Why I Bought Shampoo for My Shrink’s Wife

Intro: Pyschotherapy takes many odd twists and turns, but even by those standards the author’s relationship with his therapist in India was—well—a bit wacky.

Swaminarayan Akshardham

By shamelessly pulling a lot of strings in 1966, at age 26, I landed a trainee management job with a large philanthropic organization in New Delhi, India, for which I was totally unqualified. To add to my guilt, the job came with a house and four servants: a cook-bearer, a gardener, a sweeper, and a night watchman, who’d sit outside the front door all night guarding my precious, fraudulent being.

I was in over my head big time, not only at work but home as well. My elderly cook-bearer, Chand, usually out-maneuvered me in battles for control, once pointing out—with a wide grin—that I looked like one of the Beach Boys on an album cover. The message was clear: I was a Boy, not a real Sahib

Overwhelmed by everything, I decided to find a shrink, Freudian-trained if possible, a search that led to Dr. Raj Patel: about 45, short, squat, and unprepossessing, but also smart, empathetic, and sweet-natured.

After work, I’d hop on my Honda scooter and drive half an hour through the “old” part of Delhi —cyclists, rickshaws, sadhus, cows scattering at my approach. I’d arrive at Patel’s house (where his office was), hot and exhausted, and his six-year-old daughter would bring iced coffee and biscuits. To delay starting the session, I’d engage her in conversation  as long as possible, sometimes testing the waters by asking for seconds.

Psychotherapy—broadly speaking—is often called “the talking cure,” a description Patel endorsed because he talked all the time, easily as much as I did, and I quickly moved from chair to couch—where it seemed more natural to close my eyes and thus opt out of listening.

I quickly realized I was Patel’s favorite patient, in part because I knew a bit about the various types of therapy, often couching problems in terms that conveyed how learned I was: “Don’t know if you’d call this an example of anti-cathexis or not, but…”

By American standards, Patel charged very little, so money was no object. I saw him twice a week at first, but—figuring the more therapy I did, the faster I’d progress—later upped the number to three. Then—what the heck—why not four, or—might as well round things out—five, which got me to thinking—well hey—whoever said the weekend was off-limits, which took us to six. And there were times it seemed only fitting to go every day of the week (all of which Patel happily countenanced), and I would have done a matinee session on Saturday too if available.

If you’re going to be neurotic, I figured, you might as well be really neurotic.

I mostly “acted out” during the early weeks. My chief goal at first was to tease and torment Patel, and I was forever mocking his accent and mannerisms—a routine on  Saturday Night live, before its time. I sometimes lapsed into long periods of silence so I could sleep sounder, and one entire session I sang my problems—not easy, by the way. I was clearly letting off a lifetime of steam: Loving parents but also distant and demanding—you get the picture.

One day Patel asked if I could pick up a few things for him at the Army Post Exchange, a low-price shopping center that my Foundation credentials gave me access to. No problem, I said, but…soon the occasional shopping lists grew longer, and eventually I had to bring everything in a cab (which Patel paid for).

My arrival often became a big occasion—he and his wife and two daughters would gather to see what goodies I’d brought them and stipulating returns if needed. “She’s so sorry to be a nuisance,” Patel would say on behalf of his wife, “But this is the wrong brand of shampoo. She says the one you brought last time has much better lathering action.”

Though perceptive and well-meaning, Patel was utterly clueless and tone-deaf in all kinds of ways. Without telling me, for instance, he called my boss and—breaking every rule of ethics in the book—said I should be handled with kid gloves because of being in therapy. Though furious at first—I called him all kinds of names (including, if memory serves, “a silly, controlling little busy-body”) and stalked out. But later I started thinking: This is a pretty good deal—if I shirk work, I can claim I’m under considerable psychological duress.

To muddy waters more, I became—well—romantically involved with an Indian secretary, Deetu. First thing at the office every morning, I’d compose a rhyming love poem on thin blue paper, fold into a tiny wad, then leave on her desk. When my boss eventually learned about our extracurricular relationship—and, presumably my daily outpourings of ardor as well—I’m sure he was pleased as all get out. He could be confident at last I was receiving the kind of amorous support I needed.

Gradually, in fact, I started to get my act together, and the Foundation actually kept me on for another year—also gave me the use of a car, probably because Patel insisted on it. And I began to take therapy more seriously (went less, but  worked harder) after a terrifying night known as Let’s Take Many Puffs Of Hashish And See What Happens, Shall We?

A few months before my return to the States, Deepu started seeing Patel but didn’t last long, saying “he’s too bossy.” I told her he was easier to take in very large doses.

I tried to write an account of my experiences in therapy at one point, but it was as bad as the title: Waiting For Egodot.

Finally the time came to bid adieu—sadly, my servants declining to go with me. My friends gave me a big going-away party, and Patel and I hugged affectionately after our final session, and Chand saluted me the night I left saying “God give it you help, Sahib,” and I stopped by Deetu’s house to say goodby.

And then, driving to the airport, I started crying as hard as I think I ever have.


Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings. He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others.


 

14 Replies to “Why I Bought Shampoo for My Shrink’s Wife”

  1. Hi Bob, I thoroughly enjoyed this another one of your anecdotes that you present with so much wit and humor. Keep them coming! Wonderful writing . . . .
    junia

  2. What a wonderful story! I don’t think you could have the same experience in today’s work world, but to have had it then… wow!

  3. This brings back memories as a young Medical Student in 1967-71 I had notions about doing Psychiatry but after one rotation Found one actually have to listen and talk to crazy people and promptly switched back to Internal medicine. India was frequently visited by Hippies In fact in my class on 1967-68 starting tomorrow I have a map for land route to Kathmandu and Goa when it was safe.If interested please look up colourful biography of a Dr. Larry Brilliant and his Journey from Alcatraz doctor in 1969 to Google .org https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Brilliant
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippie_trail#:~:text=Most%20journeys%20passed%20through%20Istanbul,Iraq%20to%20Iran%20and%20Afghanistan.- Cheers

  4. Thanks for sharing your memories. I, too, would never want to be a therapist–much too impatient. I shall indeed check out the bio of Dr. Brilliant. Good luck with your class.

  5. I didn’t know what crazy things you were doing in India those years. So glad to hear you were entertained and entertaining, as is always true in your life! Loved the story.

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