Guest Post by 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.