Mental Stress: The Toiling Class in Slums

No awareness or access

I was born in Kashewadi slum of Pune, in a Dalit family. So I have closely observed and been part of everyday life and events in slums. I am neither an academician nor holding a PhD, but I have ample experience. 

“Mental illness” is something that people are completely unaware of, in the slums. They don't know mental health is like physical health. It is surprising for them that there are doctors or counselors to help people with mental issues get well. And if some few educated persons know about psychiatrists or counselors, they cannot get treated due to lack of money. 

Mental illness means “madness” – that is the common understanding of people in slums. 

One may question: if people in the slum do not know mental illness can be treated, then how do they deal with their mental stress, and despair? I have observed two common ways in which people relieve mental stress. First, without physically harming the body. Second, in which they hurt themselves emotionally and physically.

Sound and music for life’s milestones

Caste, class, gender, religious customs and superstitions, all have a deep impact on a person’s everyday life. Sometimes these may show ways to deal with despair. For example, whenever there is a new birth in a family, the whole community enthusiastically takes part in the rituals. In her seventh month, the Dohale Jevan ceremony is organized for the mother-to-be. She sits on a swing, and people sing traditional songs to cheer her up, and feed her nutritious food to keep her happy. After the birth, a naming ceremony is held for the newborn. Such rituals bring everyone closer, and the songs offer hope and comfort with words like ‘Krishna’s birth comes in the time of Kans. Sleep, baby, sleep, sleep.’ Which means that the divine child Krishna brings good hope in these bad times of the demon Kans (Krishna slays Kans in the well-known mythological tale). 

Marriages are seen as the happiest of celebrations. Even if people do not have money, more importance is given to joy than to showing off wealth. In the marriage house, there is continuous singing and music, from the commencement of rituals till the end. Before the wedding, the night-long Jagaran Gondhal takes place. A woman and some men sing and dance; one person performs with a flaming torch. They pray to the deities to stay calm, and invite them to participate in the general happiness. The performers are all from Dalit or marginalized castes. The women performers, called “Murali”, are dedicated to god, and can never marry; their duty is to worship, and to sing the holy songs.  

After death, too, music remains central. Family members sing collectively in a monotonous rhythm, narrating the life story of the deceased. Women, men, everybody weeps loudly, which helps people to express their grief, as a bhajani mandal or hymn group beside the dead body sings songs explaining how birth and death are inevitable. 

Take the name of God, Leave urges behind 

This is the touch of Fate  Why cry, always?

It’s Fate, it’s Fate, it’s Fate. . .  

If one roams around a slum, morning or evening, one can hear loud music emerging from every household. Romantic songs, DJ songs, devotional music. People connect with the heroes or heroines of these songs so deeply, they enter a virtual world. During power cuts, we used to bang plates, glasses, spoons, while singing together. These fantasies, sounds, and the togetherness, all help to set aside personal pain.

In the slum, all festivals – Ganpati, Navratri, Christmas, Diwali, Moharram, Sankranti, Holi, Mangala Gaur, Dhulivandan, Rangpanchami, and more – as well as the Birth Anniversaries of greats like Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Annabhau Sathe, Shivaji Maharaj, are closely associated with music. Music and art drain out despair, sowing new seeds of hope to rejuvenate our lives. 

Music and art drain out despair, sowing new seeds of hope to rejuvenate our lives. Folk art makes life more bearable.

Possession and mental healing 

The most fascinating thing during my childhood was “angat yene” (possession, when a god or goddess enters a human body). People gather around to worship the possessed person, believing they are worshipping the god. They sing, play musical instruments, and dance for hours. These songs and dance are all related to the religious idea of possession by a deity. 

Cheer the Goddess Yedeshwari! Victory to  Goddess Bhawani!

Full moon day is happiest for me! In the village we shall worship

The idol of Goddess Ambe with pride!

Even as a child, I noticed how the deities possessed only the bodies of people who lived in the slums, not the bodies of people living in upper class, upper caste areas like Sadashiv Peth. All the worshippers, too, were from economically lower classes and marginalized castes. 

The belief is that once a god or goddess has entered into a body, the person is directly connected to the deity, and can therefore solve people’s problems. So the devotees ask for guidance – about rectifying their mistakes, family disputes, problems at work, and so on. The possessed individual then advises them: to gift a chicken; to leave a lemon and coconut at a crossroads intersection. Those who experience possession are usually deeply troubled individuals: transgender persons, or women and men who lack social respect and may be suffering or in despair. 

I have observed how, once someone becomes possessed, family members and others bow and touch the person’s feet, admit to being afraid of them, and speak to them with great respect. This can be helpful for both, the possessed person and the others participating in the event: the person with a god or goddess inside themselves is treated with a dignity and respect which they may not receive otherwise; those with personal anxieties are comforted by the illusion of communicating with a divine power who will now set things right. In this way, both sides are able to achieve a state of mental relaxation. 

The other way 

The second type of mental stress relief I mentioned may be best explored in detail at another time. In general, I am referring to alcoholism and other kinds of substance abuse – common harmful substances that the young people, especially, are drawn to, include ganja, charas, tobacco, gutkha, whitener – as well as the addictive viewing of porn. Many of these addictions are known to cause physical and mental harm, including deaths – often due to inadequate medical help. 

Slums develop their own culture. Living in a slum needs an understanding of  its psychology, and its cultural nuances. The dense populations make cooperation necessary; and the  collective bonds that are seen during festivals and other occasions fulfil people’s needs for actual support as well as for a sense of community. The more marginalized communities express their identities and emotions through creating their own symbols and celebrations.  

The slum is also a goldmine of artists. Folk art makes life more bearable, at some level. Besides the variety of visual and musical forms, today we have rappers and other rich new expressions. 

Finally, while collective feeling may be strong in the slum, there is no question that the quality of life is poor. Until basic human needs like food, shelter, clothing, work, and health are ensured, a negative impact on mental health is inevitable. 


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