The Sanity of Insanity: Living with Lunatics in the City

When we were young, in our neighbourhood, in downtown Yangon, we often saw an insane man who walked on Yangon downtown streets. We gave him the nickname “Kyauk Khit Lu Thar/ Stone Age Man” because he was a person who wore only a loincloth around his waist and kept his chest bare.

The Stone Age Man liked to carry rocks, heavy stones, gutter covers or heavy items when he moved around. So we thought that the name we gave was very suited to him. But he did not bring any threat to the people who walked down the streets. So they just glanced at him and let him do what he liked to do.

One evening, when we sat for tea on a roadside tea shop at the corner of Merchant Road and 32nd street lower block, dust was falling down from the nearby big banyan tree. When we checked where the dust was coming from, we looked up at the tree and saw Kyauk Khit Lu Thar trying to break the branch of the tree with a stone he had picked up from the street. He did not care to look at us until he finished his arduous task.

Later, we did not see him in the streets and he disappeared from the city. Maybe he passed away or went somewhere else. Sometimes, I wondered where those lunatics went. Maybe their families did not allow them to loiter in the streets or sent them to a mental hospital to get them ‘cured’. But for Kyauk Khit Lu Thar, I was not sure that he had a guardian or someone who looked after him in the city.

I also noticed that some new lunatics came into the city, but they often came and went away. I did not know where they came from or with what means of transportation they arrived in the city. Maybe they took a bus downtown or walked into the city from their native place.

Another insane man I found in the city was a middle-aged man in Western attire. I sighted him in Phayre Street (now Pansodan Street).  He looked like an intellectual because people saw him lost in deep thoughts or reading an English newspaper. He liked to wear a brown coat and a pair of long black pants. Whenever I saw him, he had a cigarette in his hand, carrying an English magazine or periodical under his arm. He also liked to put his other hand into one of his pants’ pockets. He was one of the many lunatics found in the city.

One day, I saw him in a post office in Pansodan Street where he was writing something on a letter. I happened to be standing next to him before I bought a stamp from the clerk. I glanced at him and was surprised to find that he wrote the English text in perfect handwriting. It was a rare sight to see someone writing perfect English handwriting in my city. I did not say it to him, but for us, it was not an easy thing to write beautiful handwriting. That made it obvious that he had studied well. I felt pity for him why he had become mentally unfit.

There was another lunatic who was a strong, big and opulent man who liked to wear badges on his chest. He liked to collect discarded badges or plastic tags from rubber stamp making stalls on 32nd Street. He liked to wear a duty coat and a mask dangling around his neck. Young people laughed at him whenever they saw him because he liked to show off his superiority to people. I was not sure when or where he died or passed away. But, I still remember his former looming presence in the city.

Another lunatic was an old lady who carried a cane in her hand all the time. Physically unpleasant to look at because of chickenpox marks on her face, she liked to poke people passing by her with the stick. People stayed away from her. She liked to sit on the bus stop benches, and sometimes she would even sleep on them. She was named “Kauk Ba Luu Ma” (the one who is as ugly as an ogre) because of her chickenpox marks. Neighbours in the city normally teased her calling another name, “Chet Su Ma” because she had a “pouting navel” which she showed to people whenever she was teased or when she became agitated and angry. She lived in the city until people started getting used to seeing her in the streets.

Some people thought that she was not a real lunatic, only pretending to be a fool to live advantageously, because she begged for money from every shop, mostly tea shops. Whenever she wanted to drink a cup of tea, she walked into the tea shop where they gave her a cup of tea for free. If not, she started to use abusive words and foul words. That often offended other customers at the tea shop. Some rowdy people loudly called out to her “Kauk Ba Lu Ma” whenever she came down on Fraser Road (now Anawrahta Road) to make her angry and irritated. Seeing her irritation made them happy. But I thought that we should not tease such a pitiful person in that way.

Recently, we found another new lunatic who liked to sing songs wherever people were gathered. She thought that they were her audience while she performed her best songs. She sang so loud that even people on the bus glanced at her from the windows of the bus. If she was not singing, she liked to carry several plastic bags with her. She put them down only when she paused to rest.

Mostly, she walked around the area of the central park called “Mahabandoola Park”, formerly known as Fytch Square and Queen Victoria Park. When people looked at her with wonderment, she sang her songs from the depth of her throat, her shrill voice echoing in the environs. Sometimes she sang the national anthem and at that time, her voice was really hard and strong.

For us, the physical improvement of a city is easy to fathom while the spiritual improvement of its residents is hard to measure. In this sense, we can define the sanity and insanity of a city. Consider also these two well-known sayings, “Puhtuzano Ummatako/ Everyone is a fool in their own obsessions” and “Yoo Mha Htoo/ If you want to excel in something, you have to be really crazy about it”.

I read the translation of the novel, Ward Six, by Anton Chekhov when I was in high school. Since then, I wondered why people lost their minds; was it was a change from sanity to insanity or was it simply mental transfiguration? In the course of time, I noticed several lunatics in my surroundings and my curiosity piqued all the more.

Since then, I wondered why people lost their minds; was it was a change from sanity to insanity or was it simply mental transfiguration?

The causes of lunacy were so enthralling to me that I looked for some references in traditional belief. In terms of traditional medicine, a person can lose their mind when their ‘thel chay’ (bile) is damaged. This was the way how healers measured the insanity of people.

In addition, some people like to think that an unaccountable phenomenon like a bad spell or necromancy curse has been exercised on those people because of which they became insane. This assumption is unsophisticated because people can find out the cause of insanity through the arts of psychology or psychiatry. But laypeople define the cause of lunacy as the way they used to think out of superstition or common belief.

It is hard to tell what the causes of mental illness are. According to religious beliefs, people suffer mental illness because they did the wrong things to their benefactors in previous lives. On the other hand, some become lunatics because of drug abuse, alcoholism, the loss of their fortunes or people they loved, a great shock, etc. I think one can discern how a lunatic became a lunatic by noticing their behaviour. Someone who is playing with paper as money, collecting rocks or trash as money and storing them in a plastic bag, may have lost his mind because of losing money or property in one way or another.

Hence, it can be directly concluded that if an individual’s environment is conducive to insanity, that individual is bound to be in the throes of insanity. Buddhism teaches us, “Yo ni so ma na si ka ya” which means “to protect oneself well or to nurture one’s mind properly”. This shows that if someone controls one’s mind, one’s mind cannot be lost. Sometimes, it is important to be aware that insane people are living in the same city that we, the sane, are living in. They do not impose any threats to the community they live in. They just go about in the city without contributing anything to the community. It seems that they do not have any links in the city, which means that they are not involved in any matters of the community. Normally, people feel sorry for those who suffer from mental illness.

Hence, it can be directly concluded that if an individual’s environment is conducive to insanity, that individual is bound to be in the throes of insanity.

As the local belief goes, they stay fine until the sun is high at noon. There is a saying in Myanmar, “The higher the sun goes, the more foolish the lunatics will be”. So, people used to warn lunatics not to go out in the midday scorching heat. In this way, people try to manage insanity based on the traditional concept.

I sometimes think that whenever the community is mentally strong, there will be no lunatics or people who have gone insane. People will be mentally strong to resist any trouble they face.

On the other hand, aren’t lunatics the strong ones? Lunatics are never afraid, come rain or shine. They eat whatever they find in the street. But when you look at their eyes, they sometimes become blank. And some lunatics still have senses such as obedience or shrinking away when someone tells them to back off.

Time keeps changing and when old lunatics are gone, new ones come in. It is hard to notice their presence or arrival in the city because their presence in the city is not so important. Sometimes, people may even fail to notice someone standing beside may be a lunatic. He may seem normal and does not seem out of the ordinary to people. These insane people walk and flow together with people, ‘normal people’ simply waiting for traffic to stop or to catch a bus ride home.

The British first built the lunatic asylum in Rangoon (now Yangon). We know that we keep lunatics in a lunatic asylum to cure them or to protect them. This shows good management of the community and it may give people another chance to be sane again.

When we look back at the history of the lunatic asylum in the city of Rangoon/Yangon, lunatic asylums in Burma/Myanmar started to open in 1886 when the British built a prison for the insane, very close to the city prison in Rangoon.

When they started, there were only 50 inmates. In 1926, they opened a new hospital called Tadaglay (Little Bridge), 8 miles from Rangoon with 250 residents. During the Second World War, most of the buildings in the asylum were destroyed. During 1945, they accommodated 45 patients near Insein Prison. Later, after a year, they were moved to Tadaglay. Before 1947, one of Burma’s first great movie stars, Dr Walter Chit Tun, served as Superintendent of Tadaglay. At the time of independence of the country in 1948, the name of the asylum was changed into Mental Hospital.

When Dr. Ne Win came back from London in 1951, the city was introduced to remarkable psychiatric care. He replaced custodial care, such as isolating patients and the use of straitjackets with hospital-based care. In 1960, he became the Medical Superintendent and the hospital was renamed again as State Mental Hospital in 1962 and Rangoon Psychiatric Hospital in 1967. He is known as “Father of Psychiatry” of the country.

In my opinion, people can have mental illness and physical illness reasonably or unreasonably, phenomenally or un-phenomenally. Sanity and insanity are closely related words. If one knows the real state of mind one has, one will be sane, or if not, one will be insane; in other words, one will lose all reasonability and reasoning if one loses their mind, but their sensibility is still functioning.

But sanity and insanity are ingrained in any community. A certain force or action can turn a person from sanity to insanity. We need to build a better environment and conditions for both, sanity and insanity, because latent lunacy can always surge up to the surface.

San Lin Tun is a freelance writer of essays, poetry, short stories and novels in Myanmar and English. He lives in Myanmar.

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