Book review

This deeply personal and unconventional memoir about depression, loss and abuse reinvents the form

Gayathri Prabhu’s ‘If I Had To Tell It Again’ shows us how many such stories must be out there and need to see the light of day.

Gayathri Prabhu’s unconventional memoir If I Had To Tell It Again reinvents the form, the way Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home did with its gothic comics or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts that uses poetry. And like Nelson, Prabhu’s novels before her memoir – The Untitled, Birdswim Fishfly and Maya – are all from different genres, which makes the memoir a surprise. Prabhu admits that she wasn’t going to write it but all that changed after her father’s death in April 2014. For the following three years, what started as an outpouring of grief, transformed into her memoir.

A minefield of memories

In many ways, If I Had To Tell It Again is as much her father’s story as it is hers – Prabhu’s life is shaped by her father, a flawed and larger-than-life man who constantly fantasised about death but not dying, an alcoholic, depressed parent who heaped intense love and rage on his firstborn.

The title reflects how difficult it must have been for Prabhu, who teaches at the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, to revisit an emotional minefield of memories – there was the time when her father (whom she addresses as SGM) stubbed out a cigarette on her or when he told his younger daughter (Prabhu’s sister) that she he didn’t want her, or even when he spent lavishly on friends and strangers but rarely on them. But the same deeply-flawed man, as she remembers, was also philanthropic, organising many charity events and blood donation drives.

Her mother (who is mentioned once in parenthesis and later as anecdotes) remembers both father and daughter to be alike – generous, unattached and wild. And in passing on these envious traits, SGM also passed on his depression. The way each coped with it, however, couldn’t be more different. It is a splendid reason to read If I Had To Tell It Again, which brilliantly shatters our collective narrative and myths about depression – a much loved and popular neighbour can easily be as depressive as a high-achieving daughter. In the course of the book, Prabhu also tells us why she thinks there are such few memoirs being written in this country about families and suffering – because other families having to read it. But as she later admits, only writing can ease the grief.

Unconventional structure

The unconventionality of If I Had To Tell It Again lies in its haphazard structure. Part of it reads like a conventional memoir, a second part is written in the form of an imagined dialogue between father-daughter, a play. There’s a part that’s written in the third person and another that tells (or rather imagines) her father’s story. But Prabhu’s literary memoir flourishes even as we trace her story from one job to another and one continent to another, through physical abuse and sexual abuse, the death of her father and of her beloved dog, the end of a marriage, the fight against depression. One can argue that rigid, standard lines of prose here might just be too tame – the format works because it somehow mimics the protagonist’s own rocky life. She, and the book, emerge strong. When she writes in the third person, it’s almost as if Prabhu wants to be the observer along with us, looking at the past from a distance – here she isn’t a victim.

As this is a memoir of a daughter’s difficult love for her father, other characters don’t really find precedence here. Her sister comes and goes, but offers selfless love and support, there are one or two odd friends, a former husband and a current partner. But the arthritic labrador, Chinna, is very much a part of Prabhu’s suffering. In Chinna, Prabhu found a parental figure. The love between human and pet in this book could easily move you, as much as, if not more, than her emotion-laden passages describing her suicidal tendencies, her years of abuse and miscarriages. Chinna was Prabhu’s rock, one that stopped her from ending her life. Prabhu’s expression of love during Chinna’s last week alive, is so pure and deep that it’s hard not to be affected by it, if you’re a pet parent or not. Prabhu writes that depression has no spatial boundaries and it’s in reading this chapter you realise that love too does not, even if it’s between a pet and a human.

If I Had To Tell It Again is a deeply personal affair, filled with intimate details of Prabhu’s life. But we know that the personal is political, whether it’s in the abuse she had to face at home, her inherited depression and how both her parents brushed it aside, trying to convince her that the solution lay in being positive and thinking happy thoughts. Depression has been, and still is, a cultural and political phenomenon where women’s experiences are rooted in the quality of their lives, which are in turn determined by societal values and patriarchal beliefs. Prabhu’s severely troubled life mired in depression (one that few women in India acknowledge) and how she sought help and battled against it is a reminder of how many such stories are around us and need to see the light of the day. And this is why Prabhu says “one writes a memoir” – by talking about something invisible, so it becomes real.

If I Had To Tell It Again: A Memoir, Gayathri Prabhu, Harper Collins India

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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.