The Silent Artist and Others: Revisiting Painter of Silence (2012) by Georgina Harding

Painter of Silence, by Georgina Harding, published by Bloomsbury, 2012

9781408824467‘Silence’ has appeared and reappeared in various shapes and colours throughout the course of literature. ‘Silence’ might characterize the agony of the muteness of the colonized, who were deprived of their local vernaculars and were forced to use the language of their colonial masters. In the popular fairy tales and folk tales, ‘silence’ is what defines an ideal woman. On the other hand in contemporary literature, ‘silence’ is manifested more as resistance against sexism. However, the ‘silence’ that appears in Georgina Harding’s third novel, Painter of Silence, is altogether different. It is a silence that haunts and captivates the reader’s mind and takes him on a journey that cannot be summed up in words.

In a world that is so noisy and chaotic, silence is indeed a treasure worth safekeeping. Harding’s Painter of Silence, published in 2012, is an enchanting tale which revolves around a friendship between two individuals — a relationship that is far beyond the precincts of words and extends into the realm of wordlessness. The movement of the novel begins during the early 1950s, in Iasi, a small city in Communist Romania. A young, anonymous vagrant collapses on the stairs of a hospital in Iasi. He remains a mystery to everybody at the hospital because of his inability to speak. Only one woman recognizes him and brings him paper and pencils as she knows where his interests lie. Her name is Safta (a diminutive of Elisabeta), and she could never have mistaken the identity of the youth, but she has her reasons for not confiding the fact that she knew him. They grew up together at her country manor in Poiana, which seemed to be a whole world away as the intervening years had added innumerable bleeding gashes to humanity in the form of the Second World War. Born six months apart, Safta shared a very deep connection with Augustin and understood him like no one else, “…he was the silent side of her self” [32]. The novel’s main concern might be Safta and Augustin but there are various undercurrents which add to the complexity of its plot – one of which is Safta’s short relationship with a young man which affected her deeply.

The novel works its course through moving back and forth in time as the past and present fuse seamlessly, creating a life-like experience. The work is interesting as it carves out the history of Romania before, during and after the Second World War, which is reflected through the experiences of the characters. Life before the war was not an ideal one. There were many problems in the manor house at Poiana, yet that is where Safta and the cook Paraschiva’s boy Augustin or Tinu, shared their childhood across the boundaries of class. She discovered that Tinu was a gifted painter and was capable of writing down words without necessarily understanding what they mean. However, Safta and her mother’s every effort to teach him to read and write failed. His teacher Fraulein Lore had rightly said, “…words were nothing to him. He does not see the point of learning them.”[51] He was more at home with horses and seemed to understand the mute animals better than everyone else. Augustin failed to comprehend the human world properly and tried to make sense of it through his art. As he was unable to process complex emotions as expressed through facial expressions, his cardboard men were essentially faceless.

Harding has used many colours to paint her story but none of them are as abundant and unsettling as the colour grey. The autumn when Safta and Tinu visit the park is described as grey: “…grey walls, grey buildings angled across the side of the hills.”[3] Augustin had also lost his will for painting with colours after a traumatic experience at a camp. Adriana a nurse at the hospital took in Augustin and introduced him as her son to her neighbours. It was in her apartment that he resumed to sketch. Gradually Augustin tries to communicate his memories to Safta through his sketches. Safta tells him once: “You were always there, watching.” [274] There are lots of looking and gazing at things from the outside. One finds Tinu looking at incidents from outside just like the readers. He saw things and he retained them in his memory and these snippets of past incidents often resurfaced in Tinu’s sketches and paintings. It is not only Tinu who sees, there are other characters who silently observe and reminisce. Each of these characters has a unique story to share and often their silences convey their deep pain and anguish to the readers. Adriana finds herself lonelier in the presence of a mirror. What is left is only nostalgia for the past. Adriana perhaps knew all along that her son Ioan would never return yet she never gave up her hope until the very end. By naming Augustin Ioan she seemed to have tried to recreate a life closer to the one she had in her past. Her neighbour, who also happens to be the former owner of the house to which she was reallocated, is also a deeply troubled woman whose two bright daughters were arrested during the Stalinist regime for not being politically correct in the choice of their employer. Her husband contemplates their plight and wonders:

“There was a past and now there is this present that is only a waiting for the future. It goes on indefinitely, it goes on too long.” [214]

This line reflects the preoccupation with waiting for something, which is a recurrent theme of the post war literature. The war that came and went had not only taken chunks of the earth or torn families apart; it had also dug holes in men’s hearts and stole slices from parts of their souls. Safta has almost forgotten who she was in the past by pretending to disconnect herself from it. The novel traces her journey to a deadened and silent past in order to return Augustin to the place where he belonged as the city seemed to have closed in on him.

Augustin’s silence was a source of comfort for many people including his friend, Safta. His deaf ears served as the receptacle of many people’s darkest secrets. However the same silence was equally disturbing for others, for instance the interrogator at the camp who regarded his silence as a sign of impudence and called him: “A silent hooligan…. A vagabond, a subversive, a danger to society. ” [268]

The novel traces the silence not only of Tinu but also others who surrounded him. Safta’s grandfather’s act of killing his prized Lipizzaner to save it from being taken by the Russians and by extension to save his own pride from being tainted by the Russians silently raises question on the notion of honour. The animal was silenced by Constantin Valeanu to save his ‘self’ from getting maimed by the Russians whom he perceived as the ‘other’. Harding silently and subtly raises such questions and leaves it to the readers to decide the answers. In the end, the reader realizes that it is primarily a lilting tale of love. It is a love that exists between two very different people. It is an emotion whose intensity persists not just in spite of difference but because of it. The ending of the novel might be a bit farfetched but the story about the silent man and his friend is sure to leave every reader speechless.

– Aishwarya Das Gupta

A Lot Can Happen Over Coffee: Cafes and the Fetishized Subject in 21st Century Kolkata

Image source:

  “….Wires are cut very often, fuses go off

              But the lights are always on:

              This is Kolkata, Kolkata!

             Whatever happens, it is always alive!” (Gulzar 83)


There has always been something ‘romantic’ about the city formerly known as Calcutta: once the capital of the British Raj, it has always fuelled an artist’s imagination by evoking ever-changing ways of grasping this hustling and bustling city-space. If Kipling spoke about it as having “Palace, byre, hovel—poverty and pride—/side by side” (Gupta 4), then Dominique Lapierre’s novel made the moniker ‘city of joy’ famous. It is a space where the past and the present mingle seamlessly; the ghosts of an ever alive colonial history and Naxalite movement sit side by side with the burgeoning I.T sector and share a cup of tea.

The influx of foreign brands and coffee chains seems to threaten the mythic quality of the city. As Ipshita Chanda puts it succinctly, “Going to the College Street Coffee House where political and aesthetic revolutions are rumoured to have begun, is an attempt to live a myth, to synecdochally participate in the living history of Calcutta as it happens…” (Gupta 241). This mythic quality has its roots in a typically Bengali cultural phenomenon, that of the ‘adda.’ Historically born out of the gathering of unemployed youths over a cup of tea at the temporary, dingy tea stalls in one’s neighbourhood, this coming together has been a fertile space for intellectual/ artistic/ political debates and arguments as the years have rolled on. Not only has it provided intellectual stimulus to, borrowing a term from Amartya Sen, the ‘argumentative’ Bengali, it has also become a cultural signifier. In recent years this trend has, however, been replaced by sights of Gen- Y (or is it Z now?) thronging the various coffee outlets that have opened in Kolkata, whereby we have become passive consumers and victims to a typically western consumer culture.

One of the reasons why these retail brands have managed a foray in a somewhat conservative Bengali culture has its roots in the changing economic dynamics of the earning youth. Madhumita Roy, in her essay Cha- er Thek: Teastalls argues that “With the declining number of educated unemployed youth who were addicted to a pastime called idling, these addas are a vanishing culture in Calcutta. The young of Calcutta today seem to prefer the growing Café Coffee Days, Baristas, Adda Bites and Indthalias to the street culture of yore.” (Gupta 170). And yet, it seems that there is a sharp division in this trend. North Kolkata has emerged as a difficult fortress for the tentacles of a globalised market to creep in; this part of the city has held on to its pastness with greater fondness and force than her rapidly urbanizing southern counterpart. With its now crumbling and dilapidating colonial buildings and narrow by- lanes, it provides a sharp contrast to South Kolkata, a hub of the city’s emerging mall culture and home to some of the most upscale eateries in town. In a way, there are two cities in one, one structurally/architecturally belonging to colonized India and the other, the face of a country rapidly developing, working hard and partying even harder.

The new, ‘modern’ cafes, catering to a particular economic class raises uncomfortable questions about the manner of consumption and the way in which we negotiate with the globalised market making its presence felt. Do these cafes, armed with Wi-fi, a delectable seating arena, with music and jukebox contribute to a sense of a false ego- massage, by privileging a kind of ‘commodity fetishism’?

As Marx would argue, every object or commodity carries within it something greater than its economic or market value. These become a marker of a social statement, a signifier of social belonging, a way of distinguishing oneself from the rest of the population, by assuming that certain choices underline an intellectual/ aesthetic and social refinement. This fetish for well packaged and advertised commodities is what seems to be behind the emergence of the coffee chains like Barista, Café Coffee Day and the ilk which end up making a customer believe that one is a person of ‘Culture’, having access to a particular circle, internalizing a sense of difference and alienation from the tea-stalls and coffee shops that are part of the city’s history and culture. This manifests a kind of internalizing and naturalizing of the western cultural hegemony which leads to an erasure of native/ local traditions with the blind imitation and acceptance of things/customs perpetuated and popularized by/ in the west through a surrender to the allure of consumer capitalism. Blunden sums up, “Appreciation of culture is thus reduced, with little or no residue, to pretension—people acquire and express a taste which expresses their pretension to be recognized in a given class fraction, refusing the vulgar or the common, the difficult or the fancy, according to the need for distinction.” (Blunden 3).

What it does is to give the fetishised subject an aura of exclusiveness, a desire of setting oneself apart by inhabiting a space which “looks” expensive, open to only those who can afford it. The desire to set oneself apart from a particular habitus is also paradoxically a desire to belong to another, with the West as the marker of standards and acceptance. One realises that “People make their consumption choices based not only on a product’s utility value, but from the personal symbolic meanings they invest in objects.” (Zepf). Sitting in dingy tea shops, without the fancy brand names is something that today’s commodity driven subjects cannot identify with, for it in no way lives up to the images of the cafes and pubs popularized in American sit-coms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother. It is that image that has been played over and over again and which serves as a marker of social belonging and acceptance. Coffee bars today capture the spirit of the age, not only because of the customer profile, but also in terms of the entrepreneurial flair that is demonstrably on show. For the youth in Kolkata, shunning the traditional “cabins” that have been enmeshed in the political and cultural history of the state and accepting the coffee pubs above named is more of a status symbol or a lifestyle thing. If history suggests that coffee houses were fertile spaces for the germinating of political and intellectual ideas, the new age coffee pubs are sometimes tools for the fashioning of a particular identity for the “self”. The old world of Kolkata is a rapidly disintegrating one. In the face of globalization and the opening of the Indian market, there are remnants which are still holding on and celebrating their “pastness”: a sort of celebration of nostalgia by which these tea/coffee joints try to preserve a slice of what had been. And yet, one cannot be too hopeful. The words of Marx echo in our ears when he says, “value does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic” (Knafo 160). But rather than decoding such hieroglyphs we would prefer the figurative forgetful snow and press our muddy feet to shiny coffee pubs that repeat the masquerades of time — eyes assured of certain certainties.


Blunden, Andy: “ Bourdieu on Status, Class and Culture.”, 25th March, 2015.

Chanda, Ipshita. “ Selfing the City: the Myth of Calcutta and the Culture of Everyday Life”. In Nilanjana Gupta ed. Cultural Studies. New Delhi: Worldview, 2004.

Gulzar. Neglected Poems. New Delhi: Penguin, 2012.

Knafo, Samuel. “The Fetishiszing Subject in Marx’s Capital.”, Accessed on 25th March, 2015.

Roy, Madhumita. “ Cha-Er Thek: Teastalls”. In Nilanjana Gupta ed. Strangely Beloved: Writings on Calcutta. New Delhi: Rupa, 2014.

Zepf, Siegfried. “Consermerism and Identity: Some Psychoanalytical Considerations. In International Forum of Psychoanalysis. Consumerism and Identity: Some Psychoanalytic Considerations, Vol. 19, pp1-5.

 -Sayan A. Bhowmik

Arnaud Desplechin and the resurgence of the New Wave

Arnaud Desplechin (César de la meilleure réalisation pour “Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse”) – 41ème cérémonie des César au Théatre du Chatelet à Paris le 26 février 2016

Arnaud Desplechin, born October 31, 1960, is a French film director and screenwriter. He studied film directing at the University of Paris III: Sorbonne Nouvelle as well as the IDHEC from where he graduated in the year 1984. In his beginning years he made three short films based on the works of the Belgian novelist Jean Ray. From the late 1980s on, Arnaud Desplechin has worked as a director and scriptwriter in several internationally, critically acclaimed films.

Desplechin recognizes himself as an heir of the New Wave. We find in his films a balance between documentary, drama and/or fantasy. Attention to everyday gestures and cultural quotations are also ingrained in his signature style. Like Truffaut and Hitchcock, Desplechin offers an enticing storyline that absorbs the viewer’s conscious attention into a hidden psychoanalytical second reading which returns a flash of the past that needs be presented to turn and rearrange what could be a settling of accounts into a work of Art.

During the course of his films, the viewer’s mind is biased by two different and complementary modes of perception. While our attention is mobilized by the complex network of a story which, ellipses strength, twists and narrative puzzles, holds our energy- an unconscious reading is prompted by a series of rhymes, repetitions, returns, parallelisms that causes a separate catharsis of emotions.

Desplechin works with less torque more relationship based scripts (both co-exist but in varying ratios). Relationships more of a filial nature to be precise. He staged the belonging to a community –the community therefore acts as an arena, a perfect breeding ground for utopian plots where it is possible to question his perception of reality and make judgments on a clear future. The family becomes a privileged place of observation and in its various genealogical strata even the dead have their say. He is always careful in his films regarding every eventually that comes up: the dead, the hatred (betrayed fathers , mothers without love , poorly chosen women), hope to a world that could be different if the Jews had a larger share , old movies, films Desplechin himself. These “what if? s” jostling the narrative provide as much of depth and dexterity in his movies as entrenched feelings do.

 Desplechin is so far from being a subtle filmmaker, rather he is an incredibly violent artist who carries Nietzsche’s philosophy, mythology and literature and also the history of cinema and its classic narration.

As stated Sébastien David “In every movie there is a gush of unexpected yet critical events, as if unseen forces were disturbing the world, housed in its thickness and animated the characters and their relationships. It’s always the first rule of Desplechin’s films. Thus, in Un Conte de Noël (2008), one facing the audience gathered, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) said:

“My son died  … I do not feel sorrow. Suffering is a painted canvas (…) In my dying my son becomes my founder. This loss is my foundation.” (Subtitled translative- Adrian Wells)


Later, informed of his illness, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) Abel companion, went to the hospital to learn that only a bone marrow transplant could save her, the chances of finding a donor are minimal especially as Junon has no grandfather or brother, the only donors that the surgeons seem to approve of. Given the opportunity, presented by her husband, whether the children or grandchildren can be donors, the doctors still remain prohibitive, rejecting this as a possibility. The reciprocation to her idea appears as the violation, a taboo. Junon then asserts that nothing precludes her from taking a transplant from her kids and that her children “give life” too. There is a peak of ambivalence about this. A symbolic re-appropriation, the violent characters (especially Junon the iron-willed Matriarch) is a necessity of the natural order.

To this symbolic dimension is added a reconfiguration of the image. Indeed, if any cinema is motioned toward what would complement it, if the frame is a first cache, the films of Arnaud Desplechin involve much more in creating shapes of phrases between the present and the absent , the words and things, the dead and the living, by staging shock waves through plot plans and vibrant characteristics into characters .

Thus, early in La Vie des Morts (1991), while in the garden two figures reveal that Patrick is between life and death, a clip shows Pascale naked (Marianne Denicourt) in the bathroom overcome with nausea. The framework reveals his body half submerged and it is as if the violence of the revelation made another character elsewhere that found an echo in this plan and in the body of the young woman. Later again Pascale appearing just when her cousin takes his last breath, events which cannot be explicable –whether they signal agony, relief etc.

Similarly, in Rois et Reine (2004), the terrible letter from Louis (Maurice Garrel) read by him from beyond the grave, left on the belly of his daughter Nora a significant bruise caused by the horror of the words. Her affliction is visible in several shots later on, an expression of interiority affected or infested, which registered on the surface of bare skin like a real nuisance.

The images, symbols in the films of Arnaud Desplechin are then not only a field of forms, but furrowed and efficient invisible forces. In a way, the director updates the installation of expensive attractions about which Eisenstein said:-

“no longer limit the expressive possibilities to the logical course of action but helps to establish a final thematic effect” (the montage of attractions, SM Eisenstein, The movie form / meaning, Christian Bourgois, Paris 1976).

The thrill of shaping the order of things, the narrative coherence, the final assembly which points at a shape-expression and communication between peoples alive and absent, between events and characters, has become a solicitation to the viewer, leveraging the experienced symbolic violence.

Sébastien David concludes on the necessary participation of the viewer in Desplechin’s films. Arnaud Desplechin’s films can be such a visceral experience, so intense, so personal that if viewers accept this emergence of a liner by this invisible visible, the flow of a logic that transcends the representation, revealing that all the characters and all these bodies find their glow to be shadows of ideas or emotions that make them act. The attention of the viewer becomes the screen that reflects and makes them real, gives flesh to these beings of light and in return their radiation penetrates the viewer’s privacy.

– Paramita Roy


For The University: Democracy and the Future of the University


For The University: Democracy and the Future of the University by Thomas Docherty, published by Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

“…what I will call the unconditional university or the university without condition: the principle right to say everything, whether be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it.”

(“The Future of the Profession or the University without Condition”, Jacques Derrida).

Derrida’s articulation of the university, especially with regard to the public sphere acquires a critical currency, especially in the contemporary scenario when the existence of the public university is constantly threatened by neo-liberal forces that systematically attempt to curtail funding on higher education, primarily viewing the university as a space that should produce research with immediate utility. It is perhaps within this larger discourse of the university in its relation with the public sphere and the notion of ‘play’ embedded within it, which one needs to locate Thomas Docherty’s book For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution. Divided into six chapters, one cannot miss how carefully crafted and delineated the chapters are in terms of addressing specific questions. However in this brief review, my attempt is to parse through what I consider to be the fundamental ethical question that the book is trying to address: “Is the university, as we often like to believe, to be protected as a privileged safety-valve of dissensual consciousness – or must it rather be conceived outside of the romantic logic of Enlightenment emancipation?”

Public Sphere and Citizenship

The university, as Docherty argues is not merely a receptacle of truth or simply a site for extension of one’s freedom, rather it is an ‘event’, something that is in the process of being and becoming. This ‘event’ is facilitated by an act of participative citizenship where a consensus is arrived only after systematic argument from different points of view. It is precisely this weighing of one argument against another which shapes the idea of legitimacy that Habermas had foregrounded in his conceptualization of the public sphere. Docherty regrets that this idea of legitimacy seems to have lost its grounding in the university where guidelines that are formulated with little or no dialogue gradually become laws, maintained and perpetuated by a bureaucratic framework that devalues autonomy and upholds an increasing politicization of the academy. Therefore, as he rightly points out that it is not owing to the radical credentials of the university for which it is under attack rather it is threatened by a drive that seeks to homogenize the public sphere and curb dissent. In fact, identity politics in its mode of criticism of the university is “…actually complicit with the very object of its supposed critique” because this identity politics ends up being trapped by a market-driven economy, something that it had initially attempted to resist. Hence, before defending the “idea” of the university commonly thought to be a site of privilege and determined by the principle of pragmatism in the current scenario, he argues that there is a need to engage in a quest of what constitutes the “idea” itself and rearrange it along lines of social justice and democracy.

“Play” and Research

In the institutionalized space of the university, the concept of “play” far from being a Schillerian reconciliation of the ‘sensuous drive’(Sinntrieb) and the ‘formal impulse’(Formtrieb) is treated as being opposed to efficiency and therefore what emerges is a notion of ‘contained play’ that eliminates any risk of transgression. As an effort to accomplish this “contained play”, spaces are created within the university that not only sublimates the risk factor involved but are also subsumed within a consumerist-style entertainment and mode of pleasure production. It ends up creating a simulated image of student experience where education becomes kitsch and “the university struggles against becoming a mere extension of the culture industry”. Docherty suggests that one of the ways by which this can be contested is by encouragement of ‘playful waste’ that produces a kind of temporality and trains the faculty of imagination, within which the possibility of historical change is embedded. ‘Play’ is subversive and therefore challenges the figure of the authority. However Docherty borrowing from Hannah Arendt argues for an alternative notion of authority, that implies an obedience in which man retain their freedom. Therefore to return back to the question with which I had started this review, this book which otherwise raise very pertinent questions enters into the vicious logic of Enlightenment rationality and fails to transcend the Kantian binary of the public and private use of reason in constructing the ‘idea’ of the university. In my opinion, this is somewhat paradoxical because later in the book Docherty emphasizes on the need for a holistic approach with regard to research and teaching, in contrast to the division that it had earlier proposed implicitly. He writes:

Why would one want to teach a first-year undergraduate, for instance, to the         limits of one’s own research? It would be a little like trying to teach the basic     principles of arithmetic by a thorough exposure to and engagement with the   intricacies of multidimensional space and fractal geometries. The undergraduate     needs time to bring themselves up to a certain kind of speed, time to do the      reading and thinking required to be able to cope with the advanced searches that         constitute research itself…. Again, this is not to say that good teaching and good    research can’t take place in the University; but it is to say that such good teaching and research as does occur happens despite the prevailing myths – such as that, in          the present instance, of ‘research-led teaching’ – governing the institution(87).

Hence the privilege often given to research at the cost of teaching is undercut whereby over-specialised teaching at the initial stages based on one’s area of expertise is debunked in favour of a more balanced and holistic approach to learning. Further he states that critical knowledge is constantly being replaced with controlled management of information whereby the assessment of learners is based on standardized norms of intellectual capital that do not distinguish between various kinds of learners. In a neo-liberal framework, this homogenization becomes necessary to pacify the tax-payer who suffers a sense of impoverishment because he feels that it is his money that is used up for sustaining the ideals of students from middle-class background going to a public-funded university. Therefore, this complex nexus of economy and desire must be able to produce a substantial body of student population for serving the interests of service-sectors. However from Docherty’s perspective, this notion of the university is somewhat delimited because it not only ends up reinforcing a narrow notion of public sphere itself but also constricts the ethical relationship that the university shares with the society at large.

Therefore, keeping in mind the key-note set by this review, Docherty’s vision of the future university is based on this non-condition that Derrida had spoken of, whereby the non-condition is the political resistance to medieval conceptions of the universitas (as an undifferentiated social whole) and shaped by a liberal ideal as well as a postmodern ethic of randomness. Perhaps the need to revive politics in relation to the question of the university is never felt more alarmingly than now.

– Sritama Chatterjee