by Bhisham Bherwani
EARLY IN MY EIGHTEENTH YEAR, on a pristine, sun-flushed autumn afternoon, as I made my way across Cornell University’s engineering quad from the library to a lecture, I was gripped by an overwhelming sadness on seeing a stray dog. The essence of that moment lingers: a profound affinity for the animal, solitary and noble in his demeanor. As he ambled past the sundial, seemingly lost, his eyes betrayed an inescapable helplessness, a condition that was his irrevocable lot, to which the rest of us were largely indifferent.
This sudden incursion of melancholy was incongruous at midday in one of the most spectacular settings in which a college student, in the prime of his youth, could have found himself. Ithaca and the Finger Lakes bear witness to millennia of nature’s enthralling handiwork, revealing earth’s magnificent entrails on rock faces carved by grand cascades, the slopes descending, often precipitously, to rills that meander for miles through woods, continuing a primordial process. The landscape, in perennial flux, changes dramatically with the seasons: somnolent and bountiful in the summer; fiery and devastating in the fall; polished tungsten-like in the winter; infused in the spring with the musky reek of silage. Above and along all this, overlooking the forty-mile-long Cayuga Lake, sits the scenic campus with its Anglo-Saxon orderliness of quadrangles, courtyards, and bridges, stone buildings, a clock tower, and a chapel.
But in this idyll, the grass radiantly green, a bracing coolness in the air, my memory spurred by the dog, I recalled my brother from whom I had been away but a few weeks, and considered how his condition had restricted his range of experiences and his life, obliterating from it the possibility of joy.
At the end of the 1960s, my mother, then in her late twenties, received a phone call from the principal of the preschool my elder brother, then three, had been attending for several months. My brother, the principal said, was not behaving like the other children. He had become aloof and had stopped mingling with them. This was the first tremor in a series of shocks my parents would endure that radically changed the course of their lives.
My brother was withdrawn from the school. Some weeks later, his temperature having run high unseasonably long, he was diagnosed with encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain known to be induced by a viral infection. A process that had started visibly as chronic fever, accompanied by a diminishing of mental faculties and progressive slurring of words into incoherence to the point of an inability to talk sensibly, culminated upon completing its merciless course of damage in my brother’s complete loss of speech, leaving him without any means of rational communication and expression.
The most emotionally demanding of my parents’ new responsibilities—concomitant with the jolt they received from beholding their smart, handsome, and doted-on firstborn toddler steadily deteriorate—was controlling him. As his cognitive and oral capabilities receded until they were so impaired that there was no doubt that he was no longer “normal,” he erupted, possibly as a result of his awareness of sudden incapacitation, the shock of it, and the ensuing frustration, into fits of confusion and rage that were extreme and violent. Appreciably more amplified than a child’s tantrums, they continued into adulthood, while his developmentally impaired behavior continued to resemble that of a child’s.
Despite intermittent hopes of recovery through remedies esoteric, natural, and scientific, proposed earnestly and offhandedly by the informed and the uninformed, the whirlwind days, sometimes better, sometimes worse, accreted immutably into months, the months into years. During this period, my brother, on prescription medication, went through three dedicated and irreproachable social workers and two special schools while I went through kindergarten and elementary, secondary, and high schools without what in different circumstances would have been an upperclassman sibling.
Leo Kanner’s seminal collection of case studies, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact,” was published in 1943 in Nervous Child, but around the time my brother and I became adults, discussions on autism, far from being as pervasive as they are today, were nonexistent. Ignorance and fear, two symbiotic cultural maladies by no means overcome today, were then conspicuously complementary, manifested in the social stigma associated with developmental disability.
I was well out of college when the word autism entered my vocabulary. Some two decades later, when my brother and I were in our early forties, it was applied to him by a young internationally trained neurologist. I was exhilarated: my brother now belonged to a rank that, despite its inexact and evolving definition, was the subject not only of professional but also of social and cultural attention and debate, a subject as permissible in civil conversation as dementia and divorce. His early medical reports more indecipherable than insightful, my brother’s uncontested prescriptions until that point had been informed by biological interpretations of his symptoms rather than nonbiological ones. His appearance on the spectrum no longer made him an anomaly. He had become part of a larger universe defined by vigorous research, in the purview of active and activist parents and guardians worldwide
When we were growing up, our mother would drive my brother and me to her parents on the weekends. One evening on such a visit, preoccupied with the adults and domestic chitchat, she sensed an uncharacteristic silence. “Where’s Deepak?” she said. The apartment was unusually large, with eighteen feet high ceilings in an Edwardian building surrounded by palm trees on a seafront block adjacent to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. On entering, one stepped into a spacious living and conjoined dining room. An interior hallway leading to a balcony spawned two sets of slatted, folding wooden doors opening to large bedrooms with alcoves and verandahs and exposures facing south, west, and north. Anterooms and passages connected the different areas of the apartment, leading to bathrooms and, down a stairway, to the kitchen and a backdoor.
Everyone scrambled through the labyrinth looking for my brother and realized soon that he had somehow managed to leave the apartment, probably when the main door had been opened for the mailman. The apartment was two flights up. A wooden stairway wrapped around the elevator shaft, up and down which crawled an Otis birdcage elevator. My mother and grandfather ran downstairs and around the compound. My brother was nowhere to be seen.
Frantic, my mother hurried to scout the neighborhood to the south, my grandfather to the north. In the immediate vicinity, the streets were laid out grid-like, but several buildings stood on every block, each in its own compound, each with its own gates. He could have wandered or, worse, been coaxed into any of them. Kidnappings were routinely reported in newspapers.
South Bombay, close to many historical landmarks, attracted then, as it does now, visitors of every stripe, and the illicit, despite the established residents, thrived among the licit. A block away in the direction in which my distraught mother rushed, the road from a waterfront country club to a causeway, lined with dingy boutiques of agarwood and musk, incense and hookahs, and other exotic paraphernalia, was particularly suspect. On it, among other seedy outposts, stood Slip Disc, a nightclub swarmed—at least when I, a little older, first discovered it—with Filipino prostitutes and drunk and stoned patrons. The pimps and pushers worked their way northward from that axis toward the hotel, along the causeway and the side lanes, scoping out the sailors on shore leave, the American and European hippies, and the oil-rich Arabs in white headscarves and dishdashes enjoying a reprieve of permissiveness. The proprietors of the antiques and Kashmiri carpet stores behind the hotel actively accosted gullible passers-by, typically tourists.
Beyond these blocks, the thoroughfares relinquished their predictable configuration. Stepping onto them one stepped into the claustrophobic pandemonium of street commerce, to be swept into the flow of peddlers, pedestrians, and traffic.
My grandfather found my brother on the middle of the four-lane, two-way avenue that separated his block from the hotel’s. He had managed, incredibly, to safely cross halfway, and stood frozen, terrified and confused, on a small island, the traffic circling around him.
“So thank I God my birth / Fell not in isles aside— / Waste headlands of the earth, / Or warring tribes untried—” wrote Rudyard Kipling a century ago in “To the City of Bombay,” “But that she lent me worth / And gave me right to pride.”
Gone are the verdant palm tree arbors, the unsullied coastlines, and the clear skies that informed Kipling’s insufferable, anachronistic poem. I may well as a child have witnessed the last, vanishing vestiges of his day, in the architecture of my grandfather’s building, in the mown public cricket fields, in the Anglican school in which I studied, in its cranky septuagenarian English headmistress and other aging artifacts of a dead era, such as Tony and his family, tottering residues of the British occupation, who at some point packed their bags, sold their gramophone to my grandfather, their next-door neighbor, and went home. The Bombay of Kipling’s wake, splotched in my youth by the hippies and the Arabs, gave way to American television and economic liberalization, to an emergent middle class and fervent consumerism, with attendant compounding problems of ecological disregard in a city—as in the country at large—that lacked adequate infrastructure and essential public services, amidst poverty of a scale mind-boggling for a capitalist democracy. If Kipling’s Bombay exists anywhere, it is as an intensely fragile ghost, shrinking in the face of tenacious pollution, smog and noise that, indifferent to gated, manicured lawns and golf courses, encroach through the trees on the perimeters of incongruous country clubs scattered across the old city, oases for the well-heeled and the well-connected amid straggling inequality.
In such a city, well on its march to today’s full-blown materialism and post-industrial congestion, already discernibly less congenial than the city of my childhood, my brother, barely a teenager, once again went missing. He had left for an evening walk with a live-in help, whom my mother, responding minutes later to the continuous ringing of the doorbell, was stunned on opening the door to see standing alone and flustered in the hallway. Someone downstairs must have called the elevator. Its automatic doors had closed with my brother inside before the help had entered. He had run down the stairs expecting to find my brother in the lobby. Not only was my brother not there, the elevator that had brought him down was on its way up. When my mother called it again to our floor, it was empty.
We lived in a part of the city newly developed, a swamp two decades earlier, nonexistent for all practical purposes until extracted from the sea through a process known as land reclamation, the coastline artificially extended. The blocks, marked by high-rises, were primarily residential, with some commercial buildings; all had their own compounds and most had separate entrance and exit gates. One, adjacent to ours, housed corporate offices upstairs, and downstairs a shopping arcade with maze-like passages.
The roads, charting an active route of public buses because of the businesses in the neighborhood and a depot nearby, led to intersections without signals that branched in multiple directions. The boundaries between them and the curbs, if present, were tenuous and organic: pedestrians walked on and off the footpaths and the vehicles cruised unnervingly close to them. There was no enforcement or practice—ostensibly no concept—of right-of-way, as employed drivers, cheap labor from the phalanges of India’s rural poor and illiterate, swerved inches ahead or even at the people and pedestrians attempting to make their way to the opposite side. Bus operators, notoriously reckless, hands perpetually on bugle horns, counted on their yelps for roads to clear as they charged, making sharp turns.
Our father, who had dashed home from work and joined the search, found my brother outside a building, standing by its compound wall, looking shell-shocked. He had this time navigated a longer distance, walked from the lobby to the gate and out, unnoticed past the security outpost; down a busy multi-lane, two-way road with double-parked cars, no signals, and no curbs; across a busy intersection; down the block; and around, halfway down another.
The traffic island from which my grandfather retrieved my brother has since been removed; its presence at the intersection posed a nuisance to cars, swelling in numbers by the day. The street from which my father retrieved my brother is busier than it was then, cars and buses cascading as they did before.
Once, among the crumbling relics, I shared Kipling’s pride of place, but now that’s relegated to a spurned memory. Urgent realities—my brother’s disability, his health and safety—obscure the conjured and counterfeit and ultimately meaningless past force-fed to me during my naïve years of childhood and adolescence, a past as spurious and tinny as the fiction of a once-munificent Raj.
Less than a decade after I graduated college, my father ill, I moved back home. My trepidations from childhood and adolescence about my brother’s disability, rooted in the social stigma of his affliction I had witnessed while growing up, had followed me, I realized, into adulthood. I had contemplated his extraordinary condition safely from a distance, acknowledged it privately through largely unexpressed thoughts and feelings. But in the wake of our father’s untimely death, this mode of association became unsatisfactory, inadequate to temper my increasing disquiet, let alone contain it. I could no longer recoil from the reality before me: unlike my brother, able and educated, I felt compelled to assert his and my inseparability, to record that there was not just one pair of footprints where anyone cared to look, but two, of comrades in grief.
My brother had shared with our father an unspoken bond that was deep, unconditional, and unbreachable, that transcended the fraught household conditions. He would intuit, for instance, from the doorbell’s repetition and duration when it rang that it was our father outside, and would rush to the door and leap in front of him like a child. For months after our father died, my brother peered out of his room and down the hallway of our railroad apartment whenever the doorbell rang in the evenings around the time our father would arrive from work. If the chimes resonated with our father’s, he rushed to the front door. Eventually, he stopped.
“The inability to communicate one’s sense of the mortal havoc in one’s brain is a cruel frustration,” wrote William Styron in a Newsweek article, “Interior Pain,” a follow-up anecdotal essay to his memoir Darkness Visible. I could not possibly have experienced the loss of our father in the same asphyxiating way as my brother. The emotional demands on me, in contrast, were banal. He, on the other hand, became more restless, screamed more.
One Sunday at home with him, I considered him more carefully than I had during the preceding hectic weeks. He was halfway sitting up on the bed, looking at me. I noticed, for the first time, that he had lost weight. His eyes seemed hollow. His forearm, elbow resting on the mattress, trembled involuntarily. The following day, I was seated at a desk in our late father’s office, preoccupied by the administration following his death. The monsoons had begun with thunder and lightning. I stood up and looked out the window. The shower before me blanched the neighboring buildings, the sea beyond. I went downstairs and hailed a cab.
I knew only vaguely where my brother’s school was—I had never been there—but I was confident as a traveled city dweller of my ability to arrive at any urban destination with not much more than a general sense of its location, or even without that. During my years of absence, Bombay had expanded; new highways, new buildings extended it. The taxi stalled on a stretch unrecognizable to me. It had flooded, the sewers had overflown, the water was at least a foot high. The pitter-patter muffled everything except the roar from the sky. I stood outside, pant cuffs rolled up, shoes in hands, socks in shoes, drenched, looking for an alternative. The cars on the road inched on; none were cabs.
The driver scurried off looking for help. Somehow, he managed to accost some pedestrians, who pushed the car a few yards to help jump start it. It sputtered, then corrected. The next few miles were a crawl. The school was on a hill, near the top, which had kept the approach to it from flooding.
It sat in a charming gated compound with trees, a small lawn, and a small parking lot. To the left, a path through a shrubbery patch led to the gable-roofed administrative offices; ahead, two concrete buildings housed the students’ workshops. I entered one and inquired. My brother, I was told, was upstairs. The settings I had navigated the two hours it had taken me to get from one part of the city to another, not necessarily remote, could not have contrasted more with each other: a reasonably well-appointed office downtown; a river of grime in a grubby car, dank inside, faux-leather upholstery torn; an orderly campus in a different borough. Still, what I walked into upstairs jarred my senses.
My recollection of the interior now conjures two of Goya’s paintings, among his darkest, Asylum and Yard with Lunatics; the latter appears on the jacket of Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, though what I saw, despite this association, was thankfully less severe. But while the hall, to which the stairway led, did not, even on that gray day, have the repressive gloom of the paintings, which barely outline the inhabitants in silhouette parsimoniously brushed as they are by light from exposures high above them, it was nevertheless permeated with the abjectness of forsaken humanity.
My brother, his back toward me as I entered, sat working a handloom. He was in his uniform, a white, short-sleeved shirt, the school’s insignia embroidered in red on the breast pocket, and navy-blue trousers. His hair was still thick and jet-black. He looked lonely behind his apparatus. On noticing me, his brother who, though he had now been living with him for weeks, was in ways a stranger, he looked first surprised, then uneasy. Self-conscious, he stopped working. He stood up and walked about.
All around were others like him and yet different from him, like each other and yet different from each other, as if there was no dearth of ingenuity in the pitiless permutations that nature, that God, that whatever, could concoct for the dispossessed. They sat as at a manufacturing assembly line, some focused, some distracted, some grunting, some, for no apparent reason, laughing, attending to their assignments until a bell released them.
An insurgency on a sustained, unimpeded perspective—on what feels, what one is habituated to believing, is right—is beyond disruptive. I understood, some years later when my mother recounted it to me, the predicament of her father, a deeply sensitive man who, after visiting my brother’s school once, so affected by what he saw, found it impossible to ever visit it again.
Montaigne, in his essay “Of sadness,” recounts how a member of French royalty upon receiving news first about the death of his elder brother and then about that of his younger one remained stoic and poised, but, grief-stricken, became effusive upon next witnessing the execution of one of his subjects unrelated to him. The last death uncorked his profoundly deeper sorrow from the two preceding ones: “since he was already brimful of sadness, the slightest overload broke down the barriers of his endurance.” Elsewhere, in “Of conscience,” the essayist writes of his subject: “It makes us betray, accuse, and fight ourselves, and, in the absence of an outside witness, it brings us forward against ourselves.” He quotes the Latin satirist Juvenal: Plying a secret whip, our soul as torturer.
The more I had alienated myself from the strident truth—my brother—that defined me, the more it had begun to resonate. My guilt was the guilt of a fugitive not in the literal sense, but in the sense of evasion, of selective acceptance of reality, of complicity in its denial; never before goaded, it was readily disregarded. In the cock and fire of grief as Montaigne explains it, the trigger was my father’s death, pulled in response to subliminal feelings from growing up with my brother, feelings that would surface in his absence at the sight of a stray dog on a college campus, that would transport me impulsively to his school, and that would lead me—through the steady disintegration and shattering of decorum—to writing about him and, maybe, to empathy.
Bhisham Bherwani is the author of three poetry books. His essays have appeared in the American Poetry Review, The American Reader, Pleiades, Rain Taxi, The Yale Review, and other places. He was educated at Cornell University and New York University. He lives in New York City. “Bet it in Bedlam” is excerpted from his book-length memoir-in-progress of the same title.