Summer Internship with The Banyan – Sonal Jain from SIMC

Name of the intern: –  Sonal Jain

Institute: –  Symbiosis Institute of Media & Communication

Organization interned with: –  The Banyan, Chennai

Women our mom’s age who believe they are held hostage by spirits for over 16 years. Women our age, who have been raped thrice before they attained puberty. Women who have been assaulted and harassed for the first 40 years of their life. Earlier, by uncaring fathers and later by brutal husbands. Women our grandmother’s age with brain capacities and understanding similar to that of six year old kids. Women, who forget often. Women, who behave strange in a lot of occasions. Children who lost their senses and balance in an accident which consumed their parents have grown into women now. These are women who merely exist today. They used to live once.

Mental illness, a bullet which these women and many more of their kind are a victim of is a disguised social evil. Not only do people deny that metal illness is curable, they blame it on the nature’s forces, call it possession, term the person mad, isolate them and let them rot till they perish. Yes, that’s the ground reality in our country. Especially if one is from lower socio-economic class, mental illness is synonymous to death to them.

I chose to work for The Banyan, a non-profit organization in the Chennai metropolis which rescues such ill-treated, termed ill-fated and mad women from streets of the city, offers a therapy and tries to unite them with their family. This apart, Banyan also teaches them basic skills to earn a survival and learn to live. They are taught to eat, dress, clean, work; manage expenses etc under a secured atmosphere. Patients, with love are called ‘residents’ here. Nowhere is there a chance given for them to realize that they are ‘ill.’

I’d divided the six weeks of my internship into two exact halves. First half where I devoted time in working for these women first hand and the later half, I made a documentary for spreading awareness on mental illness in panchayats of nearby villages in their local language Tamil.

The first two weeks were spent in understanding the various projects of Banyan and their functioning.

Adaikalam – Transit-care centre for women rescued from the streets

Community Mental Health Project – Urban and rural mental health services

Community Living Project – A solution for patients requiring long term care

The Banyan Enterprise – Run by patients, these are businesses that provide employment and income with the understanding of basic management of one’s own life

The Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health(BALM) – Networking and increasing stakeholders in the sector through education and training.

At Adiakalam, I was given the task of interpreting what the payeints said. It’d mostly be random words or discontinued speech. Most of them refused to talk.  It takes a lot of patience and determination to interact to them. One has to use the interacted with the resident patients and helped with interpretation of their basic level of communication and sign language to converse. One’s level of persuasion is put to test as the patient is reluctant to talk and is highly aggressive or inactive. These skills are acquired with time & practice. The resident psychologists help the volunteers in understanding its difficulty and overcoming it. It helps the NGO in trying to guess/locate the family of the patient and send them to the safety of their homes once they’re cured. It is coupled with counseling therapy which plays an important part is patient’s recovery.

At the Banyan Enterprise, I helped with vocational training such as making candle, bags and other products of jute, weaving baskets, stitching clothes for children, embroidery, lantern, wall hangings etc. It was a totally different experience when I taught a woman four times my ages how to hold a needle. It required immense patience and the determination to serve. Soon before you realize, you’d have yelled at one of them and they’d have retorted to similar memories in past and stop interacting with anybody in the vicinity. There’d be a certain Chellama, aged 60 who does beautiful embroidery talking to her ghost friend ‘Radha.’ There’d be 68 year Ms.Sylvia complaining about other people not knowing English and would tell you about her early life in Australia.

My third week at The Banyan was dedicated to research and study. I’d enter the information gathered from interpretation and analyze it for future use as instructed by my immediate boss, Ms.Chiai. She’s a Japanese woman who has been in India for a little over a year now and is more comfortable in the country than most Indians. Another inspiration. She made me read a 180 page manual to understand the variety in mental illness.  She taught me how important it was to meet deadlines at workplace. She beamed the ‘nothing beats sincerity’ rays!

In between all of this serious work, I also had an affair – photography. I clicked hundreds of pictures with different compositions. Some of which I know I’ll cherish forever.

The later half of my internship was with Banyan’s sister institute BALM  where I made a documentary in Tamil which would be used during orientation to Panchayats in different villages explaining that mental illness is curable and shouldn’t be made a stigma. Here again, I learnt how basics have to be kept in mind. Simplicity rules. I acknowledged the fact that till the purpose is served, any means is okay. Nothing is ever big or small. I learnt different software and created an audio visual component with my team which consisted of an intern from London and Korea each. We overcame cultural barriers easily. This taught me what ‘real’ communication was all about.

I also helped in research of chemical composition of certain drugs and their availability in markets, their sales and usage among common people. This made me realize that no fool could make this big a thing work out of fluke. It required a genius. A dedicated one.

My mentor at the Banyan centre, Ms.Sarmishta Ashok would often quote “realizing that you want something, the will to work for it and sincere dedication assures victory in the beginning of the task itself.” It is working with such people that I learnt leadership is not a trait. It is a way of life.

This internship changed my perspectives about life, in totality.  Every little activity imparted a lesson. Try teaching a 45 year old how to hold a pair of scissors or hugging a fifty year old woman when she’s hitting her head against the wall constantly.

It’s a satisfaction that matches when you feed a hungry person, when you pat your dog after years. It’s beyond what materialistic pleasures can ever offer. The satisfaction of working for a cause. The satisfaction of having contributed. The satisfaction of a duty well performed. The satisfaction of the responsibility bravely shouldered.

Above all that which inspired me is living with the residents at Adaikalam. It leaves one marveling how someone can look forward to living with a single leg, single hand and a single kidney and dream about a  happy, satisfying future when we crib about  aching parts most times. When I was little, I’d heard that if Almighty takes away a particular sense/body part from someone, he blesses them with another. I wonder if it’s the same with phases of life.

Sometimes, we just exist like suspension in mid air. How would it be if those ‘sometimes’ became our entire life?

Give it a thought.

Mental illness is curable. Face it.

FYI! You can view the latest Internships in Chennai here.


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