Bipolar Disorder, Mental Illness, Migration, Secret Lives

A Tropical Breakdown: Partition, Inherited Sadness and Mental illness

Piece shortlisted for Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2012 (amended)

My father told me a story, when I was perhaps too young to understand its import, about his emergency admission as a patient to the Hospital of Tropical Diseases in London. It was the ‘50s and he was an overseas student living far from his newly founded country of Pakistan. He told me that at the time, all patients from the “East” were automatically sent to the HTD regardless of their presenting symptoms.

“So what was wrong with you, Papa?” I asked.

The reply came without a hint of self pity but with a smile. The same smile I saw many years later when my father was ravaged by motor neurone disease. A smile that said “Life is like this. What can you do? What profit is there in complaint?”

He told that me that the condition that had led to his admission was called a “nervous breakdown.”

I  was 7 or 8. I’m not sure if I knew what a nervous breakdown was then. I did however have a strong sense, that it was neither a tropical disease nor a condition that was particular to natives of the “East”. I can’t remember if I asked my father for more details. At some stage, I did learn that he had been transferred to a hospital more suited to his treatment; bluntly put, a psychiatric institution.

I am unable to remember my feelings when I was first told this story. As an adult, and in particular an adult diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I wonder at how my father manifested this very tropical psychiatric breakdown. Was his behaviour erratic?  His mood labile? Who found him in such a level of distress and took him to the hospital?

I myself first started to display symptoms of bipolar disorder in my late teens and early 20s. One of my first episodes, when I was studying in London, culminated in me being found by the police in a deranged state. I was walking bare foot, in my
nightwear on a winter’s day when the snow had frozen on the pavements.

For some strange reason I told an abridged version of this story to my father. I am not sure why. I knew that the disclosure would worry him but also thought that he would at the very least express extreme disapproval. His response, again with a smile, even now surprises me, “Aah, like the Ava Gardner film, The Barefoot Contessa. It became my nickname for a while.

Although I now know that my father, like me, suffered from extreme lows and highs, I cannot imagine him in such a deranged state. And yet I can only surmise that he was found in similar circumstances. Whilst I have been saved from the details of the traumatic logistics of his psychiatric admission, I know of the chain of events that led to it. This knowledge has come to me in the form of stories narrated ad hoc by my family, at different times, for different reasons; and finally from documents found in my father’s papers on his passing.

The “composite” story has haunted me most of my adult life. It has given me a sense of inherited sadness. It has shaped not only who I am but also my children. It is the story not just of one man’s personal psychological fragmentation but the psychological fragmentation of the Indian sub-continent, post Partition.

My father first came to London from Pakistan in the early fifties to study for his vocational qualification as a barrister. The hope, the dream, was I think to return to Pakistan and set up as an advocate, with judicial if not political aspirations. The dream beyond the dream was to be part of building his new homeland.

In 1947 at the time of Independence, he and his family had left their vast ancestral lands near Delhi to settle as Pakistanis in West Punjab. The haveli, the family home they left behind became a primary school in the Independent India. Their new home in Pakistan was a much more modest bungalow and, in the event, much less secure.

My father never spoke of the hardships of the move, the wealth and land that was lost, or the members of his family who had died in the savagery surrounding Independence. I learnt of all of this later. All I knew was that my father had grown up with wealth and status and that somehow it was all gone. He came to London as a student with a sense of entitlement and little else; besides his own intellect.

Despite my family’s change in fortune, my grandfather, a senior officer in first the Indian and then the Pakistani army, sent my father a regular stipend for his maintenance and academic fees. Gradually however, the stipend became both irregular and much reduced. Finally the payments stopped all together. My father wondered, at first, if he had done something to displease my grandfather, my Dada Jan. Dada was like my father, generous, gentle but with exacting standards and my father was an erratic albeit talented student. His results in any academic year and subject ranged from exemplary to well below mediocre. He lived with the constant guilt that he was disappointing Dada Jan.

My father assumed that the cessation of payments was a mark of disapproval. He felt he had no right to complain. He was aware to an extent, of some of the sacrifices that were being made to fund his overseas stay. He didn’t contact home to beg for even meagre financial support. Instead, for the first time in his hitherto privileged life, he sought paid employment.

Despite his family’s military and feudal landed background my father’s spirit was essentially that of a poet. He was unsuited to most if not all the positions that he acquired. One of his first jobs in England was as a potato picker. In the end, he refused payment because he felt that he had wasted the famer’s time with his pathetic efforts. He returned his wages with a handwritten letter begging to resign. I imagine he fared even worse at one of his later jobs at a coal mine. I only hope that the post was an administrative one.

Even his more white collar jobs gave rise to challenges beyond his ken. He somehow acquired work as a supply teacher in the Isle of Dogs. His subjects? Sex Education and French. I can still remember his coy smile as he told me that he’d had no experience or knowledge of either item on the curriculum. Certainly, although my father was a fine linguist in Persian, Arabic and Urdu, and indeed some other European languages, I never ever heard him speak French.

He finally settled on a job at an orange juice canning factory. This work he actually spoke of with affection. As I understand it, this was a lonely time. There was little if no communication from back home, certainly not from my Dada. All my father’s time was spent working or studying. I think he had lost touch with many of his fellow wealthy South Asian friends. His affection for his new post was not so much for the work itself but for the foreman at the factory.

I get the sense that the foreman, like my father, was a poet, but unlike my father had been involved with manual labour all his life. This labour cost him dearly. The poor man had been injured in an industrial accident; one of his legs crushed by a falling barrel as it was unloaded from a van. He was left disabled and in constant pain.

I suspect the two men were a comfort to each other, sharing their love of literature and ideas. Comfort that was sorely lacking in other aspects of my father’s life as he tried desperately to prepare for his impending Bar exams. I can only imagine, therefore, his joy at returning one day from the canning factory to find a letter from Pakistan.

My father read that letter alone in his lodgings. It was not from his father but from his younger sister, my Aunt. It did not include monies for an allowance, only news. This was news that my Aunt, out of love, had attempted to hide from my father for as long as possible. She was aware of his impending exams and had timed her letter to cause the least disruption to his studies. The intention was for the letter to arrive after the conclusion of my father’s last exam. She was alas peremptory. My father had not even sat his first paper.

Her letter spoke lightly of some of the troubles that the family had faced in my father’s absence. It ended with this news: my Dada had passed away many months before.

She urged my father not to worry, that she had managed all immediate practical issues but that he should return home when he could.

I have often imagined this moment. This moment when my father finished the letter, in his lodgings, alone.

Somehow he had the phlegm and resolve to set off to work the next day. Perhaps there was some consolation that his friend would be there to share the news with. When my father arrived at work the mood was low. The foreman was suffering more than usual. My father saw the other man’s need for support and physical assistance. He judged that this took precedence over his own need to unburden about his recent bereavement. My father prided himself on making this decision. It was, I believe, a decision that in the end almost destroyed him.

I know that he did eventually tell his friend. This part of the story was disclosed to me almost by chance in the most domestic of circumstances. My father and I were cleaning our kitchen, one wall of which was clad in 1970’s style tongue and groove timber. On this wall my father had hung various pieces of Islamic Art and calligraphy, the 99 attributes of Allah, a picture of the Kabbahtulah. We were taking these down to dust them. There was also, perhaps incongruously, a flimsy and browning paper print of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If tacked to the wall. For some reason I assumed that it was of less value than the other framed items and I ripped it off with little care. My father’s response to my carelessness was barely short of explosive.

As he calmed down he explained to me the circumstances by which he had come by the print. It was the foreman who had given it to him some twenty years before. It had been pinned to the wall in the canning factory office. The foreman had taken it off the wall and handed it to my father; on the day my father finally shared the heartbreaking news of my grandfather’s death. I can imagine no more accurate description of the man my father aspired to be than that contained in the words of If.

That aspiration, that Herculean emotional task “to be a man,” that he set himself almost broke him.

After my grandfather’s passing my father threw himself into lonely preparation for his Bar finals. No one could have blamed him for moments of distraction or lapses in concentration. And indeed, no one could have blamed him for the results. He failed almost every paper. The only person, who blamed him, was himself.

I imagine it was this guilt and grief in extremis that pushed him into a less than rational state of mind. It was this state of mind which earned him his bed at the Hospital of Tropical Diseases.

I asked my mother recently what she knew about this admission and my father’s in-patient experience on a psychiatric ward. My enquiry was, in part, to make sense of my own diagnosis and admissions but also because this condition appears to have passed to the next generation after me.

My mother knew few of the details but was aware that my father was ill for some considerable time. His recovery was impeded by the paralysing belief that he had let my Dada Jan down. What eventually partially released him from this guilt and prompted his recovery and discharge was a chance discussion with a compassionate junior psychiatrist. The doctor told my father that he saw many similarities between the man he met in my father and the description of the man my grandfather had been. “He would have been proud of you. You are very like him.”

I am glad my father began to believe the doctor’s words. I agree with them. I cannot imagine two more honourable or noble men than my father and grandfather. It was, however, when my father himself passed away that I fully understood his burden of guilt. It is this guilt that triggered his illness and then sadly recurring bouts of paralysing depressions.

On my father’s death I found legal documents, letters and photos which shook me. My family had assumed, like so many migrant Muslims, who came from India, that in their Rehabilitation they would be housed and employed in similar fashion as they had before Partition. The principle behind Rehabilitation was that the migrant refugees would be compensated with like accommodation and wealth. All of which had been left behind for the sake of an ideal. The country of the pure, Pakistan.

My family was allocated a bungalow in Lahore. It had little of the finery and space of their former home. This, however, was not the problem. Through some error the bungalow was never given as restitution. My father left for the UK unaware of the problems that would follow.  My grandfather discovered too late that he had no title to their new home. He was in fact a tenant who was expected to pay rent.  In India he had been a feudal landlord. In Pakistan, he and my Aunts were actually ousted from “their” bungalow. They were little more than destitute.

Perhaps my family’s situation could have been contained or remedied had the new Pakistan treated my grandfather with better regard. I found an album of photos which my father appeared to have hidden. It dates from the days of the haveli in India to the early years in Pakistan. On the day of Independence in 1947 my grandfather can be seen in ceremonial uniform and turban, robust, handsome, barrel-chested proudly pointing to some monument in his new country. There were many such photos of this elegant handsome figure hung up in our home. The figure in the later pages of the album I did not recognise. The hollow cheeks, the unkempt moustache, the sadness in the eyes. It was almost impossible to think these later photos were also of my grandfather.

Correspondence with the Pakistani Government revealed that my grandfather had been retired early without a full pension. He was barely in his 50s. It was this that had led to the cessation of my father’s stipend. I found no letters of complaint from my grandfather as to how he was being treated. No demands for proper restitution or churlish requests for funds. What I did find was a letter to a government official which breaks my heart even to think about it.

The letter my grandfather wrote beseeched the recipient minister to reinstate his military employment. Not for his own gain or financial security. I wish I had the courage to find that letter now. My grandfather’s request was written in much more eloquent yet poignant fashion than I can reproduce. I do not want to revisit the emotions I felt when I first read it. I felt as if I had been ripped apart, cored from the inside, left destitute.

My grandfather told the minister that his only desire was for his son to complete his studies overseas and then return. He told the minister that young men like my father would come home with their education and clean hearts to build Pakistan. He told the minister that in the spirit of young men like my father lay the hope of a nation. All he wanted was my father to complete his education. My grandfather died shortly after writing that letter.

My father did, complete his education. Eventually, he recovered sufficiently to pass his Bar exams. He did return to Lahore. One of my favourite photos of him is in his barrister’s chambers there. But sometimes no amount of hopes and dreams can mend a heart and spirit which has been irrevocably broken. Eventually it was his best friend who urged my father to leave Pakistan and return to work in the UK. “If you stay, you will be eaten alive. Your idealism and sense of honour will be your undoing.”

I still do not know the exact circumstances of my grandfather’s death. Much of them are shrouded in secrecy. Some of these secrets I know but they are not mine to repeat. But what I do know is that it was my grandfather’s tropical breakdown, the breakdown of a country’s hopes and dreams, that took my father to the Hospital of Tropical Diseases.


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