Books Features

On Counting

I am very pleased to be invited by Andrew Brandel to discuss Professor Nayanika Mookherjee’s recently published book The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Mookherjee’s courageous book tells of the fate of women who were raped during the 9-month military crackdown by West Pakistan on the then East Pakistan, renamed Bangladesh after its independence in 1971. When I say that this book tells of the fate of the women, this is not quite right as it is more about the new state’s efforts to rehabilitate the women, which they attempted to accomplish first and foremost through deeming them as war heroines or birangonas. While Mookherjee marks the unusualness, even progressive intent of this re-categorization, she shows how the category takes on a life of its own. Thus the story is less about the fate of the 200,000+ raped women and more about who could or could not enter the category/claim the title of birangona; the gatekeeping by both the country’s intellectuals and political leaders, as by community members, be it urban middle class or the rural poor; the subtle as well as violent means by which such gatekeeping expressed itself; the complications of stepping forward as birangona; the vexed narratives of self-revelation and finally the problematic aesthetics of the visual representation of this figure of the war heroine.

Mookherjee achieves much with her book not the least of which is to show how the story is not as straightforward as feminist scholars have portrayed it, which is that of women violated, excluded from the social body, silenced in the aftermath of violence. Rather she shows how the birangona has been a constant presence within the tumultuous nationalist politics of Bangladesh since 1971. However, public memory functions here more like a public secret, something about which everyone knows but no one speaks. There is something of the quality of disturbing remains and the sacred in the birangona who is known about but who goes unmentioned. This public secret exists alongside a reabsorption of many survivors into the social fold. This reabsorption comes at the expense of the women’s individuality, which is what stepping out of the fold to take on the category of birangona gives women but with very complicated reactions from all around them. As Veena Das writes in her forward, “the book is fascinating in the details it unravels and also deeply disturbing, since it refuses to yield to our desire for criteria that would help us to unequivocally determine those who are virtuous and those we might detest. The form of criticism here is much subtler than a simple search for the good” (xiv).

I am very interested in what Das calls “the form of criticism” effected by the book. How do we think of form in relation to criticism, that is, how might the details in the book give us something like the form or forms of narration that is criticism, in the sense of scorn or disparagement, as well as criticism, in the sense of critique or evaluation but which may serve as the wellspring for newness. How can we conceive of disparagement and critique as possibly conjoined?

Let me introduce my work quickly to show why this question of forms of criticism is a very insightful line of inquiry that I get from Mookherjee, opening up what has been a bit of a Gordian knot at my own field site. I also work in Bangladesh. However, unlike Mookherjee who is made of sterner stuff than me, I do not come anywhere close to the issues surrounding 1971 which, as she states has produced Bangladesh as a martyrological landscape, which I understand as landscape entirely devoted to memorializing the events leading to 1971 stopping at 1971 and going no further. The obsession with the events of 1971 has also produced an obsession with what Naeem Mohaimen (in this issue) has called shothik itihash or the correct version of history with many sectarian variants. I see Mookherjee’s book refusing to partake in this national obsession in the telling and re-telling of the stories of 1971 through her refusal to give a chronological account of the events surrounding the birangona.

I work on a place not unlike Enayatpur, which is the home to four self-disclosed birangonas, in Part One of The Spectral Wound. Chauhali, like Enayatpur, is predominantly rural and by and large poor. Both places are close to the river and frequently suffer from floods and river erosion. And both places have suffered in the hands of the Pakistani army, as I have gathered through the frequent references to scorched fields, roaming bands of military men kicking them about, women hidden in caves, collaborators still loose among them, and the young freedom fighters or mukhtijuddhos return from war changed into something fearsome. Thus like Mookherjee, I get a sense of the horror of the Pakistani army and its collaborators in my field site. But I have never heard a reference to birangonas and I have never asked. I do know that while there is much gender segregation and strict sexual codes, there is also an entire playing field of exchanged glances, secret romances, even incestuous relations that are frequently uncovered and as quickly assimilated into the social fabric. I have never witnessed events of public shaming. However, I know that there is a strong emphasis on normativity in Bangladeshi village life and have taught drifts of a low intensity, continuous sniping to keep people’s behavior within the range of the permissible.

What has confounded me in the time that I have been doing fieldwork is that there is a persistence to the language of counting and re-counting in my conversations with villagers. When I first got there, the interest was in what development schemes I had come bearing, how many cows and how much money I was going to distribute as largesse, whose names I was seeming to list in my notebooks and whether or not those whose names I wrote down were poor enough to deserve so much of my attention. Initially I thought this calculative mode was brought on by the fact that many of the absolute strangers to this area come through the local NGOs and are frequently in the business of development. I thought that this (mis)understanding of me as in the business of development would wane after a while, after all I have been going to this fieldsite for over 5 years without delivering on any of the promises initially associated with me. But no! The nature of counting has changed but counting persists in my conversations with people now wanting to know how much I earn in takas trying to divide it by months, weeks, days, hours and even minutes as if to get a sense of how much I earn just by simply breathing. Furthermore, I notice that this calculative, even economic mode is in almost all conversations, such as, how much is owed in loans and debts, how much land under water is worth, how many tins went into the creation of a new building, how many lacs of takas were lost to erosion when the buildings and trees slipped into the river, etc. I have long taken note of these narrative forms and wondered how I am to understand them, as a developmental logic, neo-liberal subjectivity, avarice, or all of the above?

I was awash in déjà vu reading specific parts of Mookherjee’s The Spectral Wound that were saturated with the computational. Here are some instances from the book to give you a sense of what I mean:

  1. Rafique, who is the husband of one of the four self-identified birangonas in Enayetpur, relates to Mookherjee, “After the war, Bhulen as the Mukhtijuddho commander asked us to give the names of our wives as affected, violated women, as he said that would get us money, house, and medical help. Since that time our name has been on the list” (58).
  2. Kajoli, one of Mookherjee’s interlocutors in Enayetpur, relates: “I remember that it was a day of roja [fasting] when our liberation fighters took us to Dhaka. That is when we were given the name birangona, and since then we have lost everything” (58)
  3. Mookherjee writes in her comments: “The discourse of ashash initiated by the civil society movements continued through the 1990s, and in each instance the women were assured that they would receive house, land, tin, jobs for children, and Vulnerable Group Development cards to get wheat and rice if they were photographed or their narrative of 1971 was recorded. The women believe all these goods much have been sent to them, but must have been appropriated by the local liberation fighters” (60).
  4. “The women would also repeat the names of national and local actors who had given them false assurances and the goods that had been appropriated. They strongly believe that money has been made in their name through the photographs and narratives, asking questions such as, “Are they doing business by using us? Otherwise what is the use of so many tapes and photographs? They must have a value. Do they show it national and internationally and get money?” (62)
  5. “Korban, Moyna’s husband, said that while arguing with a neighbor about the boundaries of their vegetable path, he suggested building a brick wall. His neighbor retorted sarcastically that since lakhs (one hundred thousand) of taka (Bangladeshi currency) were coming from his ‘wife’s babsha’ (business), Korban would have a brick house soon and live off his wife” (71).
  6. And, on the occasion of meeting the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who referred as Sheikher beti [daughter of the Sheikh]: “She handed them gifts and gave each of them a check, posed with them for the photograph, and — ‘being hurried by others’ — left,” (100) leaving them disappointed that she did not talk a little while with them to lighten the load on their hearts.

Mookherjee takes these statements head on. She understands that it is khota or scorn or disparagement, delivered through “economic refractions,” that it is part of a “political economy” around khota that silences women (69-70). In other words, she sees such talk of false promises, exaggerated gains and enumeration as the appropriation of voice through the creating of an impossible situation in which, speaking out can only be understood in the register of seeking material gain. This is a language game that entangles the self-proclaimed birangonas, their husbands, their neighbors, their leaders and ultimately I would argue even those in politics who feel that they must offer gifts and checks to pose for photographs with the women and those in civil society who feel that they must continually deflect material claims upon them, while occasionally trying to set up members of the birangona families with jobs or health services.

Reading Mookherjee alongside a favorite essay of mine by Stanley Cavell “Recounting Gains, Showing Losses: Reading The Winter’s Tale (1987/2003),” I am reminded that numbers do not only exist intransitively, such that lakhs of taka do not only stand on their own with no relation or reference to anything outside itself. The examination of the quotes I have provided above allow us to sketch out a veritable universe of relations and understandings of them developed through computation. Let us start with an obvious point. Numbers have transitive quality in so far as they link to objects and they produce connections between objects. For instance, in quote (1), the promise of money and other goods link the birangonas or war heroines to the muktijoddhos or freedom fighters, making the former dependent on the latter for these promised goods. This is clearly a relationship of subordination and it confounds the early nationalist effort to make “muktijoddhos” and “birangonas” historically coeval and equal for the purposes of commemoration and compensation.

Quote (2) says something further about the transitive nature of numbers, which is that the relations they enact are arithmetically precise, such as those of addition, separation, differentiation, to which Cavell will add parturition or giving birth that combines many of the arithmetic relations listed above. In the quote, we hear Kajoli note that coming forward as a birangona, that is, as an individual sufferer from let us say a more undifferentiated social fold, did not mark her as singular but as a zero, a loser of everything. Obviously financial promises were made but they were never delivered so they were not yet Kajoli’s to lose. What then did she lose? What of the child in parturition? How do we account of this figure alongside the birangona?

The faultfinding as to why the birangonas didn’t get what was promised to them assumes familiar forms of critique within the political economy of Bangladesh. The women in quote (3) suspect that the freedom fighters have misappropriated what is their due, charging the men with corruption. In quote (4) they scale up their criticism to members of civil society (journalists, investigators, human rights activists, feminists) who seek them out with more promises of goods and services in exchange for their pictures and/or narratives. The women ask of Mookherjee, how exactly do these people profit from us? This is both indicative of a suspicion that there is only financial interest involved in seeking them out and of a curiosity to know how suffering is financially lucrative.

While I can well imagine the women savaging their local leaders for corruption, quote (4) still stops me in my tracks because it feels so much like an echo. I can hear not only the birongonas asking how others are benefiting from them, but also being asked by other women in whose midst they live how they themselves are benefiting by proclaiming themselves as birangonas. Given the high rates of domestic violence and rape within marriages in Bangladesh, it is almost as if the birongonas are charged with betrayal by other women for claiming suffering and the imagined profits from it as theirs alone. Could one say that the birangonas stand to lose their footing in the world of women? What is the value of this footing? What is the ontological status of this particular world? Here I draw on Marilyn Strathern’s incredibly challenging but rewarding essay “Divided Origins and the Arithmetic of Ownership” in which she considers that men and women may occupy two different worlds.

It is noteworthy that the men charge the husbands of the birangonas with something quite different all together. They intensify what Cavell has called the masculine shading of skepticism towards the world, which takes the form of uncertainty whether one’s wife loves one exclusively and whether one’s issues are really of one’s loins. To say to Korban, Moyna’s husband, that he is positioned to benefit from his wife’s business is not to reference her capitalizing on her suffering but that she has and continues to make herself available to other men.

The birangonas fight back with words, with the awareness noted by Cavell, one can always tell more or less than one knows, an awareness that often accompanies the narratives of Mookherjee’s interlocutors. She quotes them as saying triumphantly, “I did not get myself captured in front of the camera,” or lamenting “I have given my words.” Furthermore, words transact, from suffering loss, to redeeming, to paying back or getting even. And words count and recount. The desire for a world without counting, would be a world without promises, gifts, exchanges, extractions, penalties, a skeptical move towards the world, a desire to be free of language games, to be done with the possibility of loss and damage. Could one say then that the enumerative logics and the economic terms that we may mark as elements of developmental logics, neoliberal subjectivity, avarice, or in Mookherjee’s words, the pathological public sphere in Bangladesh, are the very aspects of the everyday that needs to be recounted?

I hope to have provided a small demonstration of how this book, which talks so perceptively of a national obsession in Bangladesh, is also well attuned to everyday forms of criticism that includes both scorn and disparagement, and critique through computation intended to produce interrelating. To end with two further questions for the author, would she allow this reading of mine or push back? And if she pushes back, what hopes would she pin on the birangonas highlighted in her book, with whom she shares a strong bond, to attempt a new world through their unexpected sense of disappointment expressed in quote (6) that when Sheikh Hasina finally met them and provided them the much longed for acknowledgement through remuneration, she did not stop to provide them succor.


Naveeda Khan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Muslim Becoming: Aspiration and Skepticism in Pakistan (Duke 2012) and editor of Beyond Crisis: Re-evaluating Pakistan (Routledge 2010).