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Padmini Swaminathan

LIFE AND WORDS: VIOLENCE AND THE DESCENT INTO THE ORDINARY
By Veena Das
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 281, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

Much scholarly work, particularly from feminists, engages with different aspects and dimensions of violence, and with the aftermath of what are now episodes of history, such as the partition, the massacre of whole communities, particularly the Sikhs and Muslims, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Godhra train carnage, to name a few. Life and Words goes back to two of these events, namely, the partition and the Sikh massacre of 1984. The attempt here is not simply another recording of the horror of the times but a deconstruction of ‘horror’ in order to unravel the complex ways in which it has entered into ‘the recesses of the ordinary’ and the even more complicated manner in which it is negotiated on a day-to-day basis.   Combining philosophy, social history, and anthropology, Das’s breathtaking research, analysis and reflections provides compelling arguments that call into question received wisdom be it theories of riots, crowd behaviour, relationship with the state, bureaucracy, police, even one’s own kith, kin and neighbours.   Das’s re-reading of literature relating to the partition period and the 1984 massacre, combined with a re-look at her own field notes based on interviews relating to these periods, translates into a powerful yet nuanced account of the conflictual themes that emerge and therefore the utter vacuity of seeing such violence in terms of binaries—Hindus versus Muslims, state versus society, global versus local etc. ‘There was a certain splitting in my own understanding of the state as we recognized that the various state actors were aligned differently in relation to the violence. For instance, while one faction of the Congress Party was actively engaged in abetting the riots in hopes of mobilizing support for their own leaders within the party hierarchy, others equally located within the state structures were appalled at the events’ (p. 208).   The discourse of the state is a significant contribution of the book. Taking the theme of ‘abducted women’—which theme became a major preoccupation of the newly created states of India and Pakistan—Das explicates ‘how public anxieties around sexuality and purity might have created the grounds on which the figure of the violated women became an important mobilizing point for maintaining the nation as a “pure” and masculine space… The interest in women was not premised upon their definition as citizens but as sexual and reproductive beings. As far as recovery ...


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