Saturday 15 August 2020

Puneet Chansauria, Short Story 2020 Featured Writer

The Delusional and the Deadly

It was a gloomy Sunday on which the brothers of my deceased colleague visited the hostel. They were evacuating the room. A motley band of hostel mates were helping, and I was one of them.

In the course of retrieving the articles from one of desk-drawers I found a diary. And as I flipped through the pages, I realised that it was a personal diary.

You might say that I am a mean SOB, when I tell you that I decided to keep that diary. I thought the personal memoirs would be filled with local wisdom that might help me through my years in the medical college.

If you thought it was mean then it might comfort you to know that I have suffered immensely after I went through that diary cover to cover. My suffering was not inspired by emotion, but by dread.

The pages that I hereby reproduce recount what transpired in the lives of some unknown people in some distant place. Yet, after reading their experiences, I could not help but feel that I know them personally and that’s what troubling my nights and perplexing my days.

So, with selfish and cathartic motives, I reproduce the last entry from the diary of my senior and colleague who died in a train accident a month ago. Apparently, he fell on the track while running and trying to board the train!

Below are supposedly his last written words:
Date: 22nd August 2011
The incident that I have decided to commit to paper has violently shook scepticism out of me, and I can scarcely doubt that whoever reads this account-- which in fact is only an abridgement of what underwent with me--would not be forced to revise their belief systems and ideas rooted in rationalism and nourished by empiricism.

So, without further ado, I begin the narrative that could not but lie as an outcast among peer-reviewed papers and theses; the sagas of testable realities.

I am a student of medicine, for my MS I have opted for Psychiatry. I am doing my internship at one of the largest and the oldest mental hospital in the country. Its establishment dates back to the colonial times.

It was during a normal Tuesday’s after hours when an orderly of the hospital, who has gotten quite familiar with me, approached me and requested me to meet an inmate, who he said speaks “Madrasi”. In the course of my tenure people have come to know that I am a South-Indian and Madrasi was the colloquialism in currency among the workers and inmates.

He said that the inmate draws beautifully and then erases his work. He seldom eats and is averse to playing cards. I naturally asked him why he wanted me to meet him and he simply replied that all the inmates are curious to know what he says. The expressions of the orderly convinced me that this inmate has become quite an enigma for others.

As I had a penchant for the odd, I agreed to meet this inmate, who, from now on, I shall call Mr. K, a 26-year-old schizophrenic. Prior to meeting him, I requested the warden his case file, which he eagerly handed over to me. He was one of the youngest patients in the hospital, where the average age of the inmates must have been somewhere between 37 and 45.

His case file read like a text-book case of hebephrenic schizophrenia in which the patient has the tendency to regress to his childhood. Mr. K typically regressed to his early-adolescence. He would, in the course of his pathological episodes, talk like a ten-year-old with a penchant for story-telling. I thought I have found the reason why the other patients find Mr. K amusing.

According to the file, the inmate raved and ranted for hours on end as if narrating a story. I concluded that these rantings and ravings are the part of a delusional construct, little did I know that those utterings held facts that even the most fantastically bent mind would find hard to conjure up.

I obtained the permission to meet him the next day. At the first sight, I noticed his glassy eyes that seemed fitted externally on an expressionless face. Frankly, his demeanour and outlook disappointed me, not that I was expecting to meet a Hannibal Lecter, but I find the lad too dull to engage with and I regretted accepting to meet him. I was soon about to be faced with an avalanche of terse narrations emanating out of a “convoluted” mind, which upon being deciphered would bury me under the realisation of the mediocrity of my knowledge of the human mind.

He was talking like a ten-year-old, apparently narrating an episode from his childhood. I was hardly listening intently until the words “he died” hit my ear drums and Mr. K, from that point on, commanded my attention fully. I was aware that he might not be able to repeat himself verbatim, owing to his pathology, still I tried. And he began--

“Vaasu Anna (brother) was playing in the courtyard. Kaaki (paternal uncle’s wife) asked me to get her a glass of water. Vaasu Anna stuck his leg out and made me trip and the water to spill. I went back to Kaki and told her, she made me sit beside her and said that she will give me something. She retrieved her old trunk but the key jammed in the lock. Kaaki called Vaasu Anna to come and help. He shouted back, “I am too thirsty to walk just like Kaaki, thirsty all the damn time, I will throw in the village pond. Let her drink up the whole damn pond dry”, and then chuckled. Vaasu Anna never came and Kaaki and I couldn’t open the trunk that day even after trying for an hour. Vaasu Anna died that night.”

I must admit that it embarrasses me to admit that I was taken aback after hearing the abrupt end of the story that was being narrated by a certified schizophrenic, whom I was not treating or counselling, yet listening to intently.

Anyways, I was conscious enough to make mental notes of the names that appeared in his story, I exactly don’t know why. But I can justify it by saying that I wanted to understand the origins of the pathology, as death of close relatives are potent triggers.

I was too vain to ask a schizophrenic, who I wasn’t counselling, to elaborate the end of his story and so I decided to call it a day. I couldn’t believe till this day that Mr. K held my hand and made me sit back as I was about to stand up and leave his eyes now as expressive as a Broadway actor, yet that’s what happened and I sat back again, this time as a captivated audience.

“A day before Onam, Puva (Father’s sister) was looking frantically for the comb which I was playing with and when she came in the Kaaki’s cabin, I was combing her hair with it. I used to comb and braid Kaaki’s hair. You know, Puva sneered, threw things at Kaaki, hurled abuses and called her a bald-headed witch, before snatching the comb from my hand and slapping me. Puva died that year before Diwali.”

At that point, I became increasingly convinced that Mr. K’s pathology is making his subconscious link the death of his family members to Kaaki’s annoyance. This, I though, was typical run of the mill magical thinking that such patients exhibit.

I may have reached my banal conclusions about him but Mr. K surely wasn’t done, he began without even stopping for what could viably be called a pause.

Kaaki had begun to wet and soil her bed every night, I cleaned her and her bed. One morning, I was out to buy milk, when I came back, I saw my sister-in-law berating Kaki. She was saying to her that she should eat to live, not live to eat and she should be dead and it’s a curse on the household that she is still alive.” There came a pause and I was strangely relieved that this one did not end with someone dying. And then it came like a lightning bolt “Kadambari (I deduced that he was talking about his sister-in-law) died two days before Kaaki’s death, she drowned in the village pond.”

Mr K. finally fell silent, and this time when I stood up, he did not look at me. Although, I bid him good bye he remained laid back in his chair like a man relaxed after a cathartic session.

I couldn’t help but think about the frequency of deaths in the family of Mr. K’s story. If it were true, it would be the news of the town, let alone the village. The police must have been involved. In all there were four deaths and it can be deduced that the deaths happened in quick succession, as the narrator remained more or less the same age until the culmination of the story.

I can’t decipher why but next week I met with the Doctor who was originally handling the case. I requested for the case file. On the condition that, I will not make any notes. I didn’t want the doctor to get the impression that I have been keenly attending to the grape vine and operating on my whims. Therefore, I took great care to explain to the Doctor that I was interested in it for scholastic reasons as I suspect that his delusions are deeply associated with the folklore. And I told him that we are from the same geographical regions. He had no reason to deny me the case history, his treatment regime could not have been shared and I was hardly interested in it.

The file was in my hand and I wanted to ascertain through my reading of it what emotions are exactly triggering his episodic regressions and wherefrom his delusions emanate. I, up till that point, suspected that he might have invented the names of the family members and that all of them perhaps existed only in his imaginations.

I started with the family history. As it turned out, Mr. K had a brother named Vaasu and the Kaaki, who was at the centre of K’s story actually existed. She was the maternal aunt of K’s father and had bequeathed her property to his nephew in exchange for care and shelter. And lo and behold, there was a cousin whose wife was named Kadambari.

Now, I was intrigued. All the characters in his story were real, where was and what was the delusion then. I was investigating the reality of a delusion; I was grappling with a paradox.

I convinced myself that the delusion must be inherent in the instances of the lives and sequences of the deaths of the members of the family. The file also mentioned the deaths that had occurred in K’s family between his tenth and eleventh year. The deaths were explained from K’s perspective only and it said that they seemed to have not affected him instantaneously, as he continued to live normally under his father’s care for several years before his symptoms began to appear.

The information had instigated an unhealthy curiosity in me and then the next thing I did would be termed unprofessional by many but I was as if under an unexplainable influence.

I contacted my friend who was in state police department of the state from which I and K come from. I asked him to get me the police reports of the deaths and I was sure there must be post-mortem reports, as certainly all the deaths except that of Kaaki’s were unnatural.

My friend obliged and I got the copies of the report after nearly a month.

Vaasu, K’s elder brother had died at age fourteen. The cause of his death was documented as Cerebral Edema caused by water-toxemia, in short, Vaasu had died of water intoxication. It is an extremely rare cause of death and my medical training had afforded me the knowledge that water if ingested at a rapid rate in quantities larger than the kidneys could process and expel, then it causes electrolytic imbalance and if intervention is not made and the brain cells start to swell, death follows.

It was uncanny, Vaasu died of drinking too much water, too fast. I remembered in K’s story, the words “I can’t come I am too thirsty..." were attributed to Vaasu.

I feverishly began to search for the reports of Puva’s death and post-mortem, the cause of the death was GI obstruction and intestinal rupture. I read the medical history and it struck me when I read that she was suffering from Trichotillomania, (the compulsive feeling to pull out one’s hair). The GI obstruction was caused by the hairs she ate after pulling them out of her head. A shiver ran down my spine, as I remembered that in K’s story, Puva had berated Kaaki concerning her baldness.

I was shaken to the core and I wished I could find something, somewhere in those files with which I could refute that weirdo’s narrative and the horrors it implied.

I began to read again. The sister-in-law’s death was ruled suicide by drowning. It was the medical history that challenged my wits. The lady, at age 27, had developed faecal and bladder incontinence. She had lost voluntary control of her bowel movements and bladder which made her extremely depressed owing to the stigmatisation it incurred her. She, in all likelihood, took her own life due to her illness which is equally, if not more, in young people as water intoxication and trichotillomania are. And, at this point, I couldn’t help but look at the corresponding sequence from that, ungodly story of the strangest hebephrenic I will ever meet in my life who had a distant grandmother with mystical powers.

My scepticism made a final attempt and I reasoned to myself that may be the story was made backwards i.e. the boy invented the sequences of unpleasantness the victims had with Kaaki afterwards. But then I thought about the rarity of the conditions and the fictional acrobatics that kind of story invention would require.

I couldn’t sleep that night and remained tormented for weeks. I read all I could about mysticism, psychic powers, telekinesis, curses, psychological anti-placebo and what not.

I was failing to restore my faith in the exclusive authority of science over reality and my cynicism and scepticism were moribund.

Today, I went to Mr. K once again and this time I tried to induce him to tell me how he ended up in the asylum. He stared at me without saying a word. I was unable maintain eye-contact with him, maybe subconsciously, I was guilty about betraying him by fact-checking his story.

Suddenly he spoke, will you play chess with me?

It amazed me that K could really play chess, I still though chess to be one of those past-times of the sophisticated. I stood amazed for a moment, collected myself and then agreed. My afterthought was that we might establish enough rapport for him to divulge his entire story to me. I sent an orderly to get the chessboard but he came empty handed. We would have to wait for at least two hours for someone has thrown away the chessmen out of frustration of defeat.

I explained the scenario to K, “I will make the chessmen with stones,” K replied.
I said to him that it’s better that we take a rain check as I have a train to catch. K was visibly displeased. Then I stood up and made my way through the corridor, leaving the mysterious K behind.

I couldn’t catch the train today, my colleague insisted that we take the bus together. I have promised myself that I will never speak about this incident to anyone, not even to my friend whose connections got me those medical and police files.

And I will play chess with him some day, I hope they don’t put him on a heavier dose of chlorpromazine as it would take the chess out of him. But what can we do?

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