Meet Ajinkya Bhasme, author of 'As Death Stared Back'

Ajinkya Bhasme

‘You cannot appreciate the light without darkness’ and no one else in recent times in India would be able to explain this in a better way than Ajinkya Bhasme does through his writing. He is the author of When the Devil Whispers’ and ‘Boo in the Well of Dangers’. Inspired by the reception of his first couple of books, one of which has even been nominated for a screen adaptation, Ajinkya was further inspired to continue telling stories on serious mental health issues and how it is often so misconstrued in the Indian society, and how we as a society can help make the situation better.

His latest book, ‘As Death Stared Back’ is chilling and sheds light on a deep psychological disorder. Ajinkya is an IIT Bombay graduate and a Human Resource Manager. His understanding of the human mind through research and personal experiences is extensive and worth delving deeper into. Here’s what he has to say about pertinent questions of our times while he also shares his experience as an author of psychological thrillers.

Q- Your latest book ‘As death stared back’ is India’s first psychological horror book based on a patient suffering from Capgras syndrome. What inspired you to write this book?

I was raised in an academic background where learning was mostly thorough research. At age 15, I left home to complete my education and got into IIT Bombay, the researcher and the artist in me were thoroughly nurtured. As I became a scientist after graduation, I realised that my love for research is not just limited to science but I was also intrigued by stories. So I began exploring a very terrifying case in the history of the Indian judiciary. While meeting the people involved in that case, I came across so many mental health issues. I changed careers from a scientific domain and moved to Human Resources, into the world of human psychology and kept studying deviant minds through books on psychology, visiting mental asylums and talking to psychiatrists. During this journey, I stumbled upon a person who had such a beautiful story to share that I wanted to share it with the world. Stephen King once said that monsters live among us and sometimes they win. Through this story, I wanted to prove that while it is true, there are times when all these monsters need is to be understood and helped.

Q- How challenging was it for you to write the book?

I am a method writer. I research my characters, analyse them and then become them before writing about them. But this comes with a price, because the topics I write on are very dark, but my readers get a unique experience. Having seen and observed it so closely, this story affected me very deeply. It was almost like staring at the face of death while it stared back at me. When I was writing the climax to this story, for 3 days straight I shut myself in a dark room, switched off all devices and didn’t realise that I hadn’t had a proper meal, I was sleepless and I had lost touch with time and space to an extent that when I stepped into the sunlight again it scared me. I was completely disoriented. But when you read through the book, you will be able to separate this scene from the rest because of the energy it exudes.

Q- The book highlights the disease Capgras Delusion and mental illness in India. Why it is important for you to highlight on this syndrome?

Like I said, the person I met had such a beautiful story to tell me that I was compelled to write. There is an enormous amount of stigma around mental health in India. We refuse to talk about it and are completely unaware of the basics of depression or anxiety. We are indignant towards any talk of mental health which is unacceptable.We are bound to fail as a society if we ignore burning issues. Not talking about the darkness surrounding mental health poses a great threat to progress and may lead to collapse of civilisation in the long run. I want to introduce people to this world of Darkness. I want them to know that although sometimes it seems scary, if you walk into the night long enough, you will begin to appreciate the beauty and sorrow it holds. You know one can’t truly appreciate the light of another until they have experienced the darkness.

Q- As you were a scientist before, you must have done deep research while writing this book. Have you come across something which you haven/t mentioned in the book?

I spent 1.5 years researching specifically on mental health, especially schizophrenia and capgras. When I was researching, I came across this specific story, where the family of the schizophrenic person had to paint all the mirrors and the reflective surfaces black because the person was getting triggered by looking at his own image. It was too scary and depressing for me to weave it into a story. In fact there came a point when I would cry involuntarily while writing the plot because I knew how misunderstood the characters in my book would be to my readers on account of how I would portray them.

Q- There is a constant battle between what is stable & unstable in the book. What’s your research on wrongly accused patients who get forcibly sent to the asylum?

Another topic I feel deeply about. The environment in the asylum sometimes is not the best. Due to our lack of understanding and knowledge, a few docile personalities can be tricked into believing they are clinically insane when they are not. There are families who would abandon their own in an asylum because they can’t take care of them anymore or for some other flimsy reason such as being from the LGBTQ community. Even if such victims scream their lungs out that they don’t belong in an asylum, people around them would be convinced that they have completely lost their marbles. It’s like a domino effect in an asylum when one patient starts screaming, the others around them latch on to it and start to chant the same. It is really sad that we would push someone in a bottomless hole where they just keep falling with no hope of getting better.

Q- How can people make themselves and those around them aware of Capgras Delusion? How should one deal with this situation?

Educate yourself. Don’t ignore your friends, family, peers if they approach you when they’re sad. Read articles on the internet from credible sources, read books on mental health. Empathise. Every word you speak has consequences. Mental health is not like physical health where one form of treatment will help everyone. So the best way to care for yourself if you are going through a tough patch is to know more, educate and introspect. And if you’re a care giver, empathise, be aware of what works clinically and be very patient.

Q- Can you tell us a little more about your first book ‘When the Devil Whispers’ which has been nominated for a screen adaptation.

When the Devil Whispers was broadly inspired by true events of arguably India’s most horrific crime ever committed by a group of women, who became the first Indian women to be sentenced to death. This book gave me the much required recognition that I need to stay motivated to write further. I had never dreamt of anything so cool happening to me. WTDW is my first big project. My first steps towards the big world of writing intense material. I spent 4 years working on that book and meticulously developing each detail of the plot. When it finally came out, it received a response I never imagined I would get. I am truly humbled and I love my readers for being able to connect with my books. I reply to all their comments on my Instagram and interact with all of them. I respect them and their feedback and I hope I can make them proud. Now, waiting for great things to happen for ‘As Death Stared Back’.