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Two young ladies build a metaphor for banyan.

Vaishnavi and Vandana were barely out of their teens when they set out on a life of service.

In 1992, a crazed, nude woman ran up and down a Chennai street under the mid day sun. As people either gawked or walked on, two young women hugged her and took her to their college nearby. They cleaned her, clothed her and calmed her down. When they tried to find an organisation in the city that would take the woman in, they realised how hard it was to find one. It was a defining moment. A moment when Vaishnavi and Vandana decided they can't wait any longer. The two close friends were both 22 years old then -- they had made a pact with each other while still in their teens, that they would qualify as professional social workers and dedicate themselves to service. They now knew they had to act right away. 'The Banyan' --their vehicle of expression-- was soon registered as a Trust.

Within a decade the Banyan was to have its own modern centre in a suburb of Chennai, where today about 275 women are being treated for mental disorders. The building was designed by an architect and has a professional, modern air. But don't conclude it happened by instant luck or casual patronage. The story of Vaishnavi and Vandana is full of strife, grit and lonely, hard hours. It is also a story of new India. The young ladies are part of the unknown Indian army reconstructing India as a more just society.

Doors bang in the night:

The girls' parents quickly recovered from their brief disappointments: Vandana Gopikumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar were not to head for corporate placements, marry suitable boys nor wing away to the west. They accepted their children's decision and decided to back them. When the girls went around looking for a home to house mentally deranged women people nervously closed their doors. Finally a serving officer in the armed forces let out his house. And the two young ladies moved in full time.

World Health Organisation [WHO] estimates that 1% of citizens of all countries are mentally ill. National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences [NIMHANS], Bangalore says that one woman in six and one man in nine will be in need of help. While men in India tend to be cared for better, women are set adrift. Literally. "They wander about losing their moorings," says Vandana. "They get on a bus or a train and being ignored by the sea of people, they arrive wherever the train takes them." In Chennai they are invariably found within a two kilometer radius of the Central station.

At 'Adaikalam' ['Refuge'] Vaishnavi and Vandana soon had 9 inmates --and growing-- but little money. There is a moving picture of the two young girls in the Indian Express of Aug 15, 1994. They had 'Gruff' their Doberman plus hope that help would come in. But life was hard. Once they had Rs.3.50 to feed 13 people that day. Sandhya Rao reported in 'Frontline' two year later: "Eighty women in five rooms is not easy in the best of circumstance. The matter is worse when a majority of the residents come with a history of all manners of sexual abuse, physical abuse, disease, no hygiene, no socialisation and of course lice." She adds:"one of the women had fever and was crying like a child and another begged and begged to be taken to the bus stop, but which one or where she could not say. A third begged to be excused if she had asked too many questions and a fourth demanded all my attention." It is with such wards that Vaishnavi and Vandana have spent their lives --24/7, to use that expressive number-- for close to nine years since they began in 1993.

Vaishnavi answers a question: "Yes, it was grim at times. We would have washed them, fed them, cleaned the floors, the latrines and finally settled them. It'd be close to midnight when we shut the door of our little room. And the banging would begin!" But quitting never occurred to them. That was what they had chosen --and were happy-- to do. Soon Ashok Kumar, a young man came on board to help. And material help began to arrive too.

The Banyan world:

Banyan does not just accept women who arrive; they publicise everywhere their willingness to accept. Most women are manic depressives or schizophrenics. Many have lost their sense of dignity or ability to care any more. They are ridden with lice and maggots. One was found eating dog shit. Banyan races to gather them and bring them over. They are given first aid, a make-over wash and if necessary a trip to the hospital. Luckily most cases can be treated with medication-- reinforced with add-ons like a sense of belonging, security and feeling wanted. In about six months they are normal again and begin to ask to go home. Hope is forever resurgent.

On Nov 20, 1995, the phone rang at Adaikalam. Chief Minister Ms.Jayalalithaa's office was calling: Would the young ladies meet her later that day? She had been impressed by the Banyan's work. They were given a third of an acre in Chennai's suburbs to put up a modern facility.

For all the evidence you may have to the contrary, India works: the Banyan's journey is evidence of an alert, sensitive, positive, humane and dynamic Indian society. They had the land but how would they build the centre. Never mind. M A Vellodi a veteran of the IFS [Indian Foreign Service] had come on board as the Treasurer. A. Bashyam who had retired from the Indian Revenue Service [IRS] designed an organisational structure. Devi Prasad an architect got involved in designing the centre. Somehow the money came, over Rs.20 million. And the modern, designed-in-detail Centre emerged.

Journeys home:

Today the building bustles with activity. A bevy of cheerful young ladies handle the various tasks. There is nothing melancholy about the place. Their cheer is infectious. And the air is very corporate. Communication, documentation, fund raising, house keeping, public and staff relations are all up to date arts. The brisk efficiency marks it out as a new generation service organisation.

Physicians and therapists are on call. Banyan uses an eclectic bouquet of treatments to bring their wards --they call them 'residents'-- back to this world. They use occupational activities, performing arts, picnics, pranic healing and whatever else that shows promise. And of course loads of love and patience. Beyond all that of course looms drug therapy. Drugs may be required life long and it is Banyan's policy to reach supplies to wherever, forever. In about six months, most residents are well and raring to go home. They beseech Banyan that they be taken at the earliest.

Banyan is willing but problem is most don't remember where they came from! Typically two or three residents along with about four volunteers form the rehab party. With just that they set out for the rural maze of India's vastness. Here's a typical report: "[from Durg in Madhya Pradesh where they reached Phaguni Mai home], the happy rehab team pressed on to Lucknow to try and locate Santhoshi's family. Once again they contacted the helpful Railway Police, but this time were in for a shock. The police discovered that Santhoshi was actually from Bihar, not UP. So the team moved on to Muzaffarpur and from there to Sugauli. The police accompanied them to what they hoped was Santhoshi's village, Parsa. But no, there was nobody who knew Santhoshi. By then, the police were on the job, led by their helpful officer in charge, Mr. Som Prakash Singh. They discovered Santhoshi was actually from Lal Parsa -- a village that was in the opposite direction to Parsa! The team --now with an armed escort-- made its way to Lal Parsa and began the arduous task of finding Santhoshi's family... the family had given her up as dead as she had wandered away over a year ago. Once more, happy reunion scenes and the satisfied rehab team left Lal Parsa.[if you are interested in reading more of this great adventure, it is continued in the side bar, below the pictures...]

Such is the scope of the Banyan's service to society. Over 400 have returned home after a sojurn at the Banyan. There are currently 275 residents. To see these young, bubbly Indians there is a humbling experience as much as the dignity accorded to the residents is a moving one.

"No sacrifice, really!":

Vaishnavi and Vandana are insistent that they need no special admiration. "We are doing what we really want to do," they say. Their positive outlook is so rare that it is incredible. All right, real achievers don't whinge. But can the experiences they report be real in an India that we love to run down?

"We have found positive helpful attitude most of the time," they declare. Money rarely failed them. Children from nearby schools come monthly to empty their piggy banks. A family friend loaned Rs.100,000 in the early days. When Justice Padmanabhan realised it was hard for the Banyan to reach their residents to Court for formally committing them to their care, he decided to come weekly to the Banyan Centre, himself. They need Rs. 6 lakhs per month but are not in terror of not finding it. The Ministry of Social Welfare in Delhi discovered them, approached them and committed Rs.1.8 lakhs per month. The Ratan Tata Trust has committed Rs.1.33 lakhs. Regular and casual donors generate over Rs.2.0 lakhs. They conduct two annual fund raising events and these are overwhelmingly supported. They have over a 100 volunteers to help them out. Police and railway officials have always been helpful. Government officials too have been co-operative.

The two young ladies came from well to do upper income stock and were raised in a modern, integrating India. Vandana's father had served in the armed forces and she was raised all over the country. Vaishnavi's father worked for a transnational company and she was raised in Kolkatta. The first is a Malayali and the second, a Tamil. How often in the world at large do you get such diverse streams coming together to demonstrate such radical humanism? Isn't there enough evidence at hand to conclude this?: between this rising sensitive young generation and a responsive society all our ills have the prospect of becoming manageable in a finite time scale.

All donations to the Banyan's expense fund are exempt under Section 80[G] and all donation to its corpus fund are 100% tax exempt under Section 35AC of the Indian Income Tax Act 1961.


The Banyan

6th Main Rd., Mogappair Eri Scheme,

Chennai - 600 058

Tamil Nadu

Phones: 91-44- 26530504

Fax: 91-44-26530105

eMail: the_banyan@vsnl.com;

website: www.thebanyan.org



Journeys home [...contd]:

"Still in Bihar the search began for Dalgheera's village, Jamalpur. Bad roads and worse transport -- but the indefatigable team made it to Jamalpur. As always they headed to the helpful police -- who dropped a bombshell: right village, wrong state. The village Dalgheera was from was in UP not Bihar. After much palaver, the team decided to press on, and move to West Bengal, where they would leave Prapti Saha before touching UP again. But Dalgheera was not too happy. Would she go home at all? The team assured her as best as it could, and began the journey to Jhargram in West Bengal.

A 12 hour trip to Jhargram, and the team was pleasantly surprised to find that Prapti remembered the place. She took the team straight to her brother's home. But unlike the other two cases, Prapti's family was not too sure about taking her back. After much consultation and debate, they agreed. Prapti too did her bit by announcing that she had every right to live in her family house. What made them take hope was a meeting with Apoorva Das and his friends, who were so impressed with the Banyan's contribution that they planned to set up a social welfare organisation for that community.

"Then it was time to retrace their steps and head back to UP -- to Dalgheera's village of Jamalpur. The exhausted team was quite prepared to find that Dalgheera's family had moved away or would not accept her. Instead, the entire village was delighted at her return and warmly welcomed the team. Everyone was amused at the change in Dalgheera. Then the surprise of the whole trip: Dalgheera actually did not have a family and the whole village took responsibility for her! Around a crackling bonfire, she told the village all about her experiences in Chennai and the journey back home."

--the rehab team consisted of Diwakar, Dhivya, Manoj and Meena.