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The Grains of Experience

The Spectral Wound is one of the most sensitive, subtle, and thought-provoking anthropological texts on sexual violence in the context of war (Mookherjee 2015). I have already expressed my admiration in the foreword to the book for its nuanced rendering of the interplay between the national imperative to memorialize, the desire for justice on the part of human rights advocacy or left liberal organizations; the unfolding feminist politics around issues of sexual violence; and, the way experience is rendered and traded in the local context. In this brief comment, I want to take up an issue that Nayanika Mookherjee opens up with her finely drawn descriptions of the way recounting of war rape would swell up in everyday interactions and the distance between these experiences and the figure of the birangona (heroic woman) to designate such women, she tracks in the images, testimonies, and other forms of public media. What does this distance tell us about the nature of experiential concepts? In debates on testimony and trauma the discussion veers around the polemics of speech and silence but how about the specificity of the grains of experience?

In his highly influential work on concepts, Gareth Evans (1982) proposed that the content of experience is non-conceptual — only when one has shifted from experience to judgment based on that experience has one moved from the non-conceptual to the conceptual content of experience. Taking his example from colors, (to stand in for other kinds of perceptual experience) Evans argued that the conceptual ability to recognize colors as when we know what is red, green, or burnt sienna, is not enough as this naming and the capacity it represents is coarser in grain than the finer shades and details of our color experience. Thus, for Evans, there is something in experience that evades description in terms of conceptual content. This notion of the non-conceptual content of experience is tied to two different thoughts that could be interrogated further. The first is that concepts are by definition abstract entities rather than concrete or empirical ones; and, second, that a  concept is embodied in a word, rather than in everything that goes on in the world with that word (Benoist 2010). As McDowell (1996: 56) puts it, “But why should we accept that a person’s ability to embrace colour  within her conceptual thinking is restricted to concepts  expressible by words like ‘red’ or ‘green’ and phrases like ‘burnt sienna’?” The conceptual capacity might then be thought of not only as the ability to name (to perform a kind of baptism Wittgenstein would say) but to grasp that an experience, even though singular, can be recognized in its recurrence (and not necessarily in abstraction from the concrete to the general) — hence our conceptual ability consists in being able to “move” or “project” the experience to other domains. For instance, when I master the notion of what is color, I can say not only that this sari is red but also render my anger in terms of color — “I saw red”. On feeling sad I might say “I am feeling blue”.[1] The conceptual capacity with regard to color is demonstrated here not because I can decompose my experience of being angry into many components, one of which is that of color, but because color finds a footing in the world (as do notions of lightness and heaviness in the context of moods) whereas moods are not habitually described in terms of, say, geometrical figures (e.g. I am feeling hexagon). I am interested in this set of issues because I think an important question hovers in the scenes of violation described by Mookherjee — viz., if the figure of the birangona evacuated the actual experience of the violation felt by the women, then must we conclude that the women were silenced, co-opted in this nationalist project of naming and honoring them in language that was strange to them? Or could we identify other ways in which ordinary language was able to give expression to the fine grains of experience that languages honed in public media or from literary history could not address? Is it important to think that moments of judgment did not rise in the movement from the non-conceptual to the conceptual, but in the way the social world came to be apprehended in the thick of relational experience itself?

An early introduction to the concept of birangona in The Spectral Wound, says the following. “The frequency with which the birangona is evoked, brought into existence so that she can be effaced and exited, inscribes her with the logic of a specter” (p.25). After a careful demonstration of this claim over several chapters, Mookherjee concludes that, “An affective imaginary of the birangona emerged through the circulation of various visual and literary representations of the history of rape after the war and their recirculation after the 1990s. While the imageries of innocent birangonas fulfill these women’s role of victimhood for the nation, the authenticity of an acceptably traumatic and ‘truly’ raped woman and her self-representation is guided by differential values of personhood, embedded in gendered narratives, of middle-class sensibilities… The experiences of 1971 come to be poisonous, a burden of distrust that the women always carry” (p. 246-47).

Let me start by recounting Mookherjee’s acute observation that within a logic of representation the imagery of the birangona at the national level manages to “remember” the war heroine on condition that she can be disappeared through death, suicide, insanity, or departure for India in the case of Hindu women. In her words, “The real person of the birangona thus having exited, the account brings back her haunted specter to feed the national imaginary. (p.182)” Thus, the variations in the life trajectories of the individual women have to be tamed so that a common national narrative can emerge in which, as she says, a sameness can be extracted.  Now it is not as if a representation can coincide with what is represented — so Mookherjee’s critique seems to be more with a typification of experience that the representations strive to make available for national and international audiences because in the process of this typification, a normativity is introduced by which the birnagona must be depicted as abject and frozen in the moment of her violation.

It is here that one must caution against the idea that the four women in the village whose life in the everyday is captured through stunning ethnography in this book are the “real” birangonas for surely there is no common essence of their experience that one can simply extract. It would also be problematic to render the distinction between the public figure of the birangona and the recounting of the event in the fragments that emerge in the village as corresponding to a distinction between public memorialization and private expression that cannot be captured in concepts. Instead, I suggest that each fragment of experience recounted takes life from the  genres within which it is framed. The genres that appear in the women’s recounting are very different from the ones that frame the figure of the birangona at the national level but they show how even the singularity of the experience of rape depends on some kind of shared genres to find expression.

For the sake of brevity let me take a few examples. One example is from Kajoli who was shouting across the field one day to tell her ten year old son to come home because of a brewing storm. As Mookherjee describes it, she suddenly said, “I was caught in a toofan (cyclone) and apnar bhai … (referring to her husband) … wasn’t even at home during the event” (p. 110). Mookherjee glosses this reference to the storm as a weather metaphor (“Kajoli let a reference to the rape and her husband’s absence that day trickle out through a weather metaphor” (p. 110).) But what seems to me to be significant here is the long aesthetic tradition in Sanskrit and Bangla of rendering sensory experience of dread, foreboding, fear, as openness to impressions from the world in the form of the sounds of thunder, lightening, and rumbling of clouds[2]. It seems possible, at least for one to think that what Kajoli is telling is not simply a “lived experience” (though it is that too) but an experience which contains a conceptual content that is concrete, empirical and yet belongs as much to thought as to what the body has come to forcefully know. I am not suggesting that the use of the weather imagery makes Kajoli consciously put her experience in terms of the aesthetics through which the scene of abduction was rendered in poetry in Sanskrit or Bangla but that what she does with this experience finds a footing in the world through an imagery that she can evoke.

At another time Kajoli recalled how even as she was being raped by the military, she was thinking if she would lose her entitlements to rice and clothes in her conjugal home — a theme repeated in a number of other accounts in which unbidden thoughts about future losses come looming even as a woman is being violated and perhaps even facing death. Rashida recounted that “When I was being raped I thought my life was over … I thought that I had been married for just a year, so my husband may not keep me at home, may not give me rice and clothes” (p. 111). In these statements we find years of experiences of women, the rendering of the precariousness of a woman’s life in her natal and conjugal home due to fights between co-wives, the hostility of in-laws, stories of abandonment and the importance of sexual chastity become distilled in that episode of the specific violation. Mookherjee displays the power of ethnography in being able to catch the smallest details and the subtle shifts of voice. In my own work, I have talked of such stories as acquiring a footing in the real through being embedded within a field of force made up with swirling words, other stories, gestures and much else (Das 2007). In Wittgenstein’s compelling comment on how we come to know the physiognomy of a word we encounter the same idea of a field of force. “How do I find the ‘right’ word? … It is possible… to say a great deal about a fine aesthetic difference. — The first thing you may say, of course, be just: ‘This word fits, that doesn’t’ — or something of the kind. But then you can discuss all the extensive ramifications of the tie-up effected by each of the words. That first judgment is not the end of the matter, for it is the field of force of a word that is decisive.” (Wittgenstein 1968: 219e).

One way to render the difference between the experiences that come up in the accounts of the women and the coining of the word birangona in the public media lies in the fine grains of the first and the coarseness of the second. Yet it might have been interesting to ask what genealogical connections does the term birangona have with earlier literary tropes. This might have taken the notion of trace in a slightly different direction than that of the ghostly. Very briefly, the term in Hindi (virangana) arises within the vernacular kavya (aesthetics) in 1862 and is primarily connected in the celebration of the heroism of Rajput women. Brijlal Shastri contributes to this genre in a play written in 1924 in which the heroic deeds of twelve Rajput women are celebrated during the first war of independence (or mutiny) of 1857. Mookherjee makes a reference to Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s book Virangana Kavya or Birangona Kabb in Bangla) written in 1869 but does not comment on the imaginary epistles written by the wives of great heroes or on the subsequent book by Ramkumar Nandi (1873) imagined as a sequel to Dutt’s book and containing replies by the heroes to their wives[3]. In North India at least, there were popular vernacular tracts not only on Rani Jhansi and Begum Hazrat Mahal as viranganas but also on courtesans and women of lower castes (now claimed as dalit viranganas) who contributed to the war against the colonial rule. (Bhatia 2010) Clearly there is a paradox that the heroic figure gets transformed into a figure of abjection and pity in the context of the Bangladesh war but it is not as if the figure is conjured out of nothing[4]. It might perhaps be interesting to see its double edged character — it claims a footing into the aesthetic tradition in Bengal even as it evacuates the particularity of the experiences of women who end up bearing the burdens of having been muscled into becoming its referents.

The women in Enayetpur had to bear the weight of having been located and put on the national stage as birangonas. It is not that their status as marked by the event of rape was a secret in Enayetpur — the stigma and the social humiliation they had to bear in the village in the gestures and implied words indicating khota (scorn) are evidence of the burdens they had to bear. However, going on the national stage to give testimony as birangonas when they felt that their experience had been wrested away from them in projects that they did not comprehend – the Sheik’s daughter did not even have time to listen to them and cry with them as one of them said in sorrow — made them infuse the national project with a different affect than that of the human rights workers. It is important, though, to underscore that this does not mean that they gave up any claims of owning that history. As they explained to Mookherjee — it is their words (kotha), extreme history (charam itihas) lot of history (mela itihas) that they are giving her. The fine grains of experience in the social world are not simply enactments of social scripts that typification of experience often implies even among anthropologists who should know better. The men married to these women did not automatically abandon them in the name of honor, but they too suffered. Mookeherjee’s ethnographic voice is so nuanced that we can hear the half articulated sense of grief  at the humiliation a husband has had to endure and even an understanding on the part of a woman as to why her husband might find it difficult to sleep at home. The words of Kajoli, Moyna, Rohima, Rashida do not give us an ontology or, for that matter, a hauntology of rape in times of war. What their words show is that the experience of violation remains open to different kinds of facts from the world whether these are facts about which stories are to be traded for what resources or facts about the treachery of a mother-in-law, or facts about a caring husband who does not have a cure any more for the grief of his wife. In allowing their experience to be marked by what is happening beyond the singular event of rape, and yet never erasing that event, the women give birth to more humble concepts, more quotidian than the weighty concept of birangona. It is thus that the fine grains of experience lead us to the work of anthropology as a mode of thinking through living much as the novelist must learn to live partly with the life of her characters.


Veena Das is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology and Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author most recently of Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty (Fordham University Press, 2014) and Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (University of California Press, 2007), as well as co-editor of The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy (Duke University Press, 2014) and Living and Dying in a Contemporary World: A Compendium (University of California Press, 2015).



[1] I am not proclaiming anything universal about the specific use of color categories for I am well aware that the feelings around blue might be different in other languages or cultures. I am making the point that the conceptual ability around color consists of learning how it might be applied to what McDowell calls both “outer experience” and “inner experience” in a specific world. It is also important to underscore that I do not think of statements such as “I saw red” as metaphorical statements on the logic of representation since red is not functioning here as a sign of anger but is the anger itself.

[2] I am bracketing for now a discussion of how aesthetic genres moved between Sanskrit , Persian and the vernacular languages in the early modern period.

[3] These texts are briefly described in Lal (1992) and though I have read Dutt’s various books I have not been able to find a copy of Shastri’s play.

[4] As an aside I note that in Uttar Pradesh one can find schools and clinics named after famous women with the prefix Virangana – such as Virangana Laxmibai High School.

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