Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Between Poverty and Pathology

Ankhi Mukherjee

The first sight accosting me on May 9, 2020, as I turned to the news from India, was the image of rotis (flatbreads), some still aggregated in the thin piles in which they were being transported, lying helter-skelter on railway lines. 16 migrant workers had been mowed down by an empty goods train the previous morning as they attempted the 150-km journey from Jalna to Bhusawal. In Karmad, 40 kilometres into the journey, they had collapsed from exhaustion on what they took to be disused tracks. It was the 45th day of the Covid-19 lockdown in India and daily-wage workers, such as these headed from Maharashtra to villages in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, were walking hundreds of kilometres, up to 1,300 in some cases, to return home. Instead of asking why no bus or passenger train had been arranged to help this vital sector of the Indian economy in its time of need, or howling in outrage that several labourers had resorted to last-ditch measures such as buying bicycles with their life’s savings or crawling inside cement-mixing drums on trucks headed to their destinations, victim-blaming middle-class India perfected our art of not seeing. What idiocy to doze off on train paths! “Can’t monitor” these movements, the Supreme Court said, in response to an application to issue a directive to the Centre, which would require district magistrates across India to provide food, shelter, and transportation to migrant labourers. The populous state of Uttar Pradesh closed its border districts in a huff.

I have spent much of the Covid lockdown revising a manuscript titled Unseen City: The Psychic Life of Poverty in Mumbai, London, and New York. Involving nearly a decade’s work with public sector hospitals, NGOs, and free clinics across continents, this work is meant to be the opposite of top-down philanthropy, exposing the entrenched cultural contexts of mental illness through barefoot research and narrative, observational, as well as quantitative data. A month into the lockdown in the UK, on April 11, Food Foundation said that 1.5 million people in Britain had reported hungry for a whole day because they had no money or access to food. 3 million people in total were in households where some members had been forced to skip meals. News reports confirmed that more than 1 million people had reported losing all their income during the pandemic. This was the “city visible but unseen” of my book title, a phrase Salman Rushdie uses in Satanic Verses to describe the migrant ghettoes of London. Growing inequality and hunger on one side of the class apartheid, the suburban consolations of green onion gardening, sourdough starter, and home workouts on the other. Residents in deprived areas have experienced double the death rates of those in affluent areas, new figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal. Of the 20,283 Covid-19 registered deaths in England and Wales (up to 17 April) an overwhelming proportion of fatalities were of people from the poorest areas. The most deprived areas had 55.1 deaths per 100,000 people, more than double that of people in the least deprived areas, where the death rate was 25.3.

While the death in deadline has become all too literal for any author in this time, and I write every day, I am increasingly unnerved about what the interpretive humanities can’t see and will no longer be able to see as recession darkens into a depression that lasts years. I think about the subjects of my third book, doubly colonised by poverty and pathology, in whose struggles I have seen great resilience and patience, not only wretchedness. At the City and Hackney Primary Care Psychotherapy Consultation Service, a free mental health provider affiliated to the Tavistock NHS trust (UK), therapists treat patients with complex needs, which include personality disorders, PTSD, common and severe mental illness. I focused on a horticultural community project here, run in a Hackney allotment by Turkish psychotherapists who analysed poor Turkish migrants suffering from MUS (“medically unexplained symptoms,” which the PCPCS group prefer to call “medically untold stories”) in their mother tongue. What was eye-opening in this exercise was how relatively easy it was to restore capability and functionality to women who had been passed from GP to GP over years as they presented obdurate symptoms they could not describe or contextualise, and as they suffered talkings-to without being handed the means to talk back, or simply talk. They had been menial labourers in Turkey, too debilitated by illness now to work. They did not speak English. What was the Covid carceral like for these women, many of whom had experienced interpersonal violence? Who was tending the plantworlds that had helped them self-heal?

I saw the waning “flower” moon, the last of this year’s supermoons, stuck in a loft window as I finished work the night of May 9. Lines I had last read in school in small-town West Bengal came back with the migraine throbs of class guilt: “Purnima-chaand jeno jholshano ruti.” A full moon like a scorched roti, writes Sukanta Bhattacharya, haunted by the hungry ghosts of the Bengal famine. He was strongly influenced by Marx but had died two decades before Adorno’s “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In the previous line, the poem, which passionately cancels all consolatory poetics, including its own, says: “Khuddhar rajye prithibi goddomoy.” In the empire of hunger, the world chokes with prose instead.

About The Author

Ankhi Mukherjee

Ankhi Mukherjee is Professor of English and World Literatures at the University of Oxford and a Fellow in English at Wadham College. Her most recent book, Unseen City: The Psychic ...

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