Many years ago, I saw a terrible beating and didn’t realize I was looking at one. Till much later.
No experience is unmediated; without membership in a linguistic community, without a background theory, there is no immediate experience to speak of. There is no ‘given’; to ‘experience’ is to know how to deploy a certain linguistic arsenal of concepts, to know how to participate in a space of reasoners and communicators like oneself, to know what to assent to, to know what follows from what. I learned this from books, from the writings of philosophers. But I might have been exposed to some of the intuitions at the core of these theories when I was a mere child.
In the mid-seventies, the residential division my family lived in–in New Delhi–was not yet fully populated: vacant lots were as numerous as fully built up ones. One of these lay next to a park, one through which I sometimes had occasion to pass. One morning, when I was perhaps seven or eight years old, and had perhaps finished a little session of fooling around with my playmates, I noticed a commotion of sorts in the vacant lot that adjoined the park. I walked over to take a look.
I didn’t understand what I was looking at. There was a gaggle of onlookers, fixated on a spectacle; two men locked in a strange encounter with each other. One of them had a wooden beam and was using it to ‘hit’ the other man; he would bring the beam down, raise it, take a couple of steps back, and repeat; the recipient of his ‘blows’ lay limply against a fence. He had worn a turban once; now it had come loose, and his hair flowed down. I do not remember if I saw blood, though it must have been there. Perhaps I refused to acknowledge its visibility. There seemed to be an eerie silence pervading the proceedings, though again, wood on bone and flesh must have emitted some sound. Again, perhaps I refused to hear. Or perhaps, I did not have the resources with which to understand what I was witnessing. (I put quotes around ‘hit’ and ‘blows’ above because I don’t think they understood they were blows.) Like me, others were watching, all of us transfixed. Unlike me, the others were adults; perhaps their stupefaction stunned me into silence and incomprehension; if they found nothing to react to, then perhaps there was nothing there for me either. I stared and stared; one dim corner of my brain perhaps understood what was going, perhaps had the resources at its disposal to make sense of this ragdoll victim and his tormentor.
Finally, I broke away, and walked home. I did not talk about what I had seen with anyone else. I did not mention it to my parents, to my brother, to my friends. I never heard about the incident from any one. Not that I would necessarily have understood what was being referred to. Its memory receded from my brain. Other childish preoccupations, far more germane to my life, took over.
Years later, unbidden, that image presented itself to my mind’s eye again. I felt nauseated; what had I seen? Had I really witnessed as brutal an act as it now seemed? What else could it have been? In the meantime, I had seen movies, read books, understood the meaning of ‘violence’ and ‘assault’, seen photos of broken, bloody, beaten men. Now I could fit those images witnessed that day into a framework that let me make sense of them. I had gained retrospective knowledge of a very painful kind.
Note: The story above is subject to the usual caveats pertaining to memory.