By Subir Rana*
Suicides are tragedies of a colossal nature, one that brings emotional despair and financial havoc on the dependents and relatives of the family. In India, one could witness a trend in this phenomenon especially in the case of farmers suicides in different parts of the country and those of young students particularly from the marginally weaker sections of the society like the Dalits and other minorities who study in premier educational institutions especially medical and engineering institutes of the country.
According to WHO, there are roughly 8,00,000 suicides reported globally every year with South East Asia placed third among the other five regions and India sitting at the 19th position among other developing nations. The same report also mentions that suicide happens to the second leading cause of death among the 15-29 age group globally.1
owever, the recent case of suicide by V.G. Siddhartha, the founder of Café Coffee Day (CCD), India’s largest coffee chain with outlets in India and even in foreign countries should be viewed differently. Due to the unique nature of the incident, many social scientists and politicians are taking this as a worrying trend and mull over the future of dying enterprises, cases of insolvency and the lessons to be learnt from company promoters and investors.
But what has shocked most people about this particular suicide is how desperate situations can drive even an affluent and established entrepreneur with a strong political backing like Siddhartha to end his life. V.G. Siddhartha, labelled as the ‘coffee king’ and creator of India’s largest coffee empire was the scion of a 140 year old coffee business and owner of the largest coffee plantation in his ancestral village Chikamagalur in Karnataka.
He was also Asia’s biggest coffee bean exporter and his coffee trading company Amalgamated Bean Company (ABC) is also India’s largest exporter of green coffee. What is equally baffling is that Siddharatha belonged to a powerful political family and his father-in-law Mr. S.M. Krishna served India in various capacities as the ex-CM of Karnataka, or as the Governor of Maharashtra and even as an ex-External Minister of India during various regimes. Siddhartha is not the only one who was seeing the flip side of life who due to bad times was under immense pressure from multiple quarters.
This unfortunate incident took me back to my student days in the University of Delhi and the JNU and where I learnt about Emile Durkheim’s classic study “Suicide” and his classification of this un-natural form of death. Of the four variants mentioned by Durkheim namely, altruistic, egoistic, anomic and fatalistic, Siddharth’s case falls in the category of “anomic” suicide. In this form of suicide, a person decides to end his / her life due to prolonged depression and frustration like a financial loss or a collapse of the financial market resulting in major losses for those involved.
The reasons for taking this extreme step trickled out from Siddharth’s suicide note in the self-typed letter in the name of the CCD Board. The letter attributed heavy debts from a friend, share buy backs and harassment and scrutiny of financial dealings by the I-T Department as reasons for succumbing to the pressure. The I-T Department has however claimed that the signature on the note don’t match up with one on the company’s annual reports. The Board of CDEL has hired Ernest and Young (E&Y) to investigate into the circumstances that led to statements made in the letter dated 27th July 2019 allegedly typed by its former Chairman, late V.G.Siddhartha.2
As a student of sociology who has spent some time engaging with such issues both around me and in my own life, I realise that seclusion and alienation can also be traced back to the dynamic as well as indulgent and also pernicious nature of technology, a clear signpost of which could be seen in Marx’s Capital. The spectre of capitalism bears clear witness to this state of apathy where this human-technology interface exposed multiple fault lines on the parameters of innovation, skill and development.
In the recent years, especially with the onset and mushrooming of social media platforms, led people to confine themselves in their little universe and screens to which they were passionately glued. Over a period of time, this screen life became so addictive that it replaced family, friends and neighbours thus leading to a weakening of social ties and thus the social system. The old-world charm of sharing and caring, the get-togethers of friends and sociality of family and neighbours is abhorred or treated as archaic and ‘old fashioned.’ It seems that our kinship bonds have withered.
I feel that much needs to be blamed for the emergence and perils of the new social media which has created silos and islands within ourselves. Celebrating one’s triumphs and discussing failures have become a “things of the past” lost or is felt not to be important since the worries and problems are individual so much so that technology has alienated us from our own near and dear ones. Should this compel us to see a larger systemic malaise when one is unable to share and discuss the intriguing issues that plague and affect us as members of the society so much so that we have become happy individuated selves.
We have failed to share the burdens and failings of our family members since we spend lot of time with gadgets, games and technology. At one point in the letter, Siddhartha says that he had not shared the financial wheeling-dealings with his family which provokes one to ponder as to why a person who is endowed with social and political cushioning is unable to discuss his business woes and financial issues with his family.
The fraternal and affinal bonds which Durkheim labels as “mechanical solidarity’ and which helped tide over many-a-crisis seems to be ebbing away and has been taken over by “technological solidarity” with anonymous and online friends. The social media has led to what I would call a “Like”, “Comment and “Share” syndrome that has created a narcissist in all of us and generated anxiety and panic attacks regarding the comments and feedbacks. We are already aware of the recent spate of worldwide suicides and deaths from the Blue Whale Challenge, an online suicide game that began in Russia besides the Tick-Tock murders and selfie deaths worldwide with the highest numbers reported from India.3
Japan and South Korea in East Asian countries have reported the highest number of cases of young recluses or modern day hermits as they are called in Japan who have socially withdrawn and live in extreme alienation for month or years.4 Video game addiction are known to cause personality disorders and severe health issues and have also resulted in deaths. Further, the reality of virtual world has led to newer, swifter and smarter ways of committing (cyber) crime and considering all these pitfalls, one can only think of a more judicious use of technology, building of social networks of affability and sociality so that one can depend on human interactions that can placate those who are facing an existential crisis.
The intention of the brief write-up is not at all to abrogate technology for all ills in the society including this unfortunate incident but rather to highlight the fact that in times of distress and mental agony, it is social cushioning from family and friends that helps overcome difficult and trying situations. We know that capitalism and technology go hand in hand and share a symbiotic relationship and therefore it becomes all the more necessary to re-think our dependence on the virtual world of anonymity, likes, emoticons and new lexicon.
There is a growing fear that the human race might be run over by cyborgian monsters and other kinds of hybrid species created by technology. Such fear might not be misplaced as scientists are already predicting the ‘sixth extinction’ which is anthropogenic extinction of flora and fauna across different ecological zones and habitats. Futurists like Alvin Toffler in his “Future Shock” had alerted us long back to the psychological maladies stemming from the premature arrival of the future and in order to halt the crisis from escalating and approaching us far too soon, we need to contemplate on our over-dependence on technology.
However, technology is a ‘social fact’ and one cannot shun or run away from it but rather to highlight the perils of over-indulgence. Further, it is always better to invest time and show commitment in family, friends and neighbours so that personal burdens can be shared collectively and tragic incidents prevented.
2 Rao, Rukmini (2019, August 8). CCD Crisis: Ernst & Young to investigate VG Siddhartha’s last letter. Business Today.
4 In Japan, such social recluses are known as hikikomoro and rely heavily on anonymous or online interaction.
*Independent researcher, Bangalore