No New Melodies
By Shiv Dutta
One phone call that would haunt me for years came from Kolkata one winter evening in 1995 when I was working for a utility company in Toronto. The call was from Sanjay, my oldest surviving brother and the guardian of the family. My father had been dead for many years.
“We’re thinking about selling our home,” he said.
Sell our home!
This was our home in Laheriasarai in northern India, where my siblings and I spent all our childhood and adolescence, years with frayed clothes and many nights without food, where every evening we clustered around the feeble light of hurricane lamps, boning through schoolwork and striving and competing for academic excellence.
I was nonplussed: “Do we have to?”
“Yes, we need the money to take care of family expenses.”
He didn’t mention what those expenses were for, and I didn’t ask. Asking an older brother to explain would have been disrespectful in traditional Indian families like ours, but I was intrigued by this sudden need. How were these expenses met before? Were these new expenses he wasn’t telling me about? Terrible. My heart sank. Sanjay hadn’t said how much, but I had a feeling whatever the amount, as a successful nuclear physicist in Canada, I could cover it.
“But I can take care of the expenses,” I said.
“For how long?”
“As long as necessary.”
He ignored my answer, a long silence, which, in our family, had always served as the final word. Perhaps, in view of my inability to be of financial help to the family during my student days—which he viewed as my unwillingness—he felt more comfortable having the funds from the sale of the house readily available for years to come.
“Where would Mother live?” I asked.
Sanjay paused for a second and said, “Mother will live with me.”
So it was done.
Our home passed to someone else within a matter of days, like a family heirloom that passes from one generation to the next, except, sadly the next generation was not ours. Our youngest sister, Sayoni, who had lived with Mother and was a professor of Sanskrit at a local college, moved to an apartment in Laheriasarai. Mother moved to Kolkata and lived with Sanjay until her death in 2002.
I left India for Canada in 1968 on a Canadian University scholarship for postgraduate studies in physics. A couple of months after I arrived, it became clear to me that my family back home expected me to help them financially by regular remittances. Their demand for money wasn’t altogether unusual at the time. In the sixties and the seventies, a great number of foreign students in North America, who hailed from third-world countries, faced similar familial demands. To the families back home, our move to this part of the world was like a move to El Dorado with instant access to fabulous wealth. The reality was very different. I was married, and my monthly stipend of $350 CAD with no other source of income was barely enough for me and my wife to get by. We didn’t have any money left over to do anything else, let alone help my family. Naturally they were upset. They interpreted my inability to meet their expectations as a deliberate refusal to help and stopped communicating with me. Most of my letters inquiring about the family would remain unanswered for many months, and if and when they did finally write, the replies were sharp, curt and brief. “You don’t care about the family, so why do you want to know how the family has been doing?”
As a result, I was left in the dark about how or what my siblings had been doing.
In 2003, my wife passed away. Her death, for reasons I have never been able to fathom, maybe they felt sorry for me for living alone thousands of miles from them, triggered a complete turnaround in my family’s attitude toward me. Suddenly I found myself drowning in their love and concerns for my well-being. “Do call me every Saturday, even if for a few minutes, and let me know how you’re doing,” Sanjay said. It was as if my wife in life was responsible for damming all their compassion for me, and with her death, she helped lift the floodgate that was holding it back. It was ironic that what I couldn’t achieve with my persistent efforts over a period of almost twenty-five years, Rita’s death achieved overnight.
I welcomed my family’s transformation but only with a great deal of anguish, ever so conscious of the great price I had to pay for it.
Shortly after the thaw in our relationship, Sanjay shared with me the news of some of the tragedies that had struck the family after I left for Canada in 1968. Not only did I learn that Dada, my eldest brother, died of heart attack, I also learned about the setback in my youngest brother Probal’s life.
“Did he finish his studies?” I asked.
The last I knew of him was when he was a couple of years from becoming a doctor.
Sanjay then went into the harrowing details of the ordeal that Probal had gone through. It turns out he got addicted to marijuana and Mandrax in the early eighties. Soon afterwards, he developed an acute case of schizophrenia. In spite of the best treatment available in Kolkata and elsewhere in the country, his condition became progressively worse until it became impossible to keep him at home. Sanjay had to admit him to a sanatorium.
“Where’s the sanatorium?”
“A few blocks from my apartment.”
“How long does he have to stay there?”
“Perhaps the rest of his life unless he recovers; I doubt if he ever will,” Sanjay said.
According to Sanjay, he alone took care of Probal. Despite his fulltime job, he often had to travel to various medical facilities, both inside Kolkata and outside. None of our other brothers, all of whom lived in India and were well off, came forward to support him either financially or morally.
How incredible! So much had transpired for so long, and yet I’d been shut off from it all! I realized I was shaking, outraged but didn’t want to say anything to antagonize Sanjay—I wanted to hear the rest of the story. Indian families, as a matter of principle, do not share with outsiders information they consider private. Perhaps, because of my long absence from the country as well as a lack of regular communication with my folks over the years, they had lost the sense that I too was part of the family. In their mind, I had become a stranger!
As a student, both in elementary and high schools, and in Chandradhari Mithila College, where he did his undergraduate studies, Probal always ranked in the top ten percent of his class. “I’ll get to the top one of these days,” he often used to say with a wink. He could have picked any profession he wanted, but Dada, my oldest brother, still alive, by virtue of the authority implicitly vested in him as the guardian of the family, decided he would be a doctor. Probal never protested. In fact, he gladly welcomed the idea.
Tall and lanky and soft-spoken, Probal was fond of soccer and badminton. I remember watching him dribbling the soccer ball as he headed gleefully toward the opponent’s goal, the spectators cheering him; I can still see him smashing the shuttlecock over the badminton net. He was good at both, but the sport that really stole his fancy was cricket. He zealously represented his schools in many inter-school cricket tournaments, and when he came home with trophies, the house resounded with his triumphant shouts, we siblings proudly joining him in his jubilation. Hindi and Bengali movie songs, which he picked up on his own by listening to radio and albums, kept him busy during his leisure hours on the weekends. I was told by my sister Sayoni that Probal had several friends, but, being shy and introverted, he never felt comfortable in their company. None of us knew if he had any girlfriends. By and large, I thought of him as a happy and well-adjusted kid.
A year from graduation, steeped in drug addiction, Probal flunked his final exams three times and was thrown out of school. As a result, he lost his only source of money, Sanjay, who used to foot all his educational expenses. In the absence of money, Sanjay thought Probal would be forced to drop his drug addiction, but our brother’s cravings kept him wandering the streets of Kolkata like a vagabond. He begged from strangers and shared tokes with them, so Sanjay discovered. Probal did this mostly during the day and the early hours of the evening when Sanjay was still at work. Sanjay lived in an apartment at the time. Probal had his own room there, which proved to be convenient for him—he could come and go as he pleased. Sanjay’s wife, a stay-at-home woman, cooked his meals and kept the food on the dining table just outside his room. Some days, he would shower ten, twelve times and not eat his meals or take his medications and, to slake his cravings, would often walk out, even in pouring rains, getting soaked, never taking off his wet clothes. Occasionally he would come home ripped. Sometimes he returned very late at night, three, four, five in the morning. Once he was so wrecked that he passed out right outside Sanjay’s fourth-floor apartment and spent the night on the cold cement landing next to the stairs.
One day, Sanjay, who until then thought Probal’s sickness was confined to his drug addiction, found him talking to himself and complaining about voices. This got Sanjay concerned. He didn’t know enough to link these behaviors to anything specific, but he knew none of it was normal. Could this have been going on long before Sanjay noticed it for the first time?
What followed was a series of consultations with doctors, including months-long stays in a couple of out-of-town psychiatric institutions. The verdict was unanimous: “Probal has an acute case of schizophrenia.”
“Is it treatable?” Sanjay asked.
“There’s no cure for schizophrenia, but it can be managed with the right treatments,” the doctor said. “By the way, we believe that marijuana use worsens the course of mental illness in patients who already have schizophrenia.”
I was shocked at this revelation. I couldn’t avoid thinking that chemical imbalance in the brain was an inherited factor. Though no one other than Probal had ever suffered mental illness in our family, and I didn’t know if anyone in the previous generations ever did, when I considered the possibility that someone in our future generations could be afflicted with it, I felt my heart crawling into my mouth.
Probal was put on a couple of medications. They seemed to control his schizophrenia but had no effect on his drug addiction. He continued to wander the streets in search of drugs.
“Why wasn’t he treated for drug addiction?” I asked.
“Once I took him to a drug rehabilitation center, but they refused to treat people with schizophrenia,” he said.
“Why didn’t you try other places?”
“There weren’t any that treated people who suffered from both schizophrenia and drug addiction.” He then went into the details of how a general lack of healthcare facilities in India drove eighty percent of the population to depend on indigenous treatments of Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicine, Yoga, religious rituals, and sometimes, even witchcraft and often magical hocus pocus.
I sympathized with Sanjay.
By 1994, a year before his telephone call to me in Toronto, Sanjay had had enough of being tossed back and forth between hope and despondency and didn’t want to have anything more to do with the doctors. He found himself physically and mentally exhausted and focused long and hard on the choices left for him. As for Probal himself, no one knew what was going through his mind. From the few words he spoke, he seemed to be aware that he was sick but didn’t know the nature of his sickness. He trusted Sanjay enough to take care of his well-being but seemed oblivious of how much this care was impacting Sanjay’s life.
Much to his reluctance and anguish, Sanjay decided to look for a place where Probal could live as long as necessary and have his daily needs taken care of. He wanted a place with an on-site doctor who could attend to Probal’s medical needs—medications for Schizophrenia and sedatives to control his violent streaks—a place where his urge for drugs would be monitored and controlled, and he wouldn’t be able to get out on his own and wander the streets, a place where he would share the living quarters with residents with similar ailments. Sanjay searched and searched for weeks, no luck, and then, just when he was about to give up, he found New Life, situated miraculously within a few blocks from his apartment.
Within a few days, Sanjay, accompanied by Sayoni, moved Probal to New Life. Probal didn’t resist. In fact, he accepted Sanjay’s decision without a whimper. He trusted Sanjay’s assurances that he would be better off in New Life—he wouldn’t be doing drugs anymore, would be taking his medications regularly and eating and sleeping at regular times, not to mention taken care of medically.
Probal was forty-one.
When Sanjay finished telling me the story, I felt like yelling, Why the hell didn’t you tell me all this before? But I pushed my emotion away. I didn’t want to stir up old wounds—there were so many. I was angry with myself no less for not trying harder to keep in touch with the family during all those years when they willfully kept me at bay. If I had known about Probal’s condition early on, I would have consulted my physician friends in the US and possibly learned of some treatments that might not yet have reached the shores of India. Perhaps I would have been of some help in averting the steady decline in Probal’s sickness.
“Anger and resentment, justified or not, often lead to irreversible consequences,” I was tempted to tell him, referring to his keeping me in the dark, literally for decades.
Anguished, I reflected on the situation in which the family must have suddenly found itself. As long as Dada, my oldest brother, was alive, he had held the family together, and it had marched on in solidarity. There was no room for divisiveness, and, had he lived, Probal’s situation would have been a family problem, everyone putting their heads and resources together to come to grips with it. With Dada’s death, the family had disintegrated, and except for Sanjay’s rather grumpy generosity and sacrifice, Probal’s situation was no one’s problem.
Well, now the phone call I had received from Sanjay in 1995 telling me about his decision to sell our Laheriasarai home began to make sense. Now I knew the money was needed to pay Probal’s New Life bills.
I went to Kolkata in 2004, the year following my wife’s death, to perform her last rites. These rites required travel to some holy places in India and participation and presence of many of my wife’s relatives and mine, and our close friends in ceremonies held in Kolkata. Having not lived in India for more than thirty-five years, whatever little I knew about these rites was lost in the haze of memory. I needed my family to help me get through this. They had been through these rituals several times in the past when some of the other family members had passed away. In a stroke of good luck, my family volunteered to help me on their own. In fact, Sanjay came with me to all the places I had to travel to, and he and Sayoni, my youngest sister, made sure all the right attendees were invited, and the rituals, conducted by the priests, were completed smoothly and to my complete satisfaction.
The day after the rituals were completed, Sanjay and I set out for my first visit to New Life. Our taxi snaked its way through the snarl of Kolkata’s traffic, navigating scattered cracks and fissures, avoiding unruly milling crowd and ignoring incessant honking of buses, cars and taxis. Within a few minutes, our taxi snailed to a stop in a rundown slummy neighborhood, far from the main residential areas and shopping districts. We stepped out of the taxi and stood face-to-face with a nondescript two-story gray building.
“You’ll be surprised to see how quickly his mood changes,” Sanjay warned. “He’ll talk and behave like you and me in the first few minutes and then, suddenly, drift off and say things that will make no sense.”
I rang the buzzer, and the guard opened the gate. He knew Sanjay, so he let us in. Halfway through the hallway, a stairway led up to the second floor, and past the stairway, the ground floor, the view obstructed by a couple of rooms in front of us. We entered the reception area on our right.
“Probal, your brothers are here,” the receptionist shouted, looking up.
Probal lumbered down from his room upstairs and met Sanjay and me in the reception area, a large, sparsely furnished room with two sets of worn-out sofas lined up at right angles against the walls, and the receptionist’s desk across from one of them. Even on a sunny day, the inside was dark and dreary, the light being blocked off by a couple of giant trees canopying the windows. This was where the residents met with their visitors.
My eyes quickly shifted toward Probal as he shuffled in, my heart throbbing to see him after so long. He was fifty-one now. Thirty-six years since I’d last seen him! He wore a half-sleeve checkered shirt, rather loose, and pants that didn’t seem to have ever been ironed. Much leaner and taller than the fifteen-year-old brother I remembered, he had developed a slight stoop.
“Oh, Rangada, you’re here, when did you come?” he said, calling me by my nickname, a look of surprise on his face. “I remember you live in the US.”
“Last Sunday,” I said. “How are you?”
“How would I be?” he paused, his eyes roving and head hung low, “The same as before.”
“Have you been taking your medications regularly?” Sanjay asked.
He slowly raised his head, looking away from Sanjay and said, “Yes.”
“What did you do today?” Sanjay said.
He sat with a hangdog look on his face. No urgency in his response. He looked away from him and stared at the bookshelf in the corner. “The same as I do everyday,” he said. “Woke up, went to the bathroom, had breakfast, tried to read the newspaper, rested for a while, took a nap, and then it was lunch time.”
“Did you go for a walk today?” Sanjay asked.
Sanjay had already told me Probal’s caretakers took him out for walks in the neighborhood everyday—a row of drab houses, separated by narrow dusty streets, and a fenced-in park within a few blocks.
“What’s in the newspaper today?” Sanjay asked.
He kept quiet for a bit as if he didn’t want to answer. I remembered Sanjay telling me Probal had serious problems concentrating on any topic for any length of time—the effect of his medications. He must also have been affected by the sudden appearance of two brothers, one after decades away!
“I don’t know. I couldn’t focus,” he said, looking straight at him.
“Do you remember me?” I asked.
“How can I forget you? I remember you did so well in high school, everyone was so proud of you.”
I looked sideways at Sanjay with a glint of surprise in my eyes about Probal’s memory.
We talked about old times. Probal vividly remembered the past, but his short term memory was treacherous. Often, he couldn’t remember the things he did the same day.
And though it had been years since he was in medical school, Sanjay told me he could still diagnose some illnesses correctly.
“Will you sing me a song?” I asked.
He glanced at me, a look of indifference on his face, and said, “What song will I sing?”
“Sing anything you remember.”
I closed the door. It was just us in the room, Sanjay, Probal and I. The receptionist was away from his desk. Perhaps he wanted to give us privacy. Probal sang an old Hindi movie song, Tumhe yaad hoga kabhi hum milethe. “You may remember once we had met.” It was a very popular song when we were growing up. He sang fluently and without pause. His voice was melodious, and in tune, and the lyrics were absolutely correct even after so many years. When he sang, his euphonious baritone broke my heart. I could hardly talk and became quiet between snatches of our conversations.
“How about a new Bengali song?” I asked.
He looked away from me and stared out the open window, as if searching for the right words to answer me.
“I can’t memorize the lyrics of new songs. I get confused with the melodies too,” he said after a pause, a look of sadness blanketing his face. “I haven’t learned a new song since the year I left medical school.”
He was flawless when he sang the Golden Oldies he had learned in his youth. My memory flashed back to the evenings, years ago, when I was a teenager, and he was a little boy, and we huddled together with the rest of the siblings working on our homework for school the next day. We were all marching toward an unknown future.
“He steals my cigarettes. He thinks I wouldn’t know, but I do,” Probal suddenly interjected.
“Who’s ‘he’?” Sanjay asked.
Probal didn’t answer.
“Who’s ‘he’?” Sanjay asked again.
“Baran,” he said.
Still no answer.
“Where does he live?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“How does he get to your cigarettes?”
He looked at me, ignored Sanjay’s question.
Silence for four or five seconds on all sides.
“Do you think I’m ready to go home?” he asked Sanjay, almost pleading.
I have been to New Life several times to see Probal since my first visit in 2004. Every time I see him I hope to find some fresh glimmer of optimism, but I haven’t found any. The walks in the neighborhood with the caretakers ceased some years ago because of increased demand on their time. The protocol doesn’t allow outside help, which the family could have provided. Probal no longer gets any exercise and mostly finds himself cooped up in his dingy second-floor room except when he shambles down to the cafeteria for meals. Occasionally, he helps out the New Life staff with routine chores, and he feels good about that. The staff treats him with respect because he is a “doctor” to them.
None of his friends from medical school, his cohorts on the path to his drug addiction, now all successful medical practitioners, ever visits him. The last time Probal saw them was on his last day in college. He never talks about them.
None of the surviving siblings other than Sanjay, Sayoni and I (when I am in Kolkata) ever visits Probal or talks about him. I try to visit Kolkata every two to three years, and I know how little that is. I see him three or four times during the brief time I am there, and every time I see him I am reminded of our days together during our childhood. Sanjay visits him once a month. He used to visit more often when he lived closer, in his old rented apartment. But now he lives far from New Life. “Chaotic traffic has made it very difficult for me to visit him more often at my age,” he tells me.
And I’m sure it’s true. He is seventy-eight, an old man exhausted by a lifetime of duty, and driving in India is not for the faint-hearted. He says he has tried to talk to Probal on the phone a few times but to no avail. Probal stays on the line but doesn’t say much. Whenever I call, I don’t understand most of what he says. His words run over each other, his sentences disconnected, and often he disappears in the middle of conversations. New Life doesn’t have email facilities, so most of our contact is through these dysfunctional phone calls. And my visits, admittedly rare because of the constraints of cost and distance. Sanjay brings him medicines, clothes, and anything else Probal might have asked for. Probal always asks for his favorite sweets— Rasogolla and Sondesh—and refrigerated Coca-Cola. I bring American chocolates and polo shirts, and one time I brought a full sleeve shirt, but he didn’t seem to like it. Sayoni brings him special foods she cooks for him on festive occasions. She sits by him as he ravenously eats.
He has thinned over the years, and his face has begun to show signs of aging. He has become quieter, our conversations shorter, silences longer and more frequent. The images of my other siblings, untouched by destiny’s fury and blessed with the successful careers of their own, often haunt me during those silences, painfully reminding me of not only the little that I did for him in the past, but that I had concealed his true identity from my friends out of fear and shame.
The last time I visited New Life, early in the winter of 2015, Sanjay was with me. The familiar two-story gray building was a stark silhouette against the twilight sky. As we trudged toward the entrance gate, I didn’t have to wonder about what my experience would be like when I saw Probal. I knew what to expect. We talked about things we had talked about so many times before: How was he? Was he taking his medications regularly? Was he getting all his needs met? What did he do all day? What did he need next time Sanjay would visit him? Will he sing me a song? He sang the same song he had sung when I visited him in 2004, “Tumhe yaad hoga kabhi hum milethe,” but only haltingly. He talked normally for a while and then drifted off and started to say things that didn’t make any sense.
We stayed about an hour or so as before. I noticed that he didn’t ask Sanjay about going home, and I wondered if maybe now, twenty years in, he considered New Life his home. I felt a tight knot in my chest. The old group photograph of siblings I had studied on the living room wall of Sanjay’s place suddenly popped up in my mind’s eye. Probal’s radiant and smiling face dominated the photograph, all wonder and promise, so much like the rest of us.
I gave him my gifts, and Sanjay gave him Rosogolla, Sondesh and coke, and we watched him eat the sweets and drink the coke. And then Sanjay stood up, ready to pay the bill, and Probal knew it was time for us to leave.
Our little brother. He came with us to the gate as he always did when we visited him.
“When are you coming back to India again?” he asked me in a low voice, his lips curled and eyes droopy.
“As soon as I can, perhaps in a couple of years,” I said.
“Please come back soon and remember to visit me,” he said, looking straight at me, almost pleading.
We hugged for a long time, my fingers tapping on his back, wishing him well.
As Sanjay and I stepped out into the quiet dark of the evening, Probal waved goodbye. He slowly pulled the gate shut. With head hung low, he turned around and dragged his feet inside.