Nalammal's story can melt a stone. Parenting even one child with special needs is challenging, but she has four. And to add to it, poverty. Till two years ago, she also looked after her husband who was hopelessly crippled by depression before he passed away.
Her eldest daughter led the life of a normal child and was her only support. Working as a nurse in a city hospital, Lakshmi was married off early but committed suicide at the age of 22, unable to bear the humiliation at her in-laws for coming from a family with a history of mental illness. That was some 20 years ago.
Today at 60, Nalammal continues to struggle. Fighting her tears with a toothless smile, she says, “I feel no one understands what it feels to be their mother.” Married at the age of 13 to a daily wager, Nalammal's struggle began with poverty induced family calamities. Both her sons, Murugesan and Balakrishnan, fell to substance abuse early on and suffered from severe psychosis. They would even assault their parents. The two daughters, Dhanalakshmi and Dhanam, suffering from borderline mental retardation remained undiagnosed initially and grew up in a house infested with violence.
It was Lakshmi, who with her contacts in the medical field, sent her mother and brothers to the M.S.Chellamuthu Trust and Foundation (MSCTF), Madurai, for treatment. Hearing her story, the Trust founder and noted psychiatrist Dr. C Ramasubramanian adopted the entire family. Not only were they brought under medical care but Nalammal and Dhanalakshmi were also given odd jobs in the rehabilitation homes run by the Trust to uplift their financial condition. Dhanam started working in a local textile shop.
But the brothers discontinued their treatment and once even ran away from the centre. Later on, Murugesan was sent to the Institute of Mental Health, Kilpauk, Chennai, and subsequently to the State Government-run Centre at Paramakudy, where he is still under treatment.
In between, when Dhanalakshmi showed signs of improvement, she joined a textile mills for higher pay. But yet again tragedy struck when her right leg came under the machine early this year. Once again the MSCTF stepped in to help her with surgery, recovery and getting an artificial limb besides all the paper work in the Labour Court for compensation from the mill owners.
Given the inter-personal conflicts between the siblings, Nalammal has now made a choice: to keep her four children in different places and dividing her time between them. The two sisters now live at the Home for Mentally Challenged supported by the State and run by the MSCTF near Thathaneri. Balakrishnan stays with the mother in a small rented house near the Home.
“Sometimes it is very hard to be their mother. I know they will never have a normal life. But I cannot abandon them. I keep reminding them I am here for them,” she says. Tending to every adversity with grit is something that now comes naturally to Nalammal, who credits her every living moment to Dr. CRS.
“He is like God, who understands people like me and my children. Mentally challenged people see life for what it is in an honest way. The things we complain about daily are the things they wish to have,” she says.
The memories of her sad motherhood must have left deep scars on her psyche. But she hides it and only looks at me with empty eyes as though asking who is responsible for her predicament. There must be so many like her. But Nalammal by sharing her love, she makes all her children feel worthy of being alive. If they know Nalammal's story, perhaps their illness would become somewhat easier to bear.
(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)
In response to readers' queries and offers of help, Soma Basu adds that the family has been adopted by the Madurai-based Chellamuthu Trust and all queries can be rooted through them at 0452-2586448 or email@example.com