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The first of two parts of a piece of Literary Journalism written for a class on Creative Nonfiction

Pakistan is one of the most philanthropic countries in the world, and the institution of Dar-ul-Sukun in Karachi is an embodiment of this trait. Situated on Kashmir Road, the organization caters to mentally and physically challenged residents. What started off as an institute for handicapped children has now evolved into a residence for children and adults alike. Dar-ul-Sukun was established in 1969 by a Dutch Nun, Sr. Gertrude Lemmens. Assisted by the sister nuns Sr. M. Mathilda Pereira, Sr.Ruth Lewis, Sr. Angela, Sr. Immuculata, Sr. Agnes and currently run by Sr. Ruth Lewis since Sr. Gertrude’s death, the Dar-ul-Sukun home in Karachi today caters to around two hundred residents.

From the outside, Dar-ul-Sukun looks nothing more than yet another building on the street. Its red bricks are a little attention-grabbing, but not enough to make one want to go in. And why should we anyway? In a country where the norm is to censor talks about mental illnesses, it is hardly surprising to witness people’s indifference to the plights of the disabled.

A regular old building from the outside, Dar-ul-Sukun is an entirely different world once you walk in. Finely pruned lawns and a level of cleanliness equivalent to that seen in hospitals are enough to attract attention, but the real magic of the place lies in its inhabitants. As a volunteer, you have the most interaction with these patients only.

To be honest, I could not understand how my being there would help these people in any way, and had only ended up at Dar-ul-Sukun to fulfil some volunteer hours that my school required each student to do. Today, I am not only a critic of this practice of stigmatising these people, but have also ended up understanding that while my being there cannot help their condition, it certainly helps liven them up.

***

The Story of Rose:

Rose was, to put it crudely, the old woman that everyone shied away from. She had a duck-footed manner of walking and would always have a hint of drool on the left side of her lips – something that repulsed many volunteers, me included. She would make loud clapping noises every time she walked, which was a source of irritation for many. If the volunteers were ever seen running around looking for obscure corners to sit in, it was a sign of Rose’s arrival. Personally, I used to be not just appalled by her, but a little scared as well. It was only when a volunteer recounted his discomfited experience of Rose trying to kiss him did I realize that there must be something more to the woman than her outlandish appearance.

Perhaps I was too quick to judge her by her appearance. Perhaps society as a whole is too quick to judge the retarded by how the latter act outwardly. When it came down to one on one conversations, I found Rose to be surprisingly docile. She would never speak much beyond persistently asking a person what their name was, but as I got to know her better, I found out that she had mastered the art of tying a French braid, could make garlands out of roses and had a catchphrase of ‘Dekho yaar.’ I never found out what was wrong with her (inhabitant confidentiality demanded such information to remain private) but from the side of Rose that I came to know, there really wasn’t anything wrong with her.

When talking to one of the nurses present at Dar-ul-Sukun, I found out that Rose was always kept under very strict watch to stop her from sneaking out. This was for her own safety, the nurse explained, because if found on the streets, Rose would be taken advantage of and beaten up for what people would see as her ‘weird’ manners. Of course, if they knew the real person behind the rogue look, they might have thought differently.

But then, what reason does a stereotypical society have to think differently towards people like Rose?

The Story of Mr. André:

What drew me towards Mr. André wasn’t the fact that he was suffering from a stretch of loneliness, or that he had been dropped off at the place by a grandson who never came back to visit. What attracted me most about him was his name – what I presumed to be an Italian name (discovering later that it was French). There was a specific way you had to roll your tongue to pronounce it, a method that I tried to master. From a medical standpoint, he showed all the signs of depression, although that was not his major worry. What was more troubling for him was that from a social standpoint, he was as good as ostracized. He was dropped off at Dar-ul-Sukun because his house was being sold and the family was unwilling to take him abroad with them. Other relatives, friends and neighbours were unwilling to keep him, and so, when shunned by society, Mr. André ended up at Dar-ul-Sukun.

It often made me wonder why Mr. André was considered such a burden by society. He was one old man who ate very little and did not need assistance for basic tasks such as going to the bathroom. He was a person who ordered a copy of the newspaper every morning and was up to date on all worldly affairs. He taught me how to say his name properly (something that I am still unable to do) and recounted stories of buying Harry Potter books for his grandchildren. What was perhaps most striking about him was his affability – he would always be there with a customary greeting every time a volunteer showed up and would be more than happy to assist new volunteers around. His optimism was contagious, because he tried hard to not let his loneliness get in the way of rebuilding his sense of independence.

Over time, Mr. André voluntarily became the ‘errand guy’ for Dar-ul-Sukun. He would often go out to fulfill small chores such as getting bread and eggs from the nearby store or taking the little kids to the park across the road. Families visiting the park would often mistake him to be the grandfather of the kids he took to the park, but why wouldn’t they? He comfortably fit the role of the jovial grandpa for all the children at Dar-ul-Sukun.

His sudden and unfortunate death left everyone quite upset, to say the least. What was presumed to be growing buoyancy culminated in an attempted suicide – a successful one. We, as volunteers, were spared the details of what actually happened, but we were not spared the shock that accompanied his death. Society probably saw him as another old burden that just got dumped in the end; I saw him as a man whose many prospective years of life got subsumed by loneliness and depression.

No family member came to attend his funeral.

But of course, we have more to worry about in the country than the depressive streaks of the old and senile, right?

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