A report on Thalaikoothal, a ritual of killing the elderly, practised in the rural pockets of Virudhunagar district, Tamil Nadu.

TEXT AND MULTIMEDIA BY SOUMYA MATHEW

VIRUDHUNAGAR, APRIL 13, 2016: “What else can they do if they see their parents suffering? At least they are offering their parents a peaceful death,” says 78-year-old Subamma Rao. Her deep, blank eyes do not give away any traces of pain or fear of tomorrow, while she latches on to her walking stick, holding her saree close to her wrinkling hand.

Subamma Rao lives in M Reddiapatti in Virudhunagar district. Abandoned three years ago by her son when she was diagnosed with pneumonia, Subamma now lives in a thatched hut, her only possessions being a rickety plastic cot, a steel glass and a plate. “They thought I will die after the pneumonia worsened. But when I did not, they left me here because they did not want to take care of me any more,” she says.

In Tamil Nadu’s districts like Virudhunagar and Mandabasalai, thalaikoothal-an oil bath is offered to some elderly by their families followed by which they are made to drink tender coconut water. N Raja, a geriatrician in A R Hospital in Madurai, explains that the process causes a condition called hypothermia in which their body temperature becomes lethally low, leading to the gradual malfunctioning of the body’s metabolic processes, renal failure and, eventually, death. Under the guise of a ritual, thalaikoothal is actually a crude practice of killing the elderly because the family can no longer afford to take care of them.

Subbamma Rao witnessed her neighbour’s sons offering their mother thalaikoothal because she was bedridden. “They offered her thalaikoothal because she was suffering for a long time. I wish my son had done the same too, instead of leaving me to rot here,” Subamma says. The villagers refute that the practice still continues, while fiercely defending the act as mercy killing and not murder. “It is an act of dignity because living like a piece of log for years is disrespectful for the elderly themselves, more than for us. The elderly choose to be offered thalaikoothal to,” says Maariyamma, whose 89 year old mother-in-law lives on the cot in the smaller room of their small house.

Dr Raja says that the situation has remained “status quo.” “There are still as many cases of thalaikoothal as there were before. The only difference is, earlier the family conducted it as a ritual, now it is more of a silent affair,” he says. According  to Pramila Krishnan, one of the first journalists to have covered this gruesome ritual, while earlier the family offered thalaikoothal to the old dependent in the house only when all other medical measures failed to work, today the old are seen as a burden too heavy to carry. The sooner they are disposed off, the better, feels the families in these villages.

Lakshmi Subramanian, The Week’s journalist who covered thalaikoothal in depth last year explains that the oil bath is not the only method that is used to kill them. “They are given valium tablets, pesticides, sleeping pills and injections when the oil bath fails to take their lives,” she says.

In this video, Pramila Krishnan talks about some of the methods used to kill the elderly.

 

With the diverse ways there are now to kill the elderly, the ritual has spawned an unorganized crime sector which involves middle men and quacks known as “vettiar” who claim to be siddhans (indigenous medical practitioners) and doctors. Because of the gravity of the act the quacks are involved in, the hesitating villagers refuse to divulge more details about them. What is more, this happens right under the nose of the law-makers and police.

Dr N Raja explains why it will be difficult for the police to nab the perpetrators of this act.

 

The government officials seem to have chosen oblivion to be their weapon in this battle, because in 2010 when Pramila brought this issue out in the open, then Virudhunagar Collector Siji Thomas Vaidhyan was aghast.

“I thought Pramila, being a young journalist wanted to sensationalize and gain popularity, because there were no FIRs (First Information Report) or complaints regarding thalaikoothal filed in Virudhunagar then,” Vaidhyan says. But her officials agreed that thalaikoothal is a reality, but because everyone reveres it as a ritual, no one complains about it.

This was until Ashokan, a member of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in Virudhungar, registered an FIR following his uncle’s death under suspicious circumstances. “Before the police could do anything about it, the body was cremated and therefore could no longer be examined,” Ashokan says, who got Zeenath, a quack, arrested for administering a lethal injection to put his uncle to death.

Concern for parents and financial inability to look after their medical expenses are, however, not the only reasons for killing them. “The greed to acquire property and migration are also why the family offers thalaikoothal to their parents,” says Pramila. “When the family plans to migrate, parents are generally reluctant to leave their ancestral houses because of the emotional value they attach to the houses. This is another reason why people resort to these measures,” she explains.

HelpAge India Foundation, an NGO working for the upliftment of the elderly in Virudhunagar, has helped the elders form self-help groups in the area. “Following the exposure of thalaikoothal by the media, HelpAge India helped set up a number of self-help groups for the elderly here to mobilize them and make them better aware of their rights and conditions,” Elango Rajarathinam at the HelpAge India said. Elango is currently helping rehabilitate the survivors of thalaikoothal and other elderly in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu.

While HelpAge has mobilized the elders in the villages to sustain themselves and become less dependent on their children, even their volunteers hesitated before carefully divulging information about the prevalence of the practice. Stella and Kasturi are two volunteers with the NGO, who talked about the aims and achievements of HelpAge India in Virudhunagar without hesitation, but strategically avoided any questions related to thalaikoothal. The volunteers eventually agreed that the practice prevails and talked about the instances when the dreaded ritual was held in their own families.

This video shows the volunteers talking about the practice.

 

 

Ironically, the volunteers do not think of thalaikoothal as a crime. “No, it is definitely not murder. They do not offer thalaikoothal to people who are healthy. Only those who are terminally ill or bed-ridden are offered thalaikoothal. And it is only done when the elders themselves ask to be killed,” says Kasturi.

In 2012, Dr M Priyamvadha, assistant professor at the Department of Criminology in the University of Madras, conducted a study called “A study on the victims of geronticide in Tamil Nadu, India” in Madurai, Virudhunagar and Theni districts. The research revealed that at least 30 per cent of the respondents of the study acknowledged that geronticide was being practised as a ritual killing in the State. The study, which was conducted over a span of two years, says that at least 30 percent of the respondents of the study acknowledged that geronticide was being practised as a ritual killing in the State.

Dr Priyamvadha's research findings on Thalaikoothal
Dr Priyamvadha’s research findings on Thalaikoothal
Dr Priyamvadha's research findings on Thalaikoothal
Dr Priyamvadha’s research findings on Thalaikoothal

“Although there is a Maintenance of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, which has excellent provisions for the elderly, the legislation fails to cover prevention of such acts,” says Dr Priyamvadha, who thinks fast track courts and tribunals that work expeditiously must be set up to eliminate this act from the society. “If a 90 year old dies, no one will question the nature of his death,” she says, explaining how the death of an elderly will mostly be understood as natural. “Hence probing and investigation into their deaths do not take place much, if not at all.”

Even though the State government has increased the elderly pension from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000, at least 80 percent of the elders here were denied the old-age pension recently. This leads to the elderly’s increased dependency on the family leading to other problems,” says Tiruchi MLA Thankam Thennarasu from Aruppukottai, another village in Virudhunagar where the practice is still prevalent.

Although euthanasia was legalized in India by the Supreme Court in 2011, thalaikoothal cannot be seen to come within it’s purview. That it has given rise to a wide network of nameless middlemen and quacks, while carefully avoiding the public and the police’s glare, has lead to the act raising its monstrous head even higher over time.

Mannivan Pandi with his grand daughter Tamizhisai before she slept off
Mannivan Pandi with his grand daughter Tamizhisai before she slept off

82-year-old Mannivanan Pandi of Kariapatti village sits on a rocking chair, softly patting his four-year-old grand-daughter Tamizhisai, who sleeps huddled into a cocoon on his chest. He has seen many elders in the village disappear. “One day I saw him sitting on his house’s verandah, the next day he was gone. No one talked about what happened to him. Everyone knew.”

 

FEATURED IMAGE: TRISHALA KAUSHIK