Nepali Times


A homeless woman came to sleep on the streets of Samakhusi. Each day she would gather a few twigs together to light a fire under an old powdered milk tin and cook whatever came her way. While others thought and spoke of her as that 'madwoman', Bhim Dhakal, a resident of Samakhusi, noticed that despite being homeless she had a quiet dignity and did her best to keep herself clean. During the following months he grew to respect this independent woman's attempts to survive.

When the monsoon came, she could no longer find dry twigs to light her fire and it was impossible for her to stay dry. Bhim's concern grew. How would she survive the long monsoon? It was when she became sick that Bhim called me. "She might die," he feared. "I must do something. Please advise me what to do."

Ujeli Rai, who we guessed was about 45 years old, could tell us her name and little else. She had a problem with her hearing and seemed mentally disturbed, not surprising under the circumstances. She remembered nothing of where she came from or how she ended up homeless. Her damp clothes were so rotten they tore easily as she tried modestly to cover her body. She gratefully accepted the dry skirt and blouse offered to her with a winning Kirati smile. After making a few enquiries, I was advised to contact Asha Deep, a home for mentally disturbed people. Asha Deep's response was direct and positive. They would help!

A very young girl was assigned to come with us to persuade Ujeli to accompany us to Asha Deep. I personally doubted that this youngster could obtain the homeless woman's trust, but she did so with amazing professional skill and tact. Ujeli was quickly seated in a taxi, and we were on our way. Asha Deep is well accustomed to coping with the problems of disturbed people, and while I watched, Ujeli was fed and offered a private place to bathe which she was happy to accept. In a very short time Ujeli adjusted to her new surroundings and made good friends with the staff and other inmates. Being a big woman, she enjoyed working in the garden and tending the cows. She liked children and animals and took interest in caring for both.

Many months passed, but all attempts at getting Ujeli to reveal her past were in vain. This normally friendly woman would become uncharacteristically upset and angry when questioned. Something was blocking her memory. Later, when Ujeli's health improved, Asha Deep talked to me about rehabilitation. We had to give it a try. I agreed to see what would happen if I took her home. As she liked animals, perhaps she could take care of my four dogs and two cats.

Ujeli was extremely reluctant to leave Asha Deep, a place she now called her maiti. I hoped that she would settle down in a few days. She loved my animals, even my black kitten. She cooked me delicious dal bhat, but she was never at ease. She had difficulties with my western loo. She was terrified of getting lost and being alone. So much so that through the night I would frequently hear my door being opened-Ujeli was checking if I was still there.

One day, in an attempt to reassure her, I telephoned Kumar, a staff-member at Asha Deep familiar with Ujeli. Perhaps a friendly voice would reassure her. As she put the phone to her ear, an incredible thing happened. She listened a moment, trying to hear. Suddenly she gripped the phone tightly and her body went rigid. Her eyes closed, her mouth opened wide and loudly she began calling into the phone, "I'm lost. I'm lost. Where are you? I can't find you."

Like me, Kumar realised something crucial was happening. It became clear Ujeli thought she was talking to someone else. But who? Kumar seized the moment, perceptively taking the opportunity to get Ujeli to speak. He miraculously succeeded in opening up her memory and within minutes she revealed the name of her village and her family. It all came tumbling out. She came from Khotang in Okaldunga.

Within days, accompanied by two staff members of Asha Deep, a very happy Ujeli made the journey back to her village, in the uncertain but expectant hope of finding her family. She was joyfully reunited with her delighted and amazed parents and her ecstatic eleven-year-old son.

Two-and-half years earlier, Ujeli had come to Kathmandu with her nephew to visit relatives. In the confusion and bustle of the streets, she got lost. Ujeli's desperate relatives panicked. They combed the lanes for many days, bewildered by the crowds. Finally, they gave up and went home. As time went by they thought she must be dead.

What happened to Ujeli during those hideous lost years before she was found by Bhim? We will probably never know. For me, this was a unique story. But for Asha Deep, this is just another day. Set up in 1994, the shelter has helped reunite many such lost people. Also, it helps households with disturbed family members cope with this growing problem of urbanisation. In a country where rapid development is creating a confusing world for many, understanding and sympathy for mental health is vital. It's all happening too fast, too suddenly for many Nepalis. Like Ujeli, many of these "mad" people are just lost. We see them everywhere. But, unlike Ujeli, not all of their stories have such a happy ending. t

Jan Salter has lived in Nepal for 30 years. She is an artist and co-author with Harka Gurung of the book, Faces of Nepal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)