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Communicating death in an Indian village

Shriram Venkatraman14 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.

Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go?

Xin Yuan Wang10 July 2013

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

Doing fieldwork always means you need to understand the local people before you look into anything particular. In which vein, most of my time so far has been contributed to knowing people and the local social life which provide essential context for the local social media usage. Here, in this article I’d like to talk about something quite unexpected: kids.

My field site is a small factory town in southeast China where Chinese rural migrants account for two thirds of the local residents. I had the impression that on the high street of my field site, the amount of babies and kids I have seen during the three months is more than the total I have seen during the three years when I was in the UK. It is not a joke; here it is not difficult to find a migrant family with five to seven children, which made me very confused at the first beginning given the well-known Chinese ‘one- child’ policy.

Now let me explain it a bit.The ‘one-child’ policy used to be conducted extremely strictly in China. A typical Chinese word “tou sheng” (give birth secretly) suggests the most popular folk strategy toward the tough policy.

“Years ago, they [local officials] would chase you to the end of the earth if they knew you have a baby secretly in other places, but now nobody bothers to catch people who ‘tou sheng’ outside [their home place].” one of my informants who has three kids told me how things have changed nowadays.

As a result, the rural migrant people seemed to have the “privilege” to have as many kids as they want during their stay at “other places” – they are “floating” in other places with their kids.  The way rural migrant lead their lives seemed to have already gave me the answers for the question “why do people want so many children?” – That is to survive on numbers.

“My mum believes that being a human being is to make human beings. The more the better and as many as possible.”  A man in his 30s told me.

What a philosophy of life. Clear, and strong, and each one can make a go for it. Among my rural migrant people, nobody has ever cared about which kindergarten, primary school, or middle school their children go to. They cared about how many children they have and others have. Many kids will be sent to factories to earn money by their parents when they finish middle school (15-16 years old). It is illegal to employ child labor for factory owners; however they have chosen to turn a blind eye to child labor given that all the kids have fake identification cards showing that they already are 18 years old. Education here is not something for freedom or a better life, but something to prepare potential labor that can read for factories. I once asked people how they can afford to bring up so many kids.

“’To be honest, if you are rich, you bring up kids in a rich way, if you are poor, and then bring up kids in a poor way. The kids of rich guys will learn how to play piano; our kids only need to know how to survive.” A man said.

I knew he meant it.

Here, in this small industrial town, most people work hard and treat each other for survival. There is no tourism agency, no gym, no cinema, and no garden.  Life is a lasting battle for survival, from this generation to the next. It is as grandeur as an epic, however as humble as weeds. The ancient wisdom of the nature has told people how to apply numerical advantage to confront with high mortality and high failure rates.

One day, I was sitting in the mobile phone shop, watching people. A very young lady came to top up her mobile phone. She was pretty, in a pink pullover, carrying her baby on her back. From the cloth baby carrier with colorful embroidery I could immediately tell that she must have come from the Guizhou province. She gave me a 20 RMB (2 pounds) banknote  and I thought she wanted to top up 20 RMB, which is very reasonable since the average cost of mobile phone among migrant people is 100- 200 RMB (10 pounds- 20 pounds). But she told me she only wanted to top up 10 RMB. When I was thinking why she only topped up 10 RMB, a delicate tiny little hand was reaching out from the baby carrier – it is just the most beautiful scene I have ever seen in my field site (see photo). Out of sudden I became very emotional, especially when I overheard the first phone call she made when she left shop was to her friend, saying that she had run out of money, and the baby was sick.

Until now I still felt guilty that I didn’t run out to catch up her and give her some money. Or, should I?  Here, everybody needs help. However, the thing made me sadder was the baby’s future. Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go? I may have known the answers, but I really hope it was not the truth.

Social media as ageist?

Jolynna Sinanan30 May 2013

Left- an old man is choosing an 'old people phone'; right- the interface of the 'old people phone'. Photo by Xin Yuan Wang

Left- an old man is choosing an ‘old people phone’; right- the interface of the ‘old people phone’. (Photo by Xin Yuan Wang)

By Jolynna Sinanan and Xin Yuan Wang

We had the opportunity to talk comparatively about what is coming out of our respective fieldwork, when Jolynna took a detour through China on her way home from her second round of fieldwork in Trinidad to visit Xin Yuan. We found a number of complimentary themes and parallels from our field sites and our discussions with our informants. Trinidad and the region of China where Xin Yuan is doing her fieldwork are similar in that there are large amount of intra-state migrants (in Xin Yuan’s field site, rural migrants amount to two thirds of the local total population), whose main social networks remain in their home towns. This suggests that these groups may need social media mostly in terms of developing social networks in their area of destination as well as for their contacts who remain in their home towns. Of course, it is too early at this stage to talk about the social consequences of the appropriation of social media among migrants, which we definitely aim to address at the end of the project.

However, some very obvious parallels did express themselves clearly enough in Jolynna’s short research visit, and pushed us to think WHY. For example, we both found that there are very few to no people over the age of 50 using social media, or even seem interested in using social media (in Xin Yuan’s case, she found so far, that nobody over the age of 45 is using social media and Jolynna has only one informant over 60 who uses Facebook). We discussed a couple of factors to why this is the case: A) illiteracy (especially in Xin Yuan’s case amongst older rural migrants in China); B) older people as being more  technophobic; and C) the dominance of face to face relations for older people. The first two factors are to do with people’s capability and willingness to use digital technologies, however the last reason has more to do with people’s perception of social life and the social normativity around the questions such as “which kind of social connection really matters in one’s everyday life”.

Firstly, in both of our field sites, older people are more invisible in the smartphone market. From her observations and discussions with informants, Xin Yuan has found that many older locals and migrants are illiterate and they are mostly interested in a phone that can meet the basic functions of making and receiving calls. They are generally not interested in smartphones because they ‘don’t see the need’. Their need for the main functions of making and receiving calls plus the extra need for easier usage is reflected in the phones, which is called the ‘old people phone’, available in the industrial town at a very low price (around 300 RMB, equals to 30 pounds). This kind of mobile phone is designed for easy usage, buttons and screens are larger, the screen itself is not cluttered with graphics, the phone also allows for two SIM cards, there is a clear SOS button, which calls the number of the person’s choosing if they need to reach them urgently and the incoming call alert is particularly loud (see figure above). The phone also doesn’t need to be charged as often as a regular phone, battery life can last up to a month as older people here tend to associate the phone with a landline telephone, which remains plugged in and doesn’t need to be charged. Yet, in Trinidad, there are very few phones especially for older people on offer. Landline phones with larger numbers can still be found, but mobile phone shops cater more for younger customers, they have all sorts of ‘fad’ phones on offer, of different colors and camera functions to upload photos directly onto SNSs and the newest iPhones, Samsung Galaxies and Blackberries dominate display cabinets.

More so, older people in Xin Yuan’s field site don’t seem to have the desire to make friends beyond their immediate living areas, where they keep mainly face-to-face communication. Xin Yuan suggests that this reflects the old saying that “yuanqin buru jinlin” (close neighbours are better than faraway relatives), perhaps because it is only their neighbors that they would turn to for day to day support, which they can’t rely on faraway relatives for. It is a very pragmatic attitude towards social relationships, since one can only survive within a stable social network where they can turn for help in a tough ‘real life’ situation.

It is no surprise to find that the social networks of older people are more or less shrinking in both Jolynna and Xin Yuan’s field sites. Like China, Trinidad is an extremely family-oriented society, but there is more of a pattern that the elderly are engaged more in face-to-face relations with their immediate and extended families, unless their relatives live abroad. Children of the elderly visit very often, everyday or once every two days if they live nearby and at least in El Mirador, sociality for older people still resolves more around the town market place, which is a bustling hub on the weekends.

This project sought to explore social media through an anthropological lens, where, as Daniel Miller emphasized in an earlier post, context is everything. So far, in our respective field sites of a semi-urban town in Trinidad and an industrial town in China that is a hub for rural migrant workers; older people aren’t using social media as much as we might have thought. Social media doesn’t seem to be a priority for a demographic of people whose relationships are predominantly face-to-face in closer and more immediate circles of neighbours and family, perhaps in the face of smaller, more localised social networks or a lack of the need or desire to make and keep new friends.

“I am not alone, loneliness is always with me”

Xin Yuan Wang17 April 2013

the woman was watching a movie on her smartphone while cracking sunflower seeds, and the man has been staring at his screen for a while.

On a train, the Chinese woman watching a movie on her smartphone while cracking sunflower seeds. The man next to her has also been staring at his mobile phone screen for a while.

Now I am in China. Thanks to the taxi detour which sent me to a wrong train station I had to take a slow train rather than a high speed one to go to the fieldsite – which turned out to be coincidentally rewarding since the majority of the passengers on this slow train was Chinese rural migrant workers who exactly fit my research target population.

Let me first contextualize the trip. It was not in a peak period, the capacity of a train carriage is 112 persons, however there were 143 persons in the no.5 carriage when I left. Train staff closed all the windows to prevent people from buying cheaper food from local vendors at each station through an open window which would undercut the food sales on train. As a result the whole carriage smelt like a smoking area since people were allowed to smoke in the vestibules between two carriage’s theoretically with open windows. Although it is difficult to categorize neatly what people were doing; I still managed to do a bit of counting when walking around in my carriage.

Nobody was engaged with any paper-based media, neither with books or reading a newspaper.

About 5-7 people were walking around as well, looking for a seat or just without any clear purpose.

Three groups of people (around 15 people) were playing cards; at least 30 people were staring at the screens of their mobile phones (four – fifths of them used smartphones, and among the smartphones which I managed to see clearly, Lenovo seemed to dominate the market, very few Apple phones were found).

3 – 5 people were chatting on the phone for a long time (more than 15 mins) with ordinary volume, or a even louder volume to make themselves be heard.

15–18 people were cracking 瓜子 guazi (sunflower seeds which were sold with shell and people need to crack the shell with their teeth)

Roughly one quarter of the passengers were engaged in conversation with their neighbors, or just looking around; and another quarter managed to sleep in various positions. When I closed my eyes, all kinds of noises – from the train, the cracking sound of sunflower seeds, people talking, and the shouts of vendors, were mingled together, and became even more overwhelming.

Among all these passengers I was particularly interested a group of  ‘打工仔’ da gong zai (male young migrant workers) who crowed at the entrance to the carriage. There were seven of them, coming from Suzhou to Guangzhou. None of them got a seat ticket, so they needed to stand for almost 10 hours during the trip. When I met them, three of them were playing cards, sitting on the floor in the area between two carriages, and others were smoking. In my last 1-hour trip I gave up my seat in the carriage and moved to the smoking area, standing there, talking with them, passively smoking away. All of them came from the same village in Guangzhou (south China province), and worked in a low-market photography workshop in Suzhou. The oldest one was 24 years old, and the youngest one was only 15 years old. None of them had a high school certificate. All of them had smartphones but they couldn’t use them because they didn’t have enough money left in their phone and couldn’t top them up being outside the city where they bought the SIM card.  In China the majority of mobile services is “pay as you go”, which means no contract is needed and is very convenient for people who only stay in a place for a relatively short period.

It was shocking to find that all of them, even the 15 year old, consumed a lot of cigarettes – on average a package (12 cigarettes) per day, which accounted for one third of their daily expenses (700 RMB per month). When talking about the reason for smoking, one told me “see, we have nothing to do, smoking kills time!” Another added, “What we are smoking are not cigarettes,” and the rest continued “but  寂寞 jimo (loneliness)!” and everybody laughed. The joke about loneliness actually is an online meme – the most frequently quoted line is  我不寂寞,因为寂寞陪者我 wo bu ji mo, ji mo pei zhe wo. “I am not alone, loneliness is always with me”. A joke was definitely not evident enough to reflect how they felt bored or lonely in life, which however expressed itself through the way of the whole carriage of migrant workers doing all kinds of repeated and time-killing activities, such as cracking sunflower seeds, card playing and smoking. After 1 hour of chatting, all of them were more than happy to exchange QQ (the dominant social media in China) numbers with me, and urged me to accept their friend request. It also seemed that QQ in a way functions similar to smoking as one put it this way “it’s so easy to spend a whole night on QQ, gaming or just chatting!”

I am reluctant to jump to any conclusion of the relationship between boredom / loneliness and smoking or QQ usage among rural migrant workers, however after my first encounter with my migrant worker friends I think it would be very interesting to look at this issue in my research afterwards.