A Trauma without Terminal: a review of Khamosh Pani: Silent Waters

Directed by Sabiha Sumar, 2003

khamosh-pani-silent-waters (1)In order to concretize the notion of a nation, various alternative narratives are side stepped and brushed away. A dominant hegemonic discourse is created to give the nation state an identity of its own that upholds the permanence of the nation as a singular monolithic entity. However, when such alternative private narratives are recovered from the cobwebs of history, they question the grand narrative of the nation state. In fact, it is our memory that acts as a storehouse of all such alternative private narratives that tend to hint at the shadowiness of the border-lines. In Khamosh Pani: Silent Waters, by the Pakistani documentary filmmaker Sabiha Sumar, the well, along with its ‘silent black water’, probably turns out a signifier of haunting memories regarding Partition, memories that create a vicious circle from where there is no scope of escape.

The film is set in the village Charkhi, near Rawalpindi, in Pakistan, and often reminds us of Mano Majra, the locale in Khushwant Singh’s novel Train to Pakistan. Khamosh Pani: Silent Waters is a story of Ayesha, played by Kiron Kher, a widow in her forties, raising her young son Saleem, played by Aamir Malik, during the years of General Zia’s military coup. Charkhi has always been a serene and quiet place until the arrival of the radical Islamists from Lahore, to recruit new arrivals for the jihadi cause and to generate the ideologies of an Islamic country among the youth. Initially Saleem has been dismissive of the Islamists sour and serious rhetoric:

            Onu te lagda ae qabaz hoi ae…” –

             (That one looks constipated…)

Nevertheless, Saleem was soon taken over by the sheer powerful rhetoric of the radical Islamists, befriends them, grows an intense desire to become ‘a respectable person’ and joins the jihadi cause. Saleem grows frustrated with the lack of opportunities in his village and secretly threatens the educational ambitions of his girlfriend Zubeida, played by Shilpa Shukla, either by constructing walls around the girls’ school compound or cautioning Zubeida from going to the city school. Sumar narrates how Saleem is slowly interpellated by the radical Islamic ideologies, through pamphlets and occasional political lectures in Rawalpindi. Both Ayesha and Zubeida grow increasingly concerned at Saleem’s rapid transformation from a village lad playing flute to a radical Islamist, preaching the jihadi cause.

The arrival of the Sikh pilgrims in the village, after an agreement between India and Pakistan, leads to the revelation of the long buried secrets of Ayesha that raise questions regarding her identity as a devout Muslim. Ayesha is the only lady of the village who never visits the well in Charkha, to fetch water, probably to avoid confrontation with her haunted past. It is the same well where she once stood in her childhood, during the partition of India, witnessing death. Ayesha was an onlooker, during the partition of India, of the scene where the Sikh women, often being forced by the male members of the family, jumped into the well rather than let their ‘honour’ be put to test. This scene that scarred Ayesha’s psyche is similar to the documentated events in Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence where she writes:

‘There is no record of the numbers of women and children who were who were killed by the men of their own families, their own communities’.

One might associate at least three ‘moments of death’ in Ayesha’s life: once in her childhood when she ran away from the well and was soon gang-raped, years later, when Saleem questions her religious identity and her final suicide by jumping into the well rather than publicly accepting her Islamic identity. Ayesha’s death probably gives a rude shock to the belief that being Islamic can hardly be the only identity a Muslim has, as Amartya Sen writes in Identity and Violence that ‘the denial of Plurality as well as the rejection of choice in matters of identity can produce an astonishingly narrow and misdirected view’.

The well in the village Charkhi remains a silent observer of Partition that gave birth to the notion of nationalism or rather, as Aijaz Ahmad terms, ‘nationalism of mourning’, a form of valediction, for what we witnessed was the British policy of divide and rule, and our own willingness to break up our civilizational unity, to kill our neighbours or our family members and to forego the civic ethos and ethics, without which human community is impossible. The death of Ayesha pertinently hints at the territorialisation of women body, be it during Partition or much later. Sumar’s narrative thus reminds us that the partition of India is only a trauma without a terminal that cannot be sealed because the wounds are always reopened, no matter how much the nation state tries to suppress the private narratives of such ‘silent waters’ that are embedded into wells of memories.

                                                                                                            – Sagnik Chakraborty

(The writer would like to mention that the term ‘trauma without terminal’ is the caffeine-and-discussion induced intellectual child of Dr Abin Chakraborty, born and proclaimed at the Plato’s session on Partition literature. He thanks Dr Chakraborty for allowing him the immediate borrowing of his infant.)

Room

Room, by Emma Donoghue, published by Picador, 2011

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Emma Donoghue’s novel Room (2010) is deeply unsettling, depressing, and, in some ways, hopeful.  Inspired by the Josef Friztl case (2008), Room is the harrowing tale of five-year-old Jack and his Ma, imprisoned in Room—a solitary garden shed—for seven years. Elizabeth Friztl had been kidnapped and kept locked in the basement of her house for twenty four years by her father. In the interim, she had been subjected to physical assault, sexual abuse and rape which had resulted in the birth of a total of seven children – all of whom had been fathered by Elisabeth’s father, Josef. In Room, Jack is born to his mother following the miscarriage of her firstborn, a daughter, fathered by her kidnapper who is referred to as Old Nick in the story. Although this is the primary context of the plot, the story is not so much about the confinement as about the newfound freedom of Jack and his mother. And, it is precisely in this that Donoghue calls for a revision of the notions of freedom and reality.

What renders the narrative so poignant and the suffering so palpable is the innocent incomprehension of the child narrator. Alert and astute, Jack has been born and raised within the four walls of Room. From the very first page, the novel plunges us into Jack’s world – a world created by his father but built by his mother. The innocent banter between a child and his mother gradually gives way to the daunting realization that their existence is confined to a box slightly larger than a coffin. Trapped in a soundproof room, Jack and his Ma subsist on vitamin pills and weekly ration brought in by Old Nick in exchange for sex with Jack’s Ma. Even within this, Jack’s private world is made up of words – a lexicon of daily mundane objects and habits, personified and reified by the attribution of gender to everything – from Room to Wardrobe to Toothbrush to Rug. His friends include Dora the Explorer on television and Egg-Snake under his bed (which is shells of used eggs strung together with thread). Jack has been told that the only world which exists is the room in which he lives. All that he sees and touches within the room are ‘real’, and all that he watches on the screen of the television are not.

It is only after his fifth birthday that his Ma ‘un-lies’ and tries to convince him that ‘reality’ is just the reverse – the Outside is real. By this time, we, readers, have been drawn into Jack’s world. We have experienced and shuddered with the discomfort of suffocation as he lived each day, caught in the monotonous cycle of routine, like a helpless hamster running on a wheel. So, when Jack’s Ma makes an elaborate but risk-ridden plan for them to escape, we read on with bated breath, wishing that they succeed. But, what we forget to realize is that Jack is not necessarily unhappy. Jack is content with his life inside Room. We feel stifled and suffocated because we, with all our knowledge and experience of the world, think of ourselves as free only outside the confines of four walls. We feel that Jack is being deprived of a normal, real life that can only exist outside the consciousness of being confined. Almost as if to prove us wrong and to make us re-think along different lines, Jack encounters the Outside and is thoroughly disillusioned by all that he sees. To quote him: “I’ve seen the world and I’m tired now…Everything’s wrong” (155). Indeed the Outside he had been made to envision as liberating is just as restrictive as Room. The Outside is where Jack’s mother cannot breastfeed him without attracting public disdain; it is where his Ma is made to feel selfish and insensitive for not having considered the option of releasing him through adoption. So, do they really escape? Or is it just a transportation from one cage to another, where the second cage, being shaped by discourse, emotions, and expectations, is surreptitiously pervasive?

The focalisation of the child becomes a powerful narratorial device to ensure that the reader retraces the steps to childhood innocence and ignorance, and, in spite of preconceived notions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ re-encounters the world again. The takeaway from the novel is not just the harrowing awareness of the actions of a deranged mind that resorts to kidnap, confinement, and rape but also a not-so-gentle reminder of alienation amidst the familiar and the familial (as experienced by both Jack and his Ma, on their return to the Outside). As a woman, Jack’s Ma is victim to gender-based oppression not only when she is inside Room but also amidst civil, liberated society which constantly seeks to impress its own ideals upon her. Without resorting to philosophers and theorists, Donoghue makes us aware of alternative ways of perceiving the world, which we complacently accept as a given, through the simplicity of a child’s uncomplicated cognition. As Jack succinctly summarizes:

“When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I’m Outside but it turns out lots of it isn’t real at all.” (277)

– Adreja Mukherji

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If there is HEAVEN on earth, IT WAS here, It WAS here, It WAS here.: A review of Kaafiron Ki Namaaz

Directed by Ram Ramesh Sharma, 2013

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“They say winters come early in Kashmir
Since the 1990’s,
Even evening comes early.
A sudden whistle and a few heavy footsteps
And everyone’s back home

Shops are shut,
And “Dal” stops flowing.
I remember Kashmir in old Hindi films
And in newspaper clippings
And your phone calls from Pahalgaom
All three in black and white.
Those nights, when you stole your father’s phone,
The valley crept in
Through the 6 min. conversations.
The pines and the “Chinaar’ rustling
The Sunday marketplace bustling
A gunshot here
A gun wound there
A life lost here
And “Mission Accomplished” there.
Shahid said  no trains enter
This Valley of Death.
Your calls have stopped..
And you have taken a flight out..
Kashmir now lives in your autumnal letters
Letters written in Blue.
About a paradise,
Where “Red Alerts” colour the evenings
And White Noise the Nights.
Speak to me of Us,
There was so much Love
Every night for 6 minutes.
Give some to Kashmir.
Give some to Kashmir.”

The insurgency in Kashmir and the clamour for independence from the Indian State has been a burning issue in the Indian Subcontinent since almost 1947. Narratives, counter narratives, public discourse, private memory have all jostled for space and for a representation and a voice. Voices have been muffled, screams silenced and new histories written after having erased the old. And yet, Kashmir remains a sore point, almost a blister on the skin, a wound which refuses to heal. Sadly, in the common public imagination, there have been rare instances where the plight of the Kashmiris have been portrayed  with any kind of sympathy or authenticity. There are accounts of the Hindu Pandits being forced to leave the valley and even that carries the suspicion of bias. Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night brings forth a vivid account of the insurgency from the perspective of the Kashmiris who are decidedly against the Indian Army’s “occupation” of the valley and their subsequent atrocities that have been perpetrated on the native populace. Even in popular culture like Bollywood, barring Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider very few movies have dealt with Kashmir as anything other than a locale or a backdrop against which the story unfolds. And this is where Kaafiron Ki Namaaz deserves a mention that is generally reserved for potboilers raking in the moolah.

Set in Kashmir, definitely during the times when the insurgency is at its prime and the valley resonates with bullet shots and the morning Azaan echoes with stories of militant encounters of questionable veracity, the chilling story of the times is narrated by an ex- army-man, who has been court martialled, in the form of an interview. The interview soon becomes a form of confession, and this confession maybe seen as a road to redemption, becoming their “namaaz” a prayer for forgiveness, ending in tragedy at the end. The setting, within a dilapidated room, with three and occasionally four characters with nothing but a live video camera recording the conversation brings to mind the setting of Sartre’s No Exit/ In Camera, where the confession and the conversation and the digging up of the past and other traumas are a punishment worse than hell.

Kaafiron Ki Namaaz  touches on themes which have troubled thinkers, human rights activists, poets and authors, namely the Indian Army’s role in quenching the insurgency. The army official reveals that with a free hand given to the army, many officials had descended to the level of beastiality and perpetrated violence only imagined in one’s worst nightmares. Thus what is an encounter with suspected terrorists in official historiography, is actually officers barging in Kashmiri household, killing the men and gang- raping the woman. The absolute normalcy with which these incidents, along with reports of gross sexual exploitation within the Army is reported is chilling. The relationship of the Indian Government with the North-Eastern states is labelled as one between a landlord and a tenant. Gandhi’s role too is up for scrutiny, with the central character blaming him for the protracted achieving of the Independence and the violence that followed in its aftermath.

It is no wonder that this was not given screen space by the censor board and had to be released on YouTube. The narrative in intensified with the use of almost a serio-comic tonality, with meaningless games and trump ( the Chaplin, not the Donald variety) like actions and exchange of dialogues. But beneath these layers, there are poignant questions that have been raised. The dichotomy between the personal and the political, the binary between right and wrong and that of between official documented history and that of repressed and traumatic private memories, are highlighted. The importance of what Foucault calls the ” Insurrection of subjugated knowledge”, the different and equally true microstorias challenging the grand narratives of patriotism, creating and exposing fissures within the monolithic and taken for granted architecture of the “nation”, are something this film upholds. Agha Shahid Ali has written extensively about how the Paradise has turned to hell, and Kaafiron Ki Namaaz underlines the problmatics of the erasure of the dividing line between friend and enemy, us and them, man and beast. At the end, with the burning of the tapes and the entire interview, it is like going back to square one, a kind of vicious circle from which there is no escape. This “namaaz” reaches no God, only ruffles the feathers in Paradise.

– Sayan Aich Bhowmick

Refugees in their Homeland: Reflections on the Narratives of Kashmiri Pandits

From Home to House: Writings of Kashmiri Pandits in Exile edited by Arvind Gigoo, Shaleen Kumar Singh, and Adarsh Ajit, published by HarperCollins India, 2015

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From Home to House: Writings of Kashmiri Pandits in Exile is a disturbing anthology. The beginning of the insurgency led to an exodus of 3.5 lakh Pandits from Kashmir to Jammu, Delhi and various other parts of India, following murder, plunder and threats of even greater devastation. The few who remained, lingered under the shadow of death and some even succumbed to other massacres, such as the one that took place in Nadimarg in 2003. And even those who escaped the massacres often found themselves subjected to a traumatic experience of physical and psychological trauma in those makeshift tents or one-room tenements that the refugees were often forced to subsist in. The short stories and fictional excerpts contained in the anthology plunge the readers into this cauldron of hate, betrayal and trauma, tinged with a fruitless nostalgia that not only lacerates the conscience but raises unanswerable questions regarding the Indian polity in general and the Kashmir imbroglio in particular.

One of the recurring tropes is that of neighbours and friends and even students (many Kashmiri Pandits were teachers) suddenly turning into enemies – a trope that one also witnesses in partition narratives from both sides of India. Hence the emergence of oxymoronic epithets like “kaafir-friend”, a term used by a former friend turned abductor in M.K. Santoshi’s ‘The Kidnapping’. Likewise, in ‘Under the Shadow of Militancy’ it is an educated young Pir, “who was at one time, his best student”, that proclaimed “The Muslims have no obligation towards them. However, they can rely on our generosity, avail of our tahafuz (protection) and live like second class citizens. That is their only hope” (72). Similarly, in response to questions about why the local Muslims did not help or intervene, the survivor of a massacre can only mutter:

“I was not there, but if they did not hear the death cries or the barrage of bullets, they must have all turned deaf at the same time. If they heard, they must have shut off their ears and watched from behind the curtains, for no one appeared on the scene till after the dust and the smoke had settled down and the blood dried up and there was the silence of the dead.” (‘The Survivor’, 45)

Quite naturally, the experience of such betrayal, mistrust and hatred are bound to generate competing fundamentalist assertions, such as those voiced by protesting associations of Kashmiri Pandits, demanding administrative redress: “Bharat mein rehena hoga, ram raam kehna hoga. Jis Kashmir ko khoon se seencha who Kashmir hamara hai. Khoon ka badla khoon (92).” Faced with such representation of mutual antagonism, one is again forced to contemplate the liminal nature of the “internally marked” nation-space where, as Bhabha points out “the discourse of minorities, the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities and tense locations of cultural difference” jostle for space (Location of Culture 148).

The reasons for such tension and the antagonism become palpable as we encounter several descriptions of the kind of horror which the Kashmiri Pandits have had to endure, either on account of the massacres they had to survive or the sheer misery of life in the refugee camps which awaited them after their exodus from Kashmir. The anthology is remarkable for its documentation of such trauma which becomes vividly communicated through several passages. Consider for example, Satish Bhat’s narration of the massacre in his village, in which he lost several family members:

“I went through the most excruciating exercise of my life to identify my kin among the blood-splattered bodies with torn parts and mangled faces. Even the gender was not easy to determine on some of the dead. There were two small shrouded figures at one end of the line and I knew they were our children. I rushed to that side and gently removed the shroud from one to find Sonu, my elder son. His chest was sieve from the holes the bullets had made; his entrails had come out from the open wounds in his abdomen. The face wore a mangled expression that has haunted me ever since.” (39)

Similarly haunting is the description by Pamposh of life in the refugee camps which exhibits a stark state of dehumanizing degeneration:

“I lead the life of a centipede; I crawl. All around the camp, there is stench of human excrement and waste. People wake up in the morning, hungry and muddled. The awakenings are pallid. The water in the water tanker smells foul, and children lie whole day in their own vomit…During the day we hide from the blazing sun. At night we live from one insect bite to another. Centipedes, millipedes and spiders are our companions. We must learn how to live with them.” (The Garden of Solitude 81)

Like Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’ the readers may well ask, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

Yet, even in the middle of such nightmarish trauma, the narratives continue to record glimpses of those incantations of sanity that have always emerged from narratives of horror that have lacerated the subcontinent all too often. Satish Bhat recalls the kindness of Mohammad Jamal, the tailor of Nadimarg who sheltered him on the night of the massacre; Sunil recalls the message of amity and solidarity from Sonjahoo before the fundamentalist assertions of the young Pir, Omkarnath recalls the affections of Asad and Yaseen and an old man cries out from the stairs of a mosque:

“Pandits, do not leave your motherland. It is a conspiracy by our enemy to separate brother from brother…I speak from my soul. Pandits, do not leave this place. Without you, how will you exist?” (The Garden of Solitude 79)

But such plaintive voices are necessarily lost in the din of violent slogans and the sounds of bombs and bullets. What we are left with is only a sense of profound loss regarding the vanishing traces of a syncretic culture now drowned in rivers of blood.

– Abin Chakraborty

Bridge of Spies

Directed by Steven Spielberg, 2015

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In 1945, USA dropped atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring the Second World War to an abrupt end. The shock-waves generated by the bombing transmuted into images of mad misanthropes in laboratories destroying the world at whim, setting off an atom bomb like a regular firework, with no concern for the civilization at large. The splitting of the atom in the US laboratories prior to the end of the World War II foreshadowed the splitting of the post-war world into two blocs, each dominated by one superpower, extremely hostile to the other. Suspicion, deceit, and treachery fostered in an atmosphere of paranoia contributed to a further cooling off of relations between USA and USSR, which in turn led to a growing polarization of power and an escalation of tension between the camps. As the world teetered on the brink of extermination, the network of espionage grew steadily complex.

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, foraying into this territory of moral equivocation and futility, is a beautiful piece of storytelling.  Starring Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks, the film dramatizes a true spy-swap incident from the Cold War, continuing with Spielberg’s style of highlighting the rare instances of magnanimity and uncompromising faith in the human spirit even in the most compromising of times. The American, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), however, is no Oscar Schindler. He has none of the polished charm which helps to camouflage the latter’s covert intentions to protect Jews from persecution under the Nazi regime. What he has instead, is a brutish goodwill and the grit to do his job well.

In this case, the job is to defend in the court of law the Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), apprehended on charges of trying to smuggle the formula of the atom bomb to the Russians. Donovan does not sidestep, even as he quips, ‘Everyone will hate me but at least I’ll lose’. Almost nonchalant at the prospect of courting public disapproval, Donovan maintains his professional integrity, refusing to help the American secret services to incriminate Abel by revealing the information that the latter had divulged about himself. As a regular American private citizen however, he reels under the assignment which compromises his patriotism by compelling him to side with an acknowledged Soviet spy whose acts posed a serious threat to the country he loved.

It is, therefore, a huge stroke of luck that saves Donovan’s conscience from its moral turmoil. When an American pilot, Gary Powers is shot out of his plane while photographing an industrial complex in Russia, Donovan communicates to the authorities the possibility of exchanging Abel for Powers. As time runs out and each country grows anxious about how much of their secrets had been revealed, Donovan is admitted to the secret operation of engineering an exchange that neither country would acknowledge in public.

The second half of the film follows him through the indeterminably tense negotiations, flips and turns in the dangerous by-lanes of deniable negotiations in the freezing and starved Berlin of the Cold War years. Latching on to the simmering tension between the newly established German Democratic Republic and Soviet Russia, each of which claim control over East Berlin, the film traces the complicated manoeuvres that Donovan, afflicted with a permanent cold, has to accomplish in his dealings with the KGB chief Ivan Schischkin who demands the release of Abel as a ‘token of a goodwill’ as well as Wolfgang Vogel, the highly volatile lawyer defending Frederik Pryor, an American student arrested on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

Tom Hanks delivers a superb performance as the straightforward American lawyer who throws Pryor’s name into the exchange at the last minute, seeming to weigh his chances against the Russian and German powers, apparently staking against the claims of his own government which only wants Powers back. With a twinkling-eyed ingenuity, he bulldozes his way into Vogel’s car to engineer the exchange that everyone thought impossible, in effect trading one prisoner off for two at the Glienecke Bridge connecting East and West Berlin.

With its focus on unwavering compassion, however, the film retains a tendency to glorify the American institution over others, not remedied by the casting of an American agent attempting to botch the exchange of Pryor. Overall, the Americans are cast in a gentler light, especially in their treatment of their prisoner. Each of the men handles the aging Abel delicately, preceding each instruction with a ‘Please Sir’. In contrast, Powers is called Gary by his Russian captors who seem predisposed to torture tactics. They don’t allow Powers to sleep, and interrogate him harshly, threatening him in the face of his silence.

The screenplay which begins with an expertly-directed chase sequence through the crowded subway, spans the sunny spots of American landscape and the wintry desolation of Berlin with equal finesse and subtlety. The Berlin that Donovan visits is straight out of a grim Kafkaesque vision, grubby with the remains of war, incongruous with the construction of the Berlin Wall, lined with cement crosses and watch-towers with armed guards to shoot anyone attempting to climb the wall. The Glienecke Bridge is deserted, with similar towers and sentry, instructed to open fire at the first sign of trouble.

The film also induces striking parallels in several scenes. While Abel, a Russian spy on American soil effortlessly prises into a fake coin to retrieve instructions, the American pilot Powers is unable to strike the pin on his counterfeit coin. Donovan leaves the country to save the life of the ‘most hated man in America’ and returns with another. Even the murders that he witnesses from his Berlin train seem eerily similar to what he witnesses from his train into Manhattan.

Nowhere does the Bridge of Spies resemble the relentless nightmarish world of humiliation, failure, and isolation of other Cold War spy-films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011). Spielberg steers away from the subterfuge and gloom of Tinker, Tailor in favour of a world in warmer hues, where the dangers of deceit can be subverted by the wiles of optimism, courage and respectability.

– Pritha Mukherjee