Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review - The Story of a Suicide by Sriram Ayer

In 2012, I sat in front of my TV anxiously awaiting the judgement that would be meted out to Dharun Ravi, an Indian immigrant student at Rutgers University, New Jersey. He had through a webcam witnessed his room-mate Tyler Clementi's private moments with his boy-friend and later on had invited other friends and Twitter followers to witness the same through his web-cam. (The second part however never happened.) The entire incident resulted in Tyler Clementi's suicide.

As I sat watching the trial on my TV, I was at loggerheads as to where my sympathy should lie. I saw Tyler's mom waiting for a fair judgement. Her son would never return. Her loss was irreparable. On the other hand was this boy whose immaturity had landed him and his family in such a terrible situation. Dharun's mother sat in a corner weeping silently, praying for minimum punishment possible for her son. Dharun was charged on account of invasion of privacy. His crime was not categorized under 'hate crime' or 'discrimination' since nowhere did he show bias towards Clementi's being gay.

The case reflected how a foolish use of technology had ruined so many lives. It highlighted how important it was for us as parents, and for the society as a whole to act responsibly. If only, kids like Dharun knew that they had no right to invade the privacy of others. If only, kids like him realized that whatever they do could have serious consequences. And also, if only kids like Clementi had the love and unconditional support of their friends and family. If only kids like him knew that they would be accepted and loved for who they were.

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The Story of a Suicide

I began my post with the case of Dharun and Clementi because when I read The Story of  a Suicide by Sriram Ayer, I was reminded strongly of that tragedy. But the book however has more issues to deal with then just this. The key players of the story are Hari, Mani, Sam, Aditya, Priya, Charu and Alex. Hari's parents, 'He', and the twitter friends are important too in the role they play in the development of the plot.  The title of the novel is well-chosen. This is the narrative of not a man or a woman committing suicide. It is the story of suicide itself - how it happens, what factors or forces are responsible for shaping it up. It is not as if an individual decided to end his/her life and went about doing it. There are circumstances that make it happen. The novel is an exploration of those determinants at work.

I am going to divide my post according to the themes I felt are crucial in understanding the story as a whole. Then, I will conclude showing how each theme intertwines in the plot to bring about a completion in the narrative.


The narrative of the novel hinges on the thread of insubordination. There are different levels of disobedience that are examined in the story. To begin at the beginning is Sam and his relationship with Priya. As becomes evident quite early, Sam is driven into technology so much that he can see nothing else around himself. His inattentive involvement with Priya ends their relationship. Tweets are more important than a meaningful conversation. But when Priya calls it off, Sam's ego is hurt, really hurt. If we begin to feel that he might really be in love, Charu enters and Sam is floored by her beauty and confidence. But Charu is a very different woman. It is never clear how committed she is with Sam. There are points of confusion, moments when she wants to fully surrender to Sam, and then when she completely cuts him off. Sam is a typical male in this regard. The conversations he has with Aditya, and the tweets he makes about women, reveal how he objectifies the female body. The disregard he meets at the hands of Charu and the rejection from Priya are way too much for him to handle.

Then, there is the failed disobedience of Hari with 'He'. The way 'He' traumatizes Hari as a child and the inability of Hari to oppose it is very poignantly handled in the novel.

Mani's failed attempt to commit suicide as he is unable to cope with the pressure of studies is another example of insubordination - his refusal to accept the standards set by society due to his 'inabilities'.

These three are different kinds of non-compliant behaviors at work in the novel.

Abuse and Negligence

In the stories of Hari and Mani are hidden the accounts of countless kids and teenagers who suffer due to parental negligence and social expectations. The pressure to stay within the bounds of conformity are too much to handle. The inability to see that abuse is lurking right under their nose is the cause of much misfortune. Hari is unable to overcome the childhood trauma even when it is not physically present. The scars left on his soul are sore wounds that refuse to heal. For Mani, it is the expectations society has from toppers that intimidates him and threatens to undo him. Both the boys find in each other a possibility of a relationship that will be based on trust and understanding. But past blemishes are not so easy to rid of, and so their relationship too walks on a tightrope.

An intruder called 'Technology'

It may well be argued whether it is technology or its senseless use that is the cause of all the trouble. I feel, that it is both. Technology has entered so much into our lives, it seems to have invaded our sanity too. The addictive spell of technology and the rashness of youth is not so great a combination. The urge to post our 'status', to lure of remaining 'anonymous', the ignorance of thinking that with anonymity we can also wash our hands off our mistakes, to live more in the 'virtual' rather than the 'real' world around us - all this remains central to the plot.

At the same time however, we can not overlook the larger patriarchal forces at work. The hegemonic ideas we conform to, the disciplines we consider 'normal' and 'normative' and the standards we maintain to 'judge' and 'punish' people go a long way in determining why we act the way we do.

Conclusion - Punishment and Patriarchy

 The 'disobedient' women in the novel, the docile child, the failed student, the enraged boyfriend, the unhappy parents - they all work in a given social set-up. They have become what they are in a society that has certain rules of decorum, certain definitions of respectability, certain stereotypes based on which men and women are expected to behave. Although homosexuality is not directly attacked in the story, the fact that it remains closeted in the novel speaks volumes about the homophobia at work. The tragic end of the novel is shaped by forces which were working on getting some other results, but which may very well have brought about a similar fate if homosexuality was directly targeted. As Gayle Rubin has rightly said, " The suppression of the homosexual component of human sexuality, and by corollary, the oppression of homosexuals, is .... a product of the same system whose rules and relations oppress women." The bonding between Sam and Aditya, the fetishizing of the body of the woman in the conversations they have, and the 'desire' to 'correct' the 'aberrant' behavior of the beloved are instances which reveal a sadist misogyny at work. When Charu writes the FB post where she boldly uses words that would be taboo in a polite society, she is breaking the rules of patriarchy that does not expect a woman to have a voice. The "homosocial" (borrowed from Eve Sedgewick's book Between Men ) planning of Sam and his friends is very much in keeping with the ideology of patriarchy that sits on dominance, discipline and punishment. The 'dominant' absolute male considers it his right to punish the intractable 'body' of the woman. She will remain an object of desire, a spectacle, and also a subject of punishment. 

This same 'patriarchy' maintains a structure and places individuals accordingly. In such a set-up, it leaves no room for what it considers 'deviant' and hence there is no place for the 'third sex'. This provokes an 'indifferent' mentality towards homosexuality. It cannot be 'recognized' because no-body in the patriarchal set-up will acknowledge it. Hari's parents are the representatives of this very ideological positioning in the society. The dream sequence that Hari's father, Mr. Hegde has reveals that he is somehow aware of his son's 'different' leanings. The author insinuates that even through the account of Haridas, the labourer, who is revered in the theater but condemned outside. It is through the imagery of 'dance' that Mr. Hegde feels that his son's life is in 'danger'. The dream reflects the opposing forces Mr. Hegde is caught in between. There are 'beasts' out there who will kill his son, he screams. But what or who those beasts are is something he does not ponder over, or may be he does not want to.

He, like most of the heterosexual, hegemonic, homophobic society, refuses to acknowledge its presence. And for that reason, even in the book, the theme of homosexuality rests on the hinges of the narrative. It is there, very much there for us to probe, to understand, if only we are sensitive enough to give it its deserved space.

Abuse becomes the tool of 'discipline' and 'punishment'.

The illustrations of the book are hazy yet powerful. They reflect the confusion and chaos of a society that wears the pretense of politeness. Like the dream sequences in the story, they are at times blunt and catch you off-guard. They tease us out of our oblivion. They mock, they prick, they interrogate. 

Time to interrogate

Each chapter of the novel has a set of questions for the reader to brood over. These questions are exercises of introspection and analysis. They are meant not just for those who suffer a heart-break, or are abused. They are also meant for the supposed power-holders of the society - those who wish to judge, discipline and punish others. The relevance of this kind of interrogation is crucial since the way we handle the incidents in our life can make or break us. These questions are meant to evoke a response that can help us handle rejections, promote and practice compassion, and develop an understanding for those who are 'different' from us, but still as human as we are.

The havoc that is wrecked in the novel happens much with the aid of social media and the brutally indifferent use of technology. Thus it is imperative for the care-givers, the parents, the teachers and the guardians of our society to teach well the kids and the youngsters on how to use it to achieve harmony and not create chaos. 

Following are some important points I feel we need to go over: 

1) We need to understand and respect everyone's right to privacy.
2) We need to realize that whatever we do has consequences. Responsibility for an act, done anonymously or otherwise, can never be done away with. 
3) We need to teach the kids from an early age that the desire to possess can only bring about ruin. Freedom, and space in a relationship are the foundation of healthy relationships. 
4) If someone says No, we need to respect that decision.
5) We should assert our refusal powerfully if our dignity is threatened. To hide the matter, no matter how much we are afraid, can only bring more abuse. We have to speak up before it is too late.
6) As friends, we need to pay attention to each other when we are low. A confident and caring person is all we need in times of crisis.
 7) Virtual life, no matter how addictive, remains just that. It can never replace the authentic, committed relationships we can actually have if only we are willing. What is not out there is just a chimera. It can create illusions, and hallucinations, and can take you away from the real world. It can ruin you. 
8) Conversations - talking and listening - can really help someone in need.. We ought to pay attention to signs and words. Don't overlook just because you don't like it. Our likes and dislikes are less important that a life in pain. That life can be saved if we are vigilant.
9) Accept who you are, even when you are different from others. Be proud of yourself. 

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This post is written in response to Indiblogger IndiChange Topic - Review the book The Story of a Suicide by Sriram Ayer


  1. Such a detailed review. I am yet to read and write about it 😊

  2. Wow! Very detailed review and I liked you have put themes around the review. Well done. The case in question is of such a dilemma. Hard to take sides but yes, privacy is important but may be hard to get for children.

    1. Thanks Parul.....Privacy is truly a concern in the present days.

  3. I am awed by your detailed review. The first incident is shocking, how technology and ignorance can ruin a life. I have been reading a lot of reviews about the book and it looks like a great read. I loved the points at the end ... very thoughtful review.

    1. It is a book that disturbs you and because it disturbs you, you ask questions.

  4. How beautifully written, I see the effort you have taken here and it is a review with substance, very informative. It is beneficial to any random reader...for this is something everyone should be aware of. Nice one Sunaina.

  5. How beautifully written, I see the effort you have taken here and it is a review with substance, very informative. It is beneficial to any random reader...for this is something everyone should be aware of. Nice one Sunaina.

  6. SO very well reviewed, Sunaina. I had heard of this book, but had never read a review. Your review makes me want to read it too. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I am glad you liked the review. I tend to write lengthy reviews....:)

  7. That's a very detailed review, Sunaina. You've made a study of the novel which deals with contemporary themes and issues.

  8. You have seen the book from different perspectives and every angle is a pertinent one. I agree with all your points as I felt almost in the same way while reading the book. Great review, dear... :-)

  9. A very different and detailed review. I missed the contest but ur review makes me wanna read The Story Of A Suicide.

  10. Sunaina, the themes that you've raised and the points that you have enumerated are the such that are known to all but almost always ignored. These are universal themes..and yet discussed only after something goes wrong. Great review. Lot of admiration for the author for raising these issues through the story.

  11. This is such an in-depth review or rather say complete analysis that has discussed the socio-emotional aspect of the issue, the book deals with. I’ve read the book and was completely engulfed into it, so much, so that while reviewing it, I flew with the emotions and got distracted away from review part. But yours is truly a critical acclaim. This reminded me of Victorian and medieval era critics. I liked the questions raised by you. All the best for the contest! 

  12. Great Review... Thanks for sharing!

  13. Good review and quite detailed...I now feel mine insufficient :(