Saturday, October 27, 2007

Eternal Sunshine of the Inscrutable Mind

This is the male ward of the occupational therapy and rehabilitation center that we are visiting for a psychology field trip, macabre as that sounds. Twenty-four students and one very attractive teacher – they are not used to so much female energy, one might say. We have been warned not to startle, provoke, or offend the “clients", as a result of which silence hangs heavy in the air along with much fidgeting and sideways-glances.

The inmates speak about their stay here, and I let my eyes travel. The one on the left is wearing bright blue slippers. He slides his feet out of them as he speaks, then slides them back in again, so that I can see a repetitive pattern of skin-blue-skin-blue-skin-blue. This is something that I would do at home, that anyone would do unconsciously, but here all actions are automatically accounted for as unnatural. A slight twitching of an eyebrow is a signal, the scratching of a wrist an omen. The one who is speaking has funny ears that stick out of his head. I smile silently at this curiously eager man who is telling us about his vocational training classes. And then I see him. He sits there, last in a row of five, surveying us visitors with a languorous elegance so unlike the others. I follow his gaze. While we have been studying the other clients, he has been surveying us. He sizes up every face, cool as steel, mentally passes a judgment, and moves on.

I do not like the way these men have been lined up against a wall like prisoners with us watching them, even if they are seated and fed. I look around the room – a television, a heavily scarred dartboard, chairs, drab walls. Heavy bars on windows. To all purposes it is a well-kept room, but the impersonal character of it appalls me. How terrible that one must live with white walls and bars on the windows: all of a sudden, the dartboard and the lone calendar seem so sorry, so wistful – vain attempts to bring about a sense of existence. Even if I were stark raving mad and far removed from this world, somewhere within me I would know that this is not how my room should look – no flowery curtains, no cheerful artifacts. The clients should not be disturbed, but would it not be a lot more disturbing to never catch a glimpse of a bright colour?

I catch his eye. He has been following my eyes around the room, and he knows what I am thinking. I come back to the conversation guiltily. It doesn’t mean much – the virtues of the institution are being extolled. The men speak fluently, logically, and intelligibly. If we did not know that they had a range of disorders ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to schizophrenia, we would be sitting easy, our legs more relaxed, our faces infinitely more open. And he knows this, this elegant man with the grey hair and the keen eyes and the long pianist-like fingers. I wonder what disorder he has. What could possibly be wrong with this scholarly man who is the only one out of the five who doesn’t slouch, or keep fiddling with the folds of his trousers? He has charm, this man. Someone must have loved him once – does he think of past memories through the days he spends here?

My romantic musings are brought to a halt. We leave the room, and are then given detailed case histories of the clients. Varied accounts of mental illness, each more startling than the earlier. I suddenly realise that these men are fairly stable - the Acute Ward is three floors above and access is denied. And yet, the man with the funny ears has a lethal combination of schizophrenic delusions and obsessive-compulsive disorder - not something I would call stable. The charming man I found so interesting has bipolar mood disorder. I try to imagine him vacillating between extreme depression and extreme mania, and fail. Switching from euphoria to devastation is not something that suits him. I snap back to reality. Not something that suits him, as if disorders were clothes.

As we leave, we pass the section of the ward where the more unstable clients are – one of them clutches the iron bars, and mumbles at us. His mouth droops, and he stares at us students vacantly. “Whatever you have learnt here, forget it!” he says. “Fuh-get it”. He rattles the bars and repeats the sentence again, and again, and again with a slurry Americanised accent. We are ushered out hurriedly. As I watch fascinated, the Charming Man, who has been let back into his ward, comes up and stands next to the mumbler and smiles, as if to say “You came to see lunatics: here they are.”

He knows we have not been disappointed. We have received our performance of something Not Normal. What a show we’ve put up for you, his smile says, The grand finale to a dull afternoon. Now go spread the message. He knows we will be telling this tale wide-eyed to other people, further enlarging the gap between his bare room and our comfortable cocoons. He knows that at the end of the day the only thing barring us from understanding him is our perception of him, which is why the human mind will probably never be deciphered. He knows.

12 kindred spirits have swallowed my rambling:

Safdar -- veil-unmasked. said...

you get to visit the most interesting places on earth. how?

but your observation powers are brilliant. shows in all your posts. im a fan! and you 'know' it.

new age scheherazade said...

Oh man. i got goosebumps at the end. WOW.
and i'm in love with him too by now.

Doubletake, Doublethink. said...

@ safdar: i think its how we look at places that makes them (un)interesting. there, psychobabble again. anyway, wow, thanks, and can i link your blog to mine?

@ newage: you see? you see? i'm not insane. he did have charm. and that is so lacking in most people nowadays.

heh? ok said...

oh this inversion was lovely. have you read that play called toba tek singh? about how in moments of great upheaval one realizes that the insane ones are the only people who're truly sane.

new age scheherazade said...

(i'm littering now priyanka), but i had to say , heh ok, you are so on spot.as always.
and manto reminds me of another incident in another fest, a play this time, when i was stampeded-upon by the other cast members when i fell down on stage.
fitting that the play was on riots.

Doubletake, Doublethink. said...

@ heh? ok: no, i haven't. but i'm already looking for it.

@ newage: hehe. how come these things happen only to you?

Fishy! said...

I understand completely.
I thought pretty much the same thing.
Kudos! Great post.

speedpost said...

Shud have been Spotless only. you realise how little their minds are tarnished in reality? They are free, uninhibited to do what they want to without the world judging them at all, because as far as the world is concerned they are already crazy.

Doubletake, Doublethink. said...

@ fishy: knew you would. glad you read it :)

@ speedpost: hmm. there is a lot of truth in that. "there's a pleasure sure, in being mad, that none but madmen know"

weevil girl said...

i dig thy blog.

Maximum Boy said...

err..
*just agrees with safdar.*

it's really vivid and you cant let it go without pondering over it for a bit. makes an impression.

Doubletake, Doublethink. said...

@weevil girl and maximum boy: thank you very much. i feel loved.