therefore I am
Photo essay: The Banyan halfway home, India
Ali Akbar Mahdi
September 30, 2004
In June 2004, a colleague of mine and 6 other students
embarked on a journey to Chennai, India, to work closely with the
in a halfway home (Adaikalam = Refuge) named the Banyan (an East
Indian fig tree with branches that send out shoots to grow down
to the soil for re-rooting). The Banyan is a shelter for mentally
ill destitute women who find themselves again and begin
trying to reclaim their rights in society.
It all started in August 1993 by efforts of two inspiring, young,
and idealistic Indian women in their early twenties: Vandana Gopikumar
and Vaishnavi Jayakumar.
They started in a rented bungalow but now are operating in a new
facility built on a land donated by Chief Minister Selvi Jayalalithaa
Despite lack of support, financial problems, and socio-ethical
issues associated with mental illness in Indian society,
the project succeeded in establishing itself as a legitimate and
enterprise for helping women who would not find such help anywhere
else. As time went by, the center progressed significantly with
the help of Indian government agencies, sympathetic donors, and
We worked with women and the staff in the center for 10 days,
trying to come up with designs and media for educating others about
what goes on at this home. We also used the occasion to expose
our students to the realities of homelessness and mental illness
in a traditional society where mental illness is seen as a personal
deficiency. Students were able to feel the pain and anxiety of
institutionalized mentally ill women who were rejected by their
own. What we did and saw in these 10 days had
profound impact on each of us, beyond description.
The short narrative of these women's lives is that of a cycle
of poverty, mental illness, abuse, and abandonment. The long narrative
is that of an unending struggle for survival, dignity, and acknowledgement.
Their abandonment by their families, friends, and governmental institutions,
along with neglect and invisibility, leave these vulnerable and
unprotected women at
the mercy of hunger, disease, homelessness, violence, rape, crime,
and all forms of abuse. Indian streets, as I described them in
an earlier posting, "Streets
of India", are not friendly to homeless women.
Mental illness simply increases these women's chances of
being abused, both physically and sexually. Unable to fend for
themselves, these women are virtually defenseless against assaults
and other harms that come in their way. They are the weakest and
most vulnerable members of the Indian society.
Once on the street, these women have no resources to work with
and no adequate recourse to legitimate rights as citizens. In most
places resources for caring for these women are non-existent, and
in others inadequate for the size of the problem. Where there are
adequate resources available, their distribution is often arbitrary,
skewed, and biased. The Banyan is a savior by picking them up,
offering them a shelter, clothing, food, and care, even if these
services may not be up to the standards expected in specialized
institutions of this kind.
The most devastating aspect of homelessness is the cumulative
nature of its impact. Homelessness leads to hunger, hunger to disease,
one uncared disease causes another disease, and the cycle continues
ad infinitum. A hidden aspect of the life for many of these women
is domestic violence. Originally, some of them ended up in the
streets because they ran away from physical violence by parents,
siblings, or husbands.
The stated objectives of the Banyan are to identify mentally
ill homeless women, provide shelter and care for them, and offer
them medical and psychiatric help to overcome their destitute.
It also aims at procuring self-sufficiency through rehabilitation
programs and also by raising public awareness about these mentally
ill women. A broader goal is to generate positive changes in governmental
and societal policies concerning the mentally ill.
The Banyan employs various therapeutic methods to crystallize
its ultimate goals of rehabilitation, empowerment, and mainstreaming.
Daily activities in the center offer therapeutic exercises (dancing,
singing, worship, ... ), craft making, weaving and tailoring,
block printing, drawing, group conversations, and
Women are encouraged to express their
bottled up concerns, angers, and frustrations, leading to the
evolution of empowerment and realization of their social rights.
activities are practiced daily in order to prepare these patients
for reintegration into their families and a return to society.
An innovative aspect of the Banyan is the Group Home, the rehabilitative
unit consisting of a few residents headed by a staff member. This
unit is an independent entity that attempts to acquaint its members
with social skills they have forgotten. Each unit acts independently
and is treated autonomously in order to initiate feelings of uniqueness
in the members. Once patients'
families are identified and they are able to function independently,
they are prepared for reintegration with their families.
also makes follow up visits in order to ensure that the patients
are taken care of, medicine is available to them, and they are
not subject to further abuse and neglect again. Attempts are
also made to educate patients' families and community on how they
tackle mental illnesses.
Banyan's leadership hopes to start an "Adopt-A-Village" program
compelling local leaders to form their local mental health centers.
Despite social and political restrictions, the
success stories keep pouring in. Vaishnavi and Vandana are insistent
that they need no special admiration. According to them, they are
simply doing what they really wanted to do.
Their incredible positive
outlook is contagious and admiring. Something that was started
small by two young females in Chennai has now become a respectable
social institution; the Banyan has embarked on a nation-wide
movement to uplift the veil on mental illness and reject cultural
notions on it and help the destitute.
Despite the best efforts of the management and staff, things
are not always what they are supposed to be. At the time we were
there, there were three times more patients in the facility than
it was designed for. Patients who are considered at risk of harming
themselves or others are kept in a separate floor with a locked
Cries and pleas of these women for being freed from the floor
or to be allowed to go home are not easy to ignore. Turmoil caused
by sudden manic convulsions is painful to observe and extremely
hard to handle in front of a large number of distressed women
who are prone to further stress.
The Banyan is the best example of caring for people, achieving
the impossible, and definitely making a difference in the lives
of those who need the most help. Despite the challenging scenes
of loneliness, crying, and physical and mental pain, the visit
to Banyan and the interaction with the residents are extremely
Learning about the difficult life and arduous struggles
of these women gives one hope and energy, lifts one's spirit,
and increases one's appreciation for young men and women
who dedicate their time and energy to these women's lives.
You can read the stories of some of these women in Out
of Mind, Out of Sight; Voices of the Homeless Mentally Ill,
To make a contribution to the Banyan, you can write to them
Ali Akbar Mahdi is a Professor at the Department of Sociology
and Anthropology in Ohio Wesleyan University. Homepage.