A woman of substance

Ajita Chakraborty, Fellow, Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, MRCP, Edinburgh and FRCPsychiatry, Royal College of Psychiatry in London was Professor and Head of the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, Postgraduate Institute of Medical and Research Institute, Kolkata, and later its Director. She was also President, General Secretary and Treasurer of the Indian Psychiatric Society.

In My Life as a Psychiatrist: Memoirs and Essays (published recently by Stree, Kolkata), she presents her memoirs and selected essays that throw light on psychiatry and the way she practised it.

Born in 1926, she was a pioneering woman psychiatrist in India. She took a stand against the mainstream that simply used the premises and methods of western psychiatry, insisting that an Indian school of psychiatry must develop to suit Indians who were certainly not to be seen as just a variant of westerners. Right from her childhood, she knew she wanted to be a psychiatrist, propelled by the need to know herself; to ‘pursue a career that explained things to me’. She left for the UK to train in psychiatry as soon as she received her MBBS degree in 1950, returning to Calcutta in 1960 as the first fully trained female psychiatrist of the country.

The memoirs discuss her difficulties in building up her career; there was resistance from the medical establishment despite her formidable qualifications. Her first appointment was at the prestigious Presidency General Hospital, at the adjoining Mental Observation Ward, in the absence of a department of psychiatry. She worked very hard in making it almost a full-scale department, creating records of patients and their treatments, providing a much needed database. This experience helped her in conducting the massive survey, covering ten millions, in Greater Calcutta, reminiscent of the Manhattan Project of the USA, with valuable information and analysis (later published as Social Stress and Mental Health, Sage 1990 and also in Bhargavi Davar, ed, Mental Health from a Gender Perspective, Sage 2001).

Of special interest is her account of new developments in psychiatry in the West, the anti-psychiatric movement which was a revolt against mainstream psychiatry, led by brilliant practitioners like Dr. R. D. Laing, whom she acknowledges as her guru. She also writes of the growing recognition of the primacy of culture in psychiatry.

In a foreword, Ashis Nandy, the distinguished scholar and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi says She represents the chaos, the uncertainty and the inner conflicts over theoretical compromises and therapeutic experiments that cannot but be the lot of a practitioner of a new discipline in an old society, more so when that society has its own ideas and traditions of mental health and ill-health.

In our Biography section, Rs. 550 in hardback, 226 pages. ISBN: 9788185604923.