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Partha De's Tragic End In Kolkata Reveals Our Utter Cluelessness About Mental Health

The media turned a mentally ill man into a freak show.

22/02/2017 12:54 PM IST | Updated 22/02/2017 3:05 PM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
The house on Robinson street where De was found living with skeletons of his sister and two dogs on June 11, 2015 in Kolkata, India. (Photo by Subhankar Chakraborty/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

One of the last quotes Partha De posted on his Facebook page was by Eleanor Roosevelt: Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. It was a fitting epitaph for his sad and traumatic life.

On 21 February his burnt body was found in his Kolkata apartment, just as his father's burnt body was found at their Robinson Street home in 2015. It has evoked memories of that grisly story when police entered the Robinson Street house and found not only the burnt body of the old man but also the skeletons of Partha's sister and their two pet Labradors.

Though he had seemingly stabilised his life after his release from a mental hospital in October 2015, Ishita Sanyal, the director of a mental rehabilitation centre he used to visit, tells the Telegraph that he missed his family terribly and craved the love and care of a family. On 21 February, he sent his caregiver out on an errand. When the caregiver returned, he found De's charred body.

It was unexpected, said those around him. He seemed to have been turning his life around, putting on weight, taking his medications, making new friends, writing his memoir, even signing a contract with a pest-control agency for a year. But they also said he was depressed that there had been media comparisons between him and Udayan Das who was recently accused of killing and entombing his parents and girlfriend.

There was no comparison between the two cases. It's horrible that anyone even made it. Partha De was never accused of killing anyone. While Das is accused of cold-bloodedly murdering his parents because he was tired of being nagged to get a job, De said he loved his sister and the dogs so much he could not let go of them, even in death.

While Das is accused of cold-bloodedly murdering his parents because he was tired of being nagged to get a job, De said he loved his sister and the dogs so much he could not let go of them, even in death.

A priest associated with the Missionaries of Charity, his legal guardian, said that De had been searching for references to his story on the web. What a traumatic experience that must have been. That story brought out the voyeuristic worst in the media. That reportage was an abdication of basic human decency. How horrific it must have been for Partha De to see the man looking back at him from the media reports about him at the time.

The family's dirty laundry was hung out to dry in the name of reportage. For much of the media, it was not a tragedy as much as a sensation. The case was routinely called "House of Horror", "Skeleton House", Kankal Kando (The Skeleton Affair) case, all colourful nicknames and De himself was nicknamed "Calcutta's Psycho", as if it were a Ramsay Brothers' B-grade horror movie.

De was sent to the Pavlov Mental Hospital where doctors said he was not mentally fit to talk to the police. But that did not prevent reporters from hurling questions at him through a chink in the wall and publishing "exclusives" with the bewildered, traumatised man. A Bengali tabloid published lurid stories about his screaming outbursts after somehow managing to get into the hospital. Pages from his personal diary were leaked to the media, every scribble and doodle analysed and it led to fevered speculation in the media about incest and bizarre sexual fantasies. Nothing was too much information, even rumours about cannibalism.

Partha De's mental disarray became a media TRP goldmine.

The case was routinely called "House of Horror", "Skeleton House", Kankal Kando (The Skeleton Affair) case, all colourful nicknames and De himself was nicknamed "Calcutta's Psycho", as if it was a Ramsay Brothers' B-grade horror movie.

It showed our utter cluelessness about mental health problems. In popular serials, the mentally ill are shown as overgrown children who laugh and shriek. In one Bengali serial that airs on Star Jalsa, a woman with mental problems is being reunited with her childhood sweetheart because nothing cures such issues like marriage.

It was not just the media. Even psychiatrists were happy to comment on Partha De's mental problems without examining him, based merely on media reports of the length of his fingernails and the state of his teeth. Ordinary people turned the house into a selfie destination. They even took their children to "Hitchcock House" for a macabre selfie that could be shared on Facebook with a status like "Got tickets to Hitchcock's Psycho House in our very own Calcutta — feeling scared at Robinson Street".

The Manjari Opera folk-theatre jatra group announced it would stage an opera based on the tragedy. "I am really excited. The script is 75 per cent ready but we will have to wait for the Hyderabad DNA test report of the skeletons to confirm if those were of Debjani's," the owner of Manjari Opera had told the Indian Express.

At that time, Jaideep Das, a former classmate of Partha's, had written, "Can you imagine how difficult will be his return to normal life once he recovers and is discharged from the mental hospital?" His worry proved tragically prophetic.

Partha De did not choose his mental problems. The media, however, chose to deliberately turn it into a freak show. That was truly sick.

Let us hope Partha De can now finally rest in peace.

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