“The common objectivations of everyday life are maintained primarily by linguistic signification. Everyday life is, above all, life with and by means of the language I share with my fellowmen. An understanding of language is thus essential for any understanding of the reality of everyday life”. – Berger and Luckmann
The everyday is that which we share with others and live it on an everyday basis. It is that which is ‘normal’, often taken for granted. Birds chirping, the subtle flow of water in the river, the stillness of the lake by the village, the little movements of the leaves on the trees, the regular movement of the windmill, the train that passes nearby blowing its horn at its scheduled time, the pigs feeding on the garbage dump at the corner of the street, the cow grazing and pooping in the park, monkeys stealing ice creams, cats scratching electric poles, the child going to the school, the husband going to office, the wife well not going anywhere, passengers sweating in a crowded bus on a hot day, old men criticising the system in a coffee house, all these and other kinds of happenings that are so everyday that we lose sense of the fact that they are everyday is exactly what constitutes the everyday. Because we are afterall ‘ordinary’ individuals living life without even knowing why we do so hence we need anthropologists to tell us that. Or rather I should say to tell themselves as to why we live life without knowing why we do so because the anthropologists never really care to speak to us (unless of course their intellectual urge compels them to descend into reality and interact with lesser mortals). They are pretty happy arguing and jargonising among themselves, for themselves, by themselves. They speak for us because we are of course dumb. It is their intellectual burden, the anthropologist’s self imposed burden. Whether we really care about being spoken about is not something they dwell upon. So yes, enough of ordinary layman type idiotic incompetent scepticism of academics. Lets come to the point.
To put it simply, the everyday remains the everyday until it steps into the extraordinary and the spectacular or the utterly horrible. The extraordinary is not something that drops from the sky as a sign of god’s wrath. It is something that emerges from the everyday and eventually gets absorbed into the everyday while in the process transforming the everyday in ways that themselves become part of the everyday. The everyday has aspects of violence inherent in it. But the step into the extraordinary brings with it violence of the kind unimaginable in the everyday. Now how one deals with it is the question. There are precisely two path for individuals to follow. Either its your ascent into transcendence or your descent into the everyday. To explain this I would like to take as examples two great individuals – Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi.
Disillusioned by the bourgeoisie violence prevalent in capitalist society in the form of exploitation and the hardships faced by the workers in their everyday life, Karl Marx decided to ascent into transcendence. While himself living in abject poverty in London, his daily routine consisted being in the library from 9 in the morning till it closed in the evening at 7pm. This was followed by long hours of work at night accompanied by ceaseless smoking. This reminded me of a famous song from the Dev Anand starrer Hum Dono – “Main Zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya, Har fikr ko dhuen mein udata chala gaya, Gham aur khushi mein fark na mehsoos ho jahan, Main dil ko us makaam pe laata chala gaya”. Detaching himself from petty considerations of everyday existence, Marx decided to ascend into his own world of abstract simplistic dichotomies and called for a world revolution that would destroy the very system that produced him. Following him, students and scholars even today are found criticising the innumerable bourgeoisie conspiracies being hatched in the everyday while themselves smoking weed in various leftist hubs.
Coming to Gandhi, his initial understanding of the violence of the everyday was similar to a monkey’s understanding of the taste of ginger. Travelling in a first class compartment in South Africa, this then transcendental imperialist required a good dose of racial humiliation and violence for his descent into the everyday. The descent from thereon continued. No other leader in the world perhaps embraced the everyday like Gandhi did. Towards the later end of his life he was to comment ‘For men like me, you have to measure them not by the rare moment s of greatness in their lives, but by the amount of dust they collect on their feet in the course of life ‘s journey.’ His was a self conscious negation of the extraordinary, a strategic descent into the everyday for the purpose of creatively transforming it.
Both Marx and Gandhi were firstly ‘great’ and secondly ‘men’. However, the book I intend to talk about deals with firstly ‘ordinary’ and secondly ‘women’. To put it simply, the book is interested in the everyday negotiation of the everyday by the ordinary woman and not any extraordinary men. But before dwelling on the main idea conveyed of the book, a word on language is necessary.
Berger and Luckmann state that “Language provides me with a ready-made possibility for the ongoing objectification of my unfolding experience. Put differently, language is pliantly expansive so as to allow me to objectify a great variety of experiences coming my way in the course of my life. Language also typifies experiences, allowing me to subsume them under broad categories in terms of which they have meaning not only to myself but also to my fellowmen. As it typifies, it also anonymizes experiences, for the typified experience can, in principle, be duplicated by anyone falling into the category in question”. Language provides us with symbols which make our feelings and experiences available to others. It helps us make sense of the reality around us and makes conversation possible. The use of language is a game where one is constantly conscious of what is appropriate to say and what is ethical. However, language also has its limits. Ludwig Wittgenstein explains this by distinguishing between natural and invented language games. A good example of an invented language game is found in chess playing. By virtue of a clear boundary, the possibilities in a chess game can be predicted and symbolised with words. Real everyday life does not have such rigid boundaries and the potential possibilities in it are infinite. Hence language forever remains insufficient in explaining everything under the sun. A good look at how every year new words are added in the oxford English dictionary is testimony of this fact. No language of the everyday is ever ‘complete’.
Important here is Wittgenstein’s idea of Sociality or forms of life. ‘Wittgenstein takes language as a mark of human sociality – Human forms of life are defined by the fact that they are forms created by and for those who are in possession of language’ (Das, Veena. 1998). To put it simply, language explains only those forms of life which are ‘human’. So when the details of the 16 December Delhi Gang Rape came out, several people simply described the act as savage and inhuman. It wasn’t something that a ‘human’ could do. There is no word in our everyday language which can accurately explain that kind of an act. Hence the tags like savage, inhuman etc. This is not to say that humans don’t do violence. They do. But there are certain aesthetics that they adhere to. Kill a man stylishly by a gun and you are human, rip out a pregnant woman’s foetus during riots and you become a savage. These aesthetics are very much symbols of civility.
Veena das in her book aims precisely to unearth experiences and memories which language cannot adequately explain. It may be by virtue of incompleteness of the language or by virtue of the inhumanness of the act. She takes two extraordinary and critical events as her vantage point – The Partition of India and the Sikh riots of 1984. Both were events which shape our present in often unclear ways. What the writer is interested in is how people pick up their lives and how the effects of the extraordinary events manifest themselves in the everyday life of the survivors. The whole book is nothing but an explanation of this phenomenon, of the descent into the everyday of women who lived through those extraordinary times and survived to tell their story.
Clearly a feminist at heart, Veena das explains how women who were abducted during partition and settled down peacefully were forced by the state to return. Women were robbed of all agency. The book is full of examples and instances of the kinds of violence incurred on women’s bodies and souls and how they negotiated their way through the mess. But what is common through all instances is the idea of descent into the everyday. The women dont become other worldly creatures or enlightened souls who set in the search of paramount truth. They embrace the everyday once again and live with their extraordinary experiences saved within them. Those experiences, now memories, are often recalled or are refreshed through current events that bring back memories of the past. So in the recent Muzaffarnagar riots, the jats while attacking the muslim localities shouted ‘Pakistan or Kabristan’. It did not surprise anyone when a muslim man confessed to the visiting Prime Minister after riots in Muzaffarnagar that ‘it feels like partition’.
Veena das however focuses on the experiences of Sikhs during partition and 1984. Why she does not talk about muslims or of experiences of partition in Bengal is something left unexplained. It maybe because the writer has a history of working with the community she claims to speak for here.
The books gives some interesting insights as how extraordinary events effect people’s lives on an everyday basis. Referring to Manto, she shows how the utterance of the word ‘khol do’ comes on to gain a totally different meaning for a girl who has been raped. It shakes and enlightens one in equal measure as to how ordinary everyday words come to gain special significance and meaning in the lives of victims by virtue of encompassing within them the horrors of the past. As her interest is mainly in experiences that language cannot explain, Veena das gives a lot of time in explaining how those experiences find expression in non verbal gestures and in acts like mourning. The descent into the everyday often entails a renewed conformism to the very structures that victimised the women. Considering the writer is a feminist, the structure for her is almost always patriarchy and the masculine state.
The idea of descent into the everyday and the quest to unearth that which language cannot expose is commendable. But there are certain problems with the text too. Veena das seems to take the idea of the everyday for granted. She fails to distinguish between the everyday that merely exists and the everyday that is actually experienced. What is experienced may be a very small segment of what actually exists. Even in extraordinary situations, the gap between what all happened and what was actually known and experienced always exists. True her talk about on rumours during these events tends to bridge this gap a bit, but it is a question that she has not really dealt with closely. Also the everyday that is actually experienced is not a universal thing common to all. Everyday experiences of individuals vary considerably even in the same situation and context. The single biggest determinant here is caste. Caste shapes everyday experiences like no other institution in Indian society. But Veena Das adopts a caste blind approach which, in my opinion, is a rather suicidal move for a researcher dealing with the everyday in India. We all know how dalit women are raped and paraded naked on streets regularly in India. So what may be extraordinary for a high caste women might actually be an everyday thing for a lower caste woman. Veena das fails to explicitly state for WHOM were those events extraordinary and WHOSE everyday is she analysing. She tends to simplify the diversity among Sikhs by taking the common minimum criteria of religion. There is definitely a caste hierarchy within the Sikhs and Veena das fails to showcase how everyday experiences vary with caste and how the reconstruction of the self was different for different women from different caste groups.
Veena das writes ‘about’ the everyday but not ‘for’ the everyday. The book itself lacks the everydayness. Considering the book is mainly aimed at academics, the writer tends to assume that all her readers must be no less than encyclopedics. She gives innumerable references to scholars and their concepts without fully elaborating on them. While reading the book one feels like Veena Das is posing some kind of implicit challenge to the reader to try knowing more than what she already does. So lets take up the challenge. When Mahatma Gandhi had commented that ‘what distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity for non violence’ he was aiming to redefine the idea of human sociality. While Wittgenstein only talks about sociality, Gandhi lives it and transforms it. But Veena Das does not talk about Gandhi despite the fact that he shaped the everyday experience of millions during the times preceding partition. She is more interested in scholars whose writings hardly anyone reads (Tagore and Manto are limited exceptions) and who have no influence whatsoever on the everyday. Also a look at Gandhi’s activities during communal riots would reveal how the descent into the everyday that she is so interested in is something that was achieved on a mass scale through the efforts of Gandhi during the riots itself. His visits to riot prone areas brought peace almost instantly. When Gandhi was assassinated, communal riots stopped almost instantly and people came out in mourning collectively. But Veena das fails to highlight all this. She fails to recognise how an extraordinary event like assassination serves as a tool for descent into the everyday in 1948 and a similar event in 1984 actually disrupts the everyday. Incidently both Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi assassinations happened in Delhi but produced such contrasting results. Why was it so? How do the victims of those extraordinary events relate to the assassinations? What memories do they have of the times immediately following the assassination and how their lives changed due to them? Veena Das has no answers. For a scholar so obsessed with the idea of everyday violence, ignoring thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi, especially when dealing with events like partition, speaks a lot about her feminist biases and obsession with pretentious western scholarship. Also while taking stories from Rabindranath Tagore she fails to highlight that his stories were based in Bengal where the experiences of women need not have been totally similar. She brings in the book aspects like kinship structure among Punjabis and how it effected everyday reconstruction of lives by women. In that light, Bengali kinship is different and using Tagore can be problematic. Also she fails to question Manto and Tagore on the ground that they both were men and how well they understood the experiences of women is something that cannot be taken for granted, which Veena Das surprisingly does.
In the end it seems to me, the only purpose of writing this book was to incorporate Wittgenstein within anthropology. Veena Das just wants to show the reader how Wittgensteinean approach can be practically implemented. As for its use, the book doesn’t really serve any purpose apart from raising Veena Das’ own stature in the hierarchy of academics. She has put in so many pretentions that it will really be a tough task for other academics to outdo her. Just like a game of language is played in everyday life by ordinary individuals, a game of pretentions is played in the academic field. Veena das clearly emerges out victorious with flying. Wittgenstein emerges as an intellectual Godfather for Veena Das here. She hardly problematises any of his concepts. As if Wittgenstein can just say no wrong. The book smells of orientalism in a lot of places. But nevertheless, the book does mark a departure in anthropological studies. So yes, our heartfelt congratulations to Veena Das, Wittgenstein and the great colonial discipline of Anthropology.