Violence, Language and the State Through the Eyes of the Victim


By Sarthak Virdi

“Is there a language for falling out of language?” – Ocean Vuong

Veena Das’s Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary is an ethnographic exercise embedded deeply in personal accounts, to understand how victims of violence come to reinhabit the social amidst devastation and how an event of violence “attaches itself with tentacles into everyday life” (p 1). Divided into ten chapters, the common theme throughout the book is an anthropologist’s desire to challenge the discourse coming from the State through personal accounts of loss, pain and grief. While at the same time, studying how life is rebuilt among ruins by a descent into the everyday, once violence leads to the ‘end of criteria’ (p. 220) for it challenges how life is understood.

Through personal accounts of the victims of the violence of the 1984 riots and Partition, in particular women, Das weaves an analysis of how gender shapes the experience and reparation of pain. Further, the State has been presented as a body that oscillates between a rational and magical mode of being, which breaks the rigid separation of the legal from the illegal. The role of rumours in the 1984 riots and the study of the vocabulary of perpetrators allow Das to move beyond an understanding of the local event as one that is merely a smaller offshoot of the national. Her work is deeply personal, she captures the victim in moments of vulnerability and in their pain, traces the foundations of the larger arguments that she makes. She exposes that the experience of grief is shaped by culture, and in exploring grief, critiques the cultural underpinnings of it.

Gender and Grief

Das examines how violence can lead to losing one’s place within the world, with her vantage point being gender relations. The story of Asha, a woman widowed during the Partition, has been used to show how women attempted to reinhabit their communities once violence broke the very relations through which they positioned themselves within their communities. Even after being remarried, Asha continued to mourn her first husband, located within which is a strong commitment to conjugal relationships even in the face of remarriage. The relationships she built with the women around her, were constructed to only be derived from her relationship with her husband. Mourning thus was a way of reinhabiting the world, one in which women forged new relationships with the women around them, but in the process, there was underlying anxiety about repositioning themselves within their cultures marked by patriarchy. For Shanti who had lived through the 1984 riots, the loss of her son meant the death of her status as a mother, even though her daughters survived, for she was prevented from fulfilling her primary duty as a wife – mothering a son. Her suicide meant she could not imagine a new life with the women around her, for to be a woman meant to be a mother to a son.

Gender shaped how women dealt with grief, living became a constant repair of broken conjugal relations and mourning the loss of relations through which they defined themselves as wives and mothers, within cultures marked by patriarchy. The conjugal relationship was not solely a prison for women, but a place where signs of injury could be reoccupied by performing repair on what violence broke. Rather than taking culture as a ‘pregiven script’ (p. 220), Das analyses it as a medium for collective repair, while simultaneously remaining critical of it.

The State

The construction of the figure of an ‘abducted woman’ during the Partition has been read by Das as one who had to be returned to her original home to reinstate kinship structures with the man as the head, in control of a woman’s sexuality. In the founding moment of the State, she situates the formation of a masculine nation through the control of women’s sexual agency and the social contract becoming a sexed contract – one between the patriarch and the State, not the people and the State.

Studying the 1984 riots she traces the presence of the State as both a rational-bureaucratic and a magical actor. As a rational actor, the State is present in the form of its rules through which it recognizes communities and their claims. The magical mode of being is a result of the illegibility of the State’s laws to its own officials for they are not removed from their local biases when they come to implement the law, and in upholding the law they can find avenues for acting on caste and class injuries. Further, the iterability of State documents and authority makes its presence felt even in places where there is a clear absence of law. The complicity of State actors in the violence against Sikh bodies draped in mystery the relation of innocent Sikhs to the State. What has been captured by Das is the way bodies navigate this space of mystery that opens up as a result of the illegibility and iterability of the State, in order to make claims against it. Her anthropology of the State analyses the experience of engaging with it and opens up spaces for exploring its magical presence felt by those on the margins.

Language and Violence

Das offers an analysis of language on two levels. Firstly, the use of language in rumours, post the assassination of Indira Gandhi, to construct the image of a fanatic Sikh community, helped create a register of an ambiguous threat and legitimize the violence unleashed on Sikh bodies. Further, the vocabulary of crowds – reflective of vengeance – showed that the national event served as a trigger to act on injuries of caste and class, between the Sikhs and the Chamars. By claiming to be avenging the death of their ‘mother’ the latter could imagine themselves to be part of circles of political power. The national event is thus not the totality of the phenomenon, rather it produces specific effects in the local shaped by local conflicts, which reflect in the subjectivity of perpetrators.

Secondly, in analysing the work of repair that happened in the aftermath of violence, language is not her sole reference point, for the violence of Partition and the 1984 Riots cannot be captured within the encasement of ordinary language. Such violence casts doubt upon the status of the perpetrator as a human, and the violation of the body is not captured in grammar, rather it is lived. These narratives are not ‘sayable’ (p 89) in ordinary culture, unlike domestic violence, for the latter is not considered to be casting into doubt the purity of the victim. Instead, Das becomes a canvas for her subject, allowing their pain to be known to her. The shroud of silence around experiences of violation protects the honour of men but it makes the wound within the body indifferent to the repair time can perform, it rather becomes a space to be occupied. The body of the survivor is a repository of knowledge, and the work of repair is not a grand reclamation of the body post its violation through language, but the subtle ways in which it is allowed to begin living again and how it engages in mundane everyday tasks.

Das’s work is a reminder of how Vuong – a Vietnamese refugee in America – attempted to build a language for falling out of language (Ocean Vuong 38), or how the body comes to contain the pain that language fails to. Her brilliance lies in the way she enters her arguments through personal narratives and assumes nothing; locating her premises in the vocabulary of the victim.

Works Cited

Das Veena, Life and Words: Violence and Descent into the Ordinary, University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006.

Vuong Ocean, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Penguin Press, New York, 2019.

Sarthak Virdi is a second year student at National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, pursuing B.A., LL.B (Hons.) degree.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Decentering the Center”, edited by Urvi Sharma, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Mehr Chand Mahajan DAV College for Women, Chandigarh.Srija Sanyal, Ronin Institute, USA.

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