Book review

And you thought it would be easy to give up your city life and become a farmer?

In ‘How I Became A Farmer’s Wife’, Yashodhara Lal writes a part-memoir, part-fiction, wholly funny book.

I am a city girl. No, now that I’m firmly, no takebacks, no two-ways-about-it in my thirties, I am a City Woman. But deep inside my pollution-specked heart, which definitely has some hearing loss because of all the car horns that blare in my ear each time I step outside, which definitely is not the trusting innocent heart of someone who has never had to look at all strangers with the assumption that they could be potential thieves/murderers/rapists, deep inside that very heart is also a conviction that I’d be really good at the country life if I tried.

This is probably the fault of my ancestors on my mother’s side. They owned land and farmed it, my grandfather, until quite recently, was actively involved in his farm, which was a farm farm, mind you, buffalo milk in the morning and eggs whenever you wanted them and grapes and mangoes and some other crops I’m sure, but these are the ones I remember. Not like a Delhi “farmhouse,” gosh, I remember the first time I went to one of those – the lawns as green as a golf course, the marble floored mansions, the swimming pools, one grander than the next.

At my grandfather’s farm, we swam in water tanks, floating about in tractor inner tubes, swatting away mosquitoes and making algae sandcastles on the side. We had to be careful about snakes, and sometimes when there was a thunderstorm, the electricity would go out and we’d read by the light of lanterns. Like: real lanterns. Like you were in the 1800s. Okay, so there was only one lantern and lots of torches, those huge power saver ones you charged all day to whip out at a time like this, and okay, so no one actually let me read, they were too busy seeing what interesting things they could look at through the torch light, and insects freewheeled around the light, bumping and returning over and over again.

I’m drawn back into that world a little, because of a memoir I just read: Yashodhara Lal’s wryly funny part-fiction, part-memoir How I Became A Farmer’s Wife.

Sowing the seeds

I’ve read “returning to the soil” pieces before, if not entire books, and they are a category unto themselves on Goodreads and lists on the web. Most of them follow the same essential pieces – a person is tempted by a large swathe of land somewhere on the outskirts of nowhere, buy it, much to their spouse’s consternation and then try to turn it into the dream they had of a perfect farm, or vineyard or what-have-you. From burnt-out city dwellers to ruddy cheeked milk drinking tillers of the soil.

Lal’s book is all this – her husband has always wanted a farm, and finally he rents one, way out in rural Haryana and decides to keep cows, but the essential difference between a Western farming memoir and an Indian one is that in India, you have to deal with – and often through – a battalion of staff to even get your dream off the ground.

So Lal’s husband, Vijay, is led around for a while by an equally clueless “farming consultant,” there’s two sullen “boys” who drag their feet and seriously injure a cow, and one caretaker/overseer of sorts called Mobeen, who offers wry commentary and is always around to say, “I told you so”, but also becoming part of the family in the process. There’s also – unique to India again – the landlady who also maintains an ashram on the grounds dedicated to an obscure holy man, whose devotees’ needs take precedence over her farming tenants.

A strange harvest

The title, while technically correct, is slightly misleading. Lal is supportive enough, but mostly long-distance, as the family continues to be based in their Gurgaon flat while Vijay commutes back and forth. He sells his milk to his neighbours, via a Facebook group, and the most fun Lal seems to have with all of it is when they adopt a stray dog and her puppies to live on the property. Up until then, she’s sort of stand-offish about the whole thing, but the dog seems to bring out something in her, much like the cows do to her husband, and watching her children play on the grounds and with the various animals, you can see her softening, becoming more involved.

It’s a good touch, a twist in her character just as you watch her burning out with her job and having to parent, and suffering from writer’s block in the process. I think I was most sympathetic about the writer’s block, described in excruciating detail here, gazing at that blank Word document until you’re convinced you’ll never write again.

Somewhere towards the middle of the book, the story also takes on a slightly ominous turn as the landlady leases the remaining bit of land to two “babas” who take advantage of all the free milk but resent the dogs and the people on the land, and slowly, insidiously, start to encroach on Vijay’s half of the space. Maybe it’s just watching Netflix’s Wild Wild Country too recently, but I saw them in my head, red-robed, long beards, an aura of only slightly suppressed malevolence.

Lal is, by her own description, a “romance” writer, and this book is meant to be a sequel of sorts to her first, which was similar fiction-ish, memoir-ish story of the first years of being married. Romance writers can definitely plot, even if they are somewhat condescended to by the greater literary establishment. Her plotting shines through, though I feel like some bits could have perhaps meandered a little less, and some threads not tied up quite so neatly.

How I Became A Farmer’s Wife, Yashodhara Lal, HarperCollins 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.