BOOK EXCERPT

In this political potboiler, the Prime Minister’s assassination rocks Delhi’s power circles

Journalist Seema Goswami imagines a world of shady arms deals, unethical TV anchors and dirty elections in her new novel. Yes, fiction.

Prime Minister Birendra Pratap Singh paused at the bottom of the steps and took a deep breath. The air was still cool even though they were now in the first week of April. He tuned out the roar of the crowd as he readied for his pre-rally ritual. The entourage behind him fell silent as Singh recited the Gayatri Mantra below his breath. Then, he folded his hands, bowed to an invisible god and bounded up to the stage.

The cheers grew louder still as his head emerged into view. And then, as he bent down and touched his head to the stage as a sign of reverence, the audience went completely wild. The slogan: “Desh ka neta kaisa ho? Birendra Pratap jaisa ho!” began resonating in the grounds of Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan.

Birendra Pratap stepped up to the microphone and took a minute to soak in the approval of the crowd. The venue was full up, jostling room only. He waved to every section, he joined his hands in a namaste, he bowed low to acknowledge the warmth of his welcome.

And then, he held up his hands in that universal sign asking for silence. Only when the cheers had died down completely did he begin. “Mere pyare saathiyon,” he said in that thrilling baritone he had employed to such effect through the course of his political career, “aaj aap ko dekh kar, aap kay utsah ko dekh kar, bahut achcha laga.” (My dear friends, it’s great to see you today, to see your enthusiasm.)

The cheers began again. Birendra Pratap allowed them to build up to a crescendo before raising his hands again to ask for silence. And then, he began the speech that would launch his campaign for the next general election, scheduled a year from now.

First came the achievements of the government, some of them real, others entirely imaginary. Then came the promises for the next five years, only some of which were even within the realms of possibility.

Not that the crowd cared about such details. They were just happy to see their leader, resplendent in a sparkling white kurta-pyjama, his trademark tricolour scarf wrapped around his neck, do what he did best: ride the waves of rhetoric to weave a beautiful picture of the idyllic future that awaited them, so long as they had the good sense to vote for him.

And what a splendid picture he made as he stood onstage. Standing tall at just over six feet, Birendra Pratap had the kind of aristocratic good looks that only generations of breeding can achieve. A high forehead (now framed by a receding hairline), a strong aquiline nose and a pugnacious jaw that hinted at the steel that lay at the core of him. And then, there were those piercing brown eyes that made people feel like they were the only ones who mattered when they were focused on them. A cheap politician’s trick, but one that no one performed better than the Indian Prime Minister

It was with a rousing cry of “Bharat Mata ki jai” that Birendra Pratap bid farewell to the crowd. He turned and did a namaste to the party faithful lined up behind him on the stage, all of them applauding loudly to indicate just how much they loved him. Birendra Pratap’s lips twisted into a cynical smile as he allowed his Special Protection Group (SPG) contingent to sweep him off the stage.

Each one of these bastards would knife him in the back without a second thought if they believed they could wrestle the leadership of the Loktantrik Janadesh Party (LJP) from him. But that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

He felt a twinge in his knee as he clattered quickly down the stairs. There were days when he felt every one of his sixty-five years, and today was one of those days. But it was amazing how the energy of a cheering crowd could revive him.

Birendra Pratap turned one last time to wave to the adoring faithful, who were calling out his name in an incessant chant. His grin grew wider as he saw a young boy perched on his father’s shoulders, holding a placard that read, “Singh is King.”

Singh had always had a soft corner in his heart for children (though, god knows, he didn’t get much joy from his own). On a sudden impulse, he turned and began making his way in their direction. His SPG guards looked alarmed and immediately fell into a ring around him, effectively imprisoning him.

“Out of my way,” snapped Birendra Pratap, “I want to shake hands with that boy.”

“Sorry, sir,” came the apologetic reply from Shankar Roy, head of the SPG contingent. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Birendra Pratap looked down his aristocratic nose at Roy, incredulity writ large on his face. “Out of my way,” he said, in a voice vibrating with barely-controlled rage.

The SPG huddle parted and the Prime Minister walked up to the fortified railings holding back the crowd. He took a selfie with the boy with the placard, he hugged the proud father and then walked on to shake hands with those further down the line. He was halfway down the line when he felt a pinprick on the flat of his palm. He looked down at his hand; it seemed fine. There was no blood, no bruising.

Birendra Pratap was just telling himself that he must have imagined it when he suddenly felt his legs give way beneath him. He sank down to the ground and allowed the darkness to engulf him.

Excerpted with permission from Race Course Road, Seema Goswami, Aleph Book Company.

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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.