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Inscribing Their Silence

Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary by Veena Das


Inscribing Their Silence

Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

by Veena Das; Oxford, New Delhi, 2007; pp xiv + 381, Rs 595 (hardbound).


wing to a more involved and introspective point of departure, Veena Das’ anthropological incursions into the phenomenon of violence have over the years borne several original insights and themes. Yet, as signalled in the title and subtitle and further revealed in her predilection for the thought of “everydayness” and “forms of life” in Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell, the aspiration of the book is pitched even higher with the objective of developing two key philosophical points: the first one on the representation of social suffering and violence, and the second, on the significance of the everyday life. Both points are carefully constructed interweaving fieldwork observations and theoretical arguments, and therefore, will set the terms of reference for future debates and research in the anthropology of violence. Nevertheless, on a closer reading and scrutiny, Das’ theoretical edifice of the everyday life turns out to be less convincing and comprehensive than her project of searching for the appropriate and worthy forms of representing social suffering.

This critical assessment, however, should not be construed as undervaluing Das’ many substantial contributions to the discipline, but as an attempt to appreciate and extend them. This becomes all the more important because Life and Words comes now as a complex and mature work and as a culmination of a series of seminal anthropological and ethnographical reflections that focused on the realities of collective violence particularly those surrounding the Partition of India in 1947 and the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.1Unlike many other ethnographers Das, however, is much less concerned with the depiction of these events, even with the kind of narration imbued with the motivation to render suffering public and visible. Instead, she is keen to deploy these events as occasions to learn more about persons and communities in their embeddedness in violent episodes and in their exertion to recuperate and remake their everyday world.

Representation of Suffering

How to speak of or write about suffering is a thorny issue and causes a great deal of anxiety to social scientists. Saying too much, on the one hand, of grief through literary, mass media and other modes of representation is to become oblivious of its real force and forms and to engage in a sort of voyeurism that disrespects victims, hurls insults upon injury, and aggravates pain and horror in the place of alleviating them. On the other hand, a total restrain from representing social suffering may not also be a morally responsible attitude, for it circumvents any attempt to respond to human misery and to commence relevant social action. There is, as it were, no escape route or exit option from this dilemma. One needs to face it, no doubt. But it is important to face it with the right perspective, without marginalising the voice of the victims, ever attentive to what they are saying and even more attentive to their silence, to what they are not saying.

Das’ analysis of the official discourse of the state brings to light its varying degrees of insensitivity and callousness when it comes to the representation of suffering particularly of women. As exemplified in the cases of abduction and brutal rape of thousands of women at the time of the Partition, what comes as striking is the scandalous neglect and denial of these happenings and to pass over them in silence. Even in the few attempts made to officially acknowledge them in forums such as the constituent assembly debates and in the official reports and documentation of these events what surfaces is not the suffering of women. On the contrary, these become opportunities to establish the so-called correct male order and character of the family and the state and to project the state as a rational agent vis-à-vis the irrational and credulous public in need of control. The project of nationalism and national honour come to be associated with the appropriation and control of women and to even write slogans on women’s bodies. Not surprisingly then, words in these contexts become sterile, deprived of life and content; there is a wide chasm between words and life, and words, at their worst, are altered into modes of power and subjugation.

Literary forms and imagination, according to Das, offer a better platform to voice pain and victims’ subjectivity, although this cannot be generalised to all literary discourses. In comparison to bureaucratic records which are largely steered by motivations of simplification, suppression of truth and reinforcement of the existing social order, excellent literary and philosophical works make us see the suffering subjects with their complexities and experiences and allow their agency and voices to come to the foreground. As Das points out, Wittgenstein’s discussion of pain, for example, lends the possibility to entertain and participate in the idea of how one person’s pain can be felt in another person’s body. And still more importantly perhaps, it helps to affirm that the denial of or indifference to another person’s pain in fact amounts to an act of violence and a letdown of the human spirit.2

Das’ own anthropological forays, when especially juxtaposed to other familiar forms of representations, may be said to assume a unique place in the landscape of comprehending and expressing suffering not because she has found some miraculous vocabularies that magically captures the fears, traumas and horrors of the sufferers and give a close-to-real portrayal of social suffering, pain and collective violence. It is not even, as she sometimes tends to give the impression, due to the privileged place and nature of fieldwork she has come to share through immersion in the everyday life of the people.3 Proximity and participation are necessary and often are very helpful in hooking on to the plight and emotional states of the victims, but they are not sufficient and cannot be made unconditional virtues beyond a point.

Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

So, what then makes Das’ anthropological inscriptions so singular and special, one might ask? Among other things, it is the quality of vigilance and responsiveness that she brings to the field and discipline revealed in the capacity to see and observe things that are hidden and unnoticed and a further capacity to convert what is seen and observed into living words impregnated with meaning and life. It has also to do with restlessness, anger and revulsion at the present state of things particularly at what Das calls the “excess of speech” and “plenitude of words” in the face of violence in academic theorising, political campaigns and cultural processes. And finally, it issues from patience and the willingness to take note of the silence and listen to the “inner language” of the sufferers, since not everything that people have gone through and witnessed can be said or sayable. As Das puts it: “It is not that if asked people could not tell you a story, but simply that the words had the frozen slide quality to them, which showed their burned and numbed relation to life” (p11). For example, in portraying the life of a woman (Manjit) who had been abducted and raped during the Partition, and later married to an elderly relative, Das argues that while the violence she was submitted to by her husband was something sayable in her life, the other violence she experienced could not be articulated. Therefore, it is the hybrid of all these traits combined in appropriate measure that elevates Das’ work to a defining moment in the study and representation of social suffering.

Violence, Hope anda Different Kind of Ascent

It is somewhat puzzling that Das who has delved to such depths on the question of the valid forms of representing violence and social suffering falls short of similar reach of accomplishment in her reflections on the nature and character of the everyday life. As noted earlier, Das is not an anthropologist of the event, but of the ordinary, everyday life. She focuses less on the events as such, but more on how people as individuals and communities try to re-inhabit the world in the everyday life after the event. The event is significant not on its own but in its relation to the everyday life and insofar as it can illuminate its understanding. Here is how Das makes this standpoint explicit: “In the context of the Partition, the historians have often collected oral narratives formulated to answer the question: what happened? I have chosen not to frame the question in these terms. Instead, seeing how the violence of the Partition was folded into everyday relations has animated my work” (p 75). More particularly, she is keen on rendering the everyday life as a movement of descent. “By addressing the theme of social suffering, I try to show in my depiction of ordinary lives that the answer to these dangers is not some kind of ascent into the transcendent but a descent into everyday life” (p 15).

In Life and Words, Das unfortunately does not elaborate very much on what she means by the “transcendent” and why it is theoretically inappropriate to think of people’s agency in terms of some form of ascent or transcendence within the ordinary and everyday life. One probable reason is that the sheer burden of injury and hurt during violent occurrences can be so heavy and unbearable that it makes the traditional remedies such as belief in heroism, martyrdom and eternal justice superfluous. Also, it would be erroneous to equate people’s concerted effort to come to terms with what has happened and to rebuild their lives with a sort of what Das calls “oriental fatalism” that accepts things with resignation because they are thought to be a part of some predetermined cosmic order. These are indeed negative kinds of ascent and Das is right to maintain a distance from them. But one may wonder whether all inclinations, aspirations and yearnings in the context of everyday life can be compressed to negative ascents. Could we not as anthropologists, philosophers and social scientists recognise and discern a more positive and constructive forms of ascent that people are impelled or have recourse to?

It seems understandable why Das is attracted to the idea of the everyday life and prefers to call the existential conditions of people which she seeks to reflect and inscribe a descent into the realm of the everyday. When especially the everyday life is thought to encompass not only special and significant happenings such as “marriages, births, rearing of children, ordinary illnesses, infirmities of old age, and death”, but also such mundane and trivial things as “cooking and eating food, cleaning the house, bathing the children, engaging in the usual conversations in the afternoons when housework was completed” (p 11), it is possible to envisage how in and through these things people can mitigate or divert their attention from their hurt and memories. Furthermore, the everyday life is also found to provide the context for the emergence of a new self, a renewed

Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

subject: “There is no pretense here at some grand project of recovery but simply the question of how everyday tasks of surviving – having a roof over your head, being able to send your children to school, being able to do the work of the everyday without constant fear of being attacked – could be accomplished. I found that the making of the self was located, not in the shadow of some ghostly past, but in the context of making the everyday inhabitable” (p 216). The unfolding of everyday life has, therefore, some healing potential and therapeutic consequences.

And yet it is important to be mindful of the fact that the everyday life does not always act as an agent of transformation. Instead, it is a site of cruelty, oppression, perverseness and “routine violence”4 – a violence that is written into the very making of the social relations and political institutions. As Das herself is keenly aware, it is the breeding ground for rumour, the reinforcement of stereotypes and prejudices about minority and majority communities and all sorts of ongoing patriarchal and hierarchical projects on the basis of caste and class. So much so that in actuality the everyday life turns out to be a continuum rather a break away from the phenomena enacted before and during violent episodes. This being the stark reality, we need to be cautious and cannot unconditionally exalt or glorify the potential of everyday life. On account of its various noxious elements and unwholesome dimensions, it is only justifiable that people interrogate and criticise the everyday life and seek to transcend it by purifying it and purging it of its evil and oppressive character. Moreover, from a victim’s point of view it is not totally evident whether the recovery of the ordinary is either possible or desirable,and if so, in which direction. The world after a tragedy and loss, a surrounding without your child, spouse or parent is a different place. It can never be the same again however deep one may get immersed in the everyday life.

Perhaps it is important to underline that the kind of ascent or transcendence that people seek in everyday life is not the negative, external or god-like kind of transcendence that Das wishes to avoid. It is an internal sort of transcendence that is very much embedded within the sphere of the everyday life. It can be associated with the resilience that human beings show in the face of terrible devastation and loss of family and people close to them. It can be discerned in the act of courage of individuals and families and their willingness to risk their own lives in saving potential victims who may or may not belong to their group or clan. Often enough, it is signalled and can be sensed in the human gestures of hope, sympathy, solidarity, forgiveness, gratitude, decency, respect and promise that connect and mediate individuals and communities. All these are not only very much human acts and fall typically within the sphere of the everyday life, but they are also part of a human striving that seeks to transform the inhospitable nature of the everyday life.

Even though Das does not develop this as a prominent theme and integrate it as a part of her anthropology of violence, it would not be fair to say that she ignores it. For instance, she seems to allude to this when referring to the human quality of hope. Human beings, she says, “not only pose dangers to each other, they also hold hope for each other” (pp 14-15). She refers to the “stories of street courage” and how the poor and victims of violence do not give up so easily in their struggle for justice. She suggests that the recovery of a peaceful social life can be accomplished not only by the restoration of faith in the

Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

democratic process, but also by the initiation of community processes such as the public acknowledgement of hurt. Given these different pointers, it would indeed be worthwhile to envision and develop an anthropology of violence that acknowledges a double movement, a descent and an ascent, both recognisable and realisable within the locus of everyday life.




1 Although most of the chapters of the book have been published earlier in the form of papers in edited volumes, they are now brought together under a unified theme and structure so as to reflect a different and distinct method of doing anthropology of violence and social suffering. For earlier versions, see ‘Acknowledgements’ in Life and Words, pp 268-69.

2 Das also engages with the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sa’adat Hasan Manto to illustrate how the receptive way with which these literary works respond to scenes of devastation and pain establishes a more intimate contact between pain, language and body. For a detailed exploration of how ethnographic studies, and more generally Anthropology can benefit from the insights of Wittgenstein and Cavell, see Veena Das, ‘Wittgenstein and Anthropology’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 1998, Vol 27, pp 171-95.

3 Das gives such an impression when she compares her approach with that of other authors. See for example, Life and Words, pp 181-82. A similar line of criticism has been advanced regarding her earlier work Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India. See Akos Ostor, ‘Review’, American Ethnologist, November 1997, Vol 24, No 4, pp 951-53.

4 For an illuminating exploration of the concept of routine violence, see Gyanendra Pandey, Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2006.

Economic and Political Weekly July 14, 2007

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