They were strangers when they got admitted at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) about two years ago. But, over the months, they formed a bond and shared a dream of building a new life together. On Friday, P Mahendran (42) will marry Deepa (36) at the local temple — marking the first wedding of inmates in the 228-year-old history of IMH.
Mahendran’s life had come to a halt because of his worries and fears regarding his family’s properties in the midst of a bitter fight between relatives. Deepa’s was likely a prolonged grief over the death of her father in 2016, and the anonymity she endured at her own home, despite the presence of her mother and younger sister.
Both don’t remember their arrival at the IMH campus. They are among the many at IMH who have nowhere to go, nobody who can help them get back to a normal life, even after their treatment is over.
A few months ago, as their confused minds found a normalcy, they were transferred to the “Half Way Home”, a campus building for those who are on “halfway back home” after treatment, a facility for those who face stigma at home.
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Mahendran, who was raised by his elder sister in his early years in Chennai city, is currently working with a daycare centre at the campus, a place for people who require help to spend their daytime alone. Deepa works at Cafe R’vive, a community cafe launched by IMH along with restaurateur M Mahadevan’s Chennai Mission to employ people with mental illness and other weaker sections.
Mahendran admits that confessing his feelings to Deepa was an impulsive move, but the decision had taken shape over the course of several months. For Deepa, moving out of Ward No. 20, the female ward, to the “Half Way Home”, was not only about being freed from a confused sense of time but also about finding a new meaning.
Speaking to The Indian Express at the IMH campus, Deepa says she wasn’t thinking of marriage at all after her father’s death. “If you are in the ward, there are patients who have no clue about themselves, some are violent, some are undergoing grief and depression. I was not sure when he first told me about his wish to marry me. Later, I went back home, and had to return again, when I realised that he may be that person who can make things a little more meaningful,” she says, as Mahendran sings a popular film song, “Kalyaana Maalai”, originally sung by S P Balasubrahmanyam, portraying the multitude of layers in a married life.
“We are building a new life. Even if I get angry or scold you for not eating properly, don’t mistake me, that is for your health,” he tells her soon after the singing ends. “Meeting and getting to know her was like reviving many things for me… She is like my mother, my aunt, my sister, my best friend, everything now…” he adds.
Asked why there has been no inmate wedding in 228 years, IMH director Dr Poorna Chandrika laughs. “Look, it is like a small village or township within the city, and it is no different from the world outside,” she says. “There were ‘post-graduate student’ weddings, but inmates rarely interacted here. Their (Mahendran and Deepa) relationship first came to me as a complaint — that they always hang out and go out. I imposed some restrictions. But I realised that it was irresistible for them. I wondered how it was even possible here… But finally when I made her sit and talk, she told me why she should marry him, how it would help her thrive, how she had thought about it many times,” she says.
“Unlike others in confined wards, inmates at the ‘Half Way Home’ can have their own phones, bank accounts, or a life… they can go to work outside or watch a movie,” says Dr Chandrika. The Disability Rights Alliance helps them save their earnings and manage bank accounts. “Sometimes, we also help them to stop overspending,” she says.
“Despite the restrictions and curfew I imposed initially, love has won now. After marriage, they cannot live on campus. I was a little worried about how to tell them that… but Deepa told me they are already looking for a house near the campus, so we can all be together. Mahendran is already working at our daycare centre, and he is also doing a small part-time job outside,” she says.
“Mental illness is like diabetes – you need to manage it, maintain a lifestyle, and maybe take medicines for a while. But above all, it is also about an environment where they can think of love and life beyond medications. Everyone in IMH is happy that Mahendran and Deepa made it possible here,” she says.
IMH, the second largest mental hospital in India, was founded by the East India Company in 1794 as an asylum to treat 20 Europeans with mental illnesses. Currently, it has 723 inmates, including 246 women. It also has a facility guarded by armed personnel, in which 23 men and two women with criminal backgrounds are lodged. On an average day, IMH gets about 20 patients – most of them brought by family, and at least four-five brought by Railways or state police.
When worldly reasons, often surrounding families, are why most of them end up at IMH, why would Mahendran and Deepa get married? Why not live together? Dr Chandrika laughs again. “I had similar thoughts, but our society hasn’t yet evolved to embrace such ideas. They are ordinary people, who want a normal life,” she says.