Vandana Gopakumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar: Women who built a home for the mentally challenged

Vandana Gopakumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar

In this extract from Like A Girl, Aparna Jain tells the story of two girls, who broke rules to work with people with mental health issues and built ‘The Banyan’. There are 56 such stories in this

Vandana was crying. She and her family were visiting the Guruvayur temple in Kerala for the early morning darshan. She was ravenous, but her parents had told her that she could eat only after the darshan. When they approached the tiny inner sanctum of the temple, a priest quietly handed Vandana a banana. She immediately stopped crying.

Her parents had taught Vandana to believe in the power of magic, that if she wanted something badly enough, she would get it. They taught her that she could will things to happen.

Vandana’s father was in the Air Force and they moved homes often. This meant that each time, she had to leave behind her friends and the roadside dogs that she considered family.

Her parents never told her in so many words to share things or to treat everyone as an equal. They demonstrated these concepts to her through their own behaviour. Her mother had a strong sense of justice and fairness. She made friends with beggar women and their children and they would all go and eat ice cream together. The children of their house staff had all the privileges Vandana had. She grew up believing that everyone was part of one big community.

Meanwhile, fifteen-year-old Vaishnavi had just moved from Calcutta to Chennai. She wasn’t happy—she had moved from a really friendly city to an entirely new place where she knew no one. Often, feeling lonely, she would climb up to the terrace and sit there for hours. Then she would come back and smile and pretend to be happy.

She could never tell her parents how she felt. But as she got busy at school, she began to feel better. Vandana met Vaishnavi in college, and it was the start of a remarkable relationship.

One day, at the Institute of Mental Health, where Vandana was training, she met a young woman who said to her, ‘Look at the bag you are carrying, and your fancy clothes. Look at the power and privilege you have. Because of my mental health issues, my husband has abandoned me. I don’t have the freedom or opportunity to be you. But remember, at any time you can become me!’ This outburst had a huge impact on Vandana. She told Vaishnavi about it, and they went to meet the woman together.

Another time, Vandana and Vaishnavi saw a woman outside their college. She was running up and down the road, half naked and with matted hair. They could tell from her behaviour that she was mentally ill. They also noticed that most people around them were uncomfortable. Some were scared, some looked worried―and some just didn’t care.

They realised that destitute women with mental illness were the most marginalised in society. When they visited a mental institute, they found that the male patients had visitors—the women had none

This incident affected both of them deeply. They began noticing more people with mental health issues on the streets. They realised that destitute women with mental illness were the most marginalised in society. When they visited a mental institute, they found that the male patients had visitors—the women had none.

As qualified professionals—Vandana had a degree in mental health care and Vaishnavi in management—they decided this would be their career goal: working with people with mental health issues. In 1993, they set up a centre in Chennai called The Banyan. They started with thirteen patients in a small rented house. As the number of patients started to grow, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa, read about their work in a newspaper and called them for a meeting. She allocated some land for The Banyan and, whenever she met the two young women, would ask about their patients.

One of the women in the institution, Ramkumari, was from the little village of Pratapgarh in Rajasthan. She kept asking Vandana and Vaishnavi to let her go home to her husband and children. She had even stitched clothes for her children. The girls agreed and took her to the village, but once there, Ramkumari couldn’t recognise anything. They took her to the local police station to see if there was a missing persons report. Just when they were about to give up, a man on a bicycle recognized Ramkumari; he asked them to follow him to her home. In the distance they could see a house decorated with lights. When they reached the house, the first thing they saw was a picture of Ramkumari with a garland around it. Her family thought she was dead.

As Ramkumari stood there uncertainly, her children rushed to hug her, weeping. Ramkumari took some time to understand that her chil-dren had grown up—she had been missing for six years. Her family was ecstatic to have her back—especially because it was the day of her oldest daughter’s wedding!

It was a magical moment for Vandana and Vaishnavi. They now knew that their patients could be rehabilitated and could finally go home to live in their communities. They shared Ramkumari’s remarkable story with the media and it helped change at least a few people’s perceptions about mental health patients.

Today, patients at The Banyan live with a sense of hope. For those without a home to go back to, Vaishnavi and Vandana have introduced a community living project. Four or five women are placed with a personal assistant who helps them adjust to life in a neighbourhood. Eventually the women start becoming self-sufficient. Both Vandana and Vaishnavi have had mental health challenges of their own. This has increased their awareness of the need to reach out to others for support.

There is no clear dividing line between sanity and insanity, says Vaishnavi. She wishes people would stop using the words ‘psycho’ and ‘loser’ as insults. Some of the best ideas of our time have come from people who have had mental health challenges—Virginia Woolf, Abraham Lincoln, Picasso.

Vandana says that children should be taught to treat others no matter who they are the way they would like to be treated themselves: with dignity. She loves the African greeting Sawubona, which means ‘I see you’. She wishes more people would stop to see and connect with those around them.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Like A Girl’ by Aparna Jain, published by Westland/Context, June 2018

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