Magic, memory, history

In the middle of the driveway leading up from the main entrance to the stately buildings of the New Delhi High Court stands an unassuming structure, a circular building of bricks seemingly hastily glued together and whitewashed. A short wall runs around it, separated from the building by the narrowest of margins and punctuated by an entrance. A tree stands guard at the opening, its flowering branches gently scratching the roofs of cars as they move to its left into a parking lot.

My uncle, a lawyer, keeps an office at the court for his practice. On a visit to his chamber some two decades ago I learned, from one of his colleagues, that the circular structure was a mosque. I did not find out much about its origin but my imprecise curiosity, yet to be sharpened into academic focus, led me to an astonishing set of legends about the court, a tapestry of magical stories into which was woven the very existence of the mosque. That afternoon, over rounds of food from the court's first-rate canteen, visions of the supernatural life of the court, passed down and around by word of mouth, revealed themselves.

One story held that the court was built on the site of a fabulous treasure, one that was endowed with a religious and mystical power. That power also resided in the stretch of wall that ran along the east side of the court, jutting out of the earth like an uneven set of teeth. Rumour had it that anyone who tried to tear down the wall met with a sorry end. I heard the tale of a judge who gave an order for its demolition, sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and of a construction worker tasked with carrying out the explosion. On the verge of pressing the dynamite plunger, the worker was said to have been seized by madness and ran away screaming; the judge, at the very same moment, was stricken by paralysis. Carried to the wall on a stretcher, the judge begged for forgiveness, and following this act of contrition he found his health restored. There was no news of what became of the worker.

There were other stories, too, of the spirits of pirs, or saints, who used to roam the corridors of the court. They emerged on those jumma, or Friday nights, when the moon was in full bloom. According to the legend, the lights of the court turned themselves on deep into the night, and trying to shut them by turning off switches was useless. If one was patient and believed, so went the story, one could glimpse the saints in fleeting white robes or hear their steps fall quietly on the floors.

Life chances

It has been many years since I last visited the court. It is possible the mosque might not even exist anymore – though, given the political fallout of removing a mosque from a seat of justice in an India that still bears the scars of the Babri Masjid demolition, that seems unlikely.

While living in several Indian cities since that initial experience at the Delhi High Court, I have encountered similar legends and stories of the incongruous coexistence of two worlds, embodied perfectly by that semi-pucca whitewashed mosque in the middle of the rationally ordered, quintessentially modern space of the court. In an unpublished memoir in the archives of the Hindustan Gadar Party, housed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley, I came across an account of a similarly astonishing incident related to the 1915 Singapore mutiny by the Rajput Muslim regiment. The Gadar Party was a San Francisco Bay Area-based political immigrants' organisation that campaigned for Indian independence in the early 20th century. Purportedly inspired by anti-British Gadar writings and by the Khilafat movement, in the course of the mutiny the regiment exterminated British officers and civilians in Singapore and held the city for several days.

The story, narrated by British soldiers to Darisi Chenchiah, the author of the memoir, concerned a lowly ranked jamadar who was captured as a mutineer, although he had in fact remained neutral during the mutiny, neither helping nor harming the British. According to this tale, the jamadar was said to have weighed some 500 pounds, and when ordered to be shot to death simply would not die, despite taking bullets to the heart and head. Eventually he succumbed, after much effort on the part of those responsible for executing him. The soldiers requested Chenchiah to tell this story to the world – and Chenchiah, in the same passage in the memoir, in turn asks scholars to look into the story to check its authenticity. As with stories of the supernatural concerning the High Court, Chenchiah's story disrupts the rationalist narrative, in this case of political revolution and justice. And in both cases, even though not verifiable by facts, the legends endure, circulating across times and spaces.

It is easy to see these two tales as superstition, as the persistence of backwardness and folly, of an irrational religiosity that cannot attain the political and intellectual disposition required for a life in modernity. There are no doubt competing explanations for these legends, from the psychological to the radically sceptical. That summer afternoon at the High Court in Delhi, more than one person suggested that the myths surrounding the court were creatures of the maulvi's imagination, born of his will to ensure a living for himself and a survival for the mosque.

The longevity of these stories seem to call out, however, for a different kind of engagement. We are compelled to inquire into the nature of public spaces in India, into the role of the magical in history and politics more broadly, and into an adequately critical response to the presence and force of the non-rational as a repository of memory. In a provocative essay, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that the enduring role of superstition in Indian public life can be understood with reference to the historical experience (and peculiar nature) of colonial modernity from which the domain of the modern Indian political emerges.

Superstition, Chakrabarty points out, seeks to improve our personal wellbeing or 'life-chances' – our opportunities in life – through controlling the unknown. In the properly disciplinary societies of the West, it is forms of knowledge (or disciplines), such as statistics, that constitute the techniques of taming chance. These techniques, in turn, are regulated by political structures and institutions that collectively represent the apparatus of modern political power. This apparatus provides the norms for collective moral-political life – that is, the ways in which, for all our differences, we live modern lives as a people. Earlier, superstition could play a role in public and political life in disciplinary societies. It might continue to play a role in private life but no longer does so in public life.

Chakrabarty identifies an 'effective' rule of law as reflective of such a successful, hegemonic project. In a society such as India, in which the institutions that seek to govern collective moral-political life were introduced during colonial rule, he writes, political power 'could never be properly distinguished from the various strategies of power that were and are about enhancing life-chances.' Political power itself was subordinated, or existed alongside, other powers – faith, religion or superstition – that sought to govern life-chances. Understanding the persistence of superstition in life at the time, accordingly, demands an examination of the meaning of the 'political' in the Indian context.

Transmutation before the law

Extending Chakrabarty's point, in the legends circulating around the Delhi court we can read an alternate claim to both the literal space occupied by the court and the privileged political space that it occupies in Indian society. As a rationalist discourse for ordering and regulating society, the law plays a prescriptive role in designating value to spaces, to the bodies that move through and inhabit these spaces, and to the practices that these bodies carry out. These practices and actions include, though are not restricted to, what Chakrabarty terms 'life-chances'. The law carries out these operations in the name of the modern nation state, whose legitimacy it is tasked with securing.

The legends, myths and stories of magic outlined above provide an extra-legal rationale and defence for the existence of the mosque. In their substance, and in the very fact of their circulation, they stand outside the scope of the law. At the very least, the existence of the mosque, which possibly predates the existence of the court, and the stretch of wall stubbornly remind us that the territory and symbolic space of the court are not entirely governed by the logic of political modernity represented by it. Interestingly, the actors and objects in such fables subvert not just the logic of modern political reason, but scientific reason as well. Light switches are powerless in the presence of the pirs, dynamite plungers fail to work on a wall imbued with a spiritual power stemming from the past.

The stories also lay bare and challenge the open secret of the law, the fact that the law operates through violence and distributes pain and suffering, both cause and consequence of its function of ordering and regulating society. Legal interpretation, as famously noted by the legal theorist Robert M Cover, takes place in a field of pain and death … Legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others: A judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his children, even his life. Interpretations in law also constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur.

For philosopher Jacques Derrida, there are two forms in which the violence of law manifests itself. The first relates to the moment when the law is established. Derrida's argument is that the law itself is not founded on any legal ground. It bootstraps itself into being, and its coming into existence is marked by a kind of foundational violence. It is, in a sense, beside the point to consider whether the founding of the law is just or unjust. The second form concerns the everyday, routine functioning and enforcement of the law, which operates through the exercise of force or violence or the threat of such violence, as Robert Cover also suggests.

In the myths swirling around the Delhi High Court, the relationship between law and society is inverted. It is the court itself that is subject to violence, and that too of an extra-legal and extra-rational provenance. Not only do the extra-legal structures and past escape the jurisdiction of the court, they also inflict violence upon those who serve the court, striking them with madness and illness. The judge, whose words, as Cover notes, bear the potential to cause and spread pain, loses the capacity to speak those words since he is rendered mute through paralysis. The judge cannot seek legal recourse; it is forgiveness (a non-legal form of supplication) that does the trick.

Finally, rationalist strands appear in such stories simply as another species of magic, rather than as frameworks that can explain magic as an inferior mode of grasping the world. For what do discussions about the nation state, citizenship, scientific progress or the free market promise if not a form of alchemy: the transformation of a people, squabbles and all, into an enlightened collective; the hope of material progress; the rise of a nation? And what do they demand if not an unflinching commitment or faith in the force of that alchemy? It is instructive that many of the terms of European social theory that purport to explain the process by which subjects, actors, or bearers of practices are persuaded to accept a compact with political modernity – ideologyhegemonyinterpellation – involve some notion of illusion, even if that illusion is not necessarily deception.

Shadow history

Can one read, in the fables, myths and legends about the seat of rational, political order, a scepticism about these promises? And could this scepticism derive from the collective memory, the lived and transmitted experience of the past, of the trauma of modernity in the Indian context? As Chakrabarty reminds us, modernity is inherently colonial in the operations that it performs upon its subjects. The transformation of people into modern subjects and citizens necessarily involves violence, forcing them to give up earlier ways of life and adopting new practices – the nine-to-five job, filling out official forms, submitting to the authority of modern medicine and the bewildering procedures of the modern legal system. Did modernity in the colonies, with its untempered brutality, advertise its limitations and failings from the moment of its birth? Can one read glimmers of such a consciousness in the non-rational practices and stories associated with the very visible and conspicuous embodiments of the rational in Indian life?

How might we read such memories into history, beyond the register of the poetic or of anthropological singularity? One must surely tread with care, for several reasons. In calling for a historiography (and an Indian historiography) to engage meaningfully with the non-rational as a legitimate source of historical reason and practice, Chakrabarty is careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The need of liberal historiography is not in question, even as the blindness of its 'hyper-rationalism' needs to be questioned. He is cautious not to prescribe what a historiography sensitive to the non-rational might look like, but in the essay on superstition in public life, discussed earlier, he points to the historian Shahid Amin's classic work on the complex response of peasants to Mohandas K Gandhi's call for nationalist action. In thinking of any such project, one also needs to be wary of any fetishisation of the Indian, mystical, spiritual and religious, which threatens to balloon into a new Orientalism in the current euphoria about a globally ascendant India.

Memory is not history, argues the historian John Lonsdale, writing of the tensions between 'history' and 'narrative memories' of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. That might indeed be the case. But surely there is a cost to ignoring the demand that the affective aftermath of loss, dislocation or violence of modernity makes on history. Loss and dislocation often, even typically, find their own languages of expression that do not always conform to the forms of evidence sought by historiography. These languages are variously and simultaneously personal and private, poetic and literary, and allegorical – and frequently the stuff of nightmare and trauma. Removing from the purview of the analytical such significant aspects of the lives of historical actors and subjects forecloses the possibility of asking critical questions and discovering interesting avenues of inquiry. As Chakrabarty suggests, it leaves untheorised an entire field of rich relations between the wondrously vast range of social and cultural practices and the historical forces that shape and are shaped by these.

The High Court is located on the fringes of bureaucratic New Delhi. Moving away from it, one encounters the compressed historical experience of a millennium captured in the ancient structures and ruins from the city's many previous lives. Past these, travelling through what is probably the busiest traffic intersection in Southasia and over the ITO Bridge, one finally lands in the dystopic, asphyxiating, endless sprawl of trans-Jamuna Delhi. Moving in another direction, one floats into a world of tree-lined avenues, impossibly large bungalows inhabited by politicians and senior judges and bureaucrats and their armies of servants, now politely called 'domestic help' in globalising India. Suddenly, here, the crowds thin to the point of vanishing in Edwin Lutyens's Delhi, which was designed, of course, to exclude the great unwashed from the haunts of the guardians of political, rational and bureaucratic modernity in India.

Liberal histories will tell us of the benefits that accrue to the hordes for the supposedly reasonable costs they are asked to bear. Marxist histories can tell us of the erasure of history by capital and of the mechanisms of disempowerment of the vulnerable. Can one also imagine a history that could articulate the claims of loss, the potential critiques of modernity, the gesture toward the yet-unthought contained within non-rational discourses? Such a history might help to make numerous connections between the inner lives of historical subjects and the external 'facts' that govern those lives. It might expand our conception of personal testimony and experience that would complicate the authoritative judgment of official histories and policy pronouncements. This shadow history already haunts rationalist historiography, even as it is excluded from the latter. Bringing it into the open, as Chakrabarty and others have noted, would be a way of teaching us how to listen to those experiences of modern life and its discontents whose murmurs we cannot even discern.

The majority of Indians have at least one felt experience or heard story to narrate about the violence and brutality of the law, about bureaucratic humiliation, about an unfairness carried out in the name of modernity. Do the pirs who visit the Delhi High Court on full-moon jumma nights not speak of our desires to hold the law accountable to some conception of dignity and fairness beyond it? Does the mosque in the court not represent our sense that we are not exhausted by the legal and political categories of the modern nation state? Does the story of the jamadar, now continuing to circulate through this telling as well not keep alive the fact of the fundamental injustice of his killing? To recognise this fully in history would be history as magic – magical history.

~ Rohit Chopra is assistant professor of communication at Santa Clara University, California.

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