Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 204–224 | Cite as

Tales of Decline: Reading Social Pathology into Individual Suicide in South India

  • Jocelyn Lim ChuaEmail author


In the south Indian state of Kerala, the nation’s so-called suicide capital, suicide can often appear self-evident in meaning and motivation to casual onlookers and experts alike. Drawing on explanatory accounts, rumors, and speculative tales of suicide collected between 2004 and 2007, this article explores the ontological power of certain deaths to assert themselves as always-already known on the basis of perceived and reported demographic patterns of suicide. I demonstrate the ways suicides are commonly read, less through the distinct details of their individual case presentations than “up” to broader scales of social pathology. Shaped by the intertwined histories of public health intervention and state taxonomic knowledge in India, these “epidemic readings” of suicide enact a metonymy between individual suffering and ideas of collective decline that pushes the suicide case to fit—and thus to stand for—aggregate trends at the level of populations. Focusing on how family navigated the generic meanings and motivations ascribed to the deaths of their loved ones, I argue that the ability of kin to resist, collude with, or strategically deploy epidemic readings in their search for truth and closure hinged significantly on their classed fluency in the social, legal, and bureaucratic discourses of suicide.


Suicide Social pathology Social suffering Public health discourse 



My deep gratitude goes to the families in Thiruvananthapuram who generously shared their stories, and opened their lives and homes to me. I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful guidance and suggestions. Special thanks also go to James Staples, Tom Widger, Matthew Kohrman, Sylvia Yanagisako, Silvia Tomášková, Jean Dennison, and Anna Agbe-Davies for their readings of earlier drafts and insightful comments. The research on which this article is based was conducted with the support of the American Institute of Indian Studies.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA

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