Books Features

Introduction: The Violence of Life and Its Images

Nayanika Mookherjee’s The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 (Duke University Press, 2015) is a remarkable examination of the lives of birangonas, “war heroines,” East Pakistani women raped by West Pakistani soldiers and collaborators, razarkars. It is an account, more precisely, of the myriad ways in which these images, of victim and perpetrator alike, are invoked and constructed in the wake of the Bangladesh War of 1971, not least by whose suffering they purport to capture. Mookherjee dwells attentively on her ethnography in Enayetpur with birangonas and members of their social milieu, left-liberal activists and with intellectuals, exploring the dynamic relationship between public memory and public secret, absence and presence, searching and hiding, often in the guise of “combing” over. This language of being combed or scraped over returns again and again in talk about the experiences of wartime rape, and captures this movement between covering up and making visible that structures the experiences of the birangona. Mookherjee describes achriye bar korlo as “combing through hair (or testimonies) to find information, and also combing hair over to hide the face or a wound on the head,” a gesture made famous in a photograph of a birangona after the war — Moyna, one of the women with whom Mookherjee worked, says, pointing to a dog “like the way the dog is scraping the ground, we were also scraped/combed and brought out” (23). In each chapter of the book, we find these two registers play out in different ways: through state historiography; in activists’ languages of appropriation; in village talk and secrecy; in the patronage networks of local politics; and in the de-masculating speech that takes hold of the biragonas’ husbands. Mookherjee locates these scenes then in the register of visual and textual discourses that traffic in the biragonas’ images, from state rehabilitation programs, to the captions of photographs that obscure the violations of men, to human rights campaigns and finally to the women’s own claims on the category of the birangona.

The Spectral Wound demands not only that we reconsider the categories through which political action, conventionally conceived, receives these stories, but also how the anthropologist positions herself within a contested field. As Veena Das writes in her foreword, the birangonas’ words are a gift of knowledge Mookherjee receives, with its ruptures, starts and fresh openings, by refusing our “desire for criteria” (xiv) that would hollow out their experiences of those whose lives and pain are the subject of so much public and private scrutiny. It is a “form of criticism,” in which we abide in the small moments of making of everyday life, which simultaneously “nurture aspirations that perhaps someone will open herself to one’s pain” (ibid.). Mookherjee concludes with a set of reflections on the possibilities for activist responses to sexual violence, and challenges us to consider whether we might receive those experiences in a way that does not continue to configure the body of the raped woman as a wound.

Its achievements are many, and the varied contributions to this forum are testament to the considerable breadth of its fields of engagement. As Jennifer Culbert reminds us, to respond to these stories is also to become entangled in their circulation, a morally fraught involvement that challenges us to trouble our assumptions about how wounds are borne in the register of everyday life. The spectral quality of the mark left by the event of violence, the ghotana, is in its simultaneous iterability and illegibility; when it is touched, it triggers memories which have seeped into the ordinary world, implicating a field of relations in often unexpected ways. Thus, Culbert asks, what response could we give? What would it mean to listen? I often think with my experiences working with exiled writers, many of whom recurrently came up against the penetrating desire of others to know their pain, certainly in the guise of the state, but also in the tacit logic of trauma theory, as expressed by journalists, activists, publishers, and critics offering listening and telling as therapeutic routes to ‘overcoming’ violence, on terms structured nevertheless by the audience. But if among the writers I have come to know, there were those who chose to offer resistance by bearing remaining unknown, that possibility exists for the birangona only in small and mundane gestures through which they work to re-inhabit the everyday.

In the first of Swayam Bagaria’s lessons from Mookherjee, he writes that “public memory, especially when constructed in the name of the nation or a social collective, can become an occasion to impute an interiority and use that ascription as a justification for political action and reification of internal social formations.” The body of the birangona becomes the site through which such public memories allow for the articulation of a national story and its originary violence, but also where the public secret of such violations allows for the maintenance of the social body in their communities. Such a perspective, Amrita Ibrahim argues convincingly, allows Mookherjee to open up the “local dynamics of gender, violence, and sociality” through attention to how the modes of scorn and honor are deployed not as structural existences, but in the work of inscribing inequality. The interruption of the voices of women, by the states claims on the truth, or the husband’s interjections, but also by the logics of humanitarian and feminist intervention. They subject the woman, her body and voice to “to scorn and humiliation even as they know what they suffered, not for having suffered it, but for breaking the fourth wall of that stage on which the public secret is enacted.” The sedimentation of a history of language into memory then, Bagaria posits, reveals how such markings are not simply ciphers to a past event now lost to present experience, but rather that event and its re-telling are one, not merely metaphorically but existentially.

As Naveeda Khan instructively suggests, following Stanley Cavell, the counting and re-counting that occupies so much of everyday life enact or refract “arithmetically precise” relations of addition, separation, differentiation, and parturition, across regions of life, identities and narratives — for example, in the subordination of the muktijoddhos (freedom fighters) to the birangonas in the calculation of promised goods, in the signification of the loss of value, or in misappropriation of reparations that leads to charges of corruption. Words are made to count and re-count in the greater or lesser telling of what one knows: in recounting, accounts of stories become the sites of transactions in knowledge that can both redeem and pierce like a weapon, bringing to light the skepticism that inheres in ordinary relationships.

In traveling deeply into scenes in which we find people at work making and re-making life in the context of terrible violence, Mookherjee offers us a way into thinking more broadly about the life of concepts as they are produced and transformed, in their movement between the register of the everyday and their figurations in public media, testimony, and discourse. The space between these regions of circulation to which we normally ascribe distance, even separation, might be fruitfully rethought through what Veena Das has called in her new remarks on the book, experiential concepts. Mookherjee’s methodology, and so too her picture of anthropological thought, allows us to see, as Das writes, how the words of the biragonas reveal the grains of experiences of violence that are open to “different kinds of facts from the world.” If we begin then, as she does, from how concepts are awoken to life in the ebb and flow of daily existence, with their struggle to find a footing in the world, the book allows us to attend to the moments in which these efforts bump up against others, to points at which these forces collide into, support, contest, subvert, reinforce, or run parallel to each another. This field and its ethical stakes are manifest through Mookherjee’s “focus on fragments” painstakingly located within overlapping ‘frameworks of exchange,” including between herself and her interlocutors. (See 17-22)

It requires considerable generosity and patience not only to sift through such a density of material, but to allow its complexity to come through without giving in to the desire to disentangle it into settled categories. The slowness of Mookherjee’s careful ethnography allows her to see across the horizons in which the multiple stories of the birangona are told, including those which have emerged only in the last few years (subsequent to her major fieldwork), as Naeem Mohaiemen draws out in some detail. It allows these stories to be situated, as he writes, not only in the proximate history of feminist resistance (and its own occlusions), but also more recent histories of violence and state discourse. Moohkerjee has taught me to reconsider how we might approach the interrelations of different trajectories of force in the construction and transformation of concepts, immanent to the ways they lived, produced, and received in small gestures or fleeting encounters, in the hands of intellectuals, and in the rhetoric of political oratory. But more than that, she has shown us how we can resist asserting the “truth” of any side — we can attend to their status each as a constitutive (re)telling — without falling into a position of ethical non-commitment. Such a position is simply not available to us, certainly not faced with catastrophic and recurrently re-enlivened violence. The ethics of engagement, however, can be articulated through our “nuanc[ing] of all sides.” (266)

Several of the commentaries in this forum were delivered as part of a roundtable discussion on The Spectral Wound at The Johns Hopkins University in February of this year. Two more have been added, including a response from Nayanika Mookherjee herself.

In that spirit, my hope is that introduction, and the whole forum, will be taken as a spur to further exchanges — like Mookherjee’s book itself, an invitation to conversation.


Andrew Brandel is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He is currently completing his first book, City of Letters: Figurations of the Literary, which examines the how literature transforms everyday life in Berlin, Germany, and co-authoring, with Clara Han, a monograph on familiar memory and violence, titled Through the Eyes of the Child.