Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Home and Violence in "Khamosh Pani"

As I've mentioned before, I am in the process of writing my dissertation prospectus which I hope to complete by May, so that I can actually, finally qualify by the end of the year. I just began the writing process this quarter, and as always, it has been a daunting experience.

As I recently mentioned to a friend, I tend to write from a place/state of haunting. Most often, it is not a particular site that drives me, or a specific field or lens of analysis. The only thing that is constant is my obsession with violence. Thereafter, it is a particular concept, or a single line, that catches my attention and becomes the germ for my work. Consequently, I never begin with a question or a thesis - in fact, when I was writing my Master's thesis, I didn't really know what my research question was until I had actually finished writing. This may seem counter-intuitive, but since thinking and writing is processual, it actually works. So, in the case of my dissertation, the idea driving my research is the ontological distinction between 'body' and 'flesh.' I am interested in thinking through how this distinction might influence theories of violence.

I plan to look at three kinds of violence - intimate violence, terrorism, and the violence of global capital. For my thesis, I focused only on intimate violence, and used the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan as my site for analysis. I plan to stick with this site for my dissertation as well... hopefully, I'll be able to build off some of the arguments/analysis I did in my thesis.

While researching the issue of intimate violence in Partition, I turned a lot to fiction - literary and film. One movie in particular - Khamosh Pani - haunts me. (The entire film is available on youtube with subtitles.)

It is something I keep going back to over and over again. And while I eventually did not use it in my thesis, I have used it in numerous other shorter pieces. I am using a part of it right now for my Cultural Studies class in order to analyze the possibilities of interpellation. At other times, I have used it to analyze issues of gender and political subjectivity, and to critique the concept of 'home.' I'm pasting below the piece I wrote about home. It's made up of excerpts from a larger paper, so the flow may be a little choppy. Below, I've also uploaded the clip with the most pivotal scene in the film.


Love, Violence, Loss: Reading the Significance of the Intimate Home through the scene of Partition violence

My definition of ‘home’ posits it as a material place that is integrally bound to structures of feeling, or a condition of being. First, as a subjective space, I anchor ‘home’ in the Lacanian notion of desire. Here, desire is configured in its narcissistic form – it is the desire of the subject to be whole, directed at an object that holds the promise of fulfilling this desire. This description of desire emerges from the primordial Oedipal moment wherein the child desires its Mother as that thing that holds the potential to fill-in the lack experienced by it. Of course, the child’s desire for the Mother is frustrated by the prohibitive Law of the Father. Lacan writes this moment of prohibition and the consequent frustration of desire as that which provokes the primordial transition from Nature to Culture, i.e. the moment at which a subject emerges. The subject, then, is always already a desiring, unfulfilled and incomplete being. Yet, a partial fulfillment of desire for fullness is achievable through the performance of intersubjective recognition. Consequently, I would suggest that home, as a condition of being is produced through a dialectic of desire and recognition. When this state of being becomes spatio-temporally mapped, it then produces home in its materiality, i.e. home as place.


In popular discourse, the meanings assigned to ‘home’ are fundamentally gendered, so that it is recognized as a site of political contention only in its masculine configuration as the locus of patriarchal power. However, home as the site for the formation of intimate subjectivities through configurations of love, violence and loss, is feminized and thus necessarily de-politicized. However, I would that the idea that the intimate meaning of home is apolitical is fundamentally false. In fact, often in the case of violence within the realm of 'home,' it is precisely this intimacy that becomes targeted in order to effect violation and loss - i.e. intimacy itself became an instrument of political violence.

Gendered conceptions of home are highly pervasive in Partition discourse, where intimate narrations of home are excluded from the process of signification that has cast Partition as a universal signifier of nation and nationalism, thereby reproducing the depoliticization of the feminized dimension of home. Yet, for numerous women in Partition, home was the site of unspeakable acts of political violence – of fathers and brothers killing women in their families; and of hundreds of women committing mass suicide. These acts of intimate violence were performed in familiar places – in the houses of family and friends, at the village temple, at the local well. But Partition discourse about home – especially about homes lost – rarely touches upon this intimate violence, focusing instead on the more politically potent idea of a ‘homeland.’ That is, the only way in which intimate violence can be spoken of, indeed valorized, is if it is attached to a larger social formation – so that, for instance, intimate violence becomes explained as the sacrifice or ‘martyrdom’ enacted by women in protecting the honor of their family, faith and nation. This valorization of the martyred woman, and the consequent (re-)domestication of home within the context intimate violence is made possible, however, against the spectral figure of the abducted woman.

In the context of Partition, the abducted woman represents a failure – not only her own, but also that of the patriarchal subject, i.e. of her potential sacrificer, in preserving the proper social order. By extension, then, she also represents the failure of the nation. Consequently, the abducted woman – referred to in Partition discourse as “disappeared” – is (re-)disappeared by Partition discourse itself. This re-disappearance is possible, however, only because of the depoliticization of the intimate. Yet, suspended within both, the material and subjective crisis produced by Partition, the abducted woman exists in constant confrontation with imminent subjective denial and the material loss of home. This contingent existence is demonstrated in terrifyingly violent ways in the film Khamosh Pani or Silent Waters.

Khamosh Pani introduces us to Ayesha, a single mother living with her teenage son in a small village in Pakistan. The film develops Ayesha’s sense of home by displaying her mutual relationships of love and recognition with her son – her only apparent kin – as well as with other villagers; moreover, the film moves through her house and her village, spatiotemporally marking them through the development of her intimate subjectivity, through for instance, pictures and memories of her deceased husband, and the continuum of her interactions at the village market. The contingency of Ayesha’s seemingly stable, un-ruptured existence, however, is revealed through the specter of the village well.

The audience is initially informed that Ayesha refuses to draw her own water from the well, preferring instead to have her neighbor deliver it to her house each day. For those familiar with the history of intimate violence in Partition, this detail, offered only in passing, bears grave significance for it forebodes the terrifying reality of Ayesha’s existence. This foreboding is later intensified through images of Ayesha’s memories – of young feet and laughing voices playing around a well. The narrative thread of these memories is developed in conjunction with the changing realities in Ayesha’s exterior life – with her son being swept up in a national movement towards extremist Islamic ideology, and the arrival of a group of Sikh pilgrims to her village. These events cause an unraveling of Ayesha’s subjective experience of home. The arrival of the Sikh men, one of whom is searching for his lost sister, provides the background for the deterioration of her relationship with her son, who begins to question his mother’s Muslim-ness, as well as the breaking off of ties between Ayesha and her closest friend, who wishes no longer to be seen with her. And the playing, laughing feet of her memories, become screaming, escaping ones.

The Sikh man looking for his lost sister is indeed the brother of Ayesha – Ayesha who once, before Partition, was Veero. The terrified feet in Ayesha’s memory, are Veero’s, escaping her father’s demands for martyrdom at the site of the village well. Her son is the one she bore with her abductor. Her deceased husband is that abductor. Before Partition, Veero was tied to her village as home through the bonds of love and recognition developed through her biological family; now, that same village is, or was, home to Ayesha, developed through the bonds of recognition with her husband and her son. For Veero, the place of the well represents a subjective denial, or death. For, I would suggest that the moment at which Veero was asked to jump into the well, was also that at which her desire, her demand for ‘home,’ was denied. Here the Law of the patriarchal home, exercised through violence, superceded home as the space of intimate love. Moreover, when Veero’s desire for fullness was answered by a summons of death, it replaced her name – Veero, that which defined her as the subject-object of love and belonging – with ‘woman’ – a mere signifier of purity and the object of law. In running away, then, Veero refused a choice between corporeal death and subjective death, hoping perhaps to be ‘re-found.’

Indeed, the only moment at which the film offers a glimpse of Veero/Ayesha’s abductor/husband is when he offers to marry her, for this pivotal gesture is constitutive of a moment of recognition that re-confers upon her a subjective existence, from which emerges the re-figuration of her old village as her new home. The well however remains a place of death, and thus, out of bounds. However, as Ayesha’s contigent existent approaches its limit, she is coerced back to the well due to the refusal of her friend to deliver water. Here she encounters her brother, who informs her that her ailing father wishes to see her before her dies. Refusing to return, however, Ayesha reminds him of what happened the last time they were at the scene of the well. “So many years since you’ve been happy after killing me. But I was alive. I made my own life without you all. Now this is my life, and this is my home. Now go, and leave me alone as I am.”

The reality however is that the re-surfacing of her brother, unearthed the threatening specter of Veero, destabilizing Ayesha’s contigent existence. The loss of love and recognition from her son and her best friend, and potentially from the rest of the village meant that for Ayesha the loss of home once again loomed before her. This time, however, Ayesha invited death to descend upon her, for the silent waters that had so long held her secret to finally engulf her. And so, Ayesha rejoins Veero, as a stark white figure set against a dark night takes that leap into the well – a leap that had merely been postponed but whose possibility had never been foreclosed.

The interplay between violence and love, or Law and love, as I have attempted to described here highlights the fundamentally political nature of home. In this presentation, I have sometimes referred to love more specifically as ‘intimate love.’ I use this phrase to distinguish this form of affective love, or lower-case ‘l’ love from what I think of as political Love, or capital-L Love. In so doing, I contend that political Love differs from intimate love, in that it does not preclude violence; that capital-L Love responds to the violence of capital-L Law through violence. However, my reading of the conception of ‘home’ suggests, however, is that the intimate, affective, femininized love is always already vulnerable to the violence of the political, and hence must be recognized as such. For, as the suicidal act of Ayesha/Veero insists, the realm of the intimate home is never beyond the purview of the political.

1 comment:

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