BOOK EXCERPT

Family Life: The ‘Indian’ novel shortlisted for the £40,000-Folio Prize

An excerpt from a portrait about a dysfunctional family with a brain-damaged child, narrated by the other son.

It is the late 1970s. India has been wrenched by the Emergency. Like countless Indian children, Ajay and Birju are taken by their parents to America so they can have a better life. In New York, their flat is tiny, the students at their school racist. Like all striving Asian children, Ajay and Birju forge ahead, pushed on by their ambitious parents. But then everything changes. Birju has an accident that leaves him brain-damaged, and the world around Ajay collapses. His father begins to drink, his mother takes to prayer, and it is Ajay who must now bear all the guilty weight of their love.

~

I was at the school playground the next morning, waiting for the starting bell, when Jeff came up to me. He had a book bag dangling from one shoulder and both hands in his back pockets. He said, “Have you ever asked your brother to blink once for yes and twice for no?”

One of the reasons I had not told anyone was because I was afraid of questions like this. “I have. It doesn’t work.” Even as I had tried this in the hospital, with nobody else around, I had known that it would have no effect.

"Have you ever shouted ‘Fire!’ and run away and then seen if he would get up?”

“No,” I murmured.

Jeff stared. “That might work.”

“I’ll try.” I was quiet for a little while. Jeff remained standing before me. I said, “My brother was a genius. He took French for two weeks and after that he could speak it perfectly.”

Jeff nodded. He looked serious, like he was being given a secret mission.

The school doors opened. Jeff and I went inside together.

At lunch I sat down across from him and his best friend, Michael Bu, a Chinese boy with a round face and sharp little teeth like a fish. “Can your brother not talk at all,” Michael asked, “or does he sound retarded?”

My face became hot. I had considered asking Jeff not to tell anyone about Birju, but it had seemed too much to ask. “Not at all.”

“What does he look like?” Michael asked.

I put a tater tot in my mouth and pointed a finger at my lips.

“What’s wrong with your brother?” Mario asked. Mario was sitting next to Michael. Mario was very tall and wide. He had fuzz on his upper lip. Once, when the class sang, “You Are My Sunshine,” he had cried. The children sometimes mocked him by singing the song.

“He had an accident in a swimming pool and became brain damaged.”

“Does he open his eyes?” Mario asked.

“Yes.”

Jeff said, “I saw a television show where a woman sees a murder and goes unconscious.”

I pursed my lips to appear serious. “That happens.”

“How does he eat?” Jeff asked.

I began to feel attacked.

“There is a tube in his stomach.” I told them about the Isocal formula and the gastrointestinal tube. I said, “My brother was a great basketball player. He played two games and immediately got so good that he began beating people. When he played, people came to watch.” By lying, I felt that I had placed a finger on a balance that was tilting too far to one side.

Within a few days, everybody in class had heard about Birju. Still, boys and girls came up to me during recess and asked eagerly whether I had a brother, as if the secret could be revealed once more.

Whenever I told someone about Birju, I felt compelled to lie about his wonderfulness. Because we had received so little money in the settlement, which meant that Birju was an ordinary boy, lying seemed the only way to explain that what had happened to him was awful, was the worst thing in the world. Birju, I said, had rescued a woman trapped in a burning car. Birju had had a great talent for music and a photographic memory.

Sometimes I didn’t tell these lies, but only imagined them. I concocted an ideal brother. I took the fact that Birju had told our parents that I was being bullied and turned this into him being a karate expert who had protected me by beating up various boys. These fantasies felt real. They excited me. They made me love Birju and when I was in his room kiss his hands and cheeks. They also cultivated rage at the loss, the way my father’s claims of racism cultivated it for him.

A part of me was anxious about the lies I told. I was afraid of being caught or doubted. Also, making up these stories seemed to serve as evidence that Birju had not been good enough for what happened to him to count as terrible. Each morning I woke on the sofa thinking of the lies I had told. Often I didn’t want to go to school.

At some point, I became aware that Jeff no longer believed my lies. Yet when I came up to him on the playground before school, loyalty demanded that I keep lying. “Birju solved a math problem that professors hadn’t been able to solve for years,” or, “My brother was a very fast runner. Once, he threw a ball straight ahead of him, and he chased it and caught it before it hit the ground.” One morning, when I stood outside school and told Jeff a lie, he stepped back and rolled his eyes.

Excerpted with permission from Family Life: A Novel, Akhil Sharma, Penguin Books 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.