A scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho confronted city police on Thursday shortly after they had questioned Partha De, 44, following the discovery of his 77-year-old father’s burnt body in the bathtub at their south Calcutta home on Wednesday night.
“My sister too is at home, dead,” the former engineer told officers at Shakespeare Sarani police station on Thursday morning, breaking down under interrogation before leading them to the six-month-old skeleton in his bedroom.
Partha, who claims to be a one-time employee of a software giant, lived in the four-storey, 120-year-old house in Robinson Street with father Arabindo and elder sister Debjani, 46, who too were engineers.
While investigating Arabindo’s death, the police had not realised that Debjani’s skeleton lay a few feet away in another room.
Partha said Debjani, who taught music at Don Bosco Park Circus till a few years ago despite being an engineering graduate, had starved herself to death last December 29 while fasting under a religious guru’s instructions. Apparently, he couldn’t bear to cremate his sister.
Officers found her skeleton covered with a blanket on a single bed in a bedroom that the siblings shared, with the air-conditioner on at full blast. Grimy teddy bears were arrayed on the bed’s headboard.
Strewn around were plastic tiffin boxes, the food in them “rotten long ago”, from which the brother “fed” his dead sister every night.
The skeletons of the family’s two pet Labradors lay on the floor – they had apparently died in August and September.
In Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller, a motel owner who has murdered his mother exhumes her corpse and treats it as if she were alive. Unlike the movie, there’s no suggestion yet of foul play in the deaths of Debjani or Arabindo.
“Our preliminary inquiry suggests that Arabindo De committed suicide. The bathroom door was locked from inside. There was a suicide note saying no one is to blame,” deputy commissioner (south) Murlidhar Sharma said.
Any motive remains unclear so far, as do the circumstances of Debjani’s death and many other aspects of the macabre tragedy.
Partha was arrested but, on doctors’ advice, sent to the Calcutta Pavlov Hospital for the mentally ill after being produced in court.
He has been booked under penal code sections 269 (negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) and 176 (omission to give notice or information to public servant by person legally bound to give it), punishable by up to six months’ jail.
“Partha started behaving abnormally in the morning, raising our suspicions. He broke down on being grilled,” an officer said.
The cops’ entry into the family’s second-floor lodgings at 3 Robinson Street was spine-chilling – somebody seemed to be speaking in an eerie whisper from inside the flat.
It turned out to be a recorded voice coming at a low volume from the ubiquitous speakers in each of the three rooms, the bathroom and the balcony in a house with five music players.
It was a taped sermon by Joyce Meyer, a US-based author and speaker with followers worldwide who, her website says, teaches “practical Bible”. Spiritual books were scattered across the poorly maintained house.
The next shock came when the officers pushed open the door to the siblings’ bedroom.
“It was difficult to enter the room. First, the stench and then the darkness. He (Partha) had covered all the windows with bed sheets and jammed every inch of opening with pieces of cloth so the stench did not escape,” an officer said. “When we asked Partha how he had lived with a body for six months, he calmly said the stench reminded him of his sister and he grew used to it.”
Last month, Partha had thrown a birthday party at the house, with at least a dozen relatives and friends attending.
Mukti De, Partha’s 70-year-old aunt who lives next door in the same compound, shuddered at the thought that she had had lunch separated by a wall from her niece’s skeleton. None of the invitees smelt the stench.
The house has one other resident, a tenant on the top floor, who could not be contacted. The first floor, where Partha’s and Debjani’s late mother Arati ran a crèche, had been rented out to a company but was empty, as was the ground floor.
Police said Arabindo, Arati and their two children had shifted to the house -their ancestral home – in 1989, two years after Arabindo retired as director of the Calcutta-headquartered Alfred Herbert Limited, which manufactures industrial equipment in Bangalore. The children earned BTech degrees from Rajabazar Science College.
“After Partha’s mother died of cancer, the family became reclusive. The last time we met Partha was on his last birthday. When I asked about Debjani, he lost his cool. His father said she was at an ashram,” Mukti, wife of Arabindo’s brother Arun, said.
Why did the neighbours or relatives not ask questions when they did not see Debjani or the dogs for months?
“No one, not even the dogs, ever came out of the house. We would occasionally hear a piano, which we thought was being played by Debjani, but today we learnt they were old records his father played,” a neighbour said.
Officers said Partha’s grandfather Gadadhar De had bought the property from a British owner over 80 years ago. The house is in an upscale locality near several well-known schools, and the police commissioner’s residence is a five-minute walk away.
Around 8.30 on Wednesday night, neighbours alerted the fire brigade when smoke billowed out of the second-floor bathroom. By the time the police arrived, fire officials had broken the bathroom door open to find Arabindo’s charred body. Partha, who too had apparently smelt something burning, was at home when the incident happened, the police said.
“I was awake the whole night with Partha,” said one of the two security guards at the compound, Harendra Hansda.
“There were two policemen too. Partha was restless, drinking coffee, one cup after the other, and pacing up and down the corridor outside the living room.”
The guards were “never allowed into the house” and had no inkling of what went on inside.
With the first rays of light on Thursay, Partha expressed a wish to visit Mother House on AJC Bose Road, Hansda said.
“We summoned Partha to the police station this morning to take his father’s body. He refused to claim it,” an officer said.
“We then asked him to call his uncle but he said he wouldn’t let his relatives touch his father’s body. So we asked him to call his sister. Initially, he hesitated. But then he confessed that she was dead.”
Initially, the officers were sceptical and began prodding Partha to produce her death certificate. It was then he broke down.
“He said, ‘I know it may be a crime in the eyes of the law but I hope you understand my sentiments; I couldn’t let her go’,” the officer said.
Psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram said the family probably suffered from a “shared delusion” that had convinced them they should “preserve” their loved ones’ bodies, and that they probably hallucinated too.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if either men hallucinated that the woman’s body spoke to them, maybe at some particular hour of day or night.”
Psychologist Mohormala Chatterjee said the family needed help but no one got to know that because they had shut themselves off from the world.
“Nowadays, if someone becomes reclusive, no one interferes in urban society,” Chatterjee said.
A detailed psychiatric evaluation of Partha alone can provide clues to why the house’s three occupants behaved the way he claims they did, said Indira Sharma, a Varanasi-based psychiatrist.
“Even then, we may never know the full truth,” she added.