Psychiatry: A Gendered Microhistory

On July 20, 2011 by admin

Amitranjan Basu

Amitranjan Basu

[First Look : Ajita Chakraborty, My life as a psychiatrist: memoirs and essays. Kolkata: Stree, 2010, pp. 220, index+references, hard cover, Rs. 500.00. ISBN 81-85604-92-4 978-81-85604-92-3.]

For the last two decades, since I started reading critically psychiatry and psychology from the cultural perspective, I had the opportunity to engage myself with colleagues from both humanities and human sciences, and this engagement has enriched me a lot to understand and describe the complexity of cultural practices called psychiatry and psychology. There seem to be a growing interest in the humanities that deal with human mind, but more with psychoanalysis than with psychiatry, psychology and psychiatric social work. There is a renewed interest with Frued, Lacan and a range of post-modern and post-colonial scholarships emerging from Euro-American societies. While these efforts have been productive to re-view south-asian society, culture and politics, I can hardly recall about any serious work based on resources that developed in the South Asian mileu in the last four to five decades! There are few exceptions like Ashis Nandy and Sudhir Kakar, who probably entered the reference list when appreciation of their work started being audible from the Euro-American academia! No study tried to include the works of those who tried to raise a critical voice within these disciplines. No serious reading has been done with the ‘internal’ discourses of mental ‘sciences’ that can strengthen our intellectual culture to offer alternative views on our society, politics and culture. In this context, the book under review can provide an entry point for my colleagues.

 It links up with the threads of knowledge that the early scholars of our psychiatry, produced in a context where these disciplines were more marginalised. And again, much of this knowledge is useful once we consider history is a way to access past for the present. In this backdrop, Ajita Chakraborty’s book takes us to nuanced narratives of a microhistory of Indian psychiatry and Indian Psychiatric Society. Ajita, one of the first two woman psychiatrists (the first perhaps is Saroja Bai) in India is more known for her serious concerns about the social and cultural aspects of psychiatry, an area less travelled by majority of her fellow colleagues.

Who else could write the foreword of this book other than Ashis Nandy? A street-fighting public intellectual, who convincingly transformed his training in psychology to create a discourse of political psychology as a powerful social critique. Nandy in this original piece, opened by saying that “no account of a society is complete without a profile of its subjectivities. This is particularly true for India, which has for centuries lived with diverse, highly developed theories of the mind and techniques of intervention in human consciousness” (p. vii). He notices the paucity of data on those pioneers who tried hard to adopt this new science in a culturally diverse non-modern society to make their profession meaningful in its new social context, and laments that: “we are now left with predominantly de-cultured, asocial, overtly medicalised psychological disciplines studying subjectivities in this part of the world” (p. ix). Nandy noted that, Ajita did not try to blur the distinction between normality and abnormality like her ‘Guru’ Ronald Laing and his anti-psychiatry group. Rather, “she retains the difference as a therapeutic reality and a tool of social criticism” (p. xii). Nandy has pleaded to read this book keeping this context in the mind.

Ajita’s book is divided into two parts: memoirs and essays. Memoirs are organised in seven chapters (‘My Early Days,’ ‘Time Abroad,’ ‘Life and Work in Calcutta,’ ‘Psychiatry and the Indian Psychiatric Society,’ ‘Transcultural Psychiatry,’ ‘Deconstructing and /or Analysing Myself,’ and ‘People and Organisations’). In the essays section she has provided eight essays where the last two (‘My Views on Psychiatry in General’ and ‘Cultural Psychiatry, and Understanding Self and Identity’) are being published for the first time. The reader will realise that her autobiographical narrative is theoretically argued and evidenced in her essay section making the volume a well organised narrative.

Starting with her birth date she commented: I was born on 31st October, 1926, 9 pm, Sombar, Sashthi. Mother [Tamalini Devi] had written that information in a tiny handmade notebook of some antiquity that I have preserved. The year of birth written by my mother is 1927; I had disputed and corrected it to 1926 when I was 11 years old, after having checked it with cousins near my age. The birthday came under a strange cloud some years later. (p.1)

An astrologer, who visited her as a client persuaded her that he wants her horoscope prepared by his guru and with much hesitation she provided her birth information to him.

A few days later he came back to report her that the date is faulty: Kartik 14 did not match either Sombar (Monday) or Sashthi (the sixth day since the new moon) of that year. I told him about the confusion over the year of my birth. He came again; saying, that the day and date recorded by my mother matched neither the Greǵorian nor the Bengali year…Confusion and missing out became a part of my life, while the ‘real’ things eluded me. Even my birthday was a contentious issue. (pp. 1-2)

Her father, Khirode Behary Chuckerbutty came from a humble family of Jajmans (village priests) who, having committed the sin of eating chicken ‘fell out with his family and ran away from his village. He became a khalasi in a ferry service, and later purser with a coastal shipping company.’ However, he managed to get a BA degree and switched his career as a resident tutor in affluent families. He used the dowry for his marriage to start an electrical goods manufacturing which later on became well known as Clyde Fans. In spite of its initial success, Clyde Fan sank and Ajita’s father moved to the shade of the factory calling himself sansar tyagi (one who has denounced the family life) and put his wife and children in a small rented house where he used to visit sometimes and sent money regularly.

 Even growing up in this kind of a fissured family environment Ajita passed her matriculation exams with first division and went to Scottish Church College for her intermediate degree and finally got admitted to Medical College, Calcutta. She described in detail about her school days, family life, neighbourhood and college days, carefully avoiding excess, which shows she was consciously comporting her in a way that she should not be an average. She said that her attraction towards psychology grew up from early adulthood so it was not surprising that she chose psychiatry as her specialty after reaching England in 1951.

 In England she worked in psychiatric hospitals for considerable period before getting her fellowship in psychiatry from the Royal College. One interesting fact needs to be told about her long stay in England. Here she got introduced to London Majlis (the Indian students’ association in London) where communists played a significant role. However, her association with them ‘meant spending a considerable part of my time doing extracurricular activities with fellow Indians. Life in the UK was generally rather boring and dull.’ So Ajita ‘hung out with the communists, but never truly believed in Marxism, except in a liberal sense.’

After returning to Calcutta in the end of sixties she rented a small terrace-flat in New Alipore and spent thirty years of her life there growing a nice roof-garden. At that time posts in psychiatry were less in the state government so she had to start working in the Neurology department. She faced a lot of hurdles and harassment in her career in the government service. Both in teaching and private practice she had to confront patronising and patriarchal attitudes. These debates and critical reflections about a new profession and her being a minority (not just in terms of gender) provided a nuanced description of a microhistory of the discipline and its institutions. She was active in the Indian Psychiatric Society and became the general secretary in 1966 and till date she remains the only woman psychiatrist holding this position! She gives a detail but critically analysed version of her experience, charting out her conceptual assertions not only about psychiatry in general, but trans-cultural psychiatry in particular and of course about WHO led programmes. Besides this, she was also seen in various addas in Calcutta, which were frequented by noted litterateurs, painters, poets and intellectuals. The best part of the memoirs section comes with her ‘Deconstructing and /or Analysing Myself,’ where she tried to be open in examining her self.

As commented earlier, the essays section seems to provide a theoretical premise for the memoirs. Selections are representative of her interest in cultural, social and political issues and provide in-depth analyses on those. Western psychiatric education did not alienate her from her own culture and society rather she has questioned poignantly about the hegemony of Euro-American psychiatry and the attitude of her colleagues who blindly followed that paradigm. She offered a narrative of a woman who struggled in various ways in her life yet consciously does not claim her narrative to be a feminist one.

 This is the first time I was reading a book that reveals a gendered microhistory of psychiatry that was buried under the discourse of standard histories and of patriarchies. We get engaged with a rare kind of psychiatrist who pushes the discipline outside the boundaries of mental hospitals and clinics and brings us face to face with the social.

Amitranjan Basu is an independent researcher in social psychiatry and currently a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. 

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