After I had somewhat recovered from my episodes of depression towards the later half of the year, I had written to some of my friends giving them an update of my well-being. One of them, Prasad, who works tirelessly in the border areas of AP/Orissa with an NGO dealing with hunger and nutrition wrote back to me asking if I was willing to meet a woman who might be interesting to talk to as a parallel to my own sufferings. He also knew how deeply I was interested in tracking the issue of mental health in India, especially among its poorest.
So I went and met Pushpamma.
The trek up here is hard. We’ve been walking for close to four hours through thick shrub on a high wide ridge. Below us, a rivulet branched off the Machkund flows. The humidity of the monsoons adding to everyone’s discomfort. Leeches on my legs are feasting. I repeatedly protest that we could have taken the jeepable road to the village, but Prasad doesn’t trust it. “I am not taking a chance and then getting blown up”, he says angrily. The rarely spoken, but ever present sword that hangs over these parts.
After three quarters of an hour of more walking the track descends into a small high backed valley. Smack in the middle of the valley is Doppiguda. Like 99.9% of villages in these parts, it is ramshackle, has no flowing drainage, electricity or reliable water supply. One small track runs through the centre on either side of which are about 15 huts spaced well apart. Towards the back of the village are two smaller huts. To one which we are invited to proceed towards by Erranna, the headman.
I recoil the instant I enter the hut. It’s dark, smells vile and at one corner Pushpamma is squatting in front of a pole. Her feet are tied with thick rope. Her head is immobile because a long piece of cloth has been wrapped around her forhead and fastened to the pole with a tight knot. We step towards her when she lets out a loud wailing scream. Her eyes dart from side to side and I can see the blood rush into them. He arms are flailing violently. Prasad quickly pulls me back.
"Let’s leave her alone for a while", he says as we all step out of the hut.
It’s nearly sundown now and I take to a small hillock nearby to catch the sunset and reflect on the day. It’s been a tough one, physically. I am anxious and terrified that I might not be able to talk to Pushpamma without subjecting myself to more painful recollections from my own struggles. I pace up and down the track that rings the hillock, with each climb adding to my state of panic.
I forgo dinner of rice gruel, sauteed onions and chillies and pull the cover over my sleeping bag and try to catch some sleep. It doesn’t come and for close five hours I hear muffled cries from the hut at the far side of the village. Pushpamma seems be in a bad way tonight.
Pushpamma seems calmer this morning. She is still restrained and when I move towards here to unhook the cloth around her forehead, her eyes suddenly light up. For a moment I think she might jump up at me, but she remains calm and seated. Prasad undos the rope around her feet. She stretches her leg out a bit. Half a smile appears, grateful for the chance at physical freedom. A bit of a struggle to get up, but once she’s on her feet, she starts pacing around the hut at great speed. I am bewildered at this sudden shift in her energy and want desperately to ask her what is going on, but she seems blissfully unaware of the people around her. This pacing goes on for a full five minutes before Prasad intervenes.
"Are you well enough today? You seem very active. I haven’t seen you like this in two weeks"
"Saar, who is this other saar?", she points towards me. The voice is crackly and barely audible.
"He just wants to talk to you. Will you?"
"What does he want to talk about? I don’t know anything"
Seizing my chance I ask, “What happened the first time you lost your mind?”
She turns around, squats on the floor and wiggles her finger asking me to come closer. Prasad and I shift a feet ahead.
"I saw ghosts. They were black and green and came riding dogs and took me away to a far off place in the forest."
"I see. What happened after that?"
"I don’t know", she balks.
At this point Erranna intervenes.
"She wouldn’t talk to us at all for days. I thought something was wrong with her throat, so we gave her hot water, but still she wouldn’t talk. She used to sit in one corner and not do anything."
"Can you please get me some rice, I am hungry", Pushpamma breaks in.
"One day she got up, took a long stick and started beating a dog. All of us in the village ran and grabbed her and locked her in a hut. She still didn’t speak. We thought God had taken her voice away as punishment for something she had done."
"What had she done?"
"Nothing. She was a very good girl."
Erranna then proceeds to tell me about her other extreme displays of behaviour: About how she would suddenly get up in the middle of the night, open her dress and defecate in the middle of the house; about how she wouldn’t clothe herself for days and wander about the village; about how on the day of her wedding she went to cooking area and overturned all the food being prepared.
I turn to Prasad.
"Listen, this woman is most probably paranoid schizophrenic and needs big time help. This isn’t a case of severe depression like you told me."
"Whatever it is, they won’t let her go out. I only wanted you to come and see because I thought you might connect with her and learn something about what you went through."
"Prasad, on a scale of 1 to 10, what I went through is 4, this woman is bordering on 15. She needs help, really."
We hadn’t realized it, but our voices had raised and soon half the village had gathered outside the hut to find out what was going on.
"Saar, they took me by force on a bandi and dropped me off in the forest.", Pushpamma suddenly breaks her silence.
"Oh, why and then what happened?"
"They beat me very badly, left me with one bag of rice and no water. I did not move for the next one day because I was afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"I don’t know. Then I started walking back the way I came. I got lost once and got bitten by something and there was blood all over my foot. I walked and walked and walked. I ate all my rice and I was thirsty but still I walked. I wanted to go back home and wear my favourite red saree."
I turn towards Erranna shell shocked.
"Yes, this true. We left her there thinking that she’ll go mad, have no food and die soon. We couldn’t handle her. The spirits had taken over her and when that happens, nothing can be done."
I look on incredulously.
Prasad picks up the story.
"I was here on a routine visit when she returned. Everyone was shocked that she was back. They were sure that some evil spirit had taken her over and was punishing the entire village. They then proceeded to tie her up and beat her."
"When I objected, they threatened to have me beaten up too. So I went to .. and got the police back. When they got here, they took one look at her and said, ‘She’s mad, it is better if we don’t do anything and let things take their course’"
"What did you do then?"
"What could I have done? These people are beyond any reason. I told them they could do anything but they can’t beat and kill her."
Erranna has had enough of this by now. “You people please leave. She is mad and you can’t do anything about her, so go back to your cities and leave us alone. If God wants her to be cured, she will be cured.”
I protest. But I have no support.
"Please don’t beat her", is all I can say before Prasad and I are forced to pack our bags and start walking.
I can see Pushpamma being led back to the hut. The rope in Erranna’s hand.