Interiorities of Memory

The newly formed Bangladesh declared all women who were raped during its 1971 war of independence, birangonas or war heroines. This declaration that coincided with collective declamations of national independence also effectively located the birangonas as a specter that could be recalled, reassessed, and re-covered both in the immediate aftermath of the war and its repeated invocation at different moments in the subsequent history of the country. Nayanika Mookherjee’s book carefully shows how these successive and overlapping constructs of “public memory” too easily cross the foyer of intimacy in the name of intervention, thus binding the figure of the birangona with the muddled history of national politics as well as enclosing the lives of the birangonas without a recourse except for the one that is made available to them in these occasions. Alongside, Mookherjee also gives us her inheritance of “mela itihash, chorom itihash” (a lot of history, severe history) of the birangonas making visible within it pieces of a form of collective memory that tries to the break the possessive hold of rememorative histories and that though not readily graspable can nevertheless be sensed in its withholding. Divided as the book is into two parts, the various artifacts and programs in which the birangonas are presented and her ethnography in the village of Enayetpur, I share two lessons, one from each, that I learned from The Spectral Wound.

The following is my first lesson. Public memory, especially when constructed in the name of the nation or a social collective, can become an occasion to impute an interiority and use that ascription as a justification for political action and reification of internal social formations. This becomes further encoded when the bodies of women who were raped during the war are not only the sites on which are marked the violence of territorial conflict, but also are then repossessed or recovered so that it is through their rehabilitation that the nation projects itself as coming into being from its own miasma of history. In the Spectral Wound, Mookherjee speaks about two circuits of public memory within which the birangonas are located as traceable; the testimonials of the birangonas that is then used by the nation of Bangladesh to possess its own historical imagination as a state arising as a wound from its former past, and the performative memory in the milieu of Enayetpur, where Mookherjee conducted her fieldwork, that takes the form of public secrecy and is then used to maintain the social fetters of the community. I will speak briefly about both.

The independence of Bangladesh was accompanied by the almost simultaneous national declaration of all raped women as birangonas or war heroines. This initial pronouncement of an event of gendered violation through which the violence of rape becomes available only through the vicissitudes of national retrieval, opens up a wound within which the figure of the birangona comes to enter and exit but only as a specter. The wound here is not a locus of injury that is then recalled and repaired, but a festering metaphor that references the episteme around which all the iconic, literary and visual, configurations of the birangona are circulated and made knowable. Subsequently, it is on bodies of these women presented as a spectral wound that several different Bangladesh’s then get sketched out.

This declaration of the war heroines as birangonas was accompanied by the establishment of several rehabilitation centers by the Bangladeshi state whose foremost concern was to “recover” these women from their plight and allow them reentry into the formal networks of marriage, family, and labor. Through a public redressal of wartime rape, the nation of Bangladesh sought to have distinguished itself from its immediate historical occupiers, Pakistan, by envisioning a different form of Islamic practice in which the status of the raped woman was not relegated to those of the adulteress in the case of a married woman and a person having immoral sex in the case of an unmarried woman. Instead, the raped woman became simultaneously identified with the cruelty of abuse inflicted by the Pakistani soldiers on the Bangladeshis and also with the immediate need for reintegration of the raped women themselves into the Bangladeshi society without this reintegration ever signaling a concurrent reparation of the national wound. It also enabled the first routes of the newly instated sovereign state to become manifest through governmental measures of establishing population control and instituting public health that made the rehabilitation centers halfway houses into making the birangonas, first purified of their experience of violation, and then into de-individualized, legible citizens of the state. The idiom of this “recovery” centered around the image of maternity, and the event of rape as an experience of transgressive sexuality. The rehabilitation aimed first at reigning in the latter so that the aberrant desire that results from the event of transgressive sexuality, however violent, can then be channeled into its proper maintenance in the wedlock of marriage, and second, of construing the figure of the birthing mother as one who only has her place in conjugality and not outside of it. In the case of the latter, the rehabilitation programs enlisted abortion and adoption as the incumbent ways to discipline the maternal sentiments of the women. Mookherjee clarifies that the introduction of abortion in early 1970’s to deal with concerns of forced pregnancy was unprecedented, but they were instituted to allay discomfort around the figure of the raped woman as a sexually transgressive figure rather than just to ensure the maintenance of reproductive health of the birangonas. Even though the rehabilitation programs were modernist in intent, their putative claims to reintegration are mired in a disavowal of the multiple ways in which the birangonas went on to live their lives. The interiority of the birangonas are constituted here as errant subjects of sex while also being shorn of any maternal sentiment; the abjection of their bodies had to be concealed in stretches of dark bordered white saris until their purging was complete to make them available anew as a collective that was now molded of any individual histories of rape. Their renewal also signaling the coming into being of Bangladesh in its own history. This immediate rehabilitation however still left the national wound intact, silently suppurating, until it erupts again in 1992 when public testimonies of birangonas appear on national news to counter the uprising of jujuburi — or Islamic fundamentalism — and reminding people once again of its ills by making the birangonas, this time, into testaments of the potentially horrifying consequences of melding religion with nation.

If national rememoration became an occasion to turn the situation of war time rape into a political case by transforming their stories into testimonials, then the course of their remembrance in their own social milieus aligned with the register of the performative by locking the birangonas and their families into the social strictures of khota (scorn). Rather than public memory that makes the birangonas knowable as wounded in national projects, public secrecy is the idiom in which the lives of birangonas are couched in the village of Enayetpur. Memory circulates here as public secrecy, a clandestine way of disavowing the experience of rape while preserving its effects through constant ways in which the women and their husbands were made to face social condemnation and extrication. The rhetoric of scorn kept alive the codes of honor and shame that were then used to mark the birangonas as weak and powerless, who had not only lost their man ijjot (honor) through rape but also their shame by choosing to speak about their experiences in a public setting. By simultaneously speaking about the rape of women from other villages in a generic tone and refusing to speak about the particular events of rape in their own village, other villagers enacted a performative complicity by which the fetters of the social bonds in the village were kept intact and the powers that were constant. If the representation of the birangonas in the national, literary and visual archive revealed the violence of figuration, then the circulation of gossip and rumor and the prevention of storytelling in the village in the predominant register of khota or scorn reveals the violence of seclusion or social death.

In contrast to the interventionist initiatives of the states that they used as an alibi to co-opt the wartime violence of rape into the makings of its own history, the attribute of secrecy in the village that ordains that the rightful action for the birangonas is concealing and being silent about their experience reveals the workings of a sanctioned violence. The raped woman is only truly a raped woman if she hides the fact of her being raped and enters the matrimonial alliance without ever disclosing anything. If the raped woman speaks about her experience then she is doing it for symbolic capital and material gains and never could have been “authentically” raped. The confidence in ready accessibility of the interiority of birangonas in national parlance is contrasted here with the enforced withholding of the experience of rape endorsed by secrecy as the only possible way of adhering to its sanctity. This enforced un-acknowledgement that borders on a persecutory forgetfulness, achieved only by either entering or maintaining the conjugality of marriage, comes to hide not only the political-economic lineaments of the social anatomy of the village of Enayetpur, but also reveals the inner fractures and false veneers of violence on which the community of the village continue to memorialize the events of wartime rape. Public secrecy here being a euphemism for an ideological concealment or trick through which the community maintains the false bottoms of its own complicity; a complicity that is then only manifest in evocations of scorn that assesses the loss of honor of the birangonas by measuring it against the violation of their bodies.

In between this enforced hush and the formerly elaborated public divergences, how one can one speak about the possibility of any form of memory that does not slide so easily into a disavowal in silence, treating the history of rape as non-existent, or a fetishistic re-staging of war time rape as a history of the nation that is waiting to be restored? Here I get to my second lesson.

What this lesson is I will share towards the end. But for now I want to share two particular scenes and a third one later.

First, in this scene the author is standing with Kajoli, one of the birangonas. She writes: “One day as I stood by Kajoli, who was shouting across the field to tell her ten year old son to come home due to an oncoming jhor (storm), she suddenly said “I was also caught in a toofan (cyclone) and apnar bhai (her husband) wasn’t even at home during the event”. Toofan (storm) and its connotative destruction are much feared in Enayetpur. Here, Kajoli let a reference to the rape and her husband’s absence that day trickle out through a weather metaphor.”

Second, towards the end of the book, Mookherjee is quoting from a song written by Sufia, and I will quote the last four lines:

“Koto kotha amar bokkhe, Koshter kotha shunia jaoga,

Amar Dhare boia, Ujan ganger naiya”


(“I carry so many thoughts in my heart, Come and listen to

my pain, Flow near me, The boat on the rough river”)

I cite these two instances because these are the only two scenes in the book in which two “birangonas” (I use the quotation marks here to suspend its general referentiality in relation to the singular lives of Kajoli and Sufia that mark the author’s) make a direct reference to the incident of rape. Mookherjee then notes “the metaphors of the boat and the shore draw on Sufi and Bengali literary icons that focus on inner contemplation of pain instead of direct articulation of it. This alone seems to capture the painful experiences of many of the war heroines.”

Toofan and naiya, storm and boat, Mookherjee notes, are both available resources of language in the region, one as a metaphor and the second as an icon. The storm “trickles out” as a fragment not as a referent to the incident of rape, but as a passage at the end of which there is no exit, and which allows the transmission of affect without revealing the secret. The boat, an available icon that is mimed from the resources of tradition is a place holder to mark the unavailability of the other on whose support the burden of this pain can be borne, even partially. For Kajoli, the storm here is not only a mnemonic reminder but also the contingency that reveals the eventual derailment of the sequence of any narrative about the incident in the course of any remembrance. The story here is not told because its telling can only be gleaned from contingent events of “weather” that makes it impossible for the arrangement of all the elements, situations, that are required to make up a story. Not because the elements are not there, but because the story might not necessarily be about them. For Sufia, the author of the poem, the boat becomes the affective object, above any human subject, as the only receiving ear to which her pain can be enunciated. The story also cannot be told because there is no one to receive it. Mookherjee writes that the storm is a weather metaphor that has become sedimented in the regional imagination because of the repetition with which the exigencies of weather disrupts the region. The boat is an icon of Sufi and Bengali literary imagination that dignifies pain as sacrosanct only through inner contemplation. They are both a result of the cachet of the oral-folkloric, one acquired through phenomenal deliberation and the other inherited through poetic canon. But rather than emphasizing their traditional and customary status as tropes that reemphasizes the depth of language, I want to suggest here that their inclusion in their contexts also make these readily available resources of language into concepts, literal concepts that show the textualization of the bodies of these women as bodies thus making any easy passing on of the message embedded in these figurations difficult or even impossible. This is not what can be called the region of language that can be translatable into any form of publicly recognizable form of memory; rather I want to think of it as a peculiar variation of lingual memory that implicates the history of the language, rather than institutions and people, in the sedimentation of memory. Lingual memory is a concept I borrow from Alton Becker, who wrote that the most important difficulty that lingual memory tried to address was the question of realizing what is new in the usage of a word, a phrase, in general a text, and what is a recycling of its past usages (1995). In between the shuttling of the two, something like a memory in language emerges. By the inclusion of the metaphor storm and the icon boat, both Kajoli and Sufia were not merely recirculating old stock resources of language, but rather made the language complicit in bearing a part of their memory even and especially because ultimately there can be no neat or straightforward communication of it. Hasty designations of these utterances as cultural knowledge only transforms the ambiguity of their usage into the conventional meanings that the figures of ‘storm’ and ‘boat’ might be associated with. This, in turn, only gives the semblance of a cultural shared ground on which the violence of rape can somehow become knowable to the ethnographer or to the reader of the text. Instead, considering these utterances as lingual memory emphasizes the unique occurrence of the act of utterance much more than a return to a presumed common ground that can allow embodied memories to be transformed into knowledge of the “event” or the past. Lingual memory allows cultural transmission embedded in language but prevents cultural skirting. The tenacity of language not only saves this inscription from becoming pilfered by making access to it forbidden and anonymous but also never results in the formation of an archive that can moor this utterance to other utterances and make it into a discursively knowable statement or event (Foucault 1982). Lingual memory of the oral-folkloric, thus, allows the marking of the body with the past in a way in which language here does not write a voice, a narrative, a story, or more generally, an interiority, but rather becomes the site at which the “event” of the past and its present restitution seems to have become one and the same, to the point that no amount of cultural quarrying can make the separation possible.

Here I want to go to the third scene, which is the story of Bokul about which Mookherjee writes:

“She spoke clearly and articulately. She said she did not know how she ended up in the mental hospital, though she remembered her youth in the village and had vague memories of the beginning of the gondogol. As she said this, her eyes welled with tears, and her hands gripped my hands as we sat in silence, both of us crying. She gestured silently with her hand over her body and mouthed that too much had happened to her.”

Bokul never told any story. Mookherjee, reads the “blanking out” as an example of a “traumatic paradox” which is a feature of the violent encounter itself. The speaking of these words, as it passes through Bokul’s forgetfulness, might be read not as just a character of the encounter but also a deliberate withholding, a withholding Bokul could only express by simultaneously remaining silent and saying “too much had happened to her”. Again this is not a story that can be passed on. Mela itihash, chorom itihash (a lot of history, severe history) is shot through with the possibility of not speaking about it. If the emphasis in lingual memory is always on the act of utterance and not on how the utterance might immediately behold the bridging of time, these silences become not an inability to speak, but a refusal to be located within its space of utterance. The simultaneous withholding and revelation of “too much” having happened betrays this “blanking out” or silence as not a slippage into non-language because of rhetorical insufficiency, but as a deliberate withholding that does not signal so much an absence of lingual memory but a refusal of its occasion. The edges of language is shown to have become frayed to the degree that even an acknowledgement of a shared life in it is revealed by explicitly delineating a refusal to allow exchange in it. “Too much had happened” indicates the possibility of a transmission in language while simultaneously conveying the refusal to go down that route.

Bokul refuses to speak, while Kajoli and Sufia speak only through deliberately encoded references like the “storm” or “boat”. Only in the sedimentations of these words or in the refusal of this deposition can one find a form of memory that neither abandons itself nor refuses itself to a response or a reading. What is the distance between Bokul’s silence and the magnitude of the storm for Kajoli or the measure of the boat for Sufia? Listening to “mela itihash, chorom itihash” — somewhere here lies suggestions of my second, perhaps slightly more significant, lesson. My gratitude to Nayanika Mookherjee for The Spectral Wound.


Swayam Bargaria is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He is carrying out his research on figures of immolated women and their religious afterlives in Jhunjhunu (India) and the textual traditions of Hinduism.


Works Cited

Becker, Alton. 1995. Beyond Translation: Essays Towards a Modern Philology, University of Michigan Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1982. The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans: A.M. Sheridan Smith), Vintage.