Limbo – between madness and reality

We consider someone mad because that person does not fit into category of the normal or does not comply with the conventional reasoning. Recently, Shiamak Ali encounters such a person with vivid, parallel notion of reality.


While growing up, we have learned that mental health is a serious issue that is not something to be discussed in jest. ‘Mentally ill’ is the politically correct phrase that we use to describe an individual suffering from mental health problems affecting his/her mood and behaviour. However, the truth is that this phrase is reserved for the middle and upper classes of the society. Due to the stigmatisation of the lower class, individuals afflicted by mental illnesses are thought to be ‘crazy’. It is absurd that in the context of working class mentally ill is synonymous to ‘crazy’. We consider people ‘crazy’ when we face difficulty in classifying their behaviour. Because, their views of reality are different from the majority, they are often frowned upon and shunned based upon that.

I had the privilege of speaking to a person who is a victim of such social stigma. His name is Nur Muhammad. At first sight, my impression of him was that he is an elderly vagabond. It was evident from his overall appearance. He wore a rugged blue oversized shirt stuffed with blankets to keep warm and dirty pair of old, worn out trousers. Accompanied by a walking stick and a bag full of plastic bottles, he sat on the sidewalk quietly observing pedestrians. As I approached him, he greeted me with a very welcoming smile and we exchanged introductions. When asked about his work he identified himself as public sector worker. My initial thought was that maybe he works as a sweeper for the Dhaka city corporation. Nur then explained the details of his profession as an employee of the secret service. Overwhelmed by curiosity, I sat next to him and keenly listened to what he had to say. He shared, people often call him ‘mad’ and describe him as a ‘mad man’ because of what he says. According to him, the Bangladeshi government relies greatly on his competence. He proudly mentioned that everyone from law enforcement to ministers and even the prime minister seek advice from him. He made many startling claims throughout our conversation saying that he is responsible for the creation of many police stations across the country. Tangail, Rangpur, Mymensingh were a few examples given by him. Upon hearing this, I realised that he may be severely delusional, nonetheless quite interesting. I knew that sufferers of mental illnesses experience a different reality. A specific part of the reality is different — the internal workings of the government. The most fascinating part is that his memory is sharper than most. Being able to recall different places within the country and the plethora of political figures associated with them, I was astounded. He proudly displayed his knowledge about the happenings of the political environment, something that was very unusual for someone who is considered ‘mad’ by people.

Nur asked me to come on the following day so that he can give me his visiting card. I was utterly surprised, as I did not expect a homeless person to have a business card. I accepted his invitation and carried on with our conversation. He began telling me a story about a girl from Nagarpur who came to him looking for a job. He signed the back of his visiting card, handed it to her, and instructed her to take it to the prime minister so that she can get the job. While she was walking away with the card in front of Nur, a man snatched the card from her hand and ran away with it. I enquired as to why the person took the card. He replied, his card holds great value provided his signature on it. His signature is a cryptic method of communication as well as a show of authenticity. After this incident, he gave her another card. She returned to him a few days to inform that the prime minister had given her a job.

Through a bizarre coincidence, I had come across a man so perplexing that I was left utterly speechless. The situation quickly became eerie as he looked at me and said, I will see the girl from Nagarpur in my dreams soon, holding his card. Although slightly unsettled, the skeptic in me was looking forward to it. Perhaps it was clarity that I was seeking or just sheer curiosity. I enquired more into his relationship with the prime minister. He communicates with the prime minister through the ‘net’, he said. She can apparently also see what everyone is doing through the net at the push of a few buttons. Despite his unsophisticated explanation, his concept was not incorrect.

After speaking to a few third-party members and explaining the conversation to them, I was astounded to hear their verdict on what group of people he falls into. According to many, he may be an intelligence agent, given his extensive and accurate knowledge on politics and close liaison with law enforcement and political figures alike. He may also be a religious figure known as a ‘pir’, as some of them are frequently visited by political leaders and are believed to have the power of foresight. It is a well-known superstition in our country that a society of these figures is responsible for changes in the political environment. Lastly, he may also be a very highly functioning mentally ill individual with an innate interest in the government structure.

Concluding the conversation with Nur, I reminded him of our meeting the following day. I went to the exact spot I saw him and patiently waited for a few hours to no avail. My meeting with him has left me deep in obscurity and longing for clarity on this matter. Hence, we are left with a big question — who is Nur Muhammad?


Shiamak Ali is a student of Monash University




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