The mad men looked at us with curiosity as we slowly approached them. “Good afternoon ma’am, how are you today?” the perfectly normal-sounding man grinned at me from behind the bars in the Better Prognistic Ward of the Government Mental and General Hospital Dadar.
Half afraid, I smiled back, trying to make the best of the blistering heat. “Don’t worry I am pretty much a human myself,” he said defensively, sensing my hesitation. Guiltily I looked at the inmates who were curiously staring back, unperturbed by the heat.
The only time they revealed their discomfort was when one of them eagerly said, “Ma’am it is very hot today, can you treat us to Mountain Dew please.” I was not sure what to say in response, who would have thought the insane would have preferences for drinks.
When asked if they were looked after well, they all chuckled. “Yes everything is fabulous, the food, everything, it is just that we can do not have a TV or radio here, can you please arrange for that?”
Another added jubilantly that they were not allowed cigarettes, only “naswaar”.
Nestled in the quaint and scenic mountains of Hazara district, which is known for its timber production, the Government Mental and General Hospital in Dadar is the biggest mental hospital of the province; it has three mental wards that accommodate about 80-100 patients: Chronic ward (A), better prognostic (B) and drug abuse treatment centre (C), which can easily pass off for a poultry farm from a distance.
Tahir Hussain Shah, who holds a diploma in mental health, is the district specialist, has to rotate between the mental hospital and central jail in Haripur.
Dr Feroz Khan, who was posted as Medical Superintendent for both the Mental and General wing of the hospital just recently, is the only other doctor apart from Shah. “Doctors are not willing to come and use influence to get transfers, political influence has ruined our institutions,” he said, adding that currently there are eight vacant posts in the hospital.
There are no inmates in the women’s ward. The psychiatry warden in-charge, Muhammad Siddique, during the “hospital tour”, said a woman escaped about six years back due to lapse of security since then it has been shut down.
“We don’t have funds, we don’t have security, the previous DCO had sanctioned a police chowki but it was not followed up.” He said the little help that they have received is by MNA Health Shahjehan Yousuf and the district nazim who allocated Rs200,000 for the hospital.
Ward A is next to a UNCHR tent, a falling remnant of the 2005 earthquake. If the hospital has been neglected by official authorities nature has not been kind to it either -- the 2001 floods destroyed its infrastructure and the 2005 earthquake proved to be the final nail in the coffin. The management tells that several national assembly and provincial assembly members came but it only resulted in “meaningless discussions”.
Former Health Minister Gustasip Khan said that the mental hospital is not a priority. “The government department has become redundant, they are interested in making money and I can say that it is not only this hospital but hospitals all over are lacking the services required.”
While Siddique briefed me on the hospital’s endless problems, I saw a patient of Ward B pacing to and fro chattering unintelligibly to himself while another discreetly showed me picture of a ‘djinn’ he had taken. As the inmates cheerfully waved us off I wondered who will spare a thought for these men who sneakily passed me photographs of djinns and phone numbers of their family members to get in touch with them (the warden informed me the inmates never heard from some of their relatives again).
As we left, the air resounded with a former university professor’s voice, “Let me out, Dhaka belongs to us!”
Perhaps it is a good thing to let them live in a delusional world because reality does not have much to offer.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2011.