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A medical college attendant helps lunatics regain control of their minds

Thomas, 66, has worked wonders on scores of lunatics, many of them women, picked up from the streets and brought to Navajeevan, his noble rehabilitation centre.

A shrink would not have had the time or patience to calm down ‘Reverse’ Abu and Shivaji. He would, perhaps, have prescribed the strait-jackets or the shock therapy for the two violently insane men who roamed through the streets of Kottayam in Kerala. But a lowly attendant at the Kottayam Medical College tried a rather unusual method, not found in the psychology textbooks, to treat them.

For two years, P.U. Thomas looked after them in a building he had rented for sheltering lunatics wandering in the streets. He minis­tered to their every need, prayed for them and slowly led them to the magic world of meditation. Abu and Shivaji left the warm and friendly place in full control of their minds. Both still keep in touch with their slightly-built saviour.

That was his first attempt at rehabilitating insane people reduced to beggary. Since then, Thomas, 66, has worked wonders on scores of lunatics, many of them women, picked up from the streets and brought to Navajeevan, his tiny rehabilitation centre.

Navajeevan and the brain behind it never cease to amaze the psychiatry department of the Kottayam medical College. But Thomas, 66, attributes his success with mental patients to his language of love. Not surprisingly, he has little difficulty interacting with inmates from outside Kerala thoughhe knows only Malayalam. I don’t know any other lan­guage. But the language of love binds us all,” says the healer. “Just love them and pray to God,” he says with a disarming smile.

About 3500 of his patients have returned to their families after regaining their mental balance; the others are on their way to recov­ery. Many like the fully cured, Kumari, Sarsamma and Sulu have turned volunteers and chosen Navajeevan as their adopted home.

It is still a mystery how Manubhai, a Rajasthani, reached Kottayam. Many anti­social elements had taken advantage of her madness while she wandered around. Thomas found her on the streets, big with child. “There is no end to the harassment and torture these women are subjected to. Anti-social elements sexually exploit them and when they get pregnant, their fate is worse than that of street dogs. There is nobody to take care of them; their life is an endless nightmare,” says Thomas who regularly hits the road looking for Manubhais. He also scans the newspapers to find out about people in need of a loving place.

A calm atmosphere prevails inside.

Navajeevan, near the medical college campus. Howls and wild cries rarely puncture its serenity. Nor are there armed guards or cells, to restrain patients prone to violence. They sit around in groups and chat up student volun­teers from the nearby Assisi seminary. Most of them are waiting for their dear ones to come and take them home. “The joy of getting back a relative considered dead or lost, has to be seen to be believed,” says Thomas. Navajeevan spares no effort in locating the addresses and relatives of its patients.

It was a reunion scene that he had witnessed way back in 1982 at the mental ward of the medical college that prompted Thomas to dedicate his life to the cause of the mentally ill. The police had brought a deranged devotee of Ayappa to the mental ward. “It was clear that some sudden shock had upset his mental equilibrium and memory,” recalls Thomas. A few days later, his brother arrivedfrom Coimbatore after seeing his picture in a newspaper. “On getting a hug from his brother, the deranged regained his memory and got over his madness. They left the hospital elated. It was a touching moment. I thought of all those lunatics wandering in the streets without anyone to care for them and made up my mind to do something for them,”says he.

His work does not stop with caring for the mentally ill. When he is not at

Navajeevan, he can be found running around the medical college hospital distrib­uting free food, clothes and medicines and ensuring that no patient is left unattended in the wards.

“Where would people like us have been but for Thomas chettan(elder brother). We could never have dreamed of tasting a full meal complete with side dishes like the one he serves us with love. This is all beyond our wildest imagination,’ says Kunjannamma, whose brother is undergoing treatment at the orthopaedics ward. The doctors and patients alike agree that Thomas and his team of young volunteers have made the medical college a better place for thousands of poor people. Thomas knows from experience what it is to be a patient with an empty pocket in a general ward. About 30 years ago, he had spent 22 painful days in a dirty ward. To save on bus fare, the seriously-ill Thomas had walked all the way to the hospital from his home, several miles away.

His stay there opened his eyes to the plight of the poor in government-run hospi­tals. “No one seemed to care for the helpless patients groaning with pain. It really moved me and I resolved to do something for them once I was out of the hospital. How I wished for a job in the hospital.”

For the next few years he slogged as a book binder in a press. Yet he found time to visit the hospital daily to help and pray for the poor patients. He would dig into his own pocket to buy medicines for total strangers. In 1969, his dream came true and he landed a job in the medical college as a part-time attendant.

At long last, he was in familiar surroundings and rubbing shoulders with people he admired and respected. Like Dr Kalyani, who became his role model in social work. “She was a rare human being. She would invite vagabonds and street urchins to her home and feed them with love. She was like an angel for these people shunned by society. I was deter­mined to follow her example,” says Thomas.

In 1980, he got a juicy offer from a private company in Thiruvananthapuram

just when he was confirmed in service by the medical college. But no amount of money could turn him away from the path he had chosen to take. His social work had by then won him lots of friends and fans even among the doctors, nurses and medical students. They often joined him in distributing food and medicines.

What has become a highly organised free food distribution system started in a very humble way: Thomas would buy food from nearby hotels and take it to the wards all by himself. “I have never begged for money to carry out my work. Whenever the need arose, I would pray to God for help. Somehow, He made sure that money did not stand in the way. Total strangers would come to me and hand over cash.” And some shopkeepers never asked him to pay up.

With increasing numbers turning to him for their lunch, Thomas started preparing food in the kitchen of a nearby house and took it to the hospital in an auto. Later he rented a building to serve as a kitchen.

The rich too have tasted his generosity. On bandh days, he extends his free-meal scheme to all the patients and their relatives: he had served a record 5,000 people on one bandh. “Thomas chettanhas made all that possible. We never thought we would be able to do that. We have learned that; prayers can work miracles. There is any number of volun­teers ready to bear the cost of food for a day,” says Aneeb Panjikaran, an associate of Thomas.

Thomas has bigger plans for Navajeevan. Many more deranged minds stand to benefit when he shifts his rehabilitation centre to a bigger building on a neighbouring plot. He is banking on public contribution to raise money for the Rs 9 lakh project. It goes against his principle to accept aid from the govern­ment; religious bodies or foreign agencies. “It is very easy to Collect money from them. But that would defeat our very purpose as such donors lay down pre­conditions for aid. We accept contributions only from those who fully endorse our activities. It costs around Rs 1,750 daily to run Navajeevan.(N0W 1 LAKHS) The building’s rent alone works out to Rs 2,200 a month. But without asking for anybody’s assistance, we are flooded with contribution from well- wishers”, says Thomas.

Navajeevan gets a lot of inquiries from swank families keen on getting rid of a loose screw. But it is a firm no from Thomas who is not interested in the fabulous sums up for grabs. “The rich think that we can be bought with their money. This is a shelter only for deranged people who have no one to look after them.” However, he might bend the rules in the near future to take in lunatics from very poor families who cannot afford the money to care for them.

For the record, Navajeevan is registered as a trust—not a very pleasant word for Thomas. “It has been formed as a trust only for practical purposes: It is a body of Christian love and prayer rather than a trust,” he insists. For his associates, Navajeevan is Thomas. “His love and trust in God keep Navajeevan running. We are all here because of Thomas,” says Rejimon, one of the first to team up with him.

It is a round-the-clock mission for Thomas and his family is fully behind him in his Endeavour to make the world kinder for them mentally ill. “We are proud of his work. It is God working through him. He would rather we go without food than his children at Navajeevan,”says his wife Laisamma.They have five children: the light of the Thomas household is the youngest, a mentally retarded child, born paralyzed. Thomas believes that God gifted him this child only because he had the trust in him. “I thank God for this child,” he smiles. ((Quoted in The Week dated Apr. 23, 1995).