BOOK EXCERPT

What would happen if the classic ‘Little Women’ were set in modern-day Pakistan?

A familiar story turned all new – but equally compelling.

The lessons began to bleed into evenings so Maria wouldn’t return home till dinner. I started going home with the rest of the class. He would drive her back afterwards, coasting through the city in twilight with an unbearable slowness. The moon and the sun both in the sky and Maria coming up the drive, mouth pale and skin bright.

When she finally confessed the lessons to their mother I saw a kind of relief flutter over her face, all those missing hours finally accounted for. Mehrunissa was too pragmatic to get mad about some lessons. She offered her congratulations instead, cryptic and even reluctant. I hope you get exactly what you want out of this, she said.

The rest of us watched our teacups.

There was something naked in Maria’s face that embarrassed us all, the coolness stripped from her. I could feel Ash twitching beside me, her feet jerking along with the songs on the radio as she scribbled into her notebook. The girls always brought their work to tea, books or drawings or sewing. They never wasted their afternoons and because I didn’t want to seem lazy in front of them, I started bringing my homework with me.

It usually fell by the wayside because it was always much easier to be caught up in whatever they were doing. I helped the younger girls with their maths sometimes – I was not especially good at it but I was two years ahead of Bina and more patient than her sisters. I even posed sometimes for Leila’s drawings. She used her sisters for all her models even for the men in them, but with me around that became unnecessary. I spent hours holding still while she watched me, her small face screwed up carefully.

This afternoon, it was just the five of us in the room. Our hands on the table, working typewriters or pens and pages, and Maria alone in it all, tuned up and buzzing.

The way love lit her from inside.

Finally the electricity of her that I had always sensed was on the surface. The boys, already warm to her, were struck all over again. My mistress, when she tread on the skies, on the tops of our heads. She could barely stand to be in the same room as him anymore, breaking into shivers when he walked past the corridor.

It made us love him more. We sensed something noble, some solid manhood in him that made him worthy of her devotion. The boys were now a pack of hungry eyes, stuck to Maria all the time, but I watched him. He moved with heavy feet now, walking through water, a spellbound man.

He kept an account of each encounter. Years later I would find his journal, an imperfect record of their love affair. A thin catalogue of her body, his weak words barely holding up the glory of her – he spoke of her as parts, never the whole. Thickly separated eyelashes, smudging the tops of her cheeks. Her lips parted in a groan, the soft sum of her thighs.

What they spoke about in those hours in between went unwritten. We are left to imagine this, the stuttering rides in his car, her long fingers trembling as she smoked his cigarettes, rolled the windows up and down. A foreign restlessness infected her bones. She moved like she was someone other than herself.

His accounts were also sparse on the subject of how things finally started up between them, what it was that broke the delicious tension – was it Maria who went to him or he who asked her in? Did they fall together in the growing dark, moving like creatures in one of Ayesha’s plays?

Sarvat Hasin
Sarvat Hasin

It was the talk of lovemaking that baffled me most.

Boys at school had circulated pictures for years now. I stared at the postcard-sized porn, like artefacts in a museum, the cold hard fact of how bodies collided. I understood the logistics of sex, why people wanted it, how it made them go out of their minds with lust, how people could stare at each other across crowded rooms, parties, classrooms, weddings – and thought of those postcard positions with something hazy and dark, wolf-like want. What seemed complicated was how they got there – what words went between the looks and the actions.

I imagined Maria’s long grey kurta, buttoned all the way down to the floor. How she must have taken each button apart with trembling fingers. How the canvas of her skin must have been unveiled slowly, how the hot room would have grown bright and moon-ish as the lights went up. Their industrial glow on her breasts, her pillowy stomach, the snag of hair below.

Maria in his office, the woman-teacher trembling like a girl.

We know she knew of his past, the rumours that circled him like crows over a corpse and how the truth of it must be buried there and still she chose him, chose this – the implication of that –

Her fingers catching his wrist, wrapping around the bone there like a snake. He would have touched her face to say no, once, maybe even twice, but she kissed him, something that used to exist only in the movies. There was no place in the dark office for what happened between them.

Outside, wind whipped through empty school corridors and whistled through the half-open windows. Maria left her clothes on cement floor, gave her freezing body into his hands. Fear turned her skin cold, statued it blue. The fluorescent lights above them, pale and flickering, the business-like briskness of his voice dissolving as he moved to turn them off – but she wanted to see everything.

The smear of her palms against the desk, her quivering spine as she put herself in his hands. It was the surrender that mattered more than anything. What giving her body must have meant, I could never understand that in a thousand years. It was never the same for men, and Maria, she was never like other women.

The lovemaking affected the girls too, even more powerfully than it did us at school. Unspoken, but the change seemed to switch through them all. They were a house lit up for feast days. They were a circle of birthday candles. In its early stages, the affair swung Maria away from her sisters; now, it wound them closer back together. As it happened to her, it happened to all of them. Now, when I went to the house, there was always slow jazz playing, the games and the work abandoned for more languid activities. Even Ash put away her typewriter to read more than she usually did, her head in Bina’s lap while the other girls stitched or drew.

For the first time in my history with the girls, I felt outside of what was happening to them, this invisible net of sisterhood. The slick happiness of their smiles and how they took more sugar in their tea, drank it thick and milky.

If he hurts you, I’ll kill him, I said.

We were outside the school, waiting for my car to come pick us up. Usually she would have refused my offer for a lift but it was expected to rain and anyway, she had been much gentler lately, less likely to stick to those rules.

I put my hands into my pockets as I said it and screwed my eyes up to the sky, with its blackening clouds clustered together.

Maria laughed. You’re very sweet Jimmy.


I mean it.


And I did. I don’t know what I could possibly have done to that man, older, squarer. I had not yet reached the years where I would try and build up my body. I only knew how I felt, and said it anyway.

Excerpted with permission from This Wide Night, Sarvat Hasin, Penguin Random House 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.