Baljeet Kaur Mehra (1929-2023)

Baljeet Kaur Mehra was one of the most outstanding psychoanalytic clinicians and teachers of her generation.  She was also a wonderful person.  Those who knew her in her various capacities over the years remark on her beauty, elegance, sense of humour, the range and depth of her intellectual and cultural interests, her generosity, and capacity for tenderness and affection. She was also tough-minded, had an unwavering commitment to truth, and could be a rebel.  Always modest, she published little, but her contribution to training others was immense.

Born Baljeet Malhotra in 1929 she entered a well-known academic, political, and creative Sikh family.   Her father, Niranjan Singh, was a Professor of Chemistry, College Principal, writer, and novelist, as well as being a leading Nationalist.  Engaged in Sikh politics, he was “thoroughly opposed to British rule in India” and so deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s appeal for non-cooperation with the British colonial  government when he first met Gandhi in 1920,  that he preferred homespun khadi to western clothes to the end of his life.  Even if their politics differed, he shared his commitment to the Sikh cause with his brother, Master Tara Singh, who was a central figure nationally in fighting for Sikh rights and identity.  For Niranjan, “Mahatma Gandhi loomed large in my imagination and to walk on the way shown by him appeared to me as the only right path”.  In March 1922 Gandhi had been imprisoned, the following year, In October, the Singh brothers were arrested and not released for two and a half years.  Niranjan Singh’s uncompromising commitment to the truth cost him several positions professionally. This was something of Baljeet’s environment in the years of growing tension as her country moved towards independence and partition.  Her father was born in Harial, a village in the Gujar Khan sub-division of Rawalpindi which with partition became part of Pakistan.  Although he had moved away long before partition, Sikhs and Hindus in his birth area suffered badly in the sectarian violence that followed partition, resulting in a mass exodus of refugees.  He relocated his family to Delhi in 1947 and there Baljeet played her part in unfolding events by working as a volunteer at the largest of the refugee camps, the Kingsway Camp, helping especially with the trauma of dislocation among women.  Later, as a psychoanalyst, she would work with girls who were experiencing adolescence as a form of dislocation.

In 1938 Baljeet’s father had become first Principal of the Sikh National College in Lahore, and it was there that she would study before it had to relocate in 1947.  Then, after being awarded an M.A., in 1953 she won a Fulbright Travelling Scholarship to go to study at Bryn Mawr College in America and she added a Resident Graduate Scholarship from the College the following year.  She began research for a doctorate which took her in 1955 to Topeka, to the Meninger Clinic and a project on Vulnerability, Coping and Growth headed by the developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Lois Murphy.  Her migration, alone,  to America was a huge departure for a young Indian woman at that time – she told many a funny story about her naivety. But she may well have gravitated towards the Meninger because Murphy and her husband Gardner, had a strong interest in Indian culture.  From 1950 to 1955 Murphy had extended her Topeka research to the B.M. Institute of Mental Health in Ahmedabad which she helped to set up along the lines of the Tavistock Institute with the British trained Indian analyst Kamalini Sarabhai.   Baljeet would go on to make her own major contribution there.  

Working with Murphy’s team in Topeka, she conducted observations of infants and studied the “play style” of latency children.   Her thesis focused on  “A Study of Individual Style in Miniature Life Toy Play in Preschool Children”.   The research in general shared much with Anna Freud’s observations of children in the war nurseries at the Hampstead Clinic, and before that in Vienna, its aim being to study “children’s efforts  to cope with their own problems and to explore the relation of these efforts to aspects of temperament and resources for growth”.  It proved a valuable foundation for Baljeet’s later training with Anna Freud.   

Baljeet also spent time at Harvard and met there, amongst others, Marianne and Ernst Kris, and Erik Erikson.   Erikson knew Murphy, and already had an interest in Gandhi.  He would visit Ahmedabad in 1962, the home not only of the B.M. Institute but of Gandhi‘s Sabarmati Ashram and the site of his involvement in the 1918 strike of mill workers.  There he taught but also gathered material for his study of Gandhi.  She also met Grete Bibring on whose recommendation she was accepted to train to work psychoanalytically with children and adolescents in London at the Hampstead Clinic.  She went on to train further at the Institute of Psychoanalysis to work as a psychoanalyst with adults, qualifying in 1963.  In the same year she married a fellow analyst,  Kanwal Mehra and together, after her qualification, they continued to work at the  B.M. Institute, teaching, and training “barefoot therapists”.    Many, like Sumant Majmudar, who was Chairman and Director for Training at the Institute from 1971-1985, were grateful for Baljeet’s professional help there.    

Back in London, with continuing excursions to the B.M. Institute, Baljeet played an active part in psychoanalytic life, teaching at the Hampstead Clinic (later the Anna Freud Centre) and the Institute (Infant Observation, Freud and much more) and becoming a sought-after Training Analyst for those training as psychoanalysts or psychoanalytic psychotherapists to work with children or with adults.  She also played her part in the committee life of the Institute.  I was fortunate to have her as supervisor of my first training case and was aware of how much her approach to our work together carried forward Anna Freud’s tradition, but how much she had made that tradition her own.   Later as a friend I would realise that it was a tradition that fitted both her temperament and her family traditions.  Her father had taught that “the course of conduct prescribed by religion, far from being incompatible with the findings of Science, is in sweet harmony with them” even if “the real spirit of religion” had to be cleansed of “dogmatism, superstition, bigotry, and communalism”.  The Hampstead Clinic’s equivalent of this “sweet harmony” of the broadly-speaking spiritual and the scientific lay in its admixture of research, which Baljeet contributed to and of which she was very proud, and empathic clinical observation and intervention.   Although in her later years she was not involved in research projects she never lost her sense of enquiry into the significance of particular clinical phenomena for refining our understanding of the metapsychology of how the mind works, and she was fascinated by developments in neuroscience which added to that understanding.   At the same time, she was independently minded and hated any tendency towards fundamentalism.  Perhaps this is why she had sought out Donald Winnicott as a supervisor and had later turned to Enid Balint for further analysis.  

Psychoanalytic thinking was for Baljeet grounded in ordinary life: as one of her students put it, she made psychoanalysis “accessible”.  To talk psychoanalytically with her was also to talk about family, or Tagore, or Henry Moore, or King Lear, or Eliot’s Four Quartets, or recent political events – it was also to laugh together or enjoy a whisky.  One of her analysands captures the atmosphere of her consulting room perfectly:  “I loved the beautiful collection of artistic pots and bowls on the shelf in front of me, as I lay there on the coach, engaged in the analytic endeavour. Somehow, it added a perspective which also was very important. A sort of grounding perspective”.  

Baljeet Mehra died peacefully on 15 December in Zug, Switzerland.  Kanwal Mehra predeceased her.  She is survived by her son Ashwath and his family.