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 are numerous other options. With such selections Nagappan produces an intriguing interface between for example, Bengali bhadralok memories of partition, and ‘insider/outsider’ narratives of Manto and so on. In the process he presents the ‘ongoing condition of [our] modernity’ (p. 25).
While ‘writing’ is never unproblematic as Nagappan writes referring to Ghosh’s own dilemmas, in this section (‘Writing and Redemption’) much of his interpretations appear like a description of Ghosh’s novel, which is a sharp contrast to his own readings of Manto’s life and short stories where he analyses Manto’s detached and ‘cold’ realism (even though he doesn’t contextualize them within the larger debates of Urdu literature). For Nagappan Manto’s fictions ‘cannot be classified as social history or documentary narrative. They are instead consistently polemical’ (p. 82). Such narratives are truly multilayered, polyvalent, ambiguous, distrusting as well as deconstructive. Borrowing from Freud, he writes that Manto’s style represents the ‘complicated story of the “unhomely”, the uncanny, and the unexpected return of the repressed’ (p. 81). While Nagappan brings up the feminist critiques of Manto which examine the absence of female agency, and Manto’s ‘misogynist’ and ‘sensationalist’ tendencies, as also the ways in which the female body has been used as ‘metaphor’, Nagappan’s own interrogations of Manto’s works definitely present a disquieting picture of partition, and the processes through which one remembers it. Certainly, there is no escape from the bloodshed, deaths, and the dead (‘cold meat’), as one revisits Manto through Nagappan. Briefly, such partition dialogues startle the readers. Similarly, Nagappan describes Rushdie’s Shame as ‘multivocal pastiche’ even when ‘he kills hope….’ (pp. 122,123). What is engaging in this context is the way in which Nagappan explores personal narratives of Ghosh, Manto and Rushdie, and uses the biographies of the authors as an element of the texts.
Thus, Nagappan’s leap into popular cinema studies in the chapter titled ‘The Momentary Pleasures of Reconciliation’ is somewhat vexing even when he tries to probe into the issues of cinematic realism and popular secularism through Mani Ratnam’s films. Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and Roja (as well as Dil Se) in its attempt to produce the idealized citizen for the nation-state, and also offer the ‘terrorist’ voice, comments on our contemporary political confusions. In order to examine this point Nagappan draws out a sketchy historical overview of Hindi films. Referring mostly to Sumita S. Chakravarty (1995) on this, Nagappan almost circumvents the ‘Roja debate’ published in EPW in 1994. Largely narrating the plot of the films, he shows how Mani Ratnam depicts suffering through a popular realistic mode (which pays excessive attention to details and creates a ‘super-real’ landscape), turning suffering into a spectacle, that’s ‘worth paying for’ (p. 177). However, what Nagappan may have also discussed with reference to Mani Ratnam’s films is the sonic-regime or the sound aesthetics, which facilitates the visual scope of such ‘pop’ political films. Or for instance, a more recent film like Black Friday uses the documentary mode to present itself as an authentic representation of the 1992 Bombay blasts. Between Frederic Jameson (1984) and M. Madhava Prasad (1998) a host of theoreticians have analysed the rhetoric of political films; therefore, it seems somewhat inadequate in a book of this importance—which is actually imaginative in its choices of themes and framework—as it sidesteps a methodical reading of the film form. Referring to Qutabuddin Nasruddin Ansari’s photograph published during the 2002 Gujarat ‘riots’(in the section ‘Coda’), Nagappan says that an ‘aura’ of social grief is produced as we look at the picture of the tearful man with his hands joined, as he ‘begs’ for ‘mercy’.
Indeed, Ansari’s face had become so well-known at that point in time that, he could no longer reside in Ahmedabad or in even Maharastra. Hence, in 2003 he shifted to West Bengal. What may be engaging in this context is the question of memory—for instance, where is Ansari now? In fact, he shifted from West Bengal after some time simply because his face was no longer recognizable, and had been erased from public memory. Consequently, he moved on to greener pastures for better job opportunities. Ansari’s move is a twisted ironic comment on contemporary politics and the ways in which media manipulates it, even when Nagappan keeps the faith and states in his evocative last lines, that such cultural products ‘challenge audiences [and readers] to reflect on their responsibility’ (p. 200). Nagappan’s book compels us to rethink the ways in which we look at image, text, oral narratives and the modes of remembrance as well as story-telling. Moreover, it brings up the question of social responsibilities which have re-emerged in the recent past in West Bengal, where after March 2007 intellectuals were expected to rally against state violence towards the peasants. In such troubled times, Speaking Havoc is a significant intervention within the field of social suffering in South Asia.
Madhuja Mukherjee now teaches in the Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, Calcutta. She has masters degrees in both Film Studies and Comparative Literature, and her research (Ph.D) has been focused on problems of culture, modernity and identity; a study of the film studios and genres vis-à-vis the cultural politics of Bengal. She has published on issues of Media, Film history, Theory and ‘Bollywood’, gender and visual cultures and Sound in Indian films.