In December 2010, my debut novel, ” It Can’t Be You” was published. A friend of mine who is a highly decorated retired Service officer with an impeccable reputation told me that I shouldn’t have portrayed Col. Belliappa in my story as a psychopath. He said psychopaths aren’t allowed to continue in the Indian Army. I said it depends on what you mean by the term psychopath. For me a psychopath is not a raving lunatic, rapist or serial killer as sometimes people understand one to be. There could well be some part of the psychopath in me and in you as well, if you go by my understanding of the term.
Recently, more than two years after the book was published, I received a mail from the same friend in which he writes, and I quote: “You will recall that I remarked that psychopaths are not selected for the Indian Army. There is psychological screening at the selection board. Herewith, a rough test on the profile of a psychopath.
The main objection to having psychopaths in the Army is that they are liable to kill their colleagues just as much as the enemy.
Here’s my response to these points, presenting my thoughts as a fiction writer:
- I shall address the second link first. I do so because it is easier to comment upon. I find the link and its contents very interesting but it has nothing whatsoever to do with Col. Belliappa in my story because he wasn’t a serial killer in the first place. As is obvious while all serial killers are invariably psychopaths, thankfully all psychopaths are not serial killers.
- It’s not remotely suggested that Col Belliappa in the story was selected in to the Army as a psychopath despite the psychological screening process etc. He was an outstanding cadet at the NDA and IMA and was an automatic choice for the Army. He suffered terrible war wounds in the 1971 War which resulted in some form of PTSD.
Here’s an extract: “The injuries to the head were a different ball game. It started off as a series of headaches so painful that I had to scream loudly at times. My temples would throb and I could feel myself getting hot all over. I felt as if my skull would explode. I often wondered if it was like a coconut being shaken up. Then almost by itself the period would pass and the pain would subside and die away- until the next time. To tell you the truth it hasn’t fully left me yet- four operations and almost nine years after we took the Surma River bridge. I kept getting nightmares from time to time. They –like my moods- were totally unpredictable. Dinaz said they scared her to death because I would get up screaming or worse still flinch in bed as if I was being shot without saying a word. The docs, when asked merely shrugged and called it a PTSD nightmare. For those who have been fortunate not to go through this and hence don’t know what it means, PTSD stands for Post Trauma Stress Disorder. Continuing spewing jargon as they are wont to do, they said it could be related to a MTBI- which I discovered stood for Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. They did what they could- changing the treatment protocol from time to time to see if a new approach or medication had a better effect.”
Here’s another extract: ““I have talked to Mrs. Belliappa at length about your war wounds and so on. The files and medical records are so drab, my dear chap. There is nothing like hearing about it from one who has seen you from so close.” I listened in silence as he went on. “Your swings in moods, your intolerance and the barely concealed aggression lurking within you truly fascinate me. I want to present a paper on your case in a major medical conference coming up in Agra next month. I will not mention your name of course. I am sure it will really interest the psychiatrists and neurosurgeons who will be attending”. “Don’t you dare use me as a guinea pig for your experiments,” I said angrily “and leave my wife out of this.”
“There you go again” said Major Sinha. “I see so much of an aggrieved and persecution complex in you. No sooner do you begin to scrap- and you seem to be looking for one all the time- I notice a strong proclivity towards aggression. Let me do things my way, old boy,” he said, “We’ll soon have you alright”. “I am perfectly alright now” I said. “That’s not what others and the Army thinks,” he said. “It’s about time you knew the truth, Belli, old fellow.”
By now he had aroused my interest. I wondered what he would say next. “My dear chap, it seems everyone has fought shy of telling you things plainly. Let me do it for them,” he said. “If you had a lesser war record and credentials they would have packed you off long ago. But you are a NDA and IMA man from an illustrious Regiment and you have a great war record. Don’t you see you are a special case for us? Our insights into your case will help thousands of Army men who suffer from post battle stress disorders. The Yanks have got many cases they are working on after their Viet Nam war which is still going on. I am hoping my paper may be of interest to them too.
3. The young Lt. Belliappa was suffering mentally after the war not only because of his physical wounds but the psychological ones. He became almost insanely jealous and possessive of his beautiful wife. He recovers sufficiently in the late 80’s, nearly twenty years later to go back to more active service. His assignment in Kashmir was to head an anti-infiltration sniper unit, which functions almost like a secret rogue unit. At the time of his resigning from the Army, he meets Major General T.
Here is the relevant extract: “Fine, I guess this is it, then” I continued. “Thank you for telling me the truth. One thing has been bugging me for long. Can I ask you a question for which you will give me a truthful answer?”
“Sure go ahead,” said General T. “I will- if I know the answer and I am permitted to answer it. You have my word on that as an officer of your Regiment.”
“Was I selected because you needed a dispensable mad man for this job?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “No one knows the answer as to whether you are mad,” said the General. “In all honesty, even the doctors don’t. They wonder if you do!”
4. Next we come to the issue of Col. Belliappa’s being a psychopath. As a student of psychology, I find the study of psychopaths to be fascinating as it is an ultimately terrifying psychological condition. By the way, the word “psychopath” itself is used only three times in the book of over 80,000 words.
I have gone by modern thought that almost every one could have some element of the psychopath in us. Thankfully it is very slight in most of us. Books like “Snakes in Suits- When Psychopaths Go To Work” by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare detail how modern corporate executives have shown major signs of psychopathic behaviour. I have been influenced by this.
A lot of my reading came from the works of Dr. Robert Hare, the Prof of Psychology at University of British Columbia. I spent a lot of time on Dr. Hare’s website, “ Without Conscience.”
He says psychopaths can broadly be classified in 4 sub- groups. In my work of fiction, I have developed Col Belliappa to be someone who would come under the “charismatic” category. I have tried to depict him as being a charming, gifted and attractive liar, who uses his talent to manipulate others including his own family to do what he wants. He is also a risk taker, guilt prone and stress reactive. Besides, he is skilled at deception, manipulation and has ruthless aggression.
My research indicates that the true psychopath is estimated to be only 1 % of the total population.
I answered the questions in the first link – rough test on psychopathic profile- as I thought Col Belliappa would in the months before he died. His score was 20 which translates to: “You may have some psychopathic characteristics” As you would note, a score of 0-5 means = you are most likely not psychopathic and a score of 30-40 means “prototypical psychopathic.
You might like to take this test yourself and see your own score!
In conclusion, here are the 3 Book Extracts where the word “psychopath” is used:-
- “You need to watch it” said Shefali. “I read somewhere that kids of psychopaths could inherit their tendencies. That on top of drugs makes you highly volatile and potent.” She smiled when she saw his startled expression, showing her perfect white teeth, but she was serious. “Are you saying that Dad is one?” whispered Pritam. “You are no longer a kid. I am sure you would have heard people say that he could well be one” said Shefali. “He is so unpredictable but one has to grant that he has calmed down a lot of late”.
- We talked for a few minutes and then Belli went ahead to collect our tickets, while I chatted with Colonel Sinha. “I have retired from the Army and now live in Kolkata. Belli was one of the most interesting patients in my career.” He smiled and asked me in a confidential whisper “How is the old charismatic psychopath? I hope you will take good care of him- and yourself.” As we boarded the plane I kept wondering why Colonel Sinha should have told me this. Was it some kind of a warning? I never mentioned this conversation to Belli but found out from the internet that charismatic psychopaths were charming, attractive liars who didn’t hesitate to manipulate others. This was something I had to watch out for. In short, living with Belli at close quarters was much less exciting than when we yearned to see each other and met rather fleetingly.”
“It Can’t Be You” after all is a work of fiction. I was struck by the fact that someone remembers Col Belliappa two years after the book was published. As an author, I felt good that he is still remembered. Is he remembered for the right or wrong reasons, it ‘s for you as the reader to decide.