How horrible is it to live among the dead

Kolkata's Partha De failed to come to terms with the deaths and difficulties he faced within his family and who can blame him?

 |  10-minute read |   25-06-2015
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A palatial 150-year old bungalow in historic central Kolkata was discovered with the carcass of 50-year old Debjani De and her two black Labradors. The property that sprawled over acres belonged to the De family that had lived in the Robinson Lane home for the last eight decades, spending the last eight years in utter agoraphobic isolation. Arabinda De's father, Gadadhar De, whose initials still grace the gate at the entrance in a period deco font, had bought the property from a former British owner when India was still a part of the British Empire. A white Maruti Esteem stands parked in its impressive driveway, washed and "walked" regularly like a dog by a hired hand; the car in good functioning order, unlike the real dogs who starved and perished with their masters forever indoors.

The property had seen better days. It was a garden, said Partha De, Debjani's younger brother, formerly an engineer at TCS, who lived with the carcasses. A sprawling property such as this, near the beautiful South Park Street Cemetery would be worth many crores today. Such century-old properties are ubiquitous in Kolkata. Most of these large houses were built in the 1800s. They cost a bomb in taxes making them quite uneconomical for many current owners who are not nearly as wealthy as their grandparents used to be. The taxes are kept artificially low by not renovating these ageing mansions which helplessly crumble away before the eyes of nostalgists.

The report of a fire drew the police to the Robinson Lane property where officers discovered to their shock a rotting den of clutter, dust, dirt, rotting food and loads and loads of full plastic bags tied up like garbage. There was the eerie sound of a woman's voice at a whisper being piped in five rooms. They then found the charred body of 77-year-old Arabinda De who had set himself alight in a bathroom he bolted shut from the inside.

There are some media reports which say the police which was responding to the report of a fire, did not at first find the carcasses as they did not search the whole house. It was later when Partha became increasingly restless that the stationed police guards reported his behaviour to their seniors at Shakespeare Sarani station.

895186019_062515123107.jpg According to Partha, Debjani began a fast in November after her dogs died "in August".

During interrogations at the station, 44-year old Partha broke down and confessed that his sister was also at home, dead. This prompted a search of the entire De property which revealed the diaries and numerous notes the family used to communicate with each other, but apparently never spoke.

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A grand piano graced the centre of a large drawing room of this decrepit colonial home. The room was overrun by nearly "20,000 books about spirituality," reported a paper. According to a former colleague at the reputed Don Bosco School where Debjani taught music, she played piano and sang beautifully but quit her job soon after her mother's death in 2008. She became reclusive, mute, her world silent of music and blocked from new experiences. Partho, too quit his job at TCS and they both survived off rental income from their property. Apparently, the brother and sister shared a room.

Debjani followed a number of religious leaders, the US evangelist and born-again Christian, Joyce Meyer among them, a paper said. Meyer, a multimillionaire, alleges her father sexually and psychologically abused her. She has women as the bulk of her followers. Her polemic is to forgive abusers as the victims' salvation. It was her sermons that played like the De family's background score on speakers in all five rooms of the De residence, replacing Debjani's piano strings and Arabinda's old records.

According to Partha, Debjani began a fast in November after her dogs died "in August". Did Debjani intend to kill herself? It'd seem that unless what she was "fasting" for happened, her existence held no meaning and in her quest she put her life at risk to see whether God loved her enough to save her. Partha said to the police, "She felt there was so much trouble in our house, her fasting may invite God's help." It takes 45 days for a healthy person to die of hunger. Her fast ended on December 29 with her death. What help she was waiting for never arrived. During this period did she even drink water? Did the son and father just watch her die? Did the father know? They allowed the dogs to dessicate, too. It was grief which in the absence of the right interventions and support engulfed the De's like a fire, and Debjani sat praying on the burning deck.

What did the father do? If the family really was "100 per cent" together, as Partha wrote in a diary, of which he maintained a few, it seems the father only played the role of a gatekeeper, assiduously visiting his attorney to draw up a will for his great inheritance before setting himself on fire, a most punishing way to die. In his last note, he asked Partha to "forget what had happened" and that he loved him.

Partha's diary spoke of an unhappy childhood and when he was found by the Police, he hadn't washed in a long time, had florid skin and a florid state of mind, too. When his father locked himself up in the bathroom to die, he paced outside, unable to do anything, bewildered, like a cub born blind. But he speaks clearly and well in his lucid moods. He says he feels guilt for living with the carcasses. He is honest and unbitter, "I may have committed what may be a crime in the eyes of the law." but that he did it because he loved them, "and couldn't let them go". He also fed them each night when his sister and dogs' spirits returned, he said.

Partha has committed no crime apart from the improper retention of human remains which is illegal because this may spread disease. But the De's were harmless. They kept to themselves like decent people do which is a blessing and a curse. We need privacy to maintain the sanctity of our personal spaces, but it is this reserve that prevents us from asking for help when we need it. Not only are we fooled by appearances, but we deliberately fool others with our own.

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What if, for the sake of empathy, we not get sucked into the horrifying details of the tragedy of the De family - now, completely wiped out save for the depressed and traumatised Partha? And rather regard the remains of the dogs and Partha's sister as red herrings such as Alfred Hitchcock employed in his mysteries. Remember Marion's heist plans in Psycho, the love story in The Birds, and the "ghost" in Vertigo? They all contributed to our dread but were not part of the story. Like a demon in Paradise Lost Hitchcock made pandemonium with music, turning the everyday grotesque, and the grotesque, operatic. Meanwhile, the press has been drawing parallels between Psycho and the De family's situation, also building dread, though not quite in the same way as Hitchcock did. One website has managed shots of a dog's skeleton, but no Bengali Mrs Bates, yet. The comparison is clever though the news is most taken up by the carcasses.

In Psycho, we are constantly being fooled by appearances. I remember feeling a chill at seeing the cop with lobotomy eyes who told Marion she could not sleep in her car. She obeyed and pulled into Bates Motel, where she was later stabbed and killed to a tremolo of hacking violins. Norman Bates, the motel owner who seemed the most good-natured of all in the film turns out to be the killer. The film frightens us and then appeals to our charitability because Norman when he is not in the wig killing people, strikes us as a self-reflective child adrift, rather than a monster.

The situation at Robinson Lane demands generosity, too. We all lose loved ones and for the untimely loss of a child, parent or spouse, the mourning might never end. Partha was making an effort to reach help when he invited his cousins' families to a birthday lunch after years of living in isolation. Or perhaps, he was trying to say goodbye before he put an end to his own life, like Arabinda and Debjani did. Who can say? He failed to come to terms with the deaths and difficulties he faced within his family and who can blame him?

In Psycho, Norman tells Marion, "I live on an island" - he does, both literally and metaphorically - "but I don't mind it," he lies. Then admitting, "I do, I just say I don't." He believes he can't leave his mother, but of course he can, as people must on occasion. He says in despair: "We are all in our own traps, clamped in them and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw but at the end of it all we never budge an inch." And Marion, too, admits to her self-destructiveness telling Norman: "Sometimes I deliberately step into these traps." Either way, these traps, are of our own making, and we are usually powerless before our proclivities.

We have responded, quite expectedly, to the news with curiosity flecked with schadenfreude, posing for selfies in front of "Horror House" as the papers call it. There are tales of incest in the Robinson Lane home, which may or may not be exaggerations. Debjani practised spirituality but there are rumours of black magic. Most recently, ghostbusters were bused in to look for a spectre that may have haunted the De's. When did misery become demonic?

The papers have taken the trouble amidst the perverted circus to provide some touching details. Among the notes the De trio were using to communicate through, whose writers will be identified as they are sequenced and analysed, one read, in Bengali: "Ei pothei ki jibon cholar chhilo (Was this the path my life was meant to take)?" - a questioning of the proceedings at the Robinson Lane home, a sign, perhaps, of a little sanity. "God will save him," said another note.

Policymakers ignore mental health, taking advantage of the fact that we find it hard to confront it when things go wrong with our minds. We may be miserable and powerless but as adults we must simply get on and manage. If we talked more we might come to the anti-climactic understanding that we are all really struggling with the same problems. The De's tragically even lacked the anchorage from members of the rest of the family, entangled in a property dispute as they were. If bereavement therapy were available for these poor devils at the right time, this whole mess might have been prevented. It is scandalous that after years of isolation and illness, and seeing his pets and family die, the first person available for Partha to speak to was a cop. Partha is, for a change, under the care of professionals for a time before investigators are allowed near him again. The folk at Robinson Lane lived in utter misery, stewing in the smell of death and nobody, literally, got a whiff, or actually cared. There is no ghoul or ghost at the De's home, only disease and sadness.

Writer

Divya Guha Divya Guha @divyaguha

Shillong-based journalist, poet and, hopefully, a little trouble.

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