Self Immolation


Dear Ezra and Lian,

Your mom and I were sitting in your grandfather’s office. He was the Inspector General of Police for the Nasik region of the state of Maharashtra. He was doing business and taking interviews. It was a bit odd. He wanted to visit with us, so we stayed in the office while he did all this. He would be signing papers and his assistants would be moving folders around. Then people would come in for short meetings. All while we were in the room. One of these visits was different.

An elderly man all dressed in white came in. The whole conversation was in Marathi, but I sensed something was wrong. This man would talk in a high pitched voice and your grandfather would smile broadly and softly chuckle. He spoke to the man cheerfully and calmly. He seemed to be genuinely trying to calm the man down. I whispered to your mom, “What’s going on?” She whispered back, “This man is threatening to set himself on fire. He is trying to get his case investigated. My dad is trying to talk him out of it. He is assuring him that he will have the crime investigated by one of his officers.”

I had only been in India a few months, but this was something I hadn’t seen before. This man was going to set himself on fire right in front of me. I was shocked in so many ways. Why would he do this? How desperate is this man? Why doesn’t your grandfather put this man in handcuffs or a straightjacket for his safety? Why doesn’t someone say, “If you’re going to set fire to yourself, then you are going to have to do it outside”? Everyone in the room seemed to be taking it in stride. Just another day at the office. To my Canadian ears and eyes, it didn’t make any sense at all.

Your grandfather was successful. The man didn’t kill himself right there in front of us all. He left satisfied that justice would be pursued. He left me behind very confused. Your mom and grandfather tried to explain the logic of “self-immolation”. Over the course of 7 visits to India and over 12 months in the country, I began to understand. Reading about more stories like this in the news makes it seem relatively common place.

In South and East Asia, shame is a massive motivator. Family, clan, and group pride are way more important there than in the West. What happens to someone while they are in your home or under your protection is hugely important. Self-immolation or the setting of oneself on fire until you die shames those who “caused” it. The threat of doing it, makes the weak powerful. It turns the tables on those in authority. It grabs them by the ear and quite often bends their will to do what is right. It may seem weird, but it will make sense one day.

Though you are fully Canadians, you are also children of India. You are Mizos and have Mizo names. It is only by a strange twist of fate that we all don’t live in Mizoram. Remember, whatever happens to a Mizo Makpa (son-in-law) reflects on both the family and the clan. If Tlawmngaihna really exists, then Zonunmawia and Lalmalsawmi, it extends to you. If being the great-great-great grandchildren of the Indian freedom fighter Ropuiliani means anything, it means that Mother India will look after you. It would be deeply shameful if it all wasn’t true.