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ASHAY CHITRE BHOPAL SERIES i
ASHAY CHITRE: BHOPAL SERIES oil on canvas board; collection: Philip C. Engblom
Unfinished Requiem For A Lost Son
THERE IS NO SHADOW WHERE THE SHADOW DOES NOT FALL, BUT EVEN WHERE THE SHADOW FALLS THERE IS NOTHING.
---SHRI JNANDEV ANUBHAVAMRUT (317)
“I made my own mind the sole witness of truth and falsehood.”
I was never afraid of my own mind before September 2005. But just after my 68th birthday I first felt the icy touch of a fear unknown to me till then. But that fear must have lurked for much longer and slowly crept upon me since the sudden shock of my only son Ashay’s accidental death at our home in Pune on November 29 when Viju and I were in our apartment in the Villa Waldberta in Feldafing overlooking the Starnberger See, or Lake Starnberg, in Bavaria, Germany. I have always been proud of my mind’s resilience in crises, and its now helpless vulnerability exposed by that trauma was a disturbing revelation, but it did start a necessary breakdown of my ego. Hindsight prompts me to think that the shattering wisdom following a trauma should have come much earlier to help me become humble in the face of the fragility I share with all human minds; and that should have made me cry However, the death of my son failed to make me howl, cry, or weep to release me from the shock of sudden bereavement and an inconsolable sorrow I was unable to give vent to. I held back; and I don’t know how or why. I refused to face that blinding bereavement,
postponing the pain that accompanies a deep cut, sealing up a mortal wound. A part of me was already dead, telling me that I had begun to die, and I did not want to accept the fact.
We arrived in India from Germany two days after Ashay was cremated in Pune where we headed straight from the Mumbai international airport. On that last leg of a long journey, Viju and I spoke to each other laconically and avoided speaking about the deep hurt inflicted on us by this thunderbolt of an event that burnt a hole in our hearts. For each of us, the deep shock was extremely personal and its pain still private and unsharable with each other.
Friends gathered around us and hugged us silently at Feldafing.The closest to us among all of them was Henning Stegmuller and I had phoned him first to break the terrible news we just received. Henning and his wife Marie are our family in Germany. They also knew Ashay personally. Then I informed Gert Heidenreich and his wife Gisela with whom we were to have dinner that evening. Gert and Gisela had recently lost their younger son, Johannes, in a drowning accident. They, too, had met Ashay at our home in Pune. I phoned Lothar Lutze in Berlin and Sabine and Peter Erlenwein who
lived in a nearby Bavarian village by another lake. Henning phoned my publisher and friend Albert Volkmann and his wife Elke as well as Heidrun Bruckner. Henning made a long distance call to our friend Anne Feldhaus in Tempe, Arizona. Most of these people knew Ashay personally (except Albert and Elke) and our friend John David Morley, the British novelist living in self-exile in Germany. Ashay had read all of David’s novels and deeply felt their resonance. He had been urging me to write about them though he could have done it himself and much better.
Losses are so personal they cannot be shared even with those closest to you. Though I could feel Viju’s loss of our only son, her being his mother made it so unique that I was afraid of even imagining it in those circumstances. We were both made extremely lonely by a personal deprivation we could not talk to each other about. We needed to be left alone. For almost eighteen years before Ashay died, and since the trauma of Bhopal that shattered his world, he became increasingly closer to Viju, and he became increasingly distanced from me despite our having lived together since his birth forty-two years earlier. Unable to understand the depth of his despair and his psychic injury that was difficult to heal, I just wanted him to take it in his stride, and get on with his life. I urged him to be tough, prodded him to pick up the pieces and start afresh. I thought he had survived the worst and
should have considered himself lucky. It was horrible and heartless advice. It meant to him that I was insensitive to his real suffering. For the first time, as the news of his sudden death remained still undigested, I was haunted by his whole life as I had perceived it from up close, but still only peripherally, and I began to think of what it must have meant to him who was at its wounded centre. The pangs of guilt that engulfed me because of this also separated Viju and me from each other, though both of us were completely and separately devastated, we were cut off from each other at this hour of reckoning.
On the night of December 3-4, 1984 the world’s worst-known industrial disaster struck the city of Bhopal, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in Central India. The U.S. corporate giant Union Carbide’s plant located near the city’s railway station was responsible for the death of thousands of people that night because its toxic chemical tanks leaked the poisonous gas methyl isocyanate into the city’s atmosphere. Many thousand more of the survivors were blinded, maimed, and crippled by the poison in a variety of ways. The effect of the toxic gas was complex and irreversible. That night, Ashay and his wife Rohini were in Bhopal and not very far from the source of the emissions that lethally poisoned the city. Ashay lost overnight sixty per cent of his lung function due to cellular damage (as found later by a leading lung specialist in
Mumbai) -----and it was irreversible. Rohini was six months pregnant then and her health and the health of the child inside her needed to be constantly monitored after their exposure to the deadly air she had breathed. Hearing the sound of the footsteps of hundreds of people running in the streets and a strange cacophony of human moans and cries, they opened their bedroom window. The air outside was still, but they were hit by an invisible blast of something noxious. Their eyes started streaming and they also had a violent bout of vomiting. There was something terrible in the air and Ashay first thought of a nuclear attack. But there was no wave of heat, no unnatural light, no sign of blazing fire anywhere. They felt strangled. Their lungs were racked by a spasm. They realized that the air had become unbreathable. They were in a panic. Ashay covered Rohini in a bed sheet and they ran out of the bungalow where we lived, through streets strewn with corpses, joining thousands of people running in panic as they did not know what had hit them out of the blue. Finally, they reached a friend’s house and they were later taken away by another friend to another part of the city that seemed safer because it was less obviously poisoned. A couple of days later, they were put on a flight to Mumbai as they desired to be treated by medical experts there, and looked after by family and friends.
I arrived from France hours before Ashay and Rohini reached Mumbai. Viju was already in Mumbai. We waited for them anxiously in Ajit’s flat. Ajit is my younger brother, he is a practising physician specialized in haematology. Ajit lived in the staff quarters of a public hospital in Parel, a highly polluted industrial suburb of Mumbai. His physician colleagues and friends were the first to examine Ashay, Rohini, and the child growing inside her. More clinical investigations in some of the best hospitals followed. We consulted the best available specialists. Unfortunately, little was known about the toxic impact of methyl isocyanate until Bhopal provided its several thousand victims to the medical community as case studies. There were no established clinical protocols to help analyse the effects and the side effects, short term or long term, of methyl isocyanate. Also, Union Carbide ( presumably supported by the Union and the Madhya Pradesh governments) was quick to persuade the medical community not to make any hasty statements about the prognosis of the Bhopal syndrome, or any conclusive diagnosis. They were probably also coaxed to stick to orthodox symptomatic treatment of patients. After all the giant corporation faced a monstrous scandal and the prospect of having to pay billions of dollar in damages to the thousands of victims even after strenuous hard bargaining. Damage control was their first priority. We were plunged into anxiety the like of which we had not experienced before. A nightmare began for the family ---- at the centre of which were Ashay, Rohini, and their yet unborn child.
The ironies of fate work at many levels. On the very night Bhopal was cut off from the rest of the world, Viju was in Mumbai waiting for me to return from France where I was invited with my feature film Godam to participate in The Festival of Three Continents at Nantes. Godam was scripted, directed, and scored by me. Ashay was my Chief Assistant in Direction. He was also my Director of Cinematography, Govind Nihalani’s Operative Cameraman (otherwise, he was Govind’s lighting cameraman after being his apprentice for some time). As my assistant, Ashay’s contribution to post-production work was immense. At the editing table, Ashay and I were together with my Editor, Sanjeev Naik. At the dubbing, re-recording, and mixing stages again Ashay was by my side. Viju and Rohini were also members of my Godam team. On the morning of December 5, 1984 Bhopal was the headlines and the lead story in every world newspaper and news channel on television and radio. But it was cut off from the rest of the world. I was traumatized. I had no news of Ashay and Rohini. I called Viju in Mumbai. She didn’t have any news either. Meanwhile, I learnt unofficially that Godam had been chosen by festival jury for the Jury’s Special Award. The awards were to be officially announced at a ceremonial function in the evening and given away only when the winners’ names would be revealed. The lack of any news about Ashay and Rohini, and the confirmed
magnitude of the disaster in Bhopal, drained me of all morale. I was reluctant to attend the ceremony even though the festival grapevine gave me the flattering hint that I and my film were among the winners. It was that doyen among Indian film celebrities, Raj Kapoor, who persuaded me to attend the ceremony and receive honours as a representative of our country. We were in the same hotel during the week-long festival, and met for a round of drinks as my recent Parisian friend, Vijay Singh recorded an interview with the popular idol, his life, and the movies he made. Raj Kapoor and his charming wife Krishna were delightful company. Eventually, I yielded to his powers of persuasion and attending the festival awards ceremony, received the Jury's Special Award for Direction.
Ashay was 23 when he became one of the victims of the greatest industrial disaster the world has known in terms of the size and scale of the human tragedy it created and successfully covered up. He lived his life of a victim for another 19 years---a period that should have been his prime. He didn’t receive a copper penny in compensation though money alone cannot compensate for a permanently damaged future and a robbed sense of life. It was a trauma that estranged him from the world, distanced him from a wholesome view of life, destroyed his optimism, and created a chasm between his family and him. He did not stop fighting to regain his sense of life even in his darkened world. We all misunderstood his black humour of a
survivor and his effort to connect with the world, the crying needs of his fine sensibility and versatile talent, and the fulfillment only selfexpression brings to human life. Only other victims and survivors of large-scale disasters could have understood Ashay’s suffering, both physical and mental, and the handicaps it had inflicted. He had to live in the bleak world of a victim who could not adequately communicate his suffering to his parents, his wife, and their little child, his close friends, his former colleagues, and members of his large extended family, or his and his family’s wide social circle. It was a solitary confinement for life as he often bitterly remarked to us. But he tried hard till the strange and abrupt end of his life, alone in a flat whose windows and doors were shut, unaware of a burning coir mattress in the living room till the whole flat was full of smoke. In the event, he was found lying at the door of his bedroom, there were signs that he had tried to stamp out the fire from the already halfburnt coir mattress with his slippers. Inhaling carbon monoxide creates panic and confusion in seconds, followed by unconsciousness and death in minutes. The door to our flat had to be broken open when Ashay failed to respond to mobile phone calls and SMS messages from a woman friend living a floor below, and to the insistent doorbell rung by the lady who did housework for us and her husband who ran errands for Ashay. He was taken in an ambulance to a hospital where he was found dead on arrival.
When we arrived in Mumbai from Zurich on seats procured for us with great difficulty by Henning, Sanjay Jadhav received us as we came out of the aircraft. Sanjay or Sanju was Ashay’s ‘big brother’ and closest friend. He is a senior police officer in Mumbai. Viju and I regard him as we would an elder son, though Ashay was our only child, because Sanjay doted on Ashay, and Ashay would reach for him in every personal crisis for sympathy, comfort, understanding, and support. Before he escorted us through immigration and customs in minutes, Sanjay said to me, “Dada, hats off to Yohul! He has faced the situation and handled it with maturity, self control, and efficiency far beyond his years.”
It was Yohul, then only eighteen, Ashay’s son and our grandson that Sanjay was talking about. Yohul was in Mumbai visiting his cousins after their (and his) grandmother’s death just a few days earlier. Our neighbour Kayuumi did not have our telephone number in Germany, and she called Yohul in Mumbai about accidental fire in our home in Pune and about Ashay having been taken to hospital. She did not tell him he was already dead. Yohul phoned us first in Feldafing to break the news as he had received it. “There was a fire in our house. Ashay has been taken to hospital.
what should I do?” “Take a taxi to Pune. Go straight to the hospital. Remember, you are Ashay’s closest relative there. Handle the situation till we come. We’re taking the first flight we get. We’re informing friends and relatives in Pune and Mumbai to help you. But you are in charge.” There was the inevitable edge of shock, fear, and panic in his voice as Viju and I heard it on the phone. Yohul was barely eighteen then and I wondered if he could take the shock. Sanjay Jadhav, my brothers and sisters and some close friends followed Yohul to Pune after we phoned them from Germany.
What they saw was a very different Yohul than the one they knew before. He was a model of composure and efficiency. He did not reveal his feelings to them. He was rational in his thinking, precise in his actions, and laconic in his verbal responses. The child in him was left far behind and the adolescent in him seemed to be turning into an adult all of a sudden to wear a mask of maturity and armour of responsibility. As Ashay’s next of kin, he had to claim his father’s body and sign papers for the autopsy. He had to claim the body from the morgue after the autopsy and take it for cremation. He had to collect the keys to our flat from the police who had sealed
the entry to it after the accidental death. He had to clean the flat for our relatives from Mumbai who would stay with him till we reached home from Germany.
It was a Saturday morning when Ashay died. He was cremated on the same day. Viju and I arrived in Pune on Monday morning. Yohul had not slept a wink for 48 hours and had nothing to eat. His friends told us that all he had was black coffee at regular intervals. When Viju hugged him as soon as we arrived home, he said to her, “Now that you are back, order a pizza for me. I’m very hungry, and I want to go to sleep now!”
Viju and I did not see Ashay in his final repose. The terrible news numbed us when we received it in Germany. My younger brother Ajit is a physician and haematologist. He runs a blood bank in Mumbai. He is very close to both of us and he had a special relationship with Ashay ever since we returned from Ethiopia in 1963 and Ashay then was barely two. Ajit was with Yohul in Pune and when I phoned him about the situation, my primary concern was Yohul. Should they postpone Ashay’s cremation till we arrived on Monday or Tuesday, Ajit asked
me. His opinion was to cremate the body as early as possible rather than keep it the morgue or the cold room for a couple of days. I asked Viju. She agreed that the body should not be kept waiting for us. There was no question of religious rites and those strange ceremonies associated with them. My two brothers---Ajit and Ashutosh, and Mrunal and Bharati, my two sisters---were in Pune with Yohul. He would not be left alone till our arrival.
A mournful atmosphere prevailed in my house throughout December. I lost track of the chronology of events. Instead of coming back to me in serial sequences creating a coherent ‘scene’, they came to me in a non-linear mode as random ‘shots’ or images, and I tried to assemble them in my mind’s eye as I sat slouched in a chair in the living room interrupted every now and then by a visitor or a group of visitors coming in to offer us their condolences. It was like jumpcutting a film on an editing table or playing with the lines of a poem in one’s mind before committing it to paper---activities familiar to me.
Viju kept herself busy offering them tea and biscuits, or lemon juice.
My youngest sister Rashmi came from Vishakhapatanam to stay with us. Along with my other two sisters---Mrunal and Bharati---she looked after the many guests who came and went. I felt distanced from it all as though I was a stranger.
Ashay, as I now think in retrospect, must have been in prolonged unipolar depression ever after Rohini and he were divorced, much against his wishes.
The breaking of bonds, one after another, was a feature of his life ever since he came from Mumbai to Pune after his traumatic escape from Bhopal.
Like a bird with damaged wings, he fluttered painfully into activity every now and then, finding that he no longer could fly with his useless wings. He kept trying, bravely, while Rohini mothered Yohul whom we all watched with a mixture of anxiety and delight. Every small symptom of illness evoked in us the fear of toxic effects of his exposure to methyl isocyanate in Bhopal as a six month old foetus in
his mother’s womb.
All three of them were being treated by Dr. Prakash Ghatge, an allopathic general practitioner who preferred to give alternative, homeopathic treatment to his patients for whom allopathy offered no hope. Rohini’s skin rashes, Yohul’s recurrent infant hepatitis and allergies, and Ashay’s frequent neuralgic pain responded to his treatment.
Of the three, Ashay was the most affected by the Bhopal syndrome. His lung damage was irreversible. Doctors suspected that there was a chemical damage to his spine as for the first few weeks in Mumbai and in Pune, one of his legs seemed to have been paralysed. He would experience sudden loss of muscle tone while walking. His eyesight too had become weaker after Bhopal and he had an incipient cataract in both his eyes that, fortunately, did not develop fully.
Both Rohini and Ashay tried to resurrect their lives after Bhopal.
For a while, the growing Yohul occupied their attention. Ashay gave
him haircuts and home and he and Rohini gave him oil massages, shampooed his hair, and gave him a bath.
They tried their hand at making soft toys and made lovely ones, each with an individual character, and gave them personal names as well. They tried to sell them as they thought this would bring them some income and they could build a business of their own. It could have worked in America or Europe. But in India such handcrafted objects do not fetch the prices they deserve.
Rohini and Yohul were much less affected by the effects of Bhopal. They responded to Dr. Ghatge’s treatment and led a normal life thereafter. Dr. Ghatge confided in me that Ashay’s case was difficult as it was the full ‘Bhopal syndrome’ with many idiopathic peculiarities. But in two years, he helped Ashay to stand on his feet and think of reorganizing his life within the limitations his lung damage imposed on him forever.
During those two years, Ashay developed a passion for bird
watching thanks to our Swedish-American friend, Philip Engblom, who was in Pune then teaching and supervising a group of American undergraduates spending a whole semester studying Marathi and various aspects of Maharashtrian and Indian culture and society.
Ashay still found it difficult to walk more than short distances without gasping for breath, and he could not carry much weight on his shoulders. Yet he managed to carry his still camera and accessories, a pair of binoculars, birdwatching books, sketchbooks and pencils, water bottle and sandwiches early in the morning to the river, the lake, and the marsh lands just outside the city where a variety of seasonal and local birds came to feed and to breed. Both Philip and Ashay were advanced amateur bird watchers. They exchanged notes and enjoyed each other’s company. Both were quiet introverts which I suppose is an advantage in birdwatching. Both shared literary interests, too.
The other interest Ashay developed during this period was cooking. He was a connoisseur of good food of a wide variety and a bon vivante at heart. Now he started collecting cookbooks and recipes and trying out cooking techniques as well as adding his own creative
flourishes to dishes ranging from the mundane to the exotic. He practised cooking as a fine art where he could express himself and loved to invite and feed friends at meals designed by him. In a short time, he developed awesome skills and many of our friends urged him to start his own restaurant with himself as its master chef. But always diffident in handling business, Ashay brushed those suggestions with a laugh --- or a sigh.
Any illness in an adult is eventually a social shame in a civilization that reduces everything to economics. A person who suffers from an irreversible damage to her or his body, or a chronic illness, or a lowered immunity, or a terminal disease develops a guilt towards her or his family, community, and society. Such a person is slowly transformed into a non-person through innumerable signals of rejection even from family and friends. A victim’s growing isolation from other human beings cannot be measured by those who have not experienced such victimization themselves.
To rub salt into a victim’s still bleeding wound, we show her or him compassion---a sublimated form of pity for the defeated and the
dying. In doing so, we humiliate her or him by exhibiting our superiority in terms of health and its social rewards and economic advantages.
As I think of Ashay now, I am filled with a dreadful sense of remorse that I cannot rid myself of. We tried to hold him responsible for what happened to him.
It was a strange logic : as though by it we could blame the victims of Hiroshima for not overcoming the effects of the Atom Bomb or the victims of Bhopal for not getting over the toxicity of methyl isocyanate.
We lived together in a ‘Hindu’ extended family, though nuclearized to some extent, and my American and European friends with their obsession with individual freedom or pride in personal
independence (often at the cost of love, sensitivity, and the happiness that comes from sharing a life with others) were often appalled by Ashay’s apparent inability to make a living for himself and his immediate family consisting of his wife and his son. Some of them even privately chided him for depending on his parents. This upset
him. The support he needed from us was more moral and emotional than just material. He was ill. He was under treatment for it.
Why couldn’t they see the obvious?
Even I, his father, couldn’t see the obvious.
Ashay was condemned to a kind of solitary confinement, though all of us were around him. He spent more and more time reading, writing, and sketching or painting. Or he listened to music.
His appearance and his body language were altered during that night in Bhopal.
The change was slow but continuous.
When we had a party or a celebration, he had to summon all courage to be part of it. His fun-loving nature surfaced again at times, but only briefly.
Sometimes Viju and I wondered if he was nursing a death wish.
Before the Bhopal catastrophe, he was not bitter and cynical. He was gregarious; and when among friends, he was the life of the party.
Now, when he had a drink, he would gulp it down neat and quick--not to enjoy it but to disappear into an alcoholic fog. He could not handle large quantities of alcohol. With a couple of drinks, his speech became slurred, his eyes glassy or unfocussed, and his temper malevolent. He preferred to drink till he passed out quickly. Alcohol became his drug of choice, and his smoking increased as well.
Three days after our arrival from Germany, I went to the Yerwada Crematorium to collect Ashay’s ashes. They were wrapped in paper, with some identification tag, and kept in a clay pot. My hands trembled as I held the pot. This was all that Ashay’s body was reduced to, and it was meant to be disposed.
I brought the pot home. Then in two cars---a hired 9-seater Sumo cab and Anne Feldhaus’s spacious Toyota Qualis driven by Ramdas Atkar--- the cortege headed for Dehu village, the poet-saint
Tukaram’s native place, where we decided to consign the contents of the pot to the Indrayani River. There is no place more sacred to me than my spiritual ancestor’s favourite river.
The hour-and-a-half long drive to Dehu was Ashay’s last journey as material substance. Viju and I, my sisters and one of my brothers, and some close friends drove to Dehu. I sat, distraught, with the pot held in my lap and pressed tight in my palms. I did not have the courage of looking at Viju because I was afraid of looking into her eyes. Sadanand More---my friend and a direct descendent of Tukaram--joined us in Dehu. We went to the Doha (deep end) of the Indrayani River where Tukaram was forced to sink the manuscripts of all his poetry. I thought of this spot as the beginning and the end of all poetry, and its ultimate rise from its material moorings. This is where I would like my own remains to be scattered.
With Sadanand’s help, we reached the small paved river ghat surrounded by trees and shrubbery. I now felt the little clay pot heavy in my hands and full of a static charge. More asked me to hand it over to a man wearing only a loincloth. The man raised the pot, uttered a short invocation, and let it be carried over and into the
river’s slow flow. It dipped, sank, and disappeared. It was Ashay’s solemn disappearance into a serenity he had not known in the last several years of his anguished existence.
On the way back after immersing Ashay's ashes in the river, I remembered how I first touched him as an infant. Even then my hands did tremble. He was a beautiful child with chubby cheeks and large eyes and a nose sticking out. Five days after he was born, I clicked my first pictures of him. Later, as he grew, I learnt to hold him in a way comfortable to him. I enjoyed carrying with him and engaging his attention and making him smile or laugh. As soon as he was a toddler, Viju and I started talking him on long walks over the sloping pavements of the wide streets of Addis Ababa near our house. In autumn and in winter, Addis Ababa can be quite close as it is several thousand feet above sea level, among the mountains really. We bought for Ashay a snow white woollen suit for his outings and at the age of about eighteen months, he could run fast enough to make me gasp as I tried to keep pace with him. He was a happy baby, not afraid of strangers, and seldom cried. He cried only when he was physically hurt, or when he was disappointed or angry. Buying things for him was a new found pleasure for Viju and me. We bought
him toys and clothes and took him wherever we went---even to parties.
After we returned to India, we lived in a room with an improvised kitchenette and a shared bathroom as paying guests with a Sindhi family in Mahim, a suburb of western Mumbai. I had a job with an American pharmaceutical company then and Ashay was about three. After I returned from work, I showered and then played with Ashay for about an hour or so. The two of us used to wrestle and the body play and contact made him laugh with excitement. On Sundays, I took him to movies to watch Tom and Jerry cartoons, Laurel and Hardy favourites, and so on. These routines and rituals made us feel close in body and spirit.
Accommodation in Mumbai has always been extremely difficult and expensive, and having lived in independent bungalows in Ethiopia, we did not want to compromise on our privacy. We had to move all over the city as sub-tenants in somebody else's larger flat or house on short-term lease though this cost me nearly half of my monthly wages or freelance earnings. But we saw to it that our child did not feel cramped for space.
Memories of Ashay as a child came back to me with surprising clarity after years just after I immersed his ashes in the river. Strangely, however, my sadness did not choke me with emotion. I was still numbed; and I was afraid of sharing my feelings with Viju lest we should both break down.
Back in Pune, mourners visited us in a steady stream, offered us silent condolences and consoling words. Some of them even broke down and, ironic as it may seem, Viju and I had to comfort them.
It became a weary routine.
Then we had the finale of the formal mourning. I invited a party of Varkari bhajan singers and informed our relatives and friends to bid adieu to Ashay’s physical presence in their midst in a symbolic way. We hoped that they would now leave us alone to face our bereavement and grief.
Was my deep plunge into depression and my despairing attempts to overcome it through a sort of extrovert exuberance rooted in an irrecoverable loss that wrenched away part of my own identity?
It is said that unfinished mourning often leads to agonizing melancholy or deep depression. I needed to be left alone and allowed to feel my loss. Instead, I was surrounded by people who would share it with me.
Bipolar depression is an involuntary and unstoppable swinging between the poles of a melancholic surrender to non-being and its opposite---a pathological euphoria that tries helplessly to recover one’s sense of being. It is a conflict between nivrutti (absolute withdrawal into the void) and pravrutti (the desire to be omnipresent) ---as the poet-philosopher Jnandev would have put it. It is spiritual malaise expressed as a psychosomatic condition; but it has a biological basis like any illness.
Though ten days after Ashay’s death the formal visits of mourners
thinned, they were by no means over yet.
Just five days after his death on November 29 came the night of December 3-4----the 19th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.
Every year, Ashay waited with silent dread for that date on which his life was shattered. He did not live to see the that day in 2003, but Viju and I remembered it with a fresh stab in the heart.
Ashay’s illness continued for eighteen years after the Bhopal disaster, though with Dr. Ghatge’s homeopathic treatment many of his more obvious symptoms disappeared and his quality of life improved. It took him two years after starting treatment to go out and look for work that suited his physical handicap, and his friends and wellwishers helped.
The well-known film maker, Shyam Benegal, asked him to do research for some episodes of his mega television serial The Discovery of India---for example the episode on Vijayanagar. Ashay was very thoroughgoing when he undertook any responsibility. He went
through several books on Vijayanagar, made notes, excerpted passages, and produced something that would make the
scriptwriter’s job easier.
accomplished still photographer. After Bhopal, he returned to still photography. With a new female model, he shot a twelve photograph calendar on the Indian seasons that was appreciated very much. However, Pune is not the best base for such work. Frequent visits to Mumbai were all right for Ashay for we all regarded that city as our home. But without a good agent in Mumbai, it was difficult to get regular assignments.
He returned to television and cinema----not as a cinematographer---but as a script writer, a model, and an actor. He had a decent income considering his handicaps. He also did an advanced course in computer animation. His grasp of film and television management, his creative flair and his technical knowledge, and his excellent relations with colleagues were his assets.
When Henning Stegmuller accepted an assignment from Second
German Television (ZDF) to make a one hour film on the city of Mumbai, I was his co-director and script writer. Henning chose Ashay as his production manager, and Ashay did a thoroughly professional job even though he would have been happier to work as an assistant to Henning in cinematography, especially as the subject of the film was his own city.
Having gone through it myself, now I realize in retrospect that following the trauma of Bhopal, Ashay was a victim of the more serious and crippling form of depression----unipolar clinical depression.
He was used to drinking as a mood bath in the evening or as an icebreaker when among friends. But slowly this turned into drinking alone and spending hours by himself under a cloud of alcohol.
He sketched and painted, wrote script ideas, researched cases of chemical toxicity shoved under the carpet by giant corporations and powerful governments----all caused by his own shattering experience of the Bhopal disaster.
This drove him deeper into gloom. He became pessimistic and cynical as he saw no hope for victims such as himself. Leave aside uninformed lay public, even medical professionals would ignore the damaging evidence left in the trail of disasters such as Bhopal or experimental research in chemical weapons of mass destruction. The permanent ecological damage many chemicals cause failed to cause widespread public concern. A conspiracy of silence and the motivated dissemination of disinformation were responsible for this.
Had I suffered depression myself earlier, I would have understood the hell Ashay must have gone through and I would have tried to get him the kind of specialist psycho-pharmacological treatment that can alleviate suffering. However, whether he would have submitted himself voluntarily to a therapist is doubtful.
Just after one meeting with a senior lady psychiatrist attached to a public hospital in Pune, he firmly refused to have counselling and therapy. A long walk through the corridors of the mental disorders
ward of a public hospital can be unnerving to someone who already feels silently stigmatized by family and friends for a suspected mental illness they cannot comprehend but are mistrustful of and fear to face.
Meanwhile, the patient’s resolve not to be treated as mad, hardens. The visit to a psychiatrist upset Ashay so much that from then on he was angry whenever the subject of therapy and its alternatives was brought up.
Most of us have rigid paradigms of responsible and rational adult behaviour. We often forget that there are cultural variations in such epitomized stereotypes. We also use them insensitively and unwittingly damage, stigmatize, isolate, segregate, and quarantine victims of real illness condemning their inner world as hallucinatory and unreal.
Oblivious of the idiosyncratic nature of all human individuals, we ostracize them and inflict on them a sense of social untouchability through continuous negative signals. We tend to be aggressively and dogmatically judgmental in order to indulge in a sense of authority
that we all easily assume when we sense the weakness and the vulnerability of an ‘abnormal’ individual. We victimize even near and dear ones, and perpetrate mental violence in this manner.
I was Ashay’s father and had handled him since he was an infant. He trusted me till we reached a point of conflict or confrontation as adults. He was hurt when such conflicts occurred and I felt at such times that he could have seen my point of view without giving up his own as though we were testing each the other’s power.
It was unfortunate that, after the Bhopal disaster when he needed my support most to put his life together again, I drew a hard frontier between us and acted the tyrannical role of an over protective parent in a way that must have made him feel insecure and unassured.
He must have rejected me as an unresponsive and unfriendly parent who betrayed his trust. He became closer to Viju, his other parent, who was more patient and sympathetic, more articulate and communicative, and was someone whom he could trust as his closest friend and confidante. As he became increasingly melancholic and hypochondriac, he turned to drinking and that depressed him
further, often to the point of visible despair.
Those who suffer because they postpone or do not go through the full cathartic course of mourning caused by a shattering trauma are stricken by what is known sometimes as incomplete mourning.
I was aware of this since 1971 when my friend Bhola Shreshtha died of a massive cardiac infarction in an ambulance on way to a hospital. His wife Leela and I were accompanying him in the ambulance. When he gasped, choked, turned blue in his face as he gave up and died, he was in his wife’s lap and I was sitting next to her. Sensing what had happened but afraid of recognizing it, she panicked. I tried to calm her. We were still about twenty minutes away from the hospital by my reckoning. When he was rushed into the casualty room, a physician on duty tried to resuscitate him, calling other doctors nearby. They tried hard but he was already dead.
A cold efficiency took over my behaviour after that. Viju had followed us to the hospital, and she had to escort the already
shattered Leela home. Bhola and Leela had three children and their youngest was a daughter who was then nine. Bhola’s aged mother lived with them. Bhola was just forty-seven then and this was his first and last heart attack. The Shreshtha family was very close to us, an extension of our own small family of three. They were all devastated.
I had to take care of the funeral arrangements and neither Leela nor we had enough money. We were financially passing through a very bad patch. I somehow took care of all that with the help of friends and relatives---both theirs and ours. He was cremated with traditional Hindu rites.
I went through that entire detailed experience as though I was not me but another person. I was able to view it as a slow motion cinematic experience though I could console the children, converse with the mourners who gathered at the Shreshtha home, and took the body of my friend for cremation.
It took me almost a year to face the full blast of that postponed
response to trauma. One morning, just before Bhola Shreshtha’s first death anniversary, I sat down to write my long poem Ambulance Ride and finished it in one sitting. I published it privately on his death anniversary, feeling freed of a burden that had been racking me for nearly a year. I came face to face with my own experience and overcame it.
This did not happen when Ashay died.
I have still postponed my mourning and left it incomplete. Perhaps this narration of my own encounter with manic-depression that I think took me to the brink is one way to confront it and face life again. Or this emergence from silent, corrosive grieving for a loss that I knew was never going to recoverable. unless I sprang back into speech, reaching out to other people to share the terror that seized and shook me the instant I received the news that suddenly emptied me of all purpose, distanced me from life itself, and threatened to wrench the rest of me away in its vicious clutch?
Just two months after Ashay’s death, I went to Delhi to deliver the Katha Annual Lecture---a part of the n.g.o. Katha’s Annual Festival. I
had accepted their invitation to deliver the lecture before my visit to Germany and as a coincidence was in the process of writing the lecture when the news of Ashay’s death wrenched us back home.
In late December, I went back to my computer with the CD of my unfinished writing in Germany that also contained my ongoing manuscript of my friend, the virtuoso sarangi player Ramnarayan’s life story that I had been working on for ten years.
In the event, I finished the text of my lecture abruptly, ending it on Ashay’s tragedy that commenced on December 3-4, 1984 with the Bhopal disaster. That he first choked inhaling methyl isocyanate on that fateful night ---and lived to die of asphyxiation after accidentally inhaling carbon monoxide at home in Pune on November 29, 2003 --seemed to have brought a wheel full circle.
The theme of my lecture seemed to permit me to bring a personal tragedy into the open and raise questions of public interest.
Ashay would have been satisfied that his father, a writer, was finally acknowledging that the personal anguish the Bhopal disaster caused
him touched a question of human values that shape culture, society, and politics as well as of a more fundamental existential understanding of the human condition itself.
At the Katha Festival in Delhi, there was a screening of films based on literary works, and my 1983 film Godam was chosen by the festival curator Prabodh Parikh. Ashay had been a collaborator in the Godam project since its inception. He was the operative cameraman assisting Govind Nihalani, my director of cinematography. Govind was doing post-production work for his own film Ardhasatya then and was sometimes pulled away to Mumbai, about 250 kilometres away from the location where Godam was shot.
On my low budget, in order to get the full value of our fixed daily expenses, I had to go on shooting continuously without a break. So I had to ask Ashay to be in charge of cinematography whenever Govind was away. Though Govind and I had meticulously defined our cinematographic style for Godam and its technical requirements before we commenced shooting, for Ashay this was a crucial test.
I was not present at the screening of Godam but several students attending the festival including a group from the Quaid-e-Azam University in Pakistan were excited about it and informally asked me questions. There was also a formal discussion. Two of the key sequences in Godam were shot by Ashay in the absence of his ‘boss’ Govind and when some students made appreciative remark about the visual impact of those scenes, I remembered Ashay.
I delivered my Katha Annual Lecture before a distinguished audience in the auditorium of the prestigious India International Centre. It was a rather short lecture of a little over thirty minutes. As I ended it by recalling Ashay’s haunting last words in a short call he made three days before he died (on Viju’s birthday).
He was already inebriated, I think, and it was a voice of anguish. He was talking about the political situation in Madhya Pradesh, whose capital is Bhopal. When I told him to forget about the country and stay focussed on his personal life, he said, “But Dada, you gave me this country!”
As I ended my lecture, there was a stunned silence for I opened a private wound before my audience to whom it underlined deeper issues of national and personal identity linked with the Bhopal disaster---and also of civilizational choices. Their silence was followed by an applause that began hesitantly but was prolonged until it was full.
Ashay’s haunting last words to me may have meant many things others who heard me quote him.
Ashay was born in Ethiopia, not India. He went to junior high and high school in the United States. We were there during the national emergency of 1975-77 in India, and I chose to return home to India soon after the emergency was lifted though it was possible for me to continue to live in the United States at least till Ashay got a university degree. He was not a citizen of India by choice. His parents born and raised in India were Indian citizens and he had inherited India from them just as most of us have inherited it as an ancestral legacy.
My lecture was presided over by Prabodh Parekh. He invited the audience to respond to my lecture and several hands were raised to
express a desire to comment. Among them was the distinguished hand of author and philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi, Ramu or Ramubhai to his friends. He made an impassioned speech drawing out the significance of my lecture. In the course of his comment, Ramubhai turned to me and said that my son was not mere victim of the Bhopal but a martyr.
I had not thought of that before, and I continued to wonder long after---why?
Perhaps my lecture in Delhi, the wound that it opened, was an attempt to complete my mourning, or the beginning of a requiem for Ashay that would let that wound bleed to its conclusion. But the bizarre circumstances that awaited me in Pune on my return resulted in another postponement of the mourning.
While the Katha Festival was coming to an end, news from Pune spread like a fire among intellectuals in Delhi.
The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune had been attacked by some chauvinist and xenophobic organization and they
ransacked its internationally renowned library and collection of rare manuscripts vital to students and scholars of Indology.
The vigilantes’ vandalism was based on the premise that the B.O.R.I. and some of its Brahmin members had helped American Indologist James Laine to write a book on the founder of the Maratha State, Shivaji the Great that maligned the icon all Maharashtra had worshipped since the 17th century.
James Laine is a personal friend and contrary to what his detractors said, Shivaji is a hero for him. His book is an attempt to understand his hero’s continuing charismatic hold on the imagination of all Maharashtrians at different levels and in different strata. It reports what people have been saying about Shivaji in Maharashtra for nearly four centuries and how his legend has grown despite veiled criticism by some of the great man’s detractors. To anyone who reads Laine’s slim volume carefully, this should be amply obvious.
I arrived at Pune airport in the company of my friend Sankaran Shashidharan, Director of the National Film Archives, who was a
fellow-participant in the Katha Festival and my fellow passenger on the flight from Delhi to Pune.
From the airport, I called Viju to let her know I would be home in twenty minutes or so. She informed me that I was given round-theclock armed police protection because Laine had thanked me in his acknowledgements. A cop carrying a carbine would greet me at my door.
Shashidharan gave me a lift in his official vehicle and dropped me home. When I went to my fifth floor flat, the armed cop was indeed at my doorstep.
Imagine a household still in the shadow of mourning deprived of its privacy and dignity by an imposed armed escort.
Two young policemen alternately provided me armed protection. A number of senior officers visited me during the first two days to explain the situation to me as they themselves had been briefed.
A dozen or so scholars---some of them residing in Pune---were
thanked by Laine in his acknowledgments for various kinds of encouragement, assistance, and help during the writing of his book. He did not specify the kind of help or encouragement each of them gave.
The militant organization responsible for the attack, despite arrests among the vandals who were defiantly hanging around the institute’s premises after causing damage to its property, remained on the aggressive and justified their action on the basis of hurt sentiments and grave provocation for which they held the alleged offending scholars squarely responsible along with Laine who was in the United States.
Some of the scholars had been manhandled and browbeaten by other militant organizations even before the institution itself was attacked and ransacked.
A campaign was conducted in some sections of the Marathi press calculated to provoke public disturbances, and the government of Maharashtra sheepishly tolerated these extra-constitutional forces that should have been brought to the book first.
There were hysterical demands for the extradition of Laine, a United States citizen, and to give him the severest possible punishment under Indian law.
As an Indian citizen, and as a writer who prizes his fundamental freedom in a supposedly civil society, I was angered and my indignation was righteous. Laine’s alleged offence apart, why should I be penalized because he thanked me?
Some of my frightened scholar colleagues went to the extent of disowning their relationship with Laine and his work for the fear that they would be seen as traitors conspiring with a foreigner in a planned campaign to insult an icon of Maharashtra.
For nearly three months the armed escort forced on my followed me wherever I went from lecturing at the university and attending public events to my routine walks or shopping trips to the vegetable, meat or fish markets. They followed me even to bookshops with their loaded carbines.
The two cops who were on duty as my bodyguard were nice young people whom Viju and I treated like student visitors to our home.
One of them was preparing for a public service commission examination and I gave him free tuition in a few subjects. When my protection was finally withdrawn, he pleaded with me to ask for continued protection so that he could study more in peace at my home and be treated to tea and snacks.
Though their presence itself was a constant violation of our privacy, and often an irritation and an embarrassment when we had visitors, we understood that not they but the power-drunk Home Minister of Maharashtra was responsible for this inflicted and uninvited act of guardianship by the law.
This pestering intermezzo lasted for three months. The protection given to me without asking was lifted without notice as state assembly elections were announced. I visualised my two bodyguards with their menacing carbines as now assigned the protection of some polling booth.
It was not just me but the other two members of our family, our grandson Yohul and Viju were stricken by incomplete mourning. In our two bedrooms flat, the master bedroom was meant for Ashay and Rohini before they separated and were eventually divorced. The other bedroom was given to Yohul and his growing adolescent need for personal space. Viju and I used our covered balcony that is large enough to accommodate a double-bed and a shelf to keep books and a sound system that belonged to Ashay.
Though Ashay remained behind a closed door most of the time during his periods of acute depression, he spent a lot of time working on his oil and acrylic paintings, or reading, writing, listening to music, or playing his drums shutting the world out.
He shunned company even when friends and relatives visited us, except when he cooked his own recipes and served them to our guests.
Yohul, Viju, and I have avoided talking about Ashay after his removal from our midst. Yohul, in fact, is reluctant to stay home after his father’s death. He prefers to meet his friends outside our home. If his closest friends visit or stay overnight, his room is out of bounds for us. He is brusque, laconic, or to-the point when he talks to us. This is extremely unfortunate, but it may be the only way he finds to cope with a personal loss and the changed environment in a small family.
As the only child of divorced parents, he has had to carry on through a crisis he cannot comprehend. The sudden and shocking death of his father, and the role he had to assume as his only next of kin claiming his body after an autopsy, then getting police permission to re-enter our flat whose door had to be broken to rescue Ashay---all this was an ordeal that few teenagers go through.
But the absence of Ashay is more palpably piercing than his usually unobtrusive presence was. When Ashay wanted to make his presence felt, or when he wanted to communicate something with Viju or me,
he would emerge from his room and hesitantly linger near us. This made me extremely uncomfortable as I did not understand what he was trying to communicate. Viju, on the other hand, understood his agony and was sometimes devastated by it. She felt aggrieved that I had lost touch with him already and was saying that he must get on with his life, putting Bhopal behind for good.
His restless, hovering presence when he was unmistakably in a black mood, sometimes seething with anger that had no specific target, used to unnerve me.
I often asked Viju, “Why doesn’t he do something? Anything? Why doesn’t he say what he wants to say?”
After Ashay was gone, both Viju and I panicked at the thought of entering his room, his personal space and its accumulations, his menacing memorabilia with some of which we could connect, but a part of which remained private and inviolable. Ashay had the habit of saving seemingly insignificant objects associated with persons, places, and events in his life to which he had sentimental attachment.
Endorphins are neurochemicals our brain secretes spontaneously to alleviate pain. That we are congenitally capacitated to encounter pain shows its vital place in our life. We place a block between ourselves and the unendurable sources and causes of pain. This is true of all of us for it is a biological given.
Positivists---including behavioural scientists and a school of psychiatrists---are driven by a desire to demolish the spectre of the mind that to the rest of us is a useful construct to understand parts of our experience that seem to have little connection with the material world yet a validity within ourselves.
I have been intellectually intrigued by pain and pleasure since my adolescence, for our body’s self-awareness has always puzzled me. What attracts human beings outside themselves and what makes them withdraw and retreat into their inner world defines human nature has been a fascinating subject of speculation for me all my life.
Likewise, the variability of the threshold of pain, the capacity to bear a degree of suffering is something about which I have thought a lot. As
much as a curious and persistent layman can, I have rummaged for information and enlightenment in books on philosophy, psychology, neurology and other branches of medicine, botany, zoology, genetics, toxicology, tribal and folk traditions, classical religion,
anthropology---the whole assorted bibliographical menu. I have gleaned a few nuggets of knowledge in the process, too.
But pain remains an elusive or enigmatic feature of the human experience of life because of the ever surprising and always idiopathic responses to it.
There are visual images emblematic of pain throughout the history of art in all civilizations: the various European paintings of Christ’s violent crucifixion (of which the serene expression of a meditating image of the Buddha can be thought of as the polar opposite or also as its complementary resonance); or take for instance, a haunting modern and secular image of pain in the modern Norwegian painter, Edvaard Munch’s The Cry.
Coming back to the Buddha’s outer expression of Nirvana ---the positive and enstatic experience of emptying the mind--- it is as much
the opposite of pain in its excruciating vertex as of pleasure at its ecstatic apex.
The Buddha’s absolute serenity is inaccessible to most of us because a serenely blissful state is all we seek in life yet seldom find; Christ’s agony on the Cross before his self-salvation and ascent is almost universally accessible because it represents the terror of physical torture causing pain of which all of us have personal experience.
The Buddha smiles, not at you, but to himself; the Buddha closes his eyes, but only to look inside himself.
When most of us try to look inside ourselves with trepidation, we are duly terrified by the mess we find, the chaos of hell, the agonizing bewilderment of beasts trapped by the fears that always stalk them. The mind is where death dwells in constant conflict with a mating call, the scent of food, and the assurance of security---all the basic needs a biological being is moved towards.
We also find inside ourselves, if we do though we may not want to
acknowledge it--- the primal face of pain---the source of all our fears.
During Ashay’s early days of homeopathic treatment in Pune, Ashay and I happened to discuss theme-concepts that could be turned into mega television serials.
I outlined to him my idea of Pain and Civilization. He was so fascinated that he asked me if I would spell out the sub-themes and the contents in each proposed episode. I still have my notes somewhere in my papers. I told Ashay to take the exercise a step further by writing a pilot episode.
Soon after this, a friend from Bhopal, Dr. Rajendra Dhodapkar visited us. Rajendra is a multi-talented artist who trained as a medical doctor but was more interested in writing poetry and drawing caricatures.
He came to Pune after chucking his job in the Madhya Pradesh Medical Service where he was extremely unhappy. Rajendra knew that both Ashay and I had a few connections with film and television producers in Mumbai.
My cousin Sunanda’s husband Sampooran Singh Oberoi alias ‘Obi’ and I were very close; and off and on I wrote film scripts for him, or made presentations to his clients, or discussed his future projects. Obi was a pioneer in the field of radio advertising, advertising films, and television serials. He conceived, produced, and launched the firstever sitcom released by Doordarshan---India’s national public television channel---Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. It was running then, and was a huge success.
An opportunity came my way, though not from Obi.
A film maker I knew---Vikas Desai---asked me if I would like to script episodes of a TV serial on ecological issues for Bittu Sehgal, Editor of the magazine Sanctuary and an indefatigable environmental activist.
I took Ashay and Rajendra with me to meet Bittu at his residence in Mumbai. In the event, Ashay and Rajendra produced the script of
one episode that I presented to Bittu, and it was filmed and televised too, as I remember.
However, Rajendra took ill with malaria while he was our guest in Pune. After a month of treatment and recuperation, he headed back to Bhopal and from there went to Delhi to become a cartoonist for a national newspaper.
Ashay conceived, researched, and scripted a successful serial on women achievers called Shanti for a production company in Mumbai. The anchor and presenter of this series of candid interviews, Mandira Bedi, becme a star in her own right.
During this period, till the end of the 1990s, Ashay had become a widely noticed model in TV commercials and as he loved acting, this became his main source of income and of optimism as well.
But it was constant swings of fortune in his career and his personal life that began to be reflected in his psycho-somatic mood swings. I
did not know about bipolar disorder then, but now in my recently gained wisdom, I can say that he became a manic-depressive before he ended up with unipolar depression in the last two years of his life.
I would say that this is connected with his natural flair for acting, and his hard work on whatever his given role was, and however big or small it was. Performance, the more spontaneous and innovative it is, is often a terrible stress for the performer. You have to work with so many people, feigning friendship or faking cooperation, that your mental resources are exhausted. If you happen to be an introvert, this can make you painfully lonely.
Should melancholy seize you in such a vulnerable state, a death-wish may surface to invite you to end it all.
One of Ashay’s role models, the British actor Peter Sellers, was also a victim of depression.
Could it be that mood swings are an occupational hazard for professional actors and other people who create illusions that their
art makes real to their audiences? There is a gap between an actor’s life as a performer and her/his life as a human being. Many actors who make others laugh; live on the dark side of life. The mirth and hilarity they produce is exactly the opposite of what they feel.
Ashay was one of them. He could use the exaggerated body language of slapstick comedians of the silent era that could both tickle laughter or needle a raw nerve. The God of silent cinema, Chaplin, is an example everybody has tried to emulate since. Ashay tried to reinvent Chaplin’s tramp in his own way.
Ashay was handsome but built small and he had an air of fragility about him that aggressive females find as inviting as an irresistible sex pheromone. He had his share of female admirers.
He was the opposite of a macho hunk in looks. His charm lay in his mobile face and his expressive eyes, his warm smile and his inclusive laughter. His harmlessness created a reassuring space for females in his company, and he made friends among the insecure of the opposite sex more easily than the aggressive males itching to perform harassing heroics.
He had a regular series of girl friends since before he was a teenager.
A sense of timing and the uncanny instinct to be at the shifting centre of a moving frame are gifts in a cinematic career no grafting can bring your way. Once you realize that you cannot be the centre of everybody’s attention all the time, you are closer to your ten minutes of fame and your one flash of immortality.
The American actor and film director, Jerry Lewis once said, “All actors are nine years old.”
I found this to be profoundly true when I directed actors myself. All good actors are natural and they have both the need and the capacity to transmigrate into roles designed by others, not necessarily for them, but deftly appropriated by them.
The more gifted of them can invent a personality that becomes plausible through the intensity and unpredictability poured into their performance.
The difficult part of acting is to know when not to act a role that is performed and when to return to life that is practised.
This is an invisible and flexible frontier. There is, however minimal it may be, a bit of theatre in everyone’s everyday life. It may be bad or mediocre theatre, but when we are carried away by any emotion, or by feelings raised to a passionate pitch, our bodily behaviour and our facial expression, the volume and the register of our voice, change significantly.
Gifted actors are not necessarily in charge of their own personality though they may succeed in giving that impression to others. Some of them are even inarticulate in communicating to others their innermost thoughts and feelings.
Ashay’s acting ability was not impaired by the physical handicap he had to live with and the mental anguish it inflicted upon him.
Even when he was doing a bit role or a vignette that required comic self-degradition or self-humiliating humour, he could do it with a vengeance. After Bhopal he developed a subtler sense of tragic irony
and a sharper kind of black humour for which he already had a flair earlier.
Ashay’s acting talent was spotted early.
On a friend’s recommendation, he was auditioned for the main role in a Hollywood film to be shot in India, The Monkeys of Bandarpur, with such veteran Hollywood movie and television actors as Allan Hale, Jr. and Robert J. Wilke. The film, directed by British Director Tom Stoppard, was shot on location in and around the picturesque city of Jaipur in Rajasthan. By his twelfth birthday, Ashay became a professional actor.
But we did not want his attention to move far away from normal schooling or him to be lured by the dangerous attraction of commercial Hindi cinema. Years later, Shyam Benegal cast Ashay in a supporting role---the role of a young tabloid journalist in his celebrated film Mandi. This was during Ashay’s apprenticeship with Govind Nihalani as a cinematographer.
Ashay and Rohini were living together (with us) though they were not married yet, and Rohini accompanied him to the location in Hyderabad-Secunderabad where Mandi was being shot.
Working as a member of Shyam Benegal’s cinema ‘family’, both behind and in front of the camera, was Ashay’s happiest and most memorable period of life as he would later say wistfully.
The friendships he made there proved to be lasting. He was particularly close to his acting idol, Naseeruddin Shah, with whom he struck a friendship. Kalpana Lajmi and Dev Benegal were director’s assistants then and not actors, but he had a rapport with them as well. However (I am told) the star actress, Smita Patil who died even younger than Ashay, had a special relationship with him. She was already a cult idol.
Smita nicknamed Ashay ‘Gopala’ for some personal reason known only to her, and refer to him as ‘my Gopala’.
After Ashay’s death, Dev Benegal sent me two black and white photographs taken by him while Mandi was being shot.
One of them is a solo picture of Ashay with the beard he had grown to play a supporting role in the film. The other is an image of a hugged and awkwardly pleased Ashay with a sweetly flirtatious Smita putting her arms around him from behind.
The image does not seem ‘stolen’ or ‘staged’ by the photographer. It conveys the bonhomie they all shared while living together on the location---off and on the shooting floor.
During his darker days after Bhopal, Ashay sometimes wistfully recalled those happier times as though he were longing to return to a family he had since lost.
Ashay’s last spell as an actor was in a commercial feature film produced by a successful TV soap producer.
The film was haphazardly made by her with a midstream change of directors and arbitrary changes in the script. The shooting took
Ashay to locations in New Zealand, Austria, and the Kulu Valley in Himachal Pradesh because the script required scenes shot in the snow or while snowing.
Ashay was reluctant to accept that contract but Viju and I pressed him to take it. We naively hoped this would help him to get out of his depression. Hardly did we expect that it would have just the opposite effect and plunge him into extremely agonizing melancholy.
His depression deepened during his shooting schedules and when he returned after it was over, he was at the end of his tether as though the whole experience had been of a debilitating illness. He looked haggard and beaten by his travails. It did not look like ordinary fatigue at all. It conveyed the outer face of a deep mental illness. slowly draining out its victim. It is a characteristic expression of the malaise of melancholy, as I have discovered now, looking into the mirror during my recent descent into it.
I now think that Ashay was in the grip of a massive depression during the entire shooting schedule of that film, Kuch To Hai. Nevertheless, he took Viju and me to the premiere of the movie in
Pune. Our family friends and former next-door neighbours, Anil Awar and his wife Smita, were among Ashay's fans. They loved his unique antics in television commercials that were seen on most channels in India. They joined us at the film's first show in Pune.
Ashay warned us that the film would disappoint us. He thought that the film was a product of expensive confusion and incoherence. It was a fusion of the thriller genre with comedy. We found he was right. The film fell flat at the box-office, too. But we found Ashay's role, a character role, executed with his usual flair for pointed understatement and with professional polish.
While Ashay's film was being shot at exotic locations as the script required lots of snow everywhere came my invitation to visit Germany for a two-month stay. Ashay had already worked at shooting schedules in the Kulu Valley among the Himalayan foothills and to New Zealand with his producer chasing snow that refused to fall in her presence or melted away to frustrate her actors and her technical crew.
Viju was in two minds about accompanying me to Germany, leaving
Ashay and Yohul to their own devices when Ashay seemed to be going rudderlessly into the doldrums again.
The film's one-sided contract that was for a fixed fee, and its everchanging schedules not only exasperated him but also deprived him of the substantial for television advertisement quickies that were more efficiently made by professionals.
But it was Ashay who insisted on her accompanying me.
He packed our suitcases with great care, anticipating our smallest needs and came downstairs with us to see they were loaded in the taxi that was to take us from Pune to the Mumbai international airport.
He gave me a nervous hug for a goodbye , acting brave, and he looked forlorn when he said, “ You take care, now, Dada. Don’t worry about Yohul and me. I’ll take care of everything at home.”
Both Viju and I had been to Munich and Feldafing before---I more often and many more times than her and Yohul accompanied Viju on one of her earlier visits.
The City of Munich Administration awards a sort of fellowship to selected foreign writers and artists to live and do their own thing at the picturesque Villa Waldberta donated for that purpose by a philanthropic multimillionaire.
The Villa Waldberta overlooks Lake Starnberg Called the Starnberger See in German the lake could be seen as the pendant among the beautiful string of lakes that make Bavaria so special as a resort.
For poets living an uncertain life and artists who cannot afford a large studio of their own, there are independent furnished apartments; and the visiting painters and sculptors get, in addition, a very specious and well-lit studio to work.
Feldafing is only a small village on the edge of the magnificent lake where richest among Europe’s richest country own private properties that are their holiday homes. They include members of the former
aristocracy, billionaire tycoons, celebrities from the world of sport and entertainment, and only a small number of tourists who can afford to get a glimpse of the scenic vista of sub-Alpine Upper Bavaria and the grand presence of the Starnberger See.
Feldafing is about forty kilometres from the city of Munich to which it is connected by the S-Bahn or suburban railway, it is an hour’s pleasant drive from the Neuhausen neighbourhood in Munich where our ‘family’ in Germany, the Stegmullers, live.
In and around the city of Munich, we have many close friends ( more than we have in Pune and as many as we have in Mumbai). Munich has become, thanks to Marie and Henning Stegmuller, a home away from home for us. Even when we are in Pune, a weekly phone call from Henning is what I am used to.
Other than my own work that I intended to do in Germany, I had invitations from Dr. Heidrun Bruckner to lecture to her students of Indology at the University of Wurzburg and from Dr. Mirella
Lingorska to do the same at the University of Tubingen.
As usual, during my Bavarian sojourn my friend Lothar Lutze would come down from Berlin for a visit and the chemistry between Lutze and Chitre has never failed to produce translations of poetry---even in brief meetings.
Most of all, Henning and Marie wanted us to have an elderly honeymoon by the famous lake over which the snowcapped peaks of the Alps rose.
It was idyllic till it lasted. It was too good to be real.
Ashay’s sudden death plucked us out of Germany when we were barely half-way through our visit.
We rushed back home to face a terrible void that everybody’s unconscious mind knows and fears----left behind by the loss of a loved one--- and the guilt of being survivors looking down the opening left behind by a remembered presence.
The Lake Starnberg has a special poetic resonance for me.
On its yonder shore, as seen from the Villa Waldberta’s glass tower, lies the fairy tale palace Neue Schwannstein of the mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the patron of the composer Richard Wagner who also played a role in the insanely brilliant philosopher Nietzsche’s life; and who shares a romantic home in fantasy such as our own Wajid Ali, the Nabab of Avadh---more a princely poet, composer, and connoisseur of the sensuous contours of life as an art, than a ruler with a flair for political intrigue or military adventures.
Both Ludwig II and Wajid Ali Shah are likely to have been gay or bisexual, and on the side of the feminine in the sexual spectrum---if not actually in bed, then at least in their sensibility and inclinations.
Both were considered incompetent to occupy their respective thrones and decadent wastrels dissipating the contents of their royal coffers to commission and patronize all manner of craftsmen, draughtsmen, artisans, architects, engravers, musicians, dancers, actors, composers,
choreographers ---and the like.
Ludwig II and Wajid Ali Shah were both, I imagine, melancholic and hypochondriac by disposition.
The King met a mysterious, violent death by drowning in the Lake Starnberg, the ultimate receptacle of his illusions and hallucinations; the Nabab died in exile, away from his beloved Avadh, the playground and the stage of his fantasies.
Both wanted to defy the crass practicality of figures on whom historical responsibilities are imposed by their ancestry and both used their sceptre more like a paintbrush, or the bow of a violin or a sarangi, or the tongue of a gourmet.
Both suffered from anguish and insecurity, despondency and despair, their only fault being their attempt to celebrate their misfortune, their sensitivity to tragic nuances and the subtler filigree of sentiments that robust realists choose to ignore in order to lead what they consider positive and purposeful lives.
I would concede that both these royal misfits were decadent and led a life of dissipation and indulgence. But I also see their nobler and tragic aspect, their search for beauty in inevitable doom, and their mood swinging from despair to hypomania, from bankruptcy of the spirit to impotent elation.
Both Ludwig II and Wajid Ali Shah had a death-wish that they tried to sublimate. They were on a suicide course from the start. But they had a taste for the finer nuances of life, the details in a dark work of art, a chiaroscuro image that no human dares to view as a whole ---because its sharp highlights hurt.
When I called Henning from Feldafing to briefly convey the news of Ashay’s accidental death in Pune, it was still before daybreak. Henning said he would immediately drive down from Munich. Both Viju and I made a flurry of phone calls to numbers far and close, and kept busy while digesting the indigestible news that had struck us like lightning though the thunder that should have followed has, in
my case, come now.
Absentmindedly and automatically, we started packing. The experience of pulling out of temporary homes was not new to us. Only, this time it was caused by a sudden rupture and a throbbing that kept missing beats.
I went to the window, opened the curtains, and opened the windows to feel the chill blast of November cold and to take a last look at the lake, still dark before sunrise. The black surface of the Starnberger See had begun to reflect the glow of daybreak beyond the silhouetted hills. I looked at the far spot in the lake where I imagined Ludwig had drowned and died.
I remembered that Ludwig did not die alone, his shrink too was with him, and he died as well.. One of them murdered the other and then committed suicide according to Bavarian folk gossip since.Though nobody will ever find out who killed whom before committing suicide.
The lake has guarded its darkest secrets forever.
Having lived in the Villa Waldberta before, and having turned the lake into a metaphor in a series of English poems in which the lake and Ludwig merged, I had strange thoughts welling up from my mind’s unforeseen darkness.
They were thoughts of death---my own and of my loved one’s. They were thoughts of suicide and the absurd possibility of a Marathi poet finally drowning and dissolving in the most beautiful and sinister lake in the world.
Is this a dirge for Ashay or a requiem for a part me that died that day? Is this the final crescendo of my scream of incomplete mourning? Why did I start writing this? Is this the therapy I need to recapture a lost sense of being myself, or is this just a salve for a wound with which I must live till my own breath finally comes to a standstill, like Ashay’s?
Ashay’s struggle for breath began in Addis Ababa on June 21, 1961 when he was born.
It squeezed his lungs again in Bhopal at midnight on December 3-4, 1984.
And it choked them, finally, in Pune some time in the early hours of November 29, 2003.
His fear of death, I imagine, was rooted in his first spasm of life as he was surgically removed from his mother’s womb. She herself had been fighting for life for a whole week before he was born. Her kidneys were infected and showed signs of a likely sudden failure. She had very high fever, very high blood pressure, and was in a near coma. Even as a foetus, Ashay must have suffered extreme agitation before he was born.
The husband and wife team of gynaecologist and obstetric surgeon--Dr. Nicholson and Mr. Hamlyn (In English a distinction is made between a physician and a surgeon, the former regarded as superior and deserving to be addressed as ‘Doctor’) ---decided to perform a
Caesarian section surgery to bring the child out.
They had been postponing this decision for a week to try to save both mother and child. When Viju was being hauled to the operation theatre in near-unconscious state, Mr. Hamlyn---a devout Christian--gravely advised me to pray for both their lives.
Ashay’s graduation from being a insecure foetus to becoming a tortured infant was his first taste of an inhospitable, hostile, menacing, and cruel world.
Did that first crisis in his life conclude in his death forty-two years later? For when he was born, he was kept in an incubator providing extra oxygen, and Viju saw her baby for the first time on the third day. For a long time she lay in an anaesthetic coma and I sat by her side wondering if this how one became a parent.
Before Ashay’s traumatic birth in Ethiopia, far away in India my grandmother Tai had a dream. She saw Viju coming out of the ocean with glowing pearls in her cupped hands. He was the first Chitre
child of his generation and he was the cynosure of all our extended family’s eyes when we arrived in a ship and disembarked in Mumbai’s docks on July 31, 1963.
Even my otherwise restless and irascible mother who was opposed to my marriage with Viju, forgave us all our sins for having produced this lovely two-year old boy that she saw, her first grandchild.
We were supposed to return to Ethiopia for another three-year spell before the start of a new semester in the Amharic month of Maskaram---September 1963.
But Ashay did not find Mumbai agreeable. He developed several allergies probably caused by a genetic auto-immune idiosyncrasy and triggered by Mumbai’s notoriously polluted air.
His lungs got infected again and again. We had to take him to one of Mumbai’s top paediatric physicians who advised us to postpone our return to Ethiopia till his treatment brought back Ashay’s health to
We stayed on in Mumbai till January, 1964. When we boarded the Air India plane for Aden, in Yemen, on our way to Addis Ababa via Djibouti in French Somalia on the Eastern Horn of Africa, Ashay had a nasty cold and a slight fever. Within an hour of our flight’s take-off, his fever kept rising and his breathing became difficult.
When we landed in Aden as transit passengers to change planes, Ashay was seriously ill. We sought help from a distant relative living in Aden to get urgent medical attention.
The physician who examined Ashay diagnosed his illness as a complicated double infection---typhoid and pneumonia. Aden’s strict immigration laws disallowed transit passengers a stay longer than already permitted.
We were in a dire dilemma. We had to make a hard choice between taking our onward flight from Aden to Djibouti and take the further connecting flight to Addis Ababa on another airline.
Aden is steaming hot throughout the year and Addis Ababa is extremely cold in mid-January. Both of Ashay's lungs were affected by pneumonia. Could we risk taking Ashay to Addis Ababa, and put him through a shocking change of climate? And how long would it take after landing to reach a hospital to continue his treatment?
The only other alternative was to return to Mumbai by an Air India flight due to take off in a couple of hours. It was a direct flight though it would take hours for us to reach Mumbai and drive straight to Bombay Hospital where Dr. Tibrewalla, whom we had consulted before, was a Honorary Paediatrician.
By then, Ashay would probably be in a critical condition needing intensive care.
In the event, we decided to gamble on Mumbai, our home city and a city that offered more sophisticated medical treatment than Addis Ababa.
Though this would put my contract with the Ethiopian government
in jeopardy, and a huge debt on my head for the expenses incurred, Ashay’s life was in peril, and it was far more important to us than anything else.
We came home to Mumbai, never again to return to Ethiopia, that beautiful country where our only child was born.
After Ashay’s death, there were two more deaths that deeply injured me: my friend Arun Kolatkar’s in 2004, and my youngest brother Ashutosh’s in 2005.
Arun and I met as fellow-poets in 1954 when I was sixteen and he twenty-two. We bonded instantly and our friendship a last century ended with his death. From the start, we were very different from each other, though people bracketed our names as avant garde Marathi and English poets rising together in the mid-1950s.
We were bracketed together also because we were co-founders of a mimeographed irregular journal exclusively devoted to poetry and translation. The journal was named Shabda (or Word) and it was
launched at the end of 1954.
Since then, we continued to drift apart----geographically or professionally---and come together again, though the affinity that was the basis of our bonding was never ruptured by any circumstance. And, in our own way, each of us went through volcanic upheavals in our personal as well as social lives. Inner and outer forces defined our lives and the poetry we found in it differently.
Arun died of intestinal cancer that was already advanced and declared terminal when diagnosed.
But he got an extended lease of life through the homeopathic treatment he received. Arun’s bread and butter profession was advertising art and his primary form of self-expression remained poetry till the end.
Still bleeding from the wound of Ashay’s death with which we had not yet come to terms, Viju and I decided to make a video film on him----a film I had wanted to make long before he took ill. Had I been
successful in making the film earlier, Ashay would have been involved in it as he was with my other films. Ashay had his own equation with Arun and had taken several still photographs of him--some of them of portrait quality. Arun used to show keen interest in Ashay's work as a visual artist and had exclusive conversations with him in his room whenever he visited us in Pune. Arun was so shaken by Ashay's premature death that he avoided meeting us till a month after his death.
We launched the film starting a race against time. I told Viju to take Ashay's place by my side and it was she who assembled the research and helped me design the film.
I knew that Arun would never make any statement about his work, on tape or otherwise, but would, at best, agree to let me film him reading his work. The film we made consisted of Arun’s reading from his work and he insisted that I selected the poems for him to read on camera.
The other component of the film was brief interviews with people associated with his life in its different phases.
I wrote the narration and Randhir Khare and I alternately voiced it on the soundtrack. Randhir and I also read off-screen Arun's Marathi poems in my English translation with his approval.
The film Arun Kolatkar has been since purchased by the Sahitya Akademi and released as a VCD.
It was premiered in Arun and his wife Soonu's presence at the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai just before his illness took its final turn towards the worst.
Arun came to die in Pune in his younger brother Subhash’s house. Subhash and his son are both physicians who would medically care for him till the end came. In choosing the venue of his final departure, Arun must have had many reasons, some practical and some emotional.
Arun seldom revealed his inner feelings even to the people closest to him except though a subtly nuanced language of minimal gestures, or gently ironic words underlining the painful absurdity of life
viewed as a black comedy.
But Arun had been away from his immediate kin for over fifty years since he was estranged from his authoritarian and disciplinarian father.
At the same time, he had warm memories of a childhood and adolescence spent in an extended family with brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles.
He also had a very special relationship with his late mother whose protectiveness he seemed to have inherited. He must have wanted to be with his family again before he made his imminent exit from this world.
The tiny apartment in which Arun and his wife Soonu lived in Mumbai had just one room divided into living space, kitchenette, and bathroom. It could hardly accommodate visitors, particularly when the man of the house was gravely ill and the lady of the house the only other person around.
A very private person who got more out of his solitude than out of gregarious interaction, Arun must have found his illness inviting an exasperating invasion of his privacy in the form of visitors.
For weeks, the nature of his illness was kept under the wraps and Arun continued his weekly visits to Military Cafe in downtown Mumbai. Arun’s regular table there was his meeting point with friends every Thursday.
But as his condition deteriorated by the day, he decided to focus his remaining energy on his unpublished and unfinished work as a poet and go out in a dignified way, his own style.
When he and Soonu shifted to Pune, Arun expected to live only for a few days. His life was rapidly ebbing away. He could speak only for a few minutes at a time, with great effort, with a voice that faded down to a sepulchral whisper.
His mind, however, was focussed exclusively on his unfinished work and the final instructions he wanted to give his friends about it.
Arvind Mehrotra had arrived in Pune from Allahabad to stay with Arun as long as needed and once Adil Jussawala came over from Mumbai to spend a number of hours by Arun’s bedside as Arun finalised his selection of his unpublished poems and translations or made precise alterations in their text.
Viju and I visited him every day, except after he went into coma before he died. We would be at Dr. Subhash Kolatkar’s house in Bibwewadi----over an hour away by rickshaw from our home ---by ten o’clock in the morning and stayed on till about seven in the evening.
Arun’s alertness and a rush of some semblance of energy enough to voice a few words was brief, precarious, and intermittent. We just waited by his side, watching for some signal from him that he was ready and able to speak. Soonu fed him morsels of food from time to time, or coconut water to sip so as to give his parched tongue and dry throat some relief.
When alert and able enough to speak a few words, Arun used his newly learnt skill of a dying man to measure and edit what he meant
to say before he actually voiced it. He possessed that skill already as his poetry shows, but this was its last critical test.
The life of his poems that would outlive him depended on it. His struggle to finish his work to his satisfaction was tragic yet noble.
His gaunt face was pointedly determined. His frail frame stretched supine on the bed; every movement he made was painfully strained. We who watched him die slowly felt it in our bones.
Arun died on September 25, 2004.
Arun’s death in September was followed by Nirmal Verma’s in October 2005.
When I reported Nirmal’s demise to our common friend, Daniel Weissbort, Danny wrote me a brief e-mail in which he made a pithy low-key observation, “We are getting fewer.”
Indeed, death had been rather stridently robbing me of my poet, writer, or artist friends in recent days. Or maybe, death was a
discerning anthologist of poetry summoning contributions from them.
Agha Shahid Ali died of cancer in America; Nissim Ekekiel who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease died in an old people’s home in Mumbai; Dom Moraes was suffering from cancer but died of cardiac arrest in sleep in Mumbai.
Soon my mental graveyard would have little place for myself.
It was already the only and the most expensive piece of real estate my mind possessed.
Was I being led slowly but surely to my own quietus?
It was the late morning of June 9, 2005. I was half awake as the effect of a sleeping pill I had taken late the previous night had begun to wane. I overheard Viju speaking to someone. There was panic in her voice, then a stifled sob.
I instantly knew it was bad news again, very bad news. It made me shake off the fog in my head. I got up and asked Viju, “What is it? Who called?” She said, “It was Ajit. Ashu is no more. He died of a cardiac arrest in sleep early this morning at Goregaon. He was found dead by the neighbours. Ajit said they are taking the body for cremation now. He said we need not go to Mumbai immediately. We can go when Rashmi arrives from Vizag.”
When Ashu visited us last, it was immediately following Ashay’s death. They were born only five years apart, Ashu and Ashay, and we were both very fond of Ashu whom we had carried in our arms as a baby.
In his last years, Ashu’s life had fallen apart. He and his wife Shaila, lived with my parents and with their own little son, Mihir.
From his early adulthood, Ashu was given to boozing with his friends and my parents encouraged him to bring them home to partying. He must have become dependent on alcohol before he got married and more so after.
An alcoholic blames his career graph not on what he compulsively swills but on the cruelty of personal fate.
Ashu was a trained printing technologist and only the second in our family after my father to go into that profession.
He had grand dreams of setting up a state of the art offset printing press in partnership with his friends.
Since none of us had the means to finance such a venture, he thought of getting a bank loan. But with no collateral security to offer, no bank would give him financial support.
So Ashu decided to freelance. He was a master scanner in colour reprography and was in a seller’s market for his skills. He worked with some of the best printing establishments as a consultant earning handsome fees and he also undertook printing jobs and got them done under his supervision. On the face of it, he had no reason to fail.
But for some reasons obscure to us, he began to consume larger and
larger quantities of alcohol---a common and freely consumed depressant--- and developed a weakness for wet business lunches, that sophisticated urban form of addiction that is still fashionable in India.
When his clients found him with alcohol on his breath during working hours, their trust in him started to erode. His assignments thinned down to a trickle until they dried up. His friends also scattered away as they seriously built up their own careers, got married, and raised families.
Realizing that Ashu’s addiction was serious trouble for him and his family---our family by the logic of extended family bonds---we all tried to get him through de-addiction therapy.
Alcoholics have a Sisyphean tendency to roll their bottle uphill, then drink it up at the peak and chase it as it slips and rolls downhill---this goes on ad infinitum.
They keep returning to drink even after their shrink declares them cured. It is the shrink who gives up the patient in the end rather than
the patient to give up his boozing.
Ashu started indulging in marital violence. He developed a dual personality. He was always sweet and charming, but now he became sly and lied in order to borrow money from all sorts of amenable sources. He forced his wife to undergo abortions rather than get himself vasectomized. He managed to exasperate even our parents who had all along been pampering him.
Then my mother died after a series of crippling cerebral infarctions. My father developed mood swings (perhaps of the kind I experienced myself a few years later).
Then he just withdrew from life slowly. He would sleep for hours and would be awake only for a couple of hours or so. The doctors said it was ageing and that therapy had its limits.
Eventually, my father died in sleep in 2002.
Ashu’s wife Shaila went back to her parental home, found a job in Aurangabad, and did not return. She said that their separation was
final, giving Ashu another justification for drinking.
Shaila left their son Mihir with Ashu in our parent’s home. My sisters looked after him and he later lived with my brother Rohit’s two sons, his cousins while Ashu now lived alone in my parents’ small flat in Goregaon, a suburb of Mumbai.
His death was sudden, too, though he seemed to be on a suicide course fuelled by ethanol in any accessible form, even cheap country liquor.
Nobody knows with any certainty what the aetiology of melancholy or depression is and how many different forms it takes.
Did it swoop on me suddenly like a black vulture, or was it surreptitiously spreading its tentacles like an octopus hiding in my psyche before I found myself seized by it?
Did it, in other words, come from the outside, or emerge from within?
Depression is a serious and often terminal illness of our master organ, the brain, both the controller and the control panel of the rest of our body.
But can we separate the brain from the rest of our body when we perceive that they comprise a single coherent system?
Is there psyche without soma and soma without psyche? Or is there no fundamental dichotomy between them? Are we all born bipolar?
My own mood swings commenced with the arrested process of mourning the loss of Ashay on November 29, 2003.
Depression engulfed me slowly till the beginning of the next year and a hypomanic upswing started with my Katha lecture where I publicly, but rather obliquely and laconically, started releasing my suspended grief by quoting Ashay’s last telephonic conversation with me.
My participation in the Katha Festival brought many friends, well-
wishers, and acquaintances around me, as they had heard of Ashay’s sudden death but they were not sure if what they heard was true.
condolescence through consoling words and gestures---that are awkward but unavoidable cliches---but by then I was in control of my emotions and no cathartic encounter was expected in that festive atmosphere.
This was followed by the news that the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune was vandalized by a group protesting against James Laine’s book on Shivaji.
Populistic demands for bans and censorship of books and works of art ending in violence and vandalism by illiterate and semi-literate fanatics and instigated by irresponsible media or self-styled leaders not able to look beyond a political advantage are not new to me.
I have lived in this uncivil society long enough to know that this will continue for a long time; but I carry with my faith in constitutional morality and judicial wisdom.
My anger is roused by such violent protests that are extraconstitutional, and I am infuriated further when the government shows a soft corner for law-breakers and miscreants by trying to appease them and declaring its firm resolve to use its power against the alleged offences imagined to have been committed by authors of scholarly debate, intellectual disagreement, articulate dissent, or the creative arts.
I was provoked enough to use my pen and my speech as a weapon.
When I reached Pune, I felt insulted and humiliated by the government of Maharashtra to have imposed armed protection upon me instead of probing the perpetrators of violent vandalism further and punishing those instigating them.
I was forced to spend the next three months in the shadow of my carbine-wielding protectors; I kept writing articles and making
speeches in the hope of a public debate on the constitutionality of such forms of public protest in a supposedly civil society.
Even that may have been a phase of intellectual frenzy---hypomanic excitement? -- And I was determined to use a pugilistic approach in retaliation of forces in our society who would Talibanise India and terrorize their fellow citizens whom they think they have the right to chasten.
I was living on my own adrenaline again and the stress, itself triggering a mood swing, may have led to the next sweep of my mood pendulum.
This had started with anxiety about Arun Kolatkar’s terminal illness which I tried to counter-balance by deciding to make a film on him. With the completion of the film, I finished my mourning for Arun, though his death came after the premiere and public release of the film.
Arun’s slow death only created a void in my mind as I was given a
long enough advance notice of his departure.
But Ashay’s traumatically sudden death had already wounded me deeply and almost fatally
I grieved for Arun’s impending death through an objective cinematic expression of a loss that was gradual; and thus I emptied myself and freed myself.
In the case of Ashay’s death, our physical distance from him when he died gave rise---additionally--- to a growing sense of guilt.
We also mourned the relative brevity of his life, though after Bhopal, the life-expectancy of thousands of similar victims was feared to have been drastically reduced.
Viju and I also felt guilty to have been away from Bhopal on that night of disaster when Ashay found his life and his hopes damaged beyond recognition and Rohini with a baby growing inside her saw her anticipation of joy instantly turn into a prolonged anxiety and a
We felt guilty for being absent parents and supposed guardians, whose children faced a terrible disaster and felt orphaned by a crisis that would haunt them for a lifetime.
Ashu’s death, in some ways was a sequel to Ashay’s.
Both their lives were prematurely cut off, making their older kin and survivors experience a persistent guilty conscience, and a feeling of inexplicable remorse for not having taken the place of those who died, or were sacrificed to some malefic and bloodthirsty deity.
Ever since I started writing poetry in my adolescence, love and death are recurrent and inextricably interlocked themes in my poems.
A significant number of my poems written in the last fifty years mourn the loss of people, places, and times that were part of my ongoing experience of life.
In poetry, painting, cinema, and music---evocation of presences, images, movements, and perceived shifts of direction are deeply etched in my memory. They are for me the essence of art and transcendental awareness.
I cannot protest against the psycho-pharmacological treatment suggested to me by my friend Dr. Mohan Agashe, professionally a trained psychiatrist whom the world knows better as one of the finest contemporary stage and cinema actors in India; and I cannot thank more my present psychiatric physician Dr. Vidyadhar Watve, or the earlier Dr. Dalaya, for stabilizing my mood when I was going berserk.
From my sixty-eighth birthday on September 17, 2005 till Ashay’s second death anniversary on November 29---a period of ten weeks---my thought processes went on gathering momentum, often making leaping connections among heterogeneous contexts, and with greatly enhanced verbal felicity, and a brighter than usual wit.
My subjective perception of this did not perturb me or shake my temporary belief in my own impeccable sanity and rationality.
I thought I was on the verge of a deep new insight into the nature of life; as though I was about to make some stupendous discovery leading to rich and profound creative work.
As a poet and an artist, and as a thinker as well, this was not an unfamiliar experience to me and nothing could undermine my selfconfidence. Turning personal crises into poetry and art was, I thought my forte.
Like all believers, I possessed only half-knowledge that I mistook for the whole fundamental truth.
Grieving, when gagged, bleeds one internally; and it is hard to handle such internal haemorrhages of feeling.
Loss is a feeling of having been dispossessed of something owned as an inalienable birthright: something that you have taken to be forever
and exclusively accessible to you.
Violently wrenched away from you with a cruel suddenness that shocks and numbs, your loved ones are possessions you would fight to retrieve from whoever it was that took them away from you..
It is, as it were, an attempt was made on your own life; and your insane search for the invisible assassin or assassins begins.
But you also know that death is no person with whom you have a chance to get even, settle the score by fighting a duel.
You can only fight death in a fight unto death; but that death itself is your own; for death is a cosmic law as the law of entropy underlines.
Progressive disintegration of any created order is inherent in the order itself.
“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold," as W.B. Yeats described the state and its certainty and inevitability.
Death is inscrutable; it is an enigma.
As biological beings with their adherence to a sense of an embodied self, an awareness of life with which they are congenitally infused, we refuse to die.
In our tenacious refusal to die till we are struck by its final blow, we blindly believe in being endowed with immortality.
All religions are rooted in the fearful premonition of death; the pernicious perception of its perpetual proximity.
And we continue to battle what we cannot ward off.
We are all Abhimanyus in the ongoing Chakravyuha of life, or Arjunas looking for a Krishna's verdict on the human condition, our own ontological status in a universe of quirky uncertainty, our own identity menaced by it. And how does Krishna exorcize Arjuna's truthful perception of a battle in which one is confronted by one's kin, and the friends with whom one grew up playing and learning to successfully win those games that have a result?
The Great Trickster, who cleverly opted to be Arjuna's charioteer in the battlefield rather than be his brother-in-arms in a bitter contest that would end in epic genocide, sings The Song of the Lord---The Bhagavad-Gita--that all Hindus continue to recite to keep death away from its shadow darkening every human door.
All crises are life-threatening.
They teach us that fear is the deepest driving force in our lives. The seeming fortitude with which we temporarily triumph over it is a beast's savage last stand, nothing more.
We are built to collapse, and we all know it innately.
Fear and pity, as Aristotle thought, were the essence of the tragic experience, and the audience of tragedy in a theatre is moved by the ritual sacrifice of created heroes or heroines in front of their eyes.
Catharsis---Katharsis---was a goat sacrifice, a rite performed to
appease death and postpone it for a while. A martial race had to perform it regularly and be prepared for the next battle where they faced the binary option between killing or dying.
If Aristotle had the chance to read and digest the Mahabharata---its epic and apocalyptic vision of the human condition---would his Poetics have turned out to be something different than what Greek tragedy led him to believe?
There was a change in my voice that Viju noticed from her vantage point as my lover, witness, and compassionate observer for nearly fifty years.
We had been together through thick and thin, seen each other rise and fall, and rise again---often in conjunction but sometimes in agonizing isolation and separation as well.
We were weathered and worn, but had emerged as survivors with some grace.
The change in my voice disturbed Viju and she consulted Sameer, our ENT surgeon friend as this was his specialist field.
However, when Sameer heard the full description of my other symptoms and behaviour on telephone, he told her it sounded like an emergency. He came to our home immediately, driving the distance of twenty kilometres through the snarled and chaotic traffic of the city. He took a close look. He observed my talk, my behaviour, and my frenzied look. He slumped into a chair, as though he feared something terrible coming. He told Viju, "We have to take him to a hospital. This can be handled only there."
He spoke with Yohul and told him what the situation was. Then he called Dr. Shiva Aiyyar at the Jehangir Hospital, who agreed to see me as soon as I was taken there, and advise Sameer and Viju what he felt should be done.
He told Viju to go to the Jehangir Hospital that was the nearest fullyequipped hospital in our vicinity where he would ride ahead of us on
his scooter and meet us outside the trauma centre.
I refused to leave the house, maintaining in a hard and determined tone of voice that I needed to finish Ashay's room, my project and my agenda, according to the deadline I had given myself and the carpenters. My voice sounded adamant as s threatening. Yohul was upset by seeing me in a frightening light. He went into his room and talked to my brother Ajit in Mumbai, as he would in any family emergency. Besides, Ajit was a physician himself.
Zuber nervously hovered around, afraid to enter the black circle of my unpredictable rage. Everybody except I was losing their nerve. I went up to Yohul and said I was not going to the hospital, patting him gently and telling him that nothing was the matter with me. Choked by a sob, and on the verge of tears, he pushed me away and said I had to go to the hospital and there were no two ways about it. Viju and he pleaded with me, cajoled and coaxed me, but nothing would move me except brute force. None of them were capable of physically forcing me to go with them to the hospital. Sameer had probably reached the hospital by then.
Ajit and Rohit, my two brothers, were already on the way to Pune, and they arrived the same time Sameer must have reached the hospital. I was finally persuaded to go to the hospital in Zuber's rickshaw with Rohit by my side. Viju would take another rickshaw and Bunty alias Utkarsh would go with her. Bunty was assisting me in writing down the details of my visualisation of Ashay's room till then. I had been working in that room for the previous forty-eight hours, without sleep and with little food, as though I were in a fierce trance of extremely focussed creative activity---my memorial for Ashay. Zuber was my other helper.
Ajit was uncharacteristically nervous and resigned. Yohul was agitated and seized by a fear he was trying hard to fight and control. Viju seemed outwardly calm, as she always does in such situations, but this was a rare and unforeseen situation for all of them.
Ajit and Yohul chose to stay back home.
I dressed up reluctantly, putting on the most crumpled and baggy pair of trousers I could find, and an equally wrinkly shirt. The shirt
had fewer buttons than necessary, and my pants were just halfzipped and without any belt, they could have slipped down any moment unless clutched by at least one hand. I was showing to them all that I did not care how I looked, and to hell with the world. I made them understand that I was going to the hospital against my own will and just because they were many against one. I conveyed this through my condescending gestures and with a sarcastic scowl on my face, or with a grimace that came off my face like a falling mask.
All I knew was that they were taking me away from an unfinished work of art : Ashay's redesigned room---I had written on its entrance door the legend, : "Ashay Chitre lives here" in my own hand, and pinned a small artificial red rose made of paper to the soft- board I had fixed for that purpose.
My memories of the next forty-eight hours are now a rather hazy and slowly receding impression left by a mental tornado carrying disparate images in its violent velocity : I remember reaching the
hospital in Zuber’s rickshaw accompanied by my younger brother Rohit.
My other brother Ajit, himself a trained physician, preferred to stay back home, his usually cool nerve failing him after he saw what I was heading towards. I was crazed, frenzied, talking without a pause.
I made Zuber drive his rickshaw to the nearest ATM branch of my bank from where I wanted to withdraw cash.
I said I had thousands of rupees coming my way very soon and that I would take care of everybody’s financial problems.
I asked Rohit if he would lend me one hundred thousand rupees right away and I promised to pay him back in three weeks---and so on, and so forth.
I was examined by Dr. Shiva Aiyyar, a noted cardiologist in Pune, at the trauma centre of the Jehangir Hospital.
My heart rate and blood pressure were surprisingly normal, but my
state of delirium was obvious. The hospital had no room for an extra patient, and I needed to be kept under medical vigilance.
So, I was taken to the Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital that was some twenty kilometres away.
Sameer’s wife, Ashwini, was the Chief Radiologist there and she had the necessary influence to get me immediately admitted.
I heard snatches of cell phone conversations in urgent whispers about my condition. But I did not care.
I thought everybody around me were a bunch of slow-witted people.
I thought I was lucid, in fact at my brilliant best; while they, poor idiots, were forcibly taking me to a hospital when I needed to go home and be left alone.
It was on the third day after this that I was discharged from the hospital with a prescribed regimen of rest, watchful care, and an exotic cocktail of pharmaceuticals.
All through this, I was hopping mad at people rather than able to realize that I should have been grateful to them for having saved me from a longer voyage through the nether world of my own mind.
Was this a beginning of the completion of my unfinished grieving for the loss of Ashay?
Or was I simply losing my own mind in a maelstrom of melancholy?
Viju and I were both slowly going over the hill and were showing the outward signs of ageing and suffering its inner ache and apprehensions
My sexuality goes into an overdrive whenever I am working feverishly on some creative work, in whatever medium or mode; or even when I am engaged in some scholarly task or project. It seemed to have gone absolutely cold this time. But this was a different time , and it was disquieting, as she told me later.
I seemed disturbed, and my behaviour---though not discernibly different to other people looking at me--had seemed to Viju to be less than (or more than) coherent in many subtle but critical ways. Now it had come out into light in nakedness and an abandon that startled even strangers standing at a distance. This abrupt flashback ends as abruptly here and
I do often suffer from laryngitis, and my amazing relapse into smoking after a decade of absolute and voluntary abstinence, has not helped.
One of my friends in Pune, Dr. Sameer Kulkarni is a highly skilled ENT surgeon. Incidentally, he is also a playwright and of late he has been writing screenplays for a well-known film director.
Sameer affectionately addresses me as Guru-ji---reminding me of my Greek poet friend Anastassios Denegris addressing me as Maestro. This has a touch of affectionate irony, it is a tease that does not rankle
if it comes from a younger friend and a faithful follower in certain matters, who really treats you, at times, as his guru.
Sameer noticed the recurrent and worrisome swelling of my larynx and forbade me to speak ---a three week rest that he further extended by another three.
He also pleaded with me to give up smoking for good, and as he was witness to my unbelievable abstinence for a whole decade after a lifetime of addiction to nicotine, he was confident that if determined, I would repeat that feat.
As for the speech-rest part, I followed his instructions so meticulously that I purchased slates, pencils, a box of chalk sticks, and even a rolled up blackboard to write instead of speaking to anyone who needed to converse with me.
In fact, I perversely enjoyed the comic aspect of the situation.
My students and my visitors---among them were some close friends
---found it very disconcerting, however.
I am a talker who is garrulous to a fault if unleashed..
I love to argue, debate, discuss, and (I suspect) even to preach and to sermonize if given the opportunity.
Such silence on my part must have seemed to them a change in my identity.
I felt stifled very soon. My freedom of speech and my spontaneous need to speak were temporarily repressed by this prescribed regimen; and it made me very edgy and bottled up.
I tend to gesticulate a lot when I speak. Now gagged by my surgeon friend’s professional advice and fearing permanent damage to my vocal cord, I gesticulated even more wildly in my exasperated attempts to communicate with others.
As a writer, I have honed my writing skills to a degree.
But they failed me this time because I tried to take impatient short cuts through instant aphorisms and witticisms that would not cut any ice with my bewildered visitors.
I found my mind racing too far ahead of them nor could I summon the physical stamina to put words down on paper at a matching velocity.
One day, in a fit of fury, I told Viju, “I’m tired of casting pearls before these swine!”
Long before I went through this ordeal, a friend had requested me to suggest a name for and to visualise the interior of a snack bar and lunch home that would create an atmosphere of Bhakti associated with Marathi saints devoted to their deity Vithoba and their followers who go on regular pilgrimages to the sacred town of Pandharpur where the premier temple-abode of their Lord is.
He had briefed me about his first modest requirement, while his building was still under construction: a name for his purely vegetarian restaurant and snack bar, that would evoke the unflinching faith of the Varkari pilgrims, their avoidance of sinful food, and the satisfaction they expected from a simple, but deliciously ample meal.
This was sometime in October and before my hectic schedule delivering keynote speeches, theme-bound lectures; inaugural addresses and so on began.
I was in a state of melancholy but people expected exactly the opposite from me by way of displaying my eloquence as a seasoned keynote speaker or stimulating participant at symposia and seminars.
I enjoy talking to people but I hate the very sight of a lectern---the pedagogical counterpart of a pulpit, which I hate even more. I hate the proscenium and most forms of high platforms and stages.
No, they do not give me any stage fright. I do not cringe, but I shy
away from a podium because it is obviously pompous to address them from a height that establishes the speaker even before his first solemnly idiotic or compulsively jocose sentence drops down towards the audience supposedly waiting for edification.
I do not aspire to be an impressive performer at conferences and I do not have any illusions about my capacity to enthral large heterogeneous audiences.
I do not know what made me accept invitations that would make me fly like a bird gone berserk from Pune to Thiruvananthapuram via Mumbai, and after addressing the audience at a National Book Fair, fly back to Mumbai to fly from there to Vadodara on way to deliver an inaugural speech at the Adivasi Academy's tenth anniversary celebrations at Tejgadh, return to Pune via Mumbai, fly again to Delhi and back like an efficient courier delivering gift parcels. Then after a small pause, fly to Hyderabad, from there to Bhubaneshwar, then driving to Cuttack on way to Sambalpur to receive a national award for poetry, come back to Cuttack to make a hurried return trip to Konark, then flying home hopping from Bhubaneshwar to Hyderabad and heaving a long sigh of relief in Pune before the next
take off, this time to Delhi to attend another festival and to return to Pune utterly exhausted by this self-destructive itinerary that put me into an uncontrollable overdrive. All this while, I was being secretly given lithium to stabilize my mood swings.
This was an insane and suicidal spree taking its toll. The last straw was the effort to fulfil a prestigious commitment to deliver another lecture. Viju was with all through this, giving me my medicines on time, and making me eat regular meals, and controlling my consumption of the most popular depressant in the world, alcohol, that I religiously imbibed every evening in relative privacy.
We spent four days in Delhi. My depression had almost touched the clinical frontier by now. I avoided company, shunned formal luncheons and dinners, stayed away from invitations to cocktails, did not speak with Viju for hours, and did not read beyond a page or two a day.
Finally, Viju and I spoke about the illness that had become apparent to us both. The mood swings were involuntary but the dominant mood was melancholia, not euphoria. My manic-euphoric bursts
were -mercifully brief now, but they were triggered by any visitor, stranger or friend made no difference. I quickly put on my mask of perpetual cheerfulness and zest to hide the hard black face of melancholy behind it. I was learning the schizophrenic art of quickchanging a personality from its bipolar double-face, not unlike Janus---the Roman god of doors, gates, entrances, and exits with two opposite faces. I recognized the face of my own illness that was subconsciously familiar to me by now. I vow to see my therapist and physician on my return to Pune.
Just back from the airport to my home in Pune, while experiencing involuntary tremors, I entered the bathroom to have a nasty fall that broke my left wrist so badly that I had to go to the hospital and get operated surgically under general anaesthesia.
I should at this juncture (the avid filmmaker that I am) resort to a flashback to the incident that made my condition visible to others.
The request to name a vegetarian restaurant serving traditional
Maharashtrian food was a trigger to my pent up self-expression, touching the very nerve of my imagination.
I responded by feverishly visualising, in great and I still think very innovative detail, not just the restaurant, but the three vacant floors above it as a single integrated interior designed as a museum depicting the cultural history of Maharashtra and the role played by the Varkari poet-saints in shaping its mainstream.
I made a four hour presentation to the young owner of the proposed restaurant that was so detailed and contrary to his modest, cautious, and prudent idea of the venture that he and even my artist colleagues whom I wanted to collaborate on this ambitious design project were simply flabbergasted.
My artist friends ---Sandip Sonavane, a painter and Sandesh Bhandare, a photographer --who were with me then, and my loyal rickshaw-driver, Zuber Shaikh, noticed that there was something very wrong with me that afternoon.
My overflowing ideas sounded brilliant in both outline and detail but
they belonged a realm different and distant from mundane reality and practical wisdom.
When Sandip, Sandesh, and Zuber described my performance to Viju, in a way as respectful as it was delicate and diplomatic, she began to fear for the worst unless she firmly took charge. But she hesitated. She feared offending me. She thought of consulting a physician psychiatrist, which she did with a bad conscience for not having taken me into confidence.
Concurrently, with my team of commissioned carpenters and Zuber as my loyal assistant, I launched my project of transforming Ashay's room into a memorial for him. This too was visualised in amazing detail and was not difficult to execute.
This is what had frightened Viju out of her wits. She was at the end of her own physical and mental resources.
I was obviously about to go over the edge unless I was treated quickly and properly by my reliable physician.
Even Yohul was getting upset by my obsessive activities at home. Ever since we entered the front door of our flat that had to be broken down to rescue Ashay from our smoke-choked home that suffocated him to death, entering and exiting that door made me tremble. I decided to change the door, as though to announce to the world that our mourning was over.
But I extended the idea to re-designing Ashay’s room by converting it into a permanent exhibition of his paintings, photographs, and assorted memorabilia. Like a possessed Don Quixote, riding in Sancho Panza Zuber’s rickshaw, I visited the timber market of Pune to buy plywood, laminate, and hardware; I interviewed the headman of a team of young carpenters from Uttar Pradesh, briefed them about the design of the interior of Ashay’s room I had in mind, and launched my project of a permanent memorial for Ashay.
We did not have more money in the bank than to see us through the next two or three months of basic expenses at home and my ATM card was no Aladdin’s Lamp or cornucopia. But I plunged into this
project with such obsessive élan that Viju and Yohul found it scary to watch me among the carpenters, instructing them with crazed eyes and in a preacher’s incorrigible tone of voice and my own pitch of prophetic intensity peaking till it seemed I would crack apart any moment.
Exposure to sawdust caused
an allergic return of my chronic
laryngitis. But there was an irrefutable method in my madness, a perspective any sympathetic person could understand, though would shudder at the thought of sharing. I went on my way with a relentlessness that almost daunted those who watched me in action. I had set a deadline for finishing Ashay’s room a week before his anniversary, though in our hamstrung financial circumstances such a deadline was out of my reach. What I was doing was going on a suicidal spree. Ashay was gone forever and lost to this world. But I was trying to create his presence in his room, the room where he lived and worked and drank and cried to himself; and the room where he was found when neighbours broke the door open.
There is another symptom of classic textbook hypomania that characterized my behaviour as November 29 was unforgivingly approaching. Individuals in this state of upswinging mood often go
out to do exorbitant shopping, purchase things that they have no conceivable need of, become outrageously generous--- and their expansive largesse is laced with unmistakable insanity.
There! I have used the taboo word, forbidden precisely because it describes certain mental states, and the acts caused by them, with cruel precision.
Madness in any of its myriad varieties is a stigma so hideous in people’s minds that only the classical Greek or Latin or Sanskrit or Persian lexicon can give it a mask of learned and cryptic respectability that impresses the plebian mind. Call it dementia praecox and it may make the schizoid cuckoo seem like a peacock dancing in the heat of love. Or, use the term madness for the mystifying popular idea of what only geniuses and artists are licensed to go through, and it sounds even more fascinating in the context of the Van Goghs and the Hemingways who are killed by their own depression. The list of globally eminent people who were victims of unipolar or bipolar disorder in its severest form and driven to commit suicide may fill a book. But such a book will only contain the names of celebrities who killed themselves because they could
not contain the death-drive--and not its euphemistic synonym deathwish-- any longer. There will remain, outside this black magic circle, countless others who commit suicide in a violent mood swing.
“There is only one truly serious problem and that is suicide,” said Albert Camus. It is not my optimistic view of life that is responsible for my surviving the blackest and the most excruciating moment when life seemed indistinguable from death. My life, recognizing itself, painfully and with the greatest effort, pushed itself upward again. Maybe fifty years of having been a translator of Tukaram made me refuse permanent darkness and gave me the glimmer of a near-divine purpose, or nature’s irrepressible thrust, towards what the dying Goethe is said to have uttered, “Light, more light!”
Was it a sign of weakness, or courage and grit, that made me voluntarily ask for psychiatric help?
As I was on the way to recovery a Marathi novelist---Vishram Gupte---came all the way from Goa to visit me. He brought with him a paperback copy of the celebrated American author William Styron’s slim but rich and revealing book----Darkness Visible: A Memoir of
I wish I had read it earlier so that I would find my approaching crisis with clarity and courage and sought expert medical attention earlier as Viju wished. I have never shown a cowardly countenance to my own experience, though in a few periods of emergency, I have taken my ignorance to be some kind of built-in fortitude.
It is such a relief to find the face of an idiot in one’s mirror. One is liberated by that pang of self-recognition.
CODA In the last few months, my mind has encountered some dramatic interior events that compare with tempestuous cerebral
hyperactivity, sweeping tornadoes of ideas and thoughts, volcanic eruptions of feeling and emotions, the hurling of awareness into unstoppable spirals, and the strange experience of everything coming to a slow standstill.
And yet I get the feeling that all this is deja vu--I have already been there before.
What is madness? How do we know who is mad and who isn't? Who has the right to decide who is mad? Nietzsche, who himself went mad, was perhaps the most brilliant philosopher of his time. In his path breaking work, The Genealogy of Morals, he used a novel method of separating one epoch of history from another by highlighting the difference or the gap between them as the marker between the old and the new. Michel Foucault, whose work Histoire de la Folie known in English as Madness and Civilization,
acknowledges Nietzsche as one of his influential precursors. Foucault himself influenced the course of my generation's thinking.
I have a reason to recall them because I myself had a recent brush with what might be called madness. Words, however, can be minced. We may use the broader and vaguer label of mental illness to describe my condition, building towards a starker manifestation since the accidental death of my son Ashay on November 29, 2003. There is no one kind of madness but a plurality of madnesses; and there is no single mental illness but many illnesses that could be described as such.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, always the philosopher, once remarked that a question is like an illness; it needs to be treated. I can literally reverse that remark and say that an illness is like a question: it needs to be answered.
How does one answer a mental illness?
The positivist-behaviourist turns around and says that there is no mental illness; for there is no mind. What you treat is a
malfunctioning of the brain; and there is a moot point here.
The brain is our master organ in many senses. It controls, through its extensions and its secretions, nearly all our bodily functions. It sends, receives, modifies, and controls the trillions of signals within the integrated entity we call our body. What we call the mind is only a representation of what is done by the brain of which we still understand very little, and therefore the mind---to which we attribute all of our social and interpersonal behaviour---is just a contested hypothesis useful in certain contexts, especially contexts we create in order to explain to ourselves our behaviour.
Micro-electrical and psycho-pharmacological intervention produces astounding alterations in what we still describe as 'mental processes' and 'states of mind' ---including madness. It is possible to clinically produce or reproduce madness and conversely to manage the symptoms and manifestations of madness. It is possible to control or manipulate pleasure and pain, states of awareness, qualities of sensation and perception, and emotions with the use of such clinical intervention. For thousands of years, mankind has searched and
found naturally occurring substances that alter states of mind. On the other hand, every civilization has explored the possibilities of training the 'mind' to explore varieties of experience and to regulate experience itself by sheer concentrated auto-suggestion.
Sigmund Freud, in his last and most profound work Civilization and Its Discontents, noted the bi-polarity that we contain as biological beings: the desire to live---Eros or the libido and the wish to destroy or to succumb to death---Thanatos or the destrudo.
In contemporary consumerist civilization, and using advanced technology, analogues or components of naturally occurring molecules affecting behaviour are created in laboratories and made available by pharmaceutical corporations to an expanding global market. If certain forms of temporary madness give certain kinds of pleasure, we can be sure drugs to induce pleasurable madness will be produced. My generation understood this in the mid-1950s or half a century ago.
By the mid-1960s we had experimented with cannabis, peyote, psilocybe Mexicana, LSD< opium and opiates so that we could alter
our perception of our own life in an increasingly intolerable world. By the mid-1970s, it was difficult to find young adults among leisured classes who had not experienced at least one drug high. They were as rare as virgins. We tried amphetamines and cocaine; and some of us killed themselves consuming alcohol followed by overdoses of barbiturates.
It is not new for the human species to experiment with their own bodies. Satisfying hunger and sex have a history beginning with our cave-dweller ancestors; and look at how, in the 21st century, the culinary and the erotic have assumed the status of fine arts. When warped and distorted, the same biological needs drive us to crime against our own species.
As in the case of hunger and sex, fear is the other primal biological motivator governing our lives. The Other stares back at us from everywhere, either as God or God's opposite; and we feel persecuted by the stalker or the hunter or the enemy in pervasive plural forms. Fear makes us suspicious and paranoid. It turns us into racists, sexists, and communalists targeting sections or all of the rest of humanity.
There is yet another biological factor that drives us : the instinct to appropriate and acquire, to possess and to accumulate---and this is greed in its monstrous and grotesque form and it can turn into a quest for unlimited power over the 'other' viewed as an 'object'.
Taking a detached view of our species as biological beings, if such a feat were possible, one is afraid whether we are not a seriously flawed race, a victim of spontaneous malfunction both at the individual and the social level. How otherwise are we to explain why, in the 20th century, every scientific and technological achievement was somehow twisted into an instrument of war and intraspecific as well as ecological destruction?
Other than two world wars, the last century saw many regional conflicts, a number of genocidal acts, and billions of human deaths due to humanly engineered sins of omission or commission. Those statistics are no secret. They are facts of our history as a species. Even more terrifying is the fact that human war against humanity is a product of human organization and perverse human self-
I lost my only son, bit by painful bit, since he suffered the trauma of the industrial catastrophe in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India on the night of December 3-4, 1984. A toxic leak from the chemical tanks of Union Carbide, a global mega-corporation, killed thousands of people that night, maimed and crippled thousands, and mentally and socially disabled many more. My son, Ashay, lived a restricted life for the next 19 years---a life that blighted his talent, his capabilities, and his ability to connect with other human beings. His battle to overcome the handicaps imposed on him was lonely and private. Even I, his father, was unable to see it in a larger perspective.
It is only after his death that was traumatic for me, did I see that he was one of the nameless many whose lives were shattered by a system that brought together a mega-corporation and a nation-state , or two nation-states, whose 'economic' agendas made that disaster possible by locating a potential source of toxicity at the centre of a densely populated city.
Crimes committed against humanity are not justified even in a war. In peace, they are heinous in the extreme. Crimes of a corporation are
inherent in its goals; and crimes of a government are contained in its policies.
The Bhopal tragedy had some ironic consequences. Union Carbide was asked to pay compensation to the thousands of victims and their families but with the skills at negotiation they wriggled out of the worst scenario for them and were able to 'cut the losses' as they say in America. The Indian judiciary determined the amount of
compensation to be paid to the victims and asked the state government of Madhya Pradesh to distribute money accordingly.
God knows how and where the money went and who filed the claims that were settled. Ashay did try to put in his claims through registered letters. When nothing happened, he went in person to Bhopal and met a high government official who happened to be a friend and resubmitted his claim. Nothing happened. Embittered and cynical, Ashay decided to drop the matter. In the event, of the millions of dollars supposedly showered on Bhopal victims, Ashay did not see a red cent.
Ashay believed that as a writer and a filmmaker, and as a concerned
kin of a victim, I would do something about Bhopal. It was not until his loss overwhelmed me that my mind lost its centre and started to involuntarily swing between life and death that I started seeing Ashay not as a victim of Bhopal but as a martyr as the philosopher, Ramchandra Gandhi pointed out to me. Yet, as I wrote the following pages, what drove me on was my own anguish and sense of involvement in a tragedy that involved more than a lost son and his grieving father; and that is what it is at its core---a human tragedy.
Seven centuries before Freud's 20th century speculation on what drives human life, Shri Jnandev wrote his mystical long poem in early Marathi---Anubhavamrut---that I have translated into English as The Immortal Experience of Being. In Jnandev's view Pravrutti or 'outgoing desire' and Nivrutti 'the will to relinquish' are a 'coherent One'---Shivadvaya, the Indivisible Shiva that tends to expand infinitely and to contract into nothing in an exquisitely balanced act of being. Where 'pravrutti' and 'nivrutti' do not seem to cohere, there is 'ajnana' or 'incoherent cognition', chaos, and noise without resonance. Where 'pravrutti' or 'recognition' reflects 'nivrutti' or cognition, awareness is liberated from the bonds of ignorant life.
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