Guzaarish: Death is off the menu

“What’s the point of living such a life,” remarked the one who went to the movie with me. “What’s the point of living any life?” I queried. And I wonder if that sums it up. Either no life is worth living, or every single one is. And, interestingly, no matter which one of the two ways you look at it, life gets a thick edge over death any day, and even on a rainy day. If no life is worth living, why bother? Live it anyway, no matter what. And if every single one is, so is yours, no matter what, again.

The movie is primarily about a man’s battle to wrest right to die from the law and the legal system that hold right to life too dear to let go of it. Euthanasia occupies the center stage, but is not central to the point the movie attempts to make. It’s not about ‘right to die’, but about ‘right to choose’ without interference and without having anyone to sit in judgment over the morality or wisdom of the choice.

It is about free choice and not about the object of the choice. Why should the right to choose be allowed to only a certain extent and not any further when the exercise of choice does not adversely affect anyone else other than the chooser himself or herself? If life is about choices, what’s wrong in death by choice? If ‘free will’ is a divine gift, why shouldn’t it be allowed an unrestricted free run?

The movie poses all of these questions, but it is neither about life, nor about death, nor about celebrating either. It is simply about the fact that since life is about choices, takeing choice away is taking life away. And ii that sense, if, after having chosen to die, one is forced to life, denial of death is denial of life.

Mr. Ethan Mascarenhas, a renowned magician incapacitated by a crippling accident engineered by a jealous competitor, has lived the life of fame and also of enormous courage after he was paralyzed from neck down (quadriplegia). Quadriplegic, due to the injury to his spine, he had a completely dysfunctional body though he could move his head, speak, think and express by facial expressions, but still he lives on bravely and inspiringly enjoying every breath of life and fighting successfully every attempt that hopelessness, boredom, loneliness and melancholy made at snatching away or diluting his zest for life. And then, one fine day Mr. Mascarenhas decides that this long was long enough and it was death that he wanted now. He had lived with dignity and wished to die with his head held high. The only thing that stood in the way was the law.

He petitions the High Court for euthanasia. Predictably, the High Court finds no merit in the case and trashes the petition. Ethan, through his very popular and inspiring radio program, appeals to the people to understand and support his cause. Most of the people love him a little too dearly to let him die while others find it disgraceful on his part to be willing to throw in the towel after having lived a model life. Ethan’s death was not acceptable to the law or the people. The right to choose has limits, Ethan realizes the hard way. Assumedly, he gets the wish in the end because he is shown celebrating his ‘last day’, but law has nothing to do with it, thankfully. But this also means that all those who celebrated the ‘last day’ could be held guilty of ‘abetment of suicide’ under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. After all, they ‘celebrated’ the suicide. ‘Abetting’, as a matter of fact, is synonymous with ‘encouraging’ and ‘supporting’. And if ‘celebrating’ is not ‘encouraging’ and ‘supporting’, what is?

But then, on the issue of euthanasia, the law in the movie, as in real life, does not budge a millimeter, so to speak.

There is a sequence in which Ethan wants to stay awake and ‘think’. He is angry and despite his ardent wish to stay awake expressed – rather yelled repeatedly – in clear terms, the very caring caretaker (Aishwarya) administers an injection to put him to sleep in accordance with the instructions of the doctor. And thus he is robbed of his most basic right – right to ‘think’ – because someone else knows what is ‘good’ for him better than he himself does. He has no grievances in the morning, which implies a tacit approval on account of the belief that the violation was actually in his interest. The false belief that something is in one’s own interest or in the interest of one’s dear ones or even the society at large can be artificially generated. And once that belief is generate and concretized, one can easily be led to very willfully forsake one’s life, particularly in situations when one perceived oneself as a ‘burden’, which, again is a matter of belief.

There is no way to find that the decision to die is one’s own or has been systematically cultivated in a person’s mind through subtle manipulations. Turning euthanasia into a legal possibility may make death beneficial, even if the benefit is as small as getting rid of medical bills and the daily care the patient needs.

However, even if the argument of possible misuse and also the argument of the inalienability of fundamental rights are suspended, it is possible to argue that most human beings would not choose death over life unless they are under extreme distress for some reason. Extreme distress, disappointment and depression are known to render one incapable of rational thought, which amounts to temporary insanity. So, the one who wishes to die may well be considered temporarily insane, in which case he cannot decide for want of legal competence on account of the incapacity to ‘think’. By this line of argument, Euthanasia flies out of the window because the only person who can legally decide renders himself incompetent by deciding in favour of death. Therefore, death is not on the list of choices.

Originally published as part of my Legal Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER in LAWYERS UPDATE [January 2011 Issue; Vol. XVII, Part 1]



From Bus Conductor to Civil Judge: The beginning*

More than old, it was old-fashioned, that old chair. It remains fixed in my mind perhaps because despite not being all that strong, it radiated stability, longevity and relentless perseverance. It, in many ways, reflected the character of the man who sat in it. Like the chair, he was astonishingly simple and poised. But chairs are not methodical, focused or determined; he was. However, that was not how he started off. He did not have any of those admirable features as a student despite being the son of a teacher.

He was average at studies, and, much like me, preferred keeping a ‘low profile’ in the class, which is, frankly speaking, just another way of expressing in relatively respectable terms the tendency to keep to the benches farthest from the teacher in the fanciful hope of minimizing general accountability and susceptibility to punishments. I remember discussing the issue and our agreeing over the complete inefficacy of the strategy irrespective of the ingenious modifications one might be inclined to make to improve its workability.

So, he somehow managed to finish schooling and went to college, like everyone else does. He didn’t have any mentionable ‘aspirations’ or ‘ambitions’ because he did not have the temperament to strategize and plan things. He was just living on, rather purposelessly. And being a graduate didn’t hurt; neither did being a law graduate. So, soon enough he was both. But legal practice did not excite him one bit. He preferred lending a helping hand to one of his uncles in running his transport business because doing that was far easier and involved less reading and writing than active legal practice. And his uncle didn’t mind having an educated, soft-spoken fellow assisting him, but then in running buses there was not much to do for an ‘educated’ man. But then, this ‘educated man’ did not think much of his ‘education’.

Be it interacting with the drivers and conductors and enjoying their bawdy jokes, or issuing tickets to the passengers himself, he was perfectly comfortable with all of it. The air of snobbishness that often comes with education never touched him. Issuing tickets and yelling the names of the bus stations en route was never a problem. But then, nothing stops education from informing the subconscious in a million subtle ways. It changes one’s approach to the world even when one has no dreams or ambitions aligned with the kind of education one has received. And a time came when he looked at himself and thought what he was doing, and why. He did not want to continue doing what he was doing. What else? He decided to be a judge.

Considering that he had hardly paid attention to studies throughout his life, the ambition was absolutely laughable. Any person would not aim so impossibly high, and even if one dares to dream that wild, one would be knocked down so frequently at every step that one would be forced to let go of one’s dreams and strike a compromise with one’s destiny. But then I wouldn’t be writing this.

He was a normal man, given to disappointments, heartbreaks and frustrations that failures bring in tow. But he kept on. From a small town called Basti in Uttar Pradesh he came to Allahabad for no reason other than that it was a seat of learning that had produced remarkable legal minds in the past. He was to live and study on a meager sum sent from home, which was barely enough to meet his existential needs. His parents may or may not have believed that he could do something worthwhile, but they did want to give him a fair chance.

The struggle thus began. He shared a two-room flat with another PCS (Judicial) aspirant, who was the son of my father’s close friend. When I moved to Allahabad to study at Allahabad University for a Bachelor’s degree in Arts, I was asked to stay with them after having stayed with my cousin’s family for a short while. It is here that I met the man whose struggle to achieve his dream is truly inspiring not just because of what he could achieve starting from where he did, but also the way he managed to do it braving all human frailties and fighting all temptations to digress day after day.

Success means different things to different people, but still the simplest definition, I believe, would revolve around achieving what one had set out to achieve without having compromised what one held dear at the beginning. In simpler, marketplace terms – making gains without losing or putting at stake what was not at stake in the beginning itself. Mishra Bhaiya, as I fondly called him, managed to do just that and demonstrated to all of us that it is honest effort and relentless pursuit of goal against persistent frustrations that all successes – small, big or gigantic – result from.

I watched him fight difficult personal battles against small odds every single day. And the way he stood up against them holds significant lessons. But that’s a different tale to be told another day.


*Part one of the two-part piece.

Originally published as part of my monthly column STREET LAWYER in LAWYERS UPDATE [January 2011 Issue; Vol. XVII, Part 1]