internet culture

You’ve got mail: Two Indian women are putting literature and letter-writing into a nostalgic package

A weekly newsletter, Daak celebrates the written word and the subcontinent’s cultural heritage.

In 1930, Salim Ali, an ornithologist with the soul of a poet, took a walk in a woods in Maharashtra on a Sunday morning and was overwhelmed by this “other world within our world”. He wrote an essay about the natural world and how the birds, animals and trees live harmoniously in the wilderness.

Eighty-seven years later, a passage from this essay was used by Onaiza Drabu and Prachi Jha to inaugurate a project that aims to create a world of its own. Their initiative – called Daak – is a weekly newsletter which celebrates the written word and the lost art of letter-writing. Every weekend a digital postcard is sent to 400 subscribers with a quote, nugget of information or a limerick from little-known stories, artworks and poems by writers, authors and activists who have shaped the Indian subcontinent’s cultural heritage.

Inspired idea

The first postcard, sent out last May, was composed of a single line from Ali’s essay, written in cursive on a background of yellowing postcard: “A monsoon ramble through the woods will delight anyone who has the eyes to see and the soul to wonder at the romance and charm of this other world within our world.”

“Salim Ali writes beautifully about being patient with nature and letting yourselves discover things slowly,” said Jha. “...He has contributed extensively to the study of birds and after we sent this postcard out, we had many people writing in to tell us that they had never even heard of him.”

Humour and Defiance: Ismat Chughtai and ‘The Lihaf Trial’. Image courtesy: Daak.
Humour and Defiance: Ismat Chughtai and ‘The Lihaf Trial’. Image courtesy: Daak.

Jha and Drabu met at the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University, Haryana, in 2013 and a friendship based on their mutual love of literature was forged. They began to exchange emails containing pieces of writing, songs and poetry the other enjoyed.

“For the longest time we had been complaining that there isn’t a place where we can go and find this kind of content, so we decided to start building something ourselves,” said 31-year-old Jha, director at Life Lab Education and Research Foundation, a non-profit that connects students and teachers with scientific organisations. “We kept the core idea, which is uncovering writers, artists and poets from the Indian subcontinent, but added this theme of letters and postcards, [which] we are both fond of, and that became our central theme.”

Jha and 27-year-old Drabu started experimenting with the format and content while sending the postcards to family and friends and a few others. “We needed feedback,” said Drabu, a social policy consultant at UNICEF.

A Colourful But Perilous World: Bhojpuri Sayings from Fallon’s Dictionary of Hindustani Proverbs. Image courtesy: Daak.
A Colourful But Perilous World: Bhojpuri Sayings from Fallon’s Dictionary of Hindustani Proverbs. Image courtesy: Daak.

The postcard is sent with a quote printed in cursive on the left side and a few words on the right from Jha and Drabu, offering the context and a brief explanation. The body of the email is a short note on the writer with a link to the full text of the chosen story or poem.

Starting conversations

Since Ali’s essay, they have sent out words written by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore and author Ismat Chugtai, among others.

“We are not focused entirely on high-brow literature,” said Jha. “We are trying to uncover ideas. We have covered Gandhi’s letters exhorting Adolf Hitler to avoid war, a humourous poem by British-born Indian scientist, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, on living with cancer that eventually claimed his life.”

A Lively Irreverence in the Face of Death: J. B. S. Haldane’s ‘Cancer is a Funny Thing’. Image courtesy: Daak.
A Lively Irreverence in the Face of Death: J. B. S. Haldane’s ‘Cancer is a Funny Thing’. Image courtesy: Daak.

In the letters to Hitler, Gandhi asks the German to shun the method of war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. “Much has been speculated about whether these letters actually reached Hitler. Sadly, most sources point to the fact they never did, most likely because of interception by British authorities,” says the accompanying note.

When they started, Drabu and Jha did not really have a target audience in mind, but over the past few months, they have seen unlikely readers take an interest in Daak. “We had our first event on February 11 at the OddBird theatre in Delhi – a poetry reading session in eight different languages – and the audience that showed up there was completely different from anything we had in mind,” said Drabu. “These were people who were lawyers, or those working in the corporate sector, businessmen and most of them were non-readers who had just come there to experience poetry. They had this sense of appreciation for poetry and regional language but just not the time to read it, so a lot of them started following our blog and wrote to us telling us that it’s easily readable and that they have been looking for something like Daak.”

Postcards from the Attic For the sake of humanity: Gandhi’s Letter to Hitler. Image courtesy: Daak.
Postcards from the Attic For the sake of humanity: Gandhi’s Letter to Hitler. Image courtesy: Daak.

Daak has also found a large audience among Indians living abroad and students of South Asian studies, who have written in with suggestions on who or what could be included in the letters.

“For regional literature we have really depended a lot on our readers and our mentors,” said Jha “It’s not like we already had a big bank of knowledge but are in the process of uncovering writers, authors, movements, artists and pieces.”

Daak has featured posts written originally in Assamese, Kannada, Bhojpuri and Kashmiri, among others. One such post is by Assamese poet Hiren Bhattarcharyya which has been translated by Pradip Acharya into English.

Poems from His Earth: Hiren Bhattacharyya’s poetry of nature. Image courtesy: Daak.
Poems from His Earth: Hiren Bhattacharyya’s poetry of nature. Image courtesy: Daak.

“His poetry brings up the lush imagery of nature; of paddy fields, of waves of green, of ripples in the air and of gushing rains.... The Internet tells us that he added the word ‘shosyoghran’, a beautiful word for the smell of harvest, to the Assamese dictionary,” the post informs the reader.

After receiving many requests for physical postcards, Drabu and Jha sent out around 70 postcards to their readers’ homes in February. “We did it as a thank you to our readers really, but maybe we will continue doing this if there is consistent demand for it,” said Jha.

Longing for the Divine: Manikkavacakar’s Bhakti Poems. Image courtesy: Daak.
Longing for the Divine: Manikkavacakar’s Bhakti Poems. Image courtesy: Daak.
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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.