Meeta Chatterjee reviews Hospital by Sanya Rushdi
by Sanya Rushdi
translated by Arunava Sinha
Reviewed by MEETA CHATTERJEE
Hospital was released in May this year and has been very favourably reviewed. Reviewers
have commended it as a remarkable study of self and of ‘mind outside of its mind’ (Eda
Gunaydin). Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll sum up the novel astutely when they recommend that it should be read by psychiatrists, ‘because it gives a sharp and humane perspective on the narrowness of medical approaches to mental health, queries whose interests are being served, and explores with subtlety how social and cultural considerations can influence the experience of mental illness, and come into conflict with assumptions underlying treatment, further marginalising already vulnerable patients’. Rushdi’s novel has also been praised as ‘unadorned, powerful, and raises big questions about society, the self and what passes as sanity’ (Chris Fleming). The insightful comments above set up high expectations that the book lives up to.
Sanya Rushdi’s Hospital plunges us deep inside the distressing world of the mentally ill.
The cover image of the book shows a crowd of people with undifferentiated, tense faces
descending the stairs of a building uneasily reminding one of images of herds of animals
readied to be shipped to their slaughter destinations. This analogy may seem brutal, but the
dire situation of the mentally ill is strongly established at the outset. Rushdi’s debut novella written originally in Bengali in 2019 and translated very competently by Arunava Sinha was published earlier this year by Giramondo. This work of autofiction explores the inner world of a devout Bengali Muslim woman in her thirties who is struggling to process her experiences of psychosis and her treatment for it in a Melbourne hospital. A clear narrative arc is established in the novel and the plot is neatly arranged so that the story captures the instances of hallucinations leading to a couple of psychotic episodes to a finale, perhaps a recovery.
The characters are not complexly presented. Perhaps, an intentional authorial choice to stay
focused on the theme. The protagonist/writer, Sanya, finds solace in the holy Quran, wears a
veil and feels strongly about living in accordance with Islamic faith, for example, she plans to
refuse taking interest from her bank in deference to Islamic principles. Her family seems to
be nurturing and affectionate. Her mother cooks her favourite meals, her father reads verses
of the Quran with her even if it is the middle of the night and her sister encourages her to use
art as a creative outlet to process her intense reflections on the world and herself. Strewn
through the novel are endearments in Bengali such as Sanya’s parents calling her, ‘baba’
(father) or ‘ma’ (mother). In Bengali, these endearments are markers of a tender, caring bond.
There seems to be no evidence of ruptures in family connections that could be a cause of a
break down, but that is what happens in the story.
After the instances of hallucinations, the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team recommend
that Sanya spend some time at a community house. The community house is an enormous
building where Sanya ends up feeling overwhelmingly alienated and excluded. The mechanisms of exclusion are subtle. An instance of this is when the residents, who prepare the meals preparation for the group, add ham to a dinner of chicken parmigiana so that as a Muslim, Sanya would not be able to partake of the meal. Her stint at the community house, despite minimally imposed restrictions, turns out to be unpleasant. Her condition deteriorates further so that she is coercively taken to a hospital in Melbourne as a critical case. It is in this stultifying space that most of the story unfolds.
A beautiful metaphor embodies Sanya’s state of mind in the hospital:
I could see three trees as long as there was daylight, the leaves they had shed were gathering in ones and twos at their feet. Falling off the branches to which they had clung lovingly, they added to the pile of leaves like children gathering at an orphanage. Then a gust of wind scattered them; whatever refuge they had from one another was lost. Now all they had was themselves, along with the wind and its whims. Where will this take me, this wind, this system? (p. 49)
The extract captures the momentary solidarity with the other patients/fellow sufferers of
various mental health conditions. But the incompatibility and agony of an individual trapped
in an incomprehensible system becomes an all-consuming fear for Sanya. Sanya protests against the doctor’s mantra of, “Lithium, lithium, lithium” (p. 71), and suggests counselling as a more effective approach for her psychosis to cope with fear and unbearable sadness. The hospital professes all the right things by announcing its mission:
‘Working collaboratively to provide individualised care that promotes wellness and
recovery’. However, in actual practice, patients’ voices are drowned in assertions made by the doctors that, “In the case of science, though, evidence-based research is the new trend” (p.108).
Sanya is baffled by the duplicity and feels trapped in the system.
‘Language alone can unsnarl it (the mind), medicine cannot’ (p.107) is Sanya’s strongly held
belief despite being aware of the complexities of language. Four languages jostle in her:
Bengali (her first language), Arabic (the language of Quran) Urdu/Hindi (language of the
ghazals/bhajans that eulogise unrequited love) and English a language in which she grapples
with Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. She tries to make sense of the theory and practice of
language. One of the perceptive remarks that she makes on language reflects her doubts about
its capacity to ‘unsnarl’ the mind: ‘One might assume that everything will become easier if
you and the members of this ‘different’ society use the same language. But this is not always
true. Those who speak the same language often introduce complexities and nuances into their
discussions by the very virtue of using the same language, which speakers of the different
languages cannot’ (p. 88). Barriers to inclusion are set by different registers and discourses
that are impenetrable to the those who do not have the linguistic capital in the dominant
Ultimately, Sanya resigns herself to the rituals of medication, listening to the sounds of the
food trolleys trundling down the corridors, prayers and brief periods of relief offered by the
camaraderie of other patients in the smoker’s zone. However, she is unsure of how reliable
these experiences are as one of the patients says to her, ‘…we are in an artificial environment,
it’s difficult to judge what’s true and what’s false, what is right and what is wrong…’ (p. 73).
She realises eventually that the only way she can win small freedoms and eventually get a
discharge is through compliance. It is by surrendering to the system, the regime of
medications, that she is finally released.
Hospital has the look and feel of an autoethnographic study. It reads like a collection of qualitative data, that needs to be sifted through to make sense of a research question. Snatches of conversations are inserted in the form of texts seemingly extracted out of an interview/journal entry in the form of quotations often followed by a deconstruction of the exchange, but this is not always the case. For most part, dialogue/conversations are reported within quotation marks in the novel. However, sometimes exchanges are inserted into the narrative as if from a script of a play. It is hard to tell what the writer aims to achieve with this intriguing technique. On one hand, this element, along with a conspicuously pared down language signals an cautious exploration of a research topic in a mental hospital setting. On the other hand, it seems as if Rushdi highlights the exchanges as a performance of sorts that deserves scrutiny beyond the realms of research findings to interrogate the universal struggle of mental health patients against inflexible, medical systems.
‘The translated text must allow itself to be read in all the different ways that the original can, and since the translator can never know what all these ways might be, the only choice is to adhere to the text and the text alone’, responds Arunava Sinha to a question on the responsibility of a translator. It seems that the ambivalences and the tone of the authorial voice has been rendered intact in this book. It is great to read such an extraordinarily moving novel published in translation by an Australian publisher.
Notes and References:
Chris Fleming, review of Hospital, https://giramondopublishing.com/books/sanya-rushdi-
Eda Gunaydin. review of Hospital, https://giramondopublishing.com/books/sanya-rushdi-
Rushdi, Sanya, and Arunava Sinha. “5 Questions with Sanya Rushdi and Arunava Sinha.”
LIMINAL Magazine, 27 June 2023. Sourced at: https://www.liminalmag.com/5-
Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll June 30, 2023. The review of Hospital is part of a
few other books with the title, ‘Everything’s fine’: Can two political rivals fall in love?
MEETA CHATERJEE is a retired academic from the University of Wollongong. She is an
independent scholar, writer, and poet and is the co-editor of Of Indian Origin: Writings from
Australia. She lives in Canberra. Her area of interest is diasporic writing.