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.”