Jokes Apart|Bonfire of the vanities: Why death by selfie is a thing now

·6-min read

One of the dubious distinctions that India enjoys is that it leads the world in selfie deaths. Death by selfie is a thing, a fatal national passion. The latest instance comes from Lakhimpur Kheri, where a man had gone to check out a party of elephants on the move. He got too close trying to get the best frame; an elephant gathered him up in its trunk and slammed him to the ground.

While the man couldn't resist his selfie instinct, the mother elephant €" 'the aggressor' €" couldn't control hers either. She was trying to protect her calves. The last words of the man were: 'But I thought haathi mera saathi.'

In the complex and emerging field of Death by Selfie Studies, the elephant selfie forms an important sub-sect, with its own practitioners and devoted scholars. The day is not far when one will be able to walk into a university and the nameplate outside the professor's study will bear the legend: Dr Alok Mishra, PhD, Death by Elephant Selfie.

Selfies can be divided into two categories: The war selfie and the peacetime selfie. The war selfie requires an unusual background; the background is the subject. One of the conceits of the selfie taker is that he is the world's greatest battle-hardened reporter and photographer, the winner of multiple awards for bravery. 'Jaan hatheli pe rakh ke' is the defining credo.

In gentler times past, the drunk man in the lion's enclosure was the pinnacle of the absurd death. It still happens except that these days the man is seldom drunk and has a phone. While the drunk man's bravado can be rationalised, the bravado of the phone photographer is hard to comprehend. One cannot be high on a mobile phone.

If one lives in a mountainous area, the local papers often carry reports of people toppling over the hill while trying to take the perfect selfie. As the nursery rhyme goes: Jack fell down and Jill came tumbling after. The disaster selfie is another sub category of the war selfie. Here, one has to chance upon the scene of an accident and make the most of it.

There have been several instances of people stopping by at the crash site and, instead of helping the dying, bleeding victims, channelling their creative energies into taking the perfect picture.

Burning buildings are much in demand, more so because buildings don't catch fire every day. It's a rare occurrence; something out of the ordinary is considered excellent background material for a disaster selfie. In one such incident in Pune, passers-by with camera phones had severe burn injuries. A bakery was on fire and they kept trying to get closer to the building, even as the police kept trying to shoo them away. They kept coming back, like moths drawn to a flame.

One reason for India having the highest rate of selfie deaths is that selfie-taking is a collective act. We like doing everything together, in a group. In the college hostel, if one person wanted to buy toothpaste, he would then begin the process of collecting a gang of kids to go with him to the market (none of whom wanted to buy toothpaste).

I once asked a friend why he didn't walk down on his own. His answer was revealing. He said it was boring to do it by oneself.

The same goes for selfies. Together is more fun than alone. The only problem here is that if one person goes down, the others go down with them too: 'Jeena yaha, marna yaha, iske sivay jaana kahan.' In Tamil Nadu, a newly-married woman and three of her family drowned in a reservoir near Pambar dam. They were standing holding hands in waist deep water when one of them slipped, dragging the others with him.

Yet another sub-category is the train selfie. In this, one takes a photograph while sitting on top of the train and gets electrocuted in the process. A variant of this is to take a selfie while the thundering train approaches from the back. Getting run over is a clear and present danger. The advantage here is that one can throw the phone on the side of the tracks just before the train runs one over. Death does not foreclose the possibility of posthumous fame in the world of amateur photography. The snake selfie, where one poses with a python or other such, and gets bitten in the process, is another recent addition to the vibrant subculture of Death by Selfie.

The peacetime selfie is different from the war or disaster selfie. The former might change colours and become the latter in a Cinderella moment. Clearly, there is no middle ground in the selfie world. The peacetime selfie is about searing blandness. The locations are far from extraordinary; in fact, they are so dull one wonders why they were chosen in the first place: a restaurant, a restaurant menu, malls, elevators, McDonalds, airports (seldom a railway station), a nice stretch of pavement with some landscaping.

The other day I saw a girl taking a photo of her friends on a patch of sidewalk. She kept walking backwards until she stumbled on a bench behind her and fell with a thud on her bum. It was a quintessential Laurel and Hardy moment.

There is an element here of Beauty and the Beast, of trying to find some sanitised space in the general ugliness of the urban Indian sprawl. I long to see the day when selfie takers get tired of 'aspiration' and there is a reverse-cool trend of taking selfies next to garbage dumps.

The most irritating habit of selfie takers is that it's not enough for them to take photographs and share them on social media. People don't have conversations anymore. When two people meet they whip out their phones and they want the other to appreciate the photos: See this, see this, says the selfie-taker sticking his phone under one's nose, jabbing at a photograph.

At times, I miss the old days when getting a picture taken was an event. If one was at a relative's place in the summer vacations, this moment would arrive towards the end of one's stay, just before one left for the railway station. An uncle would hurriedly shave; grandpa would comb his hair, or whatever remained of it, with a film star's earnestness. And then, everyone would huddle together with awkward self-consciousness.

The photos would later be sent by snail mail and, because they were less vain and simpler times, all of us would accept that we looked awful in the photos. The photo would then be inserted into a cheap photo album and forgotten about. We had lives to lead, lives that existed outside the confines of a camera frame.

The writer is the author of 'The Butterfly Generation' and the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'. The views expressed are personal.

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