What has become of the Indian intellectual as storyteller? Is he only an annexe of the state or can he be critical?
A few months ago, I was at a screening of a documentary on the Bengal Famine.Bengal Shadows , while well-intentioned, was more a pretext for the text that followed. The question was, why was there such a silence about the event, which claimed over 3.5 million people and was one of the most arrogant acts of triage in history? It was a systematic elimination of people on grounds of rationality, of a scaling in terms of policy priorities. The British tended to explain it away as one of the sideshows of history, an act of contingency of an imperial Winston Churchill too busy with winning the war.
The Bengal Famine is a failure of storytelling as it gets sublimated into policy narratives or war-time memories. That very silence, its normalisation where a society accepts violence as part of a logic of strategy has tainted the unconscious of India. Sadly, the intellectual has become part of the conspiracy of silence, hiding behind the emperor’s new clothes, the emerging policy science, which banalise the logic of violence in everyday life. A Michel Foucault would have been ironically delighted with the event as a case study where Famine, Partition and World War become the creation myths of the Indian state apparatus.
I find the everydayness of silence even more troubling. It is like the silence of a husband and wife who have seen torture and rape and yet never talk about Partition. It is like the silence of Gujarat after 2002. Yet the agony is, silence speaks, silence demands speech, silence begs for voice and then lapses into defeat. Silence still has an eloquence which indicts us at every moment. India stands today like a Republic Day parade of silences, each violence mute into itself.
A democracy cannot be built on silences; it needs the speech of storytelling. Silence cannot be replaced by noise, by the bombast of the nation-state, or the cacophony of development. Each concept, each word must yield its story, so suffering never occurs in silence
A few weeks ago I saw a Chinese painting under which was inscribed a haiku-like poem. All it said was “How sad, silence is.” That inscription could be the history of modern India. By breaking this silence, we could begin to challenge the tyranny of modern India, bring back to citizenship a memory that flows, revive the power of storyteller and the hospitality of listening. The sadness of an empty democracy cannot settle for less.