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Not a Mad Man

It wasn’t until I saw Ravi in the mid-90s that I really knew what a ‘mad person’ looked like, or behaved, in real life. The most vivid memory I have of him from those times is that of a man clutching the top of a telephone pole and playing tomfoolery with passersby. People would call out to him, requesting him to climb down, but he would hurl abuses at them or taunt them by sliding down the pole and scaling up again, as they closed in to grab him.

He was as much an amusement to people in our area as he was a headache. There was always the danger of him falling from the pole, you see, and that kept people in the vicinity on tenterhooks for hours together. It was only when the local police arrived that the whole spectacle ended. I don’t remember if the cops took him with them for creating public nuisance or they let him free. Nevertheless, within ten days he would be back on the pole, drawing excited crowds again. They watched his antics as if he were performing in a circus show-with gasps, chortles, intrigue and sometimes with pity.

Although Ravi was then young and well-built, he was uneducated and poor, and, above all ‘mad’. Who would give him work in such circumstances, after all? So he spent most of his time gallivanting and providing unintended entertainment to the people.

Many a day I wondered why people had so ungenerously given him a madman’s tag. Was it because he was weird and funny? Was it because he had only expletives to speak whenever he opened his mouth? Was it because he often indulged in incoherent monologues?

Or was it because he was unlike any of us, and his world was vastly different from the one we were familiar with? Was it because from where we stood, we couldn’t see what transpired in his head, and whatever we saw about him, didn’t match with our reality?

I didn’t know then what made him behave the way he did, but I knew one thing for certain. He didn’t deserve to be called ‘praanthan Ravi’ (meaning mad man Ravi) which was how most people in the locality referred to him. He merely lived in a world inhabited by real or imagined people who probably provoked him to shower swearwords indiscriminately.

What kind of demons tormented him? What unspoken misery lay buried in his foggy realms? I didn’t know. It wasn’t easy to find answers to questions that most people didn’t even consider worth pondering. Ravi was a mad man. And madness didn’t have a cure. Period.

In early 1998, I relocated to the middle East. I didn’t think of Ravi till I went home for vacation a year later. I came to know from our maid that Ravi had stopped climbing poles. He had been away for a while, possibly receiving treatment, she said, and since then, he mostly stayed indoors and was relatively sober except on new moon and full moon days. As if to validate the popular myths surrounding the moon and madness, Ravi appeared boisterous the next full moon day, but this time around, there was no public curiosity around him. It was as though people in the neighbourhood had accepted his ‘madness’ and they let him be. He roamed the streets for a while handing out insults to his mysterious enemies and when he felt spent, he withdrew into his shelter, not to be seen for some days.

On days he was sober, he earned some money doing odd loading jobs for local stores. Who would have believed it then that he was disturbed and was fresh out of the asylum? I brought back vignettes of the man that the society shunned for most parts, and gave him a cameo in my debut novel, Sand Storms, Summer Rains.

Nearly two and half decades on, Ravi is still around in my native town. The last time I saw him in March during our visit home, he looked aged and worn. But little else had changed. He still swore bitterly, which confirmed that the demons had permanently settled in his mind. They continued to torment him, and he fought them with the only ammunition he had in plenty-cusswords. The only addition to his dishevelled appearance, apart from his grey hair, was a cane in the hand which he used to keep his phantom foes at bay. He was both the ruler and sentry of his unknown kingdom.

As for the people around, they have now stopped being bothered by him. It is as if he has merged with the landscape of the locality, like the banyan tree on the temple ground.

His demons had refused to leave his mental space, and he had probably learnt to live battling them all day. Or was he at peace with them? I can’t say. He was oblivious of what people thought of him, of the labels they put on him. He lived with gay abandon in his cloistered realm, neither accepting nor rejecting the world around him.

Ravi would never have been conscious of his condition; he never would have felt compelled to look normal. Nor would he have worried what people might say if they found out about the demons inside that turned his world topsy-turvy. He lived freely in it without the pretense of normalcy. To him, his world was reality.

I thought of Ravi all over again, as I popped my pills today.

Ravi isn’t ‘mad’, I reiterated to myself. He is merely sick at heart, like people who are ill with other things. It’s not him, it’s the chemistry of the brain that has been wreaking havoc for years on end, I carefully evaluate. No one ever mentioned it. But then again, how would they, when they themselves didn’t know? To them, he was a mad man, cut and dried.

Lunatic. Mad. Deranged. Insane. Demented. Crazy. Mental.

The words fell on me in a heap as I wondered, a tad nervously, ‘Is that how the world will brand me if I tell them that a psychiatrist has put me on anti-depressants for a while now? Will it acknowledge that depression is a medical condition like any other, beyond one’s control? Will it understand if I spoke about neuro transmitters and its role in our lives? Will it accept that the pills are to my brain what insulin is to the pancreas of a person suffering from diabetes? And will it be kind and make concessions for my random silences and abrupt disappearances as I navigate through this difficult phase?’

(Depression is not a sign of a weak personality, nor is it contrary to positivity. It is a condition that is triggered by certain life situations/incidents that have impacted a person’s brain and its working. The most forgotten fact about depression is that it can strike anybody. So, if someone you know is battling depression, be considerate without being judgmental or dismissive. Know that they are going through something tough, about which they may not reveal much. Give them time. With professional help, they can come out of it. Above all, don’t stop loving them.)

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