I made a new friend when I was about 14 years old. We liked the same music. We read the same books and shared our Phantom and Mandrake comics. I used to be fascinated by his collection of Life magazine, with the stunning photographs of Apollo moon landings. He used to be fascinated by my home-made telescope. At a time when we were struggling with our English, he was studying Russian on his own — not from books, but by listening to Radio Moscow over short-wave radio. We spent our academically important 10th grade of schooling by studying long hours together, late into the night. We were ‘different’ in a way, from the rest of the crowd in our area.
We then went our separate ways in college. Our meetings became less frequent as my world expanded in many dimensions. It was after a year or so, that I first began noticing changes in him during our infrequent meetings. He seemed diffident and unsure of himself. After a couple of months, a common friend said something was really the matter with my friend. I went to his home and met his mom. She was in tears. She said he almost never left his room, and sat by the window the whole day, his hands gripping the window bars. Even children had started making fun of him. I went in his room. He saw me out of the corner of his eye and looked away. He was clearly afraid. Afraid of something, I didn’t know what. I decided to act normal, and asked him if he would come with me for a walk. We walked for about 15 minutes, during which I made general conversation while he seemed terrified.
When I came home later that day, and thought about my friend, I realized he was sick. Mentally ill. He needed to see a psychiatrist. I did not know anyone who knew a psychiatrist, or even anyone who knew anyone who knew a psychiatrist. I myself was barely 16. I knew my family wouldn’t help; they’d rather take him to some miracle worker or recommend him to an astrologer. I then remembered that the clinic where my dentist practiced had a psychiatrist too. The next day, I again went to his home, met his parents, and tried to explain that their son needed to see a doctor.
My friend was Punjabi, a North Indian family. His mom was perennially in tears. His dad, who was almost double my size looked menacing, and couldn’t understand. He simply wanted to shake his son out of whatever he was going through and ‘be a man’. After much persuasion, they agreed to let me try and help, so the next day, we were off to see the doctor. The doctor spoke a few minutes with all of us and prescribed some medicines, after which I spoke with him alone. He said it was schizophrenia, and the medication would help only to a certain extent. He didn’t seem hopeful about my friend.
I was busy dealing with the vicissitudes in my own life for the next few months, after which I once happened to meet my friend. I took him to the terrace of my apartment building, where we used to spend time together. He would never look at me, and start to leave the moment I looked directly at him. I tried my best to make him comfortable, and he began talking slowly. He told me he spoke to Lee Falk every day. Lee Falk spoke to him for hours together, telling him what’s happening and what he should do. He had even shown him his own private luxurious bedroom in his rich mansion, something he never showed anyone — my friend gleefully revealed.
In our next meeting, he told me why he was afraid. He was being pursued and followed day and night by LTTE terrorists, who were out to assassinate him. He narrated detailed experiences of how Lee Falk gave him advance intimation of where they were going to kill him and how he had cleverly foiled five such attempts on his life.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes:
He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come at it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way.
The far side of the moon is never seen from earth. Humans first directly observed it only when Apollo 8 orbited the Moon. Is that why insane people are called lunatics? When there is Brain Damage, why does there have to be an Eclipse? Why is it Us and Them, and not We? Today, I feel a complex web of emotions. There is a feeling of guilt that I didn’t help as much as I could have. There is also the realization that even if I knew about mental illness at that young age, it was only from an academic perspective. I didn’t have the psychological or real-world wherewithal to effectively help. At the end of it all, there is a sense of loss.
And if the cloud bursts thunder in your ear,
You shout and no one seems to hear,
And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes,
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon
(In remembrance of World Mental Health Day, 10th October 2007, and my friend.)