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

Livio Boni
Bibliographical reference

Sarah Pinto. The Doctor and Mrs. A: Ethics and Counter-Ethics in an Indian Dream Analysis. New York: Fordham University Press, 2020. 256 pages.

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1Reconstructing the social, psychic and symbolic world of a young woman from the Punjabi upper crust based solely on the account of one of her dreams as told to her young psychotherapist, the Indian Dev Satya Nand, in the early 1940s—this is how one might describe the audacious undertaking of this third essay by anthropologist Sarah Pinto. Here, she extends and pursues her previous research on the history of hysteria in India, at the crossroads of medical anthropology, social history and gender studies (notably in Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India, Penn, 2014).

A postcolonial micro-history

2To do so, the author does not shy away from adopting a partially novelistic approach in order to reconstruct the intimate biography of an anonymous young woman (Mrs. A.), who draws on her experience as a patient to express her search for an almost impossible fit between marriage, friendships, amorous emancipation and patriotic commitment. To put it differently, the whole book is organized around an attempt to elucidate a feminine desire that reveals the limits of the dominant ethics among the Punjabi elites of the time, which are caught in the transition between traditionalism, integration into a dying colonial world and the search for a their own access to modernity. Hence the author’s choice of the term “counter-ethics” to designate Mrs. A.’s desiring position and morality, in line with a reading largely indebted to feminist interpretations of Antigone, such as that of Judith Butler in Antigone’s Claim. However, Sarah Pinto is keen to distinguish this reading from the question of the irrepresentability of subaltern speech, introduced by Gayatri Spivak, in Can the Subaltern Speak? For Mrs. A. does indeed speak, even if her speech is set to music by her analyst—Dev Satya Nand—and the whole issue turns on circulating between these two levels of enunciation, or even on revealing a common construction shared by the two protagonists of this critical meta-narrative.

3Could it therefore be a case of hysteria in northwestern India at the end of the colonial era that is able to provide insight into the feminist aspirations of a young woman from the native elite, aspirations destined to be largely disappointed by Indian emancipation? Yes and no. Yes, because the figure of Mrs. A. is very similar to that of the patients found on the couches of European psychoanalysts of the first generation. In fact, Mrs. A. is not unlike the famous Anna O., Freud’s first patient. She is struggling with a conflict between will (marriage) and desire (sensual discovery, sexual excitement elicited by women), a conflict that is compounded by that between two ideals which are difficult to reconcile (self-sacrifice for the national cause and individual fulfillment). But, on the other hand, the answer is “no,” because the very category of hysteria is scrutinized in the book, starting with a reminder of its prominent role in colonial psychology. The author effectively recalls how widespread this notion was in colonial-matrix psychiatry and psycho-sociology, which moreover did not make it the prerogative of women, but readily applied it to the indigenous male. Indians in general were hystericized in the gaze of the British master (cf. pp. 140–65).

4It therefore took Dev Satya Nand, and Sarah Pinto after him, to enter into the specific and singular forms of Mrs. A.’s “hysteria,” which incorporated complex mediations between bourgeois propriety, modernist claims and a certain political spiritualism. In actuality, Mrs. A. conceives of the coming national liberation movement as a cultural and political revolution including the promise of a reinvention of the relationship between women and men (again an analogy with Bertha Pappenheim, the “patient zero” of psychoanalysis, who will become an important feminist figure in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century).

5That said, in order to follow Mrs. A.’s case effectively, this essay, which one might be tempted to define as a postcolonial micro-history, must also survey two other aspects: it must first retrace Dev Satya Nand’s conception of psychoanalysis. He was a minor but original author among the pioneers of psychoanalysis in the subcontinent, and the creator of a hybrid and singular psycho-therapeutic method. It must also reconstruct Mrs. A.’s relationship with a series of female imagos borrowed from Indo-Hindu culture, which are massively present in her dreams and associations.

A forgotten figure of Indian Freudianism in the late colonial period: Dev Satya Nand

6Pinto’s book is thus, at the same time, an introduction to the eccentric figure of Dev Satya Nand. Trained as a psychiatrist towards the end of the colonial era, Satya Nand—born in Punjab to a partly Muslim, partly Hindu family who were Christian converts—studied medicine in Edinburgh and trained in psychoanalysis in the mid-1930s with Owen Berkeley-Hill, the herald of philo-colonial psychoanalysis in India. That is to say, Berkeley-Hill promoted a recourse to psychoanalysis that was both strongly involved in asylum psychiatry—he was the director of one of the oldest asylums in the subcontinent, in Ranchi, today in Jharkhand—and concerned with outlining a general psychology of Hindus that would justify colonial control, even though he did not lack for bolder intuitions, and criticized caste racism for example (Berkeley-Hill 1924; Nandy 1995).

7In turn, Satya Nand is both a case of integration into the colonial mental health system (he was a military doctor, as was Berkeley-Hill), and of free and syncretic theoretical appropriation of psychoanalysis. Author of a rather prolific body of work, which was however mostly self-published and, for the most part, has been lost, he is notably remembered by the history of Indian (post)colonial psychiatry for his first book, Objective Method of Dream Interpretation: Derived from the Researches in Oriental Reminiscence State, which he published on his own in Lahore the very year of Indian Independence (and of Partition from Pakistan), in 1947. The very title of this essay speaks for itself. On the one hand, the reference to an “objective method” of dream interpretation signals a major difference from the Freudian method, in which a dream can only be interpreted on the basis of the analysand’s free associations and transference with the analyst. In Satya Nand’s work, however, the dream is seen as a form of “reminiscence,” of “contemplation” that needs to be translated, in collaboration with the analysand, in order to open up a “regenesis” or a “reconception” of thought and desire. Satya Nand does not hesitate to mobilize the notion of samadhi, that state of inclusive concentration of the world—some would say of “enstasis”—of identification with the totality of the Self. The subtitle of the book (“oriental reminiscence”) thus signals both an orientalist emphasis and the claim to a para-philosophical use of psychoanalysis, in turn strongly influenced by the popularity of hypnosis in the Anglo-Indian medical world after its importation to Calcutta by James Esdaile in the mid-19th century (Ernst 2004).

8However, despite its originality, its elaborate character and its value from a history of ideas and circulation of knowledge perspective, Satya Nand’s “objective” theory of dreams was not subsequently pursued, and was even considered confused and unusable in its own time. But this is not the question that interests Sarah Pinto. She reconstructs in a compact and precise manner both the history of colonial psychiatry in Punjab, the little that is known about Satya Nand’s life and work during and after the colonial period (her biography and bibliography remaining full of gaps), and the general context of Indian colonial psychiatry. It should be kept in mind—although Pinto focuses essentially on the case of Punjab—that psychiatry had a fairly long history in India, rich in similarities with its European counterpart. Thus, before the Sepoy Munity (1857) and the promulgation of the “Lunatic Act” (1858), which authorized the police and the courts to request compulsory internment, the only psychiatric hospices were located in the large, so-called “presidential” cities (Bombay, Calcutta, Madras); these were characterized by a low level of medicalization and a high level of social and even racial promiscuity. It was therefore the resumption of colonial governance by the central administration, following the mutiny of 1857 and the dissolution of the West India Company, that prompted a large-scale asylums policy to be implemented, based on the distinction between colonials and natives, men and women, etc. Thus, the number of lunatic hospitals in India doubled between 1857 and 1880, rising from twelve to twenty-five (cf. Mills 2000). This sudden surge in asylum psychiatry was thus linked to the vast movement to shape Indian society that the colonizer engaged in by legislating on matters as varied as the age of sexual majority, the remarriage of widows, the criminalization of homosexuality, the repression of drug use (especially in the army), etc. In this context, psychiatric confinement proved to be a useful tool for dealing with recalcitrant people, or the “collateral effects” of such reforms (for example, young women repudiated by their families for refusing to marry before the age of 12 could subsequently end up in an asylum, and the same was true for older widows who were expelled from their community for having tried to remarry). In short, at this turning point in colonial policy towards the end of the 1850s, psychiatry played a role as a social regulator, as it had done in Europe a few decades earlier. Finally, we can note that, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, asylum psychiatry, while becoming more modern from a clinical point of view—in part because of the contributions of psychoanalysis and other trends in modern psychology—was at the same time charged with treating political insubordination. Thus, one found more and more opponents to British presence in Indian mental hospitals as independence movements grew in scope, but above all one found a tendency to pathologize revolt, a tendency that emerged in the literature of colonial psychiatry in India at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

9That said, what interests Sarah Pinto most is not to sketch a general historical picture, but above all to excavate from Satya Nand the case of this young 21-year-old woman, whom he calls “Mrs. A” (an additional reference to Anna O.?), while questioning the complicity thus established between a young psychoanalyst and a very young woman in northeastern India, at the end of the colonial period. In fact, as we read on, we learn that Mrs. A. was part of Satya Nand’s circle of acquaintances, a family friend, which probably explains the complicity between the two, and the very possibility that an analysis could have taken place, in an intimate and dual setting, for a woman with a man, in the India of the time. We remember, for example, that Girindrasekhar Bose himself, founder of psychoanalysis in Calcutta at the beginning of the 1920s, only had women patients in analysis (Hartnack 2001). In any case, Pinto’s intention is not to discuss the conceptual or theoretical-clinical scope of Satya Nand’s theses, which are actually quite obscure when examined closely, but to show how a transferential space is opened up between him and Mrs. A. thanks to the psychoanalytical apparatus, in which the aspirations, frustrations, fears and reveries of a young woman in search of an impossible synthesis between tradition and modernity, freedom and political commitments, devotion and transgression are expressed.

Analysis as a multiplication of the female imago, between psychoanalysis and mythography

10Her case is discussed in the first chapter of Objective Method, entitled “The Analysis of a Day-Dream, Namely, the Day-Dream of Hindu Socialism.” In the case of Mrs. A., what emerges from the analysis of a single one of her dreams, through her pullulating associations, which Satya Nand encouraged, is a difficult-to-resolve conflict between her frustrations as a wife (after three years of marriage, she was still childless and her husband, a young and wealthy businessman, planned to remarry); her loyalty as a wife; her homoerotic attraction to her best friend (Vidya); and her nostalgia for her youthful advocacy as part of the left wing of the Congress, as part of aim for a “Hindu socialism,” of which Nehru appeared to be the embodiment. As we read Sarah Pinto’s book-long voyage through Mrs. A.’s dream-reverie, set to analytical music by Satya Nand, we come to feel that any “marriage” is impossible for her, whether with her rich husband—which is, indeed, breaking apart—or with the socialist cause. Nehru himself, cloaked in his aura, may represent an impossible marriage, that between Brahminical Hinduism and socialism. But the overlaps between personal and “ethical” conflicts do not end there. There is also the one between the village, idealized by Gandhism, and the city, from which Mrs. A. hails—she who “dreams” of the village as a place that is simultaneously dangerous and redeeming. The village is thus simultaneously over-eroticized and idealized in Mrs. A.’s semi-oneiric narrative. One could even say that the village spatializes her neurosis, and that it constitutes the stage upon which a subjective play is entacted, and goes far beyond the confines of domestic walls, with which the female “inner world” was identified towards the end of the colonial era (Chatterjee 1993). But this attraction-repulsion for the village is also indicative of the difficulties posed by Gandhi’s sublime vision of the village, which is hardly mentioned directly in the book, but whose shadow hovers over it nonetheless.

  • 1 The term, which Pinto uses, has, since Mikhail Bakthine, designated the serial and differential con (...)

11The homosexuality of the protagonist of Sarah Pinto’s book—she rejects the term “lesbianism,” which seems anachronistic to her in this context (p. 65)—is never pathologized by Satya Nand. This indulgence towards Mrs. A.’s latent homosexuality is not unrelated to the multiform role of the Feminine in Hindu “mythopoiesis”1 itself. Hence the fact that a large part of Pinto’s book is organized around her protagonist’s identificatory wrestling with three major figures of Indian mythography: Draupadi, Shakuntala and Ahalya (each of which is the subject of an ad hoc chapter).

12The first, Draupadi, the emblematic character of the Mahâbhârata, represents a full-fledged femininity, given her devotion as a wife and her sexual charge (she simultaneously the wife of Arjuna and of the other four Pandava kings, and she has a son by each of them). She is also the cause of the war, at the beginning of this great poem, between the Pandavas and the Kauravas (a war during which her five children will die), as well as the protagonist of the famous episode of the infinite multiplication of the veils of her sari, which allows her to escape from sexual violation. In short, the figure of Draupadi covers the Feminine as the power of sexual difference. She is both a totalizing figure of woman and a symbol of her fundamental complementarity with the Masculine (or with the phallus, one would say in a more psychoanalytical language, and Draupadi is literally surrounded by phallic emblems).

13Shakuntala, on the other hand, refers to a certain melancholy in the Feminine. She represents the abandoned, unhappy woman, who nonetheless overcomes and values the ordeal of solitude. She will never forget King Dushyanta, whom she met one day in the forest where “she who is protected by the birds” lives (this is the meaning of the name Shakuntala, a forest figure, i.e. beyond the village*), and where she will long await the hoped-for return of her Prince. But Shakuntala is also the mother of the valiant Bharat, one of the mythical ancestors of the Indian Nation. She thus represents another figure of feminine power, more sacrificial, pensive and lunar compared to the carnal charge of Draupadi. But she is also more intrinsically phallic: her solitude, her son’s vigor, her intimate determination, give a certain independence and autonomy that Mrs. A. does not fail to point out by affirming for example: “I think Shakuntala would not have been happy if her husband had recognized her. She did better in being alone and away from the influence of a husband” (p. 102).

14Finally, there is Ahalya, who in a certain sense completes and radicalizes this gallery of female imagos. She is the only one not borrowed from the Mahabharata, and her figure, inspired by the Ramayana, seems more ambivalent. Wife to the aged Gautama, she cheated on him with Indra, the Lord of Heaven, even if tradition hesitates between deliberate betrayal and rape (Indra having taken on the appearance of Gautama to seduce her). In the vernacular traditions, it is believed that she was turned into stone to atone for her crime, a condition from which only the god Rama could deliver her, by treading on the stone she had become. In any case, Ahalya—whom Wendy Doniger compares, in certain respects, to the figure of Alcmene, the mother of Heracles, raped with a ruse by Jupiter (Doniger 1997)—undoubtedly embodies, in Mrs. A.’s phantasmagoria as well, the woman who risks going astray, who plays with transgression, and pays a high price. Possessing neither the power of sexual difference, like Draupadi, nor the embodiment of the resources of melancholy, like Shakuntala, Ahalya is a woman whose very desire seems conflicted, undecidable. In this sense, Pinto suggests, she is perhaps the most “analytical,” the closest to Mrs. A.

Beyond hysteria: female subjectivity as an analyzer of the (post)colonial situation

15Here we come back to the crucial question of hysteria and the function attributed to it. In this regard, the author notes an interesting paradox: on the one hand, the discourse of colonial psychiatry in India tended to hystericize all natives, without much gender difference, insofar as it tended to feminize Hindus in general (Nandy 2007); and, on the other hand, Anglo-Indian colonial psychiatry was rather indulgent towards the position of women, strongly influenced by the issue of arranged and premature marriages. Sarah Pinto even goes so far as to assert, in a very striking way, that psychiatry of the late colonial period proved to be more aware, when compared to its Western counterpart, of its own overdeterminations: “It might be said more generally of the views of indigenous (and some non-indigenous) practitioners writing under and just after colonialism that social critique was inherent, if latent, all along” (p. 150). Now, Satya Nand’s essay, and in particular the case of Mrs. A., constitutes in its own way an example of this “latent” use of psychoanalysis as a critical instrument. One could lengthily gloss the fact that Satya Nand dedicated his self-published book to his parents and “to their boundless faith in the past and future intellectual supremacy of India.” Is this overcompensation for an inferiority complex? What is the connection between the conversion to Christianity by Satya Nand’s parents and the “Orientalist” claim of India’s moral superiority? Or is it simply a sincere expression of nationalism? Some commentators (Jain, Murthy, and Sarin 2015) have in fact remarked that the very hesitancy discernible in his signature (some texts are signed “David Satya Nand,” others “Satyanand,” still others “DS Nand”) seem to betray a certain degree of instability in the author’s identity.

16But it is not Satya Nand’s case that interests the author in the end, although an essential part of the value of Pinto’s book, to my mind, is that it provides and introduction to this eclectic figure. Again, her purpose is not to sketch a portrait of this exuberant and elusive figure in Indian (post)colonial psychiatry, who would even end up taking on important institutional responsibilities in the independent India of the 1950s and 1960s, distinguishing himself, for example, as one of the very few psychiatrists trained in psychoanalysis who also practiced psychosurgery (Jain, Murthy, and Sarin 2015). But his case also shows the active presence of psychoanalysis in late colonial India. The mere fact that The Objective Method, beyond its speculative pretensions, is built on the presentation of two cases—that of Mrs. A. and that of a twenty-eight year old psychologist, passionate about psychoanalysis, struggling to find the subject of his doctoral dissertation, and obsessed with the fear that his professor (Owen Berkeley-Hill) would appropriate his ideas—, alone demonstrates that it values subjective singularity, and thereby departs from psychiatric generalizations, and proves once again the appeal of psychoanalysis in India at the end of the colonial period (Boni 2011; Nandy 1995). As for Mrs. A., we do not know what happened to her, and this gives Sarah Pinto’s investigation the character of a double mise en abyme: it reconstitutes, through her discourse in analysis, the existential universe of an anonymous woman, while deducing the intellectual portrait of her analyst, also almost buried under the rubble of history. Pinto’s oblique reading of the narrative, which is itself oblique, of an analysis on the eve of Independence and Partition, still manages to resonate with a vast spectrum of questions that continue to haunt post-colonial India: the role of women (caught between symbolic idealization and political marginalization), the reconcilability of modernity and tradition, the thwarted aspiration to build a model of society that is not a simple imitation of the one inherited from the colonizer.

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Berkeley-Hill, Owen. 1924. “The ‘Color Question.’” The Psychoanalytic Review 11:246–53.

Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. “The Nation and Its Woman.” Pp. 116–34 in The Nation and Its Fragments. Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, edited by P. Chatterjeen. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Doniger, Wendy. 1997. “Sita and Helen, Ahalya and Alcmena: A Comparative Study.” History of Religions 1(37):21–49.

Ernst, Waltraud. 2004. “Colonial Psychiatry, Magic and Religion: The Case of Mesmerism in British India.” History of Psychiatry 15(57):57–71.

Hartnack, Christiane. 2001. Psychoanalysis in Colonial India. New Delhi: Oxford India.

Jain, Sanjeev, Pratima Murthy, and Alok Sarin. 2015. “The Story of Satyanand.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry 16:1–40.

Mills, James H. 2000. Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism: The Native-only Lunatic Asylums in British India, 1857-1900. Chippenham: Anthony Rowe Ltd.

Nandy, Ashis. 1995. The Savage Freud: The First Non-Western Psychoanalyst and the Politics of Secret Selves in Colonial India. New Delhi: Oxford India.

Nandy, Ashis. 1984. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Return to Self under Colonialism. New Delhi: Oxford India.

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1 The term, which Pinto uses, has, since Mikhail Bakthine, designated the serial and differential construction of myths.

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Electronic reference

Livio Boni, Sarah Pinto. The Doctor and Mrs. A: Ethics and Counter-Ethics in an Indian Dream AnalysisSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 21 March 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Livio Boni

Psychoanalyst and Research Fellow, Collège International de Philosophie (Paris)

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