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Speaking of Suffering

Madhuja Mukherjee

By Ramu Nagappan
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 246, Rs. 595.00


Ramu Nagappan’s introductory lines in the book—‘who has the right to speak about trauma?’ is a question that has been pertinent in the last couple of years as debates on histories from below raised crucial questions whether the subaltern can speak at all. Therefore, who actually speaks on behalf of the ‘sufferers’? In whose language? What is remembered, and later spoken about? What are the frameworks of memory? Moreover, to turn the question around, who suffers on behalf of the ‘speakers’? In short, who suffers on my behalf, and for whom am I writing now? Most certainly there are no simple answers to such complex questions. While writing about social trauma in South Asia has been important in the last few years and has been studied by Alok Bhalla (1994, 2006), Urvashi Butalia (1998), Veena Das (1990), Suvir Kaul (2001), Gyanendra Pandey (1994, 1997) and others, Nagappan sketches a trajectory of collective sufferings in postcolonial India through 1947 and partition, to 1994 and the Delhi riots, unto 1992 riots in Bombay and 2002 riots in Godhra. Of course, whether these were ‘riots’, or should be described as ‘genocide’ is another point that is raised by Nagappan. Interestingly, he not only writes about social suffering in terms of time, he also chooses certain spaces or particularly cities (like Delhi or Bombay) where these ‘riots’ took place. One may argue that the experiences of such violence shattered the educated middle class’s sense of well-being in the post-Independence ‘secular’ and ‘democratic’ set up.   Nagappan brings up issues of language or how such trauma may be re-told. He deploys an interesting interdisciplinary approach and connects Amitava Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, with Salman Rushdie’s Shame, and Mani Ratnam’s films like Bombay and Roja as well as Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories like ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Khol do’ or ‘Thanda Ghosht’. Here Nagappan juxtaposes disparate genres, authors, styles, art forms, and diverse parameters like popular cinema, everyday photographs, high-literature written in English, as well as the ‘novelistic’ with the ‘scholarly’. Nevertheless, one may question what guided these choices. As in, why Rushdie who resides ‘outside’? Why Ghosh who writes in English? Or why Manto, and why not Mahasweta Devi or Bhisham Sahni? Why Bollywood successes like Bombay and Roja and not Garam Hawa or Meghe Dhaka Tara? Or why not deal with theatre? However, perhaps such ‘whys’ are not necessarily productive questions because there ...

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