BOOK EXCERPT

This book asks why psychiatrists have been so silent about the trauma of the Partition

Edited by Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain, ‘The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India’ examines the trauma through the lens of mental health.

The division of south Asia into separate nation states on the eve of Independence was a partitioning of minds, as much as that of divided geography. As psychiatrists, we have been intrigued by the lack of discussion, historically, in Indian mental health discourse, on the psychological scars and damages caused by the Partition. In Europe, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the psychological impact was deliberated upon in great detail, and a consensus was achieved that it would “never again” be allowed to happen.

These debates in Europe thus grappled with issues of prejudice, trauma and displacement, and tried to understand how social upheaval impacted mental health. These issues were often brought into attention by psychiatrists and doctors, and led to the development of humanistic schools of psychotherapy, greater acceptance of diversity, as well as ensuring that medical services develop certain global and universal principles of practice and ethics (eg, the Nuremberg Code) that were clearly enunciated, and shared.

By neglecting the effects of trauma and violence, during the events following the creation of the nation states of south Asia, we (in India) sidestepped the notion of universality, both of understanding psychological spaces, and of delivering medical care. The lack of this discourse thus has had an impact on our current predicament, wherein we pay relatively little attention to social trauma and distress, and its role in mental (ill) health, as also a fractured system for providing health care. ...

In south Asia, there can be no greater example of mass displacement than the Partition. Several questions arise in our minds about the silence surrounding the mental health consequences of partition. Few people who had to endure the partition have actually verbalized their feelings. A poignant example of a literary representation of the emotional impact of the partition is Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, and many other texts, which have become a reference point for books, cinema and social theory; but seldom medical science, or the psychiatrists’ concern.

It is intriguing why psychiatrists, who are intimately connected with mental distress, were silent about the Partition. For those who had been part of the partition, was the mental trauma of the partition too intense to allow into consciousness? Was it another event in the lives of ordinary people which did not merit discourse? Do issues like poverty, dis- empowerment, marginalisation, communal strife hold no place in mental health discourse? Or is it the alleged stoicism (fatalism) of the East, the tendency of people here to lean more towards a philosophic and spiritual approach to life and its challenges. Whatever the vantage, it is intriguing that these issues have not formed a part of discourse, either in academic or general discussion.

Alok Sarin
Alok Sarin

It is not as if this blurring and redrawing of boundaries was not experienced by patients and the public at large with equanimity. An illustrative account of how psychopathology is deeply acculturated is the recounting of symptoms of psychosis by patient, by RB Davis (a Padma Shree awardee, and the psychiatrist at Ranchi, and one of the founding members of the Indian Psychiatric society) at a symposium on the earliest indication of mental diseases held at Allahabad on 5 January 1949.

He describes the case of a 22-year-old male and the contents of his thought before he developed a psychotic attack. As Dr Davis describes, “The man first had dreams that he had urinated on the head of goddess Kali followed by a fear that someone might know this and punish him. He changed his name and dress, called himself a Mohammedan and got relieved of the painful idea and fear. He also started speaking in Hindi, although he was a Bengali. After sometime he had an idea of sexual intercourse with the wife of a great Mohammedan political leader, and the idea started disturbing him and one night in his dream, he had sexual intercourse with her. He got extremely frightened and next morning he took a Christian name and got dressed in a suit and started speaking in English. He became a normal man in this way again free from troubles. But only after some time, he had strong obscene ideas about Virgin Mary. Now he completely broke down....”

The symptoms, in another patient, described at the same meeting, ran the whole gamut of political belief, over a few years, from being an admirer of Subash Chandra Bose, then the Communist party, then with welfare of the untouchables, and finally a sense of guilt and a suicide attempt following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The experience of psychiatric disease, in all its forms, is thus influenced by identity, socio-cultural ideas and stigma, and also the politics of the day.

Sanjeev Jain
Sanjeev Jain

Collated and edited by psychiatrists, the book thus tries to bring together the issues of partitioning and dividing the human experience, and its impact on the cultural life, including medical and psychological health...The events of the partition had an impact on literature, fostered a gendered violence, and even interrupted the lives of those living within the mental hospitals. The disruption of medical services removed an essential component of civic life, and the psychological and political events encouraged a social distancing and a seemingly justifiable (retributive) violence.

As one observer of the violence during the Partition pointed out, though it was quite obvious that the victims needed succour, but it was the “moral abyss” in the soul of the perpetrator that would also take generations to heal. This perhaps explains, to an extent, the rapid erasure from conscious awareness. There were millions of victims, but apparently no one was guilty!

The essays thus discuss important emotional dimensions of partition. Was the act of Partition mindful of the emotional trauma not only to those who were directly involved, but also the trans-generational effects of such an event? For a person with mental illness or “insanity”, does insanity divest the individual of personal, collective and national identity? Did Partition unleash an insanity which persists in day to day life, attitude and ideology? Political trauma and social distancing, whether by fascism in Germany, or by colonialism and racism, or other forms of social oppression, contribute to psychological symptoms.

Excerpted with permission from “Setting the Stage: The Partition of India and the Silences of Psychiatry”, by Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain, from The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India, edited by Alok Sarin and Sanjeev Jain, Sage Publications.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.