How the brain creates unreal reality

Updated: Dec 01, 2019, 09:07 IST | Aastha Atray Banan | Mumbai

Ajinkya Bhasme wants to make you uncomfortable with a story about a woman who thinks her husband is an imposter, to start a conversation about delusional misidentification and rare mental health conditions

Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

It was when he was researching his first title, When the Devil Whispers, about the first Indian woman sentenced to death, that Ajinkya Bhasme, 29, got the idea for his second book. For As Death Stared Back, he met patients suffering from mental degenerative disorders like alzheimer's, dementia and schizophrenia. The son of a criminal lawyer mother and agriculture officer father has a degree in chemical engineering and worked at Dr Reddy's Lab before turning full-time writer. Bhasme says the familial tradition of academics makes him a passionate researcher. He decided to deep dive into mental conditions that are seldom discussed in India.

"I began my research by visiting asylums, meeting psychiatrists and patients who had been rehabilitated. I met a patient with catatonia, a condition characterised by abnormality of movement and behaviour arising typically from schizophrenia. They freeze, they can't move. I thought he was possessed but the psychiatrist explained why he was behaving the way he was." It's here that Bhasme first learnt of capgras delusion. The rare psychiatric disorder also called impostor syndrome, sees a person harbour a delusion about a friend, spouse, parent, close family member, even a pet, being replaced by an identical impostor. Patients could get violent towards misidentified persons. Usually one person who is very familiar to the patient is persistently misidentified. In most married patients, the spouse is the double. Sometimes, it is also the medical care staff. Experts say, capras is usually a symptom of a recognised psychosis.

Bhasme realised it was interesting fodder for a book. His latest, a psychological story, speaks of a mother and son, both suffering from the condition. They believe the father is an impostor. Is he? Bhasme says, read the book. He recalls a visit to Thane Mental Hospital, one of the largest institutions for the mentally ill in Mumbai, where he met a man whose wife suffered from capgras. She doubted whether he was the husband. "She was moved to the asylum and put in a straitjacket. The husband hated it, and brought her back home. But she had forgotten where she lived, insisting the home wasn't hers; she suspected they had brought her to a strange place to murder her. "The family covered all the mirrors in the house, or else she would have thought that she was a lookalike of herself."

Bhasme says As Death Stared Back is fiction, but the objective behind writing the book, is to start a discussion on mental health conditions, including the rare ones. And we need to question the facilities that governments and society are allocating for those affected. "It's so under reported in India, that figures don't exist. Most of the mental health facilities I visited were understaffed and not well maintained." But Bhasme continues to be positive. He narrates the example of a patient he met who would listen to a note of music on his phone, to bring him back to reality ever time he felt like a delusion was getting the better of him. "I believe that if good care is given and the correct tools are used, disease of any kind can be controlled."

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