ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Contending Narratives on a Gang Rape in West Bengal

Rashomon Revisited

The precise truth of what actually happened in the case of the recent gang rape of a Santal woman in Suri town in the district of Birbhum, West Bengal is obscured by the overlapping, self-interested narratives of different actors, like in Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon. Is it even possible to go beyond the "Rashomon effect" to make sense of such incidents?

In Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950), the celebrated Japanese film-maker presents viewers with four contending narratives of the death of a samurai in a forest. The woodcutter, a key witness who reported the murder found the dead samurai, alleges that a brigand had killed him in a duel after raping his wife. The brigand admits in court to killing the samurai after a duel, but insists that he had only seduced, not raped the samurai’s wife. The wife claims that she had been raped by the brigand, but having fainted subsequently, she did not know how exactly her husband died. Finally, the deceased samurai appears to testify before the magistrate. He says that his wife had been raped by the brigand, after which she urged the brigand to kill her husband, but the brigand refused to comply. The samurai then claimed that he killed himself.

The precise truth of what actually happened is obscured by the overlapping, self-interested narratives of different actors. Did the samurai kill himself or was he murdered? Was the samurai’s wife raped? Did she want her husband killed? Kurosawa does not allow us as viewers to reach any definite conclusions. Social scientists and historians are often placed in the same position as Kurosawa’s viewers. We cannot always be sure of what really happened in a particular situation. All we have are contending narratives of self-interested actors, each of which reveals a small shard of reality even as it contradicts another. Anthropologists call it the “Rashomon effect” (Heider 1988).

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