Jnanpith award winner, M.T.Vasudevan Nair is one of the most eminent figures of Malayalam literature today. Those who have read him get entrenched in his world of nostalgia. He transports you to the times and places he grew up in and his characters seep into your psyche as very identifiable bits of your own self…at least for us old timers. I have no idea how today’s youngsters relate to his wistfulness for another kind of world where human relations are based on loyalty and commitment and more importantly, dollops of love and affection. The angst of his characters as they are caught up in the sweep of the changing times , is something many of us who have grown up in slower and down to earth times , authentically know and vicariously live through them.. Many would brand his writing as sentimental…but what is human existence all about , other than a myriad blend of emotions and sentiments?
One of his most touching characters is from his story “Iruttinte aathmaavu” (Soul of Darkness), that of “ Branthan Velayudan “,. The story was made into a film , as have many of M.T’s other stories and novels , quite a number of which have won awards at the State and National levels. In the film, Velayudhan’s role was played by Prem Nazir, the then reigning king of Malayalam cinema and was perhaps one of his best performances amongst the more than 400 different roles he must have played in his lifetime.
This is the plot of the story as it appears in the Wikipedia:
“Velayudan’s existence poses a problem to all the members of the joint family. Velayudhan is a twenty – year old man, but he has the intelligence of a child. The head of the joint family thinks Velayudan symbolizes the curse which hangs heavy over the house. To his mother he is source of constant sorrow. His uncle’s daughter is his would be bride. He is attached to her. She is very kind to him and refuses to treat him as a mad man. Velayudan triggers problems one after the other and every new lapse help only to put fresh chains. He refuses to feel he is mad. In the end Ammukutty is given away in marriage to an old widower. Velayudhan surrenders himself and yells “Chain me I am mad!”
Will not the “maddest “ of them all respond to care and compassion and medical intervention? M.T.Vasudevan Nair certainly seems to think so. He is one of the Trustees of the Mehac Foundation , a recently formed NGO:
I was in Ernakulam , last week to be with my friend Dr. Chitra and two of my friends from school, Suchitra and Suchitralekha. They are always happy times, for the bonds we share are full of the positive vibes of unconditional friendship , that go back a long way. I was therefore immensely happy to be able to witness first hand, the work Mehac was involved with. Dr.Chitra , as I mentioned in an earlier part of this write-up is its Clinical Director .
What Mehac is doing is to form partnerships with existing bodies at grass roots level and build up a mental health care programme , in which trained volunteers interact with the patients and help them slowly regain their balance and productivity , duly supported by clinical assessment and medication. Unique to any such scheme perhaps is the involvement of the Muhamma Panchayat , who have started a Palliative Centre with available local funds .Together with Mehac , they are slowly building up a team of volunteers, who are responsible for each patient they identify . These volunteers personally observe the improvements or downslide of each of these patients and report them to Chitra on her next weekly visit to the clinic. The volunteer team are also responsible for organising activities that could help them become self sufficient. Coir rope making is one such activity they have started. There is a similar tie-up with Tata Charitable Trust Hospital at Chottanikkara as also with Snehbhavan Visitation Convent at Kalavoor , which I mentioned earlier.
I accompanied Chitra on her home visits in and around Mararikulam. The volunteers this time, were a spirited team from “Sanhati”, an NGO engaged in promoting selfhelp groups and also providing palliative care. This is a coastal belt , where most of the families earn a livelihood through fishing or coir rope making. Poverty is not so grinding in Kerala as in many other states of the country. This section of the society, however, do find it difficult to make ends meet. When the monsoons set in, for example and trolleying boats are prohibited from going into the sea, because of the breeding season, they are left with no daily income and their saving in the previous months , if they do manage to keep by something, is hardly enough to sustain them during these lean months. The Government does provide free ration , but that is about it.
To have a terminally ill family member or one suffering from mental disorders is like having a pus- filled boil on a hunchback, as the saying goes in malayalam. The families that we visited were heart-wrenching examples of this sorry state of affairs.
We also came across these two sisters, both old, the deranged one above eighty perhaps. She was sitting all bunched up on an old mat, in that small dwelling, frail and helpless , not quite understanding what was being asked . It was left to the younger one who had been looking after her for more than forty years to fill in the details. “ She hasn’t taken a bath for many, many days and I have not enough strength left in my hands to lift her up and take her outside , after twisting ropes all day long . And if didn’t do that, all three of us would go hungry. She just sits there all day long. It is such a task even getting to feed her” The third one was the husband , who didn’t do any work. Such debilitating collusion of poverty and illness and yet the woman had a calm demeanor, narrating her story very matter of factly without any dramatic frills of self-pity or complaints.
Another pair of siblings we visited, were in worse circumstances. They too lived in a small dwelling with just one room, a portion of it demarcated as the kitchen. It was filthy and cluttered with a pile of very soiled clothes lying in a corner , bottles and dented aluminium vessels vying for space on the cemented floor, which was almost half covered with a thick layer of sand…”to keep out the cold from the moist floor”,explained the younger sister , who must’ve been in her late fifties. “She finds it difficult to sit with her feet on the cold floor”, she said, pointing out to her older sibling who sat on a rickety cot covered with a moth-eaten blanket .Both the sisters looked sloppy and unkempt, their short ,curly hair liberally streaked with white, hanging in scraggly strands .
The house was in the corner of a huge compound with another, much bigger house at one end of it. “We were all staying together in that house, two brothers and four sisters. Then our father died and this one here lost her senses. And then one brother committed suicide. The other one got married as did the other two sisters”. The sisters were apparently well off . The surviving brother and is wife had got tired of the presence of a cranky sister and had built this room for them . Ill luck seemed to stalk the family at every turn, for the elder brother too died in an accident and his wife remarried and moved on. Chitra mentioned that there may have been a genetic proclivity in the family for depression. The sister who was normal also talked in a way that gave the impression that she too was slightly quirky.
The property therefore now belonged to the four sisters. But the house remained locked up as they were scared to move in there. They had no means of livelihood in spite of having the not so inconsiderable land holding at their disposal. The little money that came their way for food and medication depended on the occasional magnanimity of the tow well off sisters during their rare visits .The volunteers of Sanhati had become their immediate saviours . They brought small portions of rice and lentils for the sisters and ointments and pills for their aches and pains and now Chitra’s visits would ensure continued medication and counselling. She sought the co-operation of the volunteers to clean up the place on one of the following days. The sisters of course were delighted. The elder one even got up and shuffled to the door on her swollen feet to see us off.
Back at the house , which had offered their premises for running a temporary clinic on the days of Chitra’s weekly visits, we had hot tea and roasted seeds of a particular mini-version of the jackfruit called “aanjily chakka”. The wood of this tree was used for making boats, I was told. The small pods inside the fruit had a slightly sour-sweetish taste.
There were a few patients waiting there as well. . One of them, a young female had come from quite a distance with her son. Annie, the spunky volunteer from Sanhati told us that she herself was a victim of acute depression, but it was left to her to look after her brother in-law , who had to be necessarily kept chained till her husband returned from work.
I was exhausted by the end of the two days with the stories of so many lives so full of distress and it’s still hanging like a cloud in my mind. I marvelled at Chitra and her team who would be continuing to make these rounds , week after week.
It was an agonising experience and yet somehow it was filled with a strange kind of energy and hope. Thank you Chitra.