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In Pursuit of the Good Life

In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India

Jocelyn Lim Chua
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    In Pursuit of the Good Life
    Book Description:

    Once celebrated as a model development for its progressive social indicators, the southern Indian state of Kerala has earned the new distinction as the nation's suicide capital, with suicide rates soaring to triple the national average since 1990. Rather than an aberration on the path to development and modernity, Keralites understand this crisis to be the bitter fruit borne of these historical struggles and the aspirational dilemmas they have produced in everyday life. Suicide, therefore, offers a powerful lens onto the experiential and affective dimensions of development and global change in the postcolonial world.In the long shadow of fear and uncertainty that suicide casts in Kerala, living acquires new meaning and contours. In this powerful ethnography, Jocelyn Chua draws on years of fieldwork to broaden the field of vision beyond suicide as the termination of life, considering how suicide generates new ways of living in these anxious times.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95764-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Note
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    Rain began to fall, rising back up as steam from the hot dry pavement. Amita and I quickened our pace to a brisk walk. We were winding our way through the churning sea of late afternoon pedestrian traffic outside Chalai market in downtown Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of the southern Indian state of Kerala. As I forged a tenuous clearing for us through the sidewalk congestion, Amita followed closely behind, commenting with amusement on my inadvertent collisions with shopping bags, schoolchildren, and half-opened umbrellas.

    Turning onto the quiet lane leading to Amita’s house, I found myself alone. I rounded back...


    • 1 Between the Devil and the Deep Sea
      (pp. 29-54)

      The opening remarks of R. L. Bhatia, then governor of Kerala, were brief but galvanizing. Having set the tone for the seminar on governance and development, the governor proceeded to formally inaugurate the event by lighting the large brass lamp located center stage. Enthusiastic applause erupted from the audience, but it died out awkwardly as the governor struggled to light the last wick on the far side of the lamp. Despite the governor’s strained efforts with a rapidly disappearing match, the wick refused again and again to light. A young man eventually entered from stage left, carefully resoaked the wick,...

    • 2 Gazing at the Stars, Aiming for the Treetops
      (pp. 55-81)

      The English wordoverambition, used regardless of how much or how little English one spoke, surfaced often and widely in my conversations about suicide with mental health professionals in the capital city. Dr. Cheeran elaborated the meaning of this word for me in his own terms one morning as we prepared to receive clients in the psychology department of Trinity Hospital. “Imagine,” the psychologist said, speaking in English, “the typical Malayali, someone of average height but not very tall. This is the man who fights to become a star basketball player. It’s simply unrealistic.” Access to education has proven a...

    • 3 Tales the Dead Are Made to Tell
      (pp. 82-106)

      A chime interrupted my sweep of the online news. It was a chat message received in real time on my laptop in California from a friend in Attingal, an hour outside Thiruvananthapuram. From the Internet café where he would while away the evening hours, Fayaz passed along casual updates about mutual friends: the upcoming marriage of one, the bid for a job in Abu Dhabi by another, and the recent birth of a healthy baby girl to a third. We were exchanging good–byes when he remembered why he had contacted me that evening. As part of his volunteered effort...


    • 4 Care-full Acts
      (pp. 109-132)

      Over tea, Kunjamma spoke of her youngest son’s piecemeal employment since his return from the Persian Gulf three years before. As the widowed grandmother in her seventies ran her thin fingers along the base of her porcelain cup in quiet thought, the sounds of afternoon traffic floated in through the open windows of the front sitting room, announcing the end of the workday. After just eight months in Bahrain, Kunjamma’s son lost his job as a hotel doorman. If only they could send him back there, she said. Detailing for me the costs to arrange once again her son’s employment,...

    • 5 Anywhere but Here
      (pp. 133-159)

      “Malayalis only commit suicide in Kerala—never anywhere else.” Sensing my skepticism, Krishna elaborated further. Take, for example, he said, the Malayalis working in the Persian Gulf. Despite their harsh working and living conditions, Gulf migrants never take their lives while abroad, the twenty-two-year-old contended. With the fruits of their labor to enjoy upon their return home, they have something to look forward to. “And here in Kerala?” I prompted. Malayalis stuck here in Kerala see that their futures are blocked, reasoned Krishna. “There is nothing to look forward to, nothing to help people through the hardships of life. That...

    • 6 Fit for the Future
      (pp. 160-186)

      “Malayali children today,” observed one psychologist, “are like touch-me-not flowers: one touch and they fade away.” Capping off his troubling observations about child suicide in the state, the psychologist’s comment reflected a prominent concern shared by mental health professionals, parents, educators, and state officials alike. Spoiled by their parents and sheltered from hardship, Malayali children today, by such accounts, lack the tensile strength and emotional durability to survive life’s ordinary challenges. These days, the psychologist grimly remarked, even a mild scolding can drive a child to suicide.¹

      Media accounts would suggest these concerns are not misplaced. One newspaper article itemizes...

    • Afterword
      (pp. 187-194)

      When I last visited Manju in Thiruvananthapuram, nearly two years had passed since we had seen one another. Greeting me at the doorway of her home, Manju embraced me, then laughed and asked if I still recognized her in spite of the few pounds she had put on. Much had changed in the intervening years. In 2008, Manju and her husband had taken several loans to renovate and expand their home and had since started renting out the upstairs apartment to bring in extra income. I nearly missed the house on my way over, not having recognized the imposing two-level...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 195-218)
  9. References
    (pp. 219-236)
  10. Index
    (pp. 237-240)