Man or woman perched on waste dump. Covered with grime. Matted unkempt hair. Nearly naked. Name forgotten. Family forgotten. Muttering inscrutable words. Wandering aimlessly. Solitary. Profoundly lost to the world.
We see many such people in the cities we inhabit. What do they inspire in our hearts? Revulsion? Fear? A fleeting passive pity? Or most likely, just indifference?
Sarbani was different. Walking the streets of Kolkata with a psychiatrist friend, she asked him what the fate would be of such people.
He replied that they would probably die lonely, early, anonymous deaths.
She asked him of what they would die. He replied that because such people lose the idea of self-care, they may simply die one day just of dehydration, of thirst.
Sarbani quit her well-paying job heading an international NGO, formed a group of caring young people to work with, registered an organisation called Iswar Sankalpa, and looked for answers to what appeared an unsolvable human tragedy.
A few decades back, persons with grave mental illnesses would have been incarcerated in high-walled mental hospitals and sometimes in jails, naked and chained, subjected to daily indignities and therapy, including electric shocks, locked away from the world.
Today, it is recognised that these patients should ideally be cared for in open hospitals and within families.
But what happens to abandoned mentally ill persons who have no family? They endure a double whammy, of mental illness and homelessness.
Today, medical science still has not found a cure for severe psychoses, but within a few weeks, medicines can control nearly all one’s debilitating symptoms, limiting confusions and the chances of self-harm.
But who would provide care and medicines daily to homeless mentally ill patients who have no one in the world?
The audacious solution which Sarbani and her colleagues proposed was that surely there are caring people in every community, who, if identified and educated, could become proxy families of these lost and forgotten souls.
They first surveyed the city and found 466 homeless psychotic patients. They found also that homeless mentally ill people often have a sense of belonging, such as to a particular stretch of pavement.
Eight young men and women then set about looking for caring people in these stretches frequented by each of these patients. They soon found that indeed there is no shortage of compassionate people. They found them mostly among working class street vendors, but a few even among the middle classes.
Reproduced with permission from Invisible People by Harsh Mander published by Duckbill Books.
There are many such invisible people around us - people with physical challenges, mental illness, or those who are different in other ways from what is considered “normal”. Children are accepting of differences. It is the adults who draw lines and try to define everything. These definitions arrived at on the basis of our limited knowledge and parameters give us comfort and security. So we go about slotting people into neat categories – Visually Impaired. Hearing Impaired. Differently-abled. Mentally challenged. Autistic. Dyslexic. Spastic. Homosexual. Bisexual. Transsexual. Even in the so-called normal category, some are less acceptable than others – Dark-skinned. Poor. Shy. Fat.
Children, on the other hand, tend to accept things as they are. It is as they grow older that they pick up these perceptions of what is “normal” or acceptable, and what is not. What can we do to prevent prejudice from seeping into impressionable young minds?
Exposure, for one. That explains why, as Harsh Mander says in the above excerpt, compassion is in abundance among the working class, but less so among the middle class. With greater exposure, our children would grow into sensitive adults too, but that is easier said than done. If anything, society has become more homogenous than it was when we were growing up.
What we can do, then, is to introduce these “invisible people” to children through books and theatre and art; let them see different ways of living and being.
And don’t these “different” kids deserve books that reflect their reality? Stories they can see themselves in?
This CROCUS we focus on differences - physical/cognitive challenges, alternate sexuality, adoption, divorce, unconventional families of all kinds. Over the next four days, we bring to you many fabulous books for children and young adults from India and abroad. Watch this space for reviews, interviews and more.