UCLA shooting: Mainak Sarkar mystery and the uncanny Prosenjit Poddar link

He was from Durgapur, a couple of hours drive from Kolkata; he was from Balurghat, a small town in north Bengal, close to the Bangladesh border, which had no rail connection till a few years ago. He passed out of a so-called private English-medium school, viz. St Michael’s School, in 1995; he passed out of wholly Bengali-medium government-run Balurghat High School in 1962. He studied aerospace engineering in IIT Kharagpur, the 2000 batch; he too studied at IIT Kharagpur, naval architecture, 1967 batch. Both went to the engineers’ mecca, the United States of America, and to two of the best institutions there, he to Stanford in 2001, he to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967. Both tried to live the American dream, only to end up in inconceivable tragedy.

Mainak Sarkar, the aerospace engineer who killed himself on Thursday after shooting dead his girlfriend in Minnesota and his PhD supervisor at the University of California in Los Angeles or UCLA, could have been the 21st-century reincarnation of Prosenjit Poddar, who stabbed his American girlfriend to death in 1969, nearby in Berkeley. Except, Prosenjit Poddar is still around to tell his tale if he wanted to which, for understandable reasons, he is loath to.

It is a cautionary tale, a caution that still seems relevant almost half a century later. If Prosenjit Poddar’s denouement can be, as it has been, put down to culture shock, the inability to adjust to a fast paced, open society going from a country tied to the Hindu rate of growth, both economically and socially, Mainak Sarkar was the product of a liberalised India where the latest American sitcoms are beamed into sitting rooms via satellite TV. Nevertheless, Sarkar evidently found it as difficult to fit into the America of the 2000s as did Poddar in the late Sixties. Sure, he must have been unhinged but the triggers for the imbalance could well lie in the desperation to belong in an alien culture.

 UCLA shooting: Mainak Sarkar mystery and the uncanny Prosenjit Poddar link

This undated photo shows Ashley Hasti, left, and Mainak Sarkar. AP

The Satya Nadellas and Sundar Pichais and Siddhartha Mukherjees are only part of the story. Assimilation, integrating into the American way of life, it seems, is not for everyone, especially for Indians from protective, middle class families. No wonder so many NRIs still look to their homeland for a reaffirmation of their success and status in society, why they are so eager to open up their hearts and wallets for a leader who they reckon will make India great again and stand up to other world leaders including those of their adopted country, why they welcome Narendra Modi on his every trip to Yankee land as a conquering hero.

When Prosenjit Poddar reached Berkeley in 1967, the number of Indian students, in fact the number of Indians in America was barely a fraction of what it is today. The United States had just about set out to beat Russia (then USSR) at the game of winning the hearts and minds of the third world and scholarships had just begun to pour in. Prosenjit Poddar was one such scholarship holder. Not someone who had set IIT on fire but still good enough for America. (Mainak Sarkar’s teachers in IIT-Kgp too could not place him instantly. “He must have been an average student,” said MK Laha, a former teacher, reports the Times of India.)

One can only imagine the shock Prosenjit Poddar, who had known only Balurghat and Kharagpur till then, both small towns, more rural than urban, must have felt when he stepped into Berkeley of the Sixties. This was the cradle of the churning that American society had then begun to experience, made memorable by bra burning, free sex, birth control pills, doping, drugging, breakthrough music bands, violent student protests. If the ground beneath his feet trembled, it was, surely, only to be expected.

Most of Berkeley’s foreign students lived on campus, in the International House. So did Poddar. There was some do or the other there most Fridays, often it was an evening of folk dances where students from different countries mixed with abandon. Poddar has already been in America one whole year before he could gather up courage to come down and attend one of these evenings. Lonely and awkward, he soon found himself spellbound by pretty, young Tanya, formally known as Tatiana Tarasoff, a second generation offspring of Russian immigrants who hoped to join college herself the following year.

They became friends, she visiting him in his room at the International House where they chatted, even as he secretly taping their conversations. He also introduced her to a couple of fellow Indian students there. Sometimes they went out on dates, which usually did not amount to more than having ice cream together. He met her family, her brother had no issues but her father did not like the sight of him at all. On new year’s eve Tanya kissed him – with nothing in mind. But the effect on Prosenjit was electric.

The raging student movement that had Berkeley on the boil left him cold; like most other Indian students, he was focused on his studies and getting his degree before his scholarship ran out. But Tanya obsessed him. When, as was to be expected, she lost interest in him after a few months – an American teenager she did not see herself spending the rest of her life with him which is what he envisioned – Poddar became morose, withdrawn, lost interest in his studies, stayed locked up in his room, listening to his taped conversations with Tanya over and over again, not even having a bath and stinking to high heaven. One day he went and got himself a gun and played with it in his room. Discovering him in this state a fellow IIT-ian dragged him to the university medical centre where he was put under the charge of a psychiatrist.

What the doctor heard during their sessions worried him considerably. Poddar threatened to take revenge on the girl who had spurned him, boasted about the gun he had got hold of, declared he would kill Tanya with it one of these days. Patient confidentiality prevented the doctor from warning Tanya and her family about the possible danger she was in but he did tell the police that Poddar could be a threat to others. The police checked up on him but found him docile and biddable. Until one day when Poddar hid behind a bush opposite Tanya’s home, waited until she was alone in the house, barged in and stabbed her with a bread knife, not once, not twice, but thirteen times, starting inside the house, chasing her when she ran outdoors into the garden and in front of the horrified eyes of neighbours. He then called the police and waited patiently for them to come and take him to jail.

The courts found him guilty, brushing aside all pleas of mental instability or temporary insanity. He spent five years in a California prison, during which he finished his masters course and got the degree he had come to America for in the first place. He also decided to appeal his case. A young lawyer just starting out on his career (he is a reputed corporate lawyer in California now) took on his case pro bono and got him a mistrial on a technical ground. He would have to be tried again.

The Americans decided to cut their losses. They gave him a deal: stay away from America and you are free to do what you want; come back and we will prosecute you. Poddar returned to India, soon to leave for Germany where he is said to remain, with a good Bengali wife and a daughter. But America hasn’t forgotten Prosenjit Poddar. His is a name that medical and legal circles there are fully aware of. His atrocity was not wholly in vain. Thanks to him many states have enacted laws and doctors are not only free to warn possible victims of their patients’ murderous tendencies but are dutybound to do so. Do a Google search and Prosenjit Poddar’s name will dredge up 19,500 entries in .45 seconds, mostly because of the legal implications of what he did to Tanya Tarasoff.

It is likely that Mainak Sarkar’s Indian friends will be as protective of him as Prosenjit Poddar’s contemporary Indian students at Berkeley are of him. They will tell you how sweet he was, how soft spoken, how gentle, but when it comes to his violence against Tanya they clam up. IITians are particularly keen to not let anything besmirch the fair name of their alma mater. Again, like Poddar’s, Sarkar’s family too will probably believe that it was all the doing of those shameless, loose firangi hussies who entrap their innocent ladlas and lead them astray. And, who can say, they could all be correct.

There is so much of Sarkar’s life in America that is as yet unknown. We will know soon, I am sure. A book on such a tragedy must already be in the making. Most of the information on Prosenjit Poddar comes from one such book: Bad Karma: A True Story of Obsession and Murder by Deborah Blum published in 1986. But it will not be surprising if we find out that Sarkar’s life followed Poddar’s trajectory. The grass is not always that green in faroff lands.

Updated Date: Jun 03, 2016 22:54:01 IST