To Be or Not To Be


To be, or not to be, that is the question:

[Shakespeare’s Hamlet]

Ideally there should be as much dignity in death as in life. 

The Hindi movie Guzaarish highlighted potently the dilemma of euthanasia.  The character played by Hrithik Roshan is apparently happy and even a role model to many.  He inspires people to look squarely in the face of life’s challenges and reaffirm the value of positive living.  Ironically, however, he chooses death for himself because he is terminally ill, undergoing acute suffering both physically and mentally, and there is no hope or chance of improvement.

The Law Commission in its 126th report recommends euthanasia (mercy killing).   “A dying man,” says the report, “who is terminally ill or is in persistent vegetative state can be permitted terminate it by premature extinction of life.”

Yet Aruna Shanbaug has been denied that privilege.  The Attorney General, G E Vahanvati, has ruled against administering euthanasia to Aruna who has been in a vegetative state for 37 years. 

Aruna was a nurse in a Mumbai hospital.  She was sexually assaulted by a sweeper of the same hospital against whom she had lodged a complaint of theft.  The man avenged himself by sodomising the woman in the most brutal way.  He held her neck by a dog’s chain while assaulting her.  The insufficient supply of oxygen drove her into quasi-coma from which she never really woke up except for some occasional reactions to certain irritating stimuli. The incident took place in 1973.

Vahanvati’s arguments are that the Indian culture cares for the terminally ill, that euthanasia will impede pro-life research, and that “western parameters seldom apply to Indian conditions and culture.”  [As quoted in the Times of India, 3 March 2011.]

Is the Indian culture so caring indeed?  The rising number of ‘homes’ for the aged, the millions dying in India’s streets and slums without getting enough food to eat – let alone medicines for illnesses, the thousands driven out of their homes and lands in the name of progress… Is the Indian culture as caring as Vahanvati imagines?

Euthanasia will impede pro-life research is Vahanvati’s second reason.  Does that imply that the terminally ill should go on suffering interminable agony for the sake of research which will benefit others?  Is Vahanvati asking the terminally ill in India to be martyrs for the sake of social welfare?  Doesn’t that demand contradict Vahanvati’s first reason related to India’s caring?

And what about western parameters?  What is left in India that is not yet influenced by western parameters?  Even the ultra-nationalists in India wear western dresses, use western gadgets, bring in funds from the west…!

Who is Vahanvati trying to fool through his sham? 

Vahanvati also referred to the opinion of the staff of the hospital which has been looking after Aruna for all these 37 years.  The staff are against the euthanasia proposed by Aruna’s biographer.  One can understand the love and sentiments of the staff.  Aruna was their colleague.  They are ready to extend their care and help to a colleague until her natural end.  But the question is: are they really helping Aruna?  Would Aruna really want the kind of help they are giving?  Is it better to let Aruna die with dignity than live in perpetual misery at the mercy of other people for god-knows how many years?

In the case of Hrithik Roshan’s character in Guzaarish, the subject was conscious to make a choice.  Roshan made the choice to kill himself, to anticipate his sure death by a few months, and thus cut short the agony of existence.  And die with dignity. 

In the case of Aruna, the subject (Aruna) is unable to make the choice since she is not conscious.  The people who are close to her should stand outside their sentiments and make an objective choice on behalf of Aruna.  Perhaps, they should realise that real love is about liberating the object of our love from the clutches of our notions and prejudices.  Aruna’s colleagues can take a lesson from Guzaarish.

We should not also let an individual suffer agony and ignominy in order to gratify our own moralistic vanity and pomposity.  Is Vahanvati listening?

Personally, I wouldn’t like to live even a single day as a helpless dependent on anyone.  Let me sign the warrant of my euthanasia here and now if it will ever be needed.


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7 Responses to To Be or Not To Be

  1. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    Aruna, as you had acknowledged, is a distinctly different story from the movie script. I believe that Aruna “deserves” a blog from you on her own.

    As this is a new news item for me, excuse me if I ask some simple yet relevant questions. How have/did/do doctors and how many of them (second and third opinions)come into the picture? What have they said? I presume she is not brain dead, by the usual defintions. Most of the nurses who are attending to Aruna woud have known her (37 years remember?) as “living” person. Then, whence their compassion? At the “distance” of human-to-human (not that it is something to sneeze at but the law would operate at a different level of cognition)? Is Aruna “experiencing” pain or is mentally tortured by “thinking” about her condition? Is Vahnavati a loose constitutional and cultural cannon?

    Lastly, I hate the phrase “mercy killing”. I think “compassion” is the better word as mercy evokes pity.

    Raghuram Ekambaram

    • matheikal says:

      I’m not sure, Raghuram, about the doctors’ opinions since none of the newsreports I read mentions them. Yes, you’re right about Aruna’s difference: she is not brain-dead, she does respond to certain stimuli at times. She gets angry, it seems. She responds calmly to “religious music,” it is reported.

      Finally, my problem still remains. Even if “the law operates at a different level of cognition,” why can’t it try to look at the problem from a different angle from the one they have been doing so far? This is the issue that Guzzarish raised, I think.

      • Raghuram Ekambaram says:

        Not to take anything away from the movie but the protagonist CAN take a decision about his life. Some of the Baltic countries have provisions for Living Will. How is Aruna placed on this score? Very differently, I presume. The law has to treat these two differently because the decisioning agencies ARE different. This is my point. Remember, this issue was played out very strongly. It was a matter involving a women in Florida, US, Terry Schiavo, not too long ago. There the religious mob did not allow the life support system to be withdrawn. Ther are forces of regression that are not easily disposed off. That is the pity. Hence my question about Vahnavati. What was his compulsion and from whom?

        Raghuram Ekambaram

  2. dawnanddew says:

    That’s really moving and touching. But for your style of writing, Iwouldn’t have been morally convinced for euthanasia. I do now think of my kiths and kins to be enlightened about it. Your convincing style of writing is really doing a great service to humanity. May your service last till the last breath of your life.

  3. Aditi says:

    Read this only now , Matheikal…who is competent to decide if a person is braindead or not, it has to be the doctor, not the judge. In the TV interviews given by the doctor attending on Aruna, it was emphatically said that she was not braindead, she opened her mouth when asked to for feeding her, hint of a smile crossed her face when fed with food to her liking like fish and rice,she even responded sometimes when her name was called…when generations of nurses have been looking after Aruna so caringly…she had not a single bedsore in 38 years, who are the judges to decide that she should die? I don’t think the Supreme Court has erred. But it has given a very balanced direction, which , in future, will allow a medical board to take a call on a prayer by the family of a person in comatose situation through gradual removal of life support system, but not permit lethal injection and such action…

    Personally, I am for euthanasia for myself and a system of living will…

    • matheikal says:

      I agree with you, Aditi. But what I really wanted to focus on was not Aruna but the issue of euthanasia. I’m glad to hear your opinion on that in the last sentence. Regarding Aruna, I’m inclined to agree with you though one part of my mind says that she should not become a living martyr for the sake of the psychological needs of those nurses who are really doing a commendable job. But, as you say again, who am I to judge people’s love?

  4. Pingback: Euthanasia versus Suicide « Matheikal's Blog

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