September 4, 2001

sometimes, let your heart do the talking…

since it was not possible for her to leave deepu unattended at home, amma’s innerwheel club members had two meetings at home last week. this gave me a glimpse into how they operate and the activities they are into. well, given their limited capacities (tight budgets, stingy or reluctant sponsors) and restrictions (time: all members are housewives home-makers first), i must say they’re trying their best.

one such project overdue was, to demonstrate how chalk is made at the home for the mentally retarded in thane. this would serve as an active pastime for the patients in the asylum, a new addition to their other activities such as tailoring, making bed and pillow covers (and painting on them), knitting, making cloth from cotton yarns, punching files, and printing.

i found it interesting, and i was curious to know more about the patients; how many of them are cured after treatment; how many of them go home; how many of those cured return to the hospital rejected by their families…
i asked if i could watch the demonstration too, and the ladies were only happy to take me along.

we were three. the innerwheel club secretary, sunanda patwardhan – a social worker (all of over 70 years into her small active frame), and me. i was told that visiting hours were from 10:30 to lunch time. after that, the patients are apparently given a mild sedative to relax them, and they ought not to be disturbed then. i am not a doctor, but on human grounds, what kind of a life would that be…when almost 20 hours of a day are spent without interaction – sleeping, or under a sedative.

i had to face many more questions, when the huge metal gates to the mental hospital opened, revealing, to my surprise, a vast refreshing green maze dotted with little houses for the patients, and long mud pathways for them to walk on. the air was so peaceful that had it not been for the towering gates, i would have thought it was igatpuri’s meditation ground.

we were led to the male ward where the demonstration was scheduled. i could see many aged men, engrossed in spinning yarn out of cotton, weaving cloth, or some simply silent and staring out of the window. when we entered, one of them looked up curiously from his work, smiled as if introducing himself and saying he was happy to see us, and got back to his work. while mrs patwardhan explained about chalk moulds and the right consistency of plaster-of-paris required for making the chalk, i studied all the ‘patients’, their innocent eyes looking back. i saw how helpless they were and wondered how anyone could label them as ‘mad’. do they even know why they are there?

these are some of the figures i learnt about the place from one of the doctors:
– 1,400 patients are treated in the hospital.
– apart from the stay, the government provides free meals for them twice a day.
– there are only four attendants for both the wards, making it difficult to cater to the needs of individual paitents
– after a treatment that varies from 10 days to even three or four months, the patients are allowed to go home.
– later, monthly routine checks are carried on them as per their individual requirements.
– often, family members of the patients return them back to the hospital on some pretext or the other, some even are thrown back in within an hour of going ‘home’
– only 3 percent of the patients so far have successfully returned to (read, been accepted by) their families.

wouldn’t it be helpful if the hospital itself held a sort of session for the seemingly ‘normal’ family members, so they are taught to accept a sick parent, or a sick brother? the doctor just shook his head helplessly: “they don’t have the time or inclination, and we don’t have the money.”

during our conversation, i sensed somebody behind, and i turned to look. it was the old man who had introduced himself just a while ago. he perhaps had been standing there for a few minutes, because he seemed to be taken by surprise when i suddenly turned. now, he just stared, as if he was caught stealing. i too wasn’t ready for this; i had startled him and now had no clue about how i should react. should i turn away, pretending i hadn’t seen him, or should i open a conversation with him? what if he did not understand me?

as i stared back at him, something about his eyes caught my attention. they were very afraid, but yet so clear, almost twinkling. just then, he blinked nervously. amused by the situation, i smiled. i’ll never forget what happened next. i actually felt his smile reach up to his eyes! just like a little child’s. he was so touched by a simple smile, he laughed playfully, and rushed back to his friends.

i turned back to the doctor, fighting back the painful lump i felt in my throat, as he continued, smiling. “oh, you’ve just met the oldest and the friendliest patient in our hospital. sadly, he does not know where he used to stay, and no one has ever come to take him home.”

i wish i had made up this story.

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