemed fine with the younger generation. Logistical requirements and their arrangements like flowers, fireworks etc. happened over voice communication on cell phones.

Although an unsaid prohibition of not taking pictures of the dead body was followed, it was pretty much evident that there were a few youngsters (relatives of the now dead village elder) taking pictures of the dead body on their mobile phones. A casual chat revealed that they were planning on sending picture messages to their relatives and friends who were not able to make it to the ceremony. However, they were certain that they would not put it up on their Facebook or other social networking sites as they were only interested in sending this to people to whom this mattered. Putting this news on Facebook or other SNS would be seen as insulting the dead person, in short they were trying to focus their communication to reach the target audience (though marketers use this all the time, but have more of “brand pages” which was not the case here). Further, they did joke that some of their friends would “Like” the picture post, or sometimes even send in unwanted comments and if someone from the family saw that, then it would result in unwanted issues. Further, not all their counterparts or kin used social networking sites, but they had cell phones. The events as they unfolded very clearly revealed the power of technology; however, they also revealed that constant negotiation with the type of technology to use, the purpose of using them and how they were used even during a single event differed widely.

There was an urge to understand if such communication during death worked the same way when telephones found a place in this society too. The idea that communication of a message of death might have changed first when telephones came in which in a way is a gradual process of upgrading from manual news carriers to telephones and then to cell phones is something that most think as being true, as these steps seem to be the logical order. However, very soon it was revealed that most of them in the village here never had a telephone, as telephones (specifically from the government) were pretty hard to secure and their names in the waiting list seemed to have a permanent fixed position, thereby ensuring that most households in the village never had a telephone. The process was a movement from manual carriers directly to cell phones, bypassing the era of telephones. So how did they communicate messages of death to their social circle living in far off places? –  Telegrams. They came in very handy when telephones were not available to the common masses as cell phones are now spread out.

Telegraps were the text messages and forerunner of the today’s text messaging. Telegraphs did have their own lingo as the messages now do, as charges incurred depended on the number of words. It was called “Thandhi” in Tamil. Most villages/small towns in India, as in my fieldsite did associate “Thandhi” with death. They assumed that such urgent messages meant the death of someone they knew, though telegraphic services did carry countless other messages too. But, it was symbolically associated with the announcement of death. This was prevalent in my fieldsite too. However, last month the Indian Telegraphic Service closed shop after 162 years and the idea of symbolically associating it to death had its death then.

Forming groups

By Tom McDonald, on 5 October 2012

Our team of researchers

Studies of how people form groups is something of a staple of the anthropological diet. In this context, the coming together of our team of researchers to work on the new comparative study on social networking has been an interesting process on which we might reflect, least of all because it will inevitably affect the nature and focus of our research. Befitting of the study, we ourselves have actually been using social networking platforms such as Skype and Facebook to get to know each other and formulate ideas for the project before it had even officially started. Despite the fact that we were located around the world, with researchers drawn from Brazil, India, China, Australia, Italy, Romania and the UK, we found it incredibly useful to meet regularly online to discuss our ideas for the project, and how we might want it to progress.

Now that we have all finally converged on the UCL Department of Anthropology in London, it is great to encounter the same people face-to-face, and we are now gathering as a group frequently for intense discussions on the precise nature and scope of our research questions, the methodologies we will be employing, and how we will work together as a group and disseminate the findings of our research. Our spatial co-presence means that the relationships between us are becoming strengthened and the animated discussion relating to our project frequently spill-over into our after work time, where we continue our conversations together in the collectively effervescent situation of the pub, as is typical of the British working tradition.

This group-style of working has led to some particularly exciting ideas, that are quite different from more established ways of carrying out anthropological research we are familiar with, which typically focus on long periods of lone research by a single ethnographer. Undoubtedly  too, working as a team might also bring elements of compromise. In that context it will be to see how our project, and the relationships between us, will develop for years to come.