When my father, the famous playwright, disappeared, escaping the hatred of his family

The story of the bipolar writer Swadesh Deepak, who never came back.

Between 3 and 3.30 AM he would knock on the door of my room which was held in place delicately by a latch. He would call out my name. No, he would whisper it. For some time I would pretend that I couldn’t hear anything.

The knocking would then become persistent. I would get out of bed and go close to the door, but not open it. He would plead, “Hit me on the head with a rod. I know you keep one under your bed. I know you can do it.” Each time, I would tell him to get lost. I would treat him like the dog we never had.

Then on the morning of June 7, 2006, he went for a walk and never returned.

When we – my mother, my sister and I – were convinced that he was not coming back, there was a collective sigh of relief. There was almost a celebration.

“I hope we never see his face again,” my sister said. I hoped so too. So did my mother who taught chemistry for a living but loved the arts (well, she could reproduce Husain well).

Swadesh Deepak’s bipolar disorder was diagnosed in the 1990s. By this time he had become a disgusting and despised figure for everyone: family, friends and relatives. Lying in the queen-sized bed in his room, this famed writer who would receive the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2004, would stare for hours on end at the ceiling. I would peep in, pretend not to be scared and retreat to my room. There was no question of praying. After all, posters of Marx and Lenin ruled the walls of my room in those days, sharing space with Cindy Crawford in a bikini.

The first suicide attempt happened in the year 1999.

There was a lot of noise in the bathroom. Mother and sister rushed there. I was awake but did not move. It was night, after all; I should be asleep, I was not supposed to know.

My cousin, a doctor, was called. She came with her husband, also a doctor. Both were sleepy but they managed to do what they were supposed to do. They thwarted his bid to take his life. The whole thing lasted around two hours. I did not move. Not an inch.

My cousin decided that it was time to take him to a psychiatrist now. He was taken to the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGI, for short) in Chandigarh, about an hour’s drive from Ambala, where we lived (where I still live, in the same house). They gave him pills. He took them and slept for hours through the day. A few days later, he stopped taking the pills. It was time to suffer again. And not just for him.

In 1991 he had written the widely acclaimed Hindi play Court Martial.

It was during the play’s first show in Calcutta that he met a woman whom he called “Mayavani”. He never forgot her.

I remember asking him once the English translation of the word. He looked straight into my eyes and said, “Do you really think English is rich enough to accommodate the power of Mayavani?” This from a man who taught MA English classes in a college in Ambala for twenty-six years. (I had to be content with my own loose and inadequate translation of Mayavani: the seductress of illusion.)

I also remember asking him why he was ill. What was actually wrong with him? Why didn’t he take the medicines when doctors said that the disease could be treated? He said, “That’s a good question, for a change. Do you think black magic can be treated? More importantly, should it be treated, that too with some darn pills? I am ill because I insulted her, because I refused to reciprocate her love.”

“So I should never refuse to love a woman?”

“That can only happen if women show any interest in you. I mean your features are so beautiful, almost perfect, like your mother’s. You don’t have my rawness, my foul mouth, my imperfection, my charm. Only those women who are completely incapable of black magic will fall for you. You’re lucky that way. But on a serious note, give your love to every woman who asks for it.”

He laughed after that. I laughed too. I loved his cruelty. My mother and sister hated it.

He had stopped going to the college by this time, insisting that he was too exhausted. In the initial years, it seemed more like depression than bipolar disorder. The man known for his fiery temper and fine ability to hurt us would take insults without retaliating now.

Mother would make it a point to tell him exactly how things were the moment she came back from her school job: “So, enjoying yourself while your wife runs the house? What a shameless man!” He would go quiet. If, that is, he had been saying anything at all. His walk became slower and he retreated to his room, a dark space filled with the heavy smoke from his unfiltered cigarettes.

I would, of course, join my mother. His presence was poison to me. How could someone who seemed absolutely healthy physically pretend that something was seriously wrong with him?

I was in college now, the same college where he had taught.

I never wanted to join it. What if the teachers asked me about him? Moreover, it was so desi.

Most of my friends had moved to bigger cities. I didn’t speak to many people in the college, not even the teachers. Most of them seemed like the students in my class – uneducated. Except the one man who didn’t teach me.

One day, I went for a long walk to buy cigarettes. When I got back home a neighbour told me to go to Monga Hospital. Swadesh had tried to burn himself. I was composed. I just told myself, “Another mess.”

I got on to my Enfield, took the longer route and rode right up to the gate of the hospital. Not because of any urgency, I cannot remember feeling any. I guess I just wanted to scare the people sitting there.

Mother was sitting with him. So were my doctor cousins. He was conscious. I asked him directly, “What happened?”

“I would prefer not to answer such a stupid question. You can do better.”

The woman doctor there laughed. Then blushed, almost. I could have killed him for that.

He was shifted back home after a few days.

Excerpted with permission from the essay “Papa, Elsewhere”, by Sukant Deepak, in The Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind, edited by Jerry Pinto.

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