BOOK EXCERPT

The timeless Marathi memoir ‘Smritichitre’ reveals a woman and writer of indomitable spirit

A new translation of the autobiography, first published in 1934, captures Lakshmibai Tilak’s volatile marriage to poet Narayan Tilak, among other rich details.

Mr Tilak read voraciously in Rajnandgaon and also devoted time to studying. He had engaged a munshi to teach him Urdu. He read many books in English. I cannot say what they were, but his diaries tell us that he was studying the Bible and the Christian religion with intense attention. He corresponded regularly with the well-known Christian writer Baba Pudmanjee and Rev Dr Abbot. It is perhaps at their suggestion that he read the autobiographies of Rev Pudmanjee, Rev Karmarkar, Rev Modak and Rev Hari Ramchandra Christi and many comparative studies of Hinduism and Christianity. He was a prolific writer and many visitors came to discuss and debate with him. I could understand this. But the Christian business was completely beyond my understanding at the time.

I too read and wrote. Although my writing did not win Mr Tilak’s approval, I have continued to be an avid reader and writer from then till now. I write with any implement that is at hand – a lead pencil, a penholder, a quill or even a matchstick. An entry in Mr Tilak’s diary reads, “I am teaching Lakshmi a shloka. She is taking it down with a matchstick. Even if I repeat a stanza one hundred times, there’s nothing on paper. And what there is, is filled with mistakes. She works like a workhorse, but shoots her mouth off and loses people’s love.”

In another entry he says, “Vishnupant Gore came over. He returned Rev Baba’s autobiography which he had finished reading. He used filthy words about the Bible. We talked about this. Lakshmi lost her temper, and she said something quite idiotic. We had a small fight.” Mr Tilak was strongly influenced by the Bible and particularly the Sermon on the Mount. He regretted the small fight we had and he refers to it in his diary.

He writes, “There is no forgiveness or peace in me. Shiva, Shiva. What use is all the reading and thinking I do?”

In an entry dated 19 February 1894 he says:

“I feel drawn towards Christianity. It strikes me as a religion that brings peace, devotion, morality, tenderness and salvation to the human being. I might feel happier living in the ever joyous and fertile garden of this religion than amongst the trees and thorns, deep ravines and terrifying mountains, arid deserts and sweet mango groves that crowd the Hindu religion. But at this point, I dare not even utter the thoughts that are in my mind. Lakshmi does not even want to read. It is nothing but my fear of her and the fullness of her love for me that hold me back. Dear God, show us both the right way.”

Mr Tilak had been going somewhere every night. There was no way to know where. How could I find out? I could not tell the landlady’s son to tail him. He was too young. And if he was discovered, Mr Tilak might even beat him in a rage. So one day I decided I would investigate this myself. We had had a quarrel so our dinner thalipeeth had made it to the stove at nine o’clock. I had fed Dattu and he was asleep. Mr Tilak said, “I’ll go over to see Mr Khare and come back.” I closed the door but kept my eye on the crack. Mr Tilak turned towards Mr Khare’s house, allowing his shoes to creak loudly. After a few steps, he turned round and walked in the opposite direction, making sure that his shoes did not creak.

It was bright moonlight outside. Leaving the pan with the thalipeeth on the stove, I threw the door wide open and walked swiftly after him, while keeping a safe distance between us. Some way down the road it struck me that it would not be right to have a showdown in somebody else’s house. It would be better if I returned home before Dattu woke up. But I said, loudly enough for him to hear me, “That’s not the way to Mr Khare’s house.” The moment he heard me, Mr Tilak spun around. I too turned. I could barely see the road ahead. I wished the earth would split and swallow me.

I rushed home, bolted the door from inside and sat in the kitchen. The thalipeeth had turned to cinders.

Mr Tilak had followed me home and was now banging on the door. I dared not open it. Finally when the door seemed on the verge of collapse, I was forced to open it. Mr Tilak then gave me a proper pasting. When his rage was spent, we ate a cold dinner. The following morning, Mr Tilak was genuinely grieved to see my swollen back.

That day he had been on his way to visit an Englishman named Mr Milton. The following entry from his diary makes it clear that he used to visit him, read the Bible with him, discuss religious subjects and even eat with him:

“At Milton’s. Introduced to Mrs Milton. My impressions about Christianity and discussion with Milton about them. Read out several poems form the diary, etc. Am beginning to believe that of all religions, Christianity assures greatest joy on earth, is easiest to understand and the most blissful. I do not believe that Jesus is the son of god. I see him as a great soul with a generous heart. This I frankly confess. Home at 10. (February 13, 1894)”

Mr Tilak writes about what happened when he was eating with Milton:

“One of the constables here, Yeshwantrao, came in under some pretext four times to see this uncommon sight. Just then Milton’s daughter came in with rice and rotis. This convinced the man. For people like him, even to eat with somebody from another caste is one of the ultimate sins. But I too felt a moment of hesitation when I saw Yeshwantrao. See how lame one’s ideas are unsupported by courage. (February 19, 1894)

Met two American missionaries who wish to work in Chhattisgarh. One was elderly but the other was only eighteen. They, Mr Milton and I talked, read the Bible, had dinner, prayed. (February 26, 1894)”

Mr Tilak’s correspondence had increased a great deal these days. I had no idea whom he wrote letters to and who wrote letters to him. Many people told me that I should keep an eye on the letters that came for him and pass them on secretly to the local people. I did not consent to doing such a thing. I was once advised to burn the Bible that was kept on Mr Tilak’s table.

My response to the advisor was, “I have no idea what a Bible is. But suppose I did burn it, will it be impossible for him to get another? Will my burning one burn all the Bibles in the world? No. So I won’t burn this one.”

The diary discloses that Mr Tilak was corresponding with religious leaders in Mumbai and particularly with Rev Baba Pudmanjee. The following reference to Mr Tilak’s letters may be found on pages 269-70 of Rev Baba’s collection of experiences published in 1895:

“A few days ago I received a letter from an unknown scholar. He wrote to say that he had read my book Arunodaya (The Rising of the Sun), amongst others. He says, ‘This book is not embellished by any literary graces nor is it marked by a scientific perspective. Yet I have felt compelled to read it over and over again. It is filled with true feeling, devotion, simplicity and freedom from desire. I am in the process of reading your autobiography for the sixth time now.’ This scholar met a Christian gentleman with whom he had a discussion of which he provides a succinct account in the letter. ‘The Christian gentleman asked me if I had read the Bible. I answered that I had studied the Vedas and the Puranas. They are written by men who are even baser in nature than me. Now my Bible is this sky, this earth, these forests. In short, I am reading god’s life in nature.’ When he heard this, the gentleman said in English, ‘I do not have the powers to debate this point with you. But take this Bible and read it at least three times.’ I agreed and began reading it reluctantly only to keep my word. But as I read on, it began to seem to me that, as I have said above, this was not a fearful jungle but a lovely little garden. I sent the gentleman many books on his request.”

To judge by his diary entry for September 13, Mr Tilak appears to have gone on to make a detailed study of the Bible. Instead of his customary beginning, “Got up in the morning”, he has filled the page with notes like a student studying for an examination. When we were in Rajnandgaon, Mr Tilak composed several poems on Dattu. Very few of them have survived the assault of time. Those which have were composed during the time he took Dattu to Raipur. One contains a description of the games the child, “barely thirty months old”, played. Another gives an account of Dattu’s laughter and merry chatter when his father gave him a mouth organ. A third describes his feelings on kissing Dattu. “Even a thousand kisses do not suffice / But he must have one more.” There is one poem about the games Dattu played with a visitor’s son and another about his illness. “A child who is never still / Now lies unmoving / A child who never stops talking / Will not answer his mother’s calls.” Dattu was indeed the apple of his father’s eye.

Excerpted with permission from Smritichitre: The Memoirs of a Spirited Wife, Lakshmibai Tilak, translated by Shanta Gokhale, 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.