THE DR. AND MRS. A: ETHICS AND COUNTER-ETHICS IN AN INDIAN DREAM ANALYSIS
By Sarah Pinto
Women Unlimited, 2019, pp. 256, Rs. 650.00
Aside from the reflections of India’s first psychoanalyst, Calcutta-based Gindrasekhar Bose (1886-1953), made famous via his correspondence with Sigmund Freud, contemporary Indian psychoanalysts have been fairly unanimous in finding the clinical work of their colonial counterparts un-creative.
The constellation of factors responsible include the early psychoanalysts’ deferential awareness of the origins of psychoanalysis in the West, food shortages and economic difficulties in Calcutta following the Second World War, and perhaps most crucially, an impediment to critical thinking caused by the presence of British army officers at the meetings of the Indian Psychoanalytical Society.
The British army officers served as a liaison between the Indian Psychoanalytical Society and the International Psychoanalytic Society; notorious among them was an army officer known as Owen Berkeley Hill, whose racist and orientalist readings of Indian patients and culture were published in international journals, replete with the rampant misuse of psychoanalytic theories to maintain the colonizer-colonized status quo. So when I read that Massachusetts-based anthropologist Sarah Pinto had discovered at NIMHANS Bangalore, a promising 1947 publication, written by one of Owen Berkeley Hill’s Indian trainees, Dev Satya Nand, a military psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, my interest was immensely piqued.
The Dr. and Mrs. A is Sarah Pinto’s reading of Satya Nand’s publication: The Objective Method of Dream-Interpretation: Derived from Researches in the Oriental Reminiscence State which Pinto thereafter refers to, tongue firmly in cheek as ‘The Objective Method’. Pinto’s interest in the book is as much for the co-created ‘method’ as for the social context of early 1940s Lahore or Amritsar (the exact location is not known) in which they unfold, and the poignant, articulate, reflections of Mrs. A, a 21-year old housewife in conversation with her friend, a Christian psychoanalyst, Dev Satya Nand. Objective Method is a book constructed from their conversations that comprise about forty pages or so, which Pinto tells us, in all likelihood, took place over just a few days.
Ethics and counter-ethics are the terms that Pinto uses to describe her distillations from these conversions; the terms roughly correspond to what has elsewhere been called dominant and sub-versions of a narrative. For Pinto, Satya Nand and Mrs. A are having a conversation about what happens when the forces of history cause an ethical principle, ideal or narrative, to meet its logical end. Together, particularly with the help of Mrs. A’s ‘dream-smudges’, they come up with counter-ethics, a new or different idea about what is right, good or just livable.
While strictly speaking this is not a clinical case, the Doctor and Mrs. A are friends, not a doctor and patient, there are many aspects of it that resemble the clinical hour. Among the elements that mimic the rhythms of a psychoanalytic clinical hour are the dispensing with the strict boundaries between dreams, fantasies and realities, a certain style of reflective listening that hovers in multiple registers, and the suspension of time and space in the conversations. As the plot develops, the strict boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are also abandoned in Pinto’s narrative style. The highly educated voice of Mrs. A is delivered so evocatively; the reader can hear the lilt in it. It is into Mrs. A’s inflections and cadences that Pinto guides, playing analyst to the reader who has the impression not only of being introduced to the multiple and peculiar cosmopolitanisms of Indian modernity and antiquity, but to the vocal registers of Mrs. A in which they dwell.
The story of an upper-class, highly educated, Hindu woman whose marriage did not live up to its promise is animated by the circle of socialists, Gandhian nationalists, Sikh paramours, friends, and the sexualities of servants and servant maids past and present as well as with mythological figures from the Hindu epics. Perhaps it is the capacity of the Doctor and Mrs A to speak together of three female mythological figures Draupadi, Ahlaya, and Shakuntala across the registers of fantasy and reality without interruption that is most original in The Objective Method. Here, the dream of Mrs. A’s future, the national dream of Hindu socialism, her husband in reality, Pandit Nehru, walk in and out as equally embodied dream smudges:‘I notice the problem of marital unhappiness: jealousy, and planning my future on surer foundations. There are four solutions: to follow the example of Pandit Nehru (when he lost his wife), to follow Shakuntala, to follow Draupadi, and to follow the threads of my life where I left them, when I got married.’
For Satya Nand, that Mrs A can dream like this, represents a fulfillment of something that is not possible in reality: as if the therapy session itself is a dream with the wish-fulfilling capacities of a waking dream. His method allows Mrs. A to resolve the question of disappointments of love within marriage, not in the concrete way of reality but in the dream way of psychoanalysis, in which solutions are produced from a combination of waking reality elements and dream elements.
Each of the three mythological characters is deployed without aspiration to a form of the ‘original’ story to which they once belonged but used in the way that Mrs. A identified with them. The mythological characters are thus, in the language of psychoanalysis, ‘usable objects’ much like parents. Thus Draupadi is used to think about how marital ethics might be reshaped into a life; Shakuntala is used to think about personal and national freedom when love and affection are based on fundamental acts of recognition; Ahalya is imagined as a way in which retreat and rebuke into a non-sentient state can serve as a resistance to injustice. Nehru too is a usable object: Satya Nand refers to him as ‘the nucleus of all identifications’, and writes of Mrs A, ‘Pandit Nehru who is in her mind like Arjun of the Mahabharat, and therefore the husband of Draupadi, a husband substitute for her.’
Because the conversation that is analysed is not an analysis but a conversation with an analyst, Pinto’s text is boldly creative. It delivers to Indian psychoanalysis an account of what might be ‘Indian’ about a dream analysis and it does so in the mode of psychoanalysis itself: by unpacking associations. This ‘Indianness’ in a dream analysis involves a cast of characters that are as much from the family as from the mythosphere, and the walking between the world of myth and reality as if these were continuous and not discrete realities, two ideas that would have flown in the face of psychoanalysis internationally had Satya Nand published them at the time.
International psychoanalysis however did not read The Objective Method. It is not surprising to hear that it had been neither clearly written nor well received, and that Satya Nand had been disappointed at its failure to bring him the recognition that he craved. We know also that Satya Nand made much less of some of the most interesting parts of Mrs. A’s account—the frank discussions of sexuality that give this book its juice for example—than Pinto has. Pinto undertakes her reading under Mrs. A’s guidance (Mrs. A too felt that Satya Nand was unfair in giving more importance to some parts of her narrative than to others). With an approach that seems to fall outside any established cannon but is scrupulously faithful nevertheless to the two characters involved, Pinto creatively rescues and makes meaning of fragments of what might have been Indian psychoanalysis under colonialism. What is most unique about this book is not Satya Nand’s The Objective Method, but Pinto’s own method: an unusual, convincing, and sonorously spoken pedagogy of reading psychoanalysis under colonialism.
Amrita Narayanan is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who lives in Goa.