At the outpatient department of the Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation situated in a sprawling white bungalow in the Mumbai suburb of Borivali, many visitors have struck up conversations with Sudhir Phadke. Phadke is a 56-year-old man with a pleasant demeanor and an easy smile. He often handles out-patient procedures for Dr Bharat Vatwani, the psychiatrist who runs the foundation.
I first met Phadke last year at this clinic. He was kind, loquacious and was curious about my work. I learned later that he had battled schizophrenia for many years and was a long-term resident at Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation, which is NGO that works for mentally-ill homeless people in India founded in 1989. Bony and dusky with white hair, Phadke was discovered by the doctor in a local park in Borivali in a state of dishevelment and confusion in the late 1990s.
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder marked by a wide array of symptoms including, but not restricted to, hallucinations and delusions. Vatwani’s wife Dr Smitha, also a psychiatrist, said that patients are often caged in a world of their own, far away from reality of clinically normal people.
Schizophrenics are often haunted by persistent voices, some telling them to leave home. “It might be as simple as “come to so and so station”,” said Smitha. Many family members of schizophrenics find themselves at a loss to understand or deal will the sufferer.
Phadke is a civil engineering graduate from Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute, a premier engineering institute in Mumbai and had a comfortable job with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. He was married but the marriage had started to fail years before the onset of his illness. He said his wife had and suspected that she had schizophrenia. They separated.
He married again and had a a daughter but his this marriage didn't last either. Adding to his woes, he lost his parents in a short span of time. After his mother died painfully of cancer, he found himself alone in his Yogi Nagar apartment. Fights with his former wife over possession of this house left him more frustrated and depressed. His schizophrenia symptoms started to manifest and multiply. He described his situation to me, “every day, looking after myself was a very difficult matter.”
It is estimated that schizophrenia affects almost 1.1% of the global population aged 18 and above, which means that at any given time, approximately 51 million people in the world are fighting schizophrenia. Many famous people - Jack Kerouac, John Nash, Parveen Babi - have battled schizophrenia. Schizophrenia doesn’t discriminate. It affects the rich, the privileged as well the poor, age, social caste, class, hopes, wishes and dreams no bar.
Schizophrenia is considered to be one of the most devastating forms of mental illness because it tends to hack away at everything that a person recognized as a normal part of life. Interpersonal relationships, vocational activities, self-care, fundamental all collapse under the strain of this disease. Realities morph into alternate realities, leaving one vulnerable and afraid.
And then there's the unshakeable stigma. A person bleeding on the street may get help from am passer by but an unkempt, homeless person with scarce receive attention. A growing concern relates to the direct connection between mental disorders and homelessness. After venturing into the great unknown, many patients have trouble recollecting where they’re from and how to find their way back home to familiarity. According to the ministry of health and family welfare, around a quarter of our mentally-ill are on the streets, without food, comfort or shelter.
So was Phadke. Vatwani found him desperately in need of attention and medical care when a good samaritan alerted the Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation to about a homeless man at a Borivali park. The doctor said Phadke had looked haggard, disheveled and malnourished.
Phadke’s story is different from the lives of many of Vatwani's patients. “His is one of the rare cases where no relative has reached out,” said Vatwani. Phadke’s case was highly publicized in the 1990s, making it easy for a worried relative to find him but no one did.
Most patients at the home are fond of Phadke and he is often described as ‘a gem of a person.’ He tends to get restless at times and walks in the neighbourhood often. He is well known in the suburb.
Phadke will have to take medicines to manage his condition for the rest of his life but needs no other treatment. He is still prone to mild hallucinations. One day, he spotted a remote lying in a corner and went out armed with it. He made his way to shops and pointed the remote at them, convinced it would result in something. A concerned shopkeeper reported the incident to Vatwani. The shopkeeper said, despite these episodes, no one has ever had a problem with Phadke.
“We have a very good vibe,” he said, referring to Phadke’s equation with him. Phadke picks up the newspaper for the doctor every morning. The doctor will often make him a cup of tea.
Schizophrenics struggle to keep their places in society, to live lives of dignity and win back as much normalcy as possible. After Phadke's rehabilitation, it was time to start working again. The doctors at Shraddha managed get him his old job at the city corporation. However, Phadke neglected to take medicines later and there was confusion tracking his progress, which led to a relapse.
He was asked to resign but showed no sign of regret. He was convinced he wouldn’t enjoy a "9 to 5" job and felt that NGOs in the country need so much more help. He decided to work at Shraddha to help strangers, like him, who were mentally ill.
“The doctors made me aware of the plight of patients,” he said. It’s hard enough to get known people to help you in today’s times, he continued. But to get an unknown stranger to reach out and offer much-needed help and support? “Forget it,” he laughed.
Phadke occasionally goes to meet some relatives. He prefers to explore the city on his own. He loves cricket and joins the doctor’s son and other patients whenever they plan a friendly match. He loves writing and occasionally sits down to pen long articles in Marathi, allowing the doctor to take sneak peeks at his work. Nobody knows whether he’s been published but nobody thinks that is as important as his effort of writing.
Phadke has one vice that the doctors are trying to make him give up. He loves his beedi.
As I bade Phadke goodbye he told me to reach out to him if I needed anything and sauntered off with his black umbrella, seemingly unaffected by the rain and sludge outside.