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The joke’s on us
Seemingly harmless pranks can be fatal. Jacintha Saldanha's death exposes the culture of casual cruelty that seems to pervade society.
Indian FM radio channels are dominated by shows where radio jockeys (RJs) call up unsuspecting people and play pranks on them. The phone number of the victim is usually given to the RJ by a close friend or a family member, just for fun or to 'fix' him/her. RJs pretend to be cops, kidnappers, 'bhai log', mistresses or boyfriends of your spouse. . . anyone who could spell trouble. Such shows translate into laughs, and more listeners. Such casual cruelty seems to be popular and socially acceptable today.
But the mirth does not echo everywhere. Forty-six-year-old Jacintha Saldanaha, an Indian-origin nurse in the UK, tragically and fatally fell prey to such a prank call made by two Australian RJs. Mel Greig and Michael Christian, pretending to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, made a hoax call to the King Edward VII Hospital in London, enquiring about Prince William's pregnant wife Kate Middleton's condition. Unwittingly, Jacintha passed the call on to a colleague who divulged details of Kate's condition. Jacintha was found dead a few days later.
Casual cruelty amounts to playing harmless pranks and being cruel without ill intent - a phenomenon abundantly visible in schools. Bullies trouble the timid guys, or anyone who doesn't look like or talk like them. I am reminded of a case of a 14-year-old schoolgirl, who was the butt of many unkind remarks by her peers for her leukoderma condition. On one April Fool's Day, she was sent a note by her classmate as to how "beautiful" she looked. The message left her scarred for life with respect to her self-image. Another example is that of the popular 'Miami Zombie Attack Prank' YouTube video, made by the Florida duo Jonathan Vanegas, 20, and Vitaty Zdorovetskiy, 20. In the video a white man in a dishevelled attire and smeared with blood is seen growling and lunging at people who look alarmed at such bizzare behaviour. The duo were put behind bars on felony bomb hoax charges in July 2012.
In schools, bullies dominate by kicking the victim to the ground, locking the schoolmate up in toilet or abusing him/her aloud in front of others. But in college campuses casual cruelty can manifest in a more serious form - ragging. Every year, we hear of shocking stories of ragging gone wrong. Budding engineers and doctors, like Aman Kachru, have ended their lives due to nasty hounding by their seniors.
The culture of casual cruelty that seems to be seeping into our schools, colleges and even offices is a reflection of the importance our society gives to fame, however short-lived. It is also a sad reminder of our shortening attention spans and what it takes now to get noticed. Pranks continued over a period of time by any individual indicate a lack of sensitivity and extreme self-centeredness. Underneath this is a personality that wants to be noted as one who must be reckoned with. A false sense of pride that results from being cheered by others is a short-lived achievement, which further develops into a need for being noticed by others.
What leads individuals to play pranks that lead to cruelty? Some pranksters feel remorseful and ashamed as did the Australian DJs. However, there are others who remain insensitive to the feelings of others. Often such individuals have been pampered greatly in their early years, and limits have not been set to their unruly behaviour. A stubborn and self-centred personality then emerges, which is indifferent to the needs of others.
On the other hand, individuals who have been raised with extreme disciplinary patterns are also known to act out their anger in unhealthy and unproductive ways. This includes cruelty to peers, in terms of bullying them and showing lying behaviour. Sometimes it is the need to get even with others, by playing pranks on them and trying to receive attention.
Both the habitual pranksters and the bullies try to attract attention and show 'who is the boss'. The prankster comes out as a little harmless while a bully is more aggressive. The essential others in the environment need to set boundaries to their behaviour in a firm but loving manner. In some cases, parents are unable to do so, as they have been deprived in their own childhood or lack assertiveness skills to discipline their children. Parents need to understand that love does not mean saying "yes" to their child all the time. Children must be taught that freedom of action must be governed by a sense of responsibility and a correct choice. In this manner, they can develop internal controls to their behaviour and also not be influenced by peer pressure for attention.
Those who are the victims of the pranks carried out on them must not succumb to end their life. Jacintha did not need to end her life. She had a choice - a choice to face the situation and deal with her fears. One does not know what exactly drove Jacintha to end her life. However, we can all learn a lesson from it - to help our children be thankful for the gift of life, learn the true purpose of their lives, be courageous and deal with life's troubles in serene dignified ways.
The writer is a consulting psychologist and a family therapist at Jaslok Hospital and Bhatia
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