His Inner Demons

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For 40 long hours, a house in a small village 25 km from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow became a battlezone. Inside a single room, a man fought two fierce battles—one with the police and another with himself.

In the living memory of the people of Indora, a small village on the outskirts of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, no one ever remembers having seen police commandos. Of course, as a member of the Muslim community, ayurvedic doctor Shabeer Ahmed, a resident of Indora, had earlier in 2008 watched with concern as the police stormed Batla House in the densely populated Jamia area of Delhi, during an encounter with Muslim boys of his son’s age—boys who the police alleged were terrorists. Little did he know that on 18 February, his own house would resemble Batla House, as hordes of policemen in bullet-proof jackets rushed in and out, while a battery of TV cameras jostled outside, furiously videographing every moment.

It is not that Dr Ahmed’s sons had turned terrorists. But on that day, 18 February, the police sought the help of commandos as Dr Ahmed’s middle son Shameem was turning out to be quite a challenge for ordinary policemen. But that challenge probably paled in comparison to what Shameem had to confront the previous night.

It is not known if Shameem Ahmed had already confronted his inner demons by the time he sat with his family for dinner on the evening of 17 February. It was a norm with the Ahmeds to have an early dinner, by about 7 pm, and then every family member would do his/her own thing. The women watched soap operas on TV, while the men chatted about this and that.

That night, Shameem went up to the first floor, to his father’s tiny room where he would sit sometimes, leafing through his mathematics books. On one side of the house, the father ran his small clinic. By midnight, when everybody else had retired to sleep, Mrs Shabeer Ahmed sat with her husband in the courtyard, complaining about rising vegetable prices. Just then, they heard some noise from the first floor. The mother called out to Shameem, who replied that he was just checking whether the tin door that led to the rooftop was locked properly. Then they heard Shameem’s footsteps on the floor above them and the sound of a door being shut.

Shameem loved mathematics, a trait he had inherited from his grandfather. He had a first-class masters’ degree in the subject. On the bookshelf, his well-thumbed books lay lined up: A First Course in Abstract Algebra, Differential Calculus, Programmed Statistics. On the upper shelf next to the poster of a boy offering a rose to a girl, a laminated photo of Aishwarya Rai shared space with books and a few packets of Tide detergent, among other things. That night, when Shameem was to confront his inner demons once again, it can be safely assumed that the bright-red flowers depicted on a 2002 calendar of a pharma firm, pasted on a rusted iron locker, failed to cheer him up.

Meanwhile, in the courtyard below, the parents were getting nervous. They had heard the loud bang of the door, and now there was silence. It was becoming unbearable for them. As Shameem felt the world closing in on him and heard those familiar voices in his head, Dr Ahmed hoped that his worst fears may be proven wrong. But that was not to be—as he realised once he climbed upstairs and saw his son lying on the bed, face down, through the window. The door, he realised, was locked from within.

“What is wrong?” he asked, almost afraid of his own voice.

“Nothing, go away,” Shameem replied in a guttural voice.

“Please open the door,” Dr Ahmed pleaded.

This time, Shameem shouted back. “GO away!”

And then he got up, throwing whatever things he could lay his hands on.

Dr Ahmed says the key to his locker lay beneath his pillow. As he flung his headrest away, Shameem’s eyes fell upon the key.

He picked it up, and lifted the thin flap of the keyhole which read ‘Be Happy’. Then he turned the locker open, taking out his father’s licenced 12 bore double-barrel gun. Next to it lay a belt of cartridges.

At about 1 am, a gunshot reverberated through the clear nippy air. Babies woke up in the neighbourhood, wailing loudly, and dogs barked in staccato, unsure of how to react to the sudden commotion.

Shameem had fired at the windowpane. The bullet pierced the window and hit the wall outside next to a washbasin that Shameem would usually use to brush his teeth in the morning and steal glances at the mirror.

The first thing Dr Ahmed remembers doing is locking the door from outside as well. Shameem was armed now, and he had no control over himself—he was a man possessed by his fears. The doctor’s words rang in senior Ahmed’s ears, words he had uttered when Shameem went berserk for the first time about five years ago. He had been trying to crack the UGC Net exam, but hadn’t been able to. “It was around that time that he had the first attack,” recalls Dr Ahmed. He had shouted at other family members and thrown things at them. The doctors had diagnosed this behaviour as paranoid schizophrenia, and he had been put on medication which continued for about two years. In between, he had other episodes, but nothing which Dr Ahmed thought he couldn’t control. But this time was different.

Dr Ahmed picked up his phone and dialled the police. The SHO of the area arrived at about 4 am. He tried speaking to Shameem, but he reacted by firing another shot. In the next three hours he fired seven shots. One of them created a hole in the door which Shameem enlarged with scissors, in a bid to open the door that was latched from outside. Sensing danger, a thin rod was put through it to make it difficult to open.

Of late, Shameem had been sent to Ghaziabad, near Delhi, to attend coaching classes for admission to a B Ed course. Three days before the incident, Shameem had confided to his elder brother that he felt lonely, and that he wanted them to stay together.

Nine hours passed and the police still couldn’t manage a breakthrough. Around this time, the SHO called up his superior, Superintendent of Police of Rural Lucknow, Ashok Prasad. After he had arrived and taken stock of the situation, it was decided that Shameem be lured into drinking tea or water laced with sleep-inducing drugs. His friend Jitender Singh volunteered to take a cup of tea to him.

Singh went near the locked room and asked Shameem whether he wanted a cup of tea. “Come near the door,” Shameem asked him from inside. The moment Singh brought the cup near the hole in the door, Shameem fired at it, smashing the cup to bits. Singh had a miraculous escape.

Shameem then asked for his sister-in-law, his elder brother’s wife, to be brought there. Shameem was very fond of her.

“Come near the door,” he said upon hearing her reassuring voice.

No one took any chances. Time was running out. And Shameem was simply showing no signs of giving up. The police then decided to lob a few low-intensity teargas shells inside the room. As the SHO tried doing that through the hole, Shameem fired another shot which grazed the officer’s fingers and hit the SP’s gunman as well. In the next few hours, more bullets fired from inside would hit the SP’s bulletproof jacket and those of other policemen as well.

By this time, a team of four commandos was summoned. Shameem had meanwhile set a blanket on fire. Within minutes, the smoke had thickened so much that it had become impossible to stay even in the adjoining room. Men from the fire services drilled a hole in the front wall to let a hosepipe inside. But Shameem used that hole to fire more rounds.

The police then had to drill another hole through the ceiling of the house, through which water was poured to douse the fire. There are conflicting reports about the delay in drilling the holes. While eyewitnesses say that the police could not arrange even basic tools to drill the hole, the police says it had arranged them all.

At about 10 pm that night, Shameem fired again, twice. And then again late in the night. Shameem was alert and had placed a few heavy objects against the door.

Next morning, on Friday, the fire started again. It had to be put out by the fire brigade. At times, Shameem would extend his hand from the hole in an attempt to open the outer latch. One of the policemen tried to hold his hand in order to enable someone to inject a drug. But he pulled the policeman’s hand inside, and it could be freed only with utmost difficulty.

On the afternoon of 19 February, a team of software experts arrived with a web cam. Before that could be lowered, a bulb was slipped in to enable a better view. Shameem broke a total of six bulbs before his attention was diverted with a jet stream of water. Then one web cam was lowered which was pulled in by Shameem. At about 4 pm, a team of anaesthetists inverted a bottle of formaline in the room, and this was followed by another round of teargas shells.

An hour later, visuals from the web cam showed Shameem with his eyes closed, his back resting against a wall. The gun lay on the bed.“Go, go, go,” SP Prasad shouted to commandos. They stormed the room, and in minutes emerged with Shameem. The siege had lasted 40 hours.

As he was being pushed in the police vehicle to be taken to hospital, SP Prasad spoke to him. “Aaj koi kasar nahi chhodi mujhe maarne mein (you spared no effort in trying to kill me),” he told Shameem. He wept in response, mumbling “Woh mujhe maar daalenge (they will kill me).”

In 1960, American poet Sylvia Plath, who suffered bouts of mental illness and later committed suicide, wrote Tulips, a nine-stanza, 63-line poem. The narrator of the poem is in hospital and describes her experience by using the images of tulips, a gift perhaps, that interrupts her calm stay in hospital:

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat / Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address / They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations / Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley / I watched my tea set, my bureaus of linen, my books / Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.

Shameem is now in hospital, undergoing treatment. His own tulip, one supposes, is a lone policeman who stands guard, sitting on a vacant bed opposite his.