Halfway between the southern cities of Madras and Bangalore, Vellore is a small town with a thirteenth-century fort, a long, busy bazaar, and Christian Medical College. Founded in 1900 as a one-bed dispensary, CMC has grown to employ 2,500 staff, train graduates in thirty different specialties, and treat patients from many countries outside India. It is a reminder of the benevolent aspects of the Raj; supported by Protestant churches abroad as well as missions and diocesan councils from all over India, it still adjusts its charges to the patients’ purses and prides itself on dispensing two or three hundred thousand dollars’ worth of free care in a year.
To the Psychiatry Department’s Mental Health Centre it is a three-mile drive into the dry countryside. The Centre is a collection of low buildings spread out around a compound. (Even the “snakepit” mental hospitals of India’s big cities tend to be less oppressive than their Western counterparts because they are built outward rather than up: space is something India is not short of.) Inside, doctors’ offices open off shady corridors; half-doors allow what air there is to circulate.
Dr. Abraham Verghese—his name shows him to be a Christian and probably from Portuguese Goa—is holding a teaching session for his juniors with the day’s new patients. Mr. Krishnan Reddy is called first: quiet and docile, fifty years old and head of a joint family that includes four married sons and their wives. He has been lucky, until recently, in having a secure job: he is a government forester earning Rs. 300 a month (in 1978, about $38). Reddy is an alcoholic. He gazes with submissive intensity at Dr. Verghese and ignores the circle of other people in the room; he needs no interpreter because he speaks English (of a sort), the lingua franca of southern India.
He has been drinking arak heavily for the past ten years, he says. In the past two years his drinking has got worse, and for six months now he hasn’t worked. This morning he had a fight with his wife and she brought him to the main hospital, which referred him to the Centre. His father was an alcoholic. He can’t work or concentrate; when he is drunk he cries. He drinks to forget financial and family worries, he says. He has no sexual intercourse now; he is “too weak.” He has tried a cure for his drinking before, was given medicines but didn’t take them; but “from today I won’t drink.” He leaves as gently as he arrived, and it is decided he will be admitted to the Centre, if he really wants to be cured.
Govind Ramathayan, twenty-two years old, a teacher, is equally self-effacing in manner. Since he speaks neither Tamil nor English, one of the junior doctors interprets to the group. He has come alone to the Centre (which is unusual), sent by his doctor. He can’t sleep or eat properly; he …