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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2009, Vol.1, No.1 .


Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary
Veena Das

(University of California Press: Berkeley, 2007) 296 pp, PB, 12.95, ISBN 978-0520247451

In this book, Veena Das demonstrates a remarkable ability to weave the stories of a handful of survivors into an analysis that illuminates some basic questions about how violence impacts on everyday life and how social scientists should respond to silence and suffering. The book can be roughly divided into two halves. The first draws on fieldwork undertaken in 1973-4 into kinship among urban Punjabi families in Delhi and is especially interested in the lives of women abducted and recovered during this inter-communal conflict. The second half deals with a more recent event. In 1984, Das was active in providing assistance to Sikh families that had been targeted by Hindu mobs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. So this is research based on a very direct experience of the consequences of violence. At one point she helped look after the daughters of a mother who had killed herself after her husband and sons were burnt to death by the mob. Throughout the analysis, Das engages with a number of heavyweights, including Wittgenstein, Weber, Lyotard, Lacan and Derrida. The author expertly handles the transition from the streets of Delhi to abstract discussions of a very high quality, but it is not possible to do justice to all the insights and arguments of this fecund volume in a short review.

Although Das does make some fascinating comments on Hindu and Sikh masculinity, her main interest is the lives of women who have experienced ?world annihilating violence? (8). Here language and meaning break down and old signposts become unhinged. Her focus is not on the initial act, however, but on how the memory of these past events is ?folded? into social relationships that carry both the signature of the state and masculine dominance. One of the themes of the book is the need to grasp phenomenal time where events far apart in physical time can be imagined as simultaneous. Thus actions during Partition may not have the ?feeling of pastness? (97) for survivors as they struggle in silence and with memories of betrayal and discord to find new meaning in a society that has frozen the events of 1947 into an official narrative. Phenomenal time also manifests itself in the violence against the Sikhs in 1984, which could draw on a mythical past to create a crisis in the present through rumour and a worldview that allowed Hindus to see themselves as victims even when they were killing. One of the most interesting of Das? topics is how individual survivors can recover from their experiences. She is sceptical that the language of transcendence really works here, advocating, as it does, an escape from the everyday. What is needed instead, as the subtitle of the book indicates, is the descent into the ordinary. This is where the recovery of life becomes possible. This is a unique book and a vital text for anyone interested in the impact of violence on individuals and communities.


Dr. Stephen Ryan, University of Ulster



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