Bangladesh-born author Sanya Rushdi’s debut novel, Hospital, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, chronicles the life of a Melbourne-based Muslim woman in her late thirties, grappling with her third episode of psychosis. Written in first-person narration, the novel gently explores through the eyes of the protagonist, Sanya, the tumultuous landscape of mental illness, exposing the reader to the harrowing realities of living with a condition that can be as debilitating as it is misunderstood.
The journey of the protagonist in Rushdi’s novel is based on real-life events, wherein Sanya goes from her home to a community house and ultimately to a psychiatrist ward. Throughout the story, Sanya undergoes several treatments as an effort to comprehend her diagnosis and situation. She tries to understand her own sanity or insanity which ultimately forces us to question who and what constitutes ‘sane’? How has society categorized sane and insane people? The labels are aplenty and anyone who fails to adhere to a standard is deemed unfit.
The complexities of human emotions
Sanya, a former PhD student, whose thesis revolved around self-conscious emotions, deeply ponders over the existence of the ‘self’ in a hospital room. Despite the unreliable narrative voice, the reader is immediately hooked on Sanya’s perspective as she analyzes the nature of society at large and deeply examines the complexities of human emotions.
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She also highlights the ways in which modern psychology fails to provide a complete solution by relying solely on island therapy and medication to create a cushion to protect patients from terrible bouts of relapses. Emphasizing on the ‘individual’ as a sufficient being in itself, she argues the fallacies of medication-based collaborative and collectivist system that oppresses creativity and where ‘the self is subdued with medication at every opportunity’.
As the story progresses, readers come to a realization that they are stepping into Sanya’s world — a world where every thought, every emotion, and every perception is seen through the lens of the protagonist. Rushdi’s writing style draws the reader into Sanya’s mind, creating an immersive experience that can feel both suffocating and isolating. The narrative is saturated with vivid and visceral imagery, which highlights Sanya’s inner turmoil and struggles to comprehend her own mind. The reader becomes a witness to Sanya’s journey, following her as she navigates the effects of medication and the reactions of those around her.
Accurate mental health representation
In Rushdi’s novel, one of the most striking aspects is how mental illness is portrayed. It deviates from the traditional myths and stereotypes that are commonly associated with it. Unlike what society has been led to believe, mental illness does not follow a linear pattern. It cannot be attributed to a single cause, and it does not discriminate based on age, gender, race, or socio-economic status.
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Sanya’s character in the novel highlights the unpredictable nature of mental illness. When Shane, a friend she made at the Hospital, asks if the pressure of her PhD led to her psychosis, she simply says, ‘everything in my life was perfect. I had such a fascinating project for my PhD that nothing could be imperfect.’ This statement challenges the common assumption that mental illness only affects those who have faced significant adversity or trauma in their lives.
Language’s transformative power
To have a language that can ease the pain, confusion, fear and isolation of undergoing mental illness is imperative in all areas of life. Arunava Sinha’s seamless translation lends the novel a calm, albeit bleak, picture of Sanya’s inner world; it is tainted with remnants of her past life, of what was and what could have been, had she not been grappling with her relapse. It is through language that barriers are broken; it is through language that new bridges are built and cemented, and it is through a shared language that we heal.
In one of her conversations with her psychiatrist, Dr Nevin, Sanya insists on the need for conversations, for a language that is not watered down or too simplistic, but concrete in its approach to create a difference. She says, ‘The mental world of a healthy adult is immersed in language. Even when they’re alone, they’re listening to music or reading, or talking to themselves while cooking, or drawing pictures. Language is the source of their thoughts and feelings. They pour these thoughts and feelings into it, and this is what can create confusion in their mental world. Language alone can unsnarl it, medication cannot’.
Words hold immense power. They have the ability to unlock the deepest corners of our minds, to give voice to our fears, hopes, and dreams. For those living with mental illness, language can be a lifeline, a means of making sense of the often chaotic landscape of their inner world. Through language, we can build bridges of understanding between individuals who may otherwise feel isolated and alone.
Intangible mental illnesses and caregivers’ plight
Sanya’s family members — Luna Apa, Amma and Abba — have dedicated themselves to her care, prioritizing her medication, meals, and doctor visits above all else. However, the exhausting and frustrating nature of caring for someone with a mental illness takes a heavy toll on them. Unlike a physical ailment that manifests in visible symptoms, mental illness is intangible and often misunderstood by others. The caretakers’ willingness to help Sanya in any way they can highlights the emotional burden they carry, and the lack of resources available to support them.
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Unfortunately, their efforts often have the opposite effect on Sanya, who finds their constant attention suffocating and overbearing. She feels that they are speaking in a code language and behaving strangely. For example, Luna Apa frequently asking if she is alright, or Abba eating from the same plate and using the same cutlery as Sanya, makes her feel confused and uncomfortable. As a result, Sanya withdraws and isolates herself, avoiding them even for everyday tasks.
This strained dynamic exacerbates the existing family tensions and creates a rift between the patient and the caretakers. Hospital painfully portrays this dysfunctionality through Sanya’s parents and sister, who are desperate for her recovery but powerless in the face of the doctors and their treatments. The novel highlights the need for more support and resources for caretakers, who often bear the brunt of the emotional labour of caring for someone with mental illness.
In a mere 132 pages, Hospital exposes the vulnerable and distressing life of a woman struggling with psychosis. With heart-wrenching precision, Rushdi’s poignant prose takes us on a journey that evokes both empathy and enlightenment. Through Sanya’s struggles, we are forced to confront the unsettling realization that the line between sanity and madness is far from clear-cut, and that the depths of the human psyche remain a mystery that even modern psychology cannot fully unravel. Rushdi’s raw and visceral depiction of Sanya’s journey leaves an indelible mark on the reader, reminding us of the unrelenting power of the human spirit in the face of adversity.