Deepti Misri. Beyond Partition: Gender, Violence, and Representation in Postcolonial India. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. 224 pp. $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08039-5.
Reviewed by Taveeshi Singh (Syracuse University)
Published on H-Citizenship (September, 2015)
Commissioned by Sean H. Wang (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Syracuse University)
By examining gendered violence in India after 1947, Deepti Misri's Beyond Partition makes a significant contribution to the body of feminist postcolonial scholarship on representation. Misri explores different meanings to the signifier “India” in the public domain, as they relate to conceptions of gendered violence and the nation-state. These widely divergent notions of what post-Independence India is (or should be) emerge from a spectrum of communities, regions, and bodies, ranging from residents who perceive “India” to be “a colonizing entity rather than a hospitable home” (p. 5) to an acutely security-conscious nation-state that customarily resorts to “militarized violence, extrajudical killings, rape and sexualized torture” (p. 6) against men and women. Misri also addresses less evident, internal forms of violence that manifest themselves within communities, often brought on or compounded by aforementioned notions of Indianness.
Misri's central theoretical argument is that every representation of violence is also an interpretation of it. She draws on literary, visual, and performative representations of violence in post-1947 India to illustrate it. She posits that representation does not merely take shape after the fact of violence, but rather infuses the very act of violence with meaning. In this sense, violence and its representation are not discrete temoporal events, but it is the representation that determines how an act of violence itself may be read. Following other transnational feminists such as Chandra Mohanty, Misri hopes this work will further feminist solidarity across borders with “vulnerable subjects across the gender spectrum” (p. 9) by going beyond postcolonial feminist theory's focus on literary texts to examine forms of cultural production more accessible to non-elites and marginalized populations, but her treatment of the cultural history of violence in postcolonial India is contained within the familiar male-female gender binary. Misri makes no mention of transgender violence in her argument, missing a vital opportunity to bring into the realm of Partition studies a historical discussion of India's rich gender spectrum. A broader conceptualization of gender is especially pertinent for contemporary scholarship on South Asia in light of India's landmark ruling in 2014 that recognizes transgender people as a third gender.
Misri buttresses her theoretical argument by analyzing a range of texts that focus on violent incidents in post-Partition India. In the introduction, she refers to the selective use of memories of Partition and Pakistan to provoke Sikh riots and Bhagalpur riots in the 1980s. In chapter 1, Misri foregrounds vulnerable masculinities in the context of communal violence. Here she examines the work of authors who probe symbolic forms of violence in their writing, primarily Saadat Hasan Manto's unsparing early writing on Partition. Misri deploys Manto's work pointedly, deftly highlighting the irony in material consequences of men falling prey to violence borne of the very system that accords them privilege.
In the following chapters, Misri continues discussing how partriarchy and nationalism perpetuate and render invisible violence against women within their own communities. She calls attention to nakedness both as violence delivered by the state and the power of naked protest to subvert the disciplinary power of the state. Citing as examples Mahasweta Devi's short story “Draupadi,”a solo protest march in Gujarat by Pooja Chauhan, and a protest by a group of women in Manipur, Misri offers an analysis of nakedness as performative protest deployed by individuals as well as groups. In “Draupadi,” a tribal insurgent, after being sexually tortured by soldiers, refuses to cover herself with the cloth they offer her. Instead, resisting disciplinary power with the very body the state has tried to shame, she spits blood on the senior official who ordered her rape before pushing him with her maimed chest. Misri rounds up her textual analysis by once again returning to the vulnerability of male bodies in Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, where she highlights the complexities of the politics of caste when compounded with gendered violence in southern India.
Extending her analysis of vulnerable male bodies, Misri moves on from her review of literary works to a discussion of visual representations of violence, as evident in visual elements of anti-disappearance activism in northern India. She cites as an example the Kashmir-based Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a women-led organization dedicated to keeping alive in public memory state-imposed disappearances of Muslim men. The group deploys visual representations of the disappeared through cinematic and photographic practices while also deploying performativity in its protests by way of mothers mourning and weeping at monthly meetings, holding in hand photographs and photographic collages of their disappeared sons. Interpreting these visual and performative representations, Misri raises difficult questions about what kinds of gendered violence are easily representable visually, what kinds of activism are prone to visual representation, and what kinds of violence and activism are not to be found in public consciousness.
Misri's work is unique because her analysis is not restricted to a single medium of representation, delving instead into literary, performative, and visual aspects of renditions of violence. She illuminates through her analyses the very depths of human brutality in times of war, internal conflict, and peace. She picks her objects of analysis such that the reader comes away with a sense of how political and communal violence and its representations in post-Partition India move across the nation-state and communities to the individual. By invoking a more inclusive definition of gender, or addressing the lack of literary, visual, and performative work on transgender violence, Misri could have added another meaningful layer to her analysis. This oversight notwithstanding, Beyond Partition is an imaginative and notable work on the subject of Partition. I recommend the book to anyone seeking a feminist critical examination of how violence is conceptualized, narrativized, and refigured across academic, civic, legal, journalistic, and familial discourses that travel across the Indian subcontinent and circumnavigate to its diaspora.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-citizenship.
Taveeshi Singh. Review of Misri, Deepti, Beyond Partition: Gender, Violence, and Representation in Postcolonial India.
H-Citizenship, H-Net Reviews.
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