BOOK EXCERPT

A ritual of rooftop meetings led to Perumal Murugan’s anthology of Tamil writing on caste

It wasn’t easy to persuade contributors, some of whom who feared retribution.

It is eight years since the Koodu meetings have begun. We don’t feel compelled to have a meeting every month. So there have been small gaps and sometimes a long time lapse between meetings. In all, 49 meetings have been held in eight years. The next was the 50th one. We decided to make it a special meeting. We thought bringing out a book would be something special and that is how this book has been written.

In one of the editorial board meetings of Kalachuvadu, when we were discussing future plans, I had suggested a series under the title “Caste and I”. We wondered if it would be feasible to commission such articles from individuals. My friends asked me to write the first one. I thought I would write and start the series but it kept getting postponed. But the thought that many must write on the subject kept simmering in my mind. There were many titles suggested for the book to be published, associated with the 50th meeting. I put forward the title “Caste and I” and everyone unanimously accepted it.

It is very easy to structure how many essays could be written on one subject. The essay has to be experiential. It has to detail incidents. That was all that was needed. This sounds very simple. But there were so many problems we had to face before the essay reached us.

First, we had to prepare ourselves mentally.

In one’s mind one always thinks that talking about caste is akin to using abusive language with swear words that centre around women’s body and society’s notion of morality of women. But in everyday life we think of caste at some moment or the other; talk about it. And incidents related to it do happen. But there is a certain hesitation in speaking about it in the public sphere.

We had to make a lot of effort to make people overcome that hesitation. As a result, the first essay we received was that of Nallusamy. To me it appeared to be a good beginning. All this trouble was for people to open up and write with no holds barred.

Despite all these efforts, some could not write. It was not that they did not know how to write. But there was that hesitation – the fear that writing about caste may lead to this or that problem. Even though they were told not to be afraid even before they had begun to write – to write whatever came to their mind and that, wherever they felt a particular point may lead to trouble, that portion could be removed – some could not allay the fear.

Those who exorcised the fear of retribution submitted good essays. There were some who, after writing the essays, said that they would use a pen name. So, there is a lot of fear in talking about caste in the public sphere. We were very clear in our minds when we decided that no essay would be published under a pseudonym. The notes on the author of each essay have hence been given perspicuously. These are also aspects of being open.

Experiences of caste differ in nature. In the book, different aspects of caste domination have been spoken about. Some take the form of complaints and some others are filled with guilt and regret for having had the mentality that accepted caste and having gone along with it. Some said that they felt light after writing it. There are essays which have tried to find consolation in writing about caste; there are others which have tried to justify various actions. There are some which have turned first-person accounts into third-person accounts, out of timidity or fear, and the authors have hidden themselves in these third-person accounts.

There are some which are like testimonies. Some are autobiographical in style. Some are incomplete because of lack of training in writing. What I feel greatly relieved about is that although given total freedom, there is not a single essay that supports the caste system. This gives me, at least, a little hope for the future.

The locales and the incidents in the essays are different. They made me cry, sigh and laugh when I read them. My intention is not to categorise these various incidents and put them under scrutiny. I think this would be a useful documented source for researchers and those who are active in the eradication of caste since nowhere has caste been spoken about in the public sphere with such explicitness as in this book.

The book does not deal with all the castes but there are significant records of different castes. There are different pictures in the essays about Dalits, other minority castes which keep themselves aloof, and about dominant castes. The views of the authors regarding caste have been brilliantly expressed.

But one is still left with the feeling that there is so much more to say. People of different castes must speak. They must talk in the public sphere about their feelings, talk about incidents in their life, being true to their own conscience. I hope this book will provide the inspiration for it.

I had the illusion at first that putting together the essays would be easy.

But more than the difficulty of getting the essays were the difficulties of time and energy connected with editing them. Only a few essays which seemed rough-hewn have been rejected. Otherwise each essay, when it arrived, brought the joy of excavating some buried treasure. The person with whom I shared this joy and also exchanged ideas with was my wife P Ezhilarasi. My dear students Pa Nallusamy, Re Mahendiran and Pa Kumaresan were always available to deeply discuss the essays and also type them in to create a soft copy. Another good student who showed great interest in the project was A Chinnadurai.

My friend A Ira Venkatachalapathy read some of the essays and opined that this would be an important book. Poet and fiction writer and the present editor of Kalachuvadu, Sukumaran, encouraged me saying that caste has not been spoken about so openly anywhere else. Their many suggestions were very useful. To Kannan of Kalachuvadu Publications, who agreed to publish it when I mentioned such a book and Thanga Akila and others of the Kalachuvadu office team who took a lot of interest in bringing out the book, my thanks are due.

Namakkal 19 October 2013.

Excerpted with permission from “Introduction: The Buried Treasure I found” from Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell, edited by Perumal Murugan, and C S Lakshmi, SAGE Yoda Press.

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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.