OTHER WORDS - Radical Humanism in Sanglot Fenla : Amit R Baishya

Sanglot Fenla
This article is a follow-up to Aruni Kashyap’s article onParag Das’s Sanglot Fenla publishedin Seven Sisters Post on December 4.Aruni briefly mentions the torture sequences in the novel at the end of hisarticle. My article elaborates on the representation of torture in the novel,because Parag Das’s radical humanism is evident from these sequences. Arunicorrectly argues that the novel is not an “apologia for violence” and that itforms part of Das’s larger social and humanist project. However, we have torecognise that Sanglot Fenla is anintensely partisan novel—it does make its sympathies for a particular versionof revolutionary action very clear. In situations of conflict, a position of“neutrality” or a transcendent viewpoint is unavailable for writers andintellectuals. If politics is a hidden state of war in “normal” conditions,then emergency scenarios sharpen the friend-enemy divide. Reading Sanglot Fenla today reminds us of thoseviolent, conflict-ridden days of the 1980s and 90s when partisanship was verymuch a sign of the times. At the same time, it is also a deeply ethical andhumane text. The partisan viewpoint does not blind Das to the real effects ofdehumanisation that conflict can engender. This is most evident in thetreatment of torture in the text.
Torture, like rape, is a forcible imposition of a corporealself on another body. Our sense of feeling at home in our worlds arises fromthe unconscious or subconscious comfort we feel in the imagined wholeness ofour own bodies. Torture assaults our sense of self at a fundamental ontologicallevel. Jean Amery, a survivor of Nazi torture camps, provides one of the mostsearing analyses of this in his At theMind’s Limits. Amery claims that torture absolutely destroys a subject’s“trust in the world.” Through torture, the Other forces his/her corporeality onMe and denies Me any recourse to resistance. I become absolutely helpless.
We didn’t kill them
because of any personal
grudge. Our superiors
ordered us to kill
them. We had to kill them
The torturer has to be a sadist; the question of humanity inthe act of torturing simply does not arise. If the tortured becomes a mass ofdisintegrating flesh, the torturer imagines himself a tool who with one twistof the hand can make the other being squeal. Amery suggests that sadism is anexistential pathology “in which it appears as the radical negation of theother...a denial of the social principle…”
Sanglot Fenlabegins an exploration of the interiority of the torturer through that of twoguerrillas belonging to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) [A fictional namefor ULFA]: Rana and Naba. The chapter “Lakhipathar, March 15, 1991” is set afew days after the Indian army destroyed the militant camps in Lakhipathar.Diganta visits the camp on a stock-taking mission after the army operation andhas an exchange with Rana and Naba:
“How many people did you kill here?” queried Diganta. The youth named Rana glanced at his comrade.Then without hesitation he said, “About 30-40, I’d estimate…After a littlewhile, Diganta again asked them “Didn’t you recoil from killing so many people?How do you feel now?”…Rana answered, “Why should we feel any remorse? We didn’tkill them because of any personal grudge. After they were judged as enemies ofthe people, our superiors ordered us to kill them. Therefore, we had to killthem.”…Diganta did not press the issue further. What purpose would it serve toblame these two? Each member of the organisation had been taught to follow theorders of the leadership to the letter. Who could question that? (121).
Diganta reaches the heart of the guerrilla camp with Ranaand Naba. Only a few bamboo structures remain. Diganta’s gaze falls on anelevated changghor in the middle ofthe camp. When he asks what that structure was meant for, Rana replies that itwas their “jail”—the KIA often imprisoned betrayers people considered enemiesof society. It was a huge structure ringed by bamboo poles on all sides.Diganta asks him how the prisoners slept. Rana replies that question of sleeping did not arise. The floor of thestructure was covered by about one foot of mud. The prisoners had to stand orsit there. Appalled, Diganta queries how long the prisoners could stay alive inthat fashion. Rana laughs nonchalantly and says that after staying in the mudlike that for a day or two, the prisoners’ skins would dry or begin to peeloff. Then the partisans would bring them out, dry their skins in the sun andherd them back to the cage. Very often, after a week or so, they would be shotdead. Diganta was curious to know how the prisoners were killed. Rana answersat length:
“That depended on the orders of the superiors…If the crimewas of a serious nature, then we would torture the prisoner slowly before hisdeath. Sometimes we would chop off their limbs before killing them, sometimeswe’d pour boiling water on them… On the first day, we’d punch a hole in theirearlobes with an airgun. Then we’d chain them to the trees by their earlobes.Because they feared tearing their ears off, they wouldn’t dare to escape. Thenext day we’d take them to the prison…After being in the prison for about a dayor two they’d beg us to end their lives. Itwas great fun watching their state then (126-7, emphasis mine).”
Diganta is horrified. The orders of the leadership hadtransformed these young boys from revolutionaries into sadistic killingmachines. The blame for this, he ruminates, lay entirely with the leadership ofthe organisation (an observation Aruni astutely makes in his article).Undoubtedly, he thinks, punishment is a necessary part of the organisationalstructure; but, is it correct or justified to encourage such extreme forms ofcruelty? Was the organisation going to create a better society on the back ofsuch barbaric inhumanity?
The novel then shifts the gaze to the tortured. In a laterchapter titled “Moukhuwa Chapori, 20 October, 1991,” Diganta and a few otherguerillas engage in a crossfire with the Indian army after their hideout isbetrayed. Diganta is knocked unconscious and captured by the army. He is takento Xorhiyotuli, which Das directly refers to as a concentration camp. Digantais electrocuted, his toenails are taken out, he is hit everywhere with a stick,punched repeatedly on his chest and belly after being slung upside down and hisskin is scraped off his back. He loses all sense of time and place.
However, in this chapter, Das inserts a curious littleepisode that provides the basis for a complex ethical response. Diganta has beenbeaten to pulp by the brutal army officers and loses consciousness, comingawake the following morning in his cell. His broken body is shakinguncontrollably. He doesn’t know how long he remained like that. Suddenly,
…he heard the door ofhis cell opening. A young turbaned Sikh officer peered inside. ProbablyDiganta’s condition aroused his compassion. He went out and brought a tornblanket and covered Diganta’s body with it. It was as if the Sikh soldier’scompassion was not for the broken body, but rather what that body trulyrepresented in terms of its value to the respondent. Even in his helplessstate, the very thought of this brought hope to Diganta’s mind (121).
In the brief moment when the Sikh officerreaches out to Diganta’s broken body, acknowledges his pain and reads his bodyin terms of what it represented in terms of its value we notice the emergenceof space where “enemies” appear before each other as human agents. It provides a glimpse of how Parag Das’s radicalhumanism critically undercuts his partisan sympathies and highlights what Arunicalls his “search for an alternative.” A radically human alternative!

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