The real tragedy of Kolkata's horror house on Robinson street: India's clueless on how to deal with mental illness

When news first broke, that a 77-year-old man had burned himself to death in central Kolkata, and his son had been found living with what appeared to be the skeletons of his sister and two dogs, it spurred shock which quickly morphed into an orgy of voyeurism.

Sandip Roy June 24, 2015 07:42:45 IST
The real tragedy of Kolkata's horror house on Robinson street: India's clueless on how to deal with mental illness

Debjani Kankal Rahasya aka Debjani Skeleton Mystery.

Now, that has a must-watch ring to it, does it not? Kolkata-based Manjori Opera, a jatra folk theatre group certainly hopes so. It’s getting ready to cash in on the ongoing Robinson Street mystery for its upcoming production.

"I am really excited. The script is 75 percent ready but we will have to wait for the Hyderabad DNA test report to confirm if those were of Debjani’s,” says Gautam Chakrabarty, the owner of Manjori Opera to the Express News Service. The props department is already securing skeletons for the show. He’s excited that there are already two confirmed bookings for the show in different districts in West Bengal. “More are expected,” he says happily.

But while it's easy to be outraged at a jatra company cashing in on a terrible human tragedy, Manjori Opera is at least upfront about its commercial intentions. They are not doing it in the name of some higher goal of good journalism and public service. Meanwhile the media has gone to town with catchy monikers to garner TRPs for the tragic story - Hitchcock House, House of Horrors, Kankal Kando (The skeleton affair).

The real tragedy of Kolkatas horror house on Robinson street Indias clueless on how to deal with mental illness

A file photo of Kolkata police carry the bones of a dog found in the Robinson Street house. AFP

When news first broke, that a 77-year-old man had burned himself to death in central Kolkata, and his son had been found living with what appeared to be the skeletons of his sister and two dogs, it spurred shock which quickly morphed into an orgy of voyeurism.

3 Robinson Street, became a media magnet. And not just the media. All kinds of people showed up at odd hours of the day to take a selfie at the “Horror House” and post it on Facebook with a status like “Got tickets to Hitchcock’s Psycho House in our very own Calcutta – feeling scared at Robinson Street.” It helps that it is a picturesque old house not some apartment in a characterless highrise building. Tamaghna Banerjee at The Telegraph writes it has become “the new selfie address in town” with people booking cars to come for a look and bringing their little children with them. Who are these parents who think that Robinson Street is an innocuous Halloween-style attraction perfectly suitable for a family outing? Even a Durga Puja organizer showed up to scout out Robinson Street’s potential for a Durga Puja pandal theme this year. While we rightly point fingers at an over-the-top media what about us? As Shiladitya Sen writes in Newslaundry “After all, living with a corpse may be unnatural, but taking selfies where a random stranger did so is totes natural.”

For weeks now the family’s dirty laundry has been hung out to dry in the name of reportage. The contents of Partho De’s diaries have appeared in media fueling rumours about strange sexual stories which might have been true or just the fantasies of a disturbed mind. But they are published nevertheless. Partho De was sent to the Pavlov mental hospital where doctors said he was not yet mentally fit to talk to the police. But reporters conducted interviews with him through a chink in the wall. A Bengali newspaper boasted about how it had through great effort been able to meet De at the hospital and reported lurid stories about his screaming fulminations.

When the story first broke, many wondered how even in a city like Kolkata, a family could just go off the radar so easily. This is a city that prides itself on its neighbourliness, its paara culture. It's a close-knit culture that was also a little too good at poking its nose into the neighbour’s business. But this family, once well-to-do and well-connected, member of the city’s elite clubs, just disappeared in plain sight. Their class and the privilege it bought allowed them to insulate themselves from all who might have noticed something amiss but did not dare question anything – the security guard, the delivery boy, the tea shop owner across the street. But the ghoulish interest around the story points to something far more disturbing than the demise of the old neighbourhood culture and its replacement by a sort of cool indifference. It points to society that has no qualms about seeing nothing more than a cool selfie opportunity in a human tragedy.

And we have no compunctions about trampling over all bounds of decency to milk the story for the last lurid detail. The police, relieved no doubt to finally find a scandal that has no political strings attached, have been competing with the doctors in regaling the media with updates and details. Sen writes in Newslaundry that “(r)ather than testing the public’s willpower by waiting until actual facts emerge, cops seemed to have provided the media with complete access to any and all discoveries.” And where the police says they have found absolutely no evidence of incest, the media, writes Sen, undercuts them by talking about notes and diary entries by Partho that “carry sexual connotations, including incest”. We know about Partho De’s diaries, we know about his diet, we know how much he slept and how long his nails are. A man’s mental disarray has been splayed out in full public view. It is as if along with a diagnosis of mental problems he has given up all rights to his privacy and confidentiality.

If anything the story points to our complete helplessness when it comes to dealing with mental problems. Our films and soap operas usually reduce mental problems to the aftermath of some singular traumatic event, neatly fixed by another blow-to-the-head traumatic event. But the creeping onset of depression and schizophrenia pass unnoticed or at best is dismissed as eccentricity. The more the details come out about this family, the more it should be a wake up call as to how woefully ill-equipped we are to diagnose and deal with mental illness. But instead we are fixated on the scribbles and doodles of one man’s diary. “It is not Partho’s fault that he is mentally unstable,” writes Jaideep Das, a former classmate in The Telegraph. But he is being portrayed, writes Das, as “Calcutta’s Psycho” with his diary entries turned into public fodder with no thought given to what that might mean to his return to normal life once he is discharged from the mental hospital.

If he is discharged.

Partho De’s stay at the Pavlov mental hospital has revealed a tragedy far bigger than one family’s descent into a nightmare. The Telegraph reports that Pavlov hospital has 250 beds and more than 500 patients. More than 40 percent have been there for years. Many of them have been certified “cured” but languish there because there is no one who will take them back home. Some wait with their belongings stashed into small bags every day for their families to take them home.

Partho De could well meet the same fate. The doctors feel that while he is responding well to medication, they cannot release him because there is no one at home to take responsibility for his lifelong medication. A newspaper report quoting a “source” says Partho’s condition has improved. When he arrived he was trying to share a biscuit with someone. When doctors asked him about it, he said he was offering the biscuit to his dead sister who he insisted was beside him and having a conversation with him. “We don’t see him trying to share his food with anyone now.”

Perhaps in some ways Partho De was better off in his bubble of delusion where he offered biscuits to his dead sister than the reality he will face now. He will be “cured” to understand in full horrific measure that he lives in a society that has no means to take care of him, and has taken advantage of his own mental distress to turn him into fodder for tabloid news, Facebook selfies and a Manjari Opera stage production.

Partho De might be sick but he didn't choose to be. The rest of us can't claim that as we trespass into his life literally and figuratively. And that's what's truly horrifying about Robinson Street.

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