Sarah Pinto. Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India. Contemporary Ethnography Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 296 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4583-7.
Reviewed by Esme Cleall (University of Sheffield)
Published on H-Disability (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
This is a powerful and engaging ethnography of women and mental health in contemporary India. In pursuing a gendered reading of psychiatry, Pinto deftly explores what effect “particular considerations,” taking the perspective of women, have on our understandings of medical practice (p. 4). It is both a study of the social life of medicine, exploring the effects of psychiatry on the lives it touches, and an exploration of love, marriage, and the family, as well as of the dissolution of these relationships. In calling her book Daughters of Parvati Pinto evokes the goddess for her “capacity to fall to pieces,” her ability to “become—wildly—one thing and then another” while wreaking “havoc with cosmos-rattling love” (p. 37). That she does these things in her capacity as a wife, lover, or mother further makes Parvati a “touchstone” for Pinto, as she explores the messiness of intimacy and its powerful effects on the psyche and the social (p. 37).
Daughters of Parvati is a book rich in stories. The opening chapter tells the life history of Ammi, who, having been in, the Agra Mental Hospital for twenty-seven years, is now being “rehabilitated” with her son and daughter-in-law. Lata, another example, is a young woman detained in the Nerhu Government Hospital under court order to ascertain her state of mind given that she had married a man twenty years her senior, a servant in her parents’ house. The battle as to whether or not her sexuality should be pathologized and her “illness,” which defies diagnosis and definition, are not only used to show the intangibility of medical diagnosis but also to illustrate her powerful personality. As Lata insists on the validity of her sexual relationships with her husband and with his “friend,” and her desire to marry both, Pinto points to the politics of medical diagnosis, asking, “what would be a feminist approach here?” (p. 219). Sanjana, who lives in a smaller institution, is another striking character. Pinto preserves this private establishment’s identity by giving it the pseudonym of “Moksha,” the name of a deity that represents liberation but also death (and rebirth). Sanjana is desperate to “get out” of Moksha, but the dates she is given for her release are constantly being deferred. Pinto’s own life is woven throughout such narratives in the book. The presence of her daughter Eve and Pinto’s separation from Eve’s father are movingly interlinked with the narratives of her characters, speaking to Pinto’s positionality and her entanglement with the ideas of separation, longing, and dissolution that color her work.
Although some of Pinto’s case studies, notably Ammi, now live outside a psychiatric setting, the book is mainly focused on institutional care. The institution that Pinto names Moksha is a bleak, lonely place where patients are often “dumped women” abandoned by families, lost in the throes of divorce and separation, and where the resemblance between the institution and the asylums, supposedly of old, is palpable. The Nehru Government Hospital meanwhile is a busy, bustling, and bureaucratic environment where most patients are outpatients, while those who reside within the hospital are cared for by family, friends, and relatives. The ethics of institutional care, particularly a form of care where patients might be hit, forcibly restrained, unwittingly medicated, or lied to about their treatment and release dates, haunt the narratives.
Pinto sensitively explores the complexities of the ethical questions surrounding her own research as well as the treatment that the patients receive. The notion of “consent” is a particularly difficult one in the contexts in which Pinto works. What does it mean to secure the consent of a person deep in psychosis? Is limiting the reproduction of such a patient’s words patronizing, cordoning off forms of self-knowledge, expression, and agency? Or is it vital to ensuring that consent is fully respected? What about “truths” that fold, unravel, and refold? What about patients who, by their very presence in the psychiatric institution, had formally agreed to any research, which the institution might see fit to undertake?
While this is an ethnography and work of anthropology rather than a history, there are elements of historical context to Pinto’s contemporary research from the discussion of Agra’s grim past (during one period, twenty-five of its thirty-nine inmates died), to the more recent moves toward deinstitutionalization. The discussion of the changing nature of “hysterical” and “dissociative” conditions and diagnoses will be particularly interesting and useful to historians of medicine and disability as well as to anthropologists. Pinto explores the way in which the ongoing use of the label “hysteria” is not, as might at first glance appear, a marker of India’s “backward” psychiatry practice. In using a label no longer current in the West, but which is highly complex, and whose history was made in India as well as in Europe, Pinto demonstrates how it continues to have a powerful if uneasy utility to doctors and to patients.
This beautifully written book is a pleasure to read, the characters stay with the reader long after the book has been put down, and it exemplifies good research practice and self-reflexive authorship. It provides a critical study on gender and mental health in South Asia today.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability.
Esme Cleall. Review of Pinto, Sarah, Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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