BHANU KAPIL’S SCHIZOPHRENE BEGINS, “I threw the book into the dark garden. The account begun mid-ocean, in a storm.” What follows is the story of “what happened in a particular country on a particular day”: August 14th, 1947, the date of the Partition of India, a geo-political and religious separation that divided one country into two. Partition marked the end of 89 years of British colonial rule and ostensibly created a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. But instead of the intended peaceful separation, Partition brought about civil, ethnic, and religious conflict and inaugurated years of homelessness, riots, and war.
Rejecting the ideological fantasy of separation, Kapil pronounces it “psychotic to draw a line between two places” and illuminates how a historical trauma, like a personal one, can have lasting effects that refuse to be contained in a singular time and place. As the literary scholar Lauren Berlant claims in Cruel Optimism, her most recent work on affect and attachment, an initial traumatic event “is at once enigmatic and overpresent.” It is the shock of a violence experienced yet obscured, immediate and still enduring, often repressed and returned to at later, unexpected dates. Prolonged consequence replaces any quick clasp between cause and effect with results surfacing and taking shape belatedly, often in displaced and transformed ways.
As a dynamic, alternative mapping of the Partition’s aftermath, Schizophrene depicts the ensuing violence of forced migration and the unsettled issues of racism resonating across generations, inside relocated homes, and within the bodies and psyches of those reproached as outsiders. A single line, sans speaker, records an encounter as interpellation: “Immigrant. Nothing happens. Immigrant.” The emphasized word reverberates, beating back the accused behind a dividing line, lodging the malediction into the recipient’s self until the voices within and without merge, and Immigrant becomes a schizophrenic experience.
Bodies, likewise, bear the mark of trauma. One man is “collapsed, screaming, insensate to the arrival of his wife a week later, her sari caked with blood” and another, in the public corridor of a mental health institute, lies upright “on a stretcher propped against a wall. Something vertical when it should have been sideways.” Schizophene is full of such painful images: in one instance, “Against a tree, a woman is pinned, upright and strung with lights or gunpowder flares and nodes”; in another, we see “row after row of women tied to the border trees” with their stomachs cut open. Throughout, Kapil’s text expresses the pressure of social upheaval in physical terms: people press a forehead against a door, back into the snow, spine “flat against the wallpaper, which is velvet and cream with a bumpy motif of paisley swirls as per the era.”
Schizophrene is also an account of writing itself, which is thematized as an unpredictable series of events of difficult-to-calculate durations. The opening image returns: “I threw the book into the dark garden. A dotted line. A white hole. An unseen shape rotating and twisting on the icy crust.” This persistent action signifies a question that preoccupies Kapil: how does one tell this story of disruption? “Maybe there’s a different way to tell this quick, black tale,”...read more