Book review

A French novel, written by a Mauritian writer, brings home our experience in India like few books do

‘Eve Out Of Her Ruins’ is written by Ananda Devi, a writer of Indian origin from Mauritius.

A few of us have been to Mauritius, many of us want to go. It stares back from our calendars and screen-savers, all aquamarine seas and pure sands, the archetype of the island paradise. Yet, as with most paradises, whether the Maldives, Mauritius or Goa, many of the residents of this idyllic place themselves dream of escape.

In Eve Out of Her Ruins, the titular character’s mother covers the cement walls of their sordid apartment with “pictures of Mount Fuji with a charming Japanese woman in the foreground,” and “Swiss hills with cows cleaner than most people.” She fantasises about getting out, as do most of the residents of one of the poorest parts of Mauritius, Troumaron, “a sort of funnel; where all the island’s wastewaters ultimately flow.”

Long arcs of desire

It is in Troumaron, where “trash hammers the road like shrapnel,” that author Ananda Devi – a Mauritian writer of Indian origin, who writes in French – sets her darkly illuminating tale of desire, murder and revenge. Told from the point of view of four teenaged characters – Eve, Saad, Savita, and Clélio – who are all seeking their own means of escape – through sex, through writing, through friendship, and through violence – the plot unfolds in a manner that is predictable, if you think of this book as a novel, or fated, if you think of it as a tragedy.

Eve, with the face of a “comic-strip mouse,” grows into a sexually magnetic teenager who barters her body to neighbourhood boys for the things and the favours that might help her escape their wretched neighbourhood. Saad loves her (as well as the poetry of Rimbaud). Eve does not reciprocate. Saad scrawls poems along her building walls, waits for her, watches her, and in several comico-poetic scenes, lusts after her “in long arcs of desire.”

Clélio is the baddest kid in a bad neighbourhood (though he may just be its most innocent). Savita is Eve’s closest friend, her love, her protector, her double, her twin. In this world – in the shadow of a shutdown factory, far from the sunglasses of tourists – teenage boys (even Saad) roam in packs, spreading “a pool of oil around them,” and things go terribly wrong. A murder is committed. A death is avenged.

The familiar within the unfamiliar

But the plot is not the point here. Nor even is the much-feted, fevered beauty of Ananda Devi’s originally French prose, which burns through in Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translation, if a bit too fiercely. Instead, we in India should read this story of desire and sexual violence because it provides us with the stark insight that comes when the radically different contains within it the utterly familiar. Eve Out of Her Ruins explores questions that are pertinent to our contemporary experience in a manner that few other recent books have done.

What does it feel like to be a single woman driving on a city street who suddenly realises that she is being followed? What is it like to be the boy who gives chase?

“They drag me toward the city, toward our prison. I get on Kenny’s moped. Before he can stop me, I’m gone. I take a long winding route through Port Louis, lit up by its hot dust, I go along the Rue la Corderie where the smell of salted fish fills my nostrils, take a shortcut up the Rue Wellington, go down the Rue la Poudrière where I wave to the old   ghosts of whores behind the stone walls, and I come back along the Champ de Mars, where the Citadel watches me with its black eye. On the way, I bang into people, ride on sidewalks, weave past cars, manage not to get knocked over by buses belching black smoke. All the insults blur together. I laugh, people notice, everyone’s staring at me. I give them the finger, I scrape an SUV, its bumpers big enough to push off nonexistent buffalo, with a little lady behind a steering wheel bigger than she is. She sees me dragging a key across the brand-new car, rolls down her window, but once I get to her and smile, she doesn’t say a word, I lick my lips and she blushes, yes, I’m telling you, she blushes and rolls the window back up to shut out the cool air that had been blowing across my face. Her face crumples up like she’s about to cry, it’s not pretty at all, the lady in her arctic monster with a heart so soft she can’t even yell at me. I blow her a kiss with my fingertips and memorise her licence plate and go my way with a smile.

What is is like to come of age in a place where you and most women you know have been groped, molested, or sexually harassed at least once?

Everything I learn leaves a wound on my body. That knowledge is painful and hard-won…It’s a joke to them. I’m all alone. Everyone else is an onlooker. I’m already feeling naked. I shut my eyes and bear it. I play the game. I’ll always be the one a man squints at from far off until his hands find me. Men’s hands take hold of you before having even touched you. Once their thoughts turn toward you, they’ve already possessed you. Saying no is an insult, because you would be taking away what they’ve already laid claim to. Like the hand snaking up my T-shirt, they need me to lift my skin so they can feel my organs, or even stop my heart from beating. Their urges won’t be constrained. Soon there’ll be nothing left to take but they’ll keep going anyway.

But why should I let them?

What is it like to die in a place where you will be blamed by those you love for your own murder?

They don’t want to know me. They want to be alone with their dead body. But the final act has made their daughter unspeakable. Behind their horrified faces, the silent question etched in their eyes is this: What did she do to make this happen? She is an active participant in her own murder. Even now she is still complicit. Even now she is her own murderer. This is how they feel.”

Stronger than the news

There are places where fiction outstrips the news in its ability to depict contemporary horrors. Think of Stieg Larson’s gripping, bestselling Lisbeth Salander series, after reading which it becomes difficult to think of a Swede in power who doesn’t have a personal dungeon – this in a country that is far more gender equitable than most others. And there are places where the brutality of the news will any day outstrip fiction’s capacity to artfully refract everyday horror and sexual violence in a culturally meaningful way.

India is one such place. It has long been said that we lack truly stellar crime fiction, but maybe crime fiction, with its vulturous fervor for young female bodies (except in its most subversive avatars) isn’t the genre through which we can unpack that which we read about, sickened, everyday.

Maybe we need more literary fiction – from our place, and from other far-off places – to give us insights into sexual violence from the point of view of those experiencing it, perpetrating it, living through it, living with it. Despite the hackneyed plot, Eve Out of Her Ruins has much that is forceful and true, and it dares to tread where we often don’t want to – the traumatic intersection of desire, violence, power, poverty and shame.

Eve Out of Her Ruins, Ananda Devi, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Speaking Tiger Books.


Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are her own.

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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.