I remember her as unpredictable, but affectionate. She would have very dark moods, but she could also make me laugh. She was so much older than me, yet I thought of her as my playmate, my friend and someone who would protect me, no matter what! One day, I remember she looked at my hand and said, “I am darker than you. See?” And then she slapped me, just like that, without warning! I was seven. The tears sprang into my eyes, but I did not complain. I knew she didn’t mean to hurt me.
Mangal was my father’s first cousin. She was independent and smart, full of life but gradually, over the years, the demons seized her. Diagnosed to be schizophrenic, she drifted further and further from ‘normal’ as the years went by, till she finally gave up and passed away in her forties.
But back then, in those early days of her disease cycle, we bonded. On the streets of Mumbai- in her house in Andheri, at our home in Parel, on Juhu Beach. Walking together and laughing, staying home and playing make believe games, sitting around Ajjee (my grandmother) and helping her with her work. On some days, she would be full of angst and pain, and I can still hear her voice ringing out at the unfairness of what she was experiencing! “Why me, Aati?,” she would say, addressing my Ajjee. “You tell your God to make me all right. I don’t want to be sick like this. I also want to get married, have children, I also want to go to work, have friends. Why me, Aati?”
My parents, as doctors, were the natural port of call for every emergency and every incident related to Mangal’s schizophrenia. I saw a lot up close, first hand. As a child, my family did not need to teach me to accept. The acceptance was built into the fabric of my family. I am sure there were some who were mean, but in my immediate surroundings, I only saw people being kind to Mangal, inadvertently teaching me the most valuable lessons about empathy.
Years later, I would visit Mangal and find it hard to get through. After my marriage, when Udai was born. She would refuse to speak with me and if she even looked at me, I would see the pain in her eyes.
Today, as we reflect on our attitudes to mental diseases specifically as part of celebrating the International Day of Youth, I am thinking of the value Mangal brought to my life and the enormous courage it took for her and her family to face the realities of a mental condition. I think of the happy times, the insane giggling fits and family outings, and I resolve to be there for others like my parents were there for Mangal.
As a dear friend mentioned on her FB page today, sometimes all we need is someone to talk to. Here’s hoping we can create more neutral and non-judgmental spaces, more opportunities for young people to share what they feel.
Another thing. One of the things that struck me most about the Nazi xenophobia was the elimination of the mentally ill. No, those with mental conditions need our support and acceptance, not our hatred or violence. I experienced this first hand as a child with Mangal’s story. And I know it made me a better person.
Note: Quotes in the piece are translations from Konkani, in which Mangal and me spoke back then. And Ajee too, even now!
And apologies for the slightly disjointed, hurried, emotional post today. I’m wanting to go look for a picture of Mangal’s. Wondering where to find it!