Bringing Up Raja

All the Mothers Are One: Hindu India and the Cultural Reshaping of Psychoanalysis

by Stanley N. Kurtz, foreword by S.J. Tambiah
Columbia University Press, 306 pp., $17.50 (paper)

There was an old man with a boy in the train compartment from Delhi to Jaipur, and a couple with two children. The younger of these was a little boy of about two, beautifully dressed and sucking fitfully on a bottle of fruit juice. The elder, a girl of about seven in sandals and a stained dress, sat by herself in a corner and spoke to no one. The boy—his nickname seemed to be Zuzu—whimpered until he could be taken on his father’s lap: “He always wants Daddy most—unless he wants to sleep, then he goes to mother,” said his father. Was the girl their daughter, I asked? “No. Attendant.” Was school not compulsory for her? “But she is poor. The poor don’t bother.” The unnamed seven-year-old was called over to massage her mistress, her dark hands against creamy wrists, and later to mind Zuzu.

Meanwhile, by translation, I learned that the old man, called Papa by the boy with him, was in fact his grandfather, who was bringing him up; his mother “had had to go into service” and seldom saw him. For a time the carriage was also invaded by a couple with five little girls, each about an inch taller than the other, like Russian nesting dolls. “It’s no good talking to them, dear,” their mother told me in a broad Birmingham accent, “they don’t speak a word of English.” Before I could ask her how she liked marriage in her home continent after an upbringing in the English Midlands, the family was righteously evicted for lack of first-class tickets. Until all fell asleep, the other three children got noisy, with Zuzu putting a diaper on his head and pretending to be a bride.

A minuscule cross-section, but it raises questions. Is it respectable to make any generalizations about national character, about styles of childrearing, and about the connection between the two—especially for a nation of some 900 million people? Is it patronizing? Is it verifiable? Could the generalizations apply to all eight children in the railway carriage, for example? Dr. Stanley Kurtz, a University of Chicago anthropologist who has done ethnological research in India, argues that in studying non-Western cultures there is no need for the customary stand-off between anthropology and psychoanalysis. He believes that anthropology can be fruitfully combined with psychoanalysis, although for this to happen a difficult rethinking of psychoanalytic theory is necessary. In his book he proposes to undertake this.

Anthropologists now tend to feel, understandably, that psychoanalytical studies of societies, particularly of non-Western societies, apply unproven theories and a Western bias to cultures with quite different assumptions. They prefer to stick to what can be observed and validated. As well, anyone might object that Hindu India—Kurtz confines himself to this—includes such a range of caste and class and educational differences that generalization is impossible. Kurtz’s answer to this is that Western psychiatric studies of Indian culture indicate deep-rooted Hindu cultural principles and child-rearing attitudes that are consistent across the country. He…

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