I paused at the gates of the dreary building. The very thought of going in filled me with a strange kind of exhaustion, a lethargy I had never experienced before. I sighed. Let’s get the whole thing finished quickly. Dragging my feet, I stepped in and enquired about Baba.
The anxious faces around me were awaiting their turn to meet their loved ones - those who had been banished to this rehabilitation home. Those unfortunate enough to be struck with a mental affliction in our country, deserved to rot in hell like this.
In his heyday, Baba would have shuddered at such “rehab centres”. He was paranoid about social status and respectability. According to him, people like us did not suffer from mental problems….these things happened only to other “abnormal” people.
I thought of the irony of it all. At the fag end of his life, Baba was a prisoner of his own demented mind, a dark shadow of his former self, in this rehab home.
The geriatrician, the neurosurgeon, the psychiatrist, had all shaken their heads and given similar pronouncements. Baba was beyond revival or cure now. Dementia had shrunk his brain cells to such an extent, that he had lost his sense of rationality and propriety totally.
Science has not been able to devise a cure for Dementia or Alzeimer’s disease till now. And at Baba’s advanced age, the disease had spread its tentacles too far and too deep. It had unleashed a violent aggression that kept surfacing in a mild-mannered man like Baba.
I thought about the times when we were blissfully unaware that such a disease even existed.
Baba was erudite, well travelled, and could intelligently converse on fairly any topic under the sun. As the head of operations in a prestigious PSU engineering company, he had an army of subordinates reporting to him at work. At home, he was not very involved in day-to-day matters, but as a father he never denied me anything.
Since he worshipped the workplace, he was not prepared for the day when he would be out of it. When retirement took over, he was suddenly rudderless, clueless about what to do with his free time.
Time stretched meaninglessly for him.
His office associates slowly stopped visiting. Ma tried to keep him engaged him in household matters, but beyond the daily trips to the fish and vegetable market, Baba was not really interested in anything. Slowly, a feeling of futility began to overtake him.
Ma was the backbone of our family. In times of crisis she kept normalcy and held the household together. She took the good and the bad in her stride. When I told her about my decision to shift to a rented accommodation, she had taken it quite calmly, with perfect lack of sentimentality. I was married for a couple of years then, and my daughter had just completed six months. Ma had understood our need for privacy as a family. There had not been a single rant on her part, against our leaving the ancestral house.
But Baba had not spoken to me for a month after that. I could see that he was deeply hurt, but I had no choice. My family was growing and I had to move out. I tried having a face-to-face talk with him, but Baba adamantly maintained a stony silence.
It was later that I realized that the distance between us was growing irrevocably, and he was getting lonelier by the day.
A year later, when my son was born, I was relieved to see traces of his old warmth and geniality surface again. He played and cooed with the child when he visited, and seemed to enjoy being with him.
And then the worst happened.
Ma was diagnosed with abdominal cancer at an advanced stage. Typically, as most Indian mothers are prone to do, she had hidden her condition and had suffered silently for days and months - the pain, the cramps, the difficulties in digesting, the bleeding. Later, she told me that she had not wanted to burden me with her medical problems, as I had my hands full with my children and my job.
So she kept the killer disease hidden within her insides, till it asserted itself with a vengeance. And then it was too late. We rushed her to the latest, state-of-the art specialized hospital, but no amount of oncology expertise could win Ma’s losing battle against cancer. After months of painful chemotherapy sessions and two futile operations, she gave in.
A chapter ended with Ma’s passing away.
The brightness and normalcy of Baba’s household instantly faded away. He became a ghost of his former self, wandering about aimlessly in the house. A full-time hired help and a cook could not ensure that he was having his meals on time or taking his insulin injections. Most part of the day, he just kept vacantly staring at the walls or dozing off.
As the dutiful son, I dropped in everyday to check in on him. Sometimes I brought my wife, Anu and the kids to stay over to cheer him up. It relieved me to see his eyes light up in response to my daughter, Pari’s hug or my son Sunny’s antics. But such moments became increasingly rare, and he relapsed into silence and despondency every now and then.
One day, when I dropped in at noon, I overheard an awful commotion inside. I could make out Baba cursing and screaming at the ayah and the cook. And what filthy language he used! I was utterly shocked.
I banged at the door with all my strength. After some more screaming and yelling, the cook opened the door. Chairs were lying on the floor, and the ayah was cowering in a corner.
She broke down at once and started pouring out her complaints.
“Bhaiya, please settle my dues. I can’t work here a second more”.
“Calm down, Shanta, tell me what the provocation was”.
“I was helping Uncle undress to take a bath, when he started pushing and kicking me away. Then he threw the chair and….”, she could not continue.
“Dadababu, he has totally lost his mind. Please get him admitted to a mental hospital.” This was the cook.
I glared at her, but saw that she was right. Till now, Baba had been non-cooperative but quiet and sullen. There had been no violent behavior so far. But now, it was risky to leave him alone in this house.
I decided to shift him to my place, hoping that the company of my kids would cheer him up.
Hardly did I expect what was going to come. I saw how an able man was being reduced to a complete vegetable, thanks to this degenerative disease, of which his doctor appraised me.
Baba refused to wake up from bed, change clothes or take his meals. Each day became a struggle for me and his ayah. Night times were worse. It seemed he was charged with demonic energy at night. Sleep became a luxury for Anu and me. He kept us awake throughout the night with the same screaming, yelling abuses, and throwing things around.
One night after much reasoning failed to get Baba to behave, I lost my temper at him. I got the shock of my life when he snarled back at me and spat a mouthful of abuses. This time I had had enough. Lack of sleep and peace of mind had messed up my insides, and I was at my tether’s end.
In the six days Baba had been in my flat, he had managed to turn our household upside down. I saw that I had to take a decision, however unpleasant it was.
The search for a good psychiatric hospital came a cropper. The doctor kept on insisting that we keep him in supervision at home. But that was becoming impossible. I did not want my children to hear that kind of language he used, or remember Baba like this. Whatever respect they had for him was slowly vanishing, and was being replaced by fear, I knew.
Then he had his first convulsive attack. His body went stiff, eyes popped out and he started frothing at the mouth. I was shocked out of my wits. My first reaction was to shut the door so that the kids would not see this sight. Frantic calls to the neurologist finally got him to agree on hospitalizing Baba.
But that was only the beginning of a different nightmare.
An endless rigmarole of hospital visits started for us. The hospital managed to invent all kinds of ailments that were possible for an old man to have, and initiated futile medical procedures and expensive specialists’ visits. I could see that the hospital was fleecing us. Obviously, they had smelt a lucrative opportunity in keeping a dementia patient admitted in a premium facility.
I made up my mind to get him discharged. But here, I hit a roadblock. The doctor flatly refused.
“Mr. Gupta, I would not advise acting in a hurry.”
After a fortnight of hospitalization and steadily rocketing bills, he was telling me this.
“So what is the course of treatment you propose Doctor?” I asked with some sarcasm.
“Actually, there is not specific treatment for such age-related dementia. (Hadn’t I heard that before?) But we have kept him under observation, and are monitoring his condition after the last convulsion attack he had.”
“Listen, Doctor, I frankly don’t see the point in keeping him here any longer. Since there is absolutely no possibility of his condition improving, he may as well be kept at home. And considering the mounting bills, it is becoming impossible for us financially too. If you do not discharge him, I will have to perforce take him away and continue his treatment elsewhere.”
The last was an open challenge to his authority, but I couldn’t help myself. After spending money like water, and endless fruitless visits to the hospital, I had reached the end of my patience.
Dr. Sen grudgingly let Baba be discharged, and I brought him home.
The homecoming was a gloomy affair. Anu was away from home, having deliberately decided to avoid us. There was a trained nurse and ayah at home to take over charge.
Pari was a little wary on seeing him back, I noticed. Perhaps Anu’s dread had rubbed off on her too. Sunny was the only person unaffected, exclaiming “Dadda, dadda” with unabashed delight at Baba.
It hurt me that there was not even a flicker of response from Baba. Had he lost his normal self totally?
He slept through the day, waking up only to receive food or medicine. Surprisingly, there were no tantrums at night for the next couple of days. He seemed to be improving, and listened to the nurse’s instructions obediently.
I heaved a sigh of relief. Things seemed to be looking up.
Then all of a sudden, the demon took over him again. One morning, the noise of a sickening crash rent the air, followed by a shriek. I rushed in to see Baba throwing a glass at the ayah. Filthy abuses were flowing freely from his debilitated mouth, first at the ayah, then towards me. We tried to forcibly hold his arms and stop his crazed fit.
He directed his venom towards me. “Who are you to tell me what to do, you worthless lout! I spit on you and your sermons! You all are trying to kill me, I know it. But I will not listen to a bunch of morons….will die of my own will….”. It went on and on, the decibels increasing.
I suddenly realized that the crash of the glass and screams had woken up the children too. Anu was consoling the sobbing children, glaring an “I told you” expression at me. I was getting the familiar sickening sensation at the pit of my stomach. This damned disease was wearing us all out.
Desperately, I rang our watchman to come up and help me. Baba was getting more violent by the minute. He thrashed and kicked with all his might. After a seemingly never-ending struggle, we three managed to pin him down to the bed. The doctor took ages to come and finally injected a tranquilizer.
The incident left me shaken to the core. I realized I would have to be cold and detached in dealing with Baba. No more indulgence. It became obvious that Baba could not stay in a “normal” environment anymore.
Primarily, I was worried for my children’s safety, shuddering to imagine them alone with Baba.
But where could I keep Baba? The hospital seemed an expensive option for long-term stay. I had no siblings and no relative could be entrusted to take proper care of a dementia patient. Then where….?
Reluctantly, the answer came up in my mind – an old age home with medical facilities, where other people can deal with my Baba’s tantrums.
A search on the Internet yielded five names of old-age homes in and around Kolkata. I called each of them and was faced with the same response. No place had any medical facilities necessary for keeping ailing patients. They would take only able-bodied and mentally sane elders. I was stumped.
How could they expect a senior citizen to not have any debilitating problems? This was a self-defeating premise. I had faced a blank wall.
In desperation I requested Baba’s geriatrician for help. After much coaxing, he reluctantly gave me the name of a rehab centre meant exclusively for mental patients.
Guilt kept gnawing my insides as I admitted Baba to this depressing place. It resembled a state-run mental hospital from inside, complete with stained walls, peeling paint and a sickening atmosphere.
Patients walked around the corridors aimlessly, mumbling to themselves. No inmate was allowed to leave the rooms, and the main entrance to the hall was locked. The attendant shut the door on my face, after taking Baba in. I suppose in this country, being a psychiatric patient was worse than being a criminal.
I had a feeling I had lost my Baba forever.
But I was tired of dealing with this scary dementia, and wanted someone else to be in charge.
When I first visited Baba, two attendants escorted him and kept hovering around to check whether Baba was complaining. I was furious. How dare they intrude in our private moments? But as it turned out, such vigilance was hardly necessary. Baba did not say a word to me; no amount of probing could make him answer my anxious questions. He just sat there dozing, head lolling on his shoulders. If possible, he looked sicker after coming here.
The nurses told me he was violent and aggressive, so they kept him tranquilized most of the time.
Wow, what a clever way of dealing with mental illness.
I met the psychiatrist in charge, who gave me a lot of mumbo-jumbo on some therapy he was following. Baba’s aggression was sure to quell, he was convinced. I was not so sure, but did I have any choice?
Suddenly, I am jolted back to reality with a sound. The attendant has unlocked the door and is ushering me to the dining area, where snack time is on. I see inmates roaming about, little bowls of puffed rice in hand. A black-and-white television set is on, beaming some dull program. Someone asks the attendant to change the TV channel and is curtly told to watch what is on. The sense of despair and hopelessness is so thick you could touch it.
I keep looking at my mobile, wishing I was elsewhere. Finally, Baba totters in, supported by an ayah and a male attendant. I am pleasantly surprised to see a shadow of a smile on his face. The ayah whispers he expects to go home in a few days. He has been telling everybody that he was all right now and would go home soon.
I sense guilt washing all over me. I have no intention to disrupt my routine life with the tumultuous possibility of Baba staying with us. I don’t want to subject my family to that nightmare all over again.
I hear Baba speak up, “Dipu, I am absolutely okay now. I want to go home”.
I wonder how best I can deal with this.
“Baba, Doctor has recommended some more weeks of treatment, so you have to be here. I will surely take you home once you recover.”
“No, Dipu, take me home now. There is no treatment going on here. These people will kill me slowly. You don’t know how they behave towards me. ”
I keep quiet and look away. He guesses my reluctance.
“I will behave, promise. Dipu, I tell you I will behave. I am much better now. Please, please take me home. These people are feeding me trash. There is a conspiracy going on against me. I can’t tell you how they torture me here, Dipu.” Baba is getting more agitated by the minute.
I don’t know what to do and avert my eyes. Scenes of his previous crazed fits come up in my mind, and erase whatever love or sympathy I have for him. I have to be firm with him, can’t indulge his false hopes. He is better off in this facility where at least there are plenty of people to control him.
I look at the attendants, who take the hint and slowly try to lead Baba inside again.
“No, Dipu! Don’t let them take me away! Take me with you. I will behave, I promise! Dipu, listen to me….I will die here….”
You know that feeling when your feet get rooted to a spot and your voice is stuck in your throat? I had never felt so helpless before. I stand there silently allowing the attendants to forcibly escort him inside.
I know that as a son I have failed him again. But do I have a choice? Goodbye Baba……