ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Feelings of impurity emanating from death : mental sickness or possession, case of a patient in north India


Halder Florence - Paris Cité, Anthropology, Paris, France


37 – Violent births and deaths: coping with challenging life experiences in South Asia


Mrs. Pal, a young woman I meet in a psychiatric hospital in Jharkhand (northern India), is suffering from various disorders : deep sadness, behavioral disorders, especially an obsession with cleanliness and a fear of impurity, and family problems. Her troubles started since she found the bodies of her brother and her pregnant sister-in-law hanging from a fan. Mrs. Pal also frequents religious healers.

During two consultations, the psychologist of the psychiatric hospital focuses on the suppression of  patient’s symptoms that result from her obsession with cleanliness. The psychologist addresses her with injunctions and prohibiting her from attending religious healers. For the psychologist, Mrs. Pal is suffering from a mental illness.

During the interviews I had with Mrs. Pal, it appears that at first she wanders between different places of care. She finally opts for a sanctuary in which the spirit that inhabits her expressed that it is a pret, i.e the spirit of a relative who cannot access the world of the dead. We will question, from an anthropological and psychoanalytical point of view, the feelings of impurity consecutive to the shock felt by Mrs. Pal in front of the bodies of her close relatives and her quest for care.