BOOK EXCERPT

How a man avoided a woman waiting to meet him, her lover

An excerpt from a novel by a writer Suketu Mehta describes as ‘India’s Chekov’.

The central figure in our household is my chikkappa, Venkatachala, my father’s younger brother and the family’s sole earning member. He has a weakness for work, and is at it night and day.

We’re in the spice trade – owners of a firm called Sona Masala. It’s a simple enough business: order spices in bulk from Kerala, parcel them into small plastic packets in our warehouse, and sell these to the grocers of the city. Chikkappa started the business, now our source of sustenance, and as a result he’s regarded above everyone else at home. His meals, his preferences, his conveniences, are of supreme importance to us all. The harder he toils, the better it is for us.

He’s unmarried, and we fuss over him such that he’s bound to wonder what additional comfort marriage can bring at his age.

He receives all the domestic privileges accorded to the earning male of the family. The first sound in the morning indicating he’s awake, and tea is made. When it’s sensed that he’s finished bathing, the dosa pan goes on the stove. He can fling his clothes in the bathroom or in a corner of his bedroom or anywhere at all in the house, and they’ll materialize washed and ironed in his room.

Sometimes, on the pretext of work, he spends the night in his room at the warehouse. We’re careful not to ask him anything about it. Once, only a couple of weeks ago, there was a commotion when a woman came up to the house. Chikkappa was at home, but he didn’t step out. And why should he, when we’re here to fight on his behalf?

She came on a Sunday, at around nine in the morning. She’d waited awhile some distance away from the house, hoping perhaps to speak to Chikkappa if he emerged. It doesn’t take long for someone standing aimlessly on the road to draw people’s attention – my mother soon saw her from the kitchen window. She had on a pale green sari with a red border. Nothing in her bearing suggested she was a disreputable woman.

Still, in the half hour or so the woman stood there, glancing from time to time at the house, Amma made several concerned trips to the window. In these matters, it is always the women who suspect first. The woman likely had no intention of creating a scene, and for all we know she might have been happy to return after seeing Chikkappa briefly. But that was not what transpired.

She finally summoned the courage to approach the house. Amma saw her opening the gate and rushed out. By then she had made her way to the front steps.

“How can we help you?” Amma asked.

“Isn’t this Mr Venkatachala’s house?” the woman asked, the hesitation evident in her voice.

“Yes. Who are you?”

“My name is Suhasini. Is he at home?”

“Whom do you wish to see?”

“I’d like to see him... Mr Venkatachala. Can I speak to him?”

“Do you have some work with him?”

“I’d like to speak to him.”

“Regarding?”

“Can I see him?”

Knowing Amma, she would have felt slighted by the visitor’s lack of forthrightness. But she held her tongue. After all, she had no idea what the woman was to Chikkappa, and it wouldn’t do to displease him. “Wait, I’ll call him,” she said and came inside, leaving the woman at the door. It’s not hard for me to imagine the thoughts that must have raced through Amma’s mind during that brief conversation.

While this was happening, we, the three men of the house, were sitting at the dining table over our breakfasts, listening to the exchange at the door.

Malati and Anita were in the kitchen, also within earshot. None of us acknowledged hearing anything.

Amma entered the room and turned towards Chikkappa. Before she could say a word, he’d begun making signals to the effect that he wasn’t home. This was all that Amma needed. She strode out.

“He’s not at home,” we heard her say.

“But... he is. I know.”

“I said he’s not at home.”

“Will you please mention my name to him?”

“How can I when he’s not at home?”

“He’s at home. I know.”

“Am I lying to you then?”

“I know he’s inside. I saw him through the window when I was standing there. Please call him. I only want to speak to him.”

“In which language must I tell you? No means no. That’s all – now, please leave.” It was clear from Amma’s voice that she was nearing the end of her patience. I was amazed she could stand so firmly behind a lie.

“I will not leave without seeing him.”

Malati went to the door to join the fray. Unable to resist my curiosity, I followed her and stood leaning against the door frame. Up close the woman was attractive, slightly dark-complexioned. I could see a healed scar on her left temple and the odd grey hair. Her green sari had a fine brown pattern on it. In her hands was a small package wrapped in plastic. A black handbag hung on one shoulder.

Amma was emboldened by Malati’s arrival. “Ey,” she said, her voice now raised. “It’s better you leave now. Do you want me to kick you out? Who do you think you are?”

The woman was taken aback by Amma’s aggression. She seemed to realise the matter was getting out of hand. Making to leave, she brought out a steel container from the plastic cover in her hand and attempted to hand it to Amma. She said, “I’ve brought this because he’s fond of it. It’s masoor dal curry. Please give it to him.”

“What is all this? Do you think we don’t cook at home?”

Amma was infuriated. She pushed the container back towards the woman.

“It’s not like that ...” she said, and tried to press the container into Amma’s hands. Amma shrank back and it fell to the ground. The lid shot off to one side; the contents formed a thick puddle on the ground. The smell of garam masala wafted into the house. We all knew that Chikkappa was fond of masoor dal curry.

All of a sudden, the woman seemed crushed. She went down on her knees in front of the spilt curry, making helpless little noises. The liquid traced bright red trails along the ground, leaving behind dark clumps. The woman’s affection for Chikkappa was evident. There was an awkward silence. I suppose we were all a little flustered now, and wondering what he would do.

The lull did not last. Amma burst into unprovoked invective. “Get out! Get out, you whore!” she screamed.

I walked back a few steps and glanced towards the dining room to see how Chikkappa was taking it. He had abandoned his breakfast and retreated to his room.

The woman had not abused us. She had not come here to pick a fight. We were thrown off balance by her love for one of us, and so we tore into her with such vengeance that she collapsed to the ground, sobbing. Amma and Malati called her a beggar, a whore, and it was clear from the disbelief on her face that she had never been spoken to in this manner. Perhaps she waited because she was certain that Chikkappa would come to her aid. That must have been Amma’s worst fear too, not that it stopped her.

On that day I became convinced that it is the words of women that deeply wound other women. I’d never imagined Malati and Amma to be capable of such cruelty – they were like dogs protecting their territory. All that woman had wanted was to see Chikkappa once. But these two felled her with their words, and they kept at it as she sobbed there sitting on the ground. Suddenly, she looked up through her tears, searching in the house behind us. She called out in a hoarse voice: “Venka... Venka... Come outside. It’s me, your Tuvvi.”

There was silence once more. She had deployed her most powerful weapon. It was embarrassingly clear now that there had been something between them. Venka and Tuvvi! Those private, affectionate names, now out in the open. Would he accept this part of him? We waited. If he was going to respond to her cry, it would be at once.

Amma continued to stand firm, but I noticed her turn and glance into the house. When a few seconds passed without sound or movement from within, it became clear that Chikkappa wouldn’t be coming out. A strange unexpressed fury radiated from the woman. Who knew how deep their relationship was? We had prevailed, and now it only remained to bring the scene to an end.

Excerpted with permission from Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag, Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur, HarperCollins 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.