If all the suspects are declared innocent, the responsibility for whatever happens must lie with the victims, for victims are the only certainties in any case.
Contemporary British novelist Jim Crace published a most unusual novel in 1999. It was called Being Dead. It opens on the beach – on the bodies of a middle-aged couple lying in the sand dunes of Baritone Bay. Celice and Joseph, in their mid-50s and married for more than 30 years, have returned to the seacoast where they met as students. Here, they are battered to death by a thief with a chunk of granite. Their corpses lie undiscovered and rotting for a week, prey to sand crabs, flies and gulls. Yet there remains something touching about the scene, with Joseph’s hand curving lightly around his wife’s leg, “quietly resting; flesh on flesh; dead, but not departed yet…Their bodies had expired, but anyone could tell that Joseph and Celice were still devoted. For while his hand was touching her, curved round her shin, the couple seemed to have achieved that peace the world denies, a period of grace, defying even murder.” I am tempted to say more – and with no spoiler alerts, no fear of revealed endings – because, in a sense, a brutal ending is where the novel begins. And after death, we know, nothing happens, nothing can happen…
I was reminded of that after reading Darab Farooqui’s moving reflection on the dead children of Gorakhpur – why, nothing does happen, in fact it keeps on happening, all the time. Indeed, it might almost be said to be the defining characteristic of our time that, irrespective of what happens – Rohith Vemula, Mohammed Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid Khan, Kunan Poshpura, Una, Bhagalpur – nothing happens. Nothing keeps happening steadily, all the time. The creatures come crawling out, maggots and worms, and feast on rotting flesh. Processed through the busy appetites of the scavengers, Joseph and Celice are reabsorbed in the elements, into nature – a somewhat unromantic reenactment of the funerary rites of the Hindus.
In a sense, of course, there is nothing to be said about the dead children – and it is appropriate that Farooqui does not try to say anything about them. What can anyone presume to say about the death of children, what can add anything to the stark fact of it, the unspeakable, unforgivable horror of it? In Dylan Thomas’s memorable, forgotten words, “After the first death, there is no other”. So they quibble about the numbers – “only” this and “only” that, 20, 40, who cares? And maybe it was the oxygen, and maybe it wasn’t the oxygen – indeed, the dimpled health minister was categorical that oxygen shortage had nothing whatsoever to do with it. The Bhagwa Baba said that children died of encephalitis in his Gorakhpur all the time anyway. And between the quibbling and the finger-pointing, only one thing remained clear. That many children had died. And that they had died of – what else? – death. Like all those others in whose cases the relevant (and so irrelevant) agencies are quick to proclaim the innocence of the obvious suspects. After all, if all the suspects are declared innocent, generally even before an investigation, the responsibility for whatever happens must lie with the victims, for victims are the only certainties in any case. So Ishrat Jahan shot herself, then lay down beside the highway, her body duly aligned with all the others who had also done the same.
The really troubling thing about Crace’s novel however, in this context, is that it registers in remorseless detail the fact that the apparent “peace” of death, that last consolation too, is an illusion. Any bitter solace that we might seek to derive from the fact that it is probably too late already is likely to be short-lived. The horrors that we have witnessed over the last three years – or 30, if that makes you feel better, but please spare me the whataboutery – these are only likely to proliferate and mutate, and emerge in ever more grotesque forms in the coming months and years. The disease metaphors come readily to mind – viruses, malignancies – but the crucial insight is that perhaps the patient – we, us, the India that was, the India that might have been – is already dead. And what we are observing, as in Crace’s novel, is only the banquet of the scavengers.
No, the violence is not new. Of course “1984” happened, and we should never allow ourselves to forget that. But even Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler have only ever sought to deny their involvement in the violence, not boasted about it. What is new about the present orgy is the celebration, the endorsement and the legitimation. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s belated “disapproval” is, alas, both faint and futile. Some would even say, fake. But be that as it may, the carnival of public violence, our callous “tolerance” of the violence and the suffering that is meted out to less fortunate others through action and inaction, through deeds and misdeeds, through policy and neglect – all this makes it seem increasingly unlikely that we can ever become a humane nation again.
And perhaps we never were – for else how could we have digested the fact of Partition violence? How could we have ignored the fact that while Partition discourse was overwhelmingly concerned with the victims of Partition, there had to be a corresponding number of perpetrators too? For all those murdered, murderers. And these murderers – rapists, stabbers, arsonists, lynch-mobs – had slipped quietly into the interstices of society and never been called to account. They had occupied properties, acquired businesses, built up reputations at once formidable and fragile. And some bizarre consolation was sought to be derived from the entirely legitimate but irrelevant consideration that if there were murderers amongst us – and there had to be – “they” had murderers in their midst too? Their murderers neatly balanced out our murderers, in a strange ritual of reciprocal exoneration. This is nonsense, of course. Things just don’t happen that way. Unacknowledged wrongdoing exacts a terrible price from individuals. What it does to collectivities, to nations, needs no imagination. We can observe it playing out before our eyes. And not only in Pakistan.
Alok Rai is a writer who doesn’t teach in Delhi any more.