“Tumhara gaon kahan hai?” (Where is your hometown?)
“Arey, wahan toh paagal khana hai, tabhi tum aisi ho. Haha!” (There is a famous mental asylum there, that explains why you are the way you are. Haha!)
Before there was Jharkhand, and before Dhoni became synonymous to Ranchi, the few people who had heard of ‘my’ city would often use this as a jibe against me. The people of Agra might relate to this. I already didn’t relate to the city, and the ‘Paagal Khana’ reference made me want to distance myself further – “Jodhpur is my birthplace”, I would protest. My experience of the city was limited to being pampered by my grandparents – my Didun-Dada and Tham-Tham every summer. I ‘saw’ the city by accompanying my zealous Dada to his favourite areas of the city – this we did up until he started becoming forgetful.
We recently lost Dada after he battled Alzheimer’s for over a decade. Despite the generation gap, nostalgia was the coping mechanism for everyone. Titbits about the older generation as youngsters are guilty pleasures – glimpsing into their faltering moments, the tables seem to turn. These stories made me feel inquisitive and indulgent and I started pestering Didun about her life before us – her experiences of the partition, the famous people she’s met, her first job – the list is endless and the stories are so rich.
A history that is three centuries old
During our regular sessions, Didun revealed that her father had briefly worked at the Lunatic Asylum. While its history dates back to 1725 AD, the institution was shifted to Kanke (where it is located presently) in the year 1925, and renamed Indian Mental Hospital. Didun’s recalls this was post independence and before its nomenclature was again altered to Ranchi Mansik Arogyashala (RMA) in 1958. Being a family member of the Staff, she had more access than the general public. I grew up having a Bollywood imagination of that space and was visibly taken aback – to which Didun said that in the 50s, Ranchi was a favourable holiday destination, and this was one of the tourist spots!
Having the privilege of learning my inherent biases around mental health, this act of voyeurism made me very agitated. Immune to such outbursts, Didun continued to narrate snapshots of her experience. There were two wings – the European wing treated English patients and Indian royalty while the Indian wing housed poorer patients and sounded less charming. Every Thursday, Didun and her sister would attend a social in the European Wing – they were briefed to not refuse any patient for a dance. I pictured an Enid Blyton boarding school scenario and devoured these stories with rapt attention.
Baseless taboo around mental illness
I asked her if that space was a taboo for people around her and she shared that when the hospital bus would come to the city for special occasions, there was discomfort among the general public. She remembers a patient confronting this, “To you we are abnormal, and to us, you are!” It seemed like she wanted to pass this memory on as learning for me. Soon after, she chuckled remembering a man who taunted her saying, “Bhishon rodhh lagche? Nehru ke bolun chhata debe!” (Is it too sunny for your liking? Tell Jawaharlal Nehru to get you an umbrella) She kept reiterating that these were not ‘violent’ patients, and many recovered and later lead ‘normal’ lives. My friend, a mental health professional, had revealed this to be the strongest bias, ultimately leading to fear of such spaces.
Upon hearing Didun’s experience, I wanted to visit the place and give shape to my imaginations. I mentally reprimanded myself for toeing the ‘50s tourist’s line! There was an instant sense of pride when Didun told me that the famous poet of undivided Bengal, Kazi Nazrul Islam, was briefly treated here. Didun was in college and remembers the excitement it had caused in the city – especially among students who revered him. The romantics in us rejoiced upon hearing the legend of his illness – it is said that he could not cope with Tagore’s death! This reminded me that we had to consciously stop ourselves from romanticizing Didun’s bout of depression after Dada passed away.
Pride of the city!
I genuinely believed that I had overcome my childhood conservatism that made me take offence of being from a city that houses one of the largest Mental Health Institutions of Asia, but it is clear that I will have to keep checking myself – I have a biased imagination of the perfect mental health patient.
At present, Ranchi Institute of Neuro-Psychiatry & Allied Sciences, RINPAS is a premier mental health institution; and according to the limited news articles I found, it is not a perfect paradise. In a way, it is indicative of our priorities as a city defined by the discourses around mental health. Hopefully, someday when (if) a kid is teased for having a ‘Paagal Khana’ in their city, this would be a thing of pride for them!
(Photo Credit: http://rinpas.nic.in/history.html)