ON A RAINY FRIDAY MORNING IN LATE JULY, Rajesh Castellino sat in a tiny room in Karjat, Maharashtra, a two-hour drive south-east of Mumbai. Files lay stacked in a corner, and an assortment of pictures and notes fluttered on the cracked walls; a sense of quiet and loneliness reigned. Castellino has big eyes, a lean frame and a dusky complexion. He stared into the distance, and in his mind seemed to be miles away, exploring a different time and space.
On my prompting, Castellino, who is 39 years old, told me how he’d gotten to where he was, to the Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation. On 30 January 2011, he was wandering through Mumbai’s Sion area, dazed and with no idea of why he was there. He remembered suddenly hearing a question: “Where are you from?” A social worker approached, and took him to Karjat. Castellino, I later learned, suffers from schizophrenia, a psychiatric illness characterised by a severely altered perception of reality and an inability to distinguish between real and imaginary entities. I also discovered that he had already been at Shraddha before, the first time after a similar episode in 2010, though Castellino himself did not remember it.
Shraddha works to rescue destitute people with mental illnesses from the streets and reunite them with their families. This is a long, tedious process: patients are picked up, often by the group’s ambulances on patrol; they are fed and housed to ensure good nutrition and hygiene; and then given a course of treatment. Once a patient starts to recuperate, social workers start asking questions: Where did you grow up? Who did you have with you at home? Where’s home? When a family is located, Shraddha sends patients home. If the group cannot identify any kin, or when families refuse to take patients back, a lack of funds and space often forces Shraddha to send them on to other NGOs or shelters after a few months of recuperation. By the records it has available, since March 2006 the organisation has arranged over 2,500 reunions, and often handled cases from as far away as Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. This year, by mid August, Shraddha reunited 350 patients with their families. In all this work, Shraddha battles Indian society’s seemingly indelible stigma against psychiatric illness.