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TAKING COGNIZANCE

That little slip, as the headline had put it, is telling. The lady from the National Commission for Women had got her victim wrong. She thought she was talking to the deaf-mute girl’s father, when she was actually talking to the twice-gangraped-and-burnt-to-death girl’s father, who had been brought to Delhi to see the president of India. Both the victims were 16 years old; both were from Madhyamgram and around. This place was in a state hundreds of miles away from Delhi, and where almost 31,000 “crimes against women” had been committed in 2012 alone. So, naturally, the NCW ladies — who had to “take cognizance” of many of these crimes — were a little confused.

Interchangeability — not considering it worth knowing one from the other — is part of the violence of rape. But that casually expressed bureaucratic confusion makes this violence part of another kind of exchange as well. A conversation between a middle-class woman in Delhi and a taxi-driver from Bihar hounded out of a Calcutta suburb happens across a distance that is not merely geographical. And when I read about that conversation on the front page of an English daily, choose to write about it on that newspaper’s op-ed page, and you read my piece the next day, we are all gathered on one side of that distance, trying to “take cognizance” of a situation whose location vis-à-vis our everyday lives is both disconcertingly near and bewilderingly far. Like well-intentioned ethnographers struggling with their field-notes, we are trying to understand the otherness and complexity of a web of continually shifting relationships within which our positions are determined by the fact of a primary inequality and, hence, lack of comprehension.

What bridges this distance, if at all, is a set of predominantly emotional responses and a world of representations — what we read in the papers, watch on television. Words (vernacular, translated, reported), photographs and footage, and what they make us feel. Add to these the erratic micro-encounters that happen across the variably porous membranes of our lives at home, at work, and outside — our daily contact with the people who come in to cook and clean for us, or the things we observe and overhear when we commute. But even these bits of knowledge are precisely that: scraps of partial knowing, gleaned over time across abysses of inequality, incomprehension and, ultimately, ineffectuality. How many of us, for instance, have any real sense of the homes and neighbourhoods from which our ‘helps’ come, or of the journeys they make to get to our homes early in the morning and back?

So, rape, especially gangrape followed by murder, puts people like us in a strange spot. Somewhere, inscrutably, it engages our most intimate awareness of our own bodies and selves. We all have desiring bodies that want to be desired. We all know, or imagine, the delight of consent, the shock of refusal, the fear of rejection. We all know, or fantasize, the pull of the deviant beyond the limits of the normative — variously suppressed, variously fulfilled. So, sexuality lures us into a false sense of commonality, until we are confronted with an expression of it that baffles us profoundly with what appears to be unimaginable, and therefore unknowable. Yet, since all our lives are informed with varying degrees of violence, or unrealized violence, born out of the banality of the most familiar, intimate, mundane emotions and exchanges, we begin to sense that the unmanageable energies that compel acts of sexual violence are different only in degree, and not perhaps in kind, from what we already know and intuit and resist. But these eruptions of actual violence happen in settings and situations that force us to confront the immense differences and distances that separate these lives and realities and histories, and therefore the material and psychic substance of these lives, from ours. But, because we live and work and move around in cities that are growing, ‘developing’, faster than we can keep up with, and because this ‘development’ continually involves us, affects us, enriches us, implicates us and disorients us, these intermittently exposed but alien lives and histories become part of our expanding existence in a real, material sense, while challenging our inner lives of imagination, desire, curiosity and outrage.

If you are not a politician, activist, policeman or lawyer, if you have a problem being regarded as a photogenic intellectual, but happen to be, say, simply a teacher, musician, writer or home-maker, how do you deal with — that is, engage with, understand, even attempt to transform — this day-to-day interface with the near and the far, the near-in-the-far and the far-in-the-near, often in their most extreme manifestation as absolute powerlessness or absolute aggression, while somehow holding on to, being true to, the inescapable difficulty of your sense of yourself as a citizen and a person vitally co-existing with other citizens and persons?