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When A Loved One Has A Different Mind

Jugneeta Sudan
‘Life Flows On’, a film about dementia and elderly care, revolves around the lives of three patients. Much of the film is shot in Mussorie (Uttarakhand) and it stars Indian actors Tom Alter, Satyabrat Rout, Ganjendra Verma, British actor Allegra Dunn, Norwegian actor Astri Ghosh and French actor Michael Dieter. Directed by Vishaal Nityanand, the film had its world premiere at the Jagran Film Festival in Mumbai earlier this month.
Besides the delicate issue that the film highlights, it’s Astri Ghosh’s role in the film that caught my attention. Astri is a writer/translator based in Goa. Her Indo-Norwegian background makes her a versatile global citizen. She has translated/written over 15 books as an outcome of her extensive work at the Henrik Ibsen Study Centre at Oslo University, language-teaching assignments at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway and translations of eminent Urdu/Hindi/ Norwegian texts. She also curates the annual Jazz Festival in Delhi, led by Soli Sorabjee. Lately, she has turned to acting, and her repertoire has expanded to include meaningful cinema, the kind we are talking about here. The role in the film was both creative and emotionally painful for Astri whose mother was an Alzheimer’s patient. She says that most of the other actors also had personal stories linked to dementia.
The film evocatively portrays the psychological and emotional journey of Emma (Allegra Dunn) whose mother (Astri Ghosh) is progressively degenerating, with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, after the death of her husband (Tom Alter). The latter appears in a few initial scenes as an environmentalist working in Mussorie. It is after his passing away and the worsening condition of the mother that Emma tries to find a support system at the health services in her town. The complete absence of any facility compels her to head to Delhi, where the doctor offers counselling. There is nothing much he can do other than delineate coping mechanisms, progress of the disease and some prescriptions. In the background, a nameless, homeless lunatic (Ganjendra Verma) affected by dementia is shown walking the streets in front of Emma’s house. He is ridiculed and one day a lorry picks him up against all his struggles and stows him away to a distant landfill, so that nobody may feel bothered by his presence. Days later, he is found dead and frozen on a rubbish heap. Simultaneously, Emma’s multiple trips culminate in a no-show as the doctor who was treating her mother has become a dementia patient himself.
In his interviews, the film maker Vishal N said that his aim was to draw attention to the deplorable infrastructure and support system for the terminally-ill and elderly in India. If the well-to-do in India have no access to dignified medical structure, what of the man on the street? A comparison with the western world then surfaces in the thought process. There is no doubt that they have a better support system in place and the weak and differently-challenged people lead a more dignified life. Their emotional needs of companionship with others of their ilk, participation in weekly stimulating activities, and care facilities ensure that they lead more satisfactory lives. The question then arises – with philosophy of spirituality and dharma in India and other countries in the East, why do the old and disabled lead such miserable undignified lives?
After a long meditation, yours truly has arrived at a hypothesis. It’s the karma philosophy – the cause and effect principle – the bedrock of the collective Indian consciousness that makes people treat the widows, disabled and diseased, in the most abhorrent manner. The fact that these so-called unfortunate people have got what they deserved, a divine nemesis, makes others around them shameful and belittled to own them. “These people are cursed and suffering is their destiny” – is the most pernicious paradigm that people live with. Every deplorable condition and facility (or lack of it) then originates from this mentality. People shrug their shoulders and wash themselves of every guilt in the book of mankind with the quality of ‘PITY’.
On similar lines, a recently published book ‘The Book of Light’ edited by Jerry Pinto is a compilation of true stories of people who live with differently-challenged relatives. The narrative abounds with accounts of hard struggles with loved-ones. The book came about as a follow-up exercise from Jerry’s book ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ (a personal story about his mother who had bipolar disorder). Can we say that the plight of these numerous families would be a different story if the society as a whole thought differently?
Michael Foucault’s thesis which resulted in his book ‘Madness and Civilization – History of insanity in the age of reason’ highlights the control of power structures in societies. Religion, the state and societal control make living a jail, where people are constantly monitored based on beliefs and constructs. Madness therefore, has been viewed through various societal belief–systems in different periods of history.
The book outlines that madness was a part of neighbourhoods in the medieval age. Lunatics roamed the streets and people enjoyed light empathetic moments with them and also vested them with some divine epiphanies. At the turn of the 17th century, tales of darkness, evil, witches, visitations by demons drove fear into the minds of the able people and they drove the mad off their streets. They confined them or put them into ships which endlessly sailed the waterways around lands, till the mad died locked in underwater cabins.
With the dawn of modernism was born an umbrella terminology ‘mental case’. The state put in place asylums, psychiatric wards, cabinets of medicines, team of doctors and research students to monitor the so-called ill. Foucault terms this arrangement as another form of imprisonment from the prison to a psychiatric ward. At the end, he brings in the idea of ‘art and madness.’ Van Gogh, Antonin Artaud, Gerard de Nerval are examples of mad artists who created praiseworthy artistic works. His central argument rests on the idea that modern medicine fails to listen to the voice of the unreason. Neither medicine nor psycho-analysis offers a chance of understanding unreason. To do this, we need to look to the work of ‘mad’ authors such as Nietzsche, Nerval and Artaud. Unreason exists below the surface of modern society, only occasionally breaking through in such works.
Ship of fools, confinement, pariah treatment, psychiatric wards, fear, neglect and shame are not the answer. These societal perceptions only worsen the situation. The story of madness exists, in some form, in every household. The solution, maybe, lies in answering the question – “How do you define normal?”A well-reasoned and holistic treatment of the subject will restore the dignity of the differently-abled people.

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