Sixty years ago, there was no such thing as mental illness. Only madness. An extra-ordinary mind-state in a person who could not help but disrupt ordinary life, relationships, and public order.
My aunt Revati, my mother’s younger sister, was always in some kind of gush that she seemed not able to restrain, when my mother and I, as a toddler, arrived unfailingly every summer at my maternal grandmother’s ancestral home in the tree-lined city of Secunderabad, in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where she was in permanent residence.
The images of my frail, widowed, skeletal-thin grandmother always in a staid white sari and a white blouse, and my mother perpetually in saris with paisley prints never varied in my eyes.
It was my aunt Revati, twenty years my senior, who provided the contrast, the powerful and enduring impressions. Unconsciously, I always understood her identity to be different. Not as an oddity, at least not in my early years, but as someone fun, in a carnival-merriment-sort-of-way, who strode buoyantly, and anew from time to time.
She diverged from accepted norms, rules, and codes that kept young women in our world in line, unceasingly, and steadily, with each one of my summer visits, as I progressed from toddlerhood to childhood, from tweens to teens, and then from young adulthood to adulthood.
Her doing of what she wanted, unmindful of what was expected of good, gentle, gifted girls, her unbecoming, shall I say, was clearly visible within our deeply conservative Tamilian Brahmin family. As within the larger circle of our community, people who had migrated from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu a century ago. Seeing her, as they did, cycling, in her twenties, her pavadai hitched up to her thigh, her hair flying against the whoosh of the wind, and playing hopscotch with children quarter her age. Things unseen before, unheard of before.
To the child in me, each one of these people, the Tam Brams as we liked to call them, seemed to stand staunchly upright as the many pillars within their home courtyards. It is as if they needed to compete with them to preserve their clan identity and values, even as they tempered their lives, their tastes, and their tones to the Andhra way of life.
I would spend undisturbed days, if not months, with my aunt, in her tutelage, in thrall of her anarchic ways which to me were utterly enjoyable. For me, her ideas were unexpected, springing not from boring rules but from her imagination. I loved her different way of thinking.
“If you don’t want to learn Carnatic music, jump out of the window of your tutor’s house, and run,” she counseled me. I did. And, most appealing of all her qualities was her insistence that I call her Revati, and drop the suffix aunt.
Like Revati’s presence, the Secunderabad sun seemed to settle deep in our bones in the two-and-a-half months we spent here every year. As did the hot dusty winds that coursed through the foliage around, the tall palm trees and the leafy mango trees, and through our bald and cemented terraces.
My mother and I carried the sun, the hot winds, the huge, old rambling house in West Marredpally’s Sarojini Nagar, and Revati as we did our grandmother, her tales and her spicy, setting-the-mouth-on-fire kind of recipes, in our minds for twelve months back to New Delhi, in the north of our country, where we lived. Till we were back to partake in their lives yet again, completely happy to exchange one life for another, one kind of heat for another.
I retain sharp impressions of Revati as a four-year-old, flashes of memory, where she taught me to rob raw mangoes from our neighbor’s house using a long stick slit at the end to twist the dangling mangoes from their stems.
I have clear mind visuals of how she would allow my untrained fingers, at the age five or six, to cut the firm, unyielding, emerald green mangoes with a knife, and how we would sit together, along with our tribal Lambadni women helpers, and their jingling, white lacquer bangles, to eat mango slivers dipped in chilli powder, salt, and sometimes a bit of my blood from my cut finger.
“The blood will go back into your body, and make you strong,” she would reassure me, when I took fright at the gore and filmy pieces of flesh stuck to the mangoes.
As the Lambadni women were never allowed indoors, being of another caste, I recall how Revati and I would gang up with their children, urge them to climb on the tall tamarind trees, lining the road outside our boundary wall, shake its branches while we stood below, and collected the brown, crescent-shaped pods to get to the sticky tamarind fruits.
Then we would get the children to do the same with the tree jasmine trees to collect their fragrant, milky-white flowers. And, finally, upon Revati’s insistence, I would frighten these trusting children with stories of resident ghosts so they would not raid these trees in our absence.
“On these trees,” I would caution them, assuming a solemn expression, “live spirits who hang children by the edges of their pavadais and pants, so don’t climb them till we ensure the spirits are away.”
Revati and my picaresque adventures also involved trips to the Golconda Fort where we searched for diamonds in the sands within the fortress, and spooked ourselves with the rumbling noises that the enormous stone boulders made, and with the screeches of overhead eagles; trips to the bazaars of Charminar where we entertained ourselves for hours admiring sparkly, stone-studded bangles; visits to the Salar Jung museum where we delighted only in his cuckoo clock; and to the Hussain Sagar lake where we ate ice-creams. We were always chaperoned by our gardeners Ramayaa and Subbayaa, who sang in chorus on our bus, cycle-rickshaw and tonga rides, and tried to match their cadence with the horse’s hooves when on the tonga.
From when I was ten years or eleven, maybe in my sixth or seventh grade, Revati would read Shakespeare to me, from the abridged volumes collected by my grandfather in his life, in a manner that I understood his plays as if they were being performed in front of me eyes. I was Othello, she Iago, I King Lear, she The Fool. We went through authors from Robert Louis Stevenson to Mark Twain, from Jonathan Swift to Bram Stokers, from Louisa May Alcott to Jane Austen with equal ease. This though she never went to school. She was home-tutored by a nun, Sister Agatha, who visited her unfailingly every day, for years, from a convent next door, impressed as she was by Revati’s agile, absorptive, and ever-curious mind. My aunt loved her beyond measure.
Revati re-read many wild, untamed snippets from books that I enjoyed.
“Aren’t open-ended books more fun? You can think of a million different endings for them, and choose what you like best,” she would say, “and, aren’t authors with wild ideas so much more exciting?”
“Would the Famous Five series be any good without the stubborn, and naughty George?” she would add. This probably explains why I still like authors who come up with intriguing metaphysics and open-endings.
She could speak Dakhini, a variety of the Hindustani spoken in the Deccan region, and she taught me to sing folk songs in this dialect as she taught me to recite chaste Urdu couplets of fabulous poetess Mahlaqa Chanda, as well as of those poets who recited their verses at poetic symposiums, mushairas, that we heard on the radio.
She could retain in her mind lines that she heard just once with an almost photographic memory.
“Don’t be shy of mixing up real and imagined, serious and absurd, grand and stupid, poetry and prose, and near and far, for they all live side-by-side, each as normal as the other,” she would encourage me.
In a similar vein, from this age on, Revati taught me to cook, a skill she excelled at. This as I sat with her as she cooked at floor-level, as cooking standing up was unheard of, and absorbed sponge-swift her techniques, and perfected it over the years. I owe her for the osmosis she enabled, that made me as good a cook as she, just by observing. Till date, I am told my mirpakaya puls, jeelakarra mirilaya rasam, biryani, bendakaya vepudu, dondakai pachadi, and sweet poli have the flavors of a lost world.
And in marked difference to the polite, desultory conversations of others, and the girl-etiquette expected and demanded of us, Revati would spend hours coaching me to mimic our family members, and our neighbors. I would perform these imitations in public, as if it were an elaborate play, much to the embarrassment of my grandmother and mother.
What injured both of them more was how I would contort my face to extreme and absurd levels in imitation of highly accomplished Carnatic singers, as Revati egged me, from the shadows, urging me through gestures to rush into more treacherous ground.
“I do not see it as a mocking of their years of rigorous practice, as others do, but merely as our funny escapades. You should, like me, not be afraid of your mother’s scolding,” she would assure me.
Though my grandmother, and mother would each try in their own way to discipline Revati, never directly alluding to the fact that Revati was not normal, as we knew and believed normal to be, I would always side with Revati. I found nothing amiss in her behavior, as she was in my eyes my soul sister, thinking up of the same deliciously wicked things I did. The age difference, her being all woman to my child, did not seem bizarre to me, the fact that she never went to school did not strike me as odd as she was cleverer than anyone I knew, and as I was devoted to her in the extreme, I was terrified of saying anything against her that could destroy our relationship.
It was when I was twelve, and she thirty-two, that I remember her swinging from insomnia to sleepfulness, from euphoria to dejection, from kindness to malice, from attentiveness to forgetfulness in a matter of days, sometimes within a few hours much to my disbelief. While one of her moods rode the day, another side of her would get the better of her, and explode with vehemence, and she would leave me in tears, swearing at me, cuffing my ears.
But as some of my friends back in Delhi behaved like her, with spiteful, gibberish comments of me “being a dirty undo gundo South Indian”, and vile actions by leaving me out of their games, I kept quiet.
“I know Revati will soon be over her cruelty, and return to her impossibly funny, and absurd self,” I would say to my mother, who simply nodded.
My sharpest memory, at this time, of her deviance, comes from an incident one mid-morning when she was eating murku with relish on the open, airy porch, lined with trees and creepers, with me, and some guests who had arrived, and drinking orange crush, as we used to call the synthetic juice made by adding water to an orange concentrate.
One moment, the steel tumbler was poised on her lips, and in another its contents were upturned on one of our guest’s unsuspecting head while she rained a plateful of murku on him for good measure. The poor, shocked man was dripping orange, like a bled out, tiger-striped, evening sun in the sky, with pieces of murku stuck to his pate and body, while Revati towered over him, her chiselled features marred by the insolence that glinted in her eyes, and lips that tipped with sneering derision.
“I became angry with him because he called me dark,” she later told me.
Her callousness over his remark, made or not made, did not surprise me. Taunted as I was in Delhi, over my dark skin, which I was made aware was “not good” and needed to be “bettered, one way or another,” I forgave her fury. As I resonated with her energy, her restlessness, I hugged her even as my grandmother, and mother, together, rebuked her in front of everyone.
Feeling like I needed to do more on Revati’s behalf, I stepped up my indignation towards my mother.
“Ma, you plaster talcum-powder on your face, and the thick white, gleaming surface is different from the colour on your hands. If I were you I would ensure enough talcum powder for your arms.” I delighted in her public mortification, in her fear that this outburst would become local gossip. My mother took a long while to forget both Revati’s, and my rogue behavior, and I saw my grandmother weep in secret for the antics of her younger daughter, for things she did not understand about her.
As my grandmother was widowed young, and had no son, who perhaps would have known the outside world, I know just how hard she tried to treat Revati indoors, and in the best manner she could. With Ayurvedic and Unani medicines mostly, that she assiduously procured, and ministered. Though the belief that European methods, and medicines were morally superior has begun to set in during Revati’s growing-up years, my grandmother was not convinced.
She often said “it is a just a ruse, a colonial bid to prove its legitimacy as a civilizing mission. I will certainly not confine my daughter in my own state’s Kilpauk mental asylum, to aloneness, to social nonexistence, nor subject her to the incredibly cruel western shock treatments.”
She was referring to the allopathic insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy common in those times, and meant to send a patient into coma, images of which we saw in frightening, and exaggerated detail in Hindi films as a reprieve for mad people.
It was when I thirteen that I began to sense that everything was not quite right with Revati. She began showing a lack of consistency, a complete breakdown in the connection between cause and effect. It was then that I began to think of madness with regard to her. I recall how she began to smile vacantly, and endlessly for days, something that made me uneasy at that time as my cognitive abilities were growing by leaps and bounds.
As my abilities to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience were sharpening, I began to have doubts about her clear-headedness.
“Your idea of normal, may not be normal for others, and who is say whose idea of normal is right,” my mother shushed my fears at that time. That I understood. I knew I was irregular, and perverse in my own way to my friends back in Delhi.
Yet her assurance did not hold long as my nervousness about Revati increased when she began asking me the same questions over, and over again. For instance, she would repeatedly ask, “Who is Gandhiji? Why did someone kill him? When I told her what little I knew, that he was he the man who got us our freedom, but was killed by a person who thought he was wrong in his some of his actions, she looked blank, and began her questions all over again. For the first time, I grew tired of her as I began to get frightened of her. She seemed to forget her basics, things hardwired into us as children.
My grandmother came to Revati’s rescue this time saying that as she was all of six when riots broke out in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad as the ruling Nizam, Nizam Mir Sir Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII, the name he went by, refused to cede to India during the fight for independence.
“Maybe she, as a child, saw in the riots, the Razakar riots as we called them, after the private militia organised by the Nizam, something she should have not. The memories of her sightings crept into her sleep, and, for years, every night, she thrashed and flailed on her bed, drenched in fear, filling the rooms with her screams not even stopping after I applied scared ash on her forehead. Maybe, her memories have surfaced again,” she fearfully explained.
“Where was my mother at that time?” I demanded to know. “Away with her cousins in Pune, which is why she remained unaffected.” I felt remorse on hearing this but again my goodwill for Revati did not last long. This as her behavior grew more, and more outlandish in my teenage years when she was in her mid-thirties.
As my teenage insecurities began to play up at this time, and my personhood helplessly swayed from one end to another in a bid to find a balance, to make sense of the complexity and enormity of the universe, her antics, that became defined as deformities in my mind, were too turbulent for me to handle. I could not bear the horror of them, and cope with my teenage toughs and vicissitudes at the same time. Especially when she took to calling herself Aandal, an avatar of Goddess Lakshmi.
The story of Aandal goes thus. She grew up as a devotee of Lord Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, the supreme God. She is believed to have worn a garland daily meant for Lord Krishna, the presiding deity of the temple. When her father saw her doing this one day, he chastised her severely, and wove a fresh garland for the deity. But the deity would not have it demanding to have the one worn by Aandal, and then later asked to be wedded to her as she was none other than Goddess Lakshmi.
My aunt believed she was none other than Aandal. She spoke in a strange voice, unlike her own, kept her hair coiled in a bun on the side of her head like the pictures of Aandal, stole my grandmother’s gold jimikis for her ears, propped up her breasts, wore a flower garland around her neck, and radiated a pulsating feminine energy, a more-than-ever, raw, erotic verve. She spoke coyly to one of our gardener’s son, Raes Khan, who was half her age, and walked with a sway when he came by even as giggles gurgled within her throat.
My mother, and grandmother would not let her out of their sight, and they both struggled between sleep and wakefulness trying to keep a watch on her. One day, they lost her for hours only to find her, with the help of Ramayaa and Subbayaa, wandering in a faraway market on James Street, distraught, and pleading to many passer-byes to take her to her Lord. When these strangers offered to help, she petulantly refused it, and people on the streets began calling her by unspeakable names, grinding our family honour to dust. My mother, and grandmother were first aghast, then in tears, and in the end took to looking after Revati like a baby, becoming fiercely protective of her.
I, on the other hand, turned cold, and remote towards Revati, and used every weapon that I, as a callous teenager, possessed, to abuse her ever so casually, to make her feel like nothing. As fine distinctions such as mood, anxiety, eating, personality, post-traumatic, and psychotic disorders did not exist, I began to believe, like the rest of the world, that she was mad. Simply a raving lunatic. I felt I was free to hate Revati without guilt.
At the same time, within me simmered a bitter rage, a cold, white, blinding anger. For Revati becoming the person she had turned into, a figure of ridicule, and not the person I wanted her to be. I began to hate her with a vengeance for robbing me of our camaraderie, for shattering our idyll, for not being my anchor in my teenage world where a coherent cosmos eluded me. But I was furious with her mostly for not being with me when I needed her the most. And then, over the years, for almost everything else.
Did she have a choice about who she was? Or who she became, and was becoming? Or was she always like this, and I was seeing her as she was for the first time? I did not pause to think about any of this as I was too distraught to care.
The more she tried to talk to me, the more I scowled, and snubbed her, and when her cheeks flushed with bewilderment, my eyes shone. She was the one, after all, who taught me to slice open a person with words as if with a knife.
From my sixteenth year on, I made it clear that I did not like coming so much to my grandmother’s place on account of Revati, her chronic instability, and disorder, and became feverish with discontent when my mother brought me anyway. Then I would insist every day that I wanted to return to Delhi. I also decided against studying in Hyderabad’s prestigious Osmania University, choosing to remain, and study at the Delhi University.
For seven years, I treated Revati as an inferior creature, a being of no concern to me, who I could only tolerate at a distance. My trips to my grandmother’s house became infrequent; only my mother went every year while I feigned reasons like extra classes, college exams, and a need for regularity in my extra-curricular activities. My focus at that time was to erase Revati from my life.
Things eccentric, outside the centre, outside of the long-established norms, things emerging from another perspective, revelatory and revolutionary as they may be, no longer appealed to me. I chose to belong to one group, or another, withdrawing from spontaneous, joyful rebellion against everything that was established, and regarded as normal and self-evident. Mostly, because it scared me on account of Revati.
I felt I could no longer stand up to the impositions of the ordinary and the oppressive on my own. So, instead, I aimed for the self-perfection that society imposed on girls like me, adapting to the boundaries it imposed, the spaces it took away, and its sadism. I married at twenty-three, in 1986, and moved away to London for ten years.
In this period, I blanked out Revati, her hidden, marginalized, derided, and altogether dispossessed life, and stamped down information my mother passed on about her life.
“Your grandmother is getting infirm, and I am wondering if I should bring Revati to live with me,” she ventured once but changed the topic as I was disinclined to talk about it. My horror of Revati’s insanity had not subsided.
My grandmother died when I was thirty-three in the year 1996, and Revati within a month of her death, filled with grief for her mother, in the home that she lived all her life. She refused to leave the space that nurtured her, one she called her own.
In my mid-thirties, my career veered towards the domain of women’s rights. Maybe destiny willed it. I was initiated to question the selected truths of the world, its exclusions, to invert traditional, foundational stories, just like Revati taught me to, to recognize women’s strength and power, their personal stories, and to change my perceptions in order to seek legitimate alternatives to the patriarchal order.
I was reminded almost all the time of Revati in this career journey of mine.
One day, I impulsively pulled out pictures of Revati, prints of her in her twenties, with her delicately beautiful face, un-ravaged by lines or dour expressions, and her thick, long, black, lustrous plait hanging in the front from her right shoulder just as the pallu of her sari is neatly arranged on her left.
All I could see was her amazing beauty.
The black-and-white photograph showed up her oval face, wide forehead, fish-shaped eyes, cat-lined to perfection, aquiline nose, and her defined cheekbones. To a stranger, she would probably look like a determined woman who knew her mind. Not like the woman we knew her to be at that time, a free-spirited individualist who turned increasingly non-conforming and unbalanced over the coming years. And a goddess to boot.
Only when I read Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, did I understand that the Goddess to be a powerful archetype, and her very existence to be a challenge to the patriarchal structure. When womanhood begins to demand what it is owed, its strength and power, its Goddess-hood, maybe we could call it that, it is punished, and its voice is silenced.
Just like Revati did, and was penalized for it.
Yet, despite the odds, when the community, and family members, like me, chose to abandon her, Revati continued to live on her terms till the very end, proud and defiant, like a lone star, which is the meaning of her name, refusing to be cast away from her knowledge of what it is to be equal to another.
When I asked my mother why she did not pass on my grandmother’s and her instinctual wisdom, as that of Sister Agatha’s, and Ramayaa and Subbayaa’s, make me strong enough to understand Revati, stop me from abandoning her, and being so ruthless and uncaring towards her needs, my mother simply repeated Longfellow’s verse, that I so related to in my childhood, because in many ways the girl was me.
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
“You were in a bad phase of mind for very many years, and our words would have fallen on deaf years. We did try, if you remember, but you never listened to us. But I think you know deep inside of you that Revati would have seen you for what you are, forgiven you, and loved you with all her heart at that time, as she does now, where ever she is.”
After a pause, she added, “You know now, through your learned experiences, what my mother and I have always known. As a woman a with differing take on life, we helped Revati live her life in her own home in the best way possible. You now have the power and compassion to help many Revati’s, many girls and women who see, and wish to see the world differently. I can only hope you will continue to open up your heart, help women to live their best lives not only at home but outside as well, and be receptive to the unexpected and different when it taps you on the shoulder.”
“I want Revati to be proud of you as it was she who taught you to see the unusual,” my mother added finally.
I can only hope my Revati will be. One day.