Madness Abroad: Why Many Indo-Canadians Seek Help in Their Country of Origin





I arrived in Kolkata in November 2014, sick with undiagnosed depression and psychosis.

I had begun to feel unsafe in Canada, the country of my birth, convinced I was being followed by unknown enemies. My paranoia was not wholly imagined. I had long perceived my marginalization as a woman of colour, particularly in the Canadian workforce. My mental health problems had begun with a job I had taken in Montréal in 2009 – as an editor/administrator for a publishers’ association – in which I had been mistreated and exploited by a white, male boss (an influential publisher) and a few of his associates. (This period was documented in “Being Brown and Depressed” in New Canadian Media, January 2018.) After two years I had quit, exhausted and in despair.

My depression degraded over the following two years. After moving to Toronto in search of secure work, my isolation deepened and I was often irritable and angry. After some time, I lost hope and developed a sense of terror.

I fled to India with a laptop and a few documents, like a reverse refugee, having disposed of most of my possessions. In India, I thought, I would be among people who shared my heritage. I would be at peace in an inherited house, the house of the past that my late father and paternal grandmother had given me. (My parents had divorced when I was 18 and moved back to India separately. My mother had moved into the house after my father’s death, to secure the property.)

But my mother’s maternal sister-in-law arrived on a visit to my maternal grandmother, who had been left in my mother’s care by my maternal uncle. And when I woke up from the sofa in my drawing room, I heard my maternal grandmother say with loud irritation to my aunt: “We could have sat there, but now Tinni [my “call” name] is here.”

In India I remained frightened. I woke up at all hours and ran about our roomy, two-storey Ballygunge house, built in 1935 as a square, brick colonial-Indian bungalow. I sprinted up the spiralling stone staircase, making sure my mother and grandmother were all right, locking the numerous Burma teak doors and grilled French windows. I spent the night on the upper floor, in the room with a balcony that looked over the street from the corner edge of the red house. If I heard anything strange to me, I leapt up and opened the balcony-door shutters to look out. I hardly slept. I was convinced that I was still being followed. I wept and wondered aloud, to my mother, if I ought to kill myself.

My mother suggested that I rest and “have fun” while in India. I enrolled in Kalaripayat and Sanskrit classes, read, wrote, and handled my long-neglected affairs in Kolkata. Another aunt sailed in from Mumbai to visit her mother-in-law, my grandmother, as though she were doing my mother and me a great favour, and demanded we take her to College Street and Park Street. My mood remained low. My terror came and went, but I was still angry, not merely at my abuses by whites in Canada, but also about my abuses by family members in India: at my maternal family, who treated my house and my time as theirs to use; at my paternal family, who behaved as though I, an unmarried woman, was a non-person. My paternal cousins next door did not visit or even acknowledge me.

My grievances were legitimate. My behaviour was unusually intense, loud, and sometimes irrational. “You’re not my mother,” I railed for hours at my mother at the top of my voice, so that the neighbours heard it. “You only care about your family!” I yelled frequently about the filth people threw from their houses onto the street. When someone laid large flowerpots against our house wall, l stomped out, lifted one of the pots in the air and dashed it down on the street. It cracked with a satisfying sound.

The old houses in our area had been built close to each other, with numerous wide-open windows, doors, verandas and balconies. My house, built by my grandfather, was just a few feet away from one that had been built by his brother. I heard chatter and activities clearly and began to differentiate voices. Our lanes were narrow, and we could also hear the voices of neighbours across the street.



I began to hear the word “pagol” thrown out by the next-door neighbour, a woman living with my second cousin Himon Sanyal, a man who improbably worked in public relations. “Is she crazy?” and “She’s crazy!” were the expressions I heard repeatedly, daily, from this woman whom I had never met. Her voice was distinctly high-pitched and loud, but other voices in her house seemed to try to hush her. I could not help picking up this word, “pagol” after that, repeatedly, and not merely from the next-door neighbour. “Mai ta pagol” – “the girl is crazy” –was something I began to hear as a chorus from strangers passing in front of the house.

The woman next door talked about the “pagol” incessantly. I once heard her advise her maids to shut the windows because someone next door was “pagol.” I then heard the windows shut abruptly. One day she sat with her family in the small room close to our kitchen, and when I spoke out to my mother, she used the word “pagol” loudly again and shut their window. Someone got out of his car one evening and walked close to our drawing room where I sat talking to my mother, and pronounced that the “pagol” was downstairs.

As a Westerner, I thought myself above fear of such behaviour. But deep in my mind I knew the power of the word “pagol.” My maternal family had a history of mental illness. My mother had told me about the intense pain she had felt when her father was branded “pagol.” The term erased a man’s humanity and was an accusation, as though mental illness were akin to theft – something to be not pitied but condemned. When I was young, my mother described going to school with her other little friends, after her father’s illness. A woman had singled her out and asked her loudly:

“What happened to your father?”

My mother did not reply. I had absorbed the sense of pained love and fear that came over my mother’s face in her recollection. The fact is my grandfather, like my mother and myself, had suffered from depression. The vulgar curiosity of an adult had burned into the child’s mind, filling her with feelings of shame, anger, pity and protectiveness toward her father, and a sense of social alienation.

My grandfather had been a lawyer in Bangladesh prior to the Partition. Living without a job in independent India, in the house of his powerful father-in-law, with a wife and several children to care for, he was suffering from displacement and intense stress. He walked into the King’s shrines and fell before the gold Kali idol to seek help from the divine. He was found weeping by guards, his hands on the idol’s gilt feet. He was hauled out of the shrine by police and locked up in his father-in-law’s house, not even permitted to speak to his wife. His brother, a professor, arrived and took him to see a doctor. My grandfather was treated with medicine for the rest of his life and went on to work for the government. Yet he was always seen as a failure, as a cause of anguish in the family.

Perhaps my memory of this was part of the reason I was reluctant to see a doctor. In Canada, too, the word “crazy” was used to dismiss the poor, the ill, the female, the non-white. And the mistrust I had grown to feel in Canada made me unwilling to consider myself “crazy.” It seemed to me my society was trying to make me “crazy” – that is, beyond the acceptable, outside the norm.

Within my first year in India, I edited a book, published a review, obtained my Overseas Citizen of India card, took courses, and helped my mother take care of my grandmother. But I neglected something critical, the Coumadin I had been taking for years to prevent blood clots. I went on holiday in Florence and promptly had a stroke. My friend saved my life by taking me to a hospital.

On return to India, my depression worsened dramatically. I was now dependent on others, for I had lost much of my memory and language. I could not travel alone, for I had forgotten the street names in the city I had known for decades. I could hardly read and could not write. I could no longer work, and required therapy. I worried I would never recuperate and that no one in India would help me to do so – that I had ruined my life. I blamed the person I was most dependent on for my isolation and incapacity.

I began shaking my mother and yelling loudly at her. One day I pushed her down on a sofa and made her listen to my screams. On another day I told her to move out of my house. Finally, one evening I slapped her three times and told her to leave again. She began crying. I apologized, wondering what was wrong with me. The next morning I woke up and knew I had to see a doctor. I became afraid of myself and asked my mother to get a maid to stay with her through the evening and night. Within a few weeks, I saw a doctor at Desun Hospital, Dr. Sujata Ghosh, who, together with my patient and supportive mother, also saved my life.

India has been seen as a healing nation, especially by Westerners. My doctor became for me a kind of guru. The Partition, triggered by interests of the colonizing West and by cultural divisions within India, had made my grandfather and his descendants suffer for generations. This suffering had demonstrated to me the harsh limitation in my heritage, both Indian and Western. The Raj-era house I had taken shelter in had slowly unveiled to me a psychic battlefield within, one I’d long ignored in Canada. But it was only in that house of the past that I could grasp what had happened to me and seek treatment.

More than a year later, after therapy, medication and hard work, I regained both my physical and mental health.

I interviewed Dr. Ghosh. It turned out that I was not the only Indo-Canadian who had sought her help. How many had she seen? “Quite a few in the last few years,” she said. “Some Indo-Canadians who have roots in India […] were here because their families are based [here]. Quite a few students were there as overseas students and had a mental breakdown […] and were not able to access help over there…” Hearing this made me realize I had not had a peculiar personal tragedy. Dr. Ghosh noted that, “overseas students […] have definitely not found […] the mental health services available or approachable. So at a great personal cost and an economic cost, they prefer to come back. But it is even stranger that a lot of Canadians – Indo-Canadians – find it more comfortable to come back and get their treatment over here.”

But why, in Canada, were Indo-Canadians and Indian students unable to find the help they needed? She replied: “Social isolation is a big problem.” That social isolation in my case, I thought, was rooted in racism and marginalization in Canada, as well as in my fractured family history. About this, Dr. Ghosh added: “if at the peak of your career, you have to take a break for a few years just because adequate mental health support is not available or you do not feel comfortable about seeking that help, had you been able to access help, had you found it approachable, easily available, you should have been able to continue with whatever you were doing.”

In Canada I had seen two white psychologists, both of whom seemed unaware of the problems faced by women of colour. But prior to my illness, I had interviewed Dr. Jaswant Guzder, a co-founder of Canada’s first cultural consultation in the Jewish General Hospital, where she is the head of child psychiatry. In an article published in New Canadian Media on February 24, 2014, entitled “Lost in Translation: Mental Health of Newcomers,” Dr. Guzder also referred to the social isolation faced by immigrants, especially immigrants of colour. It was fascinating to me that the two doctors across the ocean had identified this, along with specific cultural factors, as the root of mental health problems in people of immigrant origin. Guzder also critically stated that “the host culture often misinterprets ethnic minorities through a lens of stereotyping.”

Dr. Ghosh explained: “They [host culture mental health personnel] are not often able to relate to the kind of problems that we [have]. And it is quite unique to every culture, […] who you are, where you come from, what you are. I think mental health personnel need to have an understanding of that.” How would Canada benefit from ensuring this? Canada “has flourished because it has encouraged immigrant talents. And a lot of these people who are seeking to maybe make a life for themselves in Canada will be affected by mental health issues at some point… and if the individual is not treated adequately, the individual loses out on his opportunities. But I think the state also loses out in what that person could have contributed to the country’s economy or profits in general.”

I returned to Canada after three years in India, fit, mended, refashioned. Here I can’t help but think of the train of losses in my family over generations and in three separate countries. But madness offers insight. Foucault in Madness and Civilization states thatmadness fascinates because it is knowledge,” and may be “forbidden wisdom.” Surely my grandfather expressed the madness of the Partition by seeking to unveil it before a god. Surely I and other people of colour with mental illnesses in Canada express a forbidden knowledge – that the country we live in does not want to know us, and perhaps wishes to eject or destroy something within us. My grandfather was torn from his god, a sacrilege by a cruel time. But we who have been mad should and must strive to unveil our knowledge, not merely before the gods, but before men and women.


NOTE: The author has been granted permission from both Dr. Ghosh and Dr. Guzder to include their comments in this article.




Aparna Sanyal is a writer and journalist. She has published her work in the Globe and Mail, the Gazette, the Malahat Review, the Hayden’s Ferry Review and various other publications