Library of India

This Tamil novel laid bare the politics and divisiveness of Malayalam literature

‘I detest my adversaries, I am ashamed of my disciples.’ An excerpt from Tamil writer Sundara Ramaswamy’s scathing satire ‘JJ: Some Jottings’.

Professor Menon had tried explaining many times in various ways, to JJ, about Mullackal and writers of his kind, and their contribution. But JJ would never budge from his assessment that Mullackal was a fool.

Mullackal, in fact, was no fool. He was a writer. He may not be well read. But then what have scholars achieved anyway! Has the literary world ever been short of scholars? So many oceans of Sanskrit scholarship. Giants of grammar. They had cast so many verses in the readymade moulds of grammar. Was there ever a glimmer of poetry in them?

Mullackal knows life. Is that not the best of learning? He realised that the life he knew so well was not getting reflected in literature. Rather, if it did so, it was not considered to be literature. Literature, it was claimed, would not talk of everyday experience. I argued for creating literature out of this soil. But I could never illustrate it. Only the writings of Mullackal and his likes exemplified my ideas.

Whoever spoke for the many who were born in this soil, grew up, toiled and died without a trace? Was it not Mullackal? What did the Namboodiris, who, taking a bath after a thorough oil rub, drink dasamularishtam to induce hunger, and walk about the wide courtyards of their homes on bark slippers without soiling their soles, have to do with literature, he asked.

He’s right, isn’t he? Can one who knows nothing about life create a literary work? Isn’t his claim – though he brags a little too much on stage – that “I dragged literature out of homes, into the streets,” quite valid? Why does JJ refuse to accept this fact?

Today, a whole battalion follows in his footsteps, and the view that such writing too is literature has gained acceptance. The very approach to literature has altered. Can we not build on this? Why does JJ refuse to see this?

“I refute all their claims.” This particular line of JJ, made in the course of a discussion, had become popular with literary youths with goatees. Unmindful of the layers of meanings that JJ implied, they parroted it on every platform. Finally JJ had to declare at a meeting, “I detest my adversaries. But I am ashamed of those who claim to be my disciples.” Yet the disciples didn’t seem to mind. They take it as a doting pat on their cheeks.

JJ could deploy a series of arguments against Mullackal. Why should fakes of the progressive variety command more respect than reactionary fakes? I refuse to go by appearances. Namboodiris won prizes by currying favours with princes. Mullackal gets awards by cosying up to the state’s director of education.

If Mullackal writes copiously on whores, it is not to expose their burning economic hardships. His mind is unavoidably peopled by whores. It is not for me to blindfold my eyes with his veils. He really loves prostitution. Not only does the denouement count, but so does every word of the narrative. I would not countenance a physician who molests a woman and then cleans up her womb. Unmindful of what others may say, it is my task not to be fooled, and to expose cheats. I repeat.

Mullackal really loves prostitution. He cannot for the life of him imagine a society without prostitutes. Despite all his denouncements, he continues to write in the comforting confidence that prostitution would not cease in his lifetime. I respect reactionaries. Their integrity. They do not use masks. Despite social ostracism, they stand by their beliefs.

Mullackal’s wife hates to serve food to Ezhava writers in her home. Not to speak of Harijans.

She has never read a book in her life. But has thorough knowledge of the caste of every author from Kanyakumari to Kasargod. In fact, even their subcastes. If they were born of an inter-caste marriage, she would be in the know of it too. Such details are at her fingertips. When you see her grinning and fawning over her Namboodiri guests, you would want to thrash her.

When she greets the padres, she would drip with devotion. Only if you ask for the house of “Bhargavi Amma, who lends money”, can you easily locate his address in Mullackal. If you inquire after our venerated author’s name, it will come to naught. Professional usurers would be shamed to death by her ruthless trade.

When I asked him about his wife, he stated that he detested her with all his heart, and it was years since he had had anything to do with her. Half an hour and two pegs later, to my question, “How old is your youngest child?”, he replied, “Seven months,” and went on to boast about how he crawled on all fours. Nothing against a couple enjoying marital bliss, really. I state this to show what a liar, what an idiot, he is.

The professor may entertain a foolish respect for Mullackal for realising some of his dreams. But his guts are not made to take such chicanery. If not today, certainly later, he will start retching. Not just the professor, whoever may assert it, not appearances but the truth behind appearances, which is at the foundation of literature. This will never change. If only appearances, and the changes in the appearances, count for literature, then literature itself may be redundant. For isn’t the world itself in continuous change? JJ would go on, on these lines.

According to JJ, Mullackal and his camp followers were steeped in feudal views. They had only displaced the gods and the outward mien of exploitation. In their search for social standing, they employed tactics far worse than those of feudalists. Their real objectives were two: money and fame. To attain this, they resort to masks. This requires no research. Just take a look at their lives.

But their guise passes muster here. JJ knew their writings. And their lives too.

At the end of literary meetings, youths would gather around him. Then he would talk. His probing arrows aimed at rotten souls would always be on target. The more he shot, the more the arrows in his quiver multiplied. Every time he elaborated on how he reached a conclusion, he would marshal ever-newer evidence. Never did he unleash what he had already read or contemplated. He would only articulate his immediate thoughts. Even if he repeated yesterday’s idea today, it would have taken on a new dimension. Clichés were not for him. Fresh images would emerge.

It is perhaps for this reason that Professor Menon called him a poet. “His language – both in speech and writing – reveals this,” he used to say. JJ never denied this. “Today’s poets may have put me off poetry. Drama gets me thinking, because it has not yet been vulgarised by the new camp. Publishing opportunities determine their genres. When periodicals published poetry, they wrote poems. When the fortune of short stories arose, their editors gave up on poems and turned to them. Factories for producing short stories cropped up immediately. Now the periodicals demand serial stories. So the spinning mills have turned into weaving mills. Tomorrow, the press barons will think of plays as a commodity. Play-producing factories will flourish. Mullackal will then make the claim that he wrote an entire play in a single night. (The ability to write quickly is seen as a sign of creativity.) Then an upstart critic will pronounce, ‘Mullackal has done an Ibsen.’ In our tongue, there are Ibsens. But no plays. There are two Shelleys, three Keatses and seven Walt Whitmans. But no poetry. No dearth of Bertrand Russells either. But there’s little philosophical inquiry. Somebody referred to Pachu Pillai as the Lenin of Karunagappally. Since then, without preparing himself for a revolution, he has begun to grow a Lenin-like beard. Nature too has cooperated with him, by causing a bald pate. If you notice him closely, with a book under his arm, face tilted to the side, taking short steps on the platform, you can see him imagining himself to be Lenin. Whenever he opens his mouth, I can hear a boy raising a racket, drumming on an empty tin box with a mallet. Once I walked up to him and said, ‘You are no Lenin, but Karunagappally Pachu Pillai!’ Ever since I’ve been his sworn enemy. These days, when he talks dismissively of ‘some people’ (‘Some people are saying this’, ‘Some people are writing that’), he is actually talking about me. When I ran into him at the Orient Bookshop, Thrissur, I asked him, ‘Why do you use the plural, instead of the singular?’ He flew into a rage, and threw a challenge. ‘In six months’ time, I will wipe your name out of history!’ To him, history and the tapioca curry that his wife, Karthiyayini, makes amount to the same. JJ would talk along these lines.

Excerpted with permission from JJ: Some Jottings, Sundara Ramaswamy, translated from the Tamil by A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Penguin Books.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

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:

Play

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