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

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

by Jocelyn Lim Chua

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In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India by Jocelyn Lim Chua

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520281165
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/28/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jocelyn Lim Chua is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Read an Excerpt

In Pursuit of the Good Life

Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India

By Jocelyn Lim Chua


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95764-0


Between the Devil and the Deep Sea

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, and, to the relief of the strained necks in the audience, finally set it alight. With renewed applause, the seminar was now set to begin.

Over the course of three days in December 2005, the national seminar on Kerala's developmental experience attracted politicians, community organizers, scholars, and public officials from around the country to the leafy suburbs of Thiruvananthapuram. Participants were given an ambitious agenda: to discuss new orientations for Kerala's developmental and governmental future. A sense of urgency charged the seminar atmosphere. Many spoke in the dystopic terms of crisis and decline, referencing high suicide rates, the "disease" of consumerism, aimlessness among youth, the moral breakdown of family life, and rising violence against women. A few were more optimistic, configuring the present as a turning point. What kinds of horizons might be imagined at this critical moment in Kerala's history to move the state forward to a brighter future? Could Kerala's former international status as a so-called model of development be recaptured, this time in novel and visionary ways?

Although the seminar's objective was to envision new political futures, the past was what featured most prominently in the opening speeches and discussions that first day. References to Kerala's earlier achievements on the world stage of development were prominent in the welcome speech made by the seminar's chairman. But if "the Kerala of the past" had once been widely praised by Western scholars, that Kerala was no longer, remarked the chairman. The earlier gains of the Kerala model, once celebrated by scholars around the world, were being rapidly undermined by globalization while the developmental horizons that had once delivered the region to international acclaim were receding into obscurity. Symptoms of social and moral breakdown were everywhere. Now was the time to forge new trajectories for the state, he declared. Rallying his audience to action, the chairman urged that if the economists, social scientists, and politicians among them were to accurately assess the needs of the people to envision better futures, then conventional metrics such as the state's oft-cited high literacy rates had to be abandoned altogether. Such indexes were insufficient to capture the "reality of Kerala" at a time of globalization. "There needs to be less talk about the GDP," quipped the chairman, "and more about the state's GDH." GDH, or "gross domestic happiness," would reveal the "true condition of the people," a condition that had become "most miserable" in the last decade, as suicide rates made clear. Even with all of their material comforts, the chairman observed in his speech, Malayalis were unhappier than ever before. Indeed, by the metric of happiness, the people of Kerala ranked among the least developed in the world.


In Kerala public discourse, high rates of suicide reported since the 1990s have gained widespread visibility as the preeminent symptom of an ailing social and political order. Explanatory narratives for these unhappy developments abound. In the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, many discussed the suicide crisis in ways that extend beyond individual pathology to implicate broader political, economic, and social developments in the region. Much as the seminar chairman did that December morning, city residents spoke in terms of historical contradiction, crisis, and decline to account for the social and moral ills they linked to contemporary Kerala life. But explanatory narratives for what ails Malayalis today are not merely tales about past and present. More critically, they are important at the level of identity and experience. In warning of a GDH deficit, the seminar's chairman spoke of the failure of a particular dream of progress. By his account, this has caused a dramatic shift in regional identity and experience: if an idea of the "Kerala people" was once linked to exceptional development, it is presently characterized by unhappiness and suicide. Narratives such as this one are also political and moral claims. They position disillusionment, frustration, and suicide as the bitter fruit born of historical trajectories and projects of modernity in the region.

This chapter explores perceptions and experiences of betrayal, contradiction, and decay in Kerala's postmillennial time. Through narratives about the past and the declining present, Thiruvananthapuram residents I spoke with during my fieldwork reflected critically on the postcolonial condition in the state, a conjunctural condition shaped by regional and national development, liberalizing reforms, transnational migration, and global change. They also made sense of the present as a time for suicide. In the capital city, many construed the suicide crisis to be the historical product of collective struggle and the tragic fallout of the misperceived aspirations of the people. Explanatory narratives for these developments were therefore a critical means to articulate anxieties and contested ideas about horizons of progress and modernity and to assert the psychic injuries these horizons have produced in daily life.

City residents I spoke with understood and experienced the declining Kerala present in myriad ways. Individuals and communities claimed different relationships to migration, globalization, the local developmental state, and the promises of the Kerala model. Older-generation upper-caste elites, for example, tended to align themselves with a nationalist ideal of state-centric development and with a once-triumphant tale of the Kerala model. Through narratives of moral and social decay, they accused a "new generation" made up of consumerist, globally oriented youth of undermining Nehruvian socialist ideals and the developmental achievements of the past. With the diversification and widening of the middle-class social field in Kerala, many of the upper-caste elite also perceived social crisis through intimate urban living with the upward mobility of formerly lower-class and lower-caste communities. Meanwhile, young people facing uncertain futures often spoke critically of the contradictions and failures of development. In doing so, they gave temporal depth, political meaning, and moral force to everyday experiences of unemployment, social vulnerability, frustration, and powerlessness. Through explanatory narratives about the ambivalent postcolonial present, young people made sense of the uncertain.

These anxious times feel very different, then, from differing social vantage points. At the national seminar that December morning, the predominantly male technocrats, politicians, and developmental academics in attendance perceived the present through a particular elite discourse about Kerala's ascendance and decline on the world stage of development. The shared tone was one of lost bearings. If record educational achievements and low infant mortality rates no longer captured the "reality of Kerala" in the present, as the seminar's chairman suggested, what suitable metrics could measure "happiness"? To be able to progress toward it in the making of new futures, how would happiness be recognized? If the Kerala model was now obsolete, where did the future lie? True happiness, many agreed, would not be found in moral surrender to globalization, the most prurient symptom of which was said to be the "disease" of consumerism spreading in the state. The Kerala present, they seemed to say, faced two impossible paths: one marked by the invasive and morally suspect forces of globalization, and the other by a receding developmental horizon. This predicament recalled for me the words of twenty-four-year-old Priya, who once described her life as trapped between two dead ends: between the pursuit of a first-class life that risked drowning debt and suicide on the one hand and the failure to keep up with social expectation on the other. She described it as being caught between the devil and the deep sea.


In his comments that December morning, the seminar's chairman pressed for an alternative metric that might capture the state of disenchantment in Kerala today. By promoting the need for a happiness index, he criticized the failure of standard yardsticks of development, such as infant mortality and literacy rates, to register the collective malaise in the state. He also faulted development itself for failing to deliver on aspects of living rather than merely improving chances of survival. In the Indian state once hailed a developmental miracle, biological life has been made to thrive, and successfully so. Yet by the chairman's assessment, something has been critically missed if, however "developed," Malayalis are in fact so very unhappy.

While dressed in the new garments of an emergent science of happiness circulating in policy and governance frameworks, the chairman's critical commentary on development in Kerala was itself hardly new. Disillusionment with the so-called Kerala model of development—a model based on the state's achievement of significant improvements in material conditions of living in spite of its relatively low per capita income—has been voiced from many angles for some time. Whether they charge the model for failing to deliver meaningful and radical change, for not yet realizing its promises, or for bearing poisonous fruit, ongoing debates over the merits and claims of the Kerala model have had profound effects on cultural and political imaginaries of the region.

As J. Devika observes, "The desire for 'Development'—often defined vaguely, working as a catch-all term for economic growth, social welfare, and socialistic redistribution of resources—has been intimately linked to the construction of the idea of a 'Malayali People' as a distinct sociocultural entity in the post-Independence period." In the 1970s, dreams of Kerala's developmental exceptionalism appeared to many within and outside the state to have been achieved. Widespread popular support for the Family Planning Campaign was read by the Malayali press as evidence of everyday people's commitment to the goals of population reduction as prosperity. State-led land reforms fueled dreams of egalitarian development. Infant mortality rates had dropped, literacy rates were rising, and the other progressive social indicators for which the Kerala model has come to be known were emerging into view. By the 1980s and through the 1990s, however, enthusiasm for the Kerala model would become increasingly muted. A looming fiscal crisis, concerns for the environment, political stagnation, and acute levels of unemployment were raising difficult questions about the sustainability and fundamental merits of the developmental dream. Although international scholars continued to remain optimistic, policy makers and scholars in Kerala were declaring a state of crisis.

In the wake of concerns about the viability of the Kerala model, an assortment of explanations and responses has proliferated. Some scholars suggest that the state's worsening fiscal and political crisis is the result of factors endemic to the Kerala model itself. In making sense of these experiences, many have framed Kerala's successes and failures in the language of "paradox." Others have retooled the claims of the model to emphasize its positive attributes. This discourse of "progressive Kerala" highlights the state's social developmental achievements as notable in their own right rather than as merely ancillary to economic development. Some are actively working to develop a "new" Kerala model that might reconcile social, labor, and environmental objectives at the local level. Still others have hopefully declared a turnaround. Radical critiques have focused on the ways the Kerala model narrative of social progressivism obscures inequalities and important elements of the history of modern social reform in the region.

As optimism for the model waned through the 1980s and '90s, the sociologist Joseph Tharamangalam noted the crushing feelings that emerged among technocrats, social reformers, and development academics. When it became clear that the model was "in the throes of a major fiscal, economic, political and cultural crisis that threatens, not only its future development, but the sustainability of what has already been achieved," these troubling realizations provoked "soul-searching self-analysis and self-criticism that has often sunk into the depths of despondency and despair." But these disappointments were never the domain of academic or policy circles alone. Uncertainty and skepticism for Kerala's developmental future and for the sustainability of past achievements have generated "near-frenzied and compulsive dystopic visions" that have been the defining feature of public discourse since the 1990s.

That the dream of developmentalism has been thrown into crisis strikes at the very heart of, in the words of one journalist, "what it means to be Malayali." In a newspaper editorial by the same title, the political columnist T.J.S. George boldly declares that misery is the defining feature of being Malayali today. George is clear about the origins of this unhappy state: it lies in the "tragedy" of Kerala's fall from grace on the world stage of development. "What it MEANT to be a Malayali would have been a pleasant topic to think about. What it MEANS today to be a Malayali is not such a happy subject," George begins (emphasis in original). "This is because the progress of the Malayali in the last thirty years has been downward. All that made us a proud and civilized people was lost." Plotting this precipitous turn of events, George observes, "Fifty years ago, Aikya Keralam was flush with hopes.... And excel we did. Literacy broke all records. Primary health centers opened up in every village. Electricity became available in all nooks and corners. Population statistics turned the Kerala model into a world phenomenon. Educational levels became the envy of others." But this ascendance would not last, says George, lamenting "the great tragedy that we could not sustain this astonishing progress." He concludes with a grim pronouncement: "What itMEANT to be a Malayali? Proud. What it MEANS to be a Malayali? Miserable." George's account of Kerala's decline before an international audience configures a regional identity defined by misery in the present, one that he ultimately attributes to political stagnation and rampant corruption. The betrayal of past hopes and achievements is a most unhappy subject in the pages of Kerala's recent history, one that has produced, in the eyes of this journalist, unhappy subjects of the state.

Whether presented in the guise of utopia unfulfilled or the reversal of gains made, narratives such as this one are built on a particular idea of the linear progression of Kerala modern history. They reflect the developmental telos that has been central to a dominant construction of the region and that plots Kerala modern history as the progressive advancement against the forces of backwardness. By these accounts, developmental markers were "achieved," inequalities "overcome," primordial attachments "replaced" with the allegiances of modern citizenship, and the oppressed were "emancipated"—only for these gains to be "lost" in the present. Discourses of progress and decline like the one above see regional history from the eye of the Kerala model discourse and its beneficiaries, its proponents, and even from the eye of many of its opponents—those who may dismiss the model yet reinforce its master telos by lamenting the failure of its promises. This is a version of Kerala modern history that also claims to speak on behalf of a unitary and singular "Malayali" experience while rendering invisible the upper-caste Hindu male subject that it privileges.

So even though these dystopic tales appear as if to speak to a universal Kerala history, this is the past and present rendered from a specific vantage point. This narrative of decline belongs to particular authors: those who are privileged to claim a relationship to a dominant story of Kerala progress and are thus in a position to mourn its demise. The predominant makeup of the gathering at the December seminar, with which this chapter opened—state officials, policy planners, and preeminent figures of development academia—suggests some of those who have stakes in this version of Kerala modern history. The last few decades have seen the mobilization of radical feminist, dalit, and adivasi political struggles in the public sphere that have raised fundamental challenges to this narrative. Dalit, adivasi, and coastal communities do not claim the relationship to these dominant constructs of the region that the authors and supporters of the Kerala model claim. Nor do these communities share in the experience of ascendance and decline that shapes perceptions of the present for elites and new elites in the capital city.


Excerpted from In Pursuit of the Good Life by Jocelyn Lim Chua. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents




PART ONE. The “Problem” of Striving

1 Between the Devil and the Deep Sea

2 Gazing at the Stars, Aiming for the Treetops

3 Tales the Dead Are Made to Tell

PART TWO. On Living in a Time of Suicide

4 Care-full Acts

5 Anywhere but Here

6 Fit for the Future





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