Bioethics Blogs

Sarah Pinto’s Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India by Saiba Varma

Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, 283 pages.

Sarah Pinto’s extraordinary ethnography, Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India, begins with three epigraphs that have to do with the ethics of writing, representation, and narration. Pinto has much to say about all these things, but the axis on which they revolve is love. In Urdu and Hindi, love and madness are phenomenologically linked as forms of nasha, or intoxication. In South Asia, “mad love”— loving the wrong object, but also, in the sense of love as destructive, cruel, and catastrophic—is everywhere. It is well known that the price of mad, intoxicating love is that (other) things and relations fall apart. These facts of life, Pinto reminds us, are both incredibly “banal and complex” (254). The women we meet in this ethnography—Ammi, Amina, Lata, Kavita, Sanjana, Pinto herself, and many more—are sketched with a depth and vividness that reveals how love, kinship, and gendered vulnerabilities can break a person apart. Through each of their stories, something is also revealed about the limits of both anthropological and psychiatric forms of truth telling and knowledge making.

Pinto describes how crazy love, lost love, maternal love, filial love, illicit love, defiant love, and marital love all saturate the practices of Indian psychiatry, medicine, and even ethnography. As she puts it, “the task [of ethnography] is…to observe how the process of reaching for—freedom, care, love, relationships—is filled with actions as things come undone, and how undoing impacts people in different ways” (261).

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