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The intimacy of violence

We hear the story from Arifa, a 45-year-old art curator who has two boys studying in a school in the outskirts of Delhi.

A major terrorist attack happened the night before. Walking into Class V, where Arifa’s younger son, Saad, is a student, the English teacher picks up the newspaper lying on her desk and reads out the headlines about the attack to the class. “What is happening to the world!” She sighs.

Saad, yeh kya kar diya tumne?” A student calls out. “What have you done, Saad?”

The story is told by Nazia Erum in her book, Mothering a Muslim. The evocative title tells much about the book, as do the stories recounted there. The intimacy of a mother recounting the story of her son being bullied deepens the shock in a way the spectacle of horror upheld in a newspaper headline can never do.

Intimate knowledge

Good news about the world now feels like a lost dream. On one side of the world the Amazon rainforests vanish in a blaze of flames; on the other, innocent minorities face the madness of lynch mobs. Governments are formed at the behest of jingoistic populism; social groups who have historically dwelt on the margins continue to be excluded from all forms of rights, voices and privilege.

What does it mean, at a time like this, to take one’s eyes away from headlines and hashtags and whisper private stories from the kitchen and the bedroom and the classroom?

In the last decade of apartheid rule, the black writer Njabulo Ndebele had carved a sharp polemic against what he had called the “spectacular” events of the public domain in South African “protest” literature as a way of understanding the ethics and politics of racial oppression.

In contrast to this public spectacle of violence, Ndebele advocated the minute details of the “intimate knowledge” embedded in the private, internal consciousness, which go beyond the simplistic binary of good and evil celebrated in this spectacular aesthetic. For which, he argued, “the rediscovery of the ordinary” was an essential precondition.

The rediscovery of the ordinary in a time of trauma. Something which sounds ethically unsustainable, perhaps even politically escapist, has time and again proved to be a vital way of understanding power and oppression that is easily missed by the glare of the psychedelic drama in the public sphere. From the parliament to the kitchen. The nation to the isolated individual.

The rediscovery of the ordinary has folded into that resonant manifesto of an earlier generation of feminist activists. The personal as political. And that is how unforgettable stories are created. For art is resolutely singular, magically particular, and deeply intimate, even in the face of the collective nature of political experience.

Do you see?

Erum’s book is not an outlier. Over the past few years, we have seen a number of evocative, deeply intimate narrative responses to the unbearable nature of contemporary reality. It is not a coincidence that these are all memoirs or personal accounts by women — all first or sometimes second books, writers setting out on their journeys, screaming in delicate whispers on the way.

In Sharmila Sen’s Not Quite Not White, a book sadly more relevant than ever for Trumphant America, race and the guilty aspiration of racial passing speak silently to what becomes the “invisibility” of the basti-dwellers to middle-class eyes in India. But the medium of violence, there too, is always the intimacy of personal experience.

Sen remembers herself as a 10-year-old on her bed one afternoon, glancing at the 13-year-old Prakash, the son of their housemaid, as he mopped the floor around her. A few times, their glances met. The burden of that interlocked glance, always held in grim silence, was to haunt the writer for decades.

What does one see? What remains invisible? Sen’s beautifully narrated, deeply experiential book asks the vital questions. When her family went for their visa interviews, an African-American security guard stood outside the U.S. consulate in Kolkata. His image, witnessed by Sen at the age of 12, stayed with her. Did she see a black man, she wondered. Did she see race? Or did she just see a man with dark-brown skin, like many on the streets of Kolkata?

Migrant stories

Did the man, Sen wondered, see the Indian family keen to emigrate to his country as Homo Economicus, human beings in search of a better living? Did he believe, as Toni Morrison had written unforgettably, that the immigrant’s road to becoming American is built on the back of blacks?

Later on, as a student at Harvard, Sen finds it impossible to continue with her part-time job as an interpreter for the court, as most of the time it involves telling poor Bangladeshi immigrants that they will be deported. There isn’t, Sen realises, a word for ‘deported’ in Bengali, but her anguish with her moonlighting job isn’t merely linguistic.

It is the stories of such dispossessed immigrants that make up Simran Chawla’s Searching for Home: Stories of Indians Living Abroad. As opposed to the usual stories of middle-class, professional success powered by education and software engineering, Chawla’s Indians searching for homes abroad are desperate stragglers.

Many of them risk their lives, identities, and entire savings to find themselves in countries they realise consider them unwanted rubbish. In this book, community centres become the nuclei of heart-rending stories, be they shelters in Southall or Montreal, or the homes of the few success stories, be it as far-flung as in Anchorage, Alaska.

Migration means staggeringly different things for different people. For Sujatha Gidla, moving to America from India is to flee the inescapable visibility of caste and her life as an “untouchable”.

Introducing her book Ants among Elephants, she tells of how when she came to America at the age of 26, she realised people here cared about skin colour but not birth status. Even though some people love Indians and some hate them, their feelings have nothing to do with caste. “One time in a bar in Atlanta,” she writes, “I told a guy I was untouchable, and he said, ‘Oh, but you are so touchable.”’

Felt on the skin

Being in America made the personal story of her family possible, articulable. “Only in talking to some friends I met here,” she says, “did I realize that my stories, my family’s stories, are not stories of shame.”

In the midst of a turbulent history and the traumatic end of the violent history of modern Telangana, the riveting core of Gidla’s story is also its most personal one: the story of the growth and education of Satyam, through school, college and politics. It offers the epiphanies of a moving bildungsroman, but what a bildung it is, against what terrifying odds!

At the end of the day, if anyone is left with any doubt that our country is capable of inflicting unimaginable pain and horror on the weak and the dispossessed, they should face the brutal reality of Priyanka Dubey’s No Nation for Women: Reportage on Rape from India, the World’s Largest Democracy.

This is perhaps the most public of all these books, and clearly the most spectacular in its depiction of violence. And yet Dubey shows that journalism, when done with a heart and a conscience, creates the intimacy of a deeply personal stakeholder.

Each chapter of this visceral book chronicles a rape, often a gang-rape. The nightmare of police proceedings and the willed inertia of law courts that follow remind us that the rape of rural, Dalit, and tribal women — the poorest of the poor — in India is always a gang-rape, even when committed by a single man. Because it is a system that ravages her even when the physical perpetrator is an individual.

The rape of the Badaun sisters is branded afresh when we watch the film Article 15. Dubey’s terrifying book invokes the image that traumatised the nation, the image that captured the visceral singularity of a particular story, of two human lives — not the abstract data of official narratives: “the image of the bodies of these two children hanging from the mango tree — slowly swinging in the burning afternoon winds of a North Indian summer.”

The writer’s most recent book is The Scent of God. @_saikatmajumdar

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 2:21:07 PM |

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