For slightly over two weeks, I have been hearing a man’s voice from my bathroom window. It comes from some floor below, and is desperate. For the first few days, all I heard was his pleas to open the door – presumably to his family. At first, I thought I had imagined it. I was alone at home for a few days, and in such times the senses become extra-perceptive to imagined danger.
However, after a while, I could also hear the sounds of pounding on the door. It was certain that the man was caught in a room for more than a few days. I tried to imagine what could have happened. Was he accidentally locked inside the house? But then why did he call out to his family if he knew they were not there? Why does he not phone someone? Perhaps some kids from his family play a prank on him repeatedly and lock him in his room. But how could he fall for it over and over again unless he was very old and the kids very cruel? Of course, amidst all this – there was the most dominant explanation that the family had deliberately locked him in. And if so, there could be only one reason for it – mental instability. If that was true, was it not unsafe to have a potential lunatic living in the building where I spend a lot of time alone in my apartment?
No matter which scenario I expected, there was no excuse for my inaction. Upon confirming with my husband that it was not just me hearing those voices, we notified the guard. His response was equally inactive – he gave us his cell number and asked to be called when we heard the voice again. I have to admit that I did hear these voices again a couple of times, but it happened in the mornings when I was usually running for work, and I did not bother to call the guard. I was more and more convinced that the man hadn’t got accidentally stuck in, and that to me diminished the emergency of the situation.
However today, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, when the pleas rose again – we called the building supervisor, who seemed as disinterested as the guard. He showed surprise, made some right sounds, and asked us to call the guard on duty. When we spoke with the guard, this one more knowledgeable than the other one – he confirmed what I had suspected all along. Just in the flat below mine, a family had moved in with a mentally unstable old man. This man sometimes ran down, shouted at people, picked up sticks and threatened to beat people up. The guards particularly had had a rough time with him. To avoid this, the family often locked him up in a room.
Of course to hear all this was not pleasant. I felt a strong anger at the family who had decided to bring a madman amongst us. They could never be the right judge of how dangerous this man could get. There would be a high probability that they did not even take him for an examination regularly. Perhaps not in many years. I was also mad at the building society for allowing such a man to live in the building without properly warning the residents. When I rented the place, I had to register myself in the police station and get a clean chit before shifting in. I thought of all my single friends who have the hardest time finding a place in the city which finds their single-dom too risky, and yet doesn’t seem to mind madness. Isn’t it illegal to keep such a man in a residential building without professional supervision? Is he not supposed to be in a medical asylum?
Apparently not. I still do not know whether there are laws in India pertaining to the mentally ill and the risk they pose to society. What I do know is that keeping these patients at home, often unsupervised, is a regular phenomenon. One of my uncles was a mental patient and he spent far fewer days in the hospital than he ought to have. Another cousin of my grandfather too was ‘a bit off’ as we called him, but the family’s response to him was mostly to ignore him while the kids tried to remain as far away from him as possible. I still remember with dread the few times when these people would visit our place and I would be too scared to open my mouth.
Despite of familiar experiences, or may be because of them, the danger of this man living downstairs feels real. Though I am not worried about him getting homicidal and running after people with an axe (God forbid) – I shudder to imagine running into him in a small space like a lift. Or open the door sometime to him without knowing.
Sometimes, the ‘chalta hai’ spirit of the city wears me down to no extent. Especially when I realize that I am becoming a compatible specimen.