Circle of care on the streets… Works by Sarbani Dasroy in ‘The Hindu’

Please find below article by Mr. Harsh Mander on caring …

May 2, 2015 17:15, The Hindu

“Man or woman perched on a waste dump. Covered with grime. Matted, unkempt hair. Nearly naked. Name forgotten. Family forgotten. Muttering inscrutable words. Wandering aimlessly. Solitary. Profoundly lost to the world.

We see many such people in the cities we inhabit. What do they inspire in our hearts? Revulsion? Fear? A fleeting passive pity? Or most likely, just indifference?

Sarbani was different. Heading an international NGO, walking the streets of Kolkata with a psychiatrist friend, she asked him what the fate would be of such people. He replied – probable lonely, early, anonymous death. She asked him of what they would die. The answer – because they lose the idea of self-care, they may simply die one day of dehydration, of thirst.

Sarbani quit her well-paying job, formed a group of caring young people to work with, registered an organisation called Iswar Sankalpa, and looked for answers to what appeared an unsolvable human tragedy. The answers they found hold extraordinary life-lessons for all of us.

A few decades back, such gravely mentally ill persons would have been incarcerated in high-walled mental hospitals and sometimes in jails, naked and chained, subjected to daily indignities and therapy including electric shocks, locked away from the world. Today it is recognised that these patients should best be cared for in open hospitals and within families.

But what happens to abandoned mentally ill persons who have no family? They endure a double whammy – of mental illness and homelessness.

Today medical science still has not found a cure for severe psychoses, but within a few weeks, medicines can control nearly all one’s debilitating symptoms, limiting confusions and the chances of self-harm. But who would provide these medicines daily to homeless mentally ill patients who have no one in the world?

The answer which Sarbani and her colleagues proposed was that surely there are caring people in every community, who if identified and educated, could become proxy families of these lost and forgotten souls. They first surveyed the city and found 466 such homeless psychotic patients. They found also that homeless mentally ill people often have a sense of belonging, such as to a particular stretch of pavement.

Eight fine young men and women then set about looking for caring people in these stretches frequented by each of these patients. They soon affirmed that indeed there is no shortage of compassionate people. They found them mostly among working class street vendors, but a few even among the middle classes.

During a night round through the streets of Kolkata in 2007, the team met a near-naked man beside a garbage dump near the Khidderpore flyover, chanting verses from the Koran. Investigating further, they learnt that a grain shopkeeper Mohammed Nihal gave this man lunch every day, even shared his morning tea with him, and gave him clothes. Nihal readily agreed to become his caregiver, and persuaded the man to attend a medical camp. In the camp, he identified himself as Abdullah. The team members bathed him, and a barber agreed to cut his hair and shave him. The doctor diagnosed him with hallucinatory schizoaffective disorder.

Within a month, Abdullah appeared more relaxed. He still communicated in sign language, but after five more months, began to speak. He also started to help Nihal in his shop. As time passed, he recalled that his name was Suresh Kamble, who worked as a radiologist Mumbai’s Nanavati Hospital. But he insisted that he did not want to return to his family, and instead wanted only to stay with Nihal.

I met them seven years later. I found that Suresh was like a member of Nihal’s family, his friend and his most trusted shop assistant. Nihal insisted that his children give Suresh the respect due to any family elder. Nihal only worries what will happen after Suresh’s death. Suresh insists that he should be buried as a Muslim. But Nihal feels he is still a Hindu and should be cremated with Hindu rites. It is one argument that the friends have not resolved.


A homeless, fierce-looking man in his 30s, in tattered, clothes with long tangled hair and beard, unwashed body and malnourished frame restlessly roamed Bijon Setu, the flyover near Ballygunge Railway Station. When field worker Swapan initially approached him, he refused even to speak to him, or accept food or water from his hands. It took Swapan steady and gentle persistence over several weeks to win his trust. Finally he agreed to let Swapan take him to their psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with schizophrenia.

Swapan then looked around for willing caregivers. He found them in Sunil, who operates a soft drinks vending stall, and Kanan Mondal, an ageing widow selling tea under the flyover. Both agreed to help the man. The street barber agreed to cut his hair. He came to called Bijon after the flyover which was his chosen roaming ground.

He gradually accepted medicines, hygiene care, food and counselling therapy and slowly started regaining his memory. He remembered his real name to be Mohammed Asif Iqbal and that he lived in his maternal uncle’s home in Rajabazar. A visit to his home revealed Bijon’s melancholy past. He lost his mother at an early age, and was abandoned in his uncle’s home by his father. Uncared for, he befriended local boys who initiated him into hard drugs. This aggravated his mental health distress further. He was beaten and berated by neighbours and family members, and once arrested by the police.

When I met him some months later, I found Bijon clean, shaven and calm. He still lives at the flyover, as he is unwilling to return home. His memories of abuse and neglect haunt him. He has grown to like and trust his new friends Swapan, Sunil Babu and Kanak Mashi. The afternoon I met him, I found him sitting with them between their stalls. He said to me that he was due to meet another friend. This turned out that a volunteer Anirban, employed in an IT company nearby, who volunteered to visit him during his lunch-break every day. Anirban arrived soon after. In his hands was a packed box of biryani, which he brought to share with Bijon.


I met another caregiver, 18-year-old Sanjay, a pavement tea-seller in the busy commercial area Dhakuria. A middle-aged mentally ill man roamed his pavement, and Sanjay agreed to give him medicines with his tea twice a day. As he recovered, he refused to return to his home. Sanjay spoke to an acquaintance who hires out cycle-rickshaws to rent a rickshaw to Bapida, as he called his new friend. The rickshaw-owner was doubtful. What if he damaged the rickshaw? However, Sanjay stood guarantee for him, and had to mollify the owner for early damages to the rickshaw. But in time, Bapida settled down. He drinks tea with Sanjay, and sleeps on the pavement near his hand-cart at night.

I spoke with Sanjay while he was boiling and pouring out steaming tea expertly to his many customers. I asked him why he did what he did. He smiled a little, then only said, “Bhalo lage (I just like doing this).”


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