I would try to imagine myself as a patient sometimes, or a caregiver maybe, a resident doctor, a nurse or even an attendant doing daily shifts. Strangely, it wasn’t a pleasant thought from any perspective.

This was during our Master’s internship in applied psychology at the University of Calcutta about 10 years ago. As part of our academic curriculum, we had to visit various mental health hospitals and institutes in the city for a month during the summer and observe the doctor-patient interactions. The objectives were simple. We had to become familiar with the clinical setup, understand some of the common disorders in mental health and how they affected the patient and finally, to gain some confidence in interacting with their family members and gather illness-related information by asking relevant questions.

“How could anyone possibly do it?” I would ask my parents. It defeated all possible logic. By the end of the first week of my posting, I found myself struggling to continue the internship. There was no motivation whatsoever to revisit the ill-fated institute, which I was assigned to. However, we had no choice. The hospital was run by the state government. The building was crumbling and extremely ill-maintained. There were many ‘restricted’ areas with guards manning locked doors. The corridors had a distinct unpleasant smell that bullied us constantly by refusing to go away. And then there were the patients; some screaming profanities while others were wailing in distress, while some others who wouldn’t say a word and just stared at us blankly.

No amount of academics could have ever prepared us for what we observed helplessly every day. Many patients, we were told, had been abandoned by their family members and would never get out of the institute all their life, even though they were doing much better with the medicines. This was what set me thinking. Upon completion of the internship, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I was certain that this was not meant for me. I could never imagine myself working anywhere close to a setup of this nature and declared the same to my parents for the record. Fate, as they say, had other plans!

I joined M.Phil. in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, Delhi in the year 2009, three years after I had completed the Master’s degree from Calcutta. M.Phil. was a residential programme. Yes, we had to stay in an apex government-run mental health hospital in North India for two long years. And yes, yet again I had to eat my words.

I remember appearing for the entrance exam during the August of 2009. It was a Sunday morning. There were torrential rains and I was almost sure that I wouldn’t make it on time for the test. I was wrong. I made it, as did the 300 other aspirants for a mere 12 seats in the general category and a couple in the reserved ones. I saw many parents as well, very anxious ones, holding umbrellas over their children, most of who were terribly busy in their last minute revisions from their fat text books and elaborate notes. Some knew each other from before and were standing together quizzing each other. I didn’t think that was a great idea. In any case, I found a dry spot under a tree and waited for us to be taken in.

There were about a 100 odd multiple choice questions that had to be answered in two hours. We started, time flew and before we knew it, the buzzer was rung to submit. I finished my paper with a sense of apprehension and as I looked around, I saw the others pouring over their answer sheets and muttering to themselves; some were in deep contemplation while a few others were trying to make friends with their neighbours with the hope of possibly checking a few answers.

About a 100 students were shortlisted for an interview and that list came out in a couple of days. My name featured on that list and I appeared for the interview which was uneventful as well. Very soon, I was confirmed and it was time to celebrate. I don’t quite remember exactly what I did to celebrate that day anymore, but I’m certain that something was done. My friend who was hosting me in Delhi at that time was not the kind to let it slip by without adequate fanfare. So we did what we had to and then I came back to Calcutta, only to pack my bags and leave again. In that short stay, I met as many friends and relatives as I could and ate my mother’s special recipes as much as my tummy would physically allow.

Before long, I found myself holed up in a hostel room that was to become my abode for the next two years. The room was adequate to house my books, clothes and food. It had an attached toilet and a small kitchenette for basic cooking, if required. We had a common doctor’s mess which served breakfast, lunch and dinner. I quickly made friends with the cook as he was from Odisha and could understand and speak Bengali. I shall reserve my comment on his cooking skills though. The mess would be closed on Sunday evenings and thus, we were left to fend for ourselves on the most important evening of the week! Thankfully, Domino’s came to our rescue. By the end of two years, we could recall casually their entire menu card with prices by default. Thanks to Sunday evenings.

Photo credit: Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences

The campus was huge and largely well maintained. There was a sprawling manicured garden right in the centre of the main building with a fountain. Many patients and their family members could be seen enjoying a restful conversation there on most evenings. During the first fortnight, we met our classmates and professors, became familiar with the time table, went to see the different wards and collected our monthly academic presentation schedules.

Our seniors helped us with a lot of information about the course and were friendly enough to take us outside the campus to show us around the place, the market and some basic shops. It was pretty far away from the main city and at best could be called a township in the eastern fringes of the city, bordering Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh.

There were limited options to socialize outside the campus and moreover, who had the time? We started going through our syllabus and exploring the library. With all the classes, ward rounds with consultants and clinical postings, it soon became very busy for all of us. Within the campus there were large stretches of barren grounds behind the main building interspersed with some staff residencies. Alongside, ran a track. I would go out for a jog in the morning, pass by some of the in-patient wards and then around some residential units, which were occupied by our professors; cross the girls’ hostel, the guest house and finally reach the main gate via a meandering narrow lane and then come back. A few puppies would chase me often and then give up tired.

Running along the high walls of the closed wards always felt peculiar. There I was, literally running free, while on the other side were people who had lost that freedom, not sure if they would ever get it back. Occasionally, we would hear of some patients who had attempted to escape from the closed wards without success. There was a small number, though, who did manage to get away, notwithstanding all the security and high walls and what not.

On weekends I would long to come into the city to stay with my friend, as would most of my classmates and colleagues who had families in Delhi. By Saturday evening, almost the entire hostel would be empty. We would all come rushing back on Monday morning, rejuvenated and enthused for the week ahead.

Since the institute was pretty far from the city, the metro became our lifeline. It was fast, pollution-free and air-conditioned. For short distances, there were cycle rickshaws. I soon learnt that in their local parlance, they referred to the hospital as Mental. It felt strange having to ask them to take us back to Mental after shopping for groceries and getting photocopies done from the local market! After sundown, they would refuse to take us inside the campus, for fear of some unforeseen ill-omen. I couldn’t entirely blame them. It was a long dimly lit stretch from the main entrance to our hostel and there was an eerie silence all along the way, save the occasional rustling of the leaves, the whirring of the rickshaw wheels or some shadowy silhouettes in the distance, none of which helped in reassuring them.

I waited eagerly for the holidays when I would come galloping back home to Calcutta. It felt like a dream. My family and friends would listen with rapt attention as I narrated stories of my postings, projects, friends, and way of life in a mental health hospital. Days would rush by and I would soon be on the Rajdhani Express, chugging my way back to Mental.

My parents also visited me on campus a few times, where they stayed at the Institute Guest House. It was comfortable and they were happy to be around. My mother would quickly take charge of the tiny kitchenette in my room and before long I would smell the familiar aromas of my mother’s recipes filling my hostel room with happy memories. My father would join me for my early morning walks and meet some of my professors to take feedback on my progress.

In retrospect, those two years did not turn out to be as difficult and intolerable as I had imagined during my Master’s. Interestingly, I met my wife on campus! She was my classmate and we had a few postings together, which gave us the opportunity to get to know each other very well. It made life immensely more meaningful and de-stressing for me during those two years. We got along very well and had plenty of common interests. So we started approaching our weekends with clinical precision in planning.

We saw innumerable films, theatre, musical concerts and art festivals. She showed me around Delhi and its diverse food options, which probably sealed the deal from my side, being a Bengali! We met our respective families and got engaged during our final year. Never mind that many of my friends still haven’t gotten over the shock that I met my prospective wife at a ‘mental hospital’.

Amidst all this we stuck to our academics like glue. There was no choice. The course was intensive and included long hours at the in-patient wards and out-patient departments. We had patients, coursework and presentations. It kept us neck deep in work during weekdays. The library was great and we spent most of our weekday evenings there. It also meant a bit of socialising and chit-chatting before we would all make our way to the mess for dinner by eight most evenings. Our professors were supportive and helped us absorb and keep pace with the speed. We made some good friends, put together a study group for the examinations and finally cleared it to receive our respective degrees.

I’m still not very sure how I managed to stay in a mental health hospital for two years. My Master’s internship days still haunt me. I was much younger then and possibly also very naive. In retrospect, the M.Phil. programme had elements of both negative and positive. It did intimidate us in the beginning. We confronted a lot of our own anxieties and fears, learned clinical skills and upgraded our knowledge. In the process, we dealt with a lot of stress on a regular basis for the first time. But it was an enriching programme and we did eventually emerge more confident.

We learned how to care for our patients, educate the family members and make the most of our clinical duties and ward postings. I think that was the secret which kept us all going at the end of the day – the process of evolving into an adult from an adolescent, of experiencing mental growth in what is so often unthinkingly labelled and stigmatized as a ‘mental hospital’.

Main photo credit: Subhojit Banerjea (photograph is representative in nature).