Healers of the Mentally-Ill Homeless in Chennai

Published on Nov 08, 2010 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: India

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At the end of my first trip to India I went to Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat hoping to do research on the Self Employed Women’s Association but instead I ended up in the middle of mob violence by Hindus against Muslims. In my book, see chapter 9 - Into the Inferno.

In steamy refugee camps wedged into mosque courtyards, day after day, I sat on the ground with destitute Muslim women and listened to terrifying accounts of bloodshed and carnage. I felt overcome by the heat, the pollution, and the shocking stories, but I forced myself to file articles to The Montreal Gazette.

Escape to a Villa in Chennai

I had been in China the summer before and had returned to Montreal with a bad case of pneumonia. Now, the same wasting symptoms had reappeared. My friend Vithal Rajan came up with a solution. I could escape to Chennai, the former Madras, and stay with an old friend of his from his days at The London School of Economics.

After a couple of flights I found myself in a two-story airy villa filled with wonderful Indian paintings and sculptures. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, the place came with a driver that picked me up at the airport, a cook, a cleaner, and a house manager who was teaching me how to use the computer so I could send emails home. There was also a battalion of beloved dogs and cats that roamed the gardens and occasionally came into the house. Every day they were treated to a menu boiled up by the cook of fresh meat for the dogs and fresh fish for the cats.

My hostess Kiran, the daughter of an Indian sugar factory owner and a German mother, was living at the time on a restricted diet. The cook, I discovered, was happy to have someone other than animals for whom he could cook up his delicious Indian specialties leavened with only small amounts of chilli. I was in luck!

A good friend of Vithal from his days in London, Kiran, with British degrees, was a great raconteur with a wicked sense of humour. She was also quite the businesswoman. A few blocks away, in a small palace surrounded by a fragrant green garden that had once belonged to a Maharaja, she sold exquisite Indian clothes, jewellery and silverware. In addition she ran a beautiful café that offered organic quiches and other Western goodies.

The saleswoman selling the jewellery in her boutique told me that the palace had belonged to a princess who had employed my hostess’s grandfather, and she “gave” it to him. An enticing tale, but Kiran was amazed to hear it. Her aunt, apparently, purchased the place, and Kiran leased it from her.

An Islamic Angel

Kiran also bought and sold paintings. The first night I was there, we visited a dealer and I immediately fell in love with an enchanting painting of an Islamic angel in partial Hindu dress with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. A multicultural angel, she represented for me the pluralistic inclusive India that flourished in many places despite the BJP Hindu fundamentalist government in power at the federal level and in the state of Gujarat where I had been.

Considered a piece of folk art, it became the one art purchase of my trip. In the wake of the atrocities visited upon Gujarati Muslims, I had to have this guardian angel painting.

According to India’s English-language newspapers I was reading every day, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the state of Gujarat was still raging with 150,000 in refugee camps. When I returned in 2008, 100,000 Muslims, more than 25,000 of them in Ahmedabad, were still not yet permanently settled.

But now in April 2002 I was experiencing a life of leisure and very grateful for it. This upper caste milieu that was also part of India was a far cry from the beleaguered Muslim quarters in Ahmedabad that had been levelled by violence, and it became a great place to chill out and fend off pneumonia. The second morning I was there Kiran’s personal trainer appeared, and we were treated to exercises that combined martial arts and yoga. That was after she had had a massage, and announced that if I wanted one the next day I could have one too.

Kiran and I then went across the street to a neighbour’s for tasty coffee, great Indian sweets, and political and social issue talk. The neighbour said he would take me to Banyan, a project for homeless mentally-ill women living on the streets of Chennai. Ah. I was back to my women’s story! And this one looked hopeful.

Two Students Rescue Mentally Ill Women on the Street

The Banyan was run by two women that in 1993, when the city was still called Madras, had been outraged at the sight of a woman half naked with matted hair running down a crowded street.

Vandana Gopikumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar, then twenty-two year-old university students, picked up this woman and later, others like her and brought her to safety. They first installed the women in a small rented apartment, found them free hospital treatment, and where necessary, free drugs.

After they expanded their organization, they also offered the women skill training so they could make a living. Once the women were on their feet, a team, including fellow residents, accompanied them back to their original communities. The goal was to achieve a workable rehabilitation back into their home villages.

I was still reeling from what I had seen in the refugee camps of Ahmedabad and its burned out neighourhoods. But now in a healing place, with an Islamic angel hanging in my room in Kiran’s villa, I was ready for more stories.

Madras had become a gathering point for these mentally-ill women, some from far-flung places in India, mostly because Madras was a changing point for trains. In my treks around India, trains were often a backdrop in the dramas of many people, including my own.

In some villages, I was told, mentally-ill women were subjected to fruitless treatments from assorted priests and sorcerers. Eventually wandering off, some boarded trains and ended up on the streets of Madras half naked, drooling or screaming, or just sitting on a bench looking despondent.

But with physical and psychiatric care (including drugs), plus a nurturing environment, and some skill training that would allow them to make a living, 400 had been rehabilitated back into their earlier environments.

Listening to the stories of the women, I came to believe that social factors had pushed a lot of them over the edge. Some of the women I spoke to had fled because their husbands had abandoned or beaten them, or had died, and as a result, they found themselves in a chaotic world.

A Beggar Snatches Naraja’s Baby in Calcutta

Here’s the story of Naraja, a woman of 22 whose husband had beat the hell out of her because she had gone to a movie and not told him. She had a small baby and decided to go from Bombay where she lived to Bangladesh and her mother.

At Bombay she boarded a train to Calcutta with her infant and 4,000 rupees in order to bribe a border official to admit her to Bangladesh. Calcutta was boiling hot when she arrived. Inside the swirling station, faint with thirst, she put her baby down with the 4,000 rupees under his head, and quickly gulped some water. When she looked down a few seconds later, her baby and the 4,000 rupees were gone.

Gone!!! I asked the translator in disbelief. Why would anyone in Calcutta steal her baby? The last time I had been   in the city, admittedly many years before, babies were lying around alone on pavements, ready for the taking. My translator explained that if you’re a beggar, you can make more money if you have a baby in your arms.

Utterly distraught, and mad with grief, Naraja darted around to orphanages and to the police but she did not recover her child. Now that she had no money at all, and feeling she had no choice, she decided to go back to Bombay to her husband. Without a ticket she boarded a train thinking it was going to Bombay.

Eventually a conductor caught up with her, and she discovered she was en route to Madras. He let her stay on, and she got off in this alien place where she knew no one. Around the train station where other destitute women collected, she talked to herself, picked food out of garbage tins, and ate dirt.

After a few days, someone from The Banyan picked her up in a rickshaw and hustled her off to the centre where she proceeded to smash windows and accuse the Banyan workers of stealing her baby. But they cleaned her up and took her to doctors.

When I met her, she was feeling centred enough to think about going back to Bombay where she had had a job polishing silver containers, and was willing to see if her husband was still around.

Once a woman seemed stable, Banyan would create a cluster of say, four women, ready to go on a rehabilitation journey back to their village or city. Usually women who came from the same region were grouped together along with a social worker, a health care employee, and maybe a volunteer. All members of the team, including the Banyan patients, would participate in the process of reintegration.

The group would show up in the village, knock on a door where a family member lived, and then wait for the reaction. If at all positive, everyone, including fellow patients, would chip in to clarify what happened. In cases where the person was on maintenance drugs, someone would explain that every month, the woman would receive her free supply mailed in from The Banyan centre.

Often the whole village welcomed the person back like a prodigal son, or rather prodigal daughter, but not always, of course.

A Widow on the Run Loses Her Daughter

Here’s the story of Hema, whose husband had died, leaving her with two daughters, aged 10 and 6. She at first sold bananas on the street in Chennai, but business hadn’t been good, and she decided to go by train to a village in the state of Kerala where she had a brother. When she appeared, her brother said: “Leave this evening.” He didn’t want three more mouths to feed.

With her two daughters, she immediately climbed on a train that she thought was going to Chennai, but no, it was going to a place that sounded like Chennai. She got off at the station, and for eight days, she sat on a bench and cried. She had a lot of luggage, everything she’d collected during her marriage, but she had little money, and she and her daughters weren’t eating.

One day, looking for food, Hema’s 10-year-old daughter boarded a waiting train, and the train took off with her on it. Worn down by hunger and despair at the loss of her daughter, and not knowing where to turn, Hema eventually found a way to get herself back to Chennai along her with her six-year-old. But she left all her luggage in the train station, and back in Chennai she felt totally adrift. She took her daughter to the man that had sold her bananas for her mobile banana business and asked if he’d look after her for a while.

Then she hung around a church near her old home and lived on the street until she was picked up by The Banyan. After a while, she found a job working in a popcorn factory where she took a room with her daughter.

Community Living Projects

The Banyan Centre continued to expand. By 2010 it had rehabilitated 1,000 women. Community living projects were also operating so that groups of ten women could live together in cottages and produce items for sale at Banyan outlets. After that, the women could join a Self-Help Group where members could live together or separately, but meet and support one another on a regular basis outside the Banyan network.

In addition to community-based prevention activities, the Banyan is also engaged in advocacy and education around mental health. And the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, part of the Tata empire involved in steel and auto production, has provided disability allowances to 400 families caring for mentally-ill persons.