Why selfie death is a thing now

Selfie death is one thing, a fatal national passion. The latest example comes from Lakhimpur Kheri, where a man went to see a group of moving elephants

One of the questionable distinctions India enjoys is that it leads the world in selfie deaths. Selfie death is one thing, a fatal national passion. The last example comes from Lakhimpur Kheri, where a man had gone to see a group of moving elephants. He got too close in trying to get the best frame; an elephant picked it up in its trunk and pinned it to the ground.

While the man couldn’t resist his selfie instinct, the mother elephant – “the abuser” – couldn’t control hers either. She was trying to protect her calves. The man’s last words were: ‘But I was thinking haathi mera saathi.’

In the complex and emerging field of selfie death studies, the elephant selfie forms an important sub-sect, with its own dedicated practitioners and researchers. The day is not far off when one can enter a university and the nameplate outside the professor’s office will bear the caption: 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 substance is the subject. One of the vanities of the selfie taker is that he is the world’s greatest seasoned reporter and photographer, winner of several bravery awards. ‘Jaan hatheli per rakh ke’ is the determining credo.

Once gentler, the drunken man in the lion enclosure was the height of absurd death. This still happens except that nowadays man is rarely drunk and has a telephone. While the drunken man’s bravado can be rationalized, the photographer’s bravado over the phone is hard to understand. You can’t be high on a cell phone.

If you live in a mountainous area, local newspapers often report people falling apart trying to take the perfect selfie. As the rhyme says: Jack fell and Jill fell after. The disaster selfie is another sub-category of the war selfie. Here, you have to risk the scene of an accident and make the most of it.

There have been several cases of people stopping at the crash site and, instead of helping the dying and bleeding victims, channeling their creative energies into taking the perfect shot.

Burning buildings are in high demand, especially since buildings do not catch fire every day. It is a rare event; something out of the ordinary is considered great basic material for a disaster selfie. In one such incident in Pune, passers-by with camera phones were severely burned. A bakery was on fire and they kept trying to get closer to the building, even as the police tried to chase them away. They came back, like butterflies drawn to a flame.

One of the reasons India has the highest rate of selfie deaths is that taking a selfie is a collective act. We like to do everything together, in a group. In the university foyer, if a person wanted to buy toothpaste, then he would begin the process of collecting a bunch of children to accompany him to the market (none of them wanted to buy toothpaste).

I once asked a friend why he wasn’t going down on his own. His answer was revealing. He said it was boring to do it yourself.

The same goes for selfies. Together is more fun than alone. The only problem here is that if one person falls, the others also fall with him: “Jeena yaha, marna yaha, iske sivay jaana kahan. In Tamil Nadu, a newly married woman and three members of her family drowned in a reservoir near the Pambar dam. They were holding hands in the water up to their waists when one slipped, dragging the others with him.

Another sub-category is the train selfie. In this one, we take a photo while sitting on top of the train and we electrocute ourselves in the process. A variation is to take a selfie as the thunderous train approaches from behind. Getting run over is a clear and present danger. The advantage here is that you can throw the phone to the side of the track just before the train passes over it. Death does not exclude the possibility of posthumous fame in the world of amateur photography. The snake selfie, where you pose with a python or whatever, and get bitten in the process, is another recent addition to the vibrant Death by Selfie subculture.

The peacetime selfie is different from the war or disaster selfie. The first could change color and become the second in a Cinderella moment. Obviously, there is no middle ground in the world of the selfie. The peacetime selfie is a matter of burning blandness. The locations are far from extraordinary; in fact, they are so boring that one wonders why they were chosen in the first place: restaurant, restaurant menu, malls, elevators, McDonalds, airports (rarely a train station), a nice strip sidewalk with landscaping.

The other day I saw a girl take a picture of her friends on a sidewalk. She continued to walk backwards until she stumbled onto a bench behind her and fell with a thud on her buttocks. It was a quintessential Laurel and Hardy moment.

There’s an element of Beauty and the Beast here, of trying to find a sanitized space in the general ugliness of Indian urban sprawl. I can’t wait to see the day when selfie-takers tire of the “sucking” and there will be a reverse trend of taking selfies next to landfills.

The most irritating habit of selfie-takers is that it’s not enough for them to take photos and share them on social media. People no longer have conversations. When two people meet, they pull out their phones and want the other to enjoy the photos: see this, see this, says the selfie-taker, putting his phone under his nose, jabbing a photo.

Sometimes I miss the good old days when having a picture taken was an event. If you were with a relative during the summer vacation, this moment would come towards the end of their stay, just before leaving for the station. An uncle was hastily shaving; grandpa combed his hair, or whatever was left of it, with the seriousness of a movie star. And then everyone hugged each other with awkward awkwardness.

The photos would later be sent by post and, because they were less vain and simpler times, we would all accept that we looked horrible in the photos. The photo would then be inserted into a cheap and forgotten photo album. 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 publisher of ‘House Spirit: Drinking in India’. The opinions expressed are personal.

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