Book review

If this murder mystery is not really a whodunit, what is it?

The narrative of serial killing is used to tell several other different stories.

‘Bombay doesn’t do night. The sun falls into the sea but darkness doesn’t stand a chance.’

That’s an unusual opening for a noir thriller – which is one way of classifying Jerry Pinto’s Murder in Mahim – but the words also herald a crime that takes place in near-darkness. Even if a city has a million neon lights, we are told, there will always be shadowy places that are good settings for murder; and there is the nighttime of the heart and mind.

When a young man’s slashed body is found in a Matunga Road Station toilet, along with a suggestion that more deaths are to come, the race to find the killer begins, and the book efficiently sets about ticking all the boxes for a brisk police-procedural: mystifying detours, small twists that anticipate bigger ones, colourful characters with obscure motivations who might be helpers or suspects (or both?).

But this is also, importantly, a story about the broadening of worlds – about the circle of what is socially acceptable or “normal” widening, until it is much more inclusive than before. An early passage mentions NRI kids snatching a few games of baseball in a space that has traditionally been one of our major cricketing cradles: “Shivaji Park, the heartland of conservative Maharashtriana, was changing.” It’s a nice microcosm for some of the other things that will happen in this story. Much like the park, the mindset of the book’s protagonist will change as he ambles down Mumbai’s mean streets, interacting directly with people who were earlier only abstractions for him.

This is a 53-year-old former journalist named Peter D’Souza, who becomes involved with the murder investigation – first because an old friend, a police inspector, has sought his aid, but later for more urgent reasons. Peter and his wife Millie are well-read, cultured sorts – they quote poetry by Wilfred Owen or Keki Daruwalla at each other in everyday conversation – but some things lie outside their sphere of immediate experience; we see that even a generally progressive outlook can have blind spots, little patches of unease. When we first meet them, they are very concerned that their son Sunil may be gay, and the murder investigation – which centres on clandestine trysts between men – hits a little too close to home.

How to solve a crime

Reading Murder in Mahim, I was reminded of the observation made by Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently that to fully solve a crime, one would need to “solve” the milieu in which it occurred. This book is about the many ways in which a society’s underbelly interacts with its mainstream, and the oppression, exploitation – and finally, criminality – that can result. The plot unfolds against the background of the 2013 Supreme Court judgment on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which had strong repercussions for people leading what are considered sexually unconventional lives. And this, remember, is a place where, even in educated circles, the word “chakka” might be used as a catch-all pejorative to describe a man who is somehow “less” than a man.

Much like another dark thriller from a few years ago, Anita Nair’s Cut Like Wound, this book is about the fluidity of gender roles and sex: the falsity of many of our perceptions about what is masculine and what feminine; the thin line between being in control of your sexuality and becoming someone else’s puppet or keep; the many unusual and poignant forms that love can take in a time of suppression. But it is also about aspiration, where it can lead underprivileged people, and it touches on other social divisions such as caste and class. (In one passage, when Peter gets a lecture about the importance of diversity from a flamboyant “queen” named Leslie – insider to the workings of the gay underground – he wonders offhandedly if Leslie knows anything about the struggles of other types of marginalised people, Dalits or Adivasis, for instance.)

What, not who

Though I guessed the killer’s identity a few pages ahead, there are enough surprises sprinkled through the narrative to keep a thrill-seeker occupied. In any case, Pinto doesn’t seem too concerned with constructing an impossible-to-guess whodunit: this is much more about “what happened”, how a motley group of people get caught in an unfortunate, escalating series of events, how one small transgression leads to other big ones, until the line between law-breakers and lawmakers becomes vanishingly thin.

But despite the grimness of its subject matter – including the death of a child – this is in the end an unexpectedly optimistic book, one with sympathy and hope for the better side of human nature. (To return to that opening – “Darkness doesn’t stand a chance.”) And much of this reassurance comes from the anchoring roles played by Peter and Millie. Theirs is a genuinely warm relationship: unlike the tortured protagonists of many other novels in this genre, they are comfortable together, have conversations, grow in each other’s company. Over the course of the story, these two middle-aged, middle-class, “regular” people go from having conniptions when their son is described as a “gay activist” to asserting “He may be homosexual, but he’s not a murderer.” By the end, they are acknowledging that maybe people shouldn’t be put in boxes. A world has changed, just a little.

Murder in Mahim, Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger.

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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.