How feminism is ‘a yearning women are born with to be their truest self ‘
Book Review by Namrata
Title: The Doctor and Mrs. A.: Ethics and Counter-Ethics in an Indian Dream Analysis
Author: Sarah Pinto
Publisher: Women Unlimited
Year of Publication: 2019
“How does one remember the future?”
Thus, begins The Doctor and Mrs. A by Sarah Pinto. Based on ethics and counter ethics in an Indian dream analysis, this book is an inspired example of thinking beyond the known.
Just before independence, somewhere in early forties, a young Punjabi woman identified only as Mrs. A decided to be a part of an experiment by a psychiatrist, Dev Satya Nanda, for his new method of dream analysis. Unbeknownst to him, she was in an unhappy marriage with a strong urge for freedom from all the bondage. Through this experiment they discovered hidden layers of her personality which included different reflections on sexuality, trauma, ambitions and marriage. Pinto revisits this conversation and explores it in the context of late colonial Indian society. Juxtaposing the past with the present, she delivers a thought-provoking analysis on gender and power.
The author, Sarah Pinto is a Professor of anthropology at Tufts University and has also authored a few books on women and inequality in contemporary India. She won the Eileen Basker Memorial Prize from the Society of Medical Anthropology for her work Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India published in 2012.
To start with, Mrs. A comes across as any other normal upper middle-class woman of those times. She was well-educated, came from a well-off background and was married into a high-flying socialite family as soon as she was of a marriageable age. Her life revolved around the parties she attended with her husband and the ones she hosted at her place. Always impeccably dressed, she was the epitome of grace and charm. Her tinkling laughter was considered to be the picture of a happy married life. What no one ever noticed was, how lonely and meaningless she felt.
A chance encounter with Dev Satya Nanda and she began talking about things which were buried deep within her heart. She talked about her dreams, ambitions, her desire to work and make a name for herself. Her confessions also revealed how she was attracted to a friend of the same gender but could never tell anyone. She also shared the attraction they exchange at such parties, both, sexual and platonic in nature. But attraction that is seldom talked about.
Her revelations are a true reflection of how women since time immemorial have been told how to lead their lives and asked to stifle their dreams. So many dreams and desires are sacrificed at the altar of marriages daily in India that it is difficult to imagine how these individuals survive later. A woman has been defined by the domestic sphere for ages now. So much so, that a woman who denies wanting to restrict herself to these expectations is considered iniquitous. Expecting a woman to give up on her dreams and desires can be construed as cruelty, however not many accept this as a matter of fact.
Drawing references from mythological characters of Draupadi, Shakuntala and Ahalya, Pinto paints a picture of complete alteration. The book has been divided into three segments named after the aforementioned women where the life of Mrs. A has been deconstructed event after event to bring out the real picture. A picture ridden with trauma, misrepresentation and gender inequality.
“Mrs. A was, after all, a feminist. She said,
The narrow outlook on morals in India must go. Young men and women ought to be free to choose their mates, without restriction of caste and creed (P.R). If Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Mrs. Naidu took the cause of Socialism the country would soon be on the right path; that is, the path of progress and of the Dharma Equality. (P.R.).”
Interweaving emotions with rationale, the confessions of Mrs. A seem to be wandering in the periphery of personal and national freedom. There are also a lot of references drawn from Manusmriti, written by Manu who is considered to be the father of Indian society. By writing about different practices mentioned in the aforesaid book like plural marriages and homosexuality, Pinto attempts to demystify a lot of myths surrounding Indian marriage system. The very logic of women having no desire of their own is flawed and that is what adds weight to the already existent theory of male superiority, predominant in our society. Draupadi from the Mahabharata has been quoted as an example while asking women to take charge and lead. Their deeper understanding of the worldly things added to their empathetic outlook towards others, makes them a suitable leader to take the country to newer heights.
The journey of Shakuntala, the famed heroine of Kalidas’s Abhijnanasakuntala, reflects on the importance of marriage placed in our society and how unattached women are considered unsafe. She has quoted the words of Manu from Manusmriti, “Women need to be protected- first by father, then by husband and later on by son. They cannot be left free or unattached.” It is interesting to note how, even then the onus of protecting the honour and dignity remained with the women. Even till date, unmarried women are considered a threat and their parents actually save for their marriage since the day there are born.
Ahalya’s story from the Ramayana is seen as that of being lured into self-misinterpretation, something which many women can associate with even today. Women are known to be giving to an extent that they lose everything that is theirs, including self-respect and dignity. In a relationship, a woman is always expected to be the giver be it any role she plays.
Written in a detailed manner, the book is an engaging read as it challenges our beliefs till now and asks us questions that we cannot help but ponder upon. The last segment of postscript by the author has a brilliant narrative on counter ethics where she talks about how counter ethics can highlight conflicts, contradictions and inconsistencies inherent to visions of justice or virtue or heroism.
Nevertheless, The Doctor and Mrs. A is a stark reminder that feminism is not a term derived from the West. It is a yearning women are born with — to be their truest self and honour all that their heart and mind wish for.
Our society has been conditioned to believe into this since years and today, one generation after another continues to carry forward these beliefs. For change to be brought it, it needs to start with women. Women need to learn how to respect themselves and other fellow women. As long as women who have chosen to stay unmarried or childless due to various reasons are looked down upon, women will never be able to rise from the current situation which keeps deteriorating day after day.
Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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