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Social History of Medicine


Bidisha Dhar

HOUSES OF MADNESS: INSANITY AND ASYLUMS OF BENGAL IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY INDIA
By Debjani Das
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 304, Rs. 895.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 3 March 2016

Debjani Das’s book attempts a close look at the history of the establishment of asylums in various parts of Bengal throughout the nineteenth century. The book is rich in archival detail with the different chapters complementing the themes considered for discussion. The first theme is the exploration of the linkages of the politics of inner space and geographical location of the asylums with that of the emergence of the various definitions of insanity intervened by notions about race. The second theme is the discussion of the theoretical basis of the ideas about insanity and various methods of treatment that were largely laid in England since the seventeenth century and undergoing necessary adjustments to the demands of the colony almost two hundred years later. The third and fourth themes deal exclusively with women and the role of the asylum staff in the treatment of lunacy. Das’s explorations of the spatial specificities in the mental asylums of Calcutta, Dullunda, Patna, Dhaka, Murshidabad, Hazaribagh, Berhampur, in the first chapter, has an European vis-à-vis ‘native’ theoretical framework to it. This proves immensely useful when Das discusses the various aspects of the European patient in Bengal, mostly physically and mentally unfit European military personnel who underwent treatment for brief time periods before being shifted to England for further treatment. However, this theoretical framework starts appearing forced when it is almost automatically inducted into the problematic of the metropolis-colony divide that Das follows to structure various, otherwise interesting, subsequent arguments. For instance, in the first chapter, Das recounts the chronological history of the process of formation of the primarily English Medical Board and the medical practitioners who were trained in England and then posted in their various capacities at different geographical locations in Lower Bengal. The issues that Das delves into here are the processes of medical training, the training curriculum, and the problematic of the everyday functioning of the Medical Board and the Assistant Surgeons in the asylums with respect to the legal structure of the colony substantiated by case studies from various places. A similar metropolis-to-colony almost non-interactive theoretical structure is more intensely employed to delve into the concept of the metropolis as the geographical arena for the production of the theoretical ideas for the medication and treatment of insanity. Das refers to the developments in the theoretical field since the seventeenth century but one is left to wonder about the ...


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