Home > Choice, Culture, Death > A Happy Choice

A Happy Choice

[Warning: Really long, rambling post]

Some time ago, I read in the papers about this couple in Goa who chose to end their seemingly happy lives.  I thought the reporter who put together the story did a fairly decent job with the detailing – a few excerpts from the article:

Anand Ranthidevan, 39, and his wife Deepa (nee Srinivasan), 36, IT professionals, hanged themselves in their fourth-floor apartment on October 3, 2011.
They left behind a typed document, bequeathing their house and sparse belongings to Deepa’s mother in Bangalore, laptop and iPod to their next-door neighbour’s six-year-old son, and a couple of printers to the housing society office.

On the table was a paid hotel bill of approximately Rs 8 lakh from Taj Vivanta in Panaji, where they had spent most of the last two months.
Next to it was a suicide note. “We have lived a very eventful and happy life together,” they had written. “We’ve travelled the world, lived in different countries, made more money than we ever thought possible, and enjoyed spending as much of it as we could on things that brought us joy and satisfaction. We believe in the philosophy that our life belongs to us and only us, and we have the right to choose to die as much as we have the right to live. We leave behind no debts or liabilities.”

They’d left instructions that their bodies be disposed of in the government electric crematorium. “We have kept Rs 10,000 in an envelope for expenses. We are making this decision in our individual capacities.”

………………………..

………………………..

Their post-mortem reports showed no signs of any terminal diseases nor traces of any bravado-inducing drugs.

This probably gives you an outline of what happened, but I really recommend that you read the whole story, before you go further.  The nuances, in this particular case, are important to understand.

I have been quite piqued about the motivations that led someone who lived an ordinary upper middle class lifestyle, to willingly choose to end their lives. It’s also interesting to dwell on some constructs that this story has stirred up.

I have brought this topic up in conversations with people I know (many of these conversations went on long and late into the night, with copious amounts of alcohol involved). Got a few interesting reactions, some strong, some as expected, all of them quite involved:

Must have had some terrible, dark secret which really consumed them.. deep guilt/depression.

Freaks/weirdos,  a screw loose somewhere up here.

G – what hypocrites.. can’t you see the inherent dichotomy in what they chose to project to the world –an impression of not caring for material possessions by gradually giving away all their belongings in the weeks leading up to their death, but then hedonistically living it up at a fancy resort in their final days.

What a waste of two potentially productive lives… they could have made so much of a positive difference to this world by being involved in social/charitable causes for many more years of an active life.

A selfish, cowardly act.. thinking only about themselves, and not about what their choice makes near and dear ones go through for a long time after their death.

I have a different take, one which is based on the premise of Liberalism, which states that a person’s life belongs only to them, and no other person has the right to force their own ideals that life must be lived. Rather, only the individual involved can make such decision, and whatever decision they make should be respected (reference: Wikipedia) .

I’d like to first offer counter arguments for most of the views listed above. I say most, because I am going with the assumption that there was no major dark secret in their lives, and they led a fairly normal existence. From the story, there is nothing in what we know about them to hypothesise otherwise. If you don’t agree with this assumption, you can stop reading this now.

Freaks, weirdos? Really? Why? Pretty much the same words were used for homosexuals/lesbians , even till the end of the last century – in fact,  a fairly common reaction even now, to the LGBT movement in large parts of the world.  Here’s a thought – how about that their choice is  just an idea that is ahead of its time?  Women in India who resisted jumping into their husband’s funeral  pyre.. Galileo, who had the gall to go against the church and claim that the earth was not the center of the Universe.. history is full of instances where an idea, an expression of individual liberty, has  been dismissed by the majority  as heresy/lunacy,  simply because it went against prevailing societal norms at the time.

A related perspective – I think this reaction is also a manifestation of a strong belief that this couple’s choice runs contrary to the fundamental purpose of life, and hence is invalid. This again, is an idea that can be challenged as basically a majority view and not much else.  I will talk more on this particular aspect later in this post, but as I have written on this blog before,  I truly believe in the idea that there is no larger meaning or purpose to our lives.  These ideas  – of whether our life has a purpose or is completely a random occurrence – are contrasting beliefs, and neither can be claimed as the omniscient one overruling the other.

The hypocrite-labeling  is almost a non-sequitur, in my view.  A lot of us, if we knew that we had only a few days to live,  would like to spend those last days  doing the things that we most like, and living a life of luxury in a gorgeous place by the sea will probably be a popular choice (or at least, a valid one). From the details in the story, it’s fairly obvious that they worked towards doing away with stuff that they didn’t need, given that they were going to end their lives soon anyway. To me, it seems like there was tremendous clarity of thought on how they wanted it all to end.

Not doing enough for the larger good, and hence wasting an opportunity to make a difference. This is a classic example of our tendency to pass judgment on others, while remaining supremely convinced of our own level of virtuousness. I can easily make a confident, valid  assertion that all of you who are reading this post, could easily take out 10% of the time and money from the current life that you lead (can be 5, 15, 20, whatever… be honest and pick a number for yourself) and contribute a whole lot more towards a better world.  You should be making a much larger difference to the world than what you are right now, or what you will, for the rest of your time on this planet. The point here is, we won’t like it if someone else starts dictating to us on how we should live a more “useful” life.  We shouldn’t  be drawing the line for someone else , right?

The last one , about a selfish act,  about one’s death having an impact beyond just oneself, is something that I agree on, in general. But in this specific case, it seems like they were already persona non grata to their family members for many many years – apart from very sporadic communication with one set of  parents, there were apparently no other ties. So I could stretch this to making a case that their respective families had almost given up on them anyway. We can of course argue till the cows come home about how blood ties are more solid than temporary mis-understandings and all that, but this one doesn’t seem like a typical case where the parents would be seriously devastated with the sudden demise of their offspring. I humbly offer that the circumstantial evidence in this case is not enough to sentence the accused to the gallows. I agree though, that this argument has a moral underpinning,

Now that I am done with the counter arguments, some things to ponder:

What if Anand and Deepa had been a couple in their mid-70s, everything else in the story being the same? Would the reactions that I heard been the same? I ‘m inclined to wager that most of them would have been far mellower, with indulgent curiosity about an old couple’s unusual choice being the dominant emotion. Why is it significantly more difficult for us to accept that someone who has lived a happy and content life, can decide that he/she has had enough, albeit about 35 years sooner than the average life span?

The Wikipedia page on suicide starts with “Suicide is often committed out of despair, the cause of which is attributed to a mental disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse. Stress factors such as financial difficulties or troubles with interpersonal relationships often play a significant role.”

I think this is the majority-view thinking that underlines all the reactions  in my conversations  – why did they want to die if they were happy?  Again this brings us back to what we believe is the purpose of our lives, doesn’t it? The preavailing, default state of belief is to live as long as we can (and preferably hale and hearty).  Like many things that were taken for granted in the history of the human race, I think there is merit in really asking ourselves why does this have to be so.  Probably it’s my implicit belief in the utter insignificance of our existence in the context of the Universe, but I somehow find absolutely no problems with this construct.

Obviously, there must be perspectives I am ignorant about as I have rambled on.  I have been specifically asked to read the research on the impact of suicide on the ones who get left behind, which I have started on.. if you know of any good material on this, please to be sending links/ references. ‘A’, my philosophy mentor, recently gifted me Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which is going to be my companion on my upcoming walking holiday.

Of all the folks with whom I have had a decent chat with on this, I can count the ones who have  generally agreed with me on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left. :)  I thought N put it really well, when she said “what they did is almost like the ultimate extension of the tagline from one of those  insurance ads: Jeevan par poora control, maut par bhi poora control.”

Categories: Choice, Culture, Death
  1. April 10, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    Proust was supposed to have written his entire masterpiece by mulling over personal tragedies, or other such such emotionally intense events that get a only passing mention in the papers… So you are headed in the right direction!

    My views on suicide is from my own half baked understanding of Hindu philosophy. It goes something like this:

    Desire (Kama) is ok.
    An act of will (Kratu) to make the desire come true creates action (Karma).
    And the nature of Karma is such that for every action there is a reaction (in this birth or next)

    Suicide in this case is driven by a strong desire (to go while the going is good, avoid unpredictable unpleasantness, never face unhappiness, etc)

    Suicide (and taking life of others) also requires a tremendous amount of will, as it is not an easy task unless the person happens to be a professional or contract killer.

    Hence this enormously strong act of will is normally expected to create a elephant sized baggage of Karma, that the couple might end up spending quite a few subsequent lifetimes to erase.

    So that means, avoiding a few years of possible boredom, unhappiness as we age to a few more lifetimes of maybe much worse!

    Of course I am not preaching Hinduism here, but just presenting the perspective on Suicide from the lens of Hindu spiritual thought!

    May their sould rest in peace!!

    • April 11, 2012 at 11:39 am

      Srini – where this thread loses me is the Karma bit. Can’t relate at all to the concept of multiple lifetimes. Read my earlier post for context on what my views are on this.

  2. April 10, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Satish – my reaction on reading about this was among the one that you covered – “What a waste of two potentially productive lives… they could have made so much of a positive difference to this world by being involved in social/charitable causes for many more years of an active life”

    I dont fully agree with your counter argument – while agreeing that I am no one to pass a judgement or dictate to others how to make their life more ‘useful’. The fact is that there is so much that can be done to make the world a better place – one needs money, time and inclination to take up a cause and do so. Anand and Deepa certainly seemed to have been fortunate enough to have had the first two. They certainly could have (and in my view should have) tried making a postive difference to the less-privileged around them. Perhaps, they did and we dont know about it. However, it is really incomprehenisble to me why they did what they did. This despite the fact that I knew Anand personally – he worked for me for a year or so in the late 1990′s. We all knew him as being sharp and smart but ‘different’ from others in many ways including ‘thinking out of the box’.

    • April 11, 2012 at 11:00 am

      Bhasker,
      It seems both you and Ram (Kothandaraman) knew this Anand… small world. The only part of your arguement i can’t buy – ‘They certainly could have (and in my view “should have”) tried making a postive difference.’ There has been a great deal of misery and tragedy in this world simply because of one one set of people deciding what another set of pepole “should / should not ” be doing. I am a libertarian on this one,I really do not think anyone of us has the right to lay down benchmarks for how others ought to be living.

  3. Kartik
    April 11, 2012 at 4:27 am

    Somewhat morbid blog, mate, but thought-provoking, nevertheless. I think I would have enjoyed this banter with you… over large quantities of alcohol, of course. I’ve been to Bgl too many times and haven’t done this with you yet; defly needs fixing…

    Science would say that we are genetically predetermined to choose self-preservation; and consequently, those who choose to end their lives (prematurely, as in the case of Anand and Deepa), attract the easy judgement that ‘there was some screw loose somewhere’. Also, the history of evolution is steeped in several examples that man (and of course, I use the term ‘man’ to represent homo sapiens and not the gender…) is a social animal; since this enhances chances of survival greatly and whilst circumstances have changed greatly (we are no longer battling sabre-toothed tigers anymore and are no longer dragging our women by their hair to the caves for sexual gratification), we are still hard-wired to be socially active and interact with others. It was clear that Anand and Deepa were a recluse, and consequently, again, it attracts the easy judgement that they weren’t normal.

    Yes, I agree with your Sati example and the Galileo example. That said, it is difficult to draw parallels with this bizarre double suicide since there isn’t enough data for us to draw conclusions as to why they did this. Consequently, my submission to you is that your assumption that ‘they did not harbor a deep dark secret and led fairly normal lives’ could potentially be deeply flawed. Your defense of their decision rests heavily on this assumption of yours…

    I’m a fellow liberal (I have to make it an effort to not rant and rave and froth at the mouth and wear my liberalism on my sleeve at most times, since it results in conflict), but I find it difficult to not adopt a contrarian view to yours on this. Death is too painful and complex a subject; and suicide adds several layers of complexity to an already difficult subject.

    • April 11, 2012 at 10:59 am

      JK – Yes da, would’ve totally enjoyed this conversation with you over lots of daaru.. when next, to these parts? The Sati/Galileo analogy.. I primarily used them as bait to illustrate how an idea that seems so contrary to conventional wisdom of the time, is actually very legitimate. You make an interesting point about our evolution determining characterestics of social interaction and innate need for survival. But I think its just a matter of time before this concept starts getting turned on its head. Human-life spans have dramatically increased in the last 200 years (before penicillin came around, average huma life spans were actually only 35-40 years, so Anand and Deepa would’ve gone into this average then!). From the little I am learning about genetics, AI, etc.. it is quite reasonable to believe that over the next 2 centuries (am being conservative, people that I speak to who know much more about these areas than I do, believe it will happen this century itself ), there will be “human-like-in-every-way” species who think, feel and act like us humans do. Net, Net.. the idea that our life is a survival game till you ultimately lose the battle with death.. i don’t know if this is an idea that would be still be in currency if you happened to walk into earth in say, 2212.

  4. October 3, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    I studied with Anand in REC, Trichy. I am also unable to come to terms with it, though i am not much surprised with what he did. I can sort of understand you post. I have also written about him in my blog. You can check it when you have time and we can talk. Thanks.

    • October 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm

      Thanks for reading and leaving your comment, Mani. Read your post about Anand, provided great context on the kind of person he was. he must have been a very interesting guy to know.

  5. October 11, 2013 at 5:40 am

    My observation, totally my personal view. Not to hurt and show disrespect to anyone.

    These people are extraordinary thinkers. They dared to question everything which normal folks will either accept and take it without even accepting from elders(!).

    They disliked people’s pretense judgement and hypocrisy. The world and its people MAY not have sounded worthy of charity, service and the like to them. But yet they took great care not to treat anyone disrespectfully. They had thorough integrity.

    They must have been on same boat philosophically and understood each other very deeply (something that is very uncommon in regular married life).

    I too think they were ahead of time. I had given considerable thought to the “Planned Death” concept and I don’t judge or criticize it in a shallow manner. It needs a deeper study and understanding to comment. Mostly people are not equipped with that amount of internalization and hence could only respond how they have been taught to react. I also don’t think Anand/Deepa committed suicide. I liked how Manivannan worded it “Death by Choice”.

    • October 11, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      Well said, Sugumuar. Dismissing their decision as something crazy is lazy thinking, and reflective of some of the ignorance and biases of mainstream culture.

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