The sensory politics of fictional violence

    by Diya Sengupta

    Growing up in small mining towns in India’s hinterlands has exposed me to all kinds of quotidian labour. Be it Koyelu, our gardener who toiled at our massive vegetable and fruit garden from morning until evening, or Bhiku, my father’s driver who reached our official quarters sharp at 6AM every day, everyone survived penury by living a quotidian life. The burly Bhiku would usually hitch a ride to our house, standing between two tubs of coal pulled by an endless rope haulage, which to an untrained eye, looks like a mini wagon. And when the haulage crossed our bungalow, Bhiku would hop right out! It was not just Bhiku, it was common for local villagers to take rides on empty haulages to travel distances that would otherwise take them an hour to cover on foot. Although it was illegal for anyone to ride on coal-bearing haulages, nobody complained to the authorities. There seemed to be some kind of silent complicity brought together through hardship and suffering.

    Rugged and weary looking coal miners wearing cap lamps trudging towards the dark pits was also a common sight in our mining community, which was perennially enveloped with a thin film of coal dust. Watching the miners mutter and grunt, as they mentally prepared themselves for a long day of tough labour, became a daily ritual for my sister and me. Although we were too young to understand the look of haplessness on the miners’ faces, what was clear was these men had to go down the pits so they could put food on their tables. Many of these miners were caught in a cycle of poverty, their families had been working in the pits for generations.

    DH Lawrence has written eloquently about the plight of coalminers in Lady Chatterley’s Lover through the eyes of Connie, the novel’s protagonist. Connie is aghast at the hideousness and hopelessness of the miners’ lives, while her husband Clifford is something of a feudal capitalist, justifying the economic violence of the environment that makes the coalminers’ suffering an outcome of transgenerational poverty.

    Just like humans have experienced poverty through generations, prejudice has also been hiding behind the facade of traditions. The belief that Africans are primitive and intellectually inferior to white people gave sanction to the African slave trade, legitimizing violence in its structural form. This kind of cultural violence has been written eloquently by South African writer Zoe Wicomb in her novel Playing in the Light and, and J.M. Coetzee in the Life & Times of Michael K. Coetzee captures the depth of violence prevalent in the apartheid era through the eyes of Michael and his struggles at coming out of poverty, and battle for survival while desperately longing for a simple life. Wicomb traces this violence to struggle, in the post-apartheid era by drawing upon the memory of Marion Campbell, who grew up believing she was white, later discovering that her parents were in fact coloured but who played w hite in an attempt at borrowing a culture that would help them keep their heads high.

    Life has taught me that the only way to face its contradictions, hostilities, absurdities, and uncertainties is by facing them, like the one Laila, the orphaned daughter of a distinguished Muslim family in Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column must face. Laila does not allow herself to be stymied by the restrictive practice of purdah in her traditional family amid the backdrop of the Partition. She follows her heart and marries the person of her choice, daring to live the life she has always dreamt of. Gurcharan Das, too, has chronicled post-Partition trauma in A Fine Family, where he narrates a poignant account of a Punjabi family forced to flee from its settled existence caused by the violence of Partition.

    What stands out to me from these novels is the way the protagonists hold on to each other in a radically transforming world. Sonal Kohli has vividly captured this togetherness between old friends Pushpa and Janaki, in her collection of interlinked short stories, The House Next to the Factory that etches the aspirations, and loneliness of an immigrant family, and their dependents living in old Delhi.

    Another collection of short stories about violence inflicted on our hearts and minds is, The Blue Women by Anukrti Upadhyay. These melancholic and heartbreaking stories are about women and their struggles at charting their lives amid endless trauma, trials and imperfections, and the destructive price that they must pay to survive.

    Much violence is also triggered by the difference and enmity between social classes, and this is something fiction has captured graphically. Karl Marx’s “Conflict Theory” about the prevalence of socialism over capitalism is darkly thematized in Arvind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger and most recently in Tanuj Solanki’s novel Manjhi’s Mayhem. In both these novels, the authors have crafted characters wherein the oppressed class seizes power in an attempt at defeating the oppressor class. Even as social relations between the characters in the two novels undergo significant changes, both Adiga and Solanki have depicted their protagonists, Balram Halwai and Sewaram Manjhi as morally complex anti-heroes, fighting for what they believe is a noble cause, but using questionable methods. In the White Tiger Balram Halwai who works as a driver for a wealthy family in Delhi, nurtures a dream of rising to the top of the social ladder while fighting the inherent violence of class, religion, caste, and loyalty. In Solanki’s Manjhi’s Mayhem, Sewaram Manjhi an immigrant who lands a job as a security guard at a posh coffee shop in upscale Bombay, accidentally lands upon a lot of money after getting embroiled in a murder conspiracy while trying to impress a woman with whom he eventually falls in love.

    Having spent more than three and a half decades on this planet, I have understood that the history of violence is deeply gendered. And that humanity’s psychological struggles have led to spiritual quests, such as rituals, to be performed, particularly by women.

    In Saikat Majumdar’s Silverfish, the author explores the violence on widows through two rivetingly beautiful stories set across two timelines, the first in 19 th century British-ruled Bengal, and the second in post-independence Bengal. Saroj, one of the protagonists of the first story becomes a widow at the age of 17 when her much older husband passes away. The very home that was once her sanctuary of peace and calm as a married woman, became wrought with mental anguish. She had to live through the sins of widowhood, fasting most days, at times without water for the entire day, while the married womenfolk went on with their brightly colored sarees, vermillion in the parting of their hair and dishes that Saroj could savor only in her memories. During a scorching summer day of waterless fasting, Saroj becomes delirious with fatigue and has a conversation with her mother in her dreams, where she talks about their village, its rain laden clouds, and green paddy fields that used to burst with life during monsoons. Saroj’s mind is splattered with the confusion between the physical havoc and spiritual emotion.

    I wonder if these rituals were created in the hope that they might give succor or salve to women who were afraid of having to live solitary lives, when their husbands died. To me, it seems that these women seem to inhabit a world in which God is considered mightier than the human body, above nature, and more omnipresent than gravity, from which there is no escape.

    In Things to Leave Behind, set in mid-19 th century British-ruled Kumaon, Namita Gokhale poignantly traverses the life of its women characters and how they first create desires and are then forced to restrain them. Tilottama, and her daughter Deoki are the ubiquitous mother-daughter duo, whose feminist inclinations are thwarted by the patriarchy, race, and class of the times they were born and grew up in. After reading about the past in Majumdar’s Silverfish and Gokhale’s Things to Leave Behind, I often question its echoes. I keep wondering if Saroj, Tilottama and Deoki lived their lives with the fundamental fear of loss, and a wasted energy that slowly drained their lives.

    It is reassuring how authors and novelists of our times and from the past, have chronicled violence and its outcomes. I would like to think of these writers as courageous seers of human truth, whose words reflect the imperfect conditions we have created, and which we continue to reinforce in our present.

    Diya Sengupta lives in Bombay and works as an ESG and sustainability strategy consultant for a global strategy & consulting firm and is also a diversity & inclusion champion. Born in Bengal, Diya grew up across mining towns in Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Her writing comes from fond memories of growing up in India’s hinterlands.

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