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C h a p t e r 6 Ethics of Dissolution The amorous catastrophe may be close to what has been called, in the psychotic domain, an extreme situation. —Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (1978) One afternoon, Mrs. P. phoned Mrs. M. to invite us to a talk at the university by a feted alumnus, a psychiatrist relocated to the United States, where he now held a high position in a professional psychiatric organization. Arriving late, we were ushered into the packed room and shown to seats at the front as the lengthy introductions got under way. The speaker introduced his topic—threats that modernity posed to mental health. The force of his argument fell on divorce and the impact of rising divorce rates on mental well-being. The United States, a country he described as rampant with frivolous divorces, was his example, epitomized by a patient who had been ‘‘married and divorced eleven times’’ (a Vietnam War veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder, whose marriage habits he saw as a sign less of his disorder than of the times). Lauding India for its strong unions, he warned of lax approaches to marriage and their consequences for mental health and, indeed, the nation. During a reception after the talk, conversation stayed close to divorce and the ‘‘cultural value’’ placed on marriage in India. A professor observed that in some families in the United States, parents put children in Indian schools so they keep the good habits of Indian culture. The speaker agreed. He had seen many families who, inside the home, ‘‘keep the culture, do the pujas, keep the traditions, they teach their children the morality and the Ethics of Dissolution 239 cultural ways, and things like that in our culture we don’t have this thing of eleven shadis [marriages].’’ He went on, ‘‘Look, many people criticize the Indian marriage system, and it can be criticized, but I am actually a proponent of it. Here when you get married you get married for life. My parents were married for life, my grandparents were married for life, I am married for life, you are married for life, but over there, you see how it is. There is so much divorce, half of all marriages.’’ I asked the speaker about his experiences in America and said I felt his examples were extreme. ‘‘Even we [meaning Americans] would find eleven marriages to be shocking.’’ ‘‘It’s an extreme case, but it makes the point,’’ he said. In the car later, I said I thought the talk had been good but that the cases were unrealistic. I doubted whether it was even possible for one person to marry so many times. Mrs. M. and Mrs. P. said they liked the examples in spite of some exaggeration . They held the audience’s attention, Mrs. P. said. ‘‘They made it spicy.’’ This may well have been the speaker’s intention; he praised what he expected were his audience’s views and values. His point of view was not unique. A short newspaper article from around that time described a campaign to raise public awareness of mental illness and quoted one of the campaign’s organizers. ‘‘Ms. Justice Mishra said psychiatric illness was often caused by the breakdown of joint families, unemployment , an inferiority complex, fast pace of modern life and negative impact of modern culture’’ (The Hindu 2007). Here a familiar compression of factors associated with mental illness—modernity, family breakdown, economic malaise, a ‘‘fast’’-paced life, cultural change—reiterated another myth, that families do not break down unless afflicted by large-scale social and cultural (read non-Indian) forces. In such statements was a critical turn: from individual distresses related to families that break down (because families sometimes break down), distresses that might relate to the ways the burdens of those normal breakdowns are distributed (not to their abnormality), to distresses caused by the widespread breakdown of ‘‘the Indian family,’’ the idea, that is, that a dissolving family is a moral threat. Not long after Eve started school, she began to talk about her desk mate, Karuna. I heard the name over and over—Karuna’s lunches, the bows in Karuna’s hair, how she and Karuna had failed to provide a correct answer (the definition of CPU) to ‘‘Computer Sir’’ and were hit on the hands with 240 Chapter 6 rulers. I found Karuna’s mother one afternoon. Like stones amid a flood of children out the gate, Sonali and I...


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