Chained to Asylums from the Raj

Remnants of the Raj

Chained to Asylums from the Raj

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

Iwas five when my mother was first branded “mad”, by my father, his family, and the world.

What I remember from those years is my mother receiving several shock treatments and also being chained, spreadeagled to the bars of a bare solitary confinement room. I remember how each time she received shock, she was held up by an unfeeling attendant; her eyes were dead, body limp, from the shock. These images are burned into my memory. For years, until I was about 30, I could not step into hospitals, of any kind, without fainting. The sight of the white walls, doctors, the crestfallen faces, would leave me prone on the floor.

My mother lost many years of her life at asylums, which were legally allowed to treat her as a persona non grata. The legal system that governs mental health is at the core of the devastation that patients undergo within institutions. And most of it has its origins in the British Raj.

The laws of mental health in India go way back to the 19th century, when the British first started constructing mental asylums in all their provinces. The Lunatic Asylums Act of 1858 and Lunacy Act of 1912 were the early laws that set the norms for post-Independence versions of legislating for mental asylums, viz. the Mental Health Act of 1987 and the proposed Mental Health Care Bill. In fact, several laws and sets of institutions were made at the same time, with the same custodial design, to manage, “idiots”, the “insane”, “infirm”, and the “legally incapable”.

The mentally-ill were not recognised as “persons before the law”. Even today, due to the exhaustive legal disqualifications, they are denied the most constitutionally given rights and freedoms, such as the right to full citizenship, right to property, contract, freedom to marry, have custody over children, vote, hold public office, register as professionals, stand for elections, etc. There are over 150 such provisions in the Indian law.


India’s post-colonial hangover in this area is shared among the Commonwealth nations in general, which are dotted with custodial asylums. Recently, when visiting Fiji, I saw a small mental asylum, with art on the walls, friendly, caring staff, in the beautiful environs of the Pacific. But after crossing the modern structures erected in front, you could smell the old, colonial structures lying just beneath the cute facade. They were there, in true blue colonial style, with triple custody. An outer tall wall with a bolted and locked iron gate; inside were circular buildings with tiny, bare rooms, without windows. And finally, the dark innards of the penal structure, with solitary confinement rooms, built like large iron cages.

That stripped-down room with nothing more than a table is still vivid in my memory. Those like me, who’ve spent a lot of time in mental asylums, will know that they have a distinct smell.

These institutional practices continue to defy “Evidence-based Medicine” (EBM) which is now at the core of modern medicine. For example, there is no EBM studying the impact of keeping someone in solitary confinement, or physical restraint. Yet, the practice has not been challenged by the professional community, and continues to be replicated in both public and private institutions despite being condemned as “inhuman, cruel, and degrading treatment” by the United Nations.

On the other hand, a host of countries in the developing world, which were not colonised by the British, do not have such cruel asylum or incapacity laws. Even in Nepal, the peculiarities of the mental health system found in India, do not exist. The few NGOs working on mental health, work in communities without making the assumption that mental illness is coupled with “dangerousness” and “violence”. The Spanish, Dutch, and others too colonised the Asian region, however, they did not leave behind the exhaustive legal system of incapacity found in the Commonwealth nations and the nexus of multiple institutions for incarcerating the vulnerable.

My mother was one such vulnerable.

That stripped-down room with nothing more than a table is still vivid in my memory. Those like me, who’ve spent a lot of time in mental asylums, will know that they have a distinct smell. It’s different from the smell that seeps into regular hospitals – that combination of disinfectant trying valiantly to cover the smell of sickness. Here old urine hits the nostrils first and then the sting of bleach. The olfactory memory heralds a rush of childhood moments spent wandering in the innards of the colonial mental asylum in Chennai – of seeing my mother chained to her bed, dragged from asylum to asylum by policemen, and treated like a rabid animal by the very institution that was supposed to cure her.

It is a smell that makes its way into my nightmares and makes me feel faint.

My mother finally escaped the asylum, one lucky day. She lived in a temple town in Kerala in a small room overlooking a shrine. She met people, she wrote poems, she was perhaps at peace. What ailed her? I don’t know. Did she need a psychiatric diagnosis? Was she a bhakt seeking solace in her chosen God space? We didn’t have the capacity to diagnose it. It could be schizophrenia, or psychosis, or simply an imaginative, spiritual spirit.

Either way it doesn’t matter. She paid the price for it.