In the past few days, the two elderly occupants of Room No. 10 in Laxmibai Chawl, a quiet neighbourhood in South Mumbai’s otherwise crowded Thakurdwar, have had an unusually high number of visitors and phone calls. Most of them from news channels. “Everybody is asking why we want to die so early if we are fit,” says Iravati Lavate, a 78-year-old retired school principal. She is in the midst of her routine stretching exercise. Settling down slowly on her bed, her back against a cushion for support, she adds, “We are just tired of living. We can’t wait for an ailment to make us bed-bound.”
Iravati and husband Narayan Lavate, 87, wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind on December 21, 2017, seeking “mercy death” or physician-assisted suicide. “My heart is so strong. It’s better to donate it than waste it later, no?” she says, matter-of-fact. In their petition to the President, the Lavates said keeping them forcefully alive would be a “crime” and that their existence, being of “no use” to themselves or society, was a waste of the country’s scarce resources. “There is no point in wasting money in hospitals for treating old-age ailments when one has to eventually die,” they repeat.
The couple live in a one-room-plus-kitchen space on the first floor of the chawl. A tiny Western toilet stands awkwardly near the kitchen, constructed three years ago following Iravati’s hip surgery. Until then, she used the common Indian toilet in the chawl. Above an old, orange-colour Onida TV placed on one of the two beds in the room, an entire wall has a wooden shelf full of books — a copy of the Constitution of India, the Directory of the 16th Lok Sabha, the Law of Affidavits, Right to Information, besides books on topics such as sexual offences and euthanasia. With space on the shelf running out, more documents on euthanasia are piled under another bed.
Narayan, who retired as a state transport officer in 1989, sits on this bed, next to the window, reading and looking out into the chawl’s passageway. Children are playing cricket in the narrow corridor. “We both have nothing to talk about. We have lived together for so long,” Narayan smiles. She nods. Their day starts early, when Iravati wakes up at 4.15 am to fill water. She then prepares breakfast — mostly tea and biscuits. By 8.30 am, Narayan wakes up. She washes the toilet and he sweeps the rooms. Living on her limited monthly pension, they have not kept any help. After the clothes are washed in a washing-machine they bought recently — after this became a task — both together hang clothes on a high rope using a wooden stick.
Things have slowed down for the couple, and this routine takes up the entire morning. At 2 pm, they have lunch — leafy vegetables mashed semi-solid. Narayan then wanders to his old office in Nagpada, 3 km away, to meet old colleagues, while Iravati exercises by climbing up and down the 18 steps to a common ground floor compound. She stopped venturing out of the chawl after Metro construction began and footpaths were dug up.
From 5 till 8 pm, Iravati listens to Marathi songs on radio. At 8.30, she and Narayan have their dinner before the TV, and wind up their day with their favourite 9 pm show, Swarajyarakshak Sambhaji, based on Shivaji’s son Sambhaji Maharaj. Every day is the same, the couple say. “We are tired of living forever like this,” adds Narayan.
He was the first to float the idea of assisted suicide, and the two have been thinking about it for at least 25 years, since hearing of Mumbai nurse Aruna Shanbaug, who was reduced to a permanent vegetative state after a rape. She eventually died in 2015, after 42 years. Trying to explain why he was drawn to the idea and convinced Iravati, Narayan says he has always been “rebellious”. He got married very late, at 36, “forced by my aili ng mother”, and then decided not to have any children. The couple have no regrets about that decision.
Narayan then started researching euthanasia and especially cases where a person was not terminally ill but wished to die due to old age. Then, “a few years ago”, the Lavates drew up a Bill on euthanasia and presented it to several politicians, including Sharad Pawar, Ram Jethmalani and Supriya Sule, in the hope that ‘living will’, an advance medical document to detail what treatment the patient desires in future, will be implemented.
The Supreme Court is likely to take a decision on living will in 2018, even as a draft Bill on withdrawal of life support to patients with terminal illness is under consideration. But the Bill deals with only terminal illness. The Lavates are fit, and say they worry for old couples like them who want to die but have no legal support.
At their Friday meeting with friends, all senior citizens, the Lavates often broach the subject of euthanasia, hoping to gain momentum on the issue. The couple are also part of an unofficial Mumbai-based group called the Society for the Right to Die with Dignity. He says it gets calls from across India from old people and relatives of terminally ill patients.
Adds joint secretary Surendra Dhelia, “A man called me from Pune. Recently, an old depressed woman from Vile Parle wanted to know about physician-assisted suicide. We tell them it’s illegal in India. Sometimes we advise terminally ill patients to seek a doctor’s support to pull off the ventilator.” In 2016, the Lavates also became members of the Switzerland-based society Dignitas. Euthanasia is legal in the country, and the average cost to die after medical examination is Rs 10,000 per person. While Narayan wanted to go to Switzerland, his passport had expired and could not get renewed while Iravati put her foot down saying she did not want to “die alone” in another country.
While none of Narayan’s relatives is alive, Iravati’s siblings — an elder brother and a younger sister — have tried to dissuade her. The Lavates see this aversion towards euthanasia as a sign of India’s “cultural backwardness”. Pointing to the photographs of various deities hanging around their room, Iravati says their desire to die is driven by logic, not spirituality. There is no point in living only because a legal system demands it, they add. The thought of suicide has occurred. “But what if something goes wrong?” they say in unison. Laughing, the Lavates add, “People may mock us.”
While the petition to the President may have brought them to the limelight and sparked the old euthanasia debate, for people of the Laxmibai Chawl who call the two “mama and mami”, their wish to die is nothing new. Ayush Thakur, 13, who has lived next door to them all his life, says, “I see mami soaking in the sun every day after a doctor advised her. And mama reads or walks around.”
The Lavates have not drawn up a will. With no heirs and owning little apart from this tiny flat, they plan to hand it over to the government if their euthanasia plea is approved. That’s a big if. And till then, they live with another constant fear. “What will happen to the other if one of us dies?” Iravati worries. “We want to die together.”