Tale of two sides: Book on mental scars of Partition, and a cursed heirloom

Psychiatrist Anirudh Kala’s ‘The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness’ in interlinked episodes explores the impact of Partition on mental health in both countries, and even of the future generations.
Anirudh Kala
Anirudh Kala
Updated on Jun 30, 2018 11:30 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | ByNirupama Dutt, Chandigarh

Rulda Singh of Rawalpindi and Fattu of Hoshiarpur are inseparable friends and also inmates of the mental hospital at Lahore. Admitted there under the Indian Lunacy Act, they are declared fit for discharge in May 1947, and their families are informed; but no one comes to take them, so they continue there for another three years until the time comes to partition the madness too.

One night their banter turns to argument, and Fattu taunts Rulda, “You non-Muslim mental patient! You will be deported to Pakistan with all the other Hindu and Sikh kafirs!” He turns the two-nation theory on its head, and that too three years after Lahore is already part of the new nation of Pakistan, not of India anymore.

This and many more such tales are part of a volume straight from a shrink’s keyboard, underlining that the trauma of Partition is not a thing of the past. Do not, therefore, think that Bishan Singh’s mutterings in ‘Toba Tek Singh’ by the famed chronicler of Partition, Saadat Hasan Manto, are over and done with!

Cross-border initiative

Psychiatrist Anirudh Kala’s ‘The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness’ in interlinked episodes explores the impact of Partition on mental health in both countries, and even of the future generations. Kala’s family had roots in a village near Kala Shah Kaku in the Sheikhupura district of what is now Pakistan, and he had left the ancestral home while still in his mother’s womb to be born on this side of the border on the first day of the December in 1947 made particularly cold by the division of one people.

Partition chased him through not just the memories of his parents but many of his mentally ill patients who were affected by the death, destruction and displacement wrought by the Radcliffe Line.

An MD in psychiatry from the PGIMER in Chandigarh, and one of the leading psychiatrists of Punjab, Kala got a chance to visit Pakistan in 2006 when he was invited for a psychiatry conference in Lahore. The invitation came from a leading psychiatrist from across the border, the late Haroon Rashid Chaudhry, director of Fountain House - Institute of Mental Health in Lahore.“This led to valuable cross-border exchanges and the setting up of Indo-Pak Punjab Psychiatric Society,” he says, “We met every year for a conference alternately in Pakistan and India until visas became exceedingly difficult to get, and my friend Haroon’s death was another setback.”

Of the stories in the book, he says they result from his own visits to mental health institutions in Pakistan, besides stories which came to his own clinic in India.

Shared psychosis

One of the most heart-rending stories is ‘Folie à deux’ (shared psychosis), of a couple that migrates from Multan to Ludhiana amid communal rioting. The woman has a delusionary breakdown a year later on a rainy day, when she “hears” a mob approaching. She “sees” bearded “mussalmans” (Muslims) wearing clothes drenched in blood, threatening to amputate her breasts. In panic, she runs out of her house into the rain and is found a couple of hours later at the railway station, asking for the train to Multan! Ironically, she is taken to a local Muslim healer who gives her some leaves to keep under her pillow, and she recovers fitfully in a few months.

After 20 years, in which she gives birth to three children and stoically bears the loss of her husband in an accident, the fit of delusion comes back. One night, as a wedding procession enters the street, she runs out, climbs a parapet and jumps, falling to her death on the asphalt road.

But the story is not over. It’s a chain. A year later, the son succumbs to a delusion that people are trying to kill him and the ISI (Pakistan’s spy agency) has placed some persons to read his thoughts! The next victim is his younger sister, who starts saying that a Muslim doctor killed their mother. The last blow is when the eldest sister falls to the malaise, and accuses the doctor of pumping drugs into her brother and sister, and of killing her mother: “You are a psycho yourself, a killer!”

Recalling this family he treated with some success and some failure, Kala says: “There are instances of mental illness running in the family, with the need to believe in the reality of others that you are physically and emotionally intertwined with. The delusion of Muslim men baying for blood and honour was passed down to the family like a cursed heirloom.”

Love and longing

Two curious stories, one from each side, show that, with the bloodshed a thing of the past, there remains longing for the other side even in next, current generations.

‘Love During Armistice’ is the touching tale of a Punjabi schoolboy in Shimla who sees Benazir Bhutto as she accompanies her father, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan, for the Simla Summit of 1972. He loses his heart to her, and the obsession turns clinical as he pens letter after letter of love to her, much to the predicament of his teachers and parents.

From across the border we have ‘The Mad Prophesier’, in which Mr Haq, a mid-level executive in Lahore, has an incredible physical resemblance to actor Amitabh Bachchan, such that each time Bachchan falls ill, he too imagines himself grievously ill, and “recovers” when Bachchan does. The longest spell is when the actor is in coma after a fight scene has gone wrong, and Haq is almost fired from his job because he does not work for six months. Finally, Mr and Mrs Haq fly to Mecca to pray for Bachchan, so that Mr Haq can recover too!

Last word

Rulda Singh has the last word for the first story, thanks to a bit of fiction added by the writer as a literary device.

When he is finally discharged from the Amritsar mental hospital in 1984, a Delhi-based nephew claims him. As he is being taken to Delhi by an assistant of the nephew in the November of that year, the killing of Sikhs is in progress as communal hatred has gripped the country after PM Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The young companion is killed, and Rulda is chased with the cry of “Another Sikh!”. Somehow he escapes the mobs and, panting, stops a cab to ask the driver, “Is there a mental hospital in the city?”

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