Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India

Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India

Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India

Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India


In her role as devoted wife, the Hindu goddess Parvati is the divine embodiment of viraha, the agony of separation from one's beloved, a form of love that is also intense suffering. These contradictory emotions reflect the overlapping dissolutions of love, family, and mental health explored by Sarah Pinto in this visceral ethnography.

Daughters of Parvati centers on the lives of women in different settings of psychiatric care in northern India, particularly the contrasting environments of a private mental health clinic and a wing of a government hospital. Through an anthropological consideration of modern medicine in a nonwestern setting, Pinto challenges the dominant framework for addressing crises such as long-term involuntary commitment, poor treatment in homes, scarcity of licensed practitioners, heavy use of pharmaceuticals, and the ways psychiatry may reproduce constraining social conditions. Inflected by the author's own experience of separation and single motherhood during her fieldwork, Daughters of Parvati urges us to think about the ways women bear the consequences of the vulnerabilities of love and family in their minds, bodies, and social worlds.


Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloudcover thick. I try to stay
just above the surface, yet I’m already under
and living within the ocean.

—Jalal ad-Din Rumi, “Saladin’s Begging Bowl” (1995)

January in north India is a strange kind of cold for someone used to Boston winters, to piercing air and eclipsing snowfalls. It is milder, but demands more effort—spreading quilts, seeking sunlight, finding warmth outdoors. On such mornings, after wiping the dust off my daughter’s mary janes, disciplining a scarf around her braids, and seeing her to school, I set off for a chilly interior, a space heavy with the difference between inside and outside. In a locked inpatient unit of a small, private psychiatric clinic, I visited with a woman I call Sanjana, a middle-class housewife about my age. As we sat on her bed shelling peanuts, she talked about her young son, her exhusband, her doctors, her sadness, her anger, her desire to find a job in one of the new call centers. When she got out of the hospital, she said, she would move to a different city, start a job and a new life. In the meantime, she paced the short width of the ward, beads in hand and prayers on her breath, keeping warm and filling hours with a metric of longing and devotion. When I asked what she and the other women talked about, she said, “We talk about the only thing there is to talk about: getting out.”

What was temporary and what was permanent were unclear for Sanjana. They were unclear categories for me as well. The word “visit” intercedes in my accounts of this winter and the months and years before and after it. It describes many of my activities, though I called what I was doing . . .

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