Started as a home for destitute women (Athani) and a day-care centre for the mentally ill, Abhaya has expanded to care for drug addicts at ‘Bodhi’, house discarded children of socially rejected women at ‘Abhaya Bala’, and provide free accommodation at ‘Mitra’, where women who have once again found their feet live, paying just expenses. It’s become a commune that encloses the complexities and accommodates the ugly dregs of society—an attempt to replace the ugliness with compassion and hope.
"It’s the mentally ill men and women, especially the ‘twice-cursed’ women, that goaded me to start Abhaya. It spawned out of Abhaya’s attempt to improve the tortured context of the mentally ill, confined to cells, chained, naked, starving, with no relatives or authority bothering about them. We approached the courts to improve the conditions in the three mental hospitals in Kerala. It resulted in the appointment of the Justice Narendran Commission, to effect reforms in mental health care. Today, the hospitals are open and breathing," Sugatha recalls. Originally conceived as a day-care centre to rehabilitate cured patients—seldom welcome back at home—Abhaya’s attempts have been to bring them back into the mainstream. Now there are at least 50 patients in the pakal veedu (day home) at any given time. "We want to remove the blemish of insanity from their psyche," the poet says, adding "this is the first community-based rehabilitation centre for mental patients in the country".
Helping them in their quest are psychiatrists, social workers and trained nurses. Inmates also get vocational therapy like training in handicrafts, stitching, typing, candle-making etc. It does get results, as in the case of Raju (not his real name), an M. Tech graduate who has now recovered enough to take computer classes.
The child development unit was started in 1997 for girl children coming from difficult backgrounds. There are 30 girls now at ‘Kochathani’, entrusted to the poet by their own mothers "so that they do not grow up like us". They study, are trained in some skill and even get lessons in self-defence, a must in Kerala’s morally-warped society.
Drug addicts and alcoholics are treated at the de-addiction centre Bodhi. But what inspires the women of Kerala to call Sugathakumari the "mother of Malayalees" is Athani, where more than 40 poor, battered women reside. They are the victims of domestic violence, the abandoned, the destitute. Athani acts not only as a short-stay home but also as a rehabilitation centre where they not only get psychological help but also sympathy and acceptance. "So far, we have rehabilitated 430 women," says Sugatha. Quite a few of them have secured jobs and are housed now in ‘Koottathani’, where they share boarding. There’s also the Abhaya Mangalya where girls are married off with the help of social contributions, a boon in dowry-menaced Kerala. "We have married off 30 girls so far. Abhaya is like a home for them. They can always come back here for their delivery or for other medical care," she says. And they do.
Abhaya has touched a chord in Kerala’s psyche especially among the women, what with someone in Alapuzha contributing Re 1 a day and another regularly sending Rs 100 a month. But running Abhaya costs a lot more, for the treatment, medicine, clothing, rehabilitation, vocation training and salaries of the staff. The public does help out with medicines for a mental patient or sponsoring the marriage of a girl. "We welcome everything, from food to talent," says Sugatha.
Abhaya also sponsors poor students and there are now doctors, engineers and nurses who have gone through the home. "Gopi was from the juvenile home. We educated him and today after finishing BSc Nursing he’s in the Gulf." All of which requires money. The nri Malayalees have been generous but the seekers are on the increase as also the needs. For more information, contact: Abhaya Resource Mobilisation Unit, Varada, Nandavanam, Thiruvananthapuram 695035 or log on to www.abhaya.org