“Anthropology is not the study of spiders,” reads the Instagram bio of our fascinating interviewee, Jo.
They are the digital editor of Gaysi Family, an online forum that has created a safe space for the desi queer community of Mumbai and beyond. Gaysi has been a consistent platform for countless LGBTQIA+ individuals to share their personal stories, writing, artwork, and more. Additionally, Gaysi hosts events like open mics and film screenings across the city.
Jo is also the founder and curator of ‘Almaarii’, a digital storytelling project that aims at collecting narratives of what closets mean for queer people in South Asia. It has become a most captivating archive of art and stories from diverse individuals. An anthropologist, Jo is currently pursuing their PhD in London.
In our conversation, we explore what death means for Indian families, how that idea evolves with time, and where privilege and marginalisation play into it.
Push up Daisies: What has your relationship with death always been like and how do you view it now?
Jo: The first time I came in direct contact with death would be when my great grandmum passed away in my house in Bombay. I was extremely young, about 10 years old.
In most Indian families, a lot of people come home, talk to each other, and at that point, I didn’t get it. I understood a lot more than my brother, who was 3 years younger than me. But I had no concept of it, so I did not want to use the word.
There were a few times when, while playing games, I used to run around a person and my mum used to yell at me, saying that you shouldn’t run around a person unless they died. But there was no actual talk about death.
And at that point of time, to explain it to my brother, I put my tongue out and closed my eyes and just made a sound. To me, that’s what death meant. Because I had seen these cartoons and that’s what a dead person looked like. I don’t think I could understand ideals of permanency at 10.
My idea of death started becoming a little more profound from around the age of 18, because I started having suicidal ideations, and I started understanding that I might have depression. Then I started going into spirals and self harming.
But I self harmed because it made sense to me, never with the intention of killing myself.
And I did think of death as a solution. I’m sure a lot of people think like that whether they’re depressed, “what if I just disappeared?” And they think of death as disappearance.
There’s this poem by William Shakespeare, and the first line is – I have it tattooed on my arm – “all the world’s a stage”. I always understood the world as a game, you enter and you exit as though it’s literally the game of life, and you play your roles. You might play small roles or big roles in a persons life, and once you’re done with that role, you exit the stage.
Push up Daisies: What are some books or films that revolve around death that have left their mark on you?
Jo: A lot of people apparently know when they’re going to die. My great grandma did too. And because she knew, she could call all her kids to Kerala. I was one of the only grandchildren who could make it in time. It’s weird because just a week before that, when I did not know that she was going to die, I went to the library and I found this book called The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I found it extremely calming to read that. I had never picked up a book on dying ever before that. With my great grandma, I saw life passing in front of me and leaving somebody’s body for the first time. This book really got me through that.
There’s also this book by Mitch Albom called The First Phone Call To Heaven which has really had an impact on the way I think about death. Because the one question he asks is: would we be so afraid of death if we knew where we were going after that? The reason we are so scared of death is because we think about the people we leave behind. In that book, Mitch Albom explores the concept of a place existing after death. People call their relatives back, and tell them, “hey I’m okay, I’m doing fine.” And there’s the peace that comes after that.
Push up Daisies: As a creator, does the thought or fear of death inspire you? Does it drive you to create more?
Jo: Yeah, I think so. Like in the case of most people, I feel scared that I don’t have enough time and that I need to keep creating and doing things. It has driven me to do a PhD at 25. A lot of people wait. I just felt like I was ready because there is no time if not now. The one thing I figured was that if not anything, I would like to die happy with myself. Being a gay person, it’s a big deal for me to be speaking my truth, and when I die that’s the one thing I want.
There are 2-3 things in which death has really featured in my life. I wanted to donate all of my organs because it does not make sense to me that I take all of it with me. You do not take your wealth with you, I don’t think I should be taking whichever nice body parts must be there inside my body either. So I went and got a card made, and my mom and my dad had a huge talk with me because they were like, “I don’t want to see your body all cut up, and I want to be able to cremate a proper body.”
Obviously, they didn’t know that I’m not going to look like a cut up carcass, they will stitch me back up.
I also have a lot of body ink. I’m still playing with the idea of whether I should take my body ink with me, or whether I should, I don’t know, skin myself and keep it in some place. I even try to do some anthropological research on what tattoo artists think about their art being killed with the person who takes it. There are so many possibilities that they will never see their art again in their lives.
When I die, I do not want to be cremated. The sad part about a lot of Indian families is you cannot talk about being cremated at 25. All parents talk to their children about the scenario that happens if one of them dies prematurely. But I should be able to talk about dying earlier than them.
I very much want to be buried, I want to decompose into the earth, and be nutritious to it. I’ve told my partner and my brother this. We always talk about death.
Push up Daisies: Are you spiritual or religious? And how does that in any way affect your perception of death?
Jo: I would say I’m spiritual, not religious.
When I was 7, I tried the ouija board. I don’t know if there’s an afterlife, but I know the soul doesn’t end on earth.
Being an anthropologist, I’ve just figured that there are things you cannot have answers to. The universe is so vast. Science only prides itself on being able to find one star or one theory at a time. So how can you say that something doesn’t exist when you have never come across it?
These are ideas I don’t know anything about, but I do believe and respect the fact that if you don’t know much about something, don’t play with it. I used to play with it as a child, but after that I stopped.
Push up Daisies: What’s something that you’re very proud of, or something you’d like to be remembered by?
Jo: I think I’d like to be remembered as a person who tried my hardest, and who did as much as I could in my capacity. I don’t want to be remembered for any “achievements”, I don’t think I’ve achieved anything. I’d just like to be remembered for the little things I’ve done, that’s about it.
Push up Daisies: Is there something that you would be willing to die for? Why?
Jo: There are actually tons of things.
When I was younger, and when I had to figure out what profession I had to get into, I first wanted to be in the IPS or in the army. I’m very anti establishment of the army right now, but at that age, it made sense.
You should never tell a desi mum this, but I told my mum, “I think the most honourable way to die is with a bullet in my head.”
My mom was like, “no way you’re joining the IPS.” And I was at an age enough to feel like, “okay, cool, I will change my profession” and went on.
The next thing I told my parents was, “I want to become a war journalist.”
My teachers said, “oh so you want wars to happen for you to be journalist?”
And at that age, I believed them when they said that that was how war journalism worked.
I think at all ages of our life, we are ready to die. We just don’t talk about it. Our parents should stop thinking that their kids are too young to talk about dying, because their kids have told other kids “yeah, I would die for you.” They might not understand the meaning of it, but they have said it. All these ideas of death have been around us. As we become adults, we start taking some concepts only for ourselves and imagine that kids don’t explore it as much as we do.
At this particular point, I know I would die as an activist for the movement. My whole honourable way of dying with bullet in my head is still intact.
But if I were to die for someone, I know I would die for my brother and my partner.
Push up Daisies: What, for you, is the worst way to die?
Jo: A coconut falling on your head. I’m a Malayali, you don’t know how many times I joke about this. I think that’s a horrible, dumb way to die.
We’ve spoken so much about dying, and I’m like, “see, I do not want to die after a cycle hitting me, I want to look like a strong ass person while dying. It’s okay if it’s a Mercedes or something.”
It reminds me of that song Dumb Ways To Die, that’s such a cute game.
I don’t know if there’s a dumb way to die. There may be a meaningless way to die, but that’s a retrospective question. And I’m pretty sure there are people who are not happy with the way they died.
I don’t know if there’s life after death, or any thought after death. But I know that if there are souls out there who are thinking, they would have thought, “oh shit, that is quite meaningless. I’m not happy with the way I died. I wish I would have died in another circumstance.”
Push up Daisies: Do you think about death in your everyday life? Do you think about it often?
Jo: I wouldn’t say everyday. It exists, but more as me watching a sparrow eat a worm.
It keeps happening outside my window, and I think, “huh, that earthworm is dying. It has served its purpose.”
It does not control my everyday existence, but it definitely is a cause of my anxiety in general, and sometimes when my partner goes out and does not return for a while, it scares me.
Because again, we are scared more for the death of other people than ourselves.
Push up Daisies: How do you think being a queer person changes the way you see death?
Jo: It’s very similar to how any other marginalised community views death. They view death as something that is inevitable because of their identity.
For most people who are privileged, death is not connected inherently to their identity.
Queer folks have been dying since the beginning of time– either you’re hung somewhere, or stoned to death for being who you are. Or you have the aids epidemic where the government really does not care about gay people, and we had entire circles of people dying one by one.
That’s a horrible place to be in, to feel like, “yeah, I don’t think I’m going to live past this age because I’m gay.”
So for any marginalised community, death is inherently a part of their existence, sadly.
There are lots of people in the queer community who are not as privileged as me, and have more chances of dying than I ever will. The sex workers I work with, they have a lot more chances of dying, whether it’s by diseases that will not overlook them or men who want to kill them. Some lives are more expendable than others.
Because I am a savarna, upper class person, who was born a Hindu, in some cases I will not die. In some other lens, I am the first person who should be getting killed. That is why sometimes when me and my partner are walking down the street, even in a city like London, and a big group of men come our way, our hearts start panicking. I’m sure that the immediate thought might not be death– it’s definitely assault, which may lead to death.
No marginalised community wants to die like that, it’s disrespectful to die because of your identity. You should be able to die like anybody else, if not in peace. I would like to die like a white person, if that makes sense.