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Home Again at Kollappaly: Cooking, cleaning, gardening, taking care of mental illness

By Rosamma Thomas* 

Mareeshwari, Mariamma, Daisy, Jaya and Lilykutty are middle-aged women who share a home in Chaitanya Residency, Kottappaly, Kerala. Living with them is a much younger Shebil, who holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from a local institute. The women have all been former residents of Maria Sadanam in Pala, about 8 km from their current home.
Maria Sadanam, home to about 400 women and men, is a refuge for those suffering mental illness. Among the inmates are also elderly people who either have no children or children unwilling or unable to care for them. Founded in 1998, the home grew organically after its founder Santosh Joseph, who studied only up to Class 12, decided to take in a mentally unwell man called Thomas who was found roaming in the town of Pala. A few other homeless and sick people were also taken in, and initially lived in Santosh’s house, and later at a refurbished cowshed. 
Local people aided the work with donations, local builders chipped in with some free construction, and what stands today is an institution that people seek out even from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Over 2,700 people have so far been through Maria Sadanam, with many returning to their families after improving in health at the centre.
There are several residents of Maria Sadanam who are quite cured of mental illness and can take care of themselves; for such inmates, a constant search for houses where they could live with neighbours, and engage in regular home-like activities, is on. One Maria Sadanam staff member also lives in the four such homes currently operating in Kottayam district. Shebil, who serves that role in the Kollppaly house, says she has three colleagues and they work in shifts of about three months each, at the different homes.
Mareeshwari’s home is in Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar district. She lived at Maria Sadanam for 23 years, arriving with her mother who needed treatment and then staying on after her mother passed, having no home of her own to return to – her brothers are married and with families of their own, and Maria Sadanam had become Mareeshwari’s home. About a year ago, Maria Sadanam began, in collaboration with The Banyan, the Home Again project where recovered patients are encouraged to re-integrate into mainstream society.
Author (extreme right) at Maria Sadanam
At the Home Again house in Kollappally, Mariamma showed off the vegetable patch outside the house – bitter gourd and other gourds hung from the vines, and there were brinjals ripening. “We have quite a good harvest these days, enough to supply other homes under the Home Again project nearby. And also give some away to our neighbours here,” says Mariamma. “The neighbours too share with us some of the produce from their land.”
A pen is being readied to raise chickens, and a pond is planned for fish. The women all pitch in with what work needs to be done. Lilykutty and some of the women are still a little stiff, not quite relaxed in conversation, and one can sense that the mental anxiety has not lifted entirely. Yet, they are happy to welcome the occasional visitor, and speak with pride of the times when they have together cooked meals for their guests.
Many of them receive members of their own family as guests, and Jaya, for instance, speaks of her daughter, now 21 and living in the home of her husband. Mareeshwari returns occasionally to visit her brothers and their families, but she is happy in the home and does not seek to move anywhere else. The house itself is sparkling clean, the women clean it themselves – in fact, all the work in this house is done by the residents. They have no need to hire help in the kitchen or the garden.
Meanwhile, at Maria Sadanam, Santosh Joseph remains on the lookout for houses he could rent to house the healed members of his extended Maria Sadanam family. In Kerala, where the problem of ghost houses is rife, you might think that was easy. Quite the contrary – the richer folk do not like to let their houses out to the mentally ill or the homeless. They’d rather the houses stay empty.
---
*Freelance journalist

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