Chapati Histories

“I went instead for the particular, and tried to come to terms with Ind and IndL, and did so not by cramming but by becoming a flaneur of the stacks.”[i] There are many wonderful and evocative turns of phrase in No Aging in India, but few others offer quite the same invitation into a way of being amid ideas, a way of being amid voices, a way of being in the world as being amid voices with ideas. One of the things that so captivates me about Cohen’s work, and especially No Aging, is his way of skating through and between the stacks, not just with scenes but with registers of language. Texts of all sorts, voices of all sorts, all commenting on each other, and, in doing so, possibly shaping each other in strange and unexpected ways.  Comparing himself to “crammers” in his cohort who went toward the expansive, Cohen, wandering the “Ind” aisles of Harvard’s Widener Library, is a connoisseur of the particular. Given all that style (and “ishtyle”) accomplishes in Cohen’s other work, as a motile play with value, a citational mode that stands in the place of “actual politics of the symbolic,” it may be precisely this style through which we receive an invitation into the world.[ii]

The opening passage summons the spirit of Marxist writer Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya from the Widener library and recounts Cohen’s visits to Chattopadhyaya’s house in Calcutta. Cohen writes of being distracted from his conversations there by the presence of a silent old woman laying on a bed in a room and by a tentative mistrust of Chattopadhyaya’s reading of story from Chandogya Upanishad. The Upanishadic dogs chanting for food are not mocking Brahminical rites, he says; rather, they express the relationship between voice and the demand that one’s needs be met, a compression of the material and the ideal that may or may not be belied by the presence of the old (tired? hungry? senile? silent?) woman. The short passage reflecting on Chattopadhyaya’s vision of materialism ends with a quiet wish to unsettle materialism’s antinomial distance from idealism. Cohen wishes for the possibility of a different sort of arrangement of time, the people who inhabit it, and their ideas about themselves and their eras.

Speaking of time, lately I have been reading and writing about a young woman called “Mrs. A.” The text in which she lives is Objective Method of Dream Interpretation: Derived from Researches in the Oriental Reminiscence State, a treatise on dream analysis self-published by psychiatrist Dev Satya Nand in Punjab in 1947. Mrs. A.’s case, one of two the text contains, is a florid reflection on love, betrayal, myth, art, and how to be engaged in the world.[iii] The case’s date is uncertain, though likely between 1942 and 1944, and it is unclear if Mrs. A. lived in Amritsar or Lahore, a tectonically consequential difference, and an ambiguity that locks her in her time. Published amid the cataclysm of Partition and joy of independence, Satya Nand’s ambitiously titled book recounts experiments with his own elaborate analytic and with what he called the “Oriental reminiscence state,” a state of deep concentration he also referred to as “samadhi” and “the muse state.” Satya Nand enlisted a “family friend,” a 21-year-old grappling with marital betrayal, thwarted ambitions, and an uncertain future, to help him test his “objective method.” The dream she proffered, in fact a day-dream, involved bringing a philosophy she called “Hindu socialism” to Indian villagers, for whom she had an entrenched aversion and near erotic fascination. Mrs. A.’s reflections contained thoughts on love affairs from her college days and erotically charged friendships with both men and women. She turned to figures from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Sanskrit theater to reimagine her own life and she rhapsodized about the pleasures of dancing and acting, the joys and political visions that might emerge from retreating to one’s room, putting music on the gramophone and dancing, imagining oneself, like the heroine Shakuntala, “loosed” in the wilderness.[iv]  Satya Nand, ever attentive to his method, parsed these musings into elements, essential fragments (Levi-Strauss-style), and rearranged them into wild and dense streams of association that rose to a frantic pitch, all roads leading to “HINDU SOCIALISM,” which he put in all caps at the end of one such stream of analytic fervor and saw as the resolution to her case.[v]  Satya Nand was so taken by her vision that he named her case for it – “The Day-Dream of Hindu Socialism.” She had invented a new concept, he felt, which proved his own theory that his method of analysis, especially, its “Oriental” samadhi state, an induced physical state of deep concentration, spurred the body to generate new ideas.

Mrs. A. thought he was making a bit too much of the Hindu Socialism thing. She preferred to talk about Vidya, the woman with whom she had recently had a sexually charged “tussle,” and with ethical rearrangements of classical mythic tales. They did discuss her vision of socialism, however. She said, “I think the people of India, cannot understand anything, unless it comes as a natural outgrowth of their religion.  So I am interested in showing that Socialism is Hinduism, applied under modern conditions of life, I think, it is so. I believe in the deep wisdom of our sages, they had planned long ago a system, which could be modified to all possible situations.”[vi]

The sentiment, surely not as original as Satya Nand thought, was consistent with Chattopadhyaya’s writing (first published about a decade later), particularly the view that the Indian societies of ancient, pre-recorded history were proto-materialist, proto-socialist. Lokayata (title of his magnum opus, or one of them) for Chattopadhyaya, was the philosophy of “the people,” lok, a Pre-Buddhist, pre-Upanisadic counterpoint to Hindu idealism, a “this worldly” philosophy founded in notion of deha-vada, the view that the material human body (deha) is the microcosm of the universe.”[vii] What Mrs. A. mapped onto villagers, who were at once object of her future world-making and gateway to an originating past, Chattopadhyaya mapped onto a vision of “the people” elongated across eons in time/space/class compressions familiar to 19th social and social evolutionist theory.

Satya Nand was not so interested in Mrs. A.’s Hindu socialism, aside from the way proved his theories by being an original product prompted by dream recollection. He enfolded Mrs. A’s daydream as mere evidence in an elaborate theory of the organic psyche, its own sort of lokayata. Satya Nand’s “oriental method” was a “physico-chemical hypothesis of the nature of dreams” that depended on a meaning-laden method, and a biology of mental states that was intriguingly headless.[viii] His theories were less concerned with the brain or nervous system than with layers of material interfaces between world and self; these were cellular, genetic, evolutionary, developmental, and molecular processes by which the world writes upon the body. These interfaces included a mysterious entity, the paraplasmagene, an extra-cellular interface between the body and its external environment.[ix]  Satya Nand’s thinking, feeling, dreaming self was thus less a psychic economy of urges and memories or ordered symbolic system than an intensely material ecology of attributes, meanings, and desires, an ecology that did not end at the skin, and whose bridges to the world were not matters of experience and their imprints but of dense organic pathways.[x] Satya Nand’s materiality was intensely social, even symbolic, and it charged an ethic: a life fully lived came through engagement in long and rigorous reflection, and a clinical practice that cared for such a person would be oriented toward things that had really happened, the “truth” of events. Later in his life, Satya Nand was a proponent of community mental health care, and, as one of the only biographical sketches of him puts it, “He perhaps stands out as one of the few psychiatrists who practiced both psycho‐analysis and psycho‐surgery, and saw a link between the two!”[xi] Far from being biologically determinist, Satya Nand’s materialism allowed an expansive scope on possible sites of the integration of the physical, social, and political world with mind, emotion, personality, and, yes, dreams, all in the loopiest and strangest of often nearly incomprehensible writing.

The question of Satya Nand’s influence is moot – it seems he had little impact on psychiatry; much of his work is lost; he is barely, if ever, cited. Yet his brand of materialism, at once fantastical and ethically committed to “the real” (in his own terms) – resonates with a wider community of ideas that made mid-20th century Indian psychiatry awash in iterations of organic psyches and socially-embedded body-selves. That it met, and was so taken with, a different, more Lokataya-esque materialism in Mrs. A.’s Hindu Socialism, not to mention the elements of socialism he followed her in finding in the Mahabharata, strikingly contrasts the way he enfolded such ideas into a completely different understanding of the body in social space and time.

About eighty kilometers to the south, and a decade or two earlier, English missionary physician Ellen Farrer had set up a hospital where she found herself beset with women in strange but similar conditions – crying out, senselessly repeating words “Hari Ram,” “Hai Ram,” showing no fever or other signs of illness, confused, and often possessed.[xii] Many had experienced grief or shock, especially the loss of children. Farrer diagnosed these women as hysterical and saw their conditions to be psychosomatic expressions of distress, with spirit possession the local, cultural variant of the universal disorder hysteria. As I have discussed elsewhere, this view was consistent with a translational move that settled into place in the latter half of the 19th century in colonial medical writing, which came to understand spirit possession as but the local form of hysteria. In this understanding, the circuit between the social world and bodily experience was posed in psychological terms, through the mediating force of the translating mind – a very heady view of the relationship between body and world.[xiii]

Similar symptoms met different diagnoses elsewhere. In south India, patients with almost identical profiles to Farrer’s hysterical women who visited the Mysore Mental Hospital were diagnosed with something called “confusional reactions,” their symptoms understood to be the effects of anemia, syphilis, parasitic infections, tuberculosis, childbirth, and plain exhaustion.[xiv]  Weakness was symptom, etiology, and social theory; the diagnosis was confusion. Grief was plain in the lists of lost infants and children that appear in case files. One of the diagnosing psychiatrists in many of these cases, M.V. Govindaswamy, is far better known for bringing the new surgical practice of leucotomy (called lobotomy in the United States) to India, for which he received the Padma Shri medal. Govindaswamy’s notes on leucotomy cases are as rich as the confusional case notes are slim, which is not to say the latter are not rich archives of densely social biologies, but perhaps that they were less surprising, or interesting to the physicians who recorded them. His published writing, some of which extols the strength of Indian families and the importance of cultivating spaces of creativity for children, contains little mention of leucotomies. But it does discuss the reasons for ill health in India: “They are historical, political, and socio-economic. Centuries of foreign rule, with its inevitable economic exploitation have resulted in appalling poverty, illiteracy and ignorance. A vicious circle of chronic under-nutrition and inadequate resistance to infection has been set up, with increase in tropical diseases like malaria, cholera, and plague.”[xv] Between Govindaswamy and Satya Nand, among others, it would seem that among the many conversations of 20th century Indian sciences of the mind, theories of material circuits between the social, political, historical, and mental, between the world and emotional, indeed ethical experiences, posed a counterpoint to psychologized circuits that reduced the materiality of the body to mere idiom for social distress.

Move a few decades forward, into the 1980s and 1990s of Cohen’s Benares, and into Nagwa, the slum at the edge of 1980s Assi Ghat. About two-thirds of the way through No Aging, after brilliant and subtle discussions of the interplays of ideas, expressions, and understandings of bad old minds that come to center on “the Indian family” and its moral failures, there is a chapter that seems to say, “Wait.” Social lives might have bodily effects, the chapter argues, to that world and to ours, but not always in the way you think. In Dalit neighborhoods, among the poor of the Chamar jati, the people of the saint Ravi Das, where weakness of the body are expressed as chapati counts (“we can only give him so many chapatis”) kamzori (weakness) overwrote (upper-caste) moralizing languages of the “bad family” with the body-soul of adi-dharm, a vision of the right and good, and also cause and effect, time and self, that was of the original people, who are also the sufferers and exploited, those who embody histories of dispossession, poverty, and labor. In Nagwa, Cohen wrote, caste-as-inequality involved a biomoral formulation akin to materialist history, allowing people to assert their bodies were “different from others” because they bear its depletions – of fluids, heat, moisture, bodily substance.[xvi] Theorizations of afflictions of the mind as effects of kamzori made weakness a “double sign,” coming from symbolic hierarchies and an unjust society, even as they pointed to the “equality of all people.”[xvii]

For Cohen, this convergence of socio-historical and physical weakness was “something  additional and quite different” to middle class anxieties about the bad family.[xviii] This phrase, at the beginning of its paragraph, trips me up. I want to see the Dalit take on caste as centered, the take on caste, not the sign of difference or something extra. But then I see what Cohen is doing with “difference,” how a particular kind of difference involves offering oneself not as a sign but as a material operator upon signification, as he writes of kamzori and (low-)casted bodies. It is through this circuit of matter, in which materiality-as-sociality, and the moral as history, meets adi-dharm, the time-body of the original, that the weakness of the poor and the low-caste encompasses the ideas of failed familial or personal adjustment. It is not additional to it, but the ground in which it grows. Difference as a matter of meaning and moral value effecting bodies/minds is an ethos against which the bodies of those upon whom it is covertly staged are posed (and pose themselves) by way of their very material, very moral, very social particularity, which is also what makes them universal. “Weakness challenged the moral order of caste by substituting for it a different moral order, one equally rooted in the inevitability of organic difference …. Caste was a medical condition.”[xix]

The chapati body also works against the circuit between the material and the social that is mediated by psychology, and by cultural and symbolic models of distress, especially those predicated on conversion (of social to physical distress), and those that would seek or seem to undo biological determinisms. The chapati body circuit, in which material reality-as-difference is “inevitable,” poses the organic as neither perilously threatening the social nor standing to be undone or desconstructed by it. This is, perhaps, local biology, the adi-dharm version. But it is this version that suggests that the idea of the local may be more local than its abstraction suggests. There are senses of “local biology” to both Satya Nand’s and Govindaswamy’s writing, published and in circulation from the 1950s onward. They are not the same as each other, nor are they the same as Chattopadhaya’s materialism, proto or otherwise, and the “confusional” body is different from the local/adi biology of kamzori that figures heat, dryness, fluids, wind, and food, as well as pathogens, genes, chemicals, molecules, food, and medicine. But as Cohen wends through Nagwa, showing vayu, kamzori, etc. to be not social idioms but social theories, he finds bodies pulsing with their locality and with all it means to be adi lok. Perhaps, too, kamzori and confusional disorder were social theories because some of these persons were, at one time or another, in the presence of each other, or lived under the same cumulus of ideas – Nagwa residents finding themselves among doctors who may have had a whiff of Govindaswamy’s ideas, or those of others like him and Satya Nand (and doctors and writers finding themselves confronted with patients weakened by their shared history). Or, they were among those who might want to make something of their embodied lokayata, their sheer locality,  however imagined – people like Mrs. A. who wandered into their lives with the intention of transforming adi-dharm to class consciousness, or whose own ideas were shaped by books or friends or lovers, by the adi-dharm they absorbed, or via any of the mysterious ways thinking about the world comes to be part of the world about which we continue to think.

Many of us who write about bodies, disease (especially mental afflictions), and healing in India face a conundrum: account for the social nature of illness without translating afflictions into an analytic language that rejects the materialisms – the ideas about materialities – they instantiate, and also without fixing those materialisms in an unreachable other world, as signs of cultural difference and unreachable otherness. Texts like No Aging in India help us sort out the differences, and sort through the ways different circuits between bodies and worlds might co-exist in the same city, neighborhood, household, sentence, or body. No Aging accomplishes this not just because it grapples with the complexities of the biomoral, in its mutually constituting versions, but because Cohen is a flaneur of the stacks, capable of sustaining the possibility that ideas – like bodies – move widely and wildly.

In the chapter called “Chapati Bodies,” Cohen shifts from the translational modes (that moved through many colonial medical attentions to the madnesses of colonized women, and arguably moved out of colonial writing about mysterious afflictions decoded as cultural/psychological and into anthropology) to something like the social materialism that allowed 20th century psychiatry to depart from racialized translational arrangements that made a heady sense of culture the encompassing form of difference. When he puts Nagwa under the sign of “difference,” (1998, 232), Cohen clarifies that this is not the difference of the scholar who seeks out “dhat” or “cultural views” of x,y, or z disease, or psychosomatic explanations (schemes of imagined “equality” that mortify the material to elevate the symbolic).[xx]  At first, he writes, he thought of kamzori as a “rhetorical strategy,” then realized that “rhetorical strategies draw upon a limited universe of discourse.”[xxi] The power of No Aging is its willingness to expand, and radically, “the universe of discourse.” He widens it to include something it is harder for antinomialists of matter and mind to get our heads around: that is, organically embedded, historically contingent socio-moral difference, theories of a materially ethical cosmos, morality as something you can eat, body as historical difference, power, change, and circumstance in the fierce immediacy of flesh, feeling, sanity, and dreams. Such a view takes scientific languages as seriously as talk in low-caste slums, and stops to marvel not just at their uncanny (as though accidental) juxtapositions, but at how they might – must? – be connected, how even our own abstractions – like the people, the lok, the local – might be fruits of a shared world. This body is a history of writing, reading, diagnosing, treating, talking, touching, hitting, sexing, and feeling. The chapati body is like the chapati book. Both involve a constant enfolding, the edible origami of the flaneur of the stacks.

Sarah Pinto is Professor of Anthropology at Tufts University.  She is author of Where There Is No Midwife: Birth and Loss in Rural India (Berghahn 2008), Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India (University of Pennsylvania, 2012), and The Doctor and Mrs. A.: Ethics and Counter-Ethics in an Indian Dream Analysis (Women Unlimited and Fordham, 2019), and numerous articles on gender, medicine, and intimacy in South Asia.


With gratitude to Bharat Venkat for convening the panel that initiated this discussion, Dr. Sanjeev Jain for sharing knowledge of Dev Satya Nand and Objective Method, Lauren Minsky for sharing archival notes on Ellen Farrer, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, for providing access to archived case files, American Institute of Indian Studies for funding archival research at NIMHANS, and Lawrence Cohen for engagement and inspiration.


[i] Cohen, Lawrence. No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

[ii] Cohen, Lawrence. “Song for Pushkin.” Daedalus 2007: 136.2, 113.

[iii] Satya Nand, Dev The Objective Method of Dream-Interpretation: Derived from Researches in the Oriental Reminiscence State (Lahore: Printed and Published by Major Satya Nand … at the Northern India Printing and Publishing, 1947.

[iv] Ibid. 121.

[v] Ibid. 140.

[vi] Ibid. 135.

[vii] Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. Lōkayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism. [3d ed. New Delhi: People’s Pub. House, 1973, xvii.

[viii] Satya Nand, Objective Method, xiv, c.f. Pinto, Sarah The Doctor and Mrs. A.: Ethics and Counter-Ethics in an Indian Dream Analysis Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2019.

[ix] Satya Nand, Dev. ‘A Correlative Study of Some of the Findings of Child Psychiatry with Recent Advances in the Field of the Biological Sciences’, The Indian Journal of Pediatrics, 1961:28 (9).

[x] Design for a Man (Theory – Methods, Finding, and Applications): Oriental Psycho-Analysis, Experimental Religions, Philosophy, and Sociology, Psycho-Cybernatics, Biology of Ego Delhi: Atma Ram, 1967.

[xi] Jain, Sanjeev, et al., ‘The Story of Satyanand’, vol. 57, no. 4, 2015, p. 421.

[xii] Farrer, Ellen. Professional Work at the Farrer Hospital, Bhiwani’, c. 1933, Baptist Missionary Society Archives, BMS IN/148, IN/148, 1891 – 1933, no. 9.  Archival notes shared by Lauren Minsky.

[xiii] Sarah Pinto, ‘”The Tools of Your Chants and Spells”: Stories of Madwomen and Indian Practical Healing’, Medical Anthropology, 2015: 35(3), 1–14.

[xiv] National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences, Bangalore, archived case files

[xv] Govindaswamy, Moti Venkatarao. Dr. M.V. Govindaswamy: Lectures and Writings. ed.  Saligrama Krishna Ramachandra Rao and Vimala Govindaswamy 1970, p. 75.

[xvi] Cohen, No Aging, 232

[xvii] Ibid. 228.

[xviii] Ibid. 230.

[xix] Ibid. 232.

[xx] Ibid. 232.

[xxi] Ibid. 233.

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