Towards liberalism

I was raised in a fairly conservative family; my father’s atheism not preventing him from being socially conservative. Until I went to college, I never blew candles for my birthday, for they were deemed to be “against Indian culture” at home. I went to RSS Shakhas, my seniors at RSS stuck BJP posters on my door, and except for the 1989 Assembly elections when BJP didn’t put up a candidate in Kanakapura, my parents always voted for that party.

My wife comes from a different kind of family. They are religious but can be described as being more “secular” (her name (Priyanka) might suggest to you their political leanings). So she grew up doing poojas and keeping vratas on all sorts of random Hindu festivals, but also blowing candles on her birthday and calling up “Santa” and getting Christmas presents also. Yeah, you look for compatibility on several axes when you’re searching for a long-term gene-propagating partner, but political leanings are usually low down on that compatibility list.

Last year, I totally and completely failed to appreciate her celebration of Christmas, instead treating it as yet another random holiday, before and after which nobody did anything at work. I failed to give her any gifts, or organize any “christmas events” for her. Yeah, the in-laws came over, we had set up this little crib based on dolls we’d purchased in Sri Lanka on our honeymoon and all that (unfortunately we misplaced that set, else we’d’ve displayed it as part of Dasara too, this year), but I must admit I’d failed to “celebrate” the festival. And in my defence, it was never a festival that I had celebrated, so “forgot” was actually a valid excuse.

So this year we decided to have a Christmas party at home. Basically called a few friends over, most of whom responded with astonishment (thanks to my RSS legacy), but were kind enough to land up. And once again we searched hard and found that “crib set” and set it up. And started playing Christmas carols, until I got bored and switched the music to Black Sabbath, which nobody really minded. Much alcohol was consumed (especially wine, given the Christmas spirit), plum cake was had and Chinese food ordered in.

In the intervening years I’ve found myself becoming more and more socially liberal. It probably started when I moved to IIMB; I think that was the time I stopped being judgmental of people based on their backgrounds, and stuff. That was the time when I started respecting individual rights, and those leanings got stronger as I slowly opened up, joined a libertarian-leaning mailing list, and realized that this was actually what I (as a person, irrespective of my background) was about.

On a foreign vacation earlier this year, thanks in part both to the lack of interesting vegetarian options and the availability of fairly succulent-looking meat, I stopped being vegetarian. A few months after that I participated in a “Ramzan meat walk” (though I didn’t consume much meat during the walk, since a lot of it was ‘hardcore’). I find it silly now that I’d actually joined a group of hostel-mates that campaigned for a “vegetarian table” at the hostel mess because the non-veg food “looked too gross”. But when someone starts singing “Silent Night”, I only remember that variation that a chaddi dost and I had come up which changes the song’s lyrics in a way that it ends with “and two souls become three”.

Given a chance, if I were to register as a voter and there were elections tomorrow, I might still vote for the BJP, following family tradition, but that would be more in line with economic thought and lack of options rather than my conservative background. I oppose the forced 11pm shutdown of Bangalore pubs, but don’t care about it enough to join protests on that front. If the government subsidizes Haj and Kailas Mansarovar Yatras, I demand that I get funding to attend the Pastafarian conference in Texas. And I still intend to open my autobiography (whenever I write it) with the lines “As Babri Masjid came crashing down, I celebrated. It was my tenth birthday and we had a party at home … “.

Slow deaths and sudden deaths

My parents both died slow deaths. My father spent the last three months of his life in hospital, of which the last month was in intensive care on ventilator support. He had been rendered immobile, and when the ventilator tube and food pipe went in, there was absolutely no way in which he could communicate to us during the brief times we were allowed to meet him.

My mother’s was a different story, but on a shorter time scale. She spent her last month in hospital, with the last ten days in intensive care and on ventilator, again what I think was fairly painful existence for her, living in a fairly isolated and airconditioned room, not being able to communicate with anyone, with all sorts of tubes and measuring devices stuck all over the body.

In hindsight, I regret my decision to allow them to be put on ventilator. I feel guilty for having extended their lives in a way which was both painful to them and where there was little meaning, for they lived cut off, and unable to communicate (and in both cases, had I thought rationally, I would’ve known that there was little chance the time on ventilator would allow them to recover). The only upside to this was that it gave me time to prepare. That it gave me time to prepare for their impending passing,

People who attended either of my parents’ funerals might have been surprised, a bit shocked even, to see that I was quite composed and in control of things. I wouldn’t be wrong if a number of them thought I was a heartless emotionless wretch. The reason I behaved thus was because it was only an incremental change as far as my mental preparedness was concerned. Till the day prior to both my parents’ deaths, I knew that the chances that they would recover and get back home was minimal. Delta. Epsilon. The death, normally a “discrete event” had only pushed this chance to zero, not a big change in probability.

I was thinking about all this two nights back when my grandfather-in-law passed away, once again after a prolonged illness (he refused to be admitted to hospital or be put on life support so in a way he was spared of time on ventilator), but his condition had deteriorated steadily enough for us to know that he would be gone soon. Several family members reacted quite badly, but several others were quite brave and acted bravely. The slow death was the reason for this, I thought.

There are too many factors that affect death, and no one can choose either the time or mode or pace of dying, but I have been thinking if slow deaths are better than sudden deaths or vice versa. The upside of a sudden death is that there is little suffering on the part of the dyer, but the discrete nature of the change (probability that the person would be no more the next day would jump suddenly from close to zero to one) would imply a huge shock for family members and friends, which they would take considerable time and effort to come out of.

A slow death, on the other hand, is extremely painful for the dyer, while it gives time to the family members to come to terms with the reality. Here, too, of course there is usually one big discrete step involved (like that Monday night when in the matter of less than an hour, my mother went from happily chatting with me to gasping for breath so uncontrollably that they had to immediately wheel her to intensive care and a ventilator; or that Thursday morning when my father suddenly realized he had lost all the power in his legs and couldn’t stand on his own), so it is more like a time-shifting of pain (for relatives/friends) rather than the pain being amortized over a number of days.

Once again, there are no clear answers to this question about which mode of death is better, but ever since I saw my father spend his last three months in hospital I’ve believed that sudden deaths are superior. I’ve found myself reacting to other people’s sudden deaths saying “good for them they went without suffering”. Again, no one really has control about how or when they’ll die. It’s only a question about what to hope for in life.