48 years of Antara Society: India’s largest mental rehabilitation centre

By Bulbul Rajagopal

Acts of random kindness are what makes the base of Antara Society- Eastern India’s largest private mental hospital. The society is the brainchild of philanthropist and industrialist P.M. John, fondly remembered by many as PMJ, and as chacha by his son.

The popular anecdote associated with the society lies in the two Ford sedans belonging to none other than Mother Teresa herself. Kolkata–then Calcutta–in 1986, was part of the 10-day national whirlwind fever due to the visit of Pope John Paul II. Upon his departure, his Ford Zephyr was gifted as a token to the Mother. “But Mother did not ride cars, she simply called up my father and asked him to use it to expand his hospital. So we had put it on lottery,” recalls Dr. Matthew P. John, his son.

Begining of Antara

John’s vision of Antara started in the 1970s when the area of Salt Lake was groaning under the weight of housing the largest refugee camp for survivors of the Bangladeshi freedom struggle. A devout Christian of Mar Thoma Syrian Church, John found support for his cause of humane treatment of the mentally ill through the members of his church. Regular visits to the camps would be conducted by the pastors, members of the congregation as well as of a group of young medical students from Kerala. While the refugees were treated for physical ailments, the ravages of war also generated individuals with aberrant minds, most of whom were lost in the streets.

During this time, when Antara was merely a fledgeling thought, John became acquainted with a clinic on Ripon Street where many of Antara’s initial patients were treated. He was the secretary of Janata Medical Service, the social work project of his church and set up an out-patient clinic which is still up and running to this day.

Hotels on Sudder Street would make calls to Mother Teresa at all hours of the night complaining about drug addicts and alcoholics on their premises. She, in turn, would call John and ask for help. When such calls and cries for help started piling on, two things were certain: more help was required and a bigger space was necessary to accommodate that.

P.M. John and Mother Teresa during the laying of the foundation stone of Antara. Credit: Antara Society.

Help arrived in the form of the combined efforts of psychiatrist Dr Satrujit Dasgupta, Dr R.B. Davis who was in charge of the psychiatric center in Ranchi, and Canon Subir Biswas, the Vicar of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Starting out with branches of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), meeting of which took place in the Johns’ home or in the chambers of Dr Dasgupta, the first seeds of Antara were sown. Soon, a two-storeyed house in Picnic Gardens was rented out and under the care of another founder Brother Andrews, the Brothers of the Missionaries of Charities oversaw this chapter. It was kept running by whatever funds the group could muster.

Development of the society

Allies started coming in from unlikely quarters, one being the Johns’ neighbours who were the owners of Calcutta Fans. Through them, the first sections of Antaragram, the name given to the vast plot in Baruipur where the ever-expanding hospital now rests. Antara’s name comes from the second note in Hindustani classical music, exists in part due to the remembrance and repayment of past John’s kindness. When legendary Malayalam singer K.J. Yesudas was fresh out of musical training from Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, he had come across a diary of his late father Augustine Joseph. The diary, in question, bore only a single scribble-“P.M. John, Calcutta”.

In what may have been a serendipitous turn of events, Yesudas, then unknown and yearning to prove himself as a musician, embarked on a journey of self-discovery to Kolkata, all in search for the mysterious “P.M. John”. Neither Antara nor its idea existed during their fateful meeting, and on Yesudas’ request, John had organised a musical program for him and some local singers to display their talent.

This debut of sorts, was a roaring hit, and it was from this point that the singer’s career saw an upward graph, climbing steadily to astronomical success. Years later, Antara was struggling to acquire funds in order to keep itself afloat. This time around, it was John who was the friend in need. A request to Yesudas, by now famous in his own right, resulted in the singer’s immediate journey to the city where he performed at an event meant to raise funds for the hospital.

With the backing of Mother Teresa, and with the slow spread of the news of their activities, the group at Antara caught the eye of the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. From 1970 onwards, the hospital at Antaragram has been up and running due to networking and circles of benevolence which have expanded to stretch out a hand of support.

48 years of Antara

This year on October 10, Antara celebrated the 48th year of laying its foundation stone alongside their annual observation of World Mental Health Day. Twenty-six year old Nobin D. Samuel can be seen darting about the compound as he tends to what has been a week-long event of raising awareness on mental health and engaging with the patients and visitors alike. Samuel has been working with Antara for four months and it all started when he met the CEO M. Thomas John while conducting a session of Vacation Bible School in Delhi. Both parties were post graduates of the Indore School of Social Work and on hearing of the work done by Antara, Samuel decided to put his degree to use and set out for Kolkata. “I love interacting with the patients here, I talk to the everyday. I refer to them as ‘the Antara family’. My only hurdle right now is language as my Bengali is a bit rusty. But I’m learning,” he says with a smile.

School children participating in the awareness program on World Mental Health Day. Credit: Antara Society.

M. Thomas John himself was brought into the fray when he was a student by P.M. John. Affectionately referred to as “Sunny”, he has been with Antara since its inception and is currently serving his extension period. “My father always wanted the youth to be more involved in not just Antara but also in activities that broaden awareness of mental health issues. He always said it was especially important for them to be hands-on and get right into the work, to lead the way for the upcoming generation,” he added.

There are no restrictive cells in Antara and all patients reside in monitored dormitories. Those requiring special attention or in an aggravated state are kept in isolated rooms. Recreational activities are a daily part of the life of the patients here. For the proceedings on October 10, stalls exhibiting the handiwork of the patients were set-up, including jewellery, knitwear and even makeshift sculptures.

Teachers minding the handicrafts stall at Antara. Credit: Antara Society.

Geeta Das, who has been a patient for the last 16 years, says the daily activities of the average Antara patient involves sessions of arts and crafts as well. Das is quick to gesture the sprawling table before her that is laden with her knitted dolls, scarves and coin purses. After slight contemplation, she points to a figure sitting a few feet away, “I love making these items, but it was she who taught me how. She is my teacher and also my friend.” The figure, in question, is Tapati Das who has been working with the patients as their residential crafts teacher for 18 years.

Tapati Das also operates a tailoring machine and a photocopier, and makes pocket money in the process. Since their work with the mentally ill began, numerous eclectic people have come into their purview. Dr John remembers the time his father had come across a survivor in the refugee camps. “He would walk around quoting Shakespeare at all hours. He had only one story to tell, about how he was a professor of English. It was very much like listening to a stuck recorder and we had initially dismissed his tale,” he said.

However, soon enough, when the story was told with more vehemence, an investigation was conducted. “He was stable and had recovered under our care within 6 months. He later returned to Dhaka University and continued teaching,” he informs. Another one of Antara’s patients is Preetikarna Sarkar, a patient for the past 16 years who used to be a small-time actress in Bombay. “I have only ever acted in one film–Chhati Maiyya ke Mahima–it was a long time ago but I remember. I now help Geeta now with some of her work and I enjoy my time with my other friends,” she said. The proceeds of the goods on sale go to the patients themselves. Each patient’s earnings are injected into an account created by the institution at a nearby bank. On their discharge, the patient is allowed access to their account in order to give them a head-start in the next phase of their life.

Legacy of Antara

For an organisation that has been active for almost 50 years, it is improbable for Antara to remain spotless in the eyes of controversy. In 2013, a city girl was admitted against her will by her family upon her allegations of molestation by her uncle. Antara was the site of her admission and it became a talking point amidst issues on non-consensual rehabilitation. Dr John refutes these allegations by citing their manner of treatment, “All patients have a lucid period but 99% of the time they are not and they are not aware of their lapse. We had given the family the benefit of the doubt, but after our tests proved that the girl was not mentally ill, we alerted the police and the case was in their hands from that point on. That is the protocol we have always followed.”

Antara may be a pioneer in India for its humane and ethical treatment of the mentally ill, but it has also played a significant role in shaping the mindsets of the people who run it. Joint Secretary Molly Thambi feels Antara broadened her view of mental health ever since she commenced her work here 15 years ago. Thambi is also the administrator of a suicide prevention organisation called Lifeline Foundation, and juggles her roles as a social worker. “Both of these have changed my perception completely. I’ve always been a left-brained finance person and suddenly, because of Uncle John, I found myself in a wholly different atmosphere,” she added. Her area of special interest is to build mental resilience amongst the youth.

Antara’s contribution to society, especially at a time when talking about mental health was a huge taboo in India, earned praise from even the quarters of the Government. Due to their activities, the institution since the 1980s has been exempt from taxation due under Section 35-CCA of the Taxation Laws Act. While P.M. John is remembered as the pioneer, his presence in Antara was also always associated with his wife Aleyamma John, also known around the premises as “Mommy”. It was her persuasive requests to potential and regular donors that motivated many to support the cause of Antara.

“They did everything together. Chacha and my mother would be out of the house to visit Antara by 9 am every Saturday, and they would be back by 5 pm,” reminisces Dr John. Part of the medical advisory team of Antara himself, Dr John urges for an increase in the number of mental health professionals. “Psychiatry in India is a disaster. The country has about 3000 psychiatric doctors and nursing staff of about 5000. That is not enough. The success of Antara lies in the fact that our staff is dedicated and kind, but we need more psychiatrists to further improve the quality of life here,” he said.

Currently, there are plans in the pipeline for work therapy sessions and to develop hostels for their chronic patients. Antara, the product of collective single-mindedness towards the acceptance and treatment of mental illness as a legitimate problem, is not a new phenomenon that has risen due to the current wave of talks regarding mental health. It has been up and running for about half a century, and here is where it’s pathbreaking quality lies.

Bulbul Rajagopal is a writing analyst at Qrius 

Mental Health