Year : 2012  |  Volume : 54  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 97--98

My life as a psychiatrist: Memoirs and essays

Amit Ranjan Basu 
 Independent Researcher, Social Psychiatry

Correspondence Address:
Amit Ranjan Basu
Independent Researcher, Social Psychiatry

How to cite this article:
Basu AR. My life as a psychiatrist: Memoirs and essays.Indian J Psychiatry 2012;54:97-98

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Basu AR. My life as a psychiatrist: Memoirs and essays. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2012 [cited 2020 Oct 31 ];54:97-98
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Edited by: Ajita Chakraborty

Publisher name and Address: Stree, Kolkata, India.

Published in 2010

Pages: 220, Price: 500/-

The recently published Icons of Indian Psychiatry (Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2010) reminded us how important is it to be aware of the personalities who made pioneering moves to establish psychiatry in India as the modern method of healing the mind. It links up with the threads of knowledge that they tried to produce in a context where this discipline was more marginalised. And again, much of this knowledge is useful once we consider history as a way to access the past for the present.

In this backdrop, Ajita Chakraborty's recently published book takes us to nuanced narratives of a microhistory of the Indian psychiatry and the Indian Psychiatric Society. Ajita, one of the first two woman psychiatrists (the first perhaps is Saroja Bai) in India is more known for her serious concerns about the social and cultural aspects of psychiatry, an area less travelled by the majority of her fellow colleagues.

Who else could write the foreword of this book other than Ashis Nandy? A well known cultural theorist and a public intellectual who convincingly transformed his training in psychology to create a discourse of political psychology as a powerful social critique. Nandy, in this original piece, opened by saying that "no account of a society is complete without a profile of its subjectivities. This is particularly true for India, which has for centuries lived with diverse, highly developed theories of the mind and techniques of intervention in human consciousness" (p. vii). He notices the paucity of data on those pioneers who tried hard to adopt this new science in a culturally diverse non-modern society to make their profession meaningful in its new social context, and laments that "we are now left with predominantly de-cultured, asocial, overtly medicalised psychological disciplines studying subjectivities in this part of the world" (p. ix). Nandy thinks that Ajita did not try to blur the distinction between normality and abnormality like her "Guru" Ronald Laing and his anti-psychiatry group. Rather, "she retains the difference as a therapeutic reality and a tool of social criticism" (p. xii). Nandy has pleaded to read this book keeping this context in mind.

Ajita's book is divided into two parts: memoirs and essays. Memoirs are organised in seven chapters (My Early Days, Time Abroad, Life and Work in Calcutta, Psychiatry and the Indian Psychiatric Society, Transcultural Psychiatry, Deconstructing and/or Analysing Myself and People and Organisations). In the essay section, she has provided eight essays where the last two (My Views on Psychiatry in General and on Cultural Psychiatry, and Understanding Self and Identity) are being published for the first time. The reader will realise that her autobiographical narrative is theoretically argued and evidenced in her essays, making the volume a well-organised narrative.

Her accounts of childhood till college days give us clues about why she would become a striking personality in the future. The time was turbulent, charged with anti-colonial politics, and Ajita found her own ways of becoming patriotic and discussing politics when one of her brothers was engaged with a "terrorist" group. She also witnessed the partition riots and joined the Indian National Ambulance Corps as a volunteer to help the victims. This temporality, I guess, has made an imprint on her personality to be righteous. Her family life was not so smooth, with a break-up between her parents during childhood, yet she managed to score well in the school, led the group of peers and successfully negotiated her non-feminine image in a male-dominated culture. However, not everything was resolved internally, and she wrote: "I remained disturbed during the five years (1945-1950) I spent in the medical college…did badly in examinations. However, I managed to get through in the finals. Encouraged by Sunil Janah…I underwent psychoanalysis under Debiprasad Chattopadhyay, in the last two years of my college" (p. 10).

Before leaving for England, Ajita attended the conference of the Indian Psychiatric Society held at Ranchi in 1952 and met Dr. Davis (but she mentions her departure on Jan 1951 in p. 19!). After a year of house-staffship in medicine, she was registered and she joined the Nethrone Hospital in Surrey, where she met Dr. V. N. Bagadia and Dr. N. B. Jethmalani who made a "considerable impact" on her life. Later, she moved to Springfield Hospital and started taking courses at the Maudsley. This was a time when mental hospitals were unlocked and tranquillisers were preferred to electro convulsive therapy. After taking the diploma exam (DPM), she enrolled in member of royal college of psychiatrists at Edinburgh because she got an exemption in her "special subject," psychiatry. To balance her hard work in the mental hospitals, Ajita developed an intellectually stimulating social circle in England. Whether it was at London University psychology professors Jack and Barbara Tizard's family where many communist intellectuals met or at the London Majlis, where left minded Indian students of history, economics and law met regularly to organise various events. Yet, Ajita writes: "I hung out with the communists, but never truly believed in Marxism, except in a liberal sense" (p. 24)!

If life was equally exciting socially after coming back to Calcutta in the 1960s, professional life was not. Here, Ajita tells us the dark history of her struggles against gender discrimination and to establish her eruditeness. In 1966, she got elected as the general secretary and in 1976 the president of the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS). Chapter 4 gives a detailed account of her active engagement with the society and a rich microhistory of IPS covering two decades. Her experiences with transcultural psychiatry and getting international recognition gives us an insight on what is at stake in our culture. But, Chapter 6, where she tried to analyze herself, is a brilliant piece on conceptualising personal experiences. She is genuine and forthright. The last chapter of the memoir describes various personalities from psychiatry and organisations with her critical analysis. Here too, one will get her theoretical views and conceptual assertions.

Six of eight essays reprinted in the essays section will impact on the re-readers differently for its collective form. None of the issues she had discussed will seem dated or irrelevant to the contemporary reader. Rather, this could be a pointer to the future quest, on which she writes in the seventh essay by summarising her critical views. She ends with the essay on self and identity, with some of her current studies and introspection, and keeps the issue open. It is the most appropriate ending without a closure for a book that is going to provoke thought equally among psychiatrists and social critics for a long time.