Speaking of Suffering
Madhuja Mukherjee
SPEAKING HAVOC, SOCIAL SUFFERING & SOUTH ASIAN NARRATIVES by Ramu Nagappan Oxford University Press, 2008, 246 pp., 595
October 2008, volume 32, No 10

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

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