“Have some cake, it was our 51st wedding anniversary yesterday,” stated 79-year-old Iravati Lavate, very matter-of-factly, as she sat to eat lunch with her husband 89-year-old Narayan Lavate. “51 years of life imprisonment completed,” he quips.
“Oh congratulations! That’s a milestone,” I exclaimed. “Arre, what’s the big deal about it. It’s just prolonging the life we don’t want,” the two said more or less in unison. And this idea has consumed the recent years of their lives.
The Lavates – Iravati, former school principal and Narayan, who worked in the state transport department – are healthy, financially stable, and leading a retired life in Mumbai. But they see no purpose in going on living.
Therefore, the elderly couple from Mumbai made a plea to the President last year for active euthanasia or “assisted suicide”, which was rejected because they’re still very much healthy, apart from it being illegal in India.
A year later, we went back to the chawl they live in in Mumbai, a 10-minute walk from Marine Drive.
Narayan mama, as he’s fondly called in the area, was busy rummaging through his papers. He likes to keep a record of every step in his life, with documents meticulously stacked around the place.
He takes out a bunch to show the rejection from the President’s office. “They said they make people live, not die. They offered to help if we had any difficulty. But we don’t, so what’s the use of their help, we just don’t want to live. Simple.”
Iravati pitches in, “There is so much space crunch here. Someone young can use this house. We have organs which can be donated. We’ve lived a full life. We want to go while we’re still healthy. We don’t want to suffer and be dependent.”
The concept of active euthanasia and to die with dignity has interested the Lavates since 1978. “What’s the point in prolonging death in old age” is something they’ve pondered for long. “After 75 years, retreat from life.”
So what’s life like now?
"We are happy. Till death comes, we’ll have to live na. So we go about our day normally." - Iravati
The lunch they were having was an interesting mix of food.
Iravati ate the leftover cake, which she said a friend bought for them since they don’t celebrate too much, gulab jamun from the previous day, and some pickle and chutney after.
Narayan started with the gulab jamun, savouring it with coconut chutney, moved on to the cake and finished with aamras.
A bit amused I asked if that’s all they’ll eat and how do they stay healthy with so little food.
"This satisfies our appetite. We don’t need much, isse zyada kya chahiye. We don’t move around much, what will we do with extra energy." - Iravati
But what about vegetables and the healthy stuff, I thought aloud. “I eat a bit of bhaaji or sabzi with roti once a day, usually it’s leftovers. I need only a tiny amount, and he doesn’t like all of that,” she says pointing to her husband, “he only likes his meetha. He has rice with some ghee and shrikhand. He hardly has any teeth, so can’t eat roti.”
They have very simple answers for the important question everyone wants answered – how to grow old healthily?
“We’ve always eaten homemade food, the usual – daal, chawal, roti, bhaaji. Sometimes we used to eat outside, that’s fine.”
"Food should be cooked with love, not while angry. Then it’s healthy."
A lot of it also has to do with how they’ve always been physically active people. She has had hip replacement surgeries for both her joints, 12 years and 5 years ago respectively, which has restricted her movement a bit. Otherwise, all household chores they did on their own. Since a few years, they’ve hired help for cleaning and other odd jobs around the house.
Even now, they have their routine set.
Wake up at five in the morning, fill water. “Population increased, so now water goes off by six, earlier it used to run till seven,” recalls Narayan.
Then he washes clothes in the machine and sleeps off again for a bit around noon. “He just sleeps half the day,” says Iravati.
After waking up, Iravati does some daily chores, bathes and cooks. “It’s hardly any food, look at us and figure how much we need,” she chuckles.
She then likes to watch TV or sit in the sun and read. “I need vitamin D, I’m low on it.”
In the evening, Narayan walks down to the temple and sits there for one-two hours, while Iravati does pooja at home and sews as a hobby. “I’ve sewn clothes for so many people in this chawl.”
Narayan had an interesting hobby too. Photography. His cupboard is filled with bundles of photos, both black-and-white and coloured. An entire drawer is filled with gadgets like a video camera, two Walkman, and several phones.
He doesn’t use a mobile phone anymore though.
"Phone is a waste of time for me now. Kya karna hai (what’s the use). What will I do with phones, if I can’t call uparwala (God) and go to him."
The neighbours speak fondly of them. From the young ones playing downstairs to the middle-aged man living across, who Iravati taught in school, everyone has the same thing to say – “they’re good people”.
The couple never wanted kids, but a family who lived next door thinks of them as their parents and grandparents.
"Even though we’ve shifted to a different building close by, I go to them every other day. We tell them that we’re here, we’ll take care if something happens to one of them. But they don’t listen. You only convince them." - Varsha Patwardhan, Neighbour
Her son Anish Patwardhan, who’s now shifted to a different city to work for Microsoft, echoes her thoughts, “They’re like my grandparents, we’ve grown up at their house. Papa got angry at them as to why they’re thinking like this when they have people around them. But this thought sticks with them.”
A couple of relatives like Iravati’s brother are also around, but the Lavates don’t want to be dependent on anyone.
“We have some friends and family. But what’s the point? Sab akele reh jaayenge (everyone will be left alone). Everyone suffers and has their own problems, no one says it,” explains Narayan.
When the news leaked that they were seeking active euthanasia, a lot of people as well as experts had their opinions to express. Many of them had the same thing to say – if the couple had their own kids and immediate family, they wouldn’t think like this, it’s the loneliness talking. Narayan rubbishes it.
"We’re not saying this because we don’t have kids. It’s the opposite. We never wanted to have kids."
For more than 40 years, they’ve harboured this thought of ending life. The idea resonated with Narayan when he read a book on the subject.
The author died by suicide, he says, when he wanted to end things at the later stage of life.
“But we’re not that determined. Plus, it’s more difficult if it doesn’t work. We’ll just end up in the hospital, that’s worse.” They wanted to go about this in the “right manner” and call for change in legislation in the process.
When they started actively working towards the thought to die, they contacted several organisations in the field, including the Swiss ‘Dignitas’, and drafted policies that they felt should be implemented. But none of that worked and for good reason. They were healthy, they didn’t have an illness to show of. There’s not much precedent in the world where anyone would sign off on their death. So they live. And they wait.
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