Veena Das uses the philosophical and anthropological underpinnings in interpreting violence in societies and cultures, and examines the impact of extreme violence during partition and massacre of Sikhs in1984.

The author has tried to look into how violence and narratives and discourses have seeped into the ordinary , and daily lives of women and people, and does not view the impact as an interruption to daily events, but sees the socio political predicaments and their extreme gendered nature as extremely pervasive in the ordinary daily lives of women.

In the foreword written by Cavell, he speaks of how he views pain as something that is recognizable and knowable, and that pain comes with an obligation , and moral demand to respond to its expression. (compassion)

Das repeatedly emphasises how the trauma of violence , and social conditions and predicaments surrounding it, make pain so pervasive that the act of knowing the society and the person in it, comes with knowing and understanding the very society’s deep capacity to inflict suffering upon itself.  Das makes these observations by exploring themes of collective violence, rumor, sectarian conflict, new kinship, and state anthropologically, and constantly looks at violence, gender, and subjectivity along these lines. 

She addresses the issues of social contract being  sexualized, language being inherently unreliable , and rumored and depictive of human being’s ignorance of themselves and how this is due to the  structures in place, making and reinforcing human’s own capacity of violence to seep into the ordinary. 

In the foreword the impact of systems has been seen in terms of torment, perverseness, disappointment, devastation, suffocation, and so on, and these are seen as perpetual state and preparation of violence which keep us dealing and occupied with  “little deaths of everyday lives” ; the grudges, clumsiness, impotence , all of them are seen as magnified and inflamed by sources of Social Enmity, such as racism, sexism, elitism and so on.

Das’s work addresses the homogenous and patriarchal underpinnings and influences that have brought out and seeped in into women’s ordinary daily lives as “little deaths of everyday lives” , how their voice or silence, their bodies, and everything around them is shaping them and how their bodies have beared witness and continue to hold in the trauma and violence of these social enmities, and “isms” which led to sequence of horrendous events in the history, and how these events have layered themselves in everyday lives of particular people and community embedded in these events. 

Das speaks of drawing from the ideas of Starthern, and emphasises on learning about systems by entering into relationships with those, whose  social lives we aim to enter.  Das brings in the ideas of people whose ideas she is influenced and brings in the concept of limits and subjects, given by Wittgenstein, that subject is never closed or done with, and that complicated pictures of what make a world have to be taken in, to see things in totality.

Keeping this in purview, Das speaks of paying attention to the most ordinary of things; objects and events, and agency does not have to look like escaping the limit or the ordinary, but a descent into the same. She posits the mutual absorption of violence and ordinary , the violence that these women so deeply know,  as always attached to the ordinary , in the things that happen so subtly in everyday lives; their being and their body is constantly witness to , and embodies the stories and experiences which were a result of the larger socio political systems at play.

I see as the experience of world-annihilating violence— the figure of a brother not being able to decipher whether love consisted in killing one’s sister to save her from another kind of violence from the crowd, or handing her over for protection to someone whose motives one could not fully fathom; or a mother’s failure to know that her child was safer with her out in the open, in sight of a murderous crowd, rather than hidden in a house with his father. My interest in this book is not in describing these moments of horror but rather in describing what happens to the subject and world when the memory of such events is folded into ongoing relationships. “

Das further elaborates and speaks of community, she says that “ Community is constituted through agreements and hence can also be torn by refusal to acknowledge some parts of community (eg. women or minorities)  as an integral part of it. “

This refusal and marginalization of certain voices not being heard shows up as silences that are too difficult to bear but show up as misinformation, mistrust and perpetuation of the rumored nature of language and propaganda.  

Das addresses all these ideas she holds, in her description of partition and the trauma it left behind,and how there has been an enhanced anxiety and tension among Hindu Muslim relations and how discourses around sexuality and purity of women circulated in public domain in late 19th and early 20th centuries; and how this became a catalyst to viewing the NATION as a “pure” and “masculine” space.   The discourses around “Nation as a masculine space” were shaped by several events that happened around the time. Primarily, the reporting  by the bureaucracy , as how many women abducted, how many “recovered” , had elements of rumor to it. And the language around abduction of women made the ISSUE OF ABDUCTION OF WOMEN as  “sexual disorder”, rather than social one. 

This viewing of abduction of women came off as sexual contract because of the dominant male gaze, and men to institute and assert their political dominance and contentions; and also to view and place women in the home under the authority of a husband/father figure.

The  “exchange of women” during the partition was also done in terms of sexually and reproductively active women.  Women’s sexuality and abduction of women became an issue of honor placed in their reproductive and sexual violation, rather than viewing them as citizens, thus reiterating the nation as a masculine space. The issue became a contract among men conceived as heads of households, and women being returned to “ their households”.

The problem of women became sanctioned as a sexual contract , and gained that connotation to it when it was introduced as a legal category. 

“The discussion on the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act of 1949 in the Constituent Assembly focused on three issues.The first was the definition of a civilized government and especially the responsibility of the state to women on whom violence had been unleashed. The second was the definition of an abducted person, and the rights of women abducted by men. The third issue was the rights of children born of “wrong” sexual unions and the obligations of the state toward them “

Das also briefly speaks of male desire being seen as natural and normal, and female body as something on which the desire has to be enacted on, and the policing of women regarding the same. 

Das addresses the gendered nature of mourning , and what happens around it, given the violence that has been witnessed, and meted out. Das speaks of zone of two deaths, of how symbolic death has been ascribed to these women socially, because of the sexual violation they went through  and they are left to be “SOCIALLY DEAD” but “Physically alive”. 

Das also speaks of how women are seen to be professional mourners, who express sadness over people dying and her observations regarding the same seem to be interesting keeping in mind the context of the time.

“I could give extensive examples of statements that are close to blasphemy in the laments, on how women rage against the idea that gods are just beings, rather than callous, small-minded beings who play with the happiness of mortals. They rage against their bodies, which have to bear pain within, rather than disintegrate in the face of such tragedy. But since the mourning laments also have a dialogical element, soon other women begin to punctuate this by the counsel to get on with the work of living and by assurances to the most deeply affected mourners that the support of the community is with them. It is not that grief is seen as something that shall pass with time. Rather, the representation of grief is that it is metonymically experienced as bodily pain and that the female body will carry this pain forever within itself. A mimesis is established between body and language, but it is through the work of the collectivity that this happens rather than at the level of individual symptom

At the end of this portion , Das brings in the ideas of death, grief and loss, and the idea of witnessing the loss. She explored what mourning looked like for women, when they were just passive witnesses to the disorder of partition, she encountered what she calls “zone of silence” ; the sentiment of something being dangerous to remember showed up. 

“ This being alive in the zone of two deaths and witnessing the truth of the woman’s violation is how mourning in this zone could be defined.” 

Das ends this part with advocating for looking deep into the relation between pain and language, and how culture has evolved keeping in mind all of it. 

“Instead, we begin to think of pain as acknowledgment and recognition; denial of the other’s pain is not about the failings of the intellect but the failings of the spirit. In the register of the imaginary, the pain of the other not only asks for a home in language, but also seeks a home in the body.” 

As a mental health practitioner , the ideas about grief, pain, trauma and descent into ordinary, agency in the ordinary, and body being witness to it all, and the complicated socio-political context that shapes the socialization and language around how we hold things is something i found deeply insightful, and are some ideas i would like to explore further and hold close. The idea that one has to get into relationships with those whose lives one wants to explore is something that stands out. The book has a lot of elements and wisdom for someone resonating with the Narrative and Mindfulness approach.  

Part 1 of the book is review and reflected upon by our therapist Srivalli

Read part II here , Part III here