The World Health Organisation tells us there are about 20 million Indians suffering from mental illnesses. An estimated 1-2% of India’s 1 billion-plus population suffer from major mental disorders. There are about 3,500 psychiatrists and 1,500 psychiatric nurses to treat them. This, to quote a famous saint who thought his wife to be the goddess Kali, is fucking crazy.
But let’s not linger on such depressing information and scandalous language on a reasonably nice Sunday. Instead, in true disjointed fashion that is the mark of both the clinically insane and the criminally inept, let us now praise three famous mad men.
Bishen Singh, better known by the name of his home town Toba Tek Singh, was an inmate of the Lahore lunatic asylum a couple of years after Partition. He appears to be suffering from clinical depression and his only mission in life is to know whether his hometown of Toba Tek Singh has been ‘moved’ to Pakistan or ‘remains’ in India. Apart from this fundamental query, the only other thing we find Singh uttering in the story by Saadat Hasan Manto — whose birth centenary we barely cared to celebrate on Friday — is the gibberish line: “Uper the gur gur the annexe the bay dhayana the mung the dal of the laltain.” To find meaning in these outbursts, whose last bit keeps changing according to what is bothering Singh, is to try and squeeze blood out of a stone.
Most people read Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ purely as an absurdist comment on the insanity of a country and its people being divvied up like a pack of cards. It is that. But Singh’s utter confusion about man-made laws coming in conflict with his own notion of reality is the real genius of Manto’s story about who is mad and who isn’t.
Which brings me to Renfield, another mad man in another asylum whom we meet in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (whose 115th anniversary comes up later this month). We get to know about the 59-year-old psychotic through the asylum’s administrator-physician John Seward’s journal jottings. Renfield suffers from delusions that make him eat living creatures — he starts with flies, moves up to spiders and then birds, desires for cats, and one guesses that he wants to move up the food chain to humans. He believes that by eating them, he is gathering their ‘life force’. Renfield is diagnosed as a “zoophagous maniac”, suffering from a pathological, “fetishistic and compulsive” disease.
But this madness has the flavour of religious fanaticism. Instead of god or religion, Renfield’s ‘Master’ is another kind of malevolent blood-sucking force, a skin-penetrating vampire. Unlike Bishen Singh, Renfield is capable of lucidity, as when he tells Seward, “And doctor, as to life, what is it after all? When you’ve got all you require, and you know that you will never want, that is all... I know I shall never lack the means of life!” How far is Renfield in his ritualistic fly-, spider-, bird-eating from other ‘sane’ believers whose Masters subsist on peddling ‘life force’ from their ashrams, temples, religious TV channels...?
An essential feature of madness is a rupture with reality. Or, from the mad man’s perspective, the world’s disconnection from his ‘real’ world. Which is why “crazy, old Meher Ali”, a character we meet in the story ‘Khuditho Pashan’ (The Hungering Stone) by Rabindranath Tagore — whose year-long 150th birth anniversary celebrations ended last week — topples everything about what we consider real and what we don’t.
Meher Ali essentially plays a cameo role in the story about a mysterious gentleman whom the narrator meets on a train to tell his story about when he was a tax collector for the Nizam of Hyderabad and posted in a town called Barich. At the centre of his narrative is a remote, abandoned palace of white marble built by Shah Mahmud II “some two hundred and fifty years ago” as “his house of pleasure”.
The gentleman, then young and lonely, is drawn to this deserted palace and encounters strange sounds and visions, slowly finding himself in the arms of a phantom woman. As he gets sucked into this trance-inducing world of the past, he starts forgetting who he is. It is the piercing cry of the mad man Meher Ali, shouting, “Tafath jao! Tafath jao! Sab jhut hai! Sab jhut hai! (‘Stay away! Stay away!’ — Tagore’s Bengalicised rendering of the Urdu, ‘Dafa ho jao!’ — It’s all a lie! It’s all a lie!) — that jolts our hero back into the here and now.
Near the end of the story we are told that Meher Ali, like the mysterious narrator, also almost succumbed to the charms of the mansion of “unfulfilled desire and demented lust”. Tagore’s hyper-erotic descriptions are reminiscent of the terrifying yet seductive encounters of Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle. Of all the people who spent three nights in the stone mansion hungering for love, Meher Ali was the only one who came out alive, but with his senses no longer intact. Here’s the acute irony of a schizophrenic warning a sane man not to be delusional.
On that note, I suggest that you take a good, long look at yourself in the mirror and confirm whether you’re still there inside or not.