Bordered by barbed wires and huge iron gates, a dilapidated amphitheatre in old Delhi’s Kabir Basti is home to over 30 mentally ill women who have found their way from dump yards and streets to the shelter home called ‘Sudinalaya – a house of memories’.
The green rooms of the amphitheatre are now bedrooms for the abandoned women, and the only performance it has seen are heart-wrenching stories of mentally ill and abandoned women who struggle to piece together their past.
As the world observes International Women’s Day Thursday, the occasion comes across as a bunch of elusive English words to the women at Sudinalaya. Amid talk of policies for women, Sudinalaya is a stark reminder of the most basic rights not fructifying for women in the country.
Hundreds of mentally ill women who were abandoned by their family, abused by people, raped, or left to die on streets by their own children have come and gone from the shelter in the last three years.
“Sudinalaya has come from a hard fought legal battle. Even now the shelter is surviving under a severe crunch of money, resources, going on donations of clothes and essentials that come from goodwill,” says shelter director Sreerupa Mitra Choudhary.
Books have been written and political dignitaries have come visiting, but not an iota has changed in the lives of women who found refuge at this shelter set up in 2009.
“When women are rescued from streets, they are in the most critical stage of mental illness. We have been running shelters for abandoned women for over two decades, no change at all,” the former journalist told IANS.
“They are denied the most basic right to housing, right to food and right to dignity. They are poor, mentally ill and women to top it all – what else does one need to say of the state’s criminal negligence of these women?” asked Mitra, who runs shelters for women in other parts of Delhi.
As Mitra introduces the IANS correspondent to other inmates, a frail and seemingly calm Kamla squats away in a corner. Five years back, Kamla was found in a heap of garbage at the Yamuna Pushta dumpyard in east Delhi.
“She was lying upside down in the garbage and her head was infested with hundreds of maggots. She mumbled words to herself, and was later found to be HIV positive also,” Mitra recalled.
While there are still no clues about Kamla’s origins, the coordinator at the shelter says she turns violent because of frequent mood swings.
The women have been living with hallucinations, split personality, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, emotional withdrawal and remain on heavy psychotropic drugs when the emotional outbursts are hard to control.
“They have created a world of their own. They dream of a life they would like to live and a world they belong to. They have desires…,” Mitra said, adding that women are re-named once they come to Sudinalaya.
Speeding away from their forgotten past, the women get a basic three-time meal, clothing and the company of other women at the shelter. Watching TV and sharing stories with the coordinators and confidantes keep them engaged. Those who show response to medical treatment indulge in cooking and other daily chores.
Chhaya comes rushing, clad in a blue suit, after a long cleaning session at the house. She tells the correspondent to write a letter to her brother. But the bitter reality is that her brother has not made any move to take her back.
“I have written to him 10 letters till now. He is in America, so maybe he did not receive them,” she said. “I am from a well-educated south Indian family. I have given my address details to them (caretakers),” she said in fluent English and some jumbled words.
Her friend Imli can’t recall where she came from. Seemingly in her 20s, Imli is known as the “soul of Sudinalay”.
“Imli is so traumatised because of what she must have faced in the past that she has not spoken a word ever since she was brought to Sudinalaya. She keeps gazing at people and hides away when she hears someone shouting or fighting,” Mitra said.
Soon they are joined by Anju, Sonam, Urmila, Saloni and many others who have woven a present out of their tormented past. Living in the shadow of bare walls, the women wait for someone from somewhere to come and take them home, understand their dreams, desires, tales of love and longing and the jumbled words they put together every time they meet a visitor at the shelter.