Saturday, April 28, 2007

Not another gratuitous Cho post

Devangshu Datta writes in the Business Standard on a friend of his who shows violent paranoid behaviour. This story is tragic, but what's striking are the parallels that Datta draws between his friend and Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech killer. I am reproducing the entire piece below, not only because it may be unavailable after some days, but also because this story needs to be told:

About 20 years ago, a friend of mine was pursuing a Ph D in an American university. His thesis was a game-theoretic analysis of Hamlet. It was an interesting, ambitious crossover topic. For an English literature major to attempt to learn the mathematics and “translate” back into terms that his mathematically-imbecilic guide could follow, was impressive.

Then he was afflicted by paranoid schizophrenia. First, his “guide” became a “racist”. Then spy drones (described in exact detail) started hovering around the campus. After that, he was enmeshed in a conspiracy involving Rajiv Gandhi (then already dead), Zia-ul-Haq and Ronald Reagan.

His academic career fell apart. Back in India, he joined a national daily as a sub-editor. His command of English was good enough for him to work on cruise control. But journalism is not an ideal profession for paranoiacs—there’s too much source material to feed the fantasies. He quit. A trust fund enabled him to survive. In the 1990s, he turned against his “treasonous” father, who had “made a deal” with Guy Burgess and Kim Philby in Cambridge in the 1950s.

By 1997, my friend was a veteran of psychiatric institutions and he had undergone many brushes with substance abuse and the law. His lunacies would peak in physical explosions, which led to lockup or hospital. Coming off the high, he would seek help. Soon the paranoia would resurface. He would accuse doctors of poisoning him and go through a drug orgy to “cleanse” himself. The cycle would repeat.

The delusions got more bizarre. He drew parallels between himself and Odysseus, Homer’s wandering hero. Then he became a reincarnation of Odysseus. Everybody around had his or her life stories rearranged to fit the Iliad and Odyssey. His folks gave up. His parents are elderly, his siblings scattered across three continents. His friends are middle-aged and too concerned with earning their daily bread to cope. We last met about two years ago, when I bailed him out of a minor police case. After I collected him from lockup, he jumped out of my running car, screaming that I was trying to kill him.

He lives somewhere in Qutab. He writes about six rambling e-mails a day, with cc-s addressed to Bush, Putin, Manmohan Singh, the Pope, etc. In these, he details plots against him and promises vengeance outlined in specific, stomach-churning details. The prognosis isn’t good. Doctors say there is a very slim chance of remission. This pattern could continue indefinitely. Or, he may lapse into catatonia, withdrawing totally from the real world.

In the legal sense, my friend isn’t mad. He knows who he is; he can name the political leadership of a dozen countries. His memory is unimpaired and he retains apparent cognition. He can quote classics in several languages, extract definite integrals and apply the compound interest formula, which is more than most sane people can. He reads and absorbs information—but he processes it in abnormal fashion.

His lifestyle is mostly harmless—spam filters deal efficiently with the crank e-mails. When he goes berserk, it usually means a scuffle or two and minor police cases. When he comes down, he is apologetic. The parallels between him and Cho Seung-Hui go deeper than just two people turning disturbed and delusional while enrolled in an American academic institution. There is a strong resonance between Cho’s ramblings and my friend’s e-mails. Both had violent delusional fantasies; my friend’s are actually more coherently developed and more wide-ranging. (Oddly, both were fascinated by Vladimir Putin.)

But my friend returned from the US before he developed full-blown symptoms. If he had stayed on there, he and several others would surely be dead by now. Sometime during one of his violent phases, he would have bought a gun and gone ballistic. It wouldn’t have stopped at mere scuffles. India is traditionally tolerant of “holy fools”. So he survives here despite having cut himself off from family, friends and medical support. And thankfully, India is not tolerant of guns. The right to bear weapons is not enshrined in our Constitution.

Datta is hinting at the easy availability of guns in the US. I have been pondering the situation and am forced to say that guns are a moral/ethical issue, even though they may be of use in certain situations, like the Miss US case recently. They can trigger crimes such as Virginia Tech, and this must be accounted for. I was discussing Bowling With Columbine with a friend this evening and she remembered a scene where the guys playing the two teenaged killers walk into a Wal Mart store and buy a lot of ammunition. Just like that--off the counter. This cannot be justified under the pretext of people needing to protect themselves, howsoever meritorious that argument may be.

The hopelessness of Datta's friend's situation depresses me. To my mind, euthanasia should be administered on such people, so that they may stop hurting themselves and others.

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