At the turn of the century, Jacklin Janaki found herself wandering the streets of Chennai, 300 kilometres from her home in Kovandakurichi.
Homeless and in the throes of a mental breakdown she did not quite understand, she experienced two sides to the city: one that tossed stones and disdain at her, and the other, fortunately, that gave her shelter, meals, a diagnosis and the help to manage it. Over the next 10 years at The Banyan, she found her calling as an auxiliary nurse.
Wishing others like her too find the support they need, she returned to her hometown in Tiruchi to start an initiative, Home Again, with the help of her sister, Amali Margaret, and The Banyan. Spread across nine homes in Kovandakurichi and nearby villages, 44 women, who much like Jacklin, have experienced mental illnesses, homelessness and marginalisation, live together as families, supporting and caring for each other.
The sisters are the protagonists of The Banyan’s first illustrated book for children, Jacklin & Amali . Their journey — one of homelessness, grief, abandonment, finding support and care, and passing it on — makes for a stark subject for children, but author Rega Jha, believes that is why it is all the more important to narrate. “The Banyan is quite invested in introducing these themes to adolescents and bringing about mental health sensitisation,” she says.
The narrative is complemented by loving illustrations by Anushka Madhavan. The book was launched last week with a reading session that featured actors Shobana and Revathi, Dr Vikram Patel, and author Shaheen Bhatt among others.
Poetic as it is, the writing in the book will need an adult to sit down and explain certain phrases to children. “We realised (that in making it too easy to understand) we were losing the reality of the story. There is a portion where we talk about being sex-phobic, and there is no way to do it without using words like physical intimacy,” says Rega. “It is good that it isn’t something children can whiz through themselves, but something that sparks conversation.”
A long way home
On a call from Home Again in Kovandakurichi, Jacklin recalls, hesitant but determined, the circumstances that led to her boarding that fateful train to Chennai. “My marriage broke apart a few years ago, and then, I lost my parents. I came to Chennai with ₹300 in hand, which soon got over,” she says. She meant to find her aunt in Chennai but lost her way, and ended up living on the streets.
She was taken to The Banyan, where she got better and re-trained herself in nursing. “This was my second time in Chennai, I had lived and worked as a nurse for a year here once before. This time, I also learnt how to nurse people with psychiatric issues,” she says.
Amali, who had been battling depression on her own all this while, also came to The Banyan, where she picked up the skills of house management. Together, the two of them started Home Again in 2016. “I was inspired by the work The Banyan was doing — supporting people in need, and providing medication free of cost. I thought, why not go back to my home town and help my community,” says Jacklin.
Awareness about mental health had been low in Kovandakurichi, says Amali, from her experience with depression in the village. “Sometimes, it gets labelled as a ‘possession’. People who need medication and treatment are locked up instead. But now, things are changing. People voluntarily come up to us, asking for medication to become better,” she says.
Jacklin also runs a private clinic under which she visits patients and fixes appointments with doctors. Home Again has been expanded by The Banyan to 10 other states, offering 49 homes to over 200 residents. “There is still work to be done,” says Amali. “Of the 44 women with us, many of them have families that don’t want to take them back because they don’t know how to manage them at home.”
Which is why the sisters are glad this book has come into being. “It is a proud feeling to have our life story written down. When we were young, we didn’t have anyone telling us about mental illnesses,” says Jacklin, adding “This book explaining these issues to children at a young age will have a huge impact.”