Mumbai: Elderly couple seeking 'active Euthanasia' say they took the decision fifty years ago

Jan 14, 2018, 16:09 IST | Anju Maskeri

Girgaon's Iravati and Narayan Lavate on the life they've lived and the dignity they want in death

Narayan and Iravati Lavate hold a photograph that taken was five years after their wedding at their Thakurdwar home. Pics/Atul Kamble
Narayan and Iravati Lavate hold a photograph that taken was five years after their wedding at their Thakurdwar home. Pics/Atul Kamble

It's not hard to locate Narayan and Iravati Lavate's residence in the narrow bylanes of Thakurdwar. Any shopkeeper will guide you. In the last three days, the men admit to have guided many a media person to their first floor flat at Laxmibai Chawl. Last month, the elderly couple wrote a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind seeking permission for "active euthanasia", defined as the intentional act of causing the death of a patient experiencing great suffering. Except, here, the couple is healthy. In his letter, 87-year-old Narayan Lavate, says he does not have children and they don't suffer from any major health problem, but "we are of no use to society now and cannot contribute anything". His reason for writing to the President is because if the constitutional power to pardon life sentences lies with him, so should also the power to allow "right to death".

A well-planned decision
The bite-sized living room of the couple is largely occupied by books, all non-fiction. Commentary On Sexual Offences With Special Reference To Law Of Rape by R Dayal rubs shoulders will Forensic Science in Criminal Investigation and Trials by BR Sharma. The cupboards have newspaper clippings on Thakurdwar pasted on them. "He has always been a voracious reader, and likes buying books on a variety of subjects ranging from politics to philosophy. He prefers to speak less and read more. I'm the talkative one," says 78-year-old Iravati, who retired in 1997 as the principal of a school run by the Aryan Educational Society.

The two got married in 1968 within a month of being introduced. At the time, Narayan was working in the state transport department as an officer. "Although I was not prepared for marriage, my mother was on the deathbed and insisted on wanting to see a daughter-in-law. Iravati was the first woman I had met for this," he recalls. The two have had a happy marriage, not without its share of domestic squabbles. "Fights are a part and parcel of it. But we have always been on the same page regarding big decisions," she says. In order to not have children, Narayan also underwent a vasectomy after marriage.

The choice to opt for euthanasia, however, tops the list of big decisions. In fact, it goes back to the time of their wedding. "It's nothing specific that acted as trigger. The feeling gradually developed. I had decided that if/when I reach the age of 75, I will opt for assisted-suicide," he says, adding that he had made this clear to her before marriage. He offered to give her all the time she needed. "I agreed because it made sense to me. Since we had also decided to not have children, I didn't want to reach the stage where I had to depend on others," she says.

"Because there's a nine-year age gap between us, he decided to let me live till the age of 75 before we did this." However, ever since the news broke out, their landline has been ringing incessantly with concerned friends and relatives offering to take care of them. Chawl residents, too, have been trying to talk them out of this. "They don't want us to make this 'mistake', but there's no going back on it. We have lived a happy life together, and feel there couldn't be a better time to leave this world," he says. While Iravati says her husband is a "loner" and prefers to spend time at home, she ensures that she socialises with her friends in the area. She is also part of a local senior citizen's club. In fact, the same evening, she had plans of meeting them which she might have to give a miss due to a scheduled interview with a TV channel. "I used to be active, but now due to a pain in my leg, I can't move much. I do all the work at home, though," she says, offering us a cup of coffee. The thought that she might be grounded due to the pain, frightens her. "I've seen enough relatives bedridden. I don't want to be in that state," she says.

The couple says they have no savings to fall back on and survive on the pension that she receives every month. In his struggle to get his petition heard, the Lavates have spent close to R10,000. "When I would go to Mantralaya with all these documents, the officials would tell me, 'Everybody has to die, but why are you in such a rush? Let death come when it has to'," he says.

A matter of life and death
Strangely, the idea of death has always held allure for Narayan. "I think it's a guaranteed way of ending needless suffering. I don't know if there's life after death. What I do believe is that every human being should have the right to choose whether to continue to live beyond 75 years. We have a legislation allowing abortion on medical grounds, we advocate the use of contraceptive and family planning methods and stopped childbirth, then why fight shy of this?" he asks. When asked if the decision will set a wrong precedent at a time when suicide among youth is on the rise, he dismisses the question. "Taking your life at a young age is cowardice. You need to experience life. Both of us have seen our share of joy and sorrows," he says.

The subject of euthanasia became part of a public discourse in 2011, when the Supreme Court permitted passive euthanasia in Aruna Shanbaug's case. She was a nurse at KEM Hospital lying in a vegetative state for nearly 30 years after she was sexually assaulted at the hospital. Nurses caring for her refused to allow euthanasia. Aruna Shanbaug died in 2015 after being on life support for several days. "What was the point of making her suffer? The incident strengthened my resolve," he says.

A few years ago, the couple had also decided to head to Dignitas, a non-profit society in Switzerland which provides assisted or accompanied suicide to its members, provided their wishes are signed off by independent doctors. The desire was thwarted because he couldn't get a visa. For now, Lavate has given the authorities a deadline of March 31 to give their decision. "I'm hoping they reply in the affirmative," he says. He even tells us that he has considered consuming poison, but his wife cuts him short. "I think we'll cross the bridge once we get there. It has been our mantra," she says.

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