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Updated: October 10, 2012 17:20 IST

Making a difference: Attitude the only disability

SOMA BASU
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That lessens the burden. Photo: Soma Basu
The Hindu That lessens the burden. Photo: Soma Basu

On World Mental Health Day (October 10), meet a united family that has led its daughters towards independence.

Shanmuga Jyothi still feels an overwhelming sense of despair. Her life has been consumed by caring for her two mentally challenged girls, Sankareswari (41) and Mariamma (37). Though at present they are under the care of the Madurai-based M.S. Chellamuthu Trust, a thought tears her apart -- “What will happen when I am gone?”

At 67, Shanmuga Jyothi takes the public bus from Srivilliputhur to Madurai twice a month. The three-hour bus ride, the auto fare from the bus depot to the centre where her daughters live and the return journey leave her poorer by Rs.320 every month, an amount she can ill afford. “If I don’t see them regularly, I get restless,” says the mother who has been undertaking this journey unfailingly ever since her husband died in 1999.

Six months ago there was a break in her routine for the first time. She suffered a fall and was bed-ridden for 45 days after knee surgery. This meant she missed three trips to Madurai to meet her daughters. But her youngest son rose to the occasion. He visited his sisters once and on the next visit brought them home. There was a pleasant role reversal.

The mother who cooked and prayed for them, washed them and dressed them for many years was now receiving the same love and care from her two daughters, whose ability to function normally is otherwise limited.

Their bonds have remained strong even when life has delivered an overdose of sorrows.

When Shanmuga lost her goldsmith husband to cancer 13 years ago, the family was left in debt. “I could not even run the house, leave alone getting Sankareswari and Mariammal treated,” she recalls. Till then the two girls were off and on examined by a local psychiatrist out of sympathy.

Mariamma lacked in self-help skills, while Sankareswari was turning schizophrenic. Sankareswari’s husband accused her of being lazy, isolated and withdrawn and left her. Shanmuga and her family lived on the margins, but they never for a moment gave up being one another’s emotional support.

“We decided to stay together against all odds,” says Shanmuga. That was till politician Vaiko visited them after the death of her husband.

Seeing the condition of the two girls, he immediately referred them to the Chellamuthu Trust. “It was very difficult for me to part with them as I didn’t know how they would be treated. Today I am happy at their progress,” says Shanmuga. Even the fact that her daughters get good food to eat at the centre is a matter of pride. She and her son barely manage a square meal at home.

In the past ten years, both girls were trained in care-giving skills. Though their basic disabilities remain, Sankareswari turned out to be a good caretaker while her younger sister became a workaholic in the kitchen. Sankareswari is now regularly assigned to attend to the daily needs of mentally ill old women at home or in hospitals. This Monday she returned with a payment of Rs.7,775 for taking care of an elderly patient for 15 days. To her, the amount of money makes no sense.

“I will give it to my mother,” she smiles affectionately, while Shanmuga sitting next to her finds it difficult to hold back her tears. “She doesn’t talk much,” says Shanmuga. “But has developed a dress sense and likes wearing matching things now. The money she gives me, I use some of it for home expense, and the rest I save for her. When the girls come home on vacation from the centre, I try to give them the same nutritious diet as they are on continued medication.”

Mariamma can also do things independently now but her brain growth is that of a five-year-old. “If God has given us suffering, he has also given us the strength to bear it,” says Shanmuga.

As a mother, her heart does ache. She knows Mariamma is not fit to be married and will always remain alone. Sankareswari dreams of being reunited with her husband. She doesn’t know her husband has married off their daughter without informing or inviting her. “She still thinks her daughter is a child going to school, of the same age when she was separated from her,” says Shanmuga.

Sankareswari is fighting her depression. Mariamma is overcoming her obstacles to take care of herself. Their mother gives them the confidence to live on. Their brother silently supports them.

“The treatment and care we give helps to some extent but when the family accepts instead of abandoning a mentally ill member, it works much beyond,” says K.S.P.Janardhan Babu, Assistant Director (Programmes) who has been with them from the beginning. “A mother’s anguish is understandable, but today both the girls have learnt to live it on their own and even care and work for others. There can be no greater achievement than this in the lives of those who live on the brink of hope.”

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)

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