August 10, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Burning down the home

It happens in West Bengal too, though that only makes it more dismaying. It only makes me think it must be happening all over our country, and so must be considered quite normal.

The front page of the July 11 issue of The Statesman carried a photograph of a twelve-year-old boy, Shinu. Nothing unusual there. Unless you count the chain. Shinu is chained to a door. It's one of those long linked chains you see used on dogs. From the latch, it runs to his ankle, where a padlock hangs heavily. Perhaps it is the quality of The Statesman's printing, but I don't think so: he looks like a wild animal as he sits there, his blurred eyes staring out at you. Shinu is a 'mentally retarded epileptic', at a 'home for mentally disabled children' in Calcutta.

Yes, they actually have the gall to call this a 'home'. They chain kids to doors here, but this is a 'home'.

I have just pulled that issue of The Statesman out to look at Shinu again, to confirm my impression from mid-July: that I've never seen a more stomach-turning picture. Never. But the morning I began writing this, I read a piece of news that was every bit as stomach-turning. In the Tamil Nadu town of Erwadi, not far from the holy city of Rameswaram, 27 mental patients burned to death. That happened because they could not escape the fire that raged through their 'asylum'. That happened because they were chained to their beds.

Yes, they actually have the gall to call this an 'asylum'. They chain their patients to beds here, but this is an 'asylum'.

It's true. In 21st century India, where we are swept up in debates as esoteric as whether one email service is better than another and whether a nondescript coalition partner should apologise to a nondescript prime minister for an insult that was imagined or deserved or both, where the roads are clogged with Mercedes and Opel cars and the airwaves are clogged with airtime at Rs 1.49 ["cheaper than 'cutting' chai"] -- in this modern India whose fondest aspiration is to a seat on the United Nations Security Council, which makes much of its ancient heritage and promise to the world -- in this India, there are Indians whom we chain to doors and beds.

Oh yes, there are very fine justifications for doing so. In Calcutta, the 'caretaker' of the 'home', Maya Mondal, told The Statesman that during their epileptic attacks, the children "become uncontrollable". Which is why "they are chained to the door sometimes". In Erwadi, where there are several 'asylums', it is apparently 'standard procedure' to chain the patients to their beds, because they sometimes 'exhibit signs of violence'.

Now there's 'caretaking' for you. And because they sometimes "become uncontrollable", or sometimes show those 'signs of violence', they can end up as pieces of ash, bits of blackened flesh.

Who do I feel nauseated and angry at when I read this stuff? The people who run these 'homes' and 'asylums', who think care means chains? The government, for ignoring its own reports about the miserable conditions in these places? [Apparently an expert panel from the TN State Mental Health Authority and Bangalore's Institute of Mental Health submitted a report a year ago that described Erwadi in all its horrifying detail.] The families of the 'patients', for handing them over to these hellholes so that they are off the families' hands?

And speaking of the families, it amazes me that Jayalalithaa's government in TN has decided to award them 'compensation' for the loss of their relatives -- their chained relatives -- in the Erwadi fire. Why should they get any? How many of the families knew, or cared, what happened to the helpless men and women they had left in the 'asylum'? Did they know that they had been chained to their beds? Was that not a daily death anyway? Did they protest? Or were they just happy to be rid of them? If these pitiful creatures were truly loved ones, whose death would truly cause grief and monetary loss to their families, they would not have been on those beds to begin with. In what sense have the families lost anything that needs to be compensated?

Yet it's easy to be hard on the families. In truth, it is not a trivial thing to take care of mentally ill people at home. It is physically and emotionally draining work, 24 hours a day. Sometimes it is even dangerous, especially if the patient is a young male. And it costs enormous amounts of money. How many families can afford all that? It must be tempting indeed to turn such relatives over to 'homes' and 'asylums' that promise 'care' at a price.

And having done that, how many would take an interest in the quality of the 'care'? Better to close your mind to it, to pretend that all's well even if you can see so clearly that it isn't, to dump your sorry relative and, unburdened, carry on with your life.

After all, who's going to complain? The disturbed soul that's chained to the bed you're paying for?

Really, the sickness lies less in those souls than in the omissions and commissions that left them burning to death. In the callousness that is getting to be like an ingrown toenail among us. I remember a taste of it last year, when I helped take an unconscious rickshaw driver we found lying on the road to the nearest hospital. Policemen and ward-boys and hangers-on there came up to tell me I shouldn't have wasted my time bringing him in. I should have left him lying there, they said. A couple of hours later, when he finally died, an attendant announced as much and then turned to me. "You see?" he said. "You shouldn't have stopped for him. What a waste of time for you."

He almost seemed angry at me, personally offended by the time I had 'wasted' that night.

That's the kind of callousness I mean. Doing its work in the hospital that night, and also in Erwadi and in Calcutta and, I'm sure, in dozens of other 'homes' and 'asylums' around the country. That's the callousness that lets some of us think we can chain down utterly lost, profoundly helpless human beings.

I've never had much use for the people who speak of India's ancient glories and rich heritage. To me, they don't want to live in the present. To me, glory and heritage lie in what we see around us today, in the society we live in today. I am neither proud of nor ashamed of it. Those are meaningless words; our society is what it is, that's all. But the importance of living in the present is that we can then reflect on and improve the way we live. The way so many of us live.

And the importance of doing those things is that we may begin to ask ourselves what it means to clap tragically disturbed people into chains. What does it say for our ancient heritage and famed tolerance? For our sense of humanity?

Awful as it was, the fire in Erwadi is only an irrelevant detail in the tragedy there. Surely I'm not the only one who thinks those miserable 'patients' are better off dead than they were in life; in that painful, miserable, hungry, forgotten state we thought was life.

Dilip D'Souza

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