Iconic Bollywood actor Sridevi Kapoor died last week. It was a shock to everyone who knew who she was, because at fifty-four she was as fit and young looking as ever, and nobody could imagine that someone like that could die so suddenly, and with no real reason. Death is shocking and sad, no matter how or when or where it happens but what seems particularly insane is what appears to be a sub-continental blight: our complete and utter callousness to it. It’s not just Indian media that is ghoulish—their local news channels have been covering Kapoor’s death with reporters lying in bathtubs to demonstrate, tacky computerized images that superimpose an ordinary photo of the actress onto an image of a full tub and so forth. It looks exactly like something any one of our news channels would do, and indeed have done. Does anyone remember Geo News’ helpful little GIF on the corner of the screen when a plane crashed into the Margalla Hills in Islamabad a few years ago? The GIF—a repetitive little cartoon or image—showed a plane hitting a mountain and exploding into a tiny ball of flames. Over and over again. When cricketer Wasim Akram’s first wife passed away, reporters thronged their home, repeatedly zooming in on the curtained windows of the house hoping to catch a glimpse inside and videoing distraught friends and family as they shouldered their way into the house.

It is disgusting the way the media is so tone-deaf to humanity, but the real reason they do these kind of things—and keep on doing it—is not because everyone involved in the industry is a lobotomized automaton, but because people love it. News channels in our part of the world do not exist to merely do investigative journalism; they are there to provide reality TV level entertainment because it sends ratings skyrocketing. Nobody wants the khabarnama when they can have a Bollywood track playing in the background as reporters shove microphones in the faces of weeping parents and ask them “aap ki feelings kya hain iss waqt?” Everyone watching is gasping to know the answer, and millions of people will be glued to their screens not in solidarity or empathy, but out of purely voyeuristic fascination. That voyeurism comes crashing out when these people go to funerals, too. They act exactly like reporters do: with completely tone-deaf, insensitivity-bordering-on-sociopathic behavior.

Funeral etiquette is not rocket science, you’d think. Whether for an actor or your neighbour’s mother or someone close to you it’s not exactly difficult to know that you should speak softly, pray a little and not make a nuisance of yourself asking for a better chair or a cup of tea or loudly asking people so do you know exactly what happened. You don’t shove mourning family aside so you can peer at the body. You don’t talk on your phone outside and you put your phone on silent in the first place, so it’s annoying film-song ringtone doesn’t start blaring during the namaz-e-janaza. But people do all of this, and much more! Either they have no idea how horrible and hurtful it is or they don’t really care, even though everyone has lost a loved one and been through this themselves. We have no empathy, whether for a stranger or for a friend. For a society so obsessed with respect and appearances and propriety, we are shamelessly disgraceful when it comes to death and the dead. People will scream themselves hoarse when it comes to giving girls their khula rights on a nikah-nama—it’s not done! It’s so rude! What bad form!—and then promptly turn around and be perfectly beastly at a funeral, chomping fruit and discussing who will inherit the house and what happened at the hospital.

It is convenient to blame it all on ‘the media’, but it’s a vicious cycle that repeats itself in so many permutations. Students are intellectually lazy and unmotivated because of bad teachers; good teachers are demoralized and constrained by unmanageable students. Media practices are deplorable because they are pandering to what customers want; customers have low tastes because the media won’t offer better quality content. People have bad manners because they are not upbraided and expected to do better next time. It’s no use pointing a finger at a faraway television channel because the rot of discourtesy starts with individuals. The dilemma for most people with good manners is that they feel impolite telling vulgar people off, but do consider this the next time you are at a funeral and some terrible person is trying to make a grieving relative cry on purpose, or someone in a Whatsapp group shares a photo of someone’s corpse, or makes a tasteless joke about the circumstances of someone’s death: speak up. Do it courteously, but firmly.

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com