Terror, Performance and Anxieties of Our Times – Reading Rustom Bharucha and Reliving Terror: Sasanka Perera


[ This post by Sasanka Perera is a review of  Terror and Performance by Rustom Bharucha (2014). Tulika Books, New Delhi. Kafila does not ordinarily post book reviews. An exception is being made for this post because we feel that the subject of terrorism, which has interested Kafila readers in the past, is an important one, and needs to be thought through with seriousness. We hope that this post initiates a debate on Kafila regarding terror, the state, performance, and the performances – serious, or otherwise – that typically attend to the discussions of terror, whether undertaken by the agents of the state or by non-state actors, commentators in the media, or by intellectual interlocutors. ]

When I started reading Rustom Bharucha’s latest book, Terror and Performance, it immediately became an intensely personal and gripping engagement. It was difficult to read in a single attempt as the mind kept wandering from one unpleasant moment in our recent annals of terror to another in some of which I had also become an unwitting part – mostly as a spectator. From the beginning, my reading was a conversation with Bharucha’s text through detours of my own experiences and an interrogation to a lesser extent. In 1986, as a young man when I went to the Colombo International Airport to pick up my father who was returning from the Middle East, I was shaken by a tremendously loud sound for which I had no immediate references. I had not heard such a sound before. People started running towards the sound. It was a bomb that had blown up an Air Lanka flight which had come from Gatwick. The Central Telegraph Office in Colombo was bombed in the same year. We learnt that everyone was running towards the sound and not away from it. Dry local political humor very soon informed us that people were trying to get inside the bombed out telegraph office hoping that they could get free phone calls to their relatives in the Middle East as they had heard phones were dangling from the walls with no operators in sight. That was long before mobile phones and call boxes. We were still young in terms of our experiences with terror. However, we soon had very viable references to what all this meant as the political narrative of Lanka unfolded with devastating consequences. But in 1986, when the kind of terror that was to follow in all its fury was still relatively new and quite unknown, we were acutely unaware of the dynamics of the actual act of terror and the structure of feeling it could unleash. This is why many of us in these initial years were naively attracted towards the epicenter of the act rather than being mindful to run away from it. But as the society grew in experience, people soon learned their lessons. Though an academic text in every conceivable way, I was reminded one could always find a few rare books of this kind which might personally and emotionally touch a reader in addition to whatever intellectual stimulation it might also usher in. Terror and Performance is clearly one such book. From the perspective of the writer, Bharucha himself recognizes this personal emotional engagement and investment early in the book. For him, “this writing demands stamina as it faces an onslaught of uncertainties and cruelties at the global level that challenges the basic assumptions of what it means to be human” (xi). It is the same kind of stamina that one also needs to read it as most of us in South Asia would be reading it squarely sitting in the midst of our own worlds of unfolding terror. This is why all those thoughts came gushing into my mind throughout the reading. I was not only reading Bharucha; I was also reading my own past.

At the very outset, Bharaucha has identified quite accurately two predicaments that writers of terror have to face. One is the seeming non-existence of an exit from the act of writing in the sense of not “being able to free one’s self from the closure of violence” (xi). Particularly in the uncertain political circumstances of countries in South Asia and other regions of the world with similar political experiences, there is no seeming end to violence. As such, how would one end his narrative? This is not a simple matter of cataloguing acts of terror, but dealing with the interpretation of what happens. The second predicament he refers to is the need to “accept a state of suspension” with no other choices (xii). In other words, “once one enters the narrative of terror, one has no other choice but to keep wading through the blood even as the possibility of reaching the other side cannot be readily assumed” (xii). The issue of ‘personal’ is crucial throughout the book not only to the writer but also to the reader. For Bharucha, this amalgamation of concerns focused on the ‘personal’ is also an essential part of the book’s methodological approach. As he notes, despite the many books he could rely on to find some of the answers to his questions, “these questions demanded a more personal interrogation and verification, some of which fuel critical junctures of thought in the book” (xv). In this sense, writing about terror as well as reading about it in many ways is an immersion in the violence itself, particularly when this has to be done from our kind of politico-social circumstances where the distance between the constant unfolding of terror and the relentless and seemingly fruitless search for collective sanity is not so great.

Bharucha had begun to produce Jean Genet’s play, The Maids three weeks after September 11th 2001 in a Manila theatrical venue known as the Republic of Malate, which was burned down in November (1-2). If the burning of the theater was the immediate ‘provocation’ for the book (2), its actual creative impulse emanates from the following crucial question: “How can one free terror from the hegemonic discourse of terrorism?” (2-3). For Bharucha, the “only way of breathing life into the vocabulary of terror is to insist that it should not be conflated with what has come to be hegemonized as ‘terrorism’” (3). In many ways, this book is epitomized by this ideological position in a general context where much is talked and written about terror without the contextual nuances required to make sense of terror within the difficult to access terrains of human nature. From this point of departure, the book interrogates the twin ideas of terror and performance via four significant motifs: September ‘11, Islamophobia, truth and reconciliation and non-violence. Given Bharucha’s expertise and passionate involvement in theatre and the ideas of performance, throughout the book, he makes detailed and nuanced detours into the literature on these disciplinary domains in an attempt to make sense out of specific events of terror. Bharucha makes it very clear that he is writing on the basis of his “affinities to humanities” and more clearly from his experience with “immersion in the field of theater and performance studies” (xii). In chapter one, juxtaposed against his experience and thoughts of producing Maids in Manila, Bharucha invites us to think through the global or at least seemingly global discourse on 9’11 in an attempt to “exhume the terrifying effects of ‘September 11’ from its overstated, yet unresolved discourse” (33). He does not attempt to do this through the almost impossible task of a critical retrospective of the way in which 9’11 has been seen and perceived globally. Instead, he begins his journey via a critical interrogation of a series of responses to the event that were published in the Theatre Journal (47). This journey progresses through an analytical domain which looks at the ideas of tragedy, cruelty, repetition of terror, trauma, autoimmunity, politics of empathy and so on through an informed understanding of how theater and performance work and how that understanding might be useful in interpreting terror.

Though the hegemonic media coverage that has engulfed the world has insistently informed us that 9’11 is a ‘world changing event’ or a ‘major event’ (47), I tend to agree more with Derrida’s argument, which Bharucha refers to as an “impression of a major event” (45). Notwithstanding the calamity and the resultant sense of sorrow the event enveloped New York and the United States for a considerable period of time and taking into account the global imagination and sense of shock it captured, one has to wonder whether the event’s ‘world changing’ persona was a product of its location and the global consequences of this location rather than the nature of terror unleashed. This is a question that Bharucha’s analysis opens up. It is also not a simple matter of the number of civilian casualties. The Mumbai attack of 26th September 2008, which is now known in India as 26’11 glibly following the nomenclature concocted to describe the New York attack, the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi on 21st September 2013 (all of which intriguingly happened in September of different years) and the relentless Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2014 changed the ‘worlds’ of the people who were intimately and devastatingly touched by these events; their worlds were scarred and shattered. But these incidents have never become ‘world changing’ events partly due to their location(s), partly due to the kind of media coverage they received which did not confer that almost hallowed position on them and also because of the structure of repercussions. After all, the US launched the ‘war on terror’ after 9’11 which among other things became a death call to hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani civilians through drone attacks while India and Nigeria could not muster adequate cash or military and political muscle for such a global outreach. And as abundantly clear, the victims of Israeli aggression in Gaza are merely collateral damage. As Bharucha correctly points out, ‘September 11’ acquired its discursive position primarily through an ‘American mediascape’ and its global influence rather than from any ‘unitary perspective’ that makes sense globally (49).

Chapter two titled ‘Muslims in a Time of Terror’ deals with Islamophobia and is a chilling account of the difficulty in being Muslim in today’s political contexts in most ‘non-Muslim places.’ ‘Aliens’ or ‘minorities ‘ in this context often happen to be Muslims as the situations in varying degrees of intensity in contemporary Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India as well as Western Europe and North America very clearly indicate. Keeping apart North America and Europe where Muslim settlement in any significant numbers is a relatively recent phenomenon, in non-Muslim majority countries in South Asia such as Sri Lanka and India as well as in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines this imagination essentially means delegitimization of Muslim history in these places and a subsequent erasure of that history as well as the often expressed wish for the erasure of their physical presence. But since the Palestinian liberation struggle from the 1960s onwards when the violence of that struggle entered the world stage and more specifically since ‘September ‘11’, “the spectre of ‘Muslims’ has haunted and infiltrated the language of terrorism in our times” (75). In many ways, it is this ‘language of terror’ where the main culprit is seen as the Muslim and the way in which media world over has recreated the Muslim as terrorist as described by Edward Said in his book, Covering Islam.[1] This state of affairs has ensured that being Muslim in our times and very tellingly in our part of the world has become anxiety-ridden and constantly surveilled state of being.

Beginning with an anecdotal account of a personal experience where Bharucha himself came close to ‘passing’ for a Muslim (76), he takes us through a fascinating terrain of knowledge exploring the construction of the Muslim, particularly in sub-continental India through a number of tropes which includes ‘passing’ and ‘covering’ (76-85). He later explores in detail how these tropes or frameworks of reference actually work in real life as well as in performance. As he notes, “’passing’ which can be most easily read within the narrative of mistaken identity” which he identifies as “one of the most ancient tropes of world theatre” (85). Bharucha’s anecdotal entry into the discussion as well as his latter nuanced exploration of Islamophobia in our times allowed for the re-narrativation in my own mind an incident that happened in 2012. I had gone for a haircut in a small barber’s kiosk in Chanakyapuri. The barber asked me before he began his work if I was a Muslim. I said no and was not intersected in further explanations. Though he did start his inelegant chopping of my hair, he asked on three different times the same question which made me very nervous and he was not too pleasant. But when one of my colleagues came into the place, the barber asked him also if I was a Muslim. Unlike me, without any hesitation, my colleague confirmed I was not a Muslim and also established my ‘foreignness.’ The atmosphere immediately metamorphosed into something more palatable. The barber’s glumness disappeared; he became talkative and even gave me a free head massage. And since that day, he always acknowledges me in the market with a large, if somewhat, crooked smile. All this is simply because the spectre of Muslim had been exorcised from my persona to his satisfaction. Reading Bharucha’s exploration, I was reminded of the discomforting feeling I felt that day, which constantly come to my mind every time I visit that market.

The latter part of the chapter focuses on discourses of communalism in contemporary India through which Bharaucha explores how Muslims have been targeted, ‘othered’ and killed in specific moments of history. With a focus on dynamics of ‘othering Indian Muslims’ and the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, Bharucha proceeds to ascertain the discursivity of what he terms genocide and the extent to which the killing of the other can be understood as a performative act (75). Borrowing Arjun Appadurai’s terminology, ‘dead certainty’ Bharucha notes that the “’dead certainty’ of the Gujarat genocide cannot be separated from the terrifyingly banal truth that the perpetrators of this genocide were fully aware that they would get away with their crimes” (108). What is even more terrifying is the fact that this certainty can be extended way beyond Gujarat to other parts of our region and to communities beyond Muslims in times of terror: anti-Tamil violence in Sri Lanka in 1983, anti-Sikh violence in India in 1984, continuing sporadic violence against Ahmadiyas in Pakistan and continuing violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka at the present time. In the latter case, a large corpus of visual evidence percolates all over the internet in general and YouTube in particular, thanks to the emergence of CCTV and mobile camera footage as a viable audio-pictorial discourse which presents the spectre of freely roaming perpetrators as long as they are acting at the behest of the state or its numerous agencies.

The third Chapter of the book titled ‘Countering Terror?’ focuses on the notion of seeking justice in the aftermath of terror through truth and reconciliation processes. This is undertaken by way of a close exploration of these processes in Rwanda and South Africa. As we know, it is in these two countries where ‘truth and reconciliation,’ initially experimented by post-apartheid South Africa, have been tried out as formal socio-legal mechanisms to deal with the consequences of terror. At the very outset, Bharucha consciously addresses the serious issues that are embedded in the often casual use of the prefix ‘post’ as in post-genocide Rwanda and post-apartheid South Africa. As he correctly notes, ‘post’ when juxtaposed with experiences of large-scale tragedies tends to be “deceptive in so far as it implies a clean break with the past, which, in actuality, continues to haunt the present through lingering legacies of violence, humiliation and injustice” (111). In a comparable context, there is a rather vocal discourse on ‘postwar reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka sponsored by the state and readily embraced by many people, in the southern parts of the country, thankful at seeing an official end to a war that lasted for thirty years and enamored by the new buildings, roads, expressways, parks and walking paths and other assets of ‘development’ that have emerged across the landscape both in the south and the once war-scarred northeast. However, what this discourse hides within its rhetoric demarcated by a very liminal sense of ‘post’ and its physical manifestations of decontextualized contemporary artifacts of ‘development’ are the lingering pain and traumatized memories of thousands of people and dismantled processes of justice which remain largely invisible. It is with regard to such contexts that Bharucha warns us that at best ‘post’ only marks ‘official’ endings of “national crises and states of emergency as determined by the agencies of the state” while at ground level, a very different reality exists in the hearts and minds of the people (111). With this important qualification Bharucha proceeds to explore the performative aspects of the processes of transitional justice in Rwanda and South Africa.

In the case of Rwanda, Bharucha’s main effort is to explore how the Gacca process worked mostly through the vivid ethnographic details provided by the work of Ananda Breed (124-130). With this information, he not only provides a wider canvas to the reading that follows but also the structure of dramaturgy with reference to Gacca. Gacca is a pre-colonial local model for dispute resolution that was prevalent in Rwanda which essentially meant “opposing families sitting on the grass opening themselves to the medication of community elders” (118). However, the transformation of this simple but affective and highly respected system of dispute-resolution based in local wisdom to the new gacca which was meant to offer judgments on ‘serious crimes’ was burdened with significant internal contradictions with disastrous consequences. This has lead some critics to describe the reinvented gacca simply as a hoax (119). But as Bharucha’s description amply demonstrates, it is this system with its own dysfunctions and contradictions that was available for the performance of justice in Rwanda.

Comparatively, Bharucha’s journey into the discursive spaces of truth and reconciliation in South Africa takes place via a number of motifs which includes how silence is performed and challenged, how ideas of forgiveness needs to be worked through when juxtaposed against the reality of living with evil and the spatial dimensions of reconciliation (144-156). Besides, Bharucha ponders over the theatricality of the hearings themselves and the nature of ‘truth’ in the practice of storytelling sanctioned by the TRC process in South Africa (131-144). On the other hand, following Judith Butler’s notion of performitivity as the “power to produce what it names,’ the conceptual focus of his approach, is based on a close reading of the legal mechanisms and institutions set up by states to enact “new modes of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’” (111). Indeed the ‘newness’ of these modes of forgiveness and reconciliation is precisely their problem as well as means of ‘success’ as ‘procedures’ or to borrow Bharucha’s key word in the text, ‘performances.’ Truth and reconciliation processes – weather in Rwanda and South Africa or elsewhere — have ‘worked’ to the extent they have, because they have offered much leeway to perform the ‘truth’ in a way culprits would agree to and legal systems would tolerate despite the massive misgivings of many victims. This leeway however, is also the focus of much criticism by victims as the literature on the South African and Rwandan cases clearly document. For them, truth is really not narrated. Instead, a legally binding and state-sanctioned version of truth is presented and performed in public that allows society in general and the state in particular to move on without having to drastically deal with its collective violent past. It is the complexity of this situation which Bharucha affectively brings out within which the seeming finality of transitional justice mechanisms of ‘post’-genocide Rwanda and ‘post’-apartheid South Africa becomes unhinged. In fact, at the end of the chapter, Bharucha himself poses the question whether “justice materialize through the process of truth and reconciliation” and whether “justice however flawed and incomplete in its execution, be regarded as a means of countering terror?” (157). Interestingly, it is in this liminal state where such processes can be seen as ‘excuses’ for justice that the present Sri Lankan regime has requested South African help in setting up a local truth and reconciliation mechanism in the backdrop of international demands for war a crimes tribunal and an accountable investigation into the last phases of Sri Lanka’s devastating civil war. As in the cases of Rwanda and South Africa, Sri Lankan regime is also looking for a way out rather than a means to deliver justice or finding a legitimate source of closure. In any event, as a restless academic not interested in providing clinical bullet points of ‘solutions’ for think-tanks, Bharucha lets his question hang after providing the ethnographic context and the conceptual framework for us to think through what it means.

The final Chapter of the book is titled, ‘Performing Non-Violence in the Age of Terror.’ At its very beginning, the sudden entry of Gandhi into a discourse on terror comes as a shock until one is reminded that Gandhi unleashed his nonviolence in a world of terror, violence and cruelty. Beyond this, Bharucha’s deployment of Gandhi at this stage of his book also has to do with his attempt of interrogating the truth and reconciliation mechanisms he had just described in the previous chapter. He correctly describes Gandhi as “the world’s most obstinate and visionary of radicals” (159). Bharucha deploys Gandhi to pose crucial questions and provocations on how to deal with terror in the “immediacies of here and now” (159). That is, for Bharucha, Gandhi is not a source of solutions, but a catalyst and initiator of questions that “stretch the limits of this book beyond its discursive framework into the domain of possible action” (159). Indeed, what better way to undertake this task than with the spectre of a man who acted as did Gandhi?

Entering into an interesting domain of informed conjecture, Bharucha wonders how Gandhi would have perceived the truth and reconciliation processes in countries like Rwanda and South Africa. He suggests that the South African TRC would have “moved Gandhi deeply” even though he would have disagreed with both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (160). In Bharucha’s mind, “the spectral presence of Gandhi in this epilogue offers critical dissent not only in relation to the outcome of the TRC process in South Africa, but also its very premises” (160). Describing Gandhi as a “one-man truth commission” based on the way he worked in the context of riots and atrocities in the Indian sub-continent, Bharucha suggests quite convincingly that Gandhi would have been seriously concerned about the TRC’s symbolic and healing significations as well as the way in which the legalities and their implications actually worked in practice (160). In the context of Gandhi’s well-documented positions on the value of truth, social justice and the necessity to take responsibility for one’s own actions, Bharucha suggests that Gandhi would not have accepted a system which did not offer “evidence of repentance on the part of the perpetrators” in exchange for amnesty and forgiveness (160). Unfortunately, this is precisely the main problem with truth and reconciliation systems that have been experimented with so far. Citing examples from the Rwandan case, Bharucha suggests that Gandhi’s preference would have been for one of the community service options that was available which was centered “within the neighborhood or district where the crime took place, thereby compelling perpetrators and victims to recognize each other’s existence” (161). Such a system is far more palatable than a system of institutionalized and disassociated apologies with no semblance of repentance or a situation where victims would have to work and live amongst free roaming perpetrators where they might meet and pass each other in the most mundane and quotidian of circumstances, not unlike the situation painted in Ariel Dormman’s play, the Death and the Maiden.[2]

Would Gandhian solutions to truth and reconciliation make sense in a world where Gandhi himself is absent? With this important question in mind, Bharucha explores some specific examples of Gandhi in action to see how he responded to extremities of different kinds of violence (163-173). I think Bharucha is correct when he claims without confusion that “only non-violence could suggest a way out of the impasse of warring factions through its own paradoxical logic: ready to die, but not prepared to kill” (173). This position brings to my mind the often quoted, but as often unpracticed, Buddhist position articulated by the Buddha in the Kalayakkhini Vatthu’ in Dhamma Pada which posits, “hatred is, indeed, never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased only by loving-kindness; this is an ancient law.”[3] However, as the work of terror and the lack of ethics in predominantly Buddhist societies in contemporary contexts such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar on one hand and Thailand to a different extent would indicate, both Gandhian and Buddhist positions on non-violence in most cases do not make much headway beyond decontextualized rhetoric.

I would like to conclude my engagement with Bharucha’s book with a minor note of dissonance. This has to do with the meaning Bharucha has given to ‘performance’ within the specificity of his book. He reminds us early in the book that it is titled ‘terror and performance’ and not ‘terror as performance’ (29). The reason for this is very clearly spelt out by him: “the performative understanding of terror begins only when one responds to an act of violence, however vulnerably and in a state of acute fear, either through spectatorship or witnessing” (29). He also notes that terror can be performed when an individual who has experienced terror relives the moment (29). He emphasizes however, that the performance of terror is “built through the accretion of these responses and not through the act of terror itself” (29). And true to this early assertion, it is through this lens that Bharucha continues to look at and interrogate the notion of terror throughout the book. As he makes clear, “to regard the involuntary deaths of victims as performance in their own right raises troubling issues around the agency, if not the privilege to name ‘performance’ in the first place (29). It is also in the same context that Bharucha questions Ann Pellegrini’s description of ‘September 2011’ as ‘performance unto death’ (65-66). He is not convinced if the deaths and disappearances that occurred as a result of ‘September 2011’ should or could be seen as performances in the first place (66). As he questions, “in whose authorial framework, and from which disciplinary set of protocols and expertise, can death be proclaimed as performative? Who determines performance for others, including the dead in whose name we speak?” (66). I understand Bharucha’s intellectual and ethical discomfort in this specific framework of seeing acts of terror and the resultant deaths in a performative idiom. However, it seems to me that this understanding of the performative attributes of terror does not allow for a more complete understanding of what terror might mean. This is mostly because this position has removed the perspective of the perpetrators from the wider understandings of terror. Even Pelligrni, who is taken to task by Bharucha seems to be talking of ‘performance unto death’ rather flippantly, which is the main reason for the angst that Bharucha feels. Such a flippant reaction might come from “interpreting death as performance through the spectacular effects of its visuality for a particular audience” (66). For me, the act of terror itself can and must necessarily be seen as a performance of a certain kind when seen from the perspective of its authors, the perpetrators whose agency is generally absent in many academic reckonings of the meanings of their acts though they are ever present in the act itself. One wonders why the Twin Towers were not simply exploded with bombs affixed to its foundations or underground parking areas as was once unsuccessfully attempted or demolished with a missile attack in a context where useable missiles are readily available in the international black-market of weapons, facilitated and supplied by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its satellite states and the expanse of active global warzones. Either of these acts seems to me would have been far more clinical while it would have also saved the perpetrators. Why then, adopt the obviously risky task of high-jacking airplanes and flying them into the Twin Towers when the possibility of them being shot down or the project going wrong for numerous other reasons were ever present. As Bharucha himself describes the event, “audacious, deadly, suicidal perpetrators who carefully timed the bombings of the Twin Towers for maximum media coverage, and possibly George Bush and his cronies in the FBI and CIA —“ (45). In other words, they were enacting a performance for the world to see for which they had written a very careful script, engaged in practice with choreographic precision, and all of us have seen the final production. When I saw the attack of the second airplane live on CNN, slow-motion repeat telecasts of the earlier attack was already been shown. I kept watching it and flipping through television channels to see the event from other angles because it was not just an attack, but also a performance albeit with very deadly consequences.

This issue of performitvity of the act also brought other memories back to me. In the late 1980s when the reign of terror in southern Sri Lanka was at its peak, one morning people in the vicinity of the central town of Kandy near the local university saw eighteen body-less heads neatly arranged on the bank of a small body of water silently gazing upon the water. Their bodies were nowhere to be seen. At this time, it was normal for people to encounter smoldering bodies along the roads, people strapped to lamp posts and shot and so on. After all, it was a time of terror. Even so, the kind of scene described above was not common. It was meant to be a special event, a performance of terror. Ten years later, when I had undertaken research into this phase of local politics of terror, I remember having a very surreal interview with a policeman who was stationed in the western province at the time of terror. While sipping chilled lime juice from a slender tall glass and eating egg sandwiches sitting in the air-conditioned comfort zone of a local club, he casually narrated to me his involvement with some of the worst cases of terror and violence in the area in the late 1980s. As he noted more than once, the scale of violence and its presentation always mattered in constructing the message the perpetrators wanted to communicate. In other words, he was referring to the structure of a performance with a very clear idea of the intended audience just as much as the members of Al Qaeda knew they were performing ‘September 2011’ to the US and the world.

True, in these kinds of performances, the agency of victims becomes a nonentity by virtue of death. And I have never been sure if we as scholars have the right to assume and appropriate their pain and agency and talk for them. But the authorial framework and the set of disciplinary protocols which allows these to be proclaimed ‘performative’ do not come from any contemporary academic discipline. In this sense, Bharucha’s questioning of Pallegrini as well as his discomfort is quite understandable. Formal academic disciplines however, are not the only sources to offer an authorial framework or legitimizing protocols for different kinds of performances. As we know quite well, the discourses on medieval European public executions through beheading, hanging and quartering were designed to be public events or performances with their own ritualized practices which the executioners as well as the de-agencied victims were obliged to follow. Similarly, the entire spectrum of ‘thirty two forms of torture’ (detis vadha) practiced within the system of pre-colonial judicial system in Sri Lanka were also designed to be public performances. Victims were garlanded in red hibiscus flowers (known as vadha mal or torture flowers) and paraded through the streets accompanied by the sound of a specific drum beat known as the ‘death drum’ (mala bera). The drumming brought people out to see the spectacle of public torture which ended in death. People readily gathered to see these events and often cheered on the executions. In other words, they were an interactive group of spectators in a public performance. My point is when perpetrators undertake extreme acts of terror, they can be seen as performances not on the basis of legitimacy drawn from the protocols of contemporary academic practice, but by the authorial frameworks and protocols of established practice offered by these ancient practices which still linger in the historical consciousness of many.

What I have attempted so far is to capture albeit in a minimally coherent manner the crux of Bharucha’s masterful text, admittedly however without doing much justice to his overall narrative. As I read his book, Bharucha’s narrative took me to places which my mind had locked up long ago; it unlocked memories that were long forgotten; it made me revisit experiences of terror and violence that I had walked through which I would have preferred not to have done. In other words, I have read this book not as an autonomous text but as something that makes more nuanced contextual sense to me when read through the trajectories of my own life and my own history. But that also means it will be understood from the strengths of my own background as well as through the obvious hindrances of its lapses.


Terror, Performance and Anxieties of Our Times:

Reading Rustom Bharucha and Reliving Terror

[1]. Edward Said, 1997. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. New York: Vintage Books.
 [2]. Ariel Dorfman, 1991. Death and the Maiden. New York: Penguin Books.
[3]. http://www.tipitaka.net/tipitaka/dhp/verseload.php?verse=005 (last accessed on 09 August 2014).

Sasanka Perera, trained as a social anthropologist attempts to teach at the Department of Sociology at South Asian University, New Delhi having given up trying to do the same in Department of Sociology, University of Colombo. Much against his wishes, he is also forced to be the Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences at SAU solely because he possesses a larger crop of grey hair than anyone else at present. 

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s