UNDOING IMPUNITY: Speech After Sexual Violenceby V. Geetha. Zubaan, Delhi, 2016.
WHAT forms of speech defy the social sanction of sexual violence and refuse impunity for its perpetrators, be they state or non-state actors, in India and other parts of South Asia? What enables resistant speech that acknowledges sexual violence as an assault on individual personhood and bodily integrity in social contexts in which it is routinely misrecognized, tied up with shame and stigma as is everything to do with the ‘sexual’? If the sexual nature of a crime stalls speech about it and does not allow the victim the dignity of a sufferer, it simultaneously never fully punishes the aggressor, thereby feeding the impunity that (re)/produces violence.
In her book Undoing Impunity: Speech After Sexual Violence, V. Geetha excavates the contexts and circumstances that render possible speech and empathetic action that recognize sexual hurt and challenge the pervasive and systemic indifference that sustains impunity. Such recognition and speech, she points out, implicate both victim-survivors and those who bear witness to their suffering in a common humanity. Taking a historical lens to her project, Geetha foregrounds and analyses critical moments in the life of the Indian republic that have engendered intelligible and, on occasion, healing speech on the part of survivors, feminists and other concerned citizens in the wake of sexual violence.
The book reminds us that the historical processes by which women are constituted as tainted sexual beings in particular cultures have enormous consequences for the kind of justice and reparation they are (or not) able to seek recourse to. When women of subaltern classes and oppressed races and castes are deemed ‘unrapeable’ as they have no worth or honour to lose, we see at work an ‘ontological wounding’ or the very denial of personhood they are subject to. Drawing on the testimonies of African American women victims of sexual assault in the Memphis riots that broke out in the post Civil War years in the American South, Geetha draws attention to the new historical moment and its possibilities that allowed the women to describe the violence as the denial of personhood it was, rather than a dishonouring.
This is but one instance of the book’s effort to trace the ‘line of hope’ that emerges in history when women are able to resist sexual violence. In so doing, the book shows up impunity not as something that is given, but as one whose life and authority have been thwarted and interrupted constantly, no matter the judicial outcomes of such challenges. Indeed, it is important, Geetha argues, to see impunity in its moments of challenge so that we may see sexual violence itself in all its materiality.
As the book notes, the most common and legitimate forms of speech about sexual violence are medical and legal discourses, which deploy their expert languages to ascertain the truth claims of the assaulted woman and her ‘truthful’ or ‘dissembling’ body as the case may be. Even when particular legal judgments are noteworthy for their sense of fair play and sound judicial reasoning, the law, more often than not, reads sexual violence as individuated acts. As Geetha observes, this holds true even in the specific cases of the rape and assault of working class and peasant women that are so obviously enabled by caste and class derived masculine power. By excluding from consideration social power structures, even progressive judgments appear incapable of reflecting on and critiquing the everyday life of sexual violence. Geetha juxtaposes the public speech made possible by legal discourses with the spaces opened up by social and political movements that have resisted caste and landlordism in India.
The Telangana struggle and the Naxalite-led peasant resistance in West Bengal unequivocally identified the use of sexual violence to affirm class and caste hegemony, providing thereby a public register of speech against such violence. The women participants of the Telangana struggle that raged in the late 1940s ensured that the Communist Party addressed sexual crimes against rebel peasant women targeted by landlord armies. And yet, the Communist Party did not quite see or grasp the domain of the sexual as being structured by power and authority as, for instance, were the economic and social worlds that the peasants were part of. Likewise, in the perception of the urban male activists of the Naxalite movement of the 1960s, the sexual exploitation of peasant and adivasi women epitomized feudal oppression. The women, on the other hand, experienced sexual violence as part of a continuum along with other forms of violence and deprivation and appeared more concerned with seizing land than with their ‘sexual honour’. As Geetha notes, these movements tended to take femininity for granted and did not interrogate sexual difference itself, notwithstanding the en masse presence of women in their ranks.
The other struggles in which voices against sexual violence emerged were the Chatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini-led struggle for land to the tiller, which took on a Hindu math in Bodh Gaya (Bihar) in the mid-to-late 1970s and the mobilization of Bhil agricultural labourers by the Shramik Sanghatana in Dhule (Maharashtra). Partly due to the involvement of urban women, ‘outsiders’ who engaged in self-conscious feminist speech and expanded spaces of dialogue within these movements, it became possible to conceive and speak of sexual violence as both an assertion of caste-class dominance and a reflection of the sexual politics of everyday life. Concomitantly, Dalit women’s groups such as the Mahila Samata Sainik Dal active in Aurangabad (Maharashtra) rejected the ideological strictures of female chastity and insisted that progressive political movements such as theirs interrogate family and domestic violence as well. As protests against dowry gathered momentum from the late 1970s, the family emerged as an important site of violence. Geetha notes how sexual violence, in turn, came to be seen as one moment in a cycle of violence that included the killing of female infants, the systematic under-feeding of girls and so on. In this context, she recalls the journal Manushi and its role during this period (the late 1970s) in foregrounding the many violations of women’s civil rights and liberties that take place within familial and domestic realms.
While the language of civil liberties framed resis-tant speech about violence in this instance, Geetha argues that the women’s movements’ engagement with civil liberties, in a more fundamental sense, remained notional during the 1970s and the 1980s. She contrasts this with the case of Pakistan where public speech about sexual violence was simultaneously speech about the restoration of democracy. The gendered character of President Zia-ul-Huq’s regime that violated women’s fundamental rights compelled women’s groups and activists to advance a feminist critique of the nation state – the earliest in the South Asian context. Although a women’s fact-finding team visited the northeastern states of India in 1982 and highlighted the use of rape and sodomy by the Indian Army to terrorize citizens, a thoroughgoing analysis and critique of the nation state’s self-legitimizing discourses of nationalism, sovereignty and security did not yet emerge from within women’s movements.
It was also the case that a critical feminist perspective on the intertwining of caste and gender oppression had not emerged in the 1980s, despite the many voices challenging sexual violence and the impunity it enjoyed. Geetha points out that the particular way in which Dalit women were deemed ‘untouchable’ and yet expected to be sexually available to dominant caste and class men, could not be fully comprehended without confronting head-on the graded inequality that underpinned caste Hindu society. For instance, she notes that feminists did not see the landmark Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Tribes Act, 1989 as providing a context for rethinking sexual violence or building feminist jurisprudence. On the other hand, Dalit feminists, through their organizing, writing and activism in the 1990s, put forward a view of sexual violence as an expression of profound animosity against Dalits and the very condition of existence for India’s socially oppressed poor, rather than an exceptional act of violence. Concomitantly, a rich body of writing on Dalit women’s lives, such as life histories and memoirs, attested to the many ways in which stigma and shame were woven into the everyday life of caste society; these insights altered and enriched public speech about sexual violence.
The book also discusses the nuanced and productive engagement of women’s groups with the horrific violence unleashed on women of minority communities in the wake of communal riots and targeted pogroms in India. Following the riots of 2002, women’s groups in Gujarat produced the only report that connected Muslim women’s ordeal to the politics of Hindutva and insisted on understanding the use of sexual violence as ideology and strategy. Locating it within the framework of mass violence, they underscored the need to fix command responsibility so that this may enable prosecution of those who committed the crimes as well as those in authority who created the conditions for it. Geetha also notes the important contribution of feminists in drafting the Communal and Targeted Violence Bill. Even if the bill has not been passed, feminist interventions in the discussions around the bill forged conceptual links between sexual violence and targeted and systemic violence against minority communities.
The rape and sexual (as well as other forms of) violence against women in embattled regions of India such as the North East and Kashmir warrant, Geetha argues, a more sustained critique of the nation state on the part of women’s groups. Her point about how sexual violence remains an inexorably sexual crime even when it is deployed as a weapon of war, accounts in part for the shaming and stigmatization of Kashmiri women (raped by the army) by their male kin and local communities. Even so, she argues, we must heed women’s experiences while taking account, in equal measure, of the violence inflicted on communities that have resisted the armed might of the Indian state. It calls for grasping, as a recent feminist study of Naga society demonstrates, how sexual violence (including the sexual brutalization and degradation of men) both constitutes and is, in turn, constituted by a militarized culture.
Besides a more empathetic engagement with besieged communities locked in conflict with the Indian state, the way forward, Geetha proposes, lies in deepening our understanding of how normal sexual and conjugal behaviour is constituted through the everyday life of caste society. By training our analytical lens on the everyday, we may see the structural and systemic violence and inequality that structures the ‘normal’. We may then also see how sexual violence takes place along a continuum of the ‘outrageous everyday’ and in ways that are not always separable from other forms of violence. Geetha’s book is a valuable stocktaking of how public speech about and in the wake of sexual violence has evolved and the manner in which it recognizes and speaks to human suffering, carving out, in the process, registers that do away with shame, stigma and the loss of honour. There is much in this book that will inspire those who retain faith and act in the hope of a common humanity that will redeem us all.
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras
DO YOU REMEMBER KUNAN POSHPORA? by Essar Batool, Irfah Butt, Samreena Mushtaq, Munaza Rashid and Natasha Rather. Zubaan Books, Delhi, 2016.
‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’
– Milan Kundera
THIS is an extraordinary ‘little book’ at so many levels. It evocatively captures five Srinagar based Kashmiri girls courageously challenging the institutional culture of impunity and unveiling the tissue of lies and cover-up around the use of rape as a weapon of war in the paradigmatic incident of mass gang rape in the twin villages of Kunan Poshpora in 1991. Intertwined in the KP story is the personal journey of the narrators, most of them born after the incident. It tracks their shock of recognition at their common vulnerability which links them in an inter-generational circle of victimhood. It is poignantly voiced in the book’s imaginative reconstruction of fragments of the story of the (fictional) rape survivor, Durri in village Kunan, that freezing night of brutal and endless sexual torture 25 years ago. Durri is them, as these urban professional women try to understand: ‘How would a girl from this village feel after becoming a victim of rape…’ (p. 71). Rape and the fear of rape is an ever present haunting that bonds Kashmiri women. It stalks them in their own remembered memories of growing up under military ‘occupation’.
More importantly, this revisiting of KP is a revelation of the local people’s persistent struggle to demand accountability which makes this incident probably the largest documented incident of mass rape in the subcontinent. Ironically, as their investigative trail reveals, despite the elaborate institutional cover-up, the traumatized people of KP with the local administration as their witnesses, persisted in the process of recording their complaint against a crime – filing an FIR, collecting medical-legal certificates, etc. Indeed, all the pieces were in place for a legal prosecution 25 years ago.
In Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?, the young narrators, members of the Support Group of KP, complete the circle of public resistance against forgetting as they chase elusive fact-finding reports, sound out broken memories of survivors and local officials and expose the complicity of the police, the administration, medical establishment, the judiciary and the media in the cover up. Writing the book is their act of remembrance and resistance against the culture of impunity. Their filing a PIL to re-initiate investigations into the presumed ‘closed’ criminal case is their act of solidarity to break the silence. They are driven less by the hope of getting justice and more by the determination to assert their right to demand public accountability for crimes against the women of Kashmir.
The broad contours of the KP atrocity story are well known. On the night of 23-24 February 1991, a 150 strong contingent of the army’s 4th Rajputana Rifles launched a cordon and search operation in the adjoining villages of KP in Kupwara, a border district notorious for the presence of militants. But as the narrative establishes, the military operation was not aimed at flushing out the militants. The indiscriminate savage assault was meant to terrorize and devastate the community. No distinction was made between militant supporters and others. At the time of the incident, ‘rape as reprisal’ and ‘rape as a weapon of counter-insurgency’ was widely prevalent in Kashmir. But as the narrative reconstruction of that night reveals, the savagery and systematic nature of the assault and torture of the women, children and men of KP was singular in its brutality, pervasiveness and absolute license – their screams within earshot of the presiding officer, Col. Dalal sitting outside a makeshift interrogation centre. The head constable, Adbul Gani’s account captures the horror of the gang rape of more than 30 women, some as old as 60, others as young as 13, including a pregnant woman. A toddler was flung out of the window by soldiers from the ground floor of a house. The next morning, as Gani made his rounds, he found the child lying in the snow. He brought him back and left him on the verandah, went inside the house and as he had done elsewhere, covered the naked, barely conscious survivor. Told about her injured child outside, the bruised mother could not even move and bring the child inside until her husband came back.
It was the spontaneous surge of popular protest around the Delhi rape case that mobilized these young women to demand public accountability for a crime committed by India’s uniformed men 22 years back. Evidently their ‘first’ visit to Kunan village followed their filing of the PIL in the High Court. The PIL was signed by 50 women, including their own mothers. In their journey to discover the reaction of the survivors to the PIL, they found support but also encountered silence, the complex blowback from a village that continues to be socially stigmatized. Its branding as a village of raped women has had tragic punitive consequences for the survivors – girls married off to unsuitable men, children teased and humiliated dropping out of school, raped survivors battling gynaecological problems and mental trauma.
This is a book that dares to name the perpetrators and their accomplices who cloaked the crime as a ‘militant conspiracy’. The book holds accountable for conspiracy to fraud, denial of justice and upholding the pervasive culture of impunity – a highly respected administrator and an eminent journalist. Wajahat Habibullah, then Divisional Commissioner, visited KP three weeks after the incident, following the report of his junior, the Deputy Commissioner S.M. Yasin, stated that ‘the army personnel had turned violent and behaved like beasts.’ He cast doubts on the villagers’ complaints and implied they were acting under militant pressure. Significantly, the fluctuating numbers clinched it for him. ‘If in each case 5 to 15 persons as alleged committed rape there would have to have been at least 300 men in the village doing nothing but this! In fact the number of men was 150.’
Sharmila Bose in her controversial book Dead Reckoning, uses a similar argument to discount the sexual atrocities and depredations of the Pakistan Army against the women of East Pakistan in the war for Bangladesh. As her vociferous critics have pointed out, the narrative is overwhelmingly dependent upon her reliance on interviews with Pakistan Army officers. Kunan Poshpora’s young narrators are unyielding on the culpability of Wajahat’s role and dismiss his public admission made 22 years later that the government had deleted important parts of his report.
The B.G. Verghese-led Press Council fact-finding report, ‘Crisis and Credibility’, conclusively sealed the official argument on the KP incident being a ‘massive hoax’. Many, including this reviewer, had written critically on this highly controversial but influential ‘unofficial’ report. Whereas we had remarked on the minimal time spent by Verghese in Kunan village on this army sponsored tour, this book incrementally builds the case that Verghese in all probability never visited the place. He did not need to. It was a script written by the army whose morale was at stake. Verghese, the judge, is judged as ‘falsifying’ the evidence and undermining the ‘legal rights to justice and truth of the survivors’ (128). For the narrators, the final straw was his belittling and discrediting of the ‘ whistleblower’, Dy Commissioner Yasin who dared to report the crime.
The book’s chapter, ‘People Who Remember’, is a fascinating hunt for missing documents, burnt papers and destroyed history. Above all, it is haunted by the struggle of memory against forgetting of people other than the victims who broke the silence – fact-finding officials who recorded incidence of the crime, the doctor who filled out medical-legal certificates of the rape victims (which went missing), the journalist who broke the story and Asiya Andrabi of Dukhtarane Millat. It is the narrator Irfah’s efforts to create a parallel history from fragments of memory.
Curiously, for a book centred on remembrance, it is this chapter alone that pauses to ruminate about the politics of memory, of the accuracy of remembering. In an earlier chapter, as a backdrop to the KP narrative, multiple incidents of rape in Kashmir are recalled. Disappointingly, there is no thought as to how memory of these rapes enters the imagination of young Kashmiri women – whispered rumours, a newspaper item, NGO fact-finding reports. Part of the puzzle of the book’s disparity in style and subtlety lies in the structure of the book – the five narrators write different chapters. It reads at times like a collection of essays in search of an editor. The strength of the book is that the narrators are all ‘insiders’. But, at times, the missing larger picture insinuates itself. For instance, the KP resistance is even more remarkable because it is probably the one occasion when the survivors of sexual violence have braved the social stigma and mobilized. In contrast, the mobilization of the Majlis-e-Mushawarat in the Shopian double rape-murder case (2009) was not survivor-victim centric.
This book is a remarkable investigation of the way the tentacles of impunity take over both the process of governing and social culture, with an impact far deeper than a law such as AFSPA. The book stands as explicit testimony to why there have so far been no prosecutions in a civilian court for rape and murder; why the double rape-murder in Shopian happened in 2009?; why at every stage was the investigation botched? It was to ensure ‘never again’ that these women joined the survivors to demand public accountability.
Writer, researcher and journalist, Delhi
THE SPECTRAL WOUND: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 by Nayanika Mookherjee. Zubaan Academic, New Delhi, 2016.
THIS is an Indian reprint of a book originally published in 2015 – Nayanika Mookherjee’s study of the ‘grand projects of society and state’ through which Bangladesh attempted to come to terms with the histories of women raped during the Liberation War of 1971. The reprint, which gives South Asian writers and researchers access to important analysis and documentation that might otherwise lie outside their reach, is very much to be welcomed. The book itself has been widely discussed, reviewed and responded to: not only have there been thoughtful and largely appreciative reviews in India and elsewhere, but earlier this year, Todd Meyers and Andrew Brandel organized a set of commentaries by distinguished scholars through an on-line Book Forum (published at somatosphere.net) and Mookherjee herself replied to her respondents, suggesting further lines of enquiry. Both in its ethnography and in its critical engagement with the traumas of modern nation formation, the book carries important lessons for contemporary researchers.
Rape has a long history of being used as a weapon of war, and contemporary examples abound – from Bosnia, Syria and Iraq to the Congo and South Sudan. In Bangladesh, it is estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 women were raped during the course of the war, chiefly by the Pakistani Army and its local collaborators, but Mookherjee herself, wisely, does not enter into a debate over numbers. Her own fieldwork, mainly carried out in the village of Enayetpur in western Bangladesh, establishes beyond doubt that rape took place on an extensive scale (even this fact, together with the numbers of persons killed, has been contested by revisionist historians), and her research focuses on the way in which the figure of the birangona, or warrior woman, was constructed by the Bangladesh government to valorize wartime victims of sexual violence and provide them with social recognition and material compensation. Over its long period of gestation, her book – inaugurated in a sense by her fieldwork in 1997 and completed only after 2013, the date of its last chapter, titled ‘Postscript’ – explores the testimonies of her chosen witnesses, their lives as acknowledged or unacknowledged birangonas, and the operation of individual and public memory in a constantly changing and evolving social order. In fact, Mookherjee is still working on collaborative initiatives with the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs (Bangladesh) to propose a set of ethical guidelines for researchers working with survivors and recording their narratives. In an interview published on 18 September 2017 in The Daily Star, she comments on the need to understand ‘the sociality of violence’:
‘Instead of thinking of stigma, shame and scorn as given categories, we need to understand when and why these categories are raised. Here I would argue stigma is often raised as an arsenal for local, everyday politics, to keep someone who is already maybe weak as weak, or dominated as dominated, or unequal as unequal. So there is a political economy of stigma, honour and shame. I show this through various examples in The Spectral Wound.’
The task Mookherjee set herself in the book, therefore, was extremely complex. It was not a ‘straightforward’ oral history project (though one could argue that oral history is in any case never straightforward); it was an attempt to understand the politics, as well as the individual and social consequences, of official attempts to acknowledge wartime rape, and the difficulty of recovering or retelling past traumas. In her preface, Mookherjee reproduces Naibuddin Ahmed’s celebrated photograph, taken in late 1971 and smuggled out of Bangladesh, of a woman who had been raped by the Pakistani Army. The woman’s face is entirely hidden by her dishevelled hair and her crossed, clenched fists. Though Mookherjee does not make the connection explicit, her readers will see a link between the woman’s self-veiling from the camera’s gaze and the metaphorical use, in her book, of the verb ‘to comb’ (achrano). The metaphor is used in a number of ways – in the sense of combing over to conceal, as well as to extract or pick out: certainly Mookherjee does not assume that the oral historian has the ability to uncover truths ‘hidden from history’ simply through a process of sifting the traces. In her foreword to the book, Veena Das, who has herself written an influential essay on the inscription of sexual violence onto the history of the nation (Daedalus 125:1, 1996), asks:
‘What, then, is to tell one’s story? Is it the same as being able to author it? In my own work on sexual violence, I have found it useful to think of the difference between speech and voice – for one does not always find one’s voice in one’s speech. Thus Mookherjee shows how one of the women, Kajoli, tries to narrate what happened to her when she was raped but was interrupted again and again by her husband, who wanted to correct her on what really took place – for him, she did not know the events of the war well enough to be able to narrate them correctly.’
In the case of the four women from Enayetpur with whom Mookherjee worked most closely, not only did male members of their families act as gatekeepers to their accounts, but also, when three of them were taken to Dhaka to be publicly acknowledged as birangonas, they were made part of an official narrative of commemoration, vindication, and demands for political vengeance, without knowing where they were going, why they were brought there, or what was being said in their names. Unsurprisingly, they received virtually nothing of the compensation that was promised them at the time, though it appears that they are now being paid a monthly bhata (stipend) by the government.
Mookherjee is, therefore, well aware of the pitfalls of an ‘ethnography of violence’, especially the familiar but unreliable trope of ‘giving voice’ to the subaltern or ‘breaking’ the silence around crimes against women. Her book demonstrates repeatedly that no sequential, linear history of the events of the war and its aftermath can suffice to convey the experiences of these women and their families. She therefore alternates between interviews, testimonies, observation, memory, photographs, newspapers, accounts by social workers and women’s groups, archival records and official documents, going back and forth to review what she finds, but placing at the core of her understanding the women’s own difficulty in negotiating their chorom itihas or terrible, literally extreme, history. For the birangona figure is, above all, a kind of public performance: in the aftermath of the Muktijuddho, or Liberation War, artists, actors, photographers, writers, activists, created a serial enactment though which national honour was ‘restored’ through visual representations, theatre, oral history projects and exhibitions. The book mines this extensive textual and visual record, bringing the narrative up to the Shahbagh protests of 2013 and the execution of Abdul Kader Mollah on 12 December of that year. In doing so, it recognizes the ubiquity of sexual violence, and the discomforts and uneasiness that attend its public acknowledgement, as much as it tries to examine the specific category of a war crime. The crime of rape was only one of the offences for which many, accused of active collaboration with the Pakistan Army and participation in crimes against the people, were tried before the war crimes tribunal first instituted by the Awami League in 2009. But as with all such exercises, the process of indictment and subsequent sentencing brought out ‘the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.’ It was apparent to the young protesters who took part in the Shahbagh movement that the history of 1971 contained secrets, memories, betrayals, contradictions, that might perhaps never be resolved but needed to be addressed.
Rape, for all that it was recognized as part of the cost of war by the Bangladesh government, with public measures set in place to counter a culture of silence and shame, remains a problem: to this day only around forty birangonas – out of a lakh or more – have publicly acknowledged their experiences of rape during 1971. Yet, as Mookherjee makes clear, this is not because the histories of rape are not known, nor is it necessarily the case that women from lower or middle class families were ostracized or silenced. In many cases, their husbands and families accepted and cared for them. The public memory of the birangona in Bangladesh is paradoxically bound up with public secrets, with common knowledge and well known stories that belong to ‘the inter-subjective domain of public secrecy based on oral circulation of rumour and judgment.’ And as the artist Naeem Mohaiemen wrote in his response to the book:
‘Progressive and feminist projects can also have their own forms of silencing, and we see this in the reception of Yasmin Saikia’s book [Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971, 2011], especially in the palpable discomfort over a survivors’ testimony that also indicts sexual violence in Bangladeshi society before and after 1971. Even more disturbing than these quiet blind spots are the way feminist struggles can also be appropriated by the war on terror project.’
Mookherjee’s work, therefore, required her to withdraw as much as to probe, to accept social norms and practices different from her own, and to contest criticism – which must have come in ample measure along the way – of her position as an outsider and a foreigner. That she was able to negotiate all these obstacles and arrive at so rich and moving a documentation, carefully counterpointed between her four main interviewees in Enayetpur and the seven others she spoke to at length elsewhere in Bangladesh, while exploring critical features of the textual and visual archive, is an extraordinary achievement.
Perhaps inevitably, then, Mookherjee’s ethnographic method is to view the world in a Deleuzian spirit, as made up of an infinite number of folds and weaves, of spatio-temporal surfaces that are constantly twisted and compressed. The possibility of understanding, of remembering as of forgetting, is tied to the reflexivity of the fold. No single representation, no unique testimony, will give us the ‘truth’: but in any case, the idea of sifting the evidence in search of historical truth is a myth that historians themselves have long discarded. Rather, it is important to look at the plurality of surfaces and representations, to understand how experience, even the experience of trauma, is worked through, and how individuals are called upon, in their everyday lives, to balance what can be said with the unsayable. In reading the book, I was reminded of literary and artistic representations of earlier wounds in the fabric of the nation state, specific to Bengal: the famine of 1943, and the Partition of 1947. Sexual violence was endemic to both these catastrophic events, and has been disturbingly and brilliantly dealt with by an earlier generation of artists and writers: perhaps wisely, Mookherjee has left them out of her purview.
Zubaan is to be congratulated for making this book accessible to Indian readers, though perhaps they might have been less niggardly with the page-margins. Also, given that this is a reprint, the reference on page 3 to Shaheed Suhrawardy Udyan, glossed as Martyred Suhrawardy Park, should certainly have been corrected. The Suhrawardy in question, who gave his name to Ramna Race Course ground (for those who know their Dhaka) where he was buried, is Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1956 to 1957, notorious for his role during the Great Calcutta Killings on Direct Action Day, 16 August 1946. He was not martyred, though there were rumours of his being poisoned when he died in Lebanon in 1963. A BJP ideologue recently created a stir by alleging in Swarajya magazine that Suhrawardy Avenue in Calcutta was named for him, though in fact it was named much earlier for an elder kinsman, Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calcutta. Minor matters, but they attest to the shortness of public memory, and are capable of inciting public opinion, as the petition on Change.org to rename Suhrawardy Avenue testifies.
Professor Emerita, Jadavpur University, Kolkata