The discovery of skeletons in the house of a living man is disturbing. Partha De is now in custody and his life is being prised open by the police, psychiatrists and curious onlookers. The story from Kolkata that has been in the news for the past few days invariably refers to it as the “House of Horrors”. This is most unfortunate. None of the inhabitants tried to spook out others; in fact, there was barely any contact with outsiders. How does it become a horror house then? The linked report has a picture of a skeleton "for representation purposes". What is it supposed to represent?
According to the doctors, De is suffering from complex psychological problems and an extreme form of depression due to which he refused to accept the death of his sister Debjani and two pet dogs and continued to communicate with them, despite the bodies decomposing before his eyes. As of now, he is not convicted for any crime, although he witnessed his father Arabindo De’s suicide where he set himself aflame. Partha did not – perhaps could not – help.
There has been much debate about depression recently, and people seem to show some understanding, even though I am chary of such public empathy for prominent cases. In some ways, the cynicism gets validated when we read about the “horror” instead of an attempt to reach out to such minds. Depression is not only about pretty people losing the will to do anything and where ‘coming out’ becomes the denouement. (I will not judge them, for each one suffers and it is lonely in that space, but this is not the full picture of depression.) What happened in Kolkata might seem extreme, but inmates in mental asylums are often like that.
De was at home and could give vent to his delusions. These are not fantasies, but false beliefs. However, was he the only ill person in that house? His father and sister all apparently wrote letters to each other from one room to another. Is this a sign of something wrong? In the outside world people aren’t doing it too differently – the messaging, calls, and social media thumbs up to one another all reveal a lack of normal communication.
Here it would seem was a well-established family, its members educated. Partha was an engineer; his sister taught music. Their bungalow is worth a few crores. The psychiatric opinions talk about incest and necrophilia, both plausible given the evidence.
But what if it is three people still living with the memory of the mother? In the notes Partha seems to suggest that she was jealous of her daughter, making her strip in the bathroom during a family vacation. Or being unusually curious about her son’s potency (“My mother thinks I am impotent. She wanted to see me develop a relationship. This is why she used to send a maid servant to my room...”) instead of finding out if he might wish to get married or live in with a partner.
The reports refer to his “bizarre descriptions” of sex. This should not automatically imply any illness. Novelists might write about bizarre acts, and fantasies can be bizarre.
It appears that the mother was overprotective and infantilising the siblings, and their growing old was a threat to her position despite her being a strong person:
"The enemy tried to take my mother but failed. It lost - the biggest loser. The devil got (f*****) royally. My mother had a very powerful will. She fought with all her weight."
In some ways, Partha began looking at his sister as a mother figure he could relate to in a more than Oedipal way.
There are child-like drawings. Some dolls have been found, indicating the use of black magic. Except for the property battle with the senior’s brother, there does not appear to be any tangible enemy to cast a spell on. More than any black magic device, the dolls probably filled a gap, as maternal symbols or children. The father seems to have been a helpless witness to all the tragedies mirrored in one another.
Nobody knows yet how Debjani or the dogs died. The neighbours were unaware. A big city where a family living in a prominent house goes undetected and their lives seem to be of no consequence reveals the horror of what we have become as a society.
If this is about living with the dead, then that is how we all live everyday.