BOOK EXCERPT

You’ve read Perumal Murugan the novelist. Here’s the short story writer

An excerpt from ‘The Goat Thief’, the first-ever anthology of short stories selected by the Tamil author for publication in English.

He experienced the well differently. While swimming, he stroked the water gently, as if he was embracing a flower-soft baby. The irregular shape of the well gave him immense pleasure. As the sun was really hot, the coldness of the water felt like a poultice all over the body. He enjoyed dunking his head frequently under water; he also liked swimming on his back. The sun’s rays which had scattered on the well came looking for him as he lay inside that deep hollow and struck him on the face. The well held a hoard of miracles within, and was giving it to him, little by little. Intense ardour for the well bloomed in his heart. He craved to caress and embrace its every speck. He spent a long time travelling towards each of its corners which were strewn with cobwebs pushed aside by the sloshing water. Each corner formed a small niche where a person could stand and rest – or at least had formations like railings that a swimmer could hold on to.

The well was full of compassion. In the corners, he experienced the pleasure of ice-cold water. He wanted to plunge towards the depths and get to know the well’s nether parts. A few seconds after going down the centre of the well, he sensed that he had submerged a long way inside. The well stretched even deeper. Unable to grasp how deep and how long he had travelled, he struggled to breathe. He pressed his hands down quickly and rose upward. There were so many secrets inside the well. Was it going to unpack and spread them out in barely a few minutes for an occasional visitor like him? What kind of fool am I, he scolded himself. He sat on a at stone slab near the steps leading upward and relaxed a little. He eyed with fresh wonder the frogs that clung to the walls with every shift of the water as well as those that leapt into the water from above. He felt for a brief while that he was merely a spectator at the well.

The children did not tire at all. Ignoring the mud sliding down from the walls, they kept climbing up and jumping off by turns. He saw little difference between them and the frogs.

He felt that the well was watching them with gentle amusement that was like a smile rising to an old man’s lips. When the girl stretched and jumped, with her tassel loose and ribbon uttering in the wind, it was as if the well obediently received and held up a little angel as she descended amid the splendour of sunshine. The boys were so quick that their climbing up or jumping down went by in a blur. The well proudly accepted their meaningless shouts. It was perhaps relishing all these capers with the attitude of someone who had been engrossed in companionless solitude for too long and was tired of it.

The secret breeze that embraced his body caused a chill. All the droplets that rolled down from his body had mingled with the well.Once the body was dry, the tremors began. The cold he didn’t feel while he was in the water gripped him suddenly when he went up a little. In fact, it was the well’s trickery. Its invitation to step in. If a man visited once, the well cast a spell that goaded him to return again and again. He dived through a wave. Now lukewarm water caressed his skin and embraced him. Without being conscious of it, he thought of the well as a circle and swam a full round. Though the traces of his leg strokes kept disappearing instantly, the eddies remained. They induced him to swim another round. Meanwhile, the little girl called out to him:

“Chittappa, how many rounds can you go without stopping?”

He was unable to give her a number. He scanned the well. Its expanse, devoid of sharp angles, did not lead him to any conclusion. Not having an answer, he offered a bland, evasive smile. She was adamant.

“Can you do ten rounds?”

The boy answered her question: “Chittappa can’t even swim two.”

Though he could sense that the boy had said it only to provoke him, he was of a mind to give it a try and face the challenge. A round consisted of starting from the step, touching every corner, one by one, and returning to the step. By the time he finished the first round and was midway through the second, his respiratory organs felt weak from the strain. He started breathing through the mouth. His arms were tired and his legs refused to cooperate. However much he tried, he simply could not go on. The well had defeated him again. Stopping at a corner, he doubled over and gasped for breath. Their shouts were so loud and deafening that he wondered if the well itself was rejoicing in his defeat. The shouts compounded his humiliation. He wanted to climb up and go away.

The well was a universe that no one could conquer.

He had to accept his defeat. To compete with it and lose was in itself an act of courage. He sighed with a swell of pride. He swam towards the step. His arms stroked the water with the pious modesty of a devotee holding the rope of a sacred chariot. On reaching the steps, he took a last dip, combed his hair back with the water and said:

“I’m going up. If you want to keep playing, come back after you’re done.”

His announcement must have given them a rude shock. For a few moments, there was no sound except the gentle sloshing of water in the well. A pall of sorrow had settled on the little girl’s face. The boys looked dejected. They couldn’t accept that the pleasures of the well had to end so soon. If he got out of the well, they had to follow suit. They were not permitted to be in the well without any adult to mind them. The well harboured so many threats within. There could be venomous old snakes hatching in the holes high above the water. In some evil moment, those snakes might stretch their heads and come out. There could be hidden rock cavities that trapped and dragged underwater swimmers inside. There was the ever- present danger of slipping and plummeting under water. Adults could handle such situations, but children...? Moreover, it was a lone well sloshing at the centre of a ring of tall coconut trees. It looked haunted. The echo of voices could arrive from any direction. An eerie silence had come to dwell permanently in the black water. If the man who was a protective shield against all these dangers went up, it was the end. The little girl started again in the same pleading tone that she had used to invite him to the well.

“No, chittappa. Some more time, chittappa.”

Her pleas did not affect him now in any way. He was resolute in his decision to leave. With a disdainful smile on his face, he took another step forward. From where she was standing in the east corner, the girl leapt effortlessly in the water and came near him. She clung tightly to his legs. Drenched hair swaying, she begged him, “Don’t go, chittappa.” He had not expected this. Her hands held his legs like a snake twisted and wound around them. “Let go, kannu...let go,” he said. He imagined that these ordinary words were enough to free him of her obstinacy. But she would not let him go. I won’t let go till you grant me a boon, her bent figure seemed to plead with him.

He didn’t understand any of it. In his confusion, he bent down and tried gently to prise her fingers from his legs. Her grip only grew tighter instead of loosening.

“Don’t let him get away, girl,” a voice called out from somewhere.

Excerpted with permission from The Goat Thief, Perumal Murugan, translated by N Kalyan Raman, Juggernaut.

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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.