BOOK EXCERPT

A new Perumal Murugan novel for English readers revisits passion and violence

A tale of love and revenge soaked in caste politics, by the controversial author of 'One Part Woman', 'Pookkuzhi' was published in Tamil in 2013.

Some of the men settled on the cot that had been laid down on the rock, others on the large stone nearby. Kumaresan sat in front of them and said, “Tell me, Maama. Why have you come at this hour?”

“It has dawned everywhere, Mapillai,” said one of the men. “It is only you who doesn’t seem to notice time flying by.”

Everyone laughed. The door to the hut stood open. Saroja huddled away to make sure they could not see her if they glanced in this direction. From where she sat, she could not really make out their faces clearly, but she could hear them perfectly.

“Mapillai,” began one of the men, “I don’t know what you were thinking when you did what you did. But you are the talk of the entire village today. At the meeting last night, a lot of people said very emphatically that we mustn’t start the preparations for the festival. We don’t know what her caste is, they are saying. We don’t know where he married her, according to what rituals… The point is that he has brought a girl here about whom we know nothing. The entire village bears a mark of impurity if there is a woman here whose caste or family are unknown. And if we start the festival here with this impurity in our midst, we might incur the wrath of Goddess Mariyatha. That’s what people are saying. They are saying let’s not have the festival at all.”

As soon as he stopped, someone else started. “Whenever we ask what caste she belongs to, you say she is from our caste only. If that is true, why haven’t her parents and relatives come along with the two of you? People are saying, ask him to bring them all here and show us. How do we answer them, Mapillai?”

“Only one or two boys your age are speaking in your support,” intoned another voice. “But even they are not saying anything useful. Only things such as: he liked her, so he married her . . . it has got nothing to do with the village. Do you think this is fair? Tell us. You might have married her elsewhere, but you have brought her here. If there is a festival or a function, you will want to take her along with you. Mark my words: All this mixing might work with soda colours, but it doesn’t in life.”

Kumaresan, who had stayed quiet until then, suddenly lost his patience. “I have married her,” he snapped, barely concealing the irritation in his voice. “What is it that you want me to do now?”

“Do you think you can antagonise the village and remain alive?” came the angry response. The man who said this turned to the others and quipped, “Why are we even talking to him? Let’s just tell him what the village has decided, and leave.”

Kumaresan sat in silence. His mother ranted, “Would he have done this if he had thought of the welfare of others?”

The man who sounded the oldest among the visitors began speaking in a calm voice. “Look here, Mapillai,” he intoned. “People said we should stop all preparations for the temple festival. They said we should not start any temple work without getting rid of the impurity that has come to our village because a girl from a different caste is living here. In the end though, everyone agreed that we should not stop preparations just for the sake of one person. But that does not mean we can leave things as they are. If we do that now, then everyone will bring girls from some other caste and keep them here. How can we let that happen? We carry pots of fire and pray to our Mariyatha. Would she tolerate another caste? If something happens to those who carry these firepots, who will take responsibility for that? So what we have decided is…”

“Why are you dragging on, Maama?” grumbled one of the younger men.

“Why can’t you just say it as it is? Look here, Mapillai. Until we know which caste the girl is from, we are going to excommunicate your family. We won’t take donations for the temple from you, and you will not be welcome at the temple during the festival. No field labourers will come to work at your place. You cannot have any transactions with any of the houses in the village. If you violate these rules, you’ll be insulting the village. Let the festival end. After that, we will have you over at the meeting and talk about this again. That’s the decision we have arrived at.”

“The girl’s parents and relatives should come here,” someone pontificated. “They should name their caste in front of the entire village. If it turns out that they are from one of our castes, we can figure out what reparations must be made. But if they belong to a caste we cannot mix with, the controls will extend for the rest of your life. Perhaps you could go and live elsewhere. But we can talk about this once the festival is over. In the meantime, think about all this and make your arrangements. Don’t try to wiggle out of this by sweet-talking us. The village won’t listen. Already, there is some talk in the other villages.”

“Mara, what can you do, you poor thing...” a man said. “This is why we say that we should keep our children here with us no matter what. Once they go out of the village, this is what happens. Even if our boys are all right, do you think the girls in the towns will let them be? Anyway, let’s see if this makes him see the light. Things have not gone too far even now. If he takes her back and leaves her there, everything will be all right. We will think of this as a bad dream and forget about it.”

The man was still talking when Marayi began sobbing loudly.

“My whole lineage has been destroyed. What will I do? I went through so much hardship to raise him. Was it all for this? Now if the village pushes us away, what am I to do? I lie on this rock like an orphan. Impose all the controls you want on this dog! But please exclude me from them. Other than the sin of giving birth to him, what have I done? He won’t leave her. He enters the hut as soon as he comes back home, and he comes out of it only in the morning. How do you think he’ll leave her?”

Her voice must have been audible leagues away. Kumaresan did not say anything. Saroja was once again aware of a strange heaviness in her stomach. Breathless, she felt as though she had to get out of the hut. She tried to rise, but she couldn’t. Her body trembled, and she felt faint.

Excerpted with permission from Pyre, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Penguin Books.

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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.