Library of India

First read: The story of the boxer who had to win more bouts outside the ring than in it

Two novellas about a boxer by Moti Nandy, whose sports-based fiction remains unique in India, perhaps the world.

Shiva leapt to the ground, landing as silently as a tiger. A deathly silence hung over the factory compound. The back side of the quarters was dark; the front was illuminated by an electric bulb. Shiva took advantage of this fact, and made his way through the grass towards the bedroom window.

He sat right below the open window and waited for some time, watching his surroundings. There was no one around, and no sound within the room either. He raised a hand, and very carefully knocked thrice on the window pane. No one responded. Shiva knocked on the pane again, a little louder, and whispered, “Utpal babu, Utpal babu!”

“Who’s there?” A terrorised and muffled male voice was heard.

Shiva rose to his feet and said in a low voice, “Don’t be afraid, I’m Paromita’s friend. Here, at the window.”

A shadowy figure appeared in the darkness. It walked closer to the window, maintaining a cautious distance. With some hesitation, the man said, “Who are you?”

“My name is Shiva. Mita, I mean Paromita, is my friend. I’ve come to take you and your family out of the quarters.” There was suspicion-laden silence inside the dark room. It was quite natural, Shiva thought, given the circumstances. He heard muffled voices within the darkness – anxious, hesitant and unsure.

“You can trust me. Your phone and electricity lines have been disconnected. Tomorrow, they’ll cut off the water too. The front door has been locked from the outside. There are many of them – twenty-five or thirty, at least. They’ll force you to resign. Your child, Tutu, he’s running a high fever, he needs a doctor. Think of him, please,” Shiva pleaded with the man.

More muffled discussions were heard from within the room. Shiva shot a quick glance around the compound. There was no time to lose. He turned to the window once again and said, “Mita used to go to Bhawani sir’s coaching class. I live nearby. She doesn’t go there any more, ever since a goon tried to break Bhawani sir’s hand.”

“Yes! Yes!” An anxious female voice was heard from inside the room. “That’s right. Paro never went back. She said a young man named Shiva – “

“Didi, I am Shiva. I’ve come to help you. Mita is worried about the three of you. You’ve got nothing to worry about; you’ll be safe with me.”

“So, you are the boxer?” Utpal asked.

In the darkness, Shiva shut his eyes as a flurry of scenes ran through his head. With enormous effort, he tightened his jaw and pushed the memories aside. “I used to be. I don’t box any more. But please hurry. There’s not a moment to lose.”

“How will we go? The front door is locked, and there are men guarding the main gate.”

“We’ll have to scale the wall at the back. You pick up a few important things, take Didi and Tutu and go up to the terrace. Take a bed sheet with you; you’ll need it to climb down to the ground. Don’t worry, the roof is quite low and there’re enough footholds. I’ll help Didi and Tutu. My friend is waiting on the other side of the wall with a rickshaw. But you have to hurry. Quickly go to the front window and check what the men are doing. Go quietly.”

Utpal came back in half a minute and walked up to the window. Shiva saw him in the faint light.

“There are only two of them outside the door right now. They are sleeping on a mat. There were four or five of them in the evening.”

“Shut all the doors and go up to the terrace now. Don’t make a noise. Is Tutu sleeping? Make sure he doesn’t start crying.”

Madhumita was the first to climb over the low wall of the terrace. She stepped on to the cornice, held on to the tightly wound bed sheet, and made her way down to the sunshade below.

“Very good, Didi, now sit. Yes, sit down. And hold on to the bed sheet, don’t let go. Now, hang your legs down and place them on my shoulder. No, no…don’t be shy…do it, quickly.”

As Madhumita held on to the sheet and balanced herself on Shiva’s shoulders, Shiva carefully went down on his knees. With a short jump, Madhumita was now on the ground. Utpal was still on the terrace, holding the bed sheet. Shiva jumped up and clutched the concrete sunshade, pulling himself up. He stood on the sunshade and said, :”Now, put Tutu in my arms.”

The sick child didn’t take all these disturbances in the darkness too well. When his father held him by his armpits and sent him hanging down the terrace, he let out a sleepy cry and hugged Shiva. Shiva quickly made his way down to the ground once again and handed the child over to its anxious mother. Despite her best efforts, the child was still crying. It was too late.

“Sshhhh! Calm him down.” Shiva looked around. Surely, the sound was too loud. Had someone heard the child cry? Or were they fast asleep? Utpal Chattoraj was a young man, and by no means could he be described as unfit. With no one left on the terrace to hold on to the bed sheet, he let go of it, flung a polythene bag on his shoulder, easily climbed over the wall, jumped down on the cornice and made his way down to the sunshade – all in just a few seconds. From there, Shiva helped him down to the ground.

Half the job was done. They would now have to make their way up to the compound wall. In the faint light coming from the faraway bulb, Shiva tried to estimate the distance – probably around twenty-odd metres. Shiva moved towards the wall cautiously, watching both his sides. When he was halfway through, he saw Noni’s head peeping over the wall. Noni waved at him, indicating that the coast was clear. Clutching her son to her chest, Madhumita made a dash towards the rope dangling from the top of the wall. Shiva and Utpal were just behind her. Hidden within the tall blades of grass was a small stump of a dead tree. Madhumita tripped on it and fell to the ground with Tutu. Scared and hurt, Tutu let out a piercing cry. In a flash, Shiva picked him up and ran towards the wall.

“Noni!”

A thin, dark pair of hands pulled up the crying child and instantly disappeared over the wall. The child was now wailing.

“Didi, quickly, hold on to this rope and get up on my shoulder.”

Shiva had just finished uttering these words when a strong beam of light fell on his shoulder. A coarse voice yelled out, ‘Who’s there? Who…oh, no! They’re running away! Wake up, wake up all of you…the bastard’s running away.”

Shiva stood up against the wall with Madhumita on his shoulders. As soon as she hoisted herself up on the wall, she heard a calm and composed voice: “I’ve got her, Ustad. Didi, grab my hand and jump down. Don’t worry, the seat of the rickshaw is just under your feet.”

Shiva could make out the outline of five men running towards the wall. They had sticks and rods in their hands. They were shouting. “There they are…catch them…catch the bastards! We’ll kill you and your family tonight, you hear?”

“What are you staring at? Get up on my shoulder,” Shiva said in an impatient voice.

“What about you?” Utpal hesitated, the anxiety on his face clearly visible.

“I’ll be right behind you, come on now,” Shiva yelled.

As soon as Utpal grabbed the rope and put his right foot on Shiva’s shoulder, he immediately stood up, and just as Utpal managed to throw himself over the wall, the first

blow of a rod came down on Shiva’s back. Noni was on the ground, with one hand at the back of the driver’s seat and another at the handle. As soon as Utpal jumped down, Noni started running in the dark, pulling the rickshaw along. After about fifteen metres and having gathered enough momentum, he flung himself up from the ground like a jockey, jumped up on his seat in a flash, found the pedal under his feet with immaculate guesswork, straightened his back, hunched his shoulders, lifted his bum off the seat and began pedalling furiously.

“Shiva…Shiva is still in there!” Utpal Chattoraj’s anxious and desperate voice reached Noni’s ears in the dark. “Five men, with iron rods!”

“Yes,” came the calm response in the dark, “I’m really worried about those men!”

Excerpted with permission from Shiva, Moti Nandy, translated from the Bengali by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, 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.