There is a debate over the legality of euthanasia across the country (it is currently illegal, by the way), but in many parts of Tamil Nadu there is no debate, not even a word, on ‘Thalaikoothal’.
You have probably never heard of it. Literally, the word is Tamil for ‘showering’. Quaint the word sounds; horrific is its meaning.
Thalaikoothal is the practice of killing one’s elderly in a ritual that resembles that of leading a lamb to slaughter – except that there is no knife involved.
In the internal parts of a state otherwise praised for a vibrant culture that transcends all walks of life, this ritualistic practice of senicide is accepted like an innocuous norm.
When a family is unable to bear the burden of an elderly, they kill them off. And, perhaps, the strongest of hearts would cringe at methods used to kill the elderly.
The elderly, usually above 50, are first given an oil bath and then forced to drink litres of coconut water. That results in renal failure and a painful death.
The other method is a massage of the head with cold water. This causes a sudden drop in body temperature. The body being old and infirm is unable to handle this change resulting in cardiac arrest.
There is a third way in case the other two do not work. Here the elderly is force fed a mixture of mud and water, a paste, which is hard to swallow causing suffocation and death.
In fact, there is no dearth of the brutal ways an elderly can be killed.
A survey carried out to study this senicide in Tamil Nadu reveals that there could be as many as 26 different ways.
That this barbaric murder is socially acceptable tells a lot about the lurking evil in a society that appears perfectly civilized and chest-thumps on its ancient history.
To the hoi polloi in the villages and towns of Tamil Nadu where Thalaikoothal is practiced, this is the “cycle of life”.
As a justification for their killing of the elderly, some offenders say the old bodies get rid of the suffering. Others say they do not have the means to take care of their parents.
The truth could be anything, including possessing ownership of property. Since a higher number of the elderly are men who usually have the property in their names, it somewhat validates the ownership angle.
What is the government doing? Nothing. The government finds itself helpless to interfere in any practice of a society fiercely divided along religious, caste and traditional lines.
As a 63-year-old man told NY Times in 2013, “In our culture, if there’s a problem in the house, the family, not the government, handles it.”
Thalaikoothal has become ingrained in Tamil culture and trying to remove that can have serious political repercussions.
The reason why no one is arrested for this crime is because no one complaints and doctors often cite the reason of death as natural causes. Since the society accepts it as normal, there is no hue and cry. Entire villages can stand united behind those who carry out this practice.
Sometimes, the elderly themselves consent to Thalaikoothal. Everything is done with full preparation. Relatives are often told of the exact date, as if some marriage ceremony is being held.
Even the activists trying to end this barbaric practice tread carefully. They have taken the indirect route of educating the masses about how an elderly can be cared for better instead of telling them on the face that their practice is nothing less than demonic.
Comparing those who put their parents in old-age homes, I had written in a 2010 article that even Ravana’s son Meghnad was better than such humans. My contention was that Meghnad gave his life for his father after telling the latter that he was wrong in abducting Sita. Yet by doing what he did on the battlefield, Meghnad performed the duties of both a son and a prince; he did desert his father.
At the time I was unaware of the existence of Talaikoothal and the people who practice it. I am now forced to say that those who put their parents in old-age homes are at the very least humans.