Mother, shall I put you to sleep?
Maariyamma is likely to be killed by her children because they cannot afford her. They will give her a loving oil bath. Several glasses of coconut water. A mouthful of mud. Perhaps a poison injection. She is just one of many old parents in Tamil Nadu dying in this way. But no one blinks at these ritual murders.
BY SHAHINA KK
IN TAMIL, it is known as thalaikoothal. A leisurely oil bath. An exercise in love and health when given to newborn children, a ceremonial beginning to festivals, and the universal answer to pitiless summers. In Tamil Nadu's small industry hub of Virudhunagar, however, it is the beginning of slow murder. The marker of the devastating poverty that makes a son kill his own aging mother.
Young family members of this district in southern Tamil Nadu have been pushing their infirm, elderly dependents to death because they cannot afford to take care of them. When 65-year-old Maariyamma suspected this might happen to her too, she moved out of her son's house two years ago. "I'm not well enough to live on my own, but it is better than being killed by them," she says. Amazingly, there is no bitterness in her voice. Or anger. "They're struggling hard to take care of their own children," says Maariyamma, of her sons. She places no blame. Her two sons and two daughters are farm labourers who travel to different villages every sowing and harvesting season. Seeing her children at pains to run their house, and feed and educate her grandchildren, Maariyamma knew she was a burden. She knew how it would end if she didn't leave.
Maariyamma had seen it happen to other men and women of her age. Her neighbour, Parvathy, had been paralysed at the age of 76. "She had only one son," says Maariyamma. "And he was working in Chennai, surviving on some menial job there. How could he afford to look after his bedridden mother?" One day, Maariyamma says, Parvathy's son came, "did it" and went back to Chennai. "What else could he do?" she asks. Again, in place of anger or fear, there is helpless resignation. And a strange empathy for the person who might elaborately plan her murder
Thalaikoothal works thus: an extensive oil bath is given to an elderly person before the crack of dawn. The rest of the day, he or she is given several glasses of cold tender coconut water. Ironically, this is everything a mother would've told her child not do while taking an oil bath. "Tender coconut water taken in excess causes renal failure," says Dr Ashok Kumar, a practicing physician in Madurai. By evening, the body temperature falls sharply. In a day or two, the old man or woman dies of high fever. This method is fail-proof "because the elderly often do not have the immunity to survive the sudden fever," says Dr Kumar.