Reviewed: Hospital, Sanya Rushdi, Giramondo
In 2009, 2010 and 2015, Bangladeshi-Australian writer Sanya Rushdi experienced three episodes of psychosis and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Years later, a narrator who shares her first name, background and medical history attempts to disentangle the model of medical care she’s subjected to and the social system that deems her a threat.
Hospital, Rushdi’s debut,follows Sanya’s experience of time as it is measured by her onsets of psychosis. This is later distinguished by her (voluntary) admission into a community house, followed by an (involuntary) one into the psychiatric ward of a hospital. The novel criss-crosses time, language and place in oblique ways, echoing the cyclical, non-linear nature of recovery and relapse.
Within the psychiatric ward, where much of Hospital transpires, time assumes a more elastic, illusory feel. Meals are eschewed, the salve of sleep is seized upon at different times of the day, and the only constants demarcating one day from the next are medication, injections and the consistent clatter of food trollies trundling past. Without the anchors of family, friends and connections to the outside world, patients (whom Rushdi and the novel’s narrator refers to as ‘inmates’, underlining the penal nature of involuntary institutionalisation) pass their time by eating, sleeping and mingling with one another. But even that is complicated by constant upheaval as patients come and go, rarely at their own behest. When Sanya reflects on the differences between being in a community house and a hospital, she notes:
… no such thing as ‘self’ is allowed to thrive here in the hospital. You’re not allowed to bring your computer. You cannot use the internet, or find books and articles of your choice. You cannot find yourself in others either, for there is no assurance of how long anyone will remain, or where they will be, and when.
Rushdi’s precise writing in Hospital is punctuated with the stark language of mental illness and how the mentally ill is treated by the medical system: the narrator’s thoughts and experiences are often interrupted by visits from the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team, the medications she’s ordered to take, conventional counselling and cognitive psychology.
In this way, Sanya’s detached, matter-of-fact retelling of life in a psychiatric ward is often at odds with the constant unspooling of her emotions as her body regulates to the medications she’s effectively force-fed, and the alienation wrought by being in such a disquieting atmosphere. The space between what she feels and what she knows brings to fore the indignities of the institution she’s in—from the way a fellow patient’s limbs are tied while he’s forcefully administered an injection, to the quiet devastation that accompanies Sanya rejecting the flowers that her uncle brings her on a visit because like her, she doesn’t believe they’ll flourish in such an environment.
While Hospital is set in Melbourne and acts as a mirror to the medical-industrial complex in Australia, it was first published in Bengali in Bangladesh in 2019. Now transposed into English by award-winning Indian translator Arunava Sinha, Hospital is rich with the possibilities of language, but also in its narrator’s construction of meaning. A discursive treatise on the arbitrary line separating sanity from insanity, it is also a meditation of selfhood through language and the relationship between words and meaning.
The world that we see unfolding through Sanya’s eyes is a landscape dotted with coded language and prescient signs, all viewed through a lens of suspicion, fear and weighted significance. Although Sanya’s conception of what’s real and what isn’t is, at times, uncertain (‘Has any of this really happened, or is it just in my head?’), what’s unshakeable is her steadfast belief that medication is no substitute for language in treating psychosis.
Further, Sanya’s experience of psychosis and institutionalisation is inextricable from her Muslim faith, hallmarks of which are present in everything she does, whether that’s the copy of her favourite Qur’an that she retrieves from her family home’s living room, the head scarf she wraps around herself, or the chicken and ham parmigiana that she’s unable to eat in the hospital.
These particularities are a riposte to the flattening of self that institutions require of a person, and by grounding her novel with the minutiae of human interactions, Hospital pushes back against the systematic dehumanisation of the mentally ill.
Hospital may be a slim novel, but the ideas explored within it are expansive—Rushdi successfully plays with, and in the process, ruptures societal definitions of what constitutes a mental illness. That the narrative is written in the aftermath of her being institutionalised against her will, in a place that intentionally seeks to destroy any sense of clarity and selfhood, makes it all the more urgent.