In an upper-class neighbourhood, south of Kolkata’s tony Park Street, a middle-aged man was found to have been living in a room with the corpse of his sister, who had died six months ago.

The old house on Robinson Lane had once belonged to a British gentleman. The sister used to be a music teacher. Her photographs were in the papers and students must have remembered the music lessons. For six months, the brother brought her food everyday and the room was littered with unopened tiffin boxes. Bible teacher Joyce Meyer’s voice whispered from the speakers in the empty flat when the police arrived.

They were a reclusive family of three – father, daughter and son – who had withdrawn from society after the mother had died. The rooms were strewn with books about religion.

How do we face the end? With dignity or with a heartrending cry of protest? With denial, disbelief, depression or even what pscychologists would call delusion?

Another incident, another part of town. August, 2012. A family of three – mother and two daughters – suffering from depression after the father passed away had taken their lives in a suicide pact. That’s what the police had said. What drove the three women to jump to their death from South City Towers?

The effects of extreme grief are uncharted waters for the average human mind. In displaying such emotions, the rare among us perhaps point us to our connections with the infinite. As Byron says in Don Juan:
While life’s strange principle will often lie
Deepest in those who long the most to die

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. But consider how fiction engages with similar extreme emotions. Think of William Faulkner. A Rose for Emily tells the story of the reclusive Emily who, after her father’s death (which she refused to accept for three days), goes on living with her dead lover Homer Barron’s corpse till she also dies. After her funeral the neighbours enter the house and break open the door of a locked room to discover:
The man himself lay in the bed.

For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.

It’s intriguing how truth and fiction echo one another. A police officer’s description of the music teacher, almost turned into a skeleton, strangely mirrors how Emily held on to Barron. There are more strands to the recent incident – the father is said to have committed suicide, which brought the police to the house in the first place. And the skeletons of two pet dogs were also found in the room. This adds new layers to the tragedy.

The decision of the three women jumping to their death from the south Calcutta highrise is one that is even more difficult to fathom. Schopenhauer writes in his treatise on suicide that “in Massilia and on the island of Ceos a hemlock-potion was offered in public by the magistrate to those who could give valid reasons for quitting this life”.

We now have legal euthanasia in certain parts of the world. But what exactly are “valid” reasons for ending one’s life? Is grief one of them? Perhaps not before the state and not in the eyes of religions which frown upon suicide. While Hinduism and Jainism do allow a certain form of fasting to death for ascetics and monks, Semitic religions are strongly opposed to ending one’s life.

But the house on Robinson Street takes us back to Edgar Allan’s Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. There we had the brother Roderick Usher and the entombed sister Madeline in the spooky old mansion, and a narrator to record the curious turn of events. Some commentators have interpreted Poe’s story from a pscychoanalytic perspective, equating the old house, which finally splits into two and crumbles, with the unconscious mind. And at least one author has remarked on the possibility of incest between Madeline and Roderick Usher. In fact Poe’s tale brilliantly evokes the unfamiliar territory of the human mind in such descriptions of the house:

The first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit ... I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees – with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into everyday life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.

No doubt psychiatrists will evaluate the brother and many questions will be asked by investigators and doctors alike. What was this family’s connection with religion? Why were the rooms of the house sussurating with the recorded voice of the Christian author and Bible teacher Joyce Meyer? If this woman had indeed starved herself to death what was her involvement with a religion which considers suicide a sin? Perhaps Joyce Meyer arrived after she died?

Delving into tragedies of this sort leaves our rational minds at a loss. We never want to venture into areas where reason falters. We are ill equipped to deal with the gloom that descends upon us when it makes front page news. In the blind rush of a consumerist culture, such incidents are best passed off as aberrations (or packaged into breaking news or horror cinema) because they point to other modes of living, loving and believing, far removed from ours.

Mental illness is a handy label that sticks easily to any behaviour which refuses to fall in line. But fiction has its own way of presenting such facts. A Rose for Emily closes with the neighbours realising that Emily had been sharing the bed with her dead lover, whom she had poisoned to death so that she could be with him forever.

Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.

Emily’s hair, of course. Whatever be the facts behind the present tragedy, between truth and fiction, Kolkata did grow a little older this day.

Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Fellow and the author of three works of fiction.