The final leg of the trip to India took me from Bengaluru up to Lucknow and across to New Delhi. Lucknow is home to the Nur Manzil Psychiatric Center, one of the first dedicated mental health clinics to be set up in India (in the 1950s) and one of two clinics that I’m looking at as part of a project on the notion of ‘Christian psychiatry’ (see here for a recent bit of writing).
The reason for the inverted commas is that there was no concerted effort to theorize ‘Christian psychiatry’ in the early decades of either Nur Manzil or the other institution that I’m looking at, the Mental Health Centre within Christian Medical College, Vellore. Instead, Christianity and psychiatry came together in natural and unpredictable ways in the ideas and work of staff at these two institutions, in the way that the institutions were funded and directed, and on the basis of the diverse range of patients – largely middle- and lower-income rural people – who have sought help over the course of the last fifty years or so.
Some of this can be traced through documentation of varying kinds – and I had the pleasure of donning surgical gloves to wade through enormous dusty piles of abandoned, fading pages, interspersed with discarded medical supplies, while at Nur Manzil – but talking to staff and patients at both institutions it’s been clear that much of the most interesting and significant work that goes on never ends up on paper. An archive can help you write an institutional history, tracing funds, policies, leaders, and the like, and now and again you turn up something significant – unusual uses of LSD, for example, or evidence about how some psychiatrists thought that poor mental health was a gateway to deeper religious experience, put there by the divine.
But the atmosphere in a place like Nur Manzil – the dynamic amongst patients and staff and the broad and complex meaning of the word ‘care’ here – is hard to grasp, easily lost, and all but impossible to substantiate.
Both here and at MHC Vellore the claim is made that rather than take an explicitly religious or theological approach to the meaning of anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, etc – a minefield anywhere, but particularly so in India, where there has long been a fear of proponents of Christianity using underhand methods and dodgy claims to gain converts – the approach is solely medical-scientific.
The ‘Christian’ in ‘Christian psychiatry’ lies instead in the nature of the care provided, beyond the technicalities of diagnosis and treatment. It would be foolish to suggest that Christians care more than anyone else, or make better psychiatrists or nurses – in any case, large numbers of staff at Nur Manzil and MHC aren’t Christians. But there’s an understanding in both these institutions of human frailty, and of what it’s like to suffer and to care with love, that is rooted quite self-consciously in Christianity and particularly in the sort of life Jesus is thought to have lead and in the teachings that he put forward. In some ways this makes Christianity and psychiatry a good fit with one another, since both are concerned, in their own ways, with offering unconditional understanding and love in the face of suffering.
This matters because a great many of the patients that have ended up here over the years have been convinced, initially at least, that their illness is their fault. Some have been referred to Nur Manzil in the first instance by faith healers from within various rural religious traditions: these healers seem to be hedging their bets by supplying their own cures but at the same time recommending psychiatric help on the side – this can make it more socially acceptable for people to seek psychiatric treatment (religious duty rather than embarrassing necessity) but doctors are frustrated when patients attribute their recovery not to medication or counselling but to the ministrations of the faith healers…
I didn’t have much time to explore the city – other than a quick rickshaw ride to purchase some essentials, during the course of which I was called something unmentionable by a passer-by who perhaps didn’t think I understood any Hindi (or perhaps hoped that I did). But on my way back to Lucknow’s tiny airport my hosts showed me some of the new buildings and statues that have been put up in recent years – and continue to be constructed – by the well-known Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati.
She’s famous both because Dalit women don’t often end up in positions of political (or any kind of) power and because the speed at which she has become one of India’s richest women has attracted the attention of various anti-corruption bodies and campaigners.
She remains hugely popular but it’s not hard to find Indian taxpayers who are incensed by all this ruinously expensive Jaipur sandstone architecture – featuring heroes of the oppressed in India, including the Buddha, Dr Ambedkar… and Mayawati (these last are having to be covered up during the current election campaign).
On, finally, to New Delhi – some work at Vidyajyoti College, a ride on the fantastic Delhi Metro system, and one last risking of life and limb on the back of a motorcycle – before heading back to Osaka.
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