For nearly 40 years two Chinese men, POWs from the 1962 war, have been confined in the Ranchi mental asylum for apparent schizophrenia. They speak only Chinese, and can’t communicate with locals except in sign language. The hospital authorities and the Indian government have made no effort to send them back to their families in China. The Chinese embassy seems equally uninterested. Kai Friese visited Ranchi for a first hand look at this long running tragedy.  

He’s with me,” said the madhouse clerk to the madhouse guard as the sheet-metal gates whanged shut. He turned to me: “You’d better stick with me if you want to get out!” Ha Ha. I had been hoping for a permit I could use as a ticket back out. If some doctor in the inner recesses of the asylum diagnosed me as delusional—well, he’d have a point.

The clerk was a friend of a friend of someone I had only spoken to on the phone. And I had told him that I was a cousin of that friend of a friend of someone’s. I was ‘Rana Guha’ and I had come to see whether the Ranchi Mental Asylum (a.k.a. the Central Institute of Psychiatry, formerly the European Mental Asylum) would be a suitable home for my aging uncle—a chronic schizophrenic. I had lied. And when he suggested I should first bring the patient to Outpatient for assessment I had made a scene. He quickly backed down and said he would show me around.

Journalism is most enjoyable under false pretences. One of my first reporting assignments, many years ago, was to inveigle my way into the juvenile ward of Tihar Jail. I got in by meeting Kiran Bedi and feigning wide-eyed admiration for her vision of the prison as an ashram. But I was supposed to find out if the kids were having sex. Once inside the courtyard of ‘Kambli Ward’ the wardens swung their lathis and bashed the thronging delinquents back into their cells until I was left alone with a 15-year-old ‘model prisoner’. When I suggested to him that Madam should be giving them condoms he was appalled. “Yahan koi bura kaam nahin karte hain.” He was inside for “Double Morder” having stabbed his bhabhi and strangled his girlfriend.

But he was not mad. He had killed those two women on a point of honour. Ranchi was different. As I set out for the asylum a local journalist had told me to ask for The Andamanese Prisoner. “He killed thirty people!” Yet there was nothing threatening about the madmen. There were mostly grown men here, but little machismo. Maybe insanity is a trope of adulthood. The wards were named after dead psychiatrists rather than young cricketers. It was less bleak than Tihar but much gloomier. Dark luxuriant trees clogged a plaza. Behind it lay the verandahs of the building I wanted to visit. The Kraepelin Ward. I had read about Kraepelin—a turn of the century German psychologist who had refined the categories of psychopathology—before coming here. He had helped to carve the definition of schizophrenia from the earlier category of ‘Dementia Praecox’. He had also described ‘Paramnesia’, a condition that I found strangely appealing: artificial memories. Staring at the Kraepelin Ward through the shady trees reminded me of something I had never seen. It had the menace of a plantation mansion in the American South.

Or maybe it was just boarding school. I had felt that familiar thickening of atmosphere the moment I was inside the gates. There’s something about institutions of confinement. It’s like stepping into another dimension, or time, or gravity field…

People here are immersed in consequences. They live in Effect. But Cause is sometimes forgotten. Some of them had been here so long that no one remembered why anymore. I can tell you why I was there.

On the morning of the 4th of August last year I was flipping my way through the Delhi edition of the Indian Express—backwards, as usual—when I stopped for amusement at the latest installment of one of my favourite long term investigations: the search for Netaji. One Gurdiyal Singh, 38, was travelling to Calcutta to depose before the Justice Manoj Mukherjee Commission that Subhash Chandra Bose did not die in an air crash in Formosa. No, he perished a forgotten prisoner in the Gulag, in the 1960s.

Great!

I got out the scissors. And that’s when I noticed the other story: Centre asks Bihar about two Chinese POWs after drawing a blank in Delhi.

“The Union Ministry for Home Affairs has asked the Bihar Government for details about the two Chinese prisoners of war (POWs)—Jiang Chen and M.A. Siblong—who are languishing at the Central Institute of Psychiatry, a mental asylum, in Ranchi since the 1962 war. After the Indian Express brought this to light this week the ministry moved quickly so that ‘the matter can be taken up at a higher level.’”

It was a follow-up story and it already had the tired air of a scoop foundering on the shoals of concerned officialdom: “A reply from the Bihar Government is expected within a fortnight,” the correspondent warned. “And after that the Chinese Embassy is likely to take at least two months to respond to the Indian Government, it is pointed out.” End of story.

Two and a half months of bureaucracy is a long time. Six months and more have slipped away on my calendar and many things have happened in my life, most of which are of no interest to other people. Except that I have been to the Kraepelin Ward of the Ranchi pagalkhana, and I met a Chinese man there whose days have passed without an event for a very long time.

After I read the story I called a friend at the Express who faxed me the original report. 38 years after war two Chinese prisoners wait for freedom said the headline. It was by the Ranchi correspondent Manoj Prasad:

Fifty-nine-year-old Jiang Chen sits in the portico of the library of Central Institute of Psychiatry, Asia’s oldest mental asylum. Memories of a war and forty years of silence are mirrored in his eyes. It has been a long wait, perhaps an endless one for him, a Chinese POW of 1962.

Jiang is one of the two Chinese prisoners of the 1962 war lodged in the mental asylum, considered hell even by Bihar standards, ignored by Beijing and New Delhi. Almost four decades and several summits and discussions after the war, these two remain prisoners of solitude and negligence.

‘Jiang Chen’ had apparently recovered from a ‘mild attack of schizophrenia’ in 1963. The other prisoner ‘M.A. Siblong’ was 62. An unnamed nurse was quoted, “Both of them behave gentlemanly and like rice, milk and biscuits…Since they don’t understand Hindi or English, we converse with them with symbols and gestures.” Siblong, the report added, “knows two Hindi words: chai and biskoot.” There was a photograph of a smiling man in a torn kurta captioned: Jiang in the asylum.

I telephoned Manoj Prasad in Ranchi and he told me the story behind his story. He had first heard of the Chinese POWs five or six years earlier in a local newspaper report. “It was somewhere on the third page,” he said, “Do Chinese bandi yahan par pagalkhane me. I asked Dr Raju, the director of the asylum about it and told him I have to meet them and take a photograph. He refused.”

Manoj bided his time but in 1997 Dr Raju shot himself. The years passed. Nothing much was happening in Ranchi and his editors in Delhi were on his tail to come up with one of those seasonal human interest horror stories that flourish in Bihar. Then he remembered, “Sala! I have a story, I have to follow it up.” Fortunately he now had a new contact—an SSP. He called him up: “Sir, aisa hai, hum to koi criminal nahi hain. I am a bona fide citizen of India, I am accredited by the Government of Bihar as a bona fide journalist. I want to see this asylum where crores of rupees are being spent. Why can’t I see it? He said ‘Kaun bolta hujoor? Jaiye na! Hum aapko lejainge.’”

And so, one fine morning Manoj entered the Kraepelin Ward where he quickly found the two videshi gentlemen: “My scene was very simple, man—photograph…but the Doctors burst in, asking who are you? How did you get in? Massive hungama…we were basically driven out!” Luckily, just before he reached the gate he spotted one of the Chinese men standing by the driveway. He got one picture and made his escape.

As the clerk led me through the grounds of the CIP I realized I was going to be trapped by my own story. I could see the Kraepelin Ward ahead of us but my guide insisted on taking me to the Maudsley Ward instead. “They’re all the same,” he said. We walked down a corridor past a series of dormitories crammed with metal beds. Halfway down there was a cell with metal bars. “Agar koi jada shaitani karta hai…” On the way out we passed through a cluster of inmates and to my relief they seemed oblivious of my tour. My guide cheerfully pointed out the local characters. “This old man—he used to be the accountant for the institute. He worked here for thirty years and now he’s an inmate!”

Just another one of life’s little ironies.

I finally succeeded in steering our course towards the front of the Kraepelin Ward and was rewarded by the sight of the man I recognized from photographs as Jiang Chen. He looked to be in his sixties, and was shuffling slowly along the verandah with a pronounced limp. He looked sad, which seemed a saner expression than most. Just as I was about to approach him a doctor approached us, and the introductions began. I trotted out the whole sad story of my schizoid uncle again while the Doctor shook his head. He suggested a private clinic outside Delhi. “Don’t bring him here,” he said. This place is…well after all it’s just a government hospital.”

By the time I had stopped emoting, my Chinaman had disappeared and my clerk was anxious to get me out again. Walking back to the gate a madman circled us twice in a tight orbit and then spun off on his own trajectory. Outside I came back to earth with the realisation that I had accomplished nothing.

Not that I was ready to admit it yet. When I got back to town I called my wife and related the day’s events. “I saw him!” I said triumphantly. “You mean your trip is a disaster,” she replied. After some harsh words I hung up and decided it was time for some more fibbing. I had a number for Dr S. Haq Nizami the Director of the asylum, but all the local correspondents had told me I wouldn’t get anything out of him. I called him up and said I was a journalist from Delhi working on an in-depth feature on the state of mental health care. I had been to Agra, I had been to Shahadra, I was going to Vellore, and Ranchi was of course the country’s premier psychiatric institution. Could I have a look around? “I don’t know…” he replied. “We have had some bad experiences with the press recently.” You mean that silly story about the Chinese! I laughed. I’m really not interested in that! He asked me to come see him the next morning.

So I did. We spent an hour chatting and I did a good job. So did he. He seemed like a nice man who cared about his work. I listened with interest as he plied me with statistics. “In this country of 100 crores, in any given week, 10% of the population has depression. Syndromable, diagnosable, depression. The lifetime prevalence of depression is 55%…”

I reminisced about my days as a health reporter. For good measure I confided that I had a personal angle—this schizophrenic uncle… I waited for him to bring up the Chinese prisoners and feigned scepticism about the wild reports. He smiled.

‘It’s true, they are Chinese.’

‘Do they talk to anyone?’ I asked. ‘Do they have friends?’

‘They are burnt-out cases. Chronic schizophrenics. Friendship has no meaning for them. The only people who visit them are I.B. interpreters.’

‘I’m surprised. I’ve heard so many crazy stories about this place I didn’t believe any of them.’

‘What have you heard?’

I told him about the Andamanese serial killer, about the accountant. Dr Haq was shocked. There’s no one like that, he said. ‘And then I heard that your predecessor shot himself…’

That’s true, he said.

‘Oh…why?’

‘Depression…’

Dr Nizami asked one of his colleagues, Dr Akhtar to show me around. This time I demanded the full tour. I saw the ECG labs, the lecture halls, corridors stacked with pathologists’ specimens. I asked to see the patients’ library where I’d heard the second Chinese prisoner (variously reported as ‘Sam Long’, ‘M. A Siblong’ and ‘Shih Lian’) liked to spend the day. As we walked, a patient ran up to the Doctor and started discussing his treatment. We were introduced. “He is a college lecturer in Calcutta,” said Dr Akhtar. “He is schizophrenic. He comes here whenever he has a relapse.” The patient smiled and nodded vigorously.

‘He has published a book in English—kya naam hai?’

“Che: Towards the Fount of Humanism” said the patient. “Do aur bhi hain…” he smacked his forehead a few times. “My symptom, my symptom…kya bolta hai Doctor saab?”

“Amnesia,” said Dr Akhtar.

“Haan! Amnesia!” Smack. “You are my friend, philosopher and guide.”

We went to the canteen in that overgrown plaza and I was introduced to an old Anglo-Indian woman: “This is Maggie.” Maggie had come here in 1946 when it was still the European Mental Asylum. She saw me taking notes and told me that her real name was Phyllyis Teresa Mc’Nair (she spelled it out).

We went to the women’s wards but it was lunchtime and they were deserted. I saw a sign painted in English and it made me wince. “A Patient Who Works Recovers Fast”. “Arbeit Macht Frei” they used to say in Auschwitz. This was no KZ but the madness of institutions is universal. And the fragility of their victims.

We finally reached the Kraepelin Ward and I was delighted to see Jiang Chen again at exactly the same spot. “This must be one of those Chinese prisoners,” I said. “Yes, he is,” said the Doctor nervously. I asked if I could just say hello and marched over. He was looking as melancholy as the day before and I noticed that he had a bad rash over his face—(‘Seberrhoeic Dermatitis’ the Doctor told me later).

I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. I was going to reveal my hand. “What’s that?” said Dr Akhtar. It was a printout I had downloaded from a Chinese phrasebook site.

“Ni Hao,” I said shaking hands with the prisoner. He looked at me and nodded.

“I see you have come well prepared,” said the Doctor.

“Ni Gui Xing,” I continued.

“Jiang Chen,” said Jiang Chen.

“Ni Sh Na Li Ren,” I asked. A much rehearsed utterance.

“Chungking,” he said.

“Chungking?”

“Chungking,” he nodded.

And that was it. The Doctor took my arm. “I think you should go,” he said and led me away.

“It’s very sad. Very sad,” said Mr Lu Bing, the Press Counselor at the Chinese Embassy back in Delhi. “After all they are human beings. But we have no information. We have not been given access.” He said he could only deal with the Ministry of External Affairs, but the matter was in the hands of the Home Ministry. So I said I would speak to the relevant Joint Secretary and get back to him. But Mr Bing was feeling emotional and before I could hang up he made his entreaty: “You should write!”

“I will!” I promised.

“You should write: Indian restriction on Chinese goods is unfair! Is very wrong!”

I called the Joint Secretary at the Home Ministry many times, and one day, miraculously, I got through. “We are keen to resolve the matter,” he told me. “If they are Chinese citizens we will send them back. We have given every access.”

“I’ve just spoken to the Chinese Embassy, they say they have not yet had access. It’s four months since the story broke…”

“Yes, there have been procedural delays. As soon as we have information we will let you know.”

“They’ve been in government institutions for nearly 40 years, you must have information.”

“Yes, well, according to our information they came to this country of their own free will.”

‘Free will’. I guess he meant that they were seeking asylum.

This story was first published in the April 2001 issue

Image courtesy: Mahadeo Sen