A 90-year-old man in Kalkaji was found living with the decomposing body of his wife for days on end before he came out of his home to ask for help. When the police arrived, he asked them to be quiet lest they wake up his dead wife. Neighbours suspect that malnourishment killed the woman who had lived in that home for 42 years along with her husband.
Just how many people live in the twilight zone? The disturbing story about this elderly couple who survived on the fringes is yet another reminder of how many things we turn a blind eye to. It brings to my mind a lot of images of decrepitude in my own neighbourhood — homes crumbling, dishevelled clothes, disorganised talk — all signs of how daily existence has become a nightmare.
This particular couple — the Jethanis — had no children and no income; this of course accentuates their fragility. But there appears to have been a broken structure which predates this crumbling — for 42 years they had lived as outsiders to the world which most of us inhabit.
While it is true that the elderly are more vulnerable, the mentally ill go unrecognised. The inability to participate in the world and to eke a meagre income, to live on the outskirts of society, is often telltale signs of mental illness.
Senescence often intensifies the proclivities of our temperament, as there is a lowering of inhibition and a reduced capacity to disguise ourselves.
However, in this particular case, it appears that there is a longer history of degeneration and often this pushes people into deep retreats. The Jethanis appear to have enclosed themselves into a kind of collusive psychic retreat from the world, which happens in dire loneliness.
Where there is some health and resilience, one partner may be able to disengage from the other enough to retain a degree of sanity and separateness, but where both are fragile, unable to face the world there may be a folie à deux, or a collusive retreat into the muted world of delusions to escape the harsher light outside of it.
It is just such a space from where the husband reached out to a neighbour four days after his wife died, to register her curious lack of response.
In the twilight zone, reality gets blurred as terror of the truth — in this case, his wife’s death -- is known to be unthinkable and unbearable.
Nilofer Kaul is a psychoanalyst based in Delhi
The views expressed are personal