145. The Asylum

Part 1 of a series of the same name.

DAYS LIKE THIS REMIND me of my childhood: crisp, sunny winter days, thin blue sky, the slough of a mean wind. That word sloughing – an ancient word. This ornery old language proves itself quite adaptable, even in the mouths of my parents. Of course there are different kinds of sloughing. Different leaves make different sounds, and then there are different kinds of winds, too. The sloughing of a breeze through a eucalypt is a kind of shimmer, whereas the slough of a winter's wind through pine needles is almost a hiss, high and sharp. The soundtrack to my childhood was the sloughing of the needles of a row of immense Norfolk pines behind our house, breaking the wind that came in roaring off the plains. My parents had moved from the subcontinental tropics to this place of quiet desperation because my father was a psychiatrist, and the only way he could get his overseas qualification recognised was to take a posting no other psychiatrist in their right mind wanted, even back in those days, more than twenty years ago. I was eight and my sister Kabitha was thirteen. He was the chief psychiatrist at what in those days was still called an asylum. The town my father brought us to seemed to specialise in incarceration: there was a prison for the criminally insane as well as a low-security prison for sex offenders – rapists, child molesters and so on. My mother was also a doctor – she was a paediatrician, but it would take her more than a decade for her qualification to be recognised. She pretended not to mind. We all knew that their qualifications were looked down on here. The medical fraternity in a country town is usually tight-knit, but government psychiatrists in those days, in that town, weren’t necessarily invited. It was done on a case by case basis: my father’s predecessor had been widely loved until the department had transferred him elsewhere, a move that had prompted letters of protest in the local newspaper. My father was Indian: his presence in the medical established was merely tolerated, provisional. My father pretended not to notice, but he was shy and prone to closing in on himself when out of his comfort zone. He didn’t drink at all and played squash, not golf. His accent was a cause of consternation: at times he would say something and his interlocutor would ask him to repeat what he’d said twice, but if by the third time they still hadn’t understood they would simply nod politely and change the topic of conversation. It wasn’t uncommon. At any rate, the plan was simple: my father would do his hardship posting, we would all do it together, and then we would leave this place, move to the city, be among our own people, or at least find people who we could take on, or who would take us on. We lived in one of the staff residences by the asylum – one of the nicer ones. There were psychiatrists living on either side of us, although they were younger, in their twenties, doing their own hardship posts. Further down, in smaller houses, lived the psych nurses, who kept to themselves. Many of them were kind to me but were coolly deferential to my parents. Behind us was a row of Norfolk pines, planted to screen the high walls of the asylum itself, which, other than my father, we almost never entered. We didn’t think of it as the site of any particular kind of horror: it was simply our father’s workplace, full of medical instruments and equipment, the equivalent of a big hospital, with easy patients and hard, and staff who got along or didn’t, and management that was competent or not, and further away were the abstractions of departments and policies and the civil service. Our world didn’t gravitate around the asylum, but the asylum was never far away – not when we were at home, when it was that looming presence behind the pines, nor when we were at school, when it was such a frequent topic of conversation among my classmates that it was practically an obsession.