In 1978, Oliver Sacks’s hospital admitted a nineteen-year-old Indian girl named Bhagawhandi P., who had a malignant tumor. Growing up, Bhagawhandi had lived a normal life, though she was always conscious that she was living with a “time bomb” in her head—her tumor was going to kill her someday. Even after she was admitted to the hospital, Bhagawhandi seemed oddly calm about her death. As the tumor grew, she began having seizures. During these seizures, she wouldn’t lose consciousness—instead, she’d become dreamy and nostalgic. Afterwards, Bhagawhandi reported enjoying her seizures because they reminded her of “back home” in her village.
Bhagawhandi’s is one of the most moving chapters in the book, and an especially lucid example of how so-called mental disorders can serve an important purpose—in this case, helping a young woman accept her own mortality. Bhagawhandi’s seizures induce strong bouts of nostalgia, as Sacks suggested in the Postscript to the previous chapter.
Sacks hypothesized that Bhagawhandi’s seizures were caused by the steroids that he was giving her to prolong her life. However, this hypothesis wasn’t entirely satisfactory, because usually steroidal seizures were calm and dreamy. Yet the hypothesis that Bhagawhandi’s seizures could have been ordinary temporal-lobe seizures (like those described in Chapter 15) seemed unlikely, too, since temporal-lobe seizures usually center around one specific memory, such as a piece of music, whereas Bhagawhandi’s seizures made her think of music, dancing, different parts of her home village, and many different people who lived there.
Sacks offers multiple hypotheses for the precise cause of Bhagawhandi’s seizures, including steroids and excitement in the temporal lobes—and then goes on to doubt these hypotheses. Sacks seems more interested in giving readers a vivid sense for Bhagawhandi’s hallucinations and her overall manner than offering a precise diagnosis.
As Bhagawhandi’s tumor grew, she continued having seizures. Just once, Oliver Sacks asked Bhagawhandi, in the middle of one of her seizures, what was happening to her. Bhagawhandi calmly replied, “I am dying … I am going back to where I came from.” Afterwards, Bhagawhandi seemed to lose all contact with the external world, and retreated into her hallucinations. A few days later, she died—perhaps having “completed her passage to India.”
Bhagawhandi’s hallucinations act as a kind of pleasant anesthetic, calming her in anticipation for her death. Sacks alludes to E.M. Forster’s famous novel A Passage to India, suggesting that, perhaps, Bhagawhandi returns to her family and her village in the afterlife—another reminder of 1) Sacks’s literary erudition and 2) the philosophical, even religious character of his book.