The rights of passage

We are willing to share every facet of our lives in public: weddings, births, funerals. But when it comes to the actual act of dying we seem unable to confront its reality. Seema Goswami examines....
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Updated on Feb 24, 2009 11:36 PM IST
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None | BySeema Goswami

Am I the only one appalled by the hateful things that continue to spew forth from the media machine about the terminally-ill reality star Jade Goody? One would think that dying at 27, leaving behind two sons aged five and four, would be enough to get a woman a free pass. But clearly it doesn’t work that way when endless column inches can be churned out of someone’s personal tragedy.

Take the piece that appeared on Hindustan Times op-ed page on Saturday, for instance. Titled Death by Live TV and written by Amrit Dhillon, it referred to Goody’s imminent demise on reality TV as the ‘ultimate freak show’, a ‘vulgar spectacle’ that would strip her death of all dignity.

Dhillon, who wrote movingly about the death of her own brother from cancer, believes that privacy is the real issue here. And that people in the terminal stages of cancer should only be seen by those who love them.

While I have only compassion for someone who has lost a family member in this way, I wonder if this gives anyone the right to decide how other people should live out their final moments. Surely, when it comes to death, there is no one-dose-suits-all prescription that works for everyone. And Goody has every right to invade her own privacy, if that is what she wants.

It is for each one of us to decide how we want to live our last days. Some of us may choose to spend every moment with our loved ones. Others may want to crawl into a dark corner and die alone. Goody has decided that she wants to end her life the way she has lived it: as the star of her own reality show. Who are we to begrudge her that?

Our problem is that we never want to be confronted with the reality of death. And death is never pretty — whether it comes from cancer, AIDS, a motor accident or just plain old age. And because we want to continue living in denial, we want Goody to simply disappear off our screens.

Well, why should she? She’s the one who’s dying. So, she’s the one who gets to make that choice. We don’t get to make it for her — or sit in moral judgement over her.

Goody is trying to make as much money as she can before she dies so that her two young sons never have to face the deprivation and poverty that she did. And she wants to leave behind a record of her life so that they can get acquainted with her when they are older. She is frightened of dying — but she is terrified that her children will forget her. This is her way of creating a memory box for them to dip into whenever they miss her.

Many writers have chronicled their last days in minute detail. British journalists Ruth Picardie and John Diamond have written books about their battles with cancer — which they both lost. But while that is seen as noble and cathartic, Goody’s attempt to do the same thing — in the only way she knows how — is derided as vulgar and freakish.

But our horror at being confronted by this ‘gladiatorial circus’ says more about us than it does about Goody. We are willing to share every facet of our lives in public: weddings, births, funerals. But when it comes to the actual act of dying we seem unable to confront its reality. We know that we will all die some day. But until that day comes, we’d rather not know.

Well, if that’s how you feel, then don’t watch Goody die. But let her die the way she wants to: in full public view. It is her life to live; and her death to film.

Seema Goswami writes the Sunday column ‘Spectator’ in Brunch.

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