Book Excerpt : The Doctor and Mrs A.: Ethics and Counter-Ethics in an Indian Dream Analysis by Sarah Pinto


The Dr & MrsA-cover.jpg


Title: The Doctor and Mrs A.: Ethics and Counter-Ethics in an Indian Dream Analysis

Author: Sarah Pinto

Publisher: Women Unlimited, 2019

Links: Women Unlimited


In the early 1940s, Mrs A. was a young housewife, three years married. She was unsettled, ill at ease in her new home, in what should have been a comfortable, secure life during a heady time. War was still on, the young men of her city and its surrounding countryside offered up as the rank and file in the British Army. Friends were away fighting, and those who were not debated their country’s future and wondered which vision of society would shape it. Her hero, Jawaharlal Nehru, was in prison, which upset her greatly.

When she met with Dev Satya Nand, an army doctor training young psychiatrists to serve on the front lines, he noted her demeanour with affection. Care and enthusiasm overrode clinical reserve. In his eyes, she was cultivated but aloof, empathetic but intimidating, tall and imposing yet timid and ‘tender’, ‘pensive and thoughtful from early school days’. Her contradictions were endearing, making her, perhaps, an ideal analysand, self-aware and reflective, yet mysterious, at times opaque. He wrote:

A beautiful fair-complexioned, dignified and artistically dressed, cultured and well-educated girl. She was taller than the average Indian girl, and attracted attention, as well as commanded respect wherever she was introduced. With large tender eyes, and refined tastes she could charm and even allure when she liked to do so. She was of a trusting nature, confiding and popular with the rich as well as with the poor.

At times she was dreamy and prone to be absent-minded now and then. But at others she would be the very life of a party, and could entertain very well.

He knew from the world beyond these meetings that she had ‘made many boy-friends’ in college and yet ‘no one could be on very familiar terms with her’. He also knew from that world that she was a ‘formidable opponent at socio-political discussions’ who adored ‘reading about the political leaders of her country’ and described herself as a ‘rabid socialist’ in ‘ideas as well as at heart’. She reminded him of social worker Katherine Booth and feminist Sarojini Naidu.

Although Mrs A. led a happy life, in which ‘fortune had smiled at her’, she was not ‘spoilt’ or unaware of life’s complexities. ‘Her deep sensibilities and loving nature had made her share the sorrows and the pains of others as if her own’. Her family, in all likelihood Hindu Khatri, was an important part of her happiness. Part of a new, urban bourgeoisie, leaders in commerce and politics after centuries of prominence in trade and moneylending, her community had a ‘flexible’ position in the Hindu ‘varna’ system and a long role in social and religious reform. Khatris were a literate, often progressive, elite, committed to both a modern identity and upholding social proprieties.

Mrs A.’s father was a physician. Although ‘quite rich’, he put patients before money-making, and was cherished by his patients, especially village women, with whom he was ‘gentle and friendly’ and who ‘almost worshipped him’ in return. He was a devotee of the Sikh Guru Nanak and a Gandhian nationalist, and his household placed high value on the education of girls. Even Mrs A.’s mother was ‘highly educated’. Together, they were ‘old-fashioned and strict’ but ‘affectionate and loving’, and had raised their daughter ‘sensibly and carefully’. Like many young people, Mrs A. scarcely viewed their modern outlook as a sign of being up to date. Her parents, she said, were old moderates, lacking her youthful idealism:

My father is a dear old man and so is my mother. They have always followed the rule of the happy-medium. This has not been accepted by either my brother or by myself as our guiding principle in everything. I am an extremist, with very strong likes and dislikes. I try to go all in for a thing and do it well. Otherwise I am very much like my father.

Her brother was more like her, sharing her tendency for ‘go[ing] all in’. She was ‘very attached’ to him. As a child, when he was hospitalised with pneumonia and Malta fever, she sat by his hospital bedside, even though he was too ill to recognise her; because, ‘older only by four years [he] was much wiser in worldly matters’, she often sought his advice and help, ‘even though he was not always so willing’. Mrs A. had no sisters, a fact Satya Nand viewed as a source of sadness, but her brother brought female confidantes into her life. Before his marriage, ‘quite a number of girls wanted to make friends with me to get acquainted with him’, but the real connection came when Mrs A. was a young adolescent and her brother married, bringing a new bride into the household. Mrs A. was enamoured with her sister-in-law, who was just a few years older, and the two grew close, laughing and sharing secrets. Her sister-in-law brought her out of her brooding self, made her ‘more communicative’ and ‘less confined to books, music, and a few games’.

If Mrs A.’s family was a source of joy, they were also to blame for her ‘deep tone of anxiety’. Her brother had not followed their father into medicine, instead building a successful cloth import business. When she was in her third year of college, inspired by Gandhian non-cooperation, he stopped selling imported cloth and began dealing in homespun. It was a moral decision, but a disastrous one. Not only was he was now dependent on village workers with whom he had little experience, he was cheated out of a large sum of money by a trusted clerk, a household servant he had brought into his business. The family faced financial ruin.

This new reality had repercussions. Mrs A. reflected,

I have often suspected that my parents’ earnest desire to get me married soon was partly determined by this turn of bad luck. They thought it would be difficult to marry an older girl, specially if they had further reverses in fortune.

Regardless of how her family felt about dowry (which, by the 1940s, had ballooned in scale and status as vital to bourgeois life), their social world depended upon it. The difficulties of securing a stable life for their daughter increased with their decrease in wealth.

Around this time, the young Mrs A. met a man at a party at her grandfather’s house, the son of one of her father’s patients. She thought little of their flirtation until a marriage proposal arrived. The forwardness of the offer was off-putting (‘I was taken by surprise’), but he ‘courted [her] so well’ that she accepted.

Mr A. was outgoing, charming, caring, and ‘desperately in love with her’. A successful ‘capitalist’, he owned a factory some distance from the city. They had a ‘perfect’ honeymoon in Darjeeling, where they ‘rode together and danced a good deal’ and Mrs A. was as taken with the pretty, charismatic women she met as she was with her new husband. ‘I met a number of Bengali girls; I liked their ways very much,’ and they inspired in her a ‘desire to learn dancing’.

Mrs A.’s new household, which included her husband’s parents and his two sisters, was bustling and rife with intrigue, a world away from the bookish warmth of her childhood home. Her mother- and sisters-in-law, all cultivated and beautiful, had ‘many girl friends’ who came to ‘live with’ them. Her husband joined the jollity; ‘being a happy-go-lucky person, [he was] very popular with them’ and there were frequent outings to his factory. So different was this from the trusting intimacies with her brother’s wife – her sisters-in-law and their circle of friends came with a hovering sense of betrayal. As Mrs A. reflected on her daydream, the picture of her marital home dimmed. ‘The father-in-law is quite outside the picture, in their house. The only brother, who is my husband, is a spoilt child of the family. The sisters fuss on him and so does the mother.’ She went on,

The sisters have a good reputation outside the house, but they are such hypocrites in reality. They made friends with me in the beginning, but their main aim was to run even my part of the house as they wished. They wanted to know all my secrets and tell my husband about them.

There were other sources of unease that engineered jealousies. Though hardly forced, marriage had come at the expense of Mrs A.’s education. She had wished to ‘postpone [marriage] till I had passed my BA’, at the very least, or, better still, to work before marriage as a teacher, an actress, or in promoting socialism, but her parents insisted she leave college to marry and ‘thought [her working before marriage] was below their dignity and would not allow it’. Many losses were enfolded in this sacrifice, including a diverse sense of the future’s possibilities. ‘I had planned to be a professor of History or Psychology. If not I would have at least taught High School,’ and ‘If I had continued studying and had become a professor, I would have been able to convert so many girls to my [Socialist] views.’

Once married, certain things had to change. She muted her political views: ‘I wanted to be a writer but being a Socialist I would have written, that kind of material, and my husband being a capitalist would not have liked it. So I had to give it up.’ This cut to the heart of who she thought she was:

I think I am a very ambitious girl. I want to be a leader in socialism. My ambition to write, to speak, and to teach are all parts of that basic desire to lead. I have been able to do so in life, and both boys and girls have followed me automatically.

More than ambition was at stake. Mrs A. had been exhilarated by life in college. Those were her ‘happiest days,’ she said, describing a life of thrilling debate, outings tinged with adventure, new friendships skirting romance, impassioned ideas, and a sense of an opening world. If she was in Lahore, leaving college for wifehood might  have meant giving up a sense of being at the centre of the world, leaving spaces that were the ‘crucible’ of intellectual dialogue, conversations pregnant with ‘answers that explain a new universe’. Education contained the future, not just hers, but her society’s, embodied in science and Mrs A.’s own field of study, the English language. These, along with arts, theatre, and dance, gave Mrs A. a sense of having a place in that future.

I cannot write, because it is likely to be strongly coloured with socialist ideas, and it may not be to the advantage of my husband. I cannot do active socialist work, because I shall have to mix with other men freely. I cannot study because it may break the home if I go away to College. The customs, traditions, and mores of our society would not let one try a hand at anything.

The void of all the losses must have felt vast.

Such ‘mores’ came together in the Hindu concept of pativrata, the moral wife, a pivotal, if malleable idea that, in the early twentieth century, was fraught with all the social investment of a load-bearing metonym for ‘tradition’. An old but continuing concept, changeable to ‘suit the needs of contemporary society’, the pativrata had been ‘reconceptualised’ by decades of religious reform that battened down ideas about what a right and virtuous marriage was, and what the codes were for respectable wifely behaviour. These ideals moved through Punjab not just in the demands of family life but as public propaganda, in pamphlets, literature, and religious tracts. These ideas were not at odds with ideas about social reform. Wifely virtue might align with education, science, hygiene, and modern ways of living. It might be linked to nationalism, as in Gandhian models for women’s participation in the freedom movement. It might be displayed by performing rituals in a modern, rationalised way, or the opposite, through a perfected orthodoxy. Husbands might even expect, or demand, elements of the ‘modern, westernised, elusive, forbidden woman’ in their sex lives with respectable wives. Mores of the pativrata may have invited, even demanded, enticing new possibilities for women at the same time as they foreclosed a certain worldliness, directed ways of moving through the world, indeed, the ability to move through it at all. In Mrs A.’s society, marriage permitted ideals she held dear even as it eclipsed her ability to fulfil them.

Such conflicts came to life in sex with her husband. Sexuality was enfolded in disappointment over thwarted ambition, as she recounted the sexual awakening that came with marriage. …

The appeal of sex, may be at the back of the first attraction to a new view of life.’

In her first year of college, Mrs A. met Arjun Singh, a married Sikh student who shared her passion for political debate. Like many young men of the time, Arjun Singh had left his village to be educated in the city, bringing with him a wife whose religious views prevented her from joining the socialist crowd. Mrs A. saw herself as Arjun Singh’s mentor and protector, crediting herself with ‘keeping him away from the Communist circle’. They travelled together, in groups and alone, around the countryside and on trips to holy sites. At Punja Sahib, a Sikh shrine near Rawalpindi, she learnt about the water Guru Nanak had caused to flow from a stone and the healing of the sick ‘by the blessings and prayers of the priests’. She was struck that ‘people of all status go there’ and noticed ‘that many beautiful girls go bare feet to get water from the spring’. On journeys electrified with the natural, religious, and human sublime, Mrs A. and Arjun Singh stayed up late discussing politics, lying on the ground and staring into the moonlit sky. On a trip to Kangra Valley, they got separated from their group and had to spend the night in a remote village. ‘We slept in different rooms, but we were far away from the other inhabitants,’ she said, ‘[a]nd we sat and talked for many hours.’ Notwithstanding such romantic settings, she insisted that their relationship was platonic. Nothing ‘stimulate[d] any idea of sex’.

It was at Punja Sahib that Arjun Singh introduced Mrs A. to his wife’s brother, an army subaltern named Arjan Dass. The dashing Arjan Dass ‘impressed’ Mrs. A. ‘at first sight’ by telling her ‘a good deal about his military training’. He was ‘a tall, well-built, broad shouldered, and quick-witted young man’, with ‘a polite accomplished way about him, and … at the same time sure of himself’.‘[A]s fair looking as his sister … and as smart and handsome,’ he was, in retrospect, ‘a prototype of the youth, whom I want to convince of my views’. She told his sister (Arjun Singh’s wife) that he ‘looks very much like Pandit Nehru, when the Pandit was young’.

Arjun Dass invited Mrs A. to his village and drove her there in a car. His family had built a large, modern bungalow on the grounds with an ‘old fashioned house’. Only a few rooms in the new house were furnished, but those that were impressed Mrs A. as being ‘artistically decorated’ and with ‘modern furniture’. His sisters took to her immediately and were ‘very good to [her]’. After this, they began a correspondence. ‘My letters were merely friendly,’ Mrs A. said, ‘but he was downright in love’. Arjan Dass proposed marriage, and though Mrs A. was ‘very fond of him’, her brother ‘did not like that match’ and made her show him ‘cold shoulders’. It was too ‘great [a] risk to marry a soldier’ during war-time.

Though Mrs A. was ‘sorry’ her brother ‘stood in [her] way’, she was not convinced it would have been a perfect union. ‘I had my own doubts, about my being well suited to his temperament. He was very emotional, and sentimental. His wife, moreover would have had to be smart and stylish, up to the standards of the Army wives.’ Even so, she said, imagining what might have been, her family might have warmed up to him. ‘If he had persisted, I think everyone would have agreed in the end.’ In his final letter, Arjan Dass ‘wrote that he would not give up hope, and would wait for me forever, which is a hopeless situation, as a Hindu marriage is irrevocable on the part of the wife’; she kept the letters and photographs even after marriage.

When Mrs A. moved into her husband’s home, she was open with her husband, sisters-in-law, and their friends about Arjun Singh and Arjan Dass, and felt gravely betrayed when her sisters-in-law shared with her mother-in-law ‘a few distorted versions’ they had ‘heard from their friends’.

Among her sisters-in-law’s many ‘girl friends’, a girl named Vidya had ‘become a particular friend of ours’. Vidya was Sikh (‘but her people do not have long hair’) and of the Jat agriculturist community. She lived in a nearby village where she was the beautiful, ‘spoilt’ only daughter of a rich landlord, and visited the household often, staying for days at a time. Studying for her MA in English, she recited poetry and dazzled with her ‘repartee’. ‘She quotes so freely from the poets that it is a pleasure to talk with her’. She was ‘very attractive, very fair, and has “it”’. …


About the Book:

In 1940/41 a young Punjabi woman, ‘Mrs A.’, ill at ease in her marriage and eager for personal and national freedom, sat down with psychiatrist, Dev Satya Nand, for an experiment in his new method of dream analysis. Her analysis included a surge of emotion and reflections on sexuality, gender, marriage, ambition, trauma, and mythology. Through a fascinating exposition, Sarah Pinto proposes the possibility of thinking with a concept of ‘counterethics’, and asks what perspectives on gender, power, meaning, and imagination are possible from the position of the counter-ethic, and its orientation towards mobility and change.


About the Author:

Sarah Pinto is Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University, and author of Where There is no Midwife: Birth and Loss in Rural India (2008), and Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India (2012), which received the Eileen Basker Memorial Prize from the Society of Medical Anthropology.


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