Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony

By Nonica Datta
New Delhi: Oxford, 2009
Pages xv+235; Price Rs 695

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(From the forthcoming issue of South Asian Ensemble)

With enviable patience and sophistication, Nonica Datta teases out history’s secrets by ‘developing’ – like a photo-artist – its narratives. These narratives are the deposits, in the manner of a great riverbed, of event, memory and invention. Datta is an extraordinary historian because she is more than a mere historian: she is also an archaeologist of Walter Benjamin’s description, she reads ‘stories’ like Marx reading Balzac, she is not afraid to fictionalize if it helps to historicize, and she suggests but does not judge. You rarely come across a book which you relish so thoroughly – even in its preface, glossary, map, endnotes and ‘supplement’ (for that is what chapter 3, A Letter to Subhashini, may best be called, recalling Derrida).
            Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony folds back on itself in a kind of self-reflexive enfleshment through the narrator’s own testimony to Subhashini’s. The reader’s reward for bearing testimony to the narrator’s testimony is, then, that by the end of the book (but is it correct to term it as just a book?) she has also learnt how to read history with its silences and chatter, and memory with its inventions, evasions and abysses.
            Apparently the book recounts Subhashini’s history, yet soon enough that history becomes a magnifying glass to reveal subtler, larger movements of the history of the Indian subcontinent over two centuries. Subhashini (1914-2003) headed Kanya Gurukul, an Arya Samaj institution for the education of girls, in village Khanpur in Haryana. Her father Bhagat Phool Singh was an Arya Samaj preacher actively involved in the shuddhi movement. He was shot in August 1942 by unidentified persons, the killers escaping in the darkness of the night. For Subhashini, 1942 becomes, for various reasons, the key reference. She sees the massacres of Muslims during the Partition in 1947 as divine retribution provoked by her father’s murder, for she suspects Muslim Rangars to be the murderers even though there is no evidence pointing to this. The invention of the murderers and the reinvention of 1947 happen in a complex matrix in which the personal and the public intertwine in Subhashini’s memory. What that memory lacks is sufficiently supplied by Datta’s historical research into colonial mediations of political economy of the subcontinent. As Datta compactly traces it, the conflict of interest between the Muslim pastoralists and the Hindu Jat peasantry was a consequence of colonial interventions in the existing agrarian structure but it appears to a mind like Subhashini’s as a natural conflict arising from the innate wickedness of the ‘other’ community. The Muslim population’s extermination and exile from that area appears to Subhashini, therefore, as guided by the hand of Providence. It is arguably this screen of faith and suspicion which allows her to remember without remorse or pity the savage murder of Karamat’s child during the Partition.
Subhashini’s narrative as recorded by Datta suggests how intricately the historico-economic and the psychoanalytical are mutually imbricated. Subhashini’s memory has almost no space for her two mothers, or for her husband Abhimanyu. Pitaji’s towering figure puts in shade everyone else, including Gandhi who is remembered with more than a touch of cynicism (probably because he did not endorse a retaliatory reformism). Obsessive remembering of her father, in a discourse that is repressively silent about sexuality and property – except in the story of Karamat and his converted mother-daughter wives – hint strongly at other subtexts. It goes to Datta’s credit that she has devised a historiographic method that is multilinear and multilayered without losing focus.
            Datta’s open-ended conclusion appears in the form of a letter she pens for Subhashini three years after Subhashini’s death. As a ‘supplement’, the letter stands both inside and outside the book. This is where she raises the most disturbing questions for any historian (Subhashini is almost reborn here as a metaphor for those people who do history without addressing history’s unconscious). Subhashini would be judged here, but not by the narrator. She would be judged by the historian and by history, but without the passing of any judgement. Datta’s method is to juxtapose/expose Subhashini’s ‘history’ with the writer Amrita Pritam’s and with her own aunt Vash’s. The result is that the historian as a human being cannot but indict her protagonist:

            It is through your testimony that I have come to understand why there isn’t any Muslim presence in my own cultural memory of the Haryana that I grew up in.

          Your sense of territorial citizenship rests, I am afraid, upon a destroyed cultural landscape, which erased the Rangar pastoralists.

      But Amrita and Vash feel rootless and homeless. They interrogate Partition and azadi; so do you, but differently.

Partition fills Amrita and Vash with sorrow. For Subhashini, it is a moment to celebrate because it crystallizes for her the triumph of “cultural nationalism”.
Unfortunately, as Datta puts it, Amrita and Vash have only “fragile, fragmented and mute identities”. Even today, and in spite of history’s painful self-reflections and rewritings, the self-assured, tough, whole(some) and strident identities prevail.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

To be or not to be Arundhati Roy

The Intellectual’s Vocation in the Postcolony 

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(Originally published in Countercurrents

 Link to the article in Spanish:
Arundhati Roy sein oder nicht sein

Link to the article in German:
Ser o no ser Arundhati Roy

Link to the article in French:
Etre ou ne pas être Arundhati Roy

Following the mainstream media’s ‘reproductions’ of her remarks in a seminar on Kashmir in October 2010[1], Arundhati Roy appeared to have been promptly disowned by a majority of the surfing-texting Indian middle class. She had transgressed, it seemed, the farthest limits of discursive protocol of the permissive Indian democracy.
                She had not actually said anything not stated before. It had been her declared position on Kashmir for almost a decade. “I said what I as well as other commentators have written and said for years,” she promptly reminded those baying for her tongue.[2]
                So the adverse notice her remarks attracted says something about the perils, and perks, of the apparatus in which the remarks happened to have been cast: this time she had used not the long and serious political essay but the podium from where her remarks were picked up by the evanescently flavoured media.
                Beyond revealing the media’s patchwork soul, the event bared yet again the middle class’s traumatized conscience. As if sadistically digging her toe nail into their sore nationalist shank, Roy had not only hurt the bloodthirsty, ice-cream licking class but also eluded her appropriation as their ‘good conscience’. They would no longer have her doing their ethical duties for them – of speaking up for the silenced and the ravaged. She had left them – the discreet, word-forsaken, false Hamlets –  with the “rub” of “what dreams may come”, to groan under the weight of their collective but isolated nightmares.
                The Kashmir avalanche was followed by an unusually long lull. A friend commented, “Perhaps Roy has realized she burnt her fingers over Kashmir.” I said she might be busy writing, reading, thinking, living, sharpening her teeth and nails, chasing some darkness. Days later she emerges from her prolonged secret silence to say some crystal-hard things on the recent Anna Hazare-led campaign against corruption. She has formulated the sutra: “. . . [C]orruption [h]as been presented as a moral issue, not a political one, or a systemic one — not as a symptom of the disease but the disease itself.”[3] The real issue has been displaced, she pointedly suggests. Hence the middle class’s symbolic – but only symbolic – rebellious gesture: the demand for change and democracy, without either change or democracy. Her final stroke is aimed at morality itself that functions in this gesture of rebellion as both an accelerator and a brake: “In a filthy battle such as this one, in which facts are made up, none of us can ever be pure enough or righteous enough. None of us can hope to emerge untainted. However, the fight will continue. Retreat is not an option”.[4] We must aim, that is, beyond morality and mud-slinging at the pragmatics of political change. We must refuse to believe in the moral bomb as a political incapacitator.
                A derelict of the middle class (in more senses than one), Roy has been accorded a rather curious reception in the halls of the Indian literary critical gymkhana club. A chasm separates her reception as a novelist from that as a political essayist. And this despite the fact that she has been writing essays for far longer and out of an inner, irrepressible compulsion.[5] An investigative critical adventure that traces her academic reception might show the literary critical politics of refusal and assimilation for what it is, torch lighting by the way the spotted and striped Indian homo academicus. Of the issues she digs out in her essays – such as war, humanitarian intervention, democracy, ecology, economy and political economy, poverty, starvation and greed, politics of identities, “genocide”, language, the relation of fiction to truth, etc. – how many are x-rayed in the academic writing on Roy? Some might smell, not unreasonably, a silent self-imposed academic censorship.
                Is this because she is a defender of lost causes, to use a phrase from Žıžek?[6] And conversely, does it show that the academia is only too happy to identify with winning causes, with causes that do not even so much as scratch power’s face?
And does that mean the academy is no longer the space of the intellectual, considering that dissent has been and remains the intellectual’s distinctive badge of honour, her special battle scar? Probably, the academy has generally evolved, over the last three decades, into an ancillary unit of the global capitalist myth-producing industry. Roy, unacceptably, punctures and explodes those myths, not sparing even the sacred liberal myths of democracy, nationalism, progress, reforms, the benevolent private investor, or the humane and beneficent corporate sector. She grimly but nattily exposes what often passes for democracy today as a malevolent dictatorship of the elected, contributing her flash of light to a gathering intellectual bonfire to which Žıžek’s critique of parliamentary democracy as parliamentary capitalism and Sheldon S. Wolin’s idea of “managed democracy”[7] are some other contributions.
She is a theorist if ‘theory’ is about seeing what has been rendered normally un-seeable. And theory in her case arises from a passionate (not sentimentalist) embrace of her fate as one who just cannot “un-see” what she has seen.[8] She, a sakshi[9] of the present as history, bears witness to what is. A people’s theorist, a people’s intellectual – if it is still possible to cognitively reunite the two terms that seem to have drifted apart with the tectonic fatality of continents – for at least the following reasons.
She is an accessible writer. She is rigorous: she leaves no holes in her argument. She is angry without letting anger dim her understanding. She is a dreamer without illusions. She simplifies but does not deny complexity; rather, she unravels complexity. As she says, she joins the dots to reveal the shape of the beast (which implies she acknowledges the perception of the dots as necessary to seeing the larger picture).[10] She weaves a powerful critical metanarrative of an anti-people global corporate political economy. By doing this she exposes, incidentally, the inadmissibility of some of postmodernism’s major claims in our time and place. And so she cheerily spills the spices of postmodernism’s kitchen radicalism in the academy’s ivory penthouse.
The best thing is she takes a position (not unreasonably) and, having taken it, sticks to it with integrity, vigour and wide-open eyes. And yet she acknowledges her all-too-human vulnerability: recall her fear when she was going to be put in prison for contempt of court.
And she holds her own. Edward Said’s “speaking truth to power” does not enthrall her. Power knows the truth too well, she says.[11] And with that insight, which probably seeps in when you have lived among ordinary people like an ordinary person, she escapes the intellectual’s hubris vis-à-vis both power and the powerless.
What is her objective, if it is not to speak truth to power? Perhaps it is to strain and stretch the limits of the unstated and unexamined ‘democratic’ consensus and to create spaces for a genuinely democratic discourse in which freedom is more than a brand of underwear. That probably is the logic of her will to name names, whether that of P. Chidambaram or Manmohan Singh or Justice (retd) B. N. Kirpal. Her sustained critique of the contempt of court provisions, too, is part of the same work: a contribution to an understanding of how the institutions of law and justice may arrogate to themselves, even in democracies, the sovereign power to determine what is and what is not ‘lawful’.[12] A disclosure of the way democratic institutions may tend perversely to raise themselves above law. 
Roy points her finger at the undead monster that the democratic machine has been unable to exorcize; the monster that likely gave sleepless nights to Plato. Democracy’s slumbering, biding monstrous ‘other’ that no people can yet claim to have slain and laid to eternal rest.

[1] The seminar Whither Kashmir: Freedom or Enslavement was organized by Coalition of Civil Societies on 25 October 2010.
[3] “When corruption is viewed fuzzily.” Presented at the Convention Against Corruption, in New Delhi, 29 April 2010. < http://www.indianexpress.com/news/when-corruption-is-viewed-fuzzily/783688/0 >. 30 April 2011.
[4] “When corruption is viewed fuzzily.”
[5] “My non-fiction is wrenched out of me. It’s written when I don’t want to write.” The Shape of the Beast, 99.
[6] Žıžek, Slavoj. In Defense of Lost Causes. London and New York: Verso, 2008
[7] Wolin, Sheldon S. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008.
[8] The Shape of the Beast, 49.
[9] Sakshi, in Hindi, is one who sees, bears witness.
[10] The Shape of the Beast, 163.
[11] The Shape of the Beast, 76.
[12] The Shape of the Beast, 84.