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  DEVOTIONAL  
 
   
Letter to Metropolitan
  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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  COUNSELING
 
Back to infancy -- they n
 
  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
     
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  ARTICLE  
     
  Revisiting Antara  
  An oasis in psychiatric desert  
   
  A QUARTER century ago, I stayed in Kolkata for a few days. I told everyone with a little pride that my guest house was on Bishop Lefroy Road, adjacent to Satyajit Ray's house. It was while staying there that I first heard about Mr P.M. John, a successful businessman and the moving spirit behind Antara. I got his number from the Calcutta Telephone Directory and called him.

He sent his car to the guest house to fetch me and my wife. At his single-storied, independent house, Mrs John served us steaming rice, dal and chicken curry prepared in mid-Travancore style. We found the couple hospitality personified. A little reticent, he brimmed with confidence when he spoke about Antara and how he got involved in it.

It is not unusual for a Malayali to turn leftist in his younger days. So it was not surprising that Mr John turned a leftist and began questioning the church, its traditions and practices. When he reached Calcutta in search of greener pastures, he remained an agnostic keeping aloof from the Mar Thoma Church of which he was a born member.

A chance meeting with a priest, who was the first Indian Principal of Serampore College, transformed him and he realized for once that the casteless, classless society that he dreamt of was not different from the Kingdom of God that the church stood for. Soon, Mr John became an active member of the congregation.

The congregation grew into a parish and bought a piece of land in a slum area with bare civic facilities. But before they set up a proper church, they started a dispensary to provide medical facilities to the slum-dwellers. A turning point came in Mr John's life when he got acquainted with Dr Satrujit Dasgupta and Dr R.B. Davis, two well-known psychiatrists.

After the lunch, Mr John took me to the four-storied Mar Thoma Church building where on the ground floor ran the Janata Medical Service. There, I was introduced to a heavily-built, casually dressed doctor attending to psychiatric patients. Dr Dasgupta was at his garrulous best when he spoke about the neglect of psychiatry, both by the government and the people.

But we did not want to disturb his work and moved on. From there, we drove to Antaragram in 24 Pargana district. On the way, Mr John told me how once Mother Teresa suggested that something needed to be done for the mental patients, whom she or her sisters did not know how to handle. Thus was born the idea of Antara which began in a rented premise in Calcutta. When the demand for more beds increased, they bought a two-acre plot at Gobindpur in the undivided 24 Pargana district where it is now located.

It was only proper that Mr John invited Mother Teresa to lay the foundation stone of the first Antara building. While laying the stone, the Mother whispered into Mr John's ears, "By the way, do you have money for this project?" Mr John did not give an immediate answer. At the function, when his turn came to speak, Mr John said, "The mother asked me whether I have money. The answer is I do not have a single penny in my pocket".

However, Mr John was confident that money would come because he had left everything in the hands of God. One day, he got a telephone call from Mother Teresa. She had been gifted an air-conditioned car by a well-wisher. Since she had no use for such a costly car, she wanted to give it to Antara. That inspired Mr John to launch a lottery in which this car was the first prize. The lottery fetched a good sum. Later, the Mother gave Antara another such car gifted by a rich person.

The story did not surprise me as, during an interview I had with the Mother, she told me that somebody had one day gifted her a packet of cigarettes. She had a use for it when the next day, she picked up a beggar from the street. His matted hair was cut and he was given a bath and a proper lunch. After that, he asked the mother for a cigarette. Suddenly, she remembered the cigarette packet in her bag and gave it to him.

This is how Providence has been providing for Antara. As Mr John got busy in the office, a doctor took me around. One of the patients introduced himself to me as "Stalin the Great". The doctor took me aside and told me that he was suffering from schizophrenia. He had delusions of grandeur and he believed that he was indeed Stalin who succeeded Lenin in the erstwhile Soviet Union.

I was keen to meet this person when the prospect of visiting Antara again brightened. This time, too, it was the Kolkata telephone directory that helped me to contact Mr John. But one missing letter in the address caused me a little bit of problem, though his house was very close to where I stayed, again, in a guest house. It was a Sunday and they were getting ready to go to the church when I reached his sprawling ground floor apartment.

They had a particular reason to go to the church that day as they had to make an offertory on the occasion of their wedding anniversary and Mrs John's birthday. Mr John fumbled for a while when I asked him how many years had passed since they got married. He did a little bit of calculation to tell me that it was his 54th wedding anniversary. But he had no such problem when he gave me all the details of Antara. He remembered the date and time of every significant event connected with the institution.

As the church building was under renovation, the medical service programme remained suspended. Otherwise, the twice-a-week psychiatric treatment facility was available to the people of the area. From the church, we went to a Chinese restaurant where his son, a surgeon, and daughter-in-law, who was stepping into the shoes of Mr John as chief of Meteor Pvt. Ltd, joined us for lunch. The restaurant had been decorated, for it was the Chinese New Year day.

From there, we drove to Antaragram. For the Johns, Antaragram is their second home. They spend every Saturday there. As the car sped, I could notice a lot of changes, since the last time I visited the place. Now Antaragram is part of the extended Kolkata. Antaragram, too, had changed a lot.

There were a lot more buildings now. The number of patients, doctors and staff, too, had increased. When I mentioned my desire to meet "Stalin", Mrs John did not have any difficulty in recalling him. "Sorry, he died a few years back". In fact, many people associated with Antara had died. Mother Teresa is now Blessed Teresa. Brother Andrew lives in the memory of Mr John as the one who said, "For washing other's feet, one does not have to study theology".

A three-storied new building today commemorates Dr Satrujit Dasgupta. Mr John thought it appropriate to begin the visit by showing me the new building which would be used to start a diploma course in psychiatric counseling and a psychiatric nursing course. General nurses are often ill-equipped to handle psychiatric cases. As Mr John elaborated on the theme, I remembered my visit to the Central government-run psychiatric hospital in Ranchi where the then Matron told me over lunch how she was once given a slap by a strong-bodied patient and how she fell flat on the floor.

Today Antaragram is spread over 15 acres. When it was begun, the aim was to take care of only the poorest of the poor but this ideal had to be whittled down as demands for care came from well-to-do sections also. One good thing about Antara is that it does not remain a prisoner of formats. Thus, when a rich person with a lot of international exposure sought a place where he could look after his mentally challenged son till the end of his life with the proviso that Antara would continue to look after the boy even after his death and was willing to pay for it, it built an apartment for him.

A new building has come up where others like the doting father can look forward to spending the rest of their lives in Antaragram. There are two-room and single-room apartments for such people. But certain things have not changed in Antaragram. One is the emphasis on cleanliness. Walk around the place and the visitor will never feel he is in a hospital, let alone one for mental patients.

Antaragram is like a commune. Everybody who stays on the campus -- doctor or administrator or nurse -- eats the same food given to the patients. In fact, when the food is cooked, first it is taken to the patients. Thereafter, all the others eat in the common mess. In other words, discrimination is out of question.

Patients are given a small cash payment in lieu of whatever work they are able to do, half of which is deposited in their account and the rest is given to them so that they can buy toiletries and snacks in a restaurant run by a former patient. Saturdays are special days for some of the patients with an aptitude for singing and dancing. That is the day when Mrs Mandar Mukherjee, an accomplished dance teacher, and Mr Anirudha Singha, a noted singer, visit Antaragram.

As luck would have it, the duo turned up on Sunday this time. I could, therefore, see how the newly-set up aesthetic therapy unit worked. Within a few minutes of Mrs Mukherjee's arrival, some women patients began to dance to the rhythmic tunes set by Mr Singha. Connoisseurs of dance would not find their steps scintillating but for these dancers, it was a life-time opportunity to bring out their latent talents. Incidentally, the beautiful paintings in the children's ward were done by a patient and not a professional painter.

There is a separate section for alcoholics and other drug addicts. "They are the rowdiest of the lot". Treatment and cure take, in some cases, years but they are never left to fend for themselves. It was visiting time for parents and other relatives. My eyes moistened when I saw a mother taking out from her sari a packet of Frooti she had brought for her daughter, a mentally and physically challenged inmate. She was persuading her to drink when she saw me with a camera. She had a startled look on her face. I just moved out of the place to leave the mother to her daughter's company.

Antara depends on well-wishers and corporate bodies for its functioning. The able-bodied among the patients take part in activities like rearing chicks, growing plants and fish that bring some money too. Vegetables and banana are grown in plenty and they are sold to generate income. "Nobody can take out anything without making a payment", said John.

It was time for us to leave. Suddenly a group of brothers from the Missionaries of Charity arrived for a fortnight-long stay at Antara. Mr John warmly received them in his office. Pointing to Blessed Teresa's portrait, he told the brothers that Antara's success was all on account of the Mother's blessings and prayers.

Antara has come a long way but Mr P.M. John is not ready to rest on his laurels. He wants it to become a centre of excellence in not just West Bengal but the whole of India. If the first time his motive in taking me to Antara was, perhaps, to get a write-up published in The Searchlight I worked for those days, this time, as he confessed, he wanted me to bring the need to take care of this unfortunate segment of the population in the consciousness of people like Prof Amartya Sen, he knew, that I worked for. "If Prof Sen speaks for the mentally challenged, it means a lot for us at Antara". What a noble thought! (Courtesy: Indian Currents)
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The writer can be reached at ajp@heraldofindia.com
Photo: Mr P.M. John
 
  By  A.J. Philip  
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