BOOK EXCERPT

She Will Build Him A City: is this novel Midnight’s Children for the new millennium?

A work of violence, sex, poverty, love, and longing.

He is going to kill and he is going to die.

That’s all we know for now, let’s see what happens in between.

~


He waits to board the last train at Rajiv Chowk Station, the central hub of the Delhi Metro, crossover for Yellow and Blue Lines, through which move half-a-million passengers each day of whom he is one.

Nobody in this city notices one.

He is thirty years, thirty-five years old, 5' 10'', 5' 11'', his wrist so slim his watch slides halfway to his elbow when he  raises his arm to brush back his hair. It’s over 40 degrees but there’s not a single bead of sweat on his face as if an invisible layer of ice-cold air sticks to him like cling film. Both hands free, he holds no bag, no phone as he waits at the platform, two levels below the street, next to Café Coffee Day under the Metro Clock whose hand shudders each time it moves a second.

Passengers ride escalators like toy men, toy women in a Shanghai factory he once saw on the Discovery channel: small and stiff, gliding up the belt, emerging face first. Followed by neck, chest, waist, legs, and, in the end, feet.That topple into a box to be hot-sealed closed, shipped across the ocean. To cities where there are more toys than children.

Next train 02 min.

The station is crowded, he closes his eyes, sees everyone naked and bruised.

Deep gashes scour bare stomachs and thighs like mouths of brown bags slit open.

Women squat on haunches blowing air into wrinkled penises.

Like children with balloons.

One is red, a womb floating in blood, inside which a foetus glows.

He feels an erection coming.

He opens his eyes, his heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains, John Keats.

~


He likes poetry, he doesn’t like wet, he doesn’t like spray or spatter. No knife, no thick rope, no iron rods, the most popular weapons behind the headline murders in this city. Of Aarushi, the schoolgirl; mother Gurpreet and daughter Jasmeen; French tourist Lauren; Afghan woman Paimana and the elderly couple in Greater Kailash I, most of them stabbed, cut in many places. Or strangled, bludgeoned. Won’t work for him because he knows his arms lack strength and even if he gathers enough force to hit, it’s unlikely he will kill with the first blow which means he will have to keep hitting and, in the process, smear and stain larger areas. Perhaps, provoke a scream. There are 29,468 people per square kilometre in this city (Census 2011), twice that many is the number of ears.

Someone is bound to hear.

He could use a gun with a silencer, quiet and quick. As in movies he’s watched, books he’s read. Murder in Echo Park, Los Angeles, rain sliding down car windows, fogged in the cold. A park in Asker, near Oslo, a politician found in an empty swimming pool, a white tennis ball hammered deep into her throat. But this is fact, not fiction.

There are 20 million bodies in this city and then there is the heat.

Each body softened, warmed throughout the day in a marinade of its sweat and odours, hair oil, dust thrown up by diggers, cement mixers, earthmovers, dumptrucks. All tearing down, building up. New station, new flyover, new apartment block, new mall, new street, New City. Where everyone rubs against you, stands so close you hear their blood flow, skin crawl, hearts pump. Like the sound of trains running at night. You see remnants of meals lodged in teeth, trapped under nails stained yellow; cellphone screens smudged with wax from ears, flecked with flakes of dead skin.

Late at night, just before they close, eyes gleam with greed; during the day, they dim with despair.

~


He read a poem in school, On Killing a Tree by Gieve Patel, a doctor who lives in Mumbai. He has some lines by heart.

It takes much time to kill a tree,
Not a simple jab of the knife
Will do it . . .
. . . So hack and chop
But this alone won’t do it . . .
. . . The bleeding bark will heal And from close to the ground
Will rise curled green twigs . . . No,
The root is to be pulled out –
. . . Out from the earth cave,
And the strength of the tree exposed, The source, white and wet . . .
. . .Then the matter
Of scorching and choking
In sun and air,
Browning, hardening,
Twisting, withering.
And then it is done.


End of poem, he’s never killed a human being. Only once, he has killed – a dog.

~


He hears the train.

He loves the Metro from the bottom of his heart, the place where he knows bad blood turns into good. He loves each train with its four, sometimes six, some have eight, Bombardier coaches. That’s why, on nights like this one, he leaves his car at home to take the train back from wherever he is.

When he is nine years ten years old, he has a severe stomach ache, fierce spasms twist and crush his insides, make him cry into his pillow every night for a week. Father takes him to hospital where they make him swallow barium sulphate, then track its movement by taking X-ray pictures every half-hour until they have an entire album of black, translucent plates which, when held against the light, show the barium travelling through his body.

He holds that last image in his head: that of a thin, white trace moving straight down in the black, through the cloudy haze of organs, knotting into whorls and loops where the ulcers are, then travelling clear again, uninterrupted.

Like the Metro.

Each train a glowing pill swallowed, coursing through the dark insides of this sick city.

On the way home from hospital, Father buys him a cricket bat and a roll of Poppins hard-boiled candy to take the barium’s taste away.

~


The train pulls in, pushing, in front, a wave of warm air from the tunnel to the platform. Doors open, people spill. A smell like rotting vegetables, bread and bananas gone bad.

Dead and damp.

Poet Gieve Patel is a painter, too. He did Man in the Rain with Bread and Bananas. (Oil on canvas, 2001.) That’s his favourite because the man in the painting looks like his father. The same sad eyes, the same old glasses.

Next station is Patel Chowk, doors will open to the right, mind the gap.

Twelve stops before he reaches home in Apartment Complex, New City.

Standing, he closes his eyes.

Excerpted with permission from She Will Build Him A City,  Raj Kamal Jha, Bloomsbury India.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.