The first time I sensed something seriously wrong with Sheela, the third of my four sisters, was at the wedding of the eldest girl, Bhanu. While the betrothed couple performed traditional rituals before a sacred fire in the main hall, Sheela ran off to a room at the far end and started to scream and weep. Mother rushed to me and pleaded. “Take her home. People are asking whether the girl is mad.”
I bundled the twenty-two year old girl into a taxi and headed to my parent’s home. Midway the girl collapsed into my arms and started sobbing afresh. I asked her what was wrong. She just shook her head and continued weeping. I was married and living in Bombay at that time and had come down to Bangalore for the wedding. So I didn’t know what had happened in my absence. A day later, Mother reluctantly told me the story.
Looking back now, I can see how a lot of things contributed to Sheela’s descent into a world of other voices and unreal perspectives, a world of uncontrollable behavior and mysterious frustrations. I can also see where we went wrong in coping with her condition. But let me start from the beginning.
Sheela was a topper in school and nurtured ambitions of becoming a teacher of mathematics as that was her favorite subject. Then the unimaginable happened. She failed the final year pre university examinations and that too in mathematics. She was as stunned as we were but somehow recovered and started preparing for the re-examination. She eventually passed, got into college but two years later, failed again. Then unknown to us all, she appeared for a test and interview with the Food Corporation of India and landed a job there as a clerk. She bid goodbye to studies forever.
My parents took it in their stride. Sheela had always enjoyed a lot of independence because she was the most beautiful of the girls. Her slim build, fair complexion, long black hair, and almond shaped eyes, all combined to exude a charm that few, including my parents, could resist. She was the first to be given coffee in the mornings, the first to be asked her choice of new clothes on festival days, the first to be doled out her share of fruits or confectioneries that Dad brought home in the evenings, and so many other things.
The other girls didn’t mind, but I thought otherwise. As the eldest of the children and the only male, I felt I deserved more attention. Our society was incorrigibly male dominated in those days. It still is in much of India. I seized every opportunity to make fun of Sheela. By imitating the way she glugged her coffee, the way she walked with an exaggerated sway of her hips, or stood before the mirror and combed her hair and applied all kinds of skin lotions. All these evoked great peals of laughter from my other sisters and Sheela would complain to my parents. I was put in my place, sometimes painfully, by Dad.
Dad worked in Deccan Herald, Bangalore’s premier newspaper in those days. Strangely, despite being a journalist, he didn’t favor my sisters studying beyond school or getting a job. He feared losing control over the girls once they were employed. Worse, he felt that they might get conned by undesirable males.
Mother held the exact opposite view. She wanted every one of us to at least have a graduate degree as that would get us a good job. She wanted us to be self reliant, not dependent on even Dad. Even to this day, at 78, she occasionally regrets she couldn’t go to college and take up a job, although in the same breath she dismisses it by saying it was her fate. She believes god wrote unalterable scripts for everyone.
Much before Sheela’s started behaving oddly, Dad resigned prematurely from his newspaper job because of office politics. He was a hot tempered man who was at loggerheads with much of the outside world. (Only years later did I understand that was his way of protecting his wife and four daughters.) Fortunately by that time, I secured a job. It entailed a lot of traveling and meeting people. That exposure helped me get rid of some of my chauvinistic attitudes; I saw my sisters in a new light and tried to be more helpful to them. But that was only when I was at home, which was rare. I was in the dark about much of what was happening, especially about Sheela.
A day after the screaming incident, Mother told me that Sheela was utterly depressed because of a failed affair. She’d fallen in love with a boy and he rejected her proposal of marriage. The boy belonged to the Sindhi community and owned a readymade clothing shop in the neighborhood. (Sindhis are from northern India, mostly refugees from Pakistan during the partition era when India gained independence from British rule.)
“I told her to stop seeing him because he is a non-Brahmin but she didn’t listen,” said Mother. “I don’t know what exactly happened. Whether he took advantage of her love.”
Taking advantage of a girl’s love meant only one thing in our orthodox Brahmin community--sex. And for a girl to engage in premarital sex and then, for whatever reason, unable to marry the boy, spelt doom with no hopes of getting married to another boy.
Sheela refused to talk about what really happened. When my parents persisted in asking her, she resorted to screaming, pulling her hair, throwing things or banging her head against the wall. Dad became furious with Sheela and threatened to drag the Sindhi boy to the police station.
“You will do no such thing!” Sheela screamed and added some colorful expletives.
Dad slapped her hard. Sheela turned on her heels and rushed down the stairs. Before anyone could react, she went to the well in the courtyard, climbed the low wall and jumped. None in the family knew swimming but fortunately in the family downstairs, a middle-aged man did. He jumped into the well. My parents hurried down. There they were, the two of them in the black waters deep below, Sheela thrashing wildly and the man trying to hold her head above water. Someone threw a rope, the man caught it and all of us pulled. Sheela came up, still thrashing and screaming. My parents believed the girl had indeed gone mad.
But in the following days, instead of taking her to a doctor, my parents became complacent because she seemed to have recovered. Except that she turned a little withdrawn; she didn’t talk much, ate by herself, and slept in one corner of the house. My parents viewed them as minor deviations from her normal behavior. “We should have immediately taken her for medical treatment,” Mother said to me when I set about writing this article. “But what could I do? I didn’t know anything about mental disorders. Your father was busy with his own problems at his newspaper office.”
Life plodded on. I went back to Bombay to my wife and son. Sheela remained in my mind but in a hazy way. Yet, it was she of all my sisters who wrote me letters every week. She talked about the temples she was visiting, the holy books she was reading, or the religious discourses she attended with a group of elderly ladies. She seemed to have gone off on a spiritual direction. The letters stopped all of a sudden. When I asked Mother about it on the phone, she let out certain shocking details.
“Sheela sleeps all the time. I am fed up of her. If I ask her about it she picks up a fight.”
“She hasn’t come home for a week now. She has been doing this of late, disappearing for days on end.”
“She does not do any household work. Just keeps writing the names of gods on the walls.”
And then a phone call that made me want to rush back to Bangalore. Mother said that Sheela threw a paperweight at her office manager, a lady. The lady let her off with a warning. Some days later, she threw some files out of a window, and when the lady gave her a dressing down Sheela clawed the lady’s face. The lady sent a peon to fetch my parents. Father refused to go, saying he wasn’t bothered because none of us heeded his advice. So, Mother went. The lady advised Mother to take Sheela to the National Institute of Mental Health & Neurological Sciences.
Mother did that but Sheela refused the medication and posted her resignation letter to FCI. Mother visited the FCI office and beseeched them to ignore the letter. The manager said she was willing to take Sheela back but only if she promised to behave. Sheela wasn’t interested. Mother said on the phone, “I don’t know what to do, Ramesh. I begged her to start working. I told her she cannot depend on anyone to look after her, but she won’t listen. Please write to her and make her understand.”
I wrote a long letter in the sweetest language I could, advising Sheela to resume working. Back came a terse reply. “Don’t ever write to me again, you selfish man. You are not my brother anymore.”
It took me some days to recover from that. Perhaps, I thought, Sheela was right. At least I, as the eldest sibling, ought to have given her the love and care she so desperately needed. I wanted to make amends.
I made a short trip to Bangalore. It was then that I got to know something else that Mother had hidden from me. About an elderly priest who lived in the suburb of Kondandarampuram. It was to his home that Sheela went.
“The priest’s wife likes Sheela very much,” Mother said. “That’s why she goes there.” Yet I suspected there was something more to it.
Kodandarampuram was about five kilometers from my parents’ house and looked like a hamlet--small houses, muddy streets, and retired men smoking cigarettes or sharing newspapers at dingy tea-shops. I searched for the priest’s house. It was at the end of a narrow lane, a dilapidated structure whose main door was shut. Somehow I felt that instead of confronting him there I should first have a good look at him. So, I went to the temple where he officiated. There he was, performing prayer rituals before the idol of Lord Rama with about a dozen devotees looking on. The man was tall, dark, with stooped shoulders and graying hair. He was, to my astonishment, about Dad’s age. For a brief moment his eyes met mine when he offered a spoon of flaming camphor for obeisance, but I saw nothing there to justify the suspicion in my heart. I came away.
Back in my parents’ home, I got to see how bad Sheela had become. The once pretty girl who was the first to take her bath would remain for days without one. She paced about restlessly, muttering under her breath and then quite suddenly stop at a window and smile at no one in particular. When the phone rang, she rushed to it and disconnected the call. If relatives or neighbors visited, she walked out of the house in a huff. She always walked barefoot. Mother said that Sheela had donated her footwear and jewelry to beggars who lined up outside temples. Sheela’s logic was they also liked to have some footwear, some jewelry, what was wrong in that? Once when Mother sent the girl to fetch milk from the dairy, I saw her tipping the vessel to pour a thin trail on the ground. I asked Mother about it. “To feed the insects, the ants, I suppose. I really don’t know why she does it,” Mother said with a tired laugh. When I asked Sheela about this recently, she said, “When you feed Mother Earth, she rewards us with riches. All of us should take care of Mother Earth.” Truly, from an ecological point of view, she made a lot of sense but Mother, as she admitted to me in those days, was tired of making sense of the girl.
She had taken Sheela to NIMHANS on two more occasions but the doctors expressed their inability to keep her. “We only keep people who pose extreme danger to society,” they said. “We don’t have the facilities to keep everyone.” Indeed it was only recently that I learnt that India has, at a conservative estimate, twenty million people suffering from various mental disorders.
The doctors advise Mother to give Sheela an injection once every fifteen days. “Either bring her here or call a doctor or a nurse home to administer to administer the injection,” they said. But it was a Herculean struggle for Mother to do that each time. There was no one to help her. The remaining two girls who were not yet married, Radha and Geetha, were too scared. On the rare occasion that Dad offered to assist, Sheela only became more violent. Mother had to seek the help of strangers passing by on the road or reluctant neighbors.
Mother even tried to dissolve sedatives like Restyl (Alprazolam) in milk or coffee but Sheela was smart. She detected the change in taste and refused to touch the beverage. Worse, she refused food for several days thinking Mother was trying to poison her. The result was that the girl suffered periodic bouts of malnutrition and dehydration.
I went back to Bombay, dejected; I’d accomplished nothing. In the ensuing years, the two remaining girls got married and went away to live separately. Sheela was left alone with my parents. And then a kind of good news started to reach me: Mother said that Sheela seemed to be improving. She was less violent and restless. She helped in the household chores too, whenever she was in the ‘mood’. She would also take the sedatives or the injections, though not on a regular basis. But yes, she continued with the other things: talking to herself, disconnecting the phone, writing the names of gods over and over in several notebooks, visiting temples, and even bringing home some elderly ladies she befriended there. And there were some new habits that had developed—like cooking enormous quantities of food (which irked Mother no end because she couldn’t tolerate waste), playing with children of the neighbors (Mother said that Sheela was happy when people listened to all that she said, so, naturally, who would listen to her except children?), switching off the TV if Mother watched any program that didn’t have a religious slant (Mother loved to watch Tamil soaps where characters kept squabbling and scheming endlessly), and buying cheap trinkets from petty shops in the neighborhood (Mother said that Sheela loved to dress up, as if she were harboring hopes of getting married).
What about the priest? I asked.
“She goes there as usual, whenever she gets upset with us,” Mother said and changed the subject.
Years passed. I resigned from my Bombay job and came back to Bangalore for good. And that was when I learnt the most shocking truth that everyone had kept hidden from me. Sheela was in a relationship with the Kodandarampuram priest. Apparently the relationship began around the time when Sheela suffered the rejection from the Sindhi boy. The girl had run away from home after a bad fight with Dad. She sought refuge in the temple where the priest officiated. Sometime in the middle of the night, the man of god yielded to his darkest side.
Sheela, who is now 47, talks of him rather fondly. “He is more than 85 years old now but still very active. He performs prayer rituals at the temple and also the traditional rituals for weddings, housewarmings, birthdays, and sacred thread ceremonies. At times he is obstinate. He won’t listen to my views. But he is a good man. He wasn’t in his senses when I went to him that night. I’ve forgiven him.”
I find it extremely moving that she will not tolerate any of us talking ill of him. She goes to him once a month or so these days, to see how he is faring, whether he needs medicines or food. His wife passed away some years ago and his children, all sons, don’t care for him. In the years since I came back to Bangalore, I met the man a couple of times. There was a haggard look about him, as if he were carrying an invisible and unbearable burden on his back. I am reminded of the man who killed the albatross in Coleridge’s famous poem.
As for Sheela herself, she lives in a small room adjacent to my sister’s house where my mother also lives (Father passed away six years ago). For three days in a week, Sheela goes to five houses in the neighborhood to teach sacred Sanskrit verses. “One of my students is in college,” she said proudly. “She is brilliant. She has already learnt ten verses by heart.” Sheela herself knows about fifty verses. They are very important for everyone, she maintains. “If you recite them every day, you will get whatever you desire.”
She occasionally screams or bangs doors and vessels like old times. When I asked her about it, she said that it was not her but some other being, a spirit that takes hold of her and makes her do such things. “I can’t control it,” she said with a small laugh as if she already knew that it was beyond my understanding.
Her small room is adorned with pictures of gods and goddesses. She still continues to write the names of gods over and over again in notebooks. In some pages, she draws with inks various things like cars and fruits, houses and mountains. “When I draw something, it can come alive,” she told me. I asked her how that was possible. She explained patiently, as if I were a child, “Suppose I draw an apple, it will come alive but in paper form.” Paper? I repeated. She nodded, “But since you cannot eat paper, I don’t like to draw the apple. Same thing with the car. I can draw one for you but you cannot use the paper car, can you?”
I asked her if she remembered our childhood when I teased her so much and made her cry. “But you were only playful,” she said with a kindly look in her eyes. “I had nothing against you. In fact I liked you the best.”
I couldn’t ask any more questions.
She continues to go barefoot on a long walk, touring the temples in the neighborhood or even beyond, only these days, she carries along an umbrella if the weather is hot or overcast. It’s as if she’s in search for something that she knows is difficult to obtain but nevertheless worth trying for ceaselessly. On our part, we have learnt to keep our mouths shut, to not harass her with questions or accusations. We have also arranged for a doctor in the neighborhood to come once every fortnight to inject her with medicine. And so, life goes on, although Mother at times asks me worriedly, “Who will look after her when I am gone?”