Anything that moves

Why I liked Emily Brontë’s distance from India (and why she might have an Indian connection)

On the 200th anniversary of the English novelist-poet’s birth, here’s what makes her work ‘Wuthering Heights’ special.

The Rolling Stones or the Beatles, Gavaskar or Viswanath, Sridevi or Madhuri Dixit, Coke or Pepsi: in our teens, we define our identity in part by choosing some persons or things over others, even though they do not belong to mutually exclusive categories. It is perfectly possible to admire both Sachin Tendulkar’s geometric precision and Brian Lara’s expansive flourish, but at a certain point in our lives it might appear important to assert the superiority of one over the other. And so it was that, around the age of 17 or 18, I told myself that I was for Emily Brontë and against Jane Austen.

I understand more clearly now why I made that choice. The world of Austen’s fiction, dominated by social status and the need to find adequate husbands for young women, was uncomfortably close to the urban, middle-class India I knew and despised. It’s no wonder there have been so many Indian films based on Austen’s books. Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was something completely different, a taboo-breaching tale whose central characters lived the axiom Friedrich Nietzsche later framed: “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” It didn’t hurt that the author’s life was tragically short, and very little biographical information was available about her, allowing me to create an imaginary Emily Brontë for myself.

The novel tells a story of passion, betrayal, and revenge, played out against the windswept Yorkshire moors. The title refers to one of the two homes in and around which virtually all the action takes place. A pompous narrator called Lockwood helpfully explains near the beginning,

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.” 

The Heathcliff mentioned by Lockwood is the story’s fulcrum. He is an adopted gypsy boy mistreated in his adoptive home; grows to love Catherine, who loves him back though they’ve been brought up as siblings; runs away after misunderstanding what he overhears Catherine say one day; and returns having made a fortune, to wreak vengeance on all who crossed his path and prevented the consummation of his love. His revenge, which lasts for two decades, extends to pet dogs and progeny. He acts out another Nietzschean aphorism: “Love of one is a piece of barbarism: for it is practised at the expense of all others.” That aphorism concludes, “Love of God likewise”, but the last bit isn’t relevant to Wuthering Heights, which, despite constant appeals to divinity and references to heaven and hell made by characters, is not a Christian narrative. Its distance from Christian themes appealed to me as much as its distance from urban, middle-class India, because studying European literature is one long, deep dive into sin, guilt, sacrifice, and redemption, from Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it feels good to come up for air. Brontë’s almost miraculous achievement is to tell a tale through a series of moralistic narrators that nevertheless has no interest in fundamental Christian themes. The story, unrelenting in its negativity for long stretches, provides a hint of a happy ending, but even that cannot be called redemptive, for it does not emerge from repentance on Heathcliff’s part.

So, how is it that this tale of unrepented brutality came to be so beloved? Its appeal lies in the elemental connection between Heathcliff and Catherine, encapsulated by Catherine’s cry, “I am Heathcliff”. Brontë successfully creates in our minds the notion of a love so deep and necessary that we sympathise with its overturning of all conventions. The fact that Heathcliff is often considered one of the great romantic characters in fiction despite his surly unkindness through much of the narrative testifies to Brontë’s uncommon power in conveying that profound passion. Her descriptions of the lovers tearing at their hair, foaming at the mouth and gnashing their teeth can seem over-the-top, but she balances those with a complex structure of nested stories in which one narrator might relate what he was told by another person who in turn is reporting contents of a letter written by a third character.

Emily Brontë, as painted by her brother Patrick Branwell Brontë, from a portrait with her sisters. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Emily Brontë, as painted by her brother Patrick Branwell Brontë, from a portrait with her sisters. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Influence of Indian thought

Emily Brontë, born on July 20, 1818, died little more than 30 years later, on December 19, 1848, claimed by what 19th century Europe called the disease of artists, tuberculosis. Aside from her lone novel, she published a few poems alongside verses by her two sisters, Charlotte and Anne. The book, which sold a mere two copies, was titled The Poems of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, Ellis Bell being the male pseudonym adopted by Emily Brontë in a world where women were not deemed worthy of being published. Since then, dozens more poems by her have been discovered and printed, but the most famous remains one from the book, called No Coward Soul Is Mine, which would be an apt title for a biography of the author.

The poem hints at the influence of Indian thought, possibly filtered through the German poetry and fiction she read in Brussels where she spent a year learning French and German. The deep impression made on European authors by early translations of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala (or Abhijñānashākuntalam) and Buddhist and Hindu texts has been extensively analysed, but that analysis has not, to my knowledge, been extended to the Brontë sisters’ writings. No Coward Soul Is Mine is addressed to god but dismisses as “unutterably vain” the “thousand creeds that move men’s hearts”. It appears similar in spirit to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Brahma, composed a few years later, which explicitly derived its ideas from the Upanishads. Read No Coward Soul Is Mine, and draw your own conclusions about the nature of the god Emily Brontë worshipped.

“No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.”

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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.