Can the Euthanasia Verdict Undo India’s Gag Order on Death?

Social Commentary

Can the Euthanasia Verdict Undo India’s Gag Order on Death?

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

One of most memorable scenes in P.S. I Love You, the movie that hyper-romanticised death and its aftermath, was a scene that comes post Gerry’s funeral. “You make a ravishing widow sis,” Lisa Kudrow’s character comments matter-of-factly to Holly, the grieving protagonist.

It was hardly a big scene, but for me, it presented a moment that was jarring at several levels.

The memories of my father’s death and the elaborate mourning that had followed had still not faded into the past as they were supposed to. The incongruity of using “ravishing” and “widow” in the same sentence was akin to doing a line of shots as a toast to the memory of the recently dead. I didn’t know whether the scene was meant to downplay Holly’s loss, but to me, it magnified what she was going through.

My mother defied every norm that defined how she was supposed to handle my father’s death more than a  decade ago. She picked up her life and determinedly went on living instead of grieving but the act was always tinged with faint rebellion. The ecosystem around her wanted her to stand still in grief, give up living, but she didn’t. Her defiance was always undercut with a sharp awareness of what “they” were going to say about her.

Admittedly, we may have moved on from the time when being a “widow” implied an existence that was doomed to be a colourless, loveless, miserably grotesque parody of being alive. But we haven’t been able to change the lens through which death should be viewed. A look at the way Janhvi Kapoor was trolled on social media for celebrating her birthday post her mother Sridevi’s death, is a potent manifestation of our relationship with death as a society.

We are still a long way off from a point where our society can be comfortable with the idea of considering a widow ravishing or reconcile with the fact that different people deal with loss differently, and the decibels of their wailing may or may not be a measure of the gravity of their pain. For us, grieving has always been a scale of an individual’s love, devotion, and sense of loss. A fascist army of gossiping relatives and vicious strangers has always been dedicated to the cause of ensuring that everyone grieves right and grieves enough. Their weapons of choice –  a heady mixture of gossip, shame, ridicule, sarcasm, criticism, baseless judgments, and disapproval.

The most horrendous example of this is the way Nupur Talwar, mother of the murdered teen, Aarushi Talwar, was judged for not displaying enough grief in the public eye. In a TV interview with a news channel, Nupur Talwar had failed to wail and mourn. For most of TV-watching India, that omission of requisite grief might as well have been admission of Nupur Talwar’s culpability in her own daughter’s murder.

Can the fact that we now have the right to die make us finally start talking about dying?

Death and its aftermath is sacrosanct in our culture, neatly packed and regulated by elaborate rituals and presided over by a deafening silence. Our predominant cultural belief is to just not talk about death. The very idea of death has been elevated, propped up on superstition and apprehension; it is considered taboo by default. It is a notion that is aided by our combined and conditioned belief that coping with death is an impossibly radical idea. And because the whole coping thing doesn’t figure in our basic understanding of death, we don’t know how to plan for it either. 

The insurance and organ donation initiatives in this country continue to struggle to gain the easy acceptance they deserve simply because nobody is really willing to have a discussion that starts with “When you die…” We’d rather bury our heads in proverbial sand and pretend that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen instead of planning for the inevitable. There is reason why “pulling the plug” has never really made it to our daily conversations. We have never been equipped to do it, legally or metaphorically. And while the latest Supreme Court judgment on euthanasia and living will does away with the legal hurdle, our metaphorical incapability is still out there, loud and paralysing. 

The Supreme Court’s rather radical decision (or not-so-radical depending on who you ask) to finally include the right to die in our right to life, is a much-needed nudge in the direction of a more mature society that understands grief and coping with death as an intensely personal issue as well as the objective process that it sometimes needs to be. It is a nudge in the direction of a social set-up that de-stigmatises the fear-induced silence around the idea of death and encourages us to actually talk about it –  as individuals, as families, and as a society. Because in order to be able to exercise the right to “pull the plug”, one has to first admit that a plug may actually exist someday and build a conversation around the hypothesis. 

Can the fact that we now have the right to die make us finally start talking about dying? Can a Supreme Court judgment actually undo a cultural gag order on death? Urban India may be evolving, but the non-urban India, the majority of our population that still resides in towns and villages, is still stuck in social orders and cultural structures that make talking about/dealing with death extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible. The hope is that this judgment will at least trigger an important personal and social conversation that needs to be had now. Like Nobel laureate José Saramago said, “The only time we can talk about death is while we’re alive, not afterwards.”