I'm not sure when I began to truly grasp the fact that my father was struggling with a disabling mental illness. Perhaps, it was around the time when my father had a nervous breakdown. Or when one of my friends in the colony, where I grew up, one day told me that her parents had forbidden her to come into my house because of my father's condition. Or when my eldest sister stood up for my father and told a relative who had raised some objections about my father's behavior, that it was up to those who were in good health to understand that my father was doing the best he could under the circumstances.
What I do remember clearly is that my mother was the first person in the family to understand that my father needed medical diagnosing and attention. She defied social norms and began consulting doctors about my father's condition. When my father was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia, my mother took training to be my father's primary caretaker. When my father had a nervous breakdown, my mother had the choice to have him treated at a hospital for a long period. I still have a dim memory of visiting my father in a hospital ward, and sensing his pain and depression even at that young age. There was a look of hopelessness on his face. I believe that my mother recognized this, and decided that it would be better if my father was with his family and at home. Ma understood then what's now a much more commonly accepted fact--that those who struggle with mental illnesses function better when surrounded by their loved ones, in familiar surroundings with familiar routines.
Then began a long period of treatment for my father. Strong medications, many trips to the hospital, some relapses, and more visits to different doctors. There would be additional flare-ups now and then, and slowly we all learned to avoid behaviors that could trigger an episode. Sadly, there was also a great amount of ignorance about mental illnesses, and we could not always prevent things from happening outside the safety of our home that would trigger episodes for my father.
When I look back on that time, I feel that there was a core of gentleness in my father that sustained him through these times. He continued to bring home sick birds and animals to treat, and taught us to do the same. He would buy realms of newsprint paper for my sisters and me to draw, paint, and write on. He would walk to the nearest park and spend hours there. Papa loved music, and would listen to radio programs late into night playing old melodies from the past. He had a beautiful voice, and would sing songs, gazals, and bhajans. He had an amazing grasp on current affairs and would read the newspaper from front to end, every morning. Papa loved sports, especially cricket, and had been a top-level cricketer in his college days. He would spend hours watching cricket on TV or listening to the commentaries on radio.
It may sound strange, but the years after my father's illness was diagnosed were also some of the best. As a family, especially in the later years, we learned to focus on things that truly brought contentment and made us happy. Birthdays became simple, gentle celebrations. We would often exchange hand-drawn greetings, and bring home a brick of vanilla ice-cream and a big bottle of Thumbs-up, and make 'campa-ice-cream'. Sometimes, we would get a Dairy Milk anniversary bar and share that as an anniversary celebration. There was warmth and laughter, and music and peace, in our home.
My parents had been affluent once, and the changed circumstances must have been difficult for them, but there was no jealous talk or gossiping at home. My parents would not stoop to tearing acquaintances down in order to make themselves feel better. Although my father's illness resulted in our family becoming isolated to some extent, the distancing also worked to the family's advantage in some ways. I would sometimes hear fleeting conservative and chauvinist comments from those outside my family, but at home my parents never made us feel that we were lacking in any way. They also never drew unhealthy comparisons between their five kids. We were all allowed to explore our skills and passions, to grow and develop at our own pace.
As a result, I grew up secure in my own strengths and abilities, and I believe, so did my sisters. I also grew up expecting to be treated with respect and consideration, with the idea that boys and girls, women and men are inherently equal. When I decided to participate in my first marathon in 2006, I only got positive encouragement and support from both Ma and Papa. It was the same with my doctoral studies. Like the marathon, I had no prior background in pursuing a doctorate, and for my parents both my pursuits were taking me into unchartered waters. And yet, there was that simple faith that I would successfully reach whatever goal I set up for myself.
When I look back upon the past twenty-odd years, I am amazed by my parents' extraordinary fortitude. Life tested them over and over again, and the scars from those times never truly went away, but my parents overcame the difficult times without losing their integrity or sense of self, or questioning that of their children.
Perhaps, parents' unstinting faith and unconditional love are the biggest gifts that they can give to a child. The world will always have some naysayers--people who are only too ready to impose their own deep fears and insecurities on others. But for every negative voice around us, there are dozens of positive voices, voices that say, "Yes, you can." And no voice is stronger or more powerful than that of parents.