New Internationalist

Interview with Vandana Gopikumar

Issue 396

about tackling mental disability on the streets of an Indian city

In the sweltering congestion of Chennai (formerly Madras), a woman runs from one end of busy Harrows Road to the other. She is half-naked, with lice crawling over her body. Her hair is matted with dirt. Clearly delusional, she is oblivious to the vehicles thundering past her in both directions. And yet nobody stops to help her.

Seeing this neglect, Vandana Gopikumar and her friend Vaishnavi Jayakumar – both students aged 23 years – pull the woman to safety. ‘If we hadn’t really done something [then],’ Vandana recalls, ‘I’m sure a bus would have knocked her over or she would have died of starvation.’ With that realization, the Chennai-based organization, The Banyan, was born.

That was 14 years ago. Now The Banyan cares for and rehabilitates 380 mentally ill women found destitute on the streets of Chennai. ‘Our philosophy is to reach out to marginalized groups, ensuring that we only play the role of catalyst and then work towards empowering [these women] so they’re in a position to get a hold of their lives,’ explains Vandana.

Mental illness is still taboo in India, deeply rooted in dishonour and shame. ‘When you have a psychiatric family-member at home you can’t get the other daughters married off,’ says psychiatrist Dr Anand Balan. As a consequence, women with mental disability are shunned. Losing everything – their family, their mental stability, their entire identity – they are left to wander the streets.

Women arriving at the centre are placed in the fourth dormitory of its Transit Home – the main residence for women. Typically at this stage they are highly unpredictable, with sub-zero self-care. Eventually they will progress to the third, second and first dormitories, learning to take care of themselves and find routine in their lives again. As they improve, women undertake vocational training in outstations – small terraced houses a short trip away from the main building.

The centre is funded by individual donors – two corporate companies and a central government scheme –and is located in Mogapair West, an hour from Chennai’s city centre. As the music of Chennai traffic dissipates, the deserted rural dirt roads lead me to the dusty red-brick buildings that provide shelter and care for these women. The staccato sound of sewing machines greets those who drive up to the outstations. Sewing is just one domestic skill women learn here. Others learn beauty courses or block printing – the delicate and difficult practice of pressing designs onto sari materials.

They all look up as I enter (visitors are warmly welcomed here) and immediately they are keen to show me their work and no doubt sell some for profit (which they keep). Hand-woven bags and purses are thrust into my hands and while the temptation is to buy (at 250 rupees a bag it’s a bargain!), I politely decline. I look into their eyes. Gone is the vacant stare of those who have just arrived. Instead self-worth and confidence shines in their faces.

For the last six weeks of rehabilitation, women live together in apartments away from the Transit Home and without constant supervision. These ‘growth labs’ prepare them for their reintegration into society. Just as they once did in their own homes, the women set their daily routine, cook, clean and are responsible for their lives. ‘It’s still an institution. You have doctors, you have nurses, you have medicines, but it’s in a home environment,’ explains PL Porkodi, who is in charge of vocational training at The Banyan.

But once here at the growth lab, the women’s personalities reflect their conversation – some bold and brash, some shy, some cheeky. It’s hard to imagine that they were once on the streets, penniless. One resident – ‘Mummy’ as she’s affectionately known – is the most outspoken in the group. She asks the tough questions, inquiring whether I’m married (no doubt trying to fix me up with a nice Indian boy) and keeping all The Banyan workers laughing with her dry jokes.

Vandana says The Banyan’s success in treating mental illness lies in the ‘rights approach’, which treats women as individuals: ‘They’re not patients, they’re not locked in and they’re aware of their rights. When they’re here [they have] the sense of freedom [to] say, I hate your food, I don’t want to be here.’

As for the woman running down Harrows Road all those years ago… she was taken to the Women’s Christian College before The Banyan was opened. Once there, she was given a sari and found shelter. But a month later when Vandana checked on her progress, the woman had been discharged.

Yet even though this woman has not been heard of since she was plucked from the streets, her memory still inspires Vandana’s work. Like the thick roots of a banyan tree which form secondary trunks, The Banyan is spreading its arms out to socially disenfranchised women so that they too will not disappear into madness on the streets of Chennai. Above the sun-beaten entrance hangs the organization’s mantra – ‘I exist therefore I am’ – bringing hope to hundreds of women who, after a life of wretched anonymity, are rediscovering their roots.

Vandana Gopikumar talked with Deepthi Namasivayam

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