It is hard to tell Babu and Sankaran, diagnosed with schizophrenia, apart from the support staff and volunteers helping out at the store.

For early morning shoppers hunting for fresh vegetables in the residential neighbourhood of K.K.Nagar, the first sight of green is just around the bus terminus at the shop in the corner. With fresh vegetables beckoning invitingly from straw mats spread outside the shop, the grocery store bears a distinction unknown to many. Not only do proceeds from the store go towards rehabilitation of the mentally ill, but the store is efficiently run by rehabilitated mentally ill persons.

Don multiple roles

It is hard to tell Babu and Sankaran, diagnosed with schizophrenia, apart from the support staff and volunteers helping out at the store. They execute all functions from making trips to the market to purchase vegetables, weighing grains for customers, making small talk cheerfully and filing accounts diligently, that even regular customers fail to spot the difference.

For around ten years, the daily operations of the store have been overseen by various mentally ill persons rehabilitated by Anbalayam, the government funded voluntary organisation rescuing and rehabilitating wandering mentally ill persons.

“Mentally ill persons need medical care and family support to lead a normal life. Such people generally cannot find any source of employment,” says T.K.S.Senthilkumar, founder of Anbalayam. Unlike mental retardation which is a birth condition and indicates low I.Q, mental illness is a disorder affecting thinking, behaviour and functioning.

The erstwhile duo that worked at the store, Paulraj and Anandan, have been reunited with their families and have moved on to other jobs.

From the streets to store

For schizophrenic patients, estranged from their families, the store keeps them occupied and provides a premise for social interaction. While Sanakaran was admitted in the institution by his family members who felt they could care for him no longer, Babu was rescued by Mr. Senthil Kumar from the streets of Thanjavur. “No one would identify the person he was a year ago.

He was found wandering the streets with long matted hair,” says Senthil, a psychiatric counsellor with the organisation.

Since last May, after psychiatric treatment at ATHMA Hospital and helping severely ill persons in bathing and feeding, Babu was moved to the store. The man from Vellore is yet to trace his family. “He has a talent for bargaining.

He can convince people easily and manages to get stuff for the best price,” says support staff Subramaniam, lauding Babu’s competence in haggling. Both set out for Gandhi market at 4 a.m. on a two-wheeler. “I get the best of the vegetables as I go early,” says Babu.

The shop has an edge over other stores in the neighbourhood as it is among the earliest to open and stocks produce fresh out of the market. Yet the store has limited stock with a turnover of around Rs.1,000 a day to make management easy for the mentally ill persons.

Personal touch

The personal touch that Sankaran and Babu bring to the store has ensured a small but faithful clientele. “Customers who are acquainted with Anbalayam always buy vegetables here. Even if it may take time, they linger around to talk to us,” says Sankaran who was a tailor in Chennai.

Abandoned by his family who hardly visit him, he cherishes the ability to interact with people of all ages who drop into the shop.

“Still, there’s nothing to beat Madras,” he declares emphatically. Ask him why and pat comes the reply, “People there usually buy at the specified rate. Here, they bargain a lot!”