Sarah Pinto on the fascinating Indian dream analysis study that inspired her new book, exploring relationship between ethics and counter ethics

Pinto’s new book The Doctor & Mrs. A. is culled from conversations between Satya Nand and 'Mrs. A.', with a fascinating exploration of the relationship between ethics and counter ethics.

Shikha Kumar April 10, 2020 09:18:59 IST
Sarah Pinto on the fascinating Indian dream analysis study that inspired her new book, exploring relationship between ethics and counter ethics

When Sarah Pinto was in India a few years ago to research the history of hysteria in the country, she got access to the archived case files at NIMHANS Bangalore’s psychiatry department. A doctor, who was at the helm of the preservation effort, told her he had a case for her that would challenge everything she thought she knew about Indian women. The case was part of Dev Satya Nand’s 1947 publication The Objective Method, that the doctor had encountered in England.

As a cultural anthropologist, Pinto had long focused on the gendered dynamics of medicine and health, and this piqued her curiosity. A few months later, she’d found a copy of the book at Harvard – in it was a fascinating dream analysis study that Satya Nand, a Christian military psychologist at Lahore Mental Hospital, had developed with his family friend Mrs. A., a 21-year-old educated, recently married, upper-caste Hindu woman. Mrs. A.’s articulate reflections on marriage, sexuality, socialism, and female mythic figures became “dream smudges”.

Sarah Pinto on the fascinating Indian dream analysis study that inspired her new book exploring relationship between ethics and counter ethics

Sarah Pinto

Pinto’s new book The Doctor & Mrs. A.: Ethics and Counter-Ethics in an Indian Dream Analysis (Women Unlimited Press and Fordham University Press) is culled from those conversations, with a fascinating exploration of the relationship between ethics and counter ethics. Excerpts from an interview with the author, who also teaches at anthropology at Tufts University.

What was it about Mrs. A.'s chapter in The Objective Method that fascinated you?

Dr Sanjeev Jain, who had found the obscure book, had mentioned that it contained a case with a fascinating love triangle and that the case’s subject was an unexpected kind of figure – someone whose ideas about gender, sexuality, and personal independence were progressive and bold for her time. When I managed to get my hands on the text, I found, of course, that he was correct, but I also discovered that this was an intimate portrayal of psychoanalysis in action, one that diverged from what I thought I knew about the history of psychoanalysis and, especially, its relationship to women. Mrs. A. was an active, and at times contentious, analysand – she challenged Satya Nand’s ideas, told him where he had gotten her analysis wrong, and brought her own interesting and original ideas to the case.

She reflected on her love affairs and longings with such freshness and candour, including thoughts on homosexuality, nostalgia about romances before marriage, and reflections on marital sexuality. Her voice feels very real and approachable in a text that is, otherwise, rather dense and difficult.

Mrs. A. wanted to write India's history, and bring Hindu socialism to villagers. It's interesting how Satya Nand accorded a sense of legitimacy to these aspirations, not treating them as delusions. Tell us a bit more about this.

This was also something that excited me about this text. Anyone with an inkling of psychoanalysis’ history – or familiarity with Freud and his colleagues – is aware of its ambivalences about women. On the one hand, acknowledging – as normal! — the fact of female sexuality, and on the other, overwriting the things women said, including accounts of assault and abuse, with their own ideas, effectively using interpretation to silence women and the facts of their lives. But Satya Nand’s cases have a different feel. He wrote, in his description of his unique method, that he wanted to take seriously the ways real-life events affect people and shape their personalities and outlooks. He was interested in the truth, as he put it, which meant that he was willing to entertain certain difficult realities that other psychoanalysts might have reduced to matters of fantasy.

At the same time, he was obviously excited about Mrs. A.’s formulation of “Hindu Socialism” – he thought it had potential to reform Indian social structures and he consistently encouraged Mrs. A. to return to that aspect of her reflections. Though the text as a whole is quite authoritative, in the case itself, there is less of a sense of a singular, masculine, authoritative voice. One senses they were figuring something out together, and that this meant not finding it odd that a young woman might have smart, revolutionary ideas and a voice that deserved to be heard. As someone writing about women’s history from the western academy (which tends to assume that the West has been the primary source of change and resistance where women are concerned), I find Satya Nand’s treatment of his analysand – in the 1940s – to be a reminder that the map and timeline of emancipation are not always what we assume.

The appearance of mythic heroines like Draupadi, Shakuntala and Ahalya forms a focal point of Mrs. A.'s musings, and became a defining feature of the analysis. What do you think led Satya Nand to apply their stories to Mrs. A.'s life?

I can’t give a good answer to this one – Satya Nand’s personal motivations are opaque, but I know that his interest in religion as a source for understanding the psyche spanned his career, and that while he came to emphasise sources such as the Bhagavad Gita in his later work, in early work, which is wildly eclectic, he incorporated ideas from diverse traditions. He was the son of two converts to Christianity and was raised Christian, but Hindu themes are prominent in his work, though his versions of key stories are at times rather... original. In fact, I have wondered if it was Mrs. A. who inspired him to turn to Hindu narratives in a more focused way. She was the one who brought up Draupadi and Shakuntala, and Satya Nand ran with it – finding ways to map her inner dilemmas according to (his understanding of) themes from their stories.

Sarah Pinto on the fascinating Indian dream analysis study that inspired her new book exploring relationship between ethics and counter ethics

Pinto’s new book, The Doctor & Mrs. A.

When Mrs. A. and Dev Satya Nand met, the partition of India was looming. Concepts of Independence led to Mrs. A. attaching her personal dilemmas about marriage and freedom with national ones. How do you view the significance of this?

One of the things I love about this text is its timing – just on the verge of Independence, not there yet but close enough to be infused by a sense of freedom. To me, Mrs. A.’s case is a story about grappling with the stakes and possibilities of freedom, what it means to be contained and what it means to step out of that containment and build something new. There is apprehension, as well as excitement, which strikes me as very human, and also a sense that freedom from the colonial rule may not necessarily mean freedom from patriarchal realities for women, or freedom from poverty for the rural poor – that there will be work to do, new freedoms to accomplish. That this was projected in the near future – not a distant future, but not an imminent one either – is also important. At the same time, it is jarring, sad, and strange to imagine that this conversation happened, in all likelihood, in Lahore, or possibly Amritsar, and to know what would soon come to be and yet see no shadow of it in all that hope and imagination.

You write that as a text on dream analysis, Objective Method is obscure and often confusing, but as an account of mid-twentieth century Indian gender, sexuality, marriage and the ethics and counter-ethics they generate, it is remarkable. Why do you think the publication (and Satya Nand) left little impact on the landscape of Indian psychiatry?

In part, I think this had to do with the timing of the text – not just in Indian history, but in Satya Nand’s own life. It reads as a rushed piece of writing by a young scholar who is very eager to get his ideas into the world and which, perhaps, would have been more lucid with a few more years to reflect and revise. It is not just Satya Nand’s ideas that are wild and complicated, his writing is dense and his meanings often unclear. In some places – especially in later work – there are ideas that, while they do not map onto what we know about biology, the brain, or cells, do feel a bit prescient of epigenetics. In other moments, it is straight-up eugenics – which would not have been an uncommon view at the time, but is certainly discomforting. I suppose we can think of him as ahead of his time in some ways, but also be grateful that some of his ideas did not gain wide acceptance.

Your previous books have focused on the gendering of medical practice in contemporary India. There's a fair bit of mulling on this in The Doctor & Mrs. A. too.

As a cultural anthropologist, I have a long interest in the ways practices that aim to make things better – at the individual or social level – can have unexpected effects on people’s everyday lives. Medicine and public health, as among these practices, is lived out in relationships – in families, neighbourhoods, between individuals – and because relationships are infused with gender, so are medical practices and public health efforts. My first research, in rural Uttar Pradesh, was deeply invested in the idea that modernity, globalisation, change, and all their vicissitudes unfold in rural spaces as much as in urban ones. I came to that as much from my own upbringing in rural America as from my interest in South Asian history and social processes. As a feminist, too, I have a commitment to pursuing the – often complex and entangled, what is now called intersectional – ways inequalities are performed, reinforced, and challenged. Because medicine is supposedly charged with an ethical orientation toward healing, it is an ideal place to ask in what complicated ways inequalities, even violences, are tangled up in efforts to fix or change.

In India, as just about everywhere, this has a lot to do with gender. I came to the study of gender in India through the inspirations of the Indian women’s movement on the one hand, and an early encounter with dais – traditional midwives – on the other. Dais, who are often from marginalised communities yet who do vitally important, highly regarded, and skilled work with bodies, homes, and cosmologies, had complex and subtle strategies for building lives amid inequalities, oppressions, and the contradiction of being at once reviled and revered. I came to see that these means were at once valid on their own terms and ill-fitting with the goals of the mainstream women’s movement in India. Thinking about gender, healing, and power from their perspective utterly transformed my thinking about gender and the stakes of social change. Mrs. A. represents the opposite end of the social spectrum. The dais I worked with in my early research would have been ciphers for her, symbols of lives needing to be fixed, people needing to be taught, but not people with valid perspectives. My work with them was crucial in preventing me from romanticising Mrs. A.’s social justice aspirations, considering its stakes, and recognising the kinds of bad faith, even violences, that can plague our best intentions to make the world a better place.

You've been doing research on the interplay between gender and Indian hysteria. Is that going to be your next published work?

I hope so! I have been working on the history of hysteria in India for a number of years, and in fact, this book comes out of that project. I discuss some of this history in broad brushstrokes in The Doctor… but there is a much longer story, or rather a library of stories! The history of hysteria in India is wonderful because it calls into question some commonplace assumptions about how medicine moves around the world and what modern medical “encounters” look like. It is not just a story about the impact of colonial science or European medicine, but is about the ways medical concepts get shared over broad expanses of time and then, also, get made over as “owned” by one form of knowledge or another.

To my surprise, the history of hysteria in India actually has much less to do with women than I expected, and more to do with ideas about trauma and its effect on our minds and bodies. It has been illuminating to discover the way medical ideas about sudden unconsciousness, fits, muteness, paralysis, and other similar afflictions – ideas that can be found in Ayurveda, Unani-Tibb, and pre-colonial literature and religious writing, as well as in what eventually came to be known as biomedicine, involve ethical discussions about both love and the damages people do to each other.

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