Excerpted with permission from a remarkable book of intimate tales of people and families living with Mental Health issues – A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind, edited by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger, 2016.
It was on a January afternoon in 2006 that I first heard the term ‘bipolar disorder’. I was in a park inside the American University campus at Ardmore, Pennsylvania. There was a pond located in what looked like a botanical garden, a charming recreational space for parents who came with their kids to feed the ducks. Young lovers sat on the less-frequented side, whispering sweet nothings. I was grateful for the unusually warm weather, although I knew it could all change in an hour and we might be snowed in the next morning. I was in the US for a sabbatical, supported by an organization that wanted me to write a book on the Khasi matrilineal society to which I belong. After a long day at the university library, it was good to sit in the shade of the trees that circled the pond, watching the children play. Then, as I was about to leave the park, I saw a young Chinese-American woman standing by the water. She seemed to be talking to herself. I stopped and began to watch her. After a while I saw her weeping. She muttered and wept, mopping her eyes from time to time.
On an impulse, I decided to offer her a shoulder to cry on.
‘Hi, my name is Patricia,’ I began.
She looked at me, but did not say anything. At least she didn’t turn away.
‘I’m from India,’ I ploughed on. ‘I’m here on sabbatical. I come here every evening.’
‘Do you live here?’
‘I’m Yang,’ she said finally. ‘I come to feed the ducks. It’s so peaceful here.’
I agreed that it was and we stood together in silence. After a while she said, ‘They eat what I give them. They don’t taunt me.’
‘Taunt you? But why would anyone do that?’ I asked.
‘My boyfriend told me to find a psychiatrist because he said I throw too many tantrums. The psychiatrist said I have bipolar disorder.’
My confusion must have been evident because she explained.
‘It’s a mental disorder,’ she said. ‘Mood swings. One day you’re happy, the next day you want to die.’
‘My boyfriend has left me because he says he can’t deal with it,’
she sobbed. ‘I’m so in love with him. I thought he loved me too…’ I wanted to hug her but wasn’t sure how she would take it.
‘Why don’t we sit down for a bit?’ I said.
As Yang told me about her life, I cast about for what I should be saying. I remembered a talk given by an Australian psychiatrist, Anne Stroh, in Shillong. She had come to Meghalaya at the invitation of a non-governmental organization, the Initiatives of Change (IofC, formerly the Moral Rearmament). ‘Listen with empathy,’ Anne had said. ‘The person with depression needs someone to talk to. She does not need advice. No unsolicited advice. Depressed people don’t need it. They need an active, empathic ear.
Depression had recently become a much-mentioned word in Shillong. Psychiatrist friends would tell me that young people were increasingly prone to it and yet there were very few health workers in this area and very little awareness. Perhaps, like me, most people only talked about depression among the young, never really confronting the problem. If we talked about it, we didn’t have to listen.
That January evening in a distant country, Yang told me about herself, her family, her education and her love life. But as she talked, I began to feel oppressed by her sadness and the complete despair in her voice. I was relieved when it grew dark and we left the park to go our separate ways.
Two years later, in 2008, I came across the word ‘bipolar’ again. It was in a letter my daughter Daniella had written to her psychiatrist, telling him how grateful she was for the one-day workshop he had conducted on the subject. She wanted me to publish her letter in The Shillong Times, a paper I edit, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the courage. It still sits in my inbox. For years I had criticized people for being in denial about drug addiction, alcoholism, HIV& AIDS, and now I found I was equally culpable.
But this realization came later. That evening in 2006, I was relieved to let Yang go, taking her suffering out of my life, because I didn’t want to accept that I had a Yang in my own home.
I will never forget the morning Daniella was born. It was 26 April 1974. I was in my full term and the baby inside was beginning to push. The labour pains came with sharp, regular jabs. As soon as it was morning, I told my mother that I wanted to be taken to the local hospital. She and I took a taxi and landed in the Emergency. The doctor who assisted me during the birth was a happy-go-lucky sort. In the labour room of Nazareth Hospital, Shillong, while I was in agony, he whistled Elvis Presley’s ‘Wake up in the morning’ and left the nurses to do what they could. After the umpteenth push, Daniella appeared, at 9.30 a.m. All that the doctor did was to repair my torn birth canal. His behaviour seemed all of a piece with the masculine indifference I had confronted at various stages of my life.
Daniella’s father had no part to play in that hospital room. We Khasis don’t believe in arranged marriages. Cohabitation—where man and woman live with each other like a ‘married’ couple, with all the attendant responsibilities—is part of our culture. But the man who fathered Daniella was not a Khasi and did not get this. He was not willing to take responsibility for the child he had fathered. He made that clear on the day I announced I was pregnant. Until then, I had assumed that we were in love and that his commitment to me would include the outcome of our love. It didn’t. Well, I’d have to live with that. It didn’t really matter as long as he gave the baby his name. It’s important that we know who our parents are, even if they aren’t married. But Daniella was already on to a bad start; her father wasn’t going to acknowledge his role in her birth.
As I lay in the hospital with her downy head nuzzling my breast, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Mary Jones, my firstborn— more friend than daughter, with only seventeen years separating us—was just three years old then. She was at a playschool in the neighbourhood. My mother looked after her through the day while I worked mornings as a teacher in a local English-medium school and gave private tuitions in the afternoons to supplement my salary. Thank God I had no siblings to support or look after or I would not have been able to graduate after Mary Jones was born. Then, too, I had loved well but not wisely. Then, too, my lover had ditched me when he found out I was pregnant. But at least he had given Mary his name.
Even so a family storm had burst around my head that first time. My mother, Mei, was in tears, my stepfather livid. At night I could hear angry exchanges between them about my future and the future of Mary Jones.
Stepfather: ‘And who is going to look after this baby?’
Mei: ‘If she agrees to go back to college I will go out and work and bring home some money. Delphi can look after the baby during the day.’
Delphina was my mother’s sister who lived with us. Neither of these women said anything to me; perhaps they were afraid of what I would do.
Two months after Mary Jones was born, I went back to college, enrolled for History Honours and gave all attention to my studies. But I was lonely and miserable and started looking for companionship. That was when I met the man who would be Daniella’s father. And once again, in the months before my BA final examination, I found myself pregnant.
Heavy with child, I wrote two examination papers. There was a gap of a fortnight before the next two. It was at this crucial juncture that Daniella was born. After four days in hospital, I went home and hit the books again. When Daniella was hungry, I breast-fed her. When she slept, I studied. I wrote the papers with painful, swollen breasts. Sometime into the third exam paper there was a shooting pain and milk began to drip from my nipples. My clothes were sodden. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed but thankfully all heads were down, everyone scribbling furiously. I dug a shawl out of my bag, wrapped up, completed my paper and rushed home in a taxi.
For the next two days, a fever raged through me. I could not study for the last paper. I relied on what I could remember and wrote what I could. Two months later, I graduated, scoring far higher than I had expected to; somehow, I had surmounted the odds I had imposed upon myself. I found a teaching job. I paid my way. As is the custom in Khasi society, I continued to live with my mother and stepfather.
Mary Jones and Daniella both studied at the school I was teaching in. The nuns were kind and gave me secondhand children’s clothes that came from Italy and elsewhere and were meant to be distributed to the poor. We survived on my salary and this generous charity. But my kids felt the pinch. By an unspoken agreement, they did not ask about their fathers.
Some years later, I shifted both Mary Jones and Daniella to Loreto Convent. At the time Mary was in Class V and Daniella in Class II. The crème de la crème of society attended Loreto Convent and I was determined to work as hard as I had to in order to keep my girls at this school. My mother wouldn’t have been able to afford the fees for me. Mary Jones sailed through high school with flying colours and got into medical college.
Meanwhile, the story of my romance with life had not stopped. I met another man who gave me two more daughters. One of them died at nine months. The other, Dorothea, is a fine young lady today. My final fling gave me a son. None of these liaisons lasted. I blame no one. My life is what it is. My choices were what they were.
Except for giving birth to my children, I was never really a mother. It was Mei who cared for them, brought them up, tutored them, dropped them to school and brought them back. Delphina, a widow with two sons, pitched in. Delphina virtually lived with us and my children saw in her a second grandmother to nurse their wounds and hurts when Mei or I censured them for their pranks or bad behaviour. She and Daniella shared a very special relationship. Everyone could see that my aunt showered all her affection on Daniella. Perhaps Daniella filled a need in her for a daughter. Delphina had lost a daughter in what doctors call a ‘cot death’; the little thing had probably suffocated. My aunt lived with that guilt. This is conjecture, of course; it is difficult to say what draws one person to another. Delphina passed away in 2003 when a blood vessel burst in her brain. Daniella was twenty-nine years old but she was devastated. It was as if she had lost her anchor.
When she had finished school, barely eighteen, Daniella announced that she wanted to go to college in Kolkata.
‘How are we going to afford that?’ I asked her.
‘I want to go,’ she said stubbornly. ‘All my friends are leaving
Shillong for studies. I want to do English Honours.’
‘I hardly earn enough to make ends meet. How will I pay for your hostel and travel?’ I argued.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘I’ll enroll in morning college and work during the day.’
‘You’re too young to work,’ I said.
‘Who will look after you there?’
‘Don’t worry, Meipat,’ she said, using the name the kids have for me, ‘you’ve done your bit. Now I’m going to fend for myself.’ Finally, I gave in. I only made one condition: she should study
as a regular student. I would take on more hours of tuition to earn extra money.
Daniella got into Loreto College, Kolkata, and started classes. I did not worry too much about her. I assumed she would sail through college as she had through school. She called home often and things seemed to be going well. ‘I’m very happy here. English Honours is very interesting,’ she said and giggled. That was Daniella’s trademark. She giggled when she spoke. And when she laughed, her eyes shone with tears.
There was a moment of worry when she wrote asking details of her father. I told her his name, and that he was now someone important in the Arunachal Pradesh government, but I also explained that he had never shown any interest in meeting her. She did not mention it again. But then news arrived that she was going around with a boy whom she had known in Shillong and who had also moved to Kolkata to study, and I began to worry. I remembered my own mistakes; I did not want my daughters to struggle as I had done. I wrote Daniella a letter. (Those were the days of snail mail.) She wrote back admitting that she was seeing him but that I should not worry. She sounded mature and confident and I was relieved.
The relief was short-lived. Her first year exams had just started when I got a frantic call from her dear friend Karen.
‘Aunty, I don’t know what’s happened to Daniella. She didn’t go to write her exam today. She looks unwell,’ Karen said.
‘What happened? How can I reach her? Is there a telephone nearby?’ I asked.
‘No, we’ve taken her to hospital,’ Karen said warily.
In my panic and worry I asked, ‘Is she pregnant?’
‘No, Aunty, I think she’s depressed.’
‘Depressed? What’s that supposed to mean?’ Now I was almost in tears. ‘Who told you she is depressed?’
‘Aunty, that’s what the doctor said.’
I told Karen to book Daniella on a flight home immediately. She’ll be all right when she gets back, I told myself. Delphina and I will get her on her feet again. She missed all of us, that’s all. Depressed? What do these doctors know? We’re Khasi women. We’re strong.
But when Daniella came home I could not recognize my little darling. She looked frail and anaemic. Karen had told me that she had not been eating well but surely she could not have starved herself into this state?
‘Are you pregnant? Did you have an abortion?’ I asked her later that day.
She looked at me, shocked. ‘I did nothing like that, Meipat. I
just didn’t feel like studying English Honours.’
‘Why did you want to go to Kolkata then?’ I said, making little effort to keep the anger out of my voice.
‘It didn’t work out,’ she said, offering no explanation. ‘If you can support me with four thousand rupees, I’ll go back to Kolkata and join the Birla Institute of Liberal Arts. I want to do their advertising management course. I promise I won’t let you down.’
I agreed. Daniella left Shillong four weeks later when she was better and joined the institute. Unknown to me, she also took up a part-time job at a computer firm. She completed her course and armed with that certificate, found herself a job at Hewlett-Packard. She enrolled at South City College; in due course, she graduated with English Honours.
Meanwhile my youngest child, Jude, enrolled at Scottish Church College, Kolkata. By then I had shifted to H. Elias Memorial School, a missionary school, and was earning a decent salary. Mary Jones had completed her medical degree and was posted to a rural hospital in Meghalaya. Jude did not have to worry about a part- time job, I sent him enough money every month. He stayed in the same hostel as Daniella. I found this reassuring. I forgot that Jude was too young to notice any changes in Daniella’s mental or physical condition.
In June 2000, Karen called again. Daniella had gone to spend the weekend with her and had taken ill. She had been admitted to hospital.
‘What do the doctors say?’ I asked Karen. ‘Can I speak to her?’
‘There’s a phone next to her bed. I’ll connect you,’ Karen said. Daniella’s voice sounded weak, teary. In a faint voice she said
it was malarial jaundice.
‘I’m coming down tomorrow, baby,’ I told her, my heart breaking. ‘Don’t worry, just tell the doctors to do their best…I’m coming.’
I broke down. Mary Jones took charge immediately. ‘Meipat, I’ll go,’ she said. ‘I’m a doctor; I’m better placed to look after her.’ Mary Jones had married a social anthropologist, Morrison,
in 1998 and moved to Ahmedabad with him, but she was with us in Shillong at that time, recuperating after a miscarriage. She showed greater strength and presence of mind than me. She flew to Kolkata and called me from Salt Lake City the next day. Daniella
was delirious, she said, and in the intensive care unit. ‘It’s serious, but the doctors are doing their best. Just pray that she recovers,’ she said.
Daniella was shifted to a multi-specialty hospital. Her lungs had almost collapsed due to fluid retention. She was on oxygen. Medicines were pumped into her fragile system intravenously. I was part of a Christian fellowship group and we stormed heaven round the clock. ‘God, help her to recover,’ I prayed, tears flowing freely.
‘We have not seen each other for a while. I plead with you, Giver of Life. Heal Daniella and give me time to be with her.’
God heard my prayers. Daniella recovered miraculously. She had begun to eat solid food and Mary Jones reported that they would return home in about a week’s time after she was released from hospital.
It was with trepidation that I went to receive my two girls at the airport. One frail and weak, the other a guardian angel who had taken my place and mothered her little sister. I held back my tears. ‘I have to be strong,’ I told myself. ‘After all, the worst is over.’
But I spoke too soon.
Daniella recovered physically and began looking for a job. Mary Jones and I noticed that she had become loud and garrulous, but we did not take this change seriously. We thought she had developed some city smarts and that it was a passing phase. Besides, she was not the only ill person in the family. Diabetes had claimed my stepfather in February 1999, two years before Daniella’s return to Shillong. Mei, too, had been keeping indifferent health for a while. In March 2000, I was told by the medical specialist treating her that it was chronic renal failure. She had to be taken to hospital every now and again for dialysis.
It was a time of change, constant change, for all of us. I was freelancing as a columnist and independent researcher, travelling extensively within the country and outside. And so when Daniella recovered and chose to stay in Shillong, finding a job in the university, we all heaved a sigh of relief and got on with all the other things that were preoccupying us.
Meanwhile Mei’s health deteriorated rapidly. She passed away in July 2001. Mary Jones had conceived again. She was in her third month and was advised against travelling. She could not come home for Mei’s funeral. Daniella took charge and showed a maturity beyond her years.
But perhaps the family tragedies and general instability were taking their toll. She behaved abnormally at times. One day she announced that she was leaving home to stay in a rented place. I didn’t take her seriously, but when I came home from work that evening, I was told that she had taken her luggage and left. I was livid. I refused to go looking for her or to call her friends.
She returned the next morning, and I was shocked to see her. Daniella was the beauty in the family. She was petite, and looked good in any kind of outfit, particularly the Western clothes that she favoured. She experimented all the time with different hairstyles, from crop to bob-cut, taking great care to look well groomed. But now she stood before me looking almost spectral. Her clothes were rumpled. There were dark circles under her eyes. Her lips were dark and dry. She seemed to have poured a full bottle of oil on her head.
It was the first clear sign to me that something was seriously wrong. Fear gripped me and for the first time I felt I had lost my child. She went to her bedroom quietly. It took me a while to recover, then I took a deep breath, willed myself to be calm and went to her room.
‘Why did you do this? Did anyone here tell you to leave? Are you angry about something?’
She lay on her bed and looked at me blankly.
‘Come on. Talk to me. You can’t just come and go as you please,’ I said.
She said nothing. I could feel my resolve to be calm wither away. And then my restraint snapped and I was off. Even as I shouted at her I knew that I was handling it all wrong. I look back now and wonder who needed counselling more, the daughter lying quietly on the bed or the mother ranting and raving beside it?
And yet there were still days when she would be really funny and make us laugh. Those were moments we all treasured because we were unsure when the next bout of anger and silence would shatter our little world. Like all mothers who fear to pronounce the worst about their kids, I remained in denial about the severity of Daniella’s condition. Her siblings, too, would laugh off her unpredictable behaviour and put it down to the malarial jaundice.
Then came Delphine’s death, which affected Daniella badly and she was withdrawn and listless for a long time. But the next year, in 2004, we were all hopeful again. Daniella had become friendly with a wonderful, quiet young man, Abel. They seemed to be very much in love. I was relieved. I thought he would be good for her; he was so patient and kind.
This seemed to help, but not for long. Her mood swings only seemed to get worse. That year, she said she wanted to get to know her father. She had looked him up on the internet and made contact with him through a mutual friend. She knew, of course, that he had
been a minister in the Arunachal Pradesh government, so it was easy to track him. She now knew that he had married sometime after we parted and had two children. I had learned from someone that he was suffering from severe depression; if she had also discovered this, she did not tell me.
One day she announced she was going to Itanagar to meet him. She said she wanted to meet his children too.
I tried to dissuade her. ‘Why Daniella? Why not put all this behind you? After all, you never knew him. How does it matter?’ She looked at me with something like disdain and said, ‘Who
are you to stop me? I have the right to know my father.’ I backed off. She left.
I lived in a state of dread until she called me from Itanagar, and then I was full of questions.
‘How are things? How is your father, is he accepting you? And your half-sister and -brother? What about your father’s wife?’
Finally, I asked the most difficult question. ‘How is your father keeping? Is he in good health?’
‘Everything is fine. Everyone here is very happy to see me,’ she said. ‘There are uncles and cousins and relatives and they have all come to see me. Only my father’s wife does not seem happy.’
‘Then why not come back now? You’ve met your father. Maybe you can invite him here.’ I was petrified that they might ill-treat her or that she might decide to stay. I called her every day. My message was pretty much the same: ‘Daniella, please come back. We miss you so much.’
She returned after a week. But something terrible had happened. She went for a bath and when she came out she had cut off her hair, as if in anger. No, cut is not the right word. She had hacked
her hair off, she had wanted to wound herself.
‘What happened, Daniella?’ I asked, wounded myself. ‘Why are you so angry? Did anyone hurt you in Itanagar?’
She looked at me as if I were a complete stranger. I could only pray and weep. Later that day I spoke to Mary Jones and asked her if I should take Daniella to a psychiatrist. She told me to do so immediately. The doctor listened patiently and then asked me to go out of the room. He sat with Daniella for about forty minutes and asked her to come back after a week. Later, over the telephone, he told me her mental state was ‘fragile’.
I was confused and helpless. I did not know how to talk to her. I was afraid to even look at her. She was becoming unpredictable. At work she began to have frequent run-ins with her seniors. Most days she would say she was not feeling well and stay in her room. Her future worried me. At one point she told me, ‘Uff, I hate that man! He’s corrupt and shameless. Today he told me to fudge the accounts. I refused and he got angry. I don’t know if I’m going to stick around in that place for too long.’
‘Daniella, all of us live in an imperfect world,’ I told her. ‘If someone asks you to do the wrong thing, refuse gently. You have to learn to live in the real world.’ But she finally did give up that job and became the communications consultant for a government- funded NGO.
Sometime later, someone from her new office called me to ask if everything was all right with Daniella. ‘What do you mean, all right? Of course she is all right,’ I said. I didn’t want to jeopardize Daniella’s future; I did what I had to so that she would keep her job. I denied to the world, to her and to myself that she needed help.
And so I failed her again. I paved the road to a hell of guilt with my good intentions.
In January 2006, I went to the US for a year on a sabbatical of sorts, to write a book. I tried to work but I missed home and my children. I would call home almost every day. I spent the thousand- dollar-a-month stipend on phone calls. Daniella wrote emails to me regularly and I kept reassuring myself that she was well: she had to be well; she was writing about what was happening in Shillong, she was telling me about herself. But I could not shake off the guilt. I felt I was shirking my duties as a mother. In April 2006 I returned home without having written a single sentence of my book. I had agreed to stay there for a year, but I returned in three months. The US was a good place for research but my heart was not it. Besides, Daniella was repeatedly telling me that she and Abel were keen to get engaged and that they wanted me around.
When I returned, I saw that Daniella had changed even more. She would suddenly burst forth into speech, a dam split open as if under pressure. At other times, she would drift into silence. We had normal spells too, when she would talk excitedly about a film, or tell me about a picnic, her words coherent and logical, her emotions in sync with the moment, and I chose to focus on that Daniella. Underneath, I was worried about her, but I still did not understand just how serious things were. Or maybe I did not want to. Depression was normal, it was a phase. It would go away, it always did.
Through this period, I think it was only Abel who was her anchor. Shortly afterwards, Abel invited our family to his home to announce his intentions before his parents. We had lunch and exchanged pleasantries. Abel’s parents seemed simple and kind. We set the date of the marriage: 20th November 2007.
Daniella was on medication now but she hated the pills and I suspect that she did not take the anti-depressants regularly. Overall, though, she seemed happy and in turn, we were happy. But then she’d suddenly have a bout of tears or a fit of shouting again and we would be back on our emotional roller-coaster.
Abel and Daniella had been very close friends ever since she returned from Kolkata in 2000. He was kind and patient, soft spoken and a man of few words. He and I would discuss Daniella’s condition in confidence.
‘Abel, I really don’t know how to deal with her. I don’t even know what she is suffering from. Do you think you can handle this relationship?’ I asked him.
‘Aunty, all she needs is patient listening. I know she has her moods, but I also know she is the one for me,’ gentle Abel replied, almost as if he was talking to himself.
I never asked his age—it was not considered appropriate to do so—but I suspected he was a couple of years junior to Daniella. He showed a maturity beyond his years in dealing with his dilemma.
November 2007 came and we got ready with the wedding arrangements. We are Roman Catholics; Abel, a Baptist. After much hemming and hawing by the pastors of his church, we agreed on a mixed marriage in the Catholic church. Daniella looked glorious in her wedding gown. Abel, too, looked grand. Normally, in a Khasi family, the groom comes to the bride’s home and stays there until such time they find a separate establishment. But Daniella and Abel did something that hurt me. They decided to stay in his home on the wedding night and thereafter. I did not express my hurt for fear that it would trigger a backlash.
Abel and Daniella seemed to have slid comfortably into their marriage and appeared happy. I called her every day to ask if all was well. Daniella had no complaints. She kept a good home and outwardly it was difficult to guess that she was fighting a battle inside. Four months after the marriage they shifted to their own place—a rented accommodation not very far from Abel’s home. Friends and family were invited in batches for lunch or dinner. I was always wary, always watchful. I expected something to go wrong anytime.
Now that I look back at my relationship with Daniella, I realize how uneasy it was, how difficult it was for the two of us to have an intimate, even a proper conversation. She seemed to believe that I had high standards that she could not live up to. She would tell her colleagues with great pride about my work and achievements, but perhaps this also contributed to the feeling that she was not good enough.
But these are only conjectures, the wild guesses you make when you don’t understand.
Daniella told Mary Jones that she wanted to conceive. Mary Jones took her to a gynaecologist. Daniella was told that her thyroid was not functioning well and that she had to take medicines. She hated medicines, we had to remind her all the time to take the anti- depressants regularly. And now she had other medicines to swallow.
Late in August 2008, Daniella wanted to visit Dimapur, Nagaland. Her mother-in-law was a Naga while her father-in-law was a Khasi. ‘Let’s go in December when you have Christmas holidays,’ her mother-in-law said. ‘No, I want to go next week,’ Daniella insisted. Her mother-in-law gave in and they all drove to Dimapur. After spending a week there planting trees and flowers and visiting relatives, they all returned to Shillong. Daniella came
home with lots of gifts. She looked happy.
Saturday, 13 September 2008. I was at work, putting The Shillong Times to bed. Jude called.
‘Mummy, please come to Daniella’s home. She’s not well.’
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘Please, just come.’
‘Why not take her to the hospital?’ I shouted, my anxiety out in the open.
‘Mummy, just come here. Do you want us to pick you up?’
I called a taxi and rushed to Daniella’s home. I think I knew already. I knew with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. But when I got there and saw her, lying dead in her bedroom, pills all over the floor, I could not believe it. My Daniella?
She had been alone at home. Abel was away at work. Daniella, he said, was not been keeping too well but she had told him to go, she would be okay. The mobile phone was next to her bed but she had not called anyone. Not Abel, not her sister or brother. Not her mother.
Just days before, she had been so happy, full of details about the journey to Dimapur.
‘How did this happen?’ I asked Abel.
He broke down and could not answer me. I realize he could have asked each one of us the same question: How did this happen? Because a suicide is like that; it becomes a series of unanswered questions. Everyone who loved that person asks: What did I do? What did I not do? Did I not hear the cry for help? How could I not see this coming? How could she do this? Why did she not feel close enough to call me in her moment of despair? Did she think I would not understand? Did she think I would not give her permission to leave this world? How can a child born of one’s womb be so estranged?
By then, several friends had come to know. I will never forget R.G. Lyngdoh, the former home minister of Meghalaya, who came up to me and said, ‘Kong, this is not the time for us to find fault or blame anyone. Please.’
Okay, so even if I could do this, if I could free myself of guilt and blame, if I could release all the others who knew her, what then? Should I just accept Daniella’s death as natural? How did she die? Was she so troubled by her condition that she found it too hard to continue? Why didn’t she call?
I ask these questions over and over again even today as I sit and write this and look at her lovely photo…all smiles, yet sad. Always. Even the narratives she brought home from her office were about some underdog struggling for her rights. Perhaps she identified with them because they too were struggling to cope with life.
I miss her every day. I ask the same question every day and now it has boiled down to a single syllable: why? It’s a powerful question and sometimes I direct it at myself, sometimes at God, sometimes at Nature.
But no answers come.
It is eight years since Daniella left us, yet none of us in the family dare discuss her mental state. I don’t know if we are doing the right thing. It has not been easy to write this, and I know I have still not looked truth in the eye. Mary Jones, Jude and Dorothea, Daniella’s younger sister with whom she had the least interface, only talk about the good times, about the funny things she said and did that made us laugh. We are all coping in our own ways and I wonder sometimes if we all need to see a therapist.
And what about Abel? And his mother, who loved Daniella like her own daughter in the short time that she stayed with them? In the first few months after her death, Abel would visit her grave and sit there to console himself; light a candle and perhaps shed tears. Two months after her death he put up a unique tombstone, a piece of granite. He got it cut in the shape of Moses’s tablet and placed it at the head of the grave. A sculpture of an angel with folded hands lies at her feet. Daniella’s grave has become a convergence point for the family and a place where we find solace when things are on top of us.
With time memories fade and I regret to say this but my interface with Abel’s family has dwindled to occasional visits and a casual conversation over the telephone. Those left behind, the living, must find ways to carry on.
I speak to Daniella all the time, almost as if she is still around. That is how I carry on, how I cope with the survivor’s guilt. I believe my Daniella’s spirit continues to hover around the house. When I am low and miserable I look at her smiling picture and a sense of peace envelops me. She is next to me, hugging me in her arms. I can hear her say, ‘Meipat, take it easy, no stress. Take your medicines on time. And remember to drink some fruit juice or eat some nuts before you step out for a walk.’