Categories
The Literary Fictionist

In search of Lewis Carroll

Sunil Sharma travels through pages of a classic with ease and aplomb demystifying literary lore to unravel the identity of a man that never was

…but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.

So she set to work, and very soon finished off the cake.

`Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: `we’re all

mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

`How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

`You must be,’ said the Cat, `or you wouldn’t

have come here.’

“Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a

conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I – I hardly

know, sir, just at presen t– at least I know who I

WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must

have been changed several times since then.’

`What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar…

“So, who is Lewis Carroll?”

This question cannot be easily answered by me or anybody else. But Grace wanted a quick answer. She just finished Alice in the Wonderland and wanted to know about its wonderful creator who went by this name.

“Did he ever exist?” She asked me, eyes wide open—the way only nine-year-olds can. I said I would find out for her soon.

“It is not a real name,” Grace said.

“What is the real name?” I asked.

“Oh! I forgot!”

“No problem, honey.”

“But why do folks use other names? If I use a name not my official one, will it not be understood as something wrong?” she asked.

Being a lawyer, I had told her of cases where people using false names got caught — and punished by the law.

“It is literature,” I said.

“But rules are rules—for everyone, in every field,” Grace persisted. “You are trying to conceal your true identity.”

“In literature, rules are different,” I said tamely. “It is a different territory.”

“OK. Who is Carroll?”

We were back to square one.

“Give me some time,” I said.

That set me off on a strange journey. A literary odyssey that required the navigation of the choppy area between the imagined and real; the persona and the individual; social mores and  the transmuted artistic expression; sense and non-sense; fantasy and fact; historical and transcendental; the physical and the parallel universes; meaning and its production, creation and destruction… and lot more. Kind of investigation that a literary detective has to undertake.

“We find signs of its age in a serious literary work,” says Homocus (Not his real name, says he with a wink).

Can we?

Alice in Wonderland was published in the year 1865. “In a sense it mocks all the expected norms of novel reading and writing; it demolishes them and renews them for others. Very few works could overturn those norms set by Carroll — even he, himself could not through his other iconic work,” says Homocus Mirabilis over coffee in his well-appointed drawing room in Rome. “Although written in the Victorian age, echoes of our age are also traceable in a great book.”

How? 

“First thing first. The age when the book got written leaves its mark in that literary book,” claimed Homocus, considered to be a foremost authority on Alice and Carroll, two famous fictional characters for me.

He explains patiently to me his interesting hypothesis, “Let us talk about the book.”

All right.

“It is an escape from the prim and ‘propa’ Victorian world into a world of freedom. Freedom from the restrictions, stifling norms and stilted conventions of an imperialist society and its totalising binary imagination.”

Now, that is too much!

“Alice the book is full of riddles and signs that you have to interpret for yourself and the book speaks through the prism of time.”

How?

“You find the echoes of your time in that book. Only thing — be alert!”

Now, a pompous — for me — Homocus Mirabilis can be jarring on the nerves!

“Now, let us talk Alice, the Victorian girl.”

Go ahead, I say.

“Alice is almost seven-and –a- half-year-old girl who, bored on the morning of May 4th, finds herself falling through a rabbit hole and into a strange world. And the journey starts that still continues to delight adults and children alike across the world.

“During the dreamed adventure, little Alice — curious, questioning, courteous and believing — encounters the normal world in a new and fresh way. It is a world inverted, made strange, for the rationalists.”

Here is how, says Homocus:

“The talking rabbit with a pocket watch and a hall with locked doors of all sizes are all symbols — like much of the book Alice and much of literature. The fully-clothed rabbit leads the child on to a big adventure of sights and sounds. It destabilises all our expectations of looking at the normal world and experiencing it through language—itself a system of conventions. In a way, the scenes after changing scenes baffle our commonsensical view of things seen and repeatedly emphasise the arbitrary nature of symbol, sign and convention.”

Please explain.

“The rabbit stands for swiftness, speed and velocity. Metaphorically. Carroll, in order to render the experienced prim world of the Victorian era upside down, makes the rabbit as a creature speak and thus create a new symbol. The unexpected does the work of the expected; the impossible becomes possible; the illogical is nothing but logical in a strange world. It is purely arbitrary decision by Carroll to assign a new shocking value to rabbit operating as an old symbol in an underground realm where the young trusting viewer Alice expects only out-of-the-way things to happen because those happenings make the conventional life exciting and no longer dull and stupid in its common way for her. A gregarious female child experiences the restricted world in a newer way, a world where everyday realities are not prevalent but mad things rule. The book turns down everything topsy-turvy, on its head.”

Sorry!

“It is how every new literary artistic product behaves. You can see the Alice book anticipating the Cubists and continuing the tradition of Don Quixote.”

Hmm!

“By adding speech and clothes and waist-pocket watch, the rabbit becomes a new symbol rather than a tired cliché and infuses more energy into the funny narrative. But how a rabbit can talk, you ask. Why not? Carroll seems to say. Literature is a particular way of looking at the things and the world. Your realism might not be my realism. For a child, a fable or fairy-tale is more real, plausible than a work by Dickens. And how real is the real in these realistic novels? Is it not a mere illusion?”

Well, okay. Go on…

“So, once we expect the legitimacy of a parallel world created only by the extra-ordinary creative mind of a great artist, then we expect things occurring in that world as perfectly sane, logical and normal. In a fairy-land, every winged creature is normal; only a wingless human is abnormal.”

Good!

“So a talking rabbit is a novelty that ceases to be such after an initial encounter.”

What about the hall?

“Simple. It signifies the restricted environment for a female child then and now. It has got locked rooms of different sizes. Rooms that can lead to different realms but are locked in a big hall that closes down upon the looker. You need initiatives big or small to open that restricted space. Hence, she shrinks and grows bigger.”

Stretching it a bit?

“Not at all. We produce our own meanings out of a sacred text in every age. Criticism is like that only. A sacred text speaks in multiple tones to multiple folks.”

For a lawyer, this is all Greek!

“It is in our hands to manufacture a wonderland out of the rational and mundane. Alice the book proves that. Take the scene of Caucus race where everybody is going in circles and nobody is a winner. Middle-class existence in a post-modern society resembles that Caucus race only: Moving around in circles.”

Sounds intriguing!

“The Cheshire Cat!”

What about it?

“It shows that symbols are arbitrarily assigned their symbolism; meanings to objects. Red rose for love? Why not for hatred? You have no answers. A grin without a cat in fact suggests the gap between object and its assigned meaning by us; it suggests that it is all decided by community of users in an arbitrary way only. The entire language, symbols, signs — they all function like that.”

How?

“The meanings, symbolism get finally separated in an evolved sophisticated complex sign-system — linguistic and literary. A grin, the signified — separate from cat, its signifier — hints at the function of any given code — mathematical, musical, scientific, folk — evolved to communicate ideas.”

What else is there in this marvelous book?

“A lot. The Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat dialogues are all pointers in this direction. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is another intriguing scene. The take on the word mad is revealing. Don Quixote also examines this state.”

What is the message?

“Frightening change! We all change in the process of our experience — for good or for worse. But change we all on this earth, a brief adventure, for some mad; for some, sane. Boundaries are never fixed; they change rapidly for us. Words lose meanings and gain much. Innovative ideas once considered insane get accepted as sane in the long run. Mad become sane; sane become insane. Arts help quicken metamorphosis. Alice the book is more effective than any other solid earthly experience for some like Alice, the little question curious girl, who has got two sides to her.”

Hmm.

“Literature can bring transformations deep via their imagery and emotions, visual appeals.”

What is the message for you, of this book of fiction?

“Well, simple. The real education is done through experiencing the world. There are and can be bizarre and eccentric characters, low and high, articulate and dull, rational and irrational in a rich tapestry and they all can teach a child and us a thing or two about life and the world. We keep on changing fast — sometimes shrinking; sometimes expanding; sometimes small, sometimes big — it is all a big rollercoaster and you enjoy the eccentricities and delights of this short journey between dreaming and waking before you leave your earthly coil for good!”

Impressive, dear Homocus Mirabilis, my dear literary friend, a devotee of Cervantes, Borges, Marquez, Spielberg, Tolkien and Rowling– creators of the so-called marvellous for every generation. One Thousand and One Nights is his favourite. So is Panchtantra.

And what is marvellous?

“Well, well. It is the other side of realism. The upside down of reality, of human perceptions. As the jungle looks strange at night –taking on different forms; the trees and shrubs and hills look bizarre, outlandish or like giants in the inky darkness — for the traveler trapped there but reverts to its original shape the next morning and becomes less threatening than the one at night, it is the same with the marvellous. It is the exaggerated real and designed to defy logic and a sense of rational for the pure delight of telling a story, a fable. There are no giants we all know but we tend to believe in such stories, yarns or fables. The idea is to delight in the unknown and the mysterious and to creatively explore the free-flowing, unstructured side of human imagination. In other words, creating an alternative reality for the reading/viewing mind and an escape route from the regimented grimness of a rational, calculating world into the delightful realms of art.”

Marvellous!

Last question.

Yes.

Who is Lewis Carroll?

“The guy who overturned a tradition and created a new one of story-telling. The great innovator! He insisted that a medley of riddles, pun, poems, neologism and queer creatures in a fun narrative can also be quite an interesting method of communicating certain truths. He saw things largely unseen by his society and he made them vivid through a new style and presentation. Truths are truths, whatever be their forms of expression. If the factual can be valid, why not the fantastic for the artist and the wider reading public? In fact, he interrogates the conventions of evolving mode of realism and produces his version of realism— portmanteau realism.”

Illustration?

“He created a sur-realistic world much before Dali…Like, to give an example not from the book but to make a lawyer like you to understand, combining different things in one figure to make it bizarre: Adding cat/dog- whiskers to a mirror.

“Or, a Caterpillar smoking a hookah? I like those classic lines:

“‘I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, `because I’m not myself, you see.’

“`I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.”

This exchange is profound. So is the startling image of a smoking Caterpillar. It is unusual, is it not?

“Yes, It is. You are right, my lawyer friend from India.”

Who was he in life? Our dear Carroll?

“He never existed.”

What?

“Yes. He is not historical.  A mere invention, a linguistic category only.”
Then who wrote the book?

“Lewis Carroll only.”

Now you sound like the Cheshire Cat or the Caterpillar.

“Not at all.”

Please explain.

“Carroll was/is an extension of the historic Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician, logician, dean, author and photographer of the Victorian age. He wrote under the pen name of Lewis Carroll. Former was a rationalist; Carroll, a romanticist. The first, a complex logical thinker thinking in abstract terms, solving problems of math. The second, a romancer playing with the imagination, words, logic, situations, norms most playfully, like our playful post-modernists. Two opposing sides! An interesting dualism not uncommon in artistic field.”

Hmm! Not very clear yet…

“He was two persons in one man — like most of the artistes. What Carroll could see the staid Dodgson could not; what the math teacher could see, the writer could not. Both were separated, yet unified in a single breast — like the meaning is in the word, the word is in the object; the object is in the mind, the mind in the matter…”

STOP!

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Sunil Sharma is Mumbai-based senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 21 published books: Seven collections of poetry; three of short fiction; one novel; a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award—2012. His poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015.

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Categories
The Literary Fictionist

A Stranger in the City

By Sunil Sharma

Suddenly I found myself a total stranger in my own city! 

The development was both dramatic and lightning fast. And the stunning reversal left me dumb and shaken to the core! 

The origins of this extraordinary and rapid transformation lie in a very ordinary urban situation: A hurried company executive takes out fast cash from an ATM for an impulsive shopping spree. Then he takes a grubby and dark subway to reach the shopping district on the other side of the road. After the shopping, he intends to go back home. It is 6.30 pm, December 24. The well-dressed shop fronts look inviting. The Christmas trees are glowing in the glass windows. The buildings are all well-lit. The shopping festival is on.

There are many seductive offers to hook the undecided consumers. You feel tempted to blow up money on some discounted buys from these stores in the big malls, all dolled up along the curving road in the two-km-long district.

The man, on a whim, decides to buy a pair of branded shirts from the famous retail major, the Monarch’s Choice, which claims to make the wearer stand out in the crowd. So, after withdrawing cash, he takes the subway to complete the initial part of the journey home. He is talking on his Blackberry to finalise the last-minute details of a late-night weekend bash. There is a certain bounce in his step, a smile on the thick lips and a Jennifer Lopez song, waiting for tonight, in the heart. Everything is fixed.

It is Saturday evening. He has finished the day’s fixed targets. Successfully concluded a deal with a tough Japanese client. The overworked boss is partially happy with him. Everything is fine with the world. Three hours later, the executive plans to party at a friend’s suburban bungalow. An expensive booze party for few close friends: all successful top-level bosses from finance, banking and insurance sectors, those who call the shots. It is a dinner that can be very productive for his career. There will be soft music, barbecued food and fun, all served as a heady mix, on the grounds of the manicured bungalow nestling in the wooded hills. 

A spread of money and power! A great way to unwind, after a hard day’s work! Next day being a Sunday, getting up late won’t cause a problem. Sundays are leisurely. You loll around in your boxers, reading dailies, chatting on the cell, watching TV, eating a late breakfast. The Saturday parties are the best route to a multi-tasking man’s nirvana: after a grueling weekly routine of daily strategising, pep talks to the team members, boring business meetings, battles with the rival companies and demanding deadlines, you enter a different zone of pure hedonism. Boozing, smoking, eating, staggering home and finally, passing out. There is no harm in this style of living. A man deserves few hours, in a competitive week, to himself.

You work hard. You party harder. That is the universal mantra of survival in the corporate world and in the mega cities everywhere. Otherwise you will go mad and kaput, in few fast years. The expensive liquor, the late-night bashes, the one-night stands in cheap motels, they all keep you from cracking up in a vast city teeming with silent lost souls, out to live their version of the American Dream. 

So that was the scene. The evening promised lot of fun and action, after a hectic week. He was very happy: with himself; the upward arc in his career, overall progress made by him in last two decades in the mega city; the two loving kids and a pretty, docile wife. 

The gods, however, had different plans for this happy and confident, English-spewing Indian, the usual corporate type found in the major cities of the country. Happiness, they say, is transient! The jealous gods introduced a sudden twist in the tale. The way they do in the Greek epics or plays. A surprise twist in this happy and contented tale. The following couple of hours were going to be memorable and life-altering for the narrator of the story that begins with a first person, singular number. First, the first incident of the story. 

Suddenly, without any warning, an unexpected thing happens to this happy, relaxed but unsuspecting man. The regular middle-class bearded guy, in his early thirties, gets mugged by a pair of smelly red-eyed junkies in ill-fitting clothes, in an ill-lit, dirty, crowded subway. And before he could understand or react to this ordinary crime, a very commonplace thing worldwide, the entire operation is over in a blink of a fluttering eye! The robbed man is left stupefied by the very swiftness, brazenness and speed of the act carried out by a pair of drug addicts so openly in a moving public place! See their nerve. They are not afraid of law. Of the commuters.

They wantonly rob and then leave the place casually. They are professionals. They planned everything meticulously. They watched their unwary quarry enter and come out of the ATM, followed him from the centre to the dark subway, looted him with a menacing knife and then vanished fast, freely mixing and melting in the unresisting, surging evening crowd of tired commuters. The thugs leave no physical proof of the hold up.

The muggers just evaporated in the thin rancid air, like a pair of the unfriendly ghosts, leaving no trace or hard evidence of the crime. No clinching evidence. Nothing to support your claim of being mugged in a subway before hundreds of commuters. No witness to corroborate the crime.

Did it really happen? Is it the working of an overheated imagination? Have I lost the purse somewhere else? Am I dreaming things? Answers are not easy to these doubts of others or the skeptic cops. The man stops near the edge of the stairs. One thing is certain. The whole episode is incredible! Unbelievable! There is no solid proof of the fleeing criminals! Everything around is normal.

The crowd of the commuters is moving around in the enclosed stuffy underground space, as if nothing odd had happened there. Nobody pays attention! It is sickening. A man gets robbed. Nobody, in the subway, bothers to stop the criminals or chase them or help the shocked victim get up on his shaken feet, a helpless innocent victim, their mirror image.

For others, the mugging did not happen at all. At least, not to them. They were safe. That counts, in the surging city full of strangers. They conveniently did not see the muggers attacking an innocent victim, a bloke clad in a three-piece expensive suit, a member of their tribe. It is routine. Some incidents can be so unreal in the public eye. The general apathy only heightens the trauma and the insecurity. Sometimes, collective unconcern can be killing for the human prey. He just escaped being murdered in an indifferent public place. That is important. At least, he is still alive. Money may come and go. And gods must be thanked for his safety! 

The trauma of being the Other starts now. 

*

I am without a paisa*…for the first time in my adult life. I worship money. Naturally, the current penury is very uneasy mental and physical state.

Money is sacred commodity. This non-living object socially defines an active human subject in our mad age. It is a universal totem. It provides security, power and prestige, in a divided world of the kings and the paupers. Those in its possession are the royalty envied by the men devoid; those denied are the new struggling proletariat, despised by the top. So far, all my energies were directed towards acquiring it: a promotion of few thousands will prompt me to jump from one job to another, one location to the other, without any hesitation or guilt. There is only one enduring loyalty: the loyalty to money. All others are secondary.

Now, suddenly, I have got no money on me. I feel powerless in a system based on money. It is fairy-tale scenario: the good innocent young prince’s powers have been suddenly and fraudulently stolen from him by a scheming wicked villain! The realisation of the grave loss is frightening!

By a strange feat of magic, I have been converted into my hated opposite: a ridiculous and socially useless tramp, an ineffective figure in the hierarchy, operating on the social margins, a human caricature who invites derision and contempt from the rich. The lack of money makes me feel handicapped. I cannot make a call or cannot eat dinner or hire a cab or travel anywhere. I feel hopelessly stranded in the fast-paced city. I try to talk to some decent-looking persons, but they jump and run away, scared of my daring overtures.

I give them a real fright: a well-dressed man, wearing a tie and a foreign perfume. I am the new plague to them, to be avoided at any cost.

“These days, even the beggars wear designer clothes for better effect and appeal. What a shame! They are good actors,’’ remarks a pretty woman, lips pursed, contempt in voice, taking me for a rodent.

It is truly humiliating! They do not try to understand me or my peculiar predicament.

 A man, wearing a colour-coordinated wardrobe, speaking fluent English, saying, “Excuse me sir, madam, I have been mugged and have no money. Can you please help me out?’’ This is an immediate suspect, a smart con man with a sob story to blatantly feed on your innate goodness and sympathies, a goon out to fleece you through a smart strategy.

It is real crazy situation! They do not want to stop or listen to me. Most ignore, some curse, some say, sorry and flee. Tired and hungry, hopeless and irritated, I stand at the curb and watch my comfortable familiar world turn hostile. I am still in a daze. The wide road is a constant blur of heavy traffic that is in no mood to stop for the hapless pedestrians who wants to cross. The vehicles keep on coming like series of flying saucers in attack mode in a B-grade Hollywood flick, their powerful halogen lights dancing and musical horns blaring, a frightening combination for the poor pedestrians.

Dusk, meanwhile, tumbles down quickly from the darkening sky. Huge shadows hang like long faded curtains moving in the cold wind. The cold wind makes me feel homeless and helpless in the midst of the swirling blind humanity on the go and the flying traffic. It has become an impersonal world! The streets soon get deserted. The night looks terribly lonely and feels bitingly cold. It is time for the city’s homeless vagabonds to resurface and reclaim the pavements of the golden district! 

It is an early December night. 

I am in the heart of the shimmering business district. The glittering neon signs illuminate the vast night sky. The looming, glass-fronted buildings appear as formidable giants. I feel out-of-place. A man who no longer fits into this upscale setting. Whose mere presence is threatening for the establishment! 

The lights, gradually, go off one by one in the high-rises. There is an element of gentleness and a strange sadness to the ensuing gloom that envelopes the quiet steel- and-glass structures. The shops close down on this shivering Saturday night. Slowly, silence and shadows reclaim the posh district. 

As I stated at the beginning of the story, I found myself a stranger in my own city. It may sound incredible but is largely true! 

I am now a stranger! 

I stood undecided at the curb, a stunned person deprived of official identity. Let me fill in a few more missing details for our dear readers: I got mugged by two wild outcasts in front of a blank crowd. The crazy addicts first seized me by the collar and then put a glinting long knife at my throbbing jaguar. And then stripped me systematically of the plastic money, my identity card, paper money and currency, my cell phone and my gold watch, leaving nothing. All this took place before commuters who elected to remain completely serene and unconcerned about my fate. The two predators had pushed me gruffly to the ground, asking me not to do anything foolish. We will kill you, they whispered spitefully, bringing the knife in front of my frightened eyes. The contempt in their tone was chilling. Life is cheap here, so keep quiet and do not raise an alarm. No cop will come here anyway, they said in a steady cold voice of veteran hoodlums. Get up after five minutes! Treat yourself as lucky. We are sparing your life. 

Then they vanished at the flick of an eye. I did what I was told. When I got up — after full ten minutes of lying on the grimy stained cement floor of the subway, while commuters walked around ignoring a fully prostrate human figure, probably presuming I was drunk — I saw no lingering trace of the goons who had reduced me to a pauper in few slow painful moments of trembling fear and self- loathing, cleaning me swiftly, in a single stroke, of all my urban securities, signs and symbols. I was left as dirt poor, a totally dispossessed man, like the regular ones spread out on the pavements or dark corners, largely unseen. I had nothing left; a person without money or the cell or the season pass or the precious identity card: crucial things to prove my middle-class respectable credentials to the suspicious world.

The cultivated urban divides were no longer there. I felt exposed and vulnerable, robbed of all my city personas, in the city of masks. The protective walls, the labour of last two decades, protecting me from the prying and dangerous have-nots had collapsed around me, exposing me to attack from any side.

I was a rank stranger in my own city, some fifty miles away from a locked home in a seedy suburb. For the first time, I felt vulnerable and unwelcome in a city that I always found to be very ordered, organised, logical, structured, safe, appealing and beautiful! A depressing feeling overpowered me. The bounce in my gait was missing. The past few minutes changed long-cherished perceptions about my luck and the city of my dreams! I was a defeated general — torn and shattered, surveying the city from different eyes. 

I was an outcast of the same system that had nourished me earlier! I had this sudden revulsion for the tribe of fellow men that did not care if I lived or died on that dank subway and whose collective apathy allowed the two thugs to rob a decent, hard-working, respectable, god-fearing, law-abiding fellow bourgeois. It sure was a heartless city. A grim lesson that shattered my illusions. If the mad bastards had knifed my soft, bloated body on that stinking subway in a series of quick stabs, no fellow commuter would have cared a bit. They thought they were lucky and safe — at least, they were not being attacked. It was somebody else.

I also would have acted identically. Survival on these mean streets was tough. I was unlucky. My luck had finally run out on that moment. That was the only difference! 

Now here I was, without any money. It was a strange sensation! I felt suddenly liberated of the tyranny of the mercenary culture and its powerful symbols. I had become the typical wandering tramp. The underdog of the system! All the hard work of acquiring the trappings of the commercial culture was undone in last few minutes. Under an open sky, on a windy deserted night, I stood like a deposed monarch, surveying all things differently; lighter in being, yet a bit nervous, in the heart of a glittering system that no longer recognized folks like me. I was truly dispossessed! And a pariah! 

And then came the real underdog of the system! A man called Heera Lal. 

Destiny brought me face-to-face with this unlucky man, the truly dispossessed of the system; a cruel system meant for the promotion and the protection of the rich only. In fact, the stinking frail man proved to be my saviour also! This is what happened.


*

I was standing on the curb, drained of all the emotions, totally blank, undecided, confused and angry, yet helpless and powerless; a cipher, a zero figure, surrounded by all the signs of great affluence. A man strangely turned into a cripple for the absence of money.

Then, almost unthinking and unseeing, I decided to cross the wide road in a blind manner, on a sudden impulse to do something physical. The simple act of crossing was meant to become bodily active and break the mental inertia. As I crossed slowly, a bit blank and unresponsive, I could see a huge car hurtling towards me from my peripheral vision: the lights were blinding. Loud music screamed from the half-open windows. The vehicle was soaring like a flying hostile dragon or a blood-sucking vampire in the cold night air.

I stood there rooted to the spot, totally transfixed by the approaching beams of the headlight, watching the deadly contraption coming towards me with strange fascination, all fear or dread leaving my mind, the benumbed brain not registering the moving danger at all. I saw a maniac car rushing frantically as if at the speed of 120 km per second. I stood there, in the middle of the smooth road, completely immobile and vulnerable, ready for a horrible death under the wide wheels of the automobile.

A perfect Zen moment! All lucid light, no mortal fear or terror of the threat of death! A strange calmness within! Sensitive to the delicious feeling of absolute annihilation; the termination of the human toil or the final cessation of the individual form! No panic, nothing, only inner tranquility! The typical emotional state faced by the snipers or the combat soldiers at the time of attack or extreme danger. The poise of a samurai committing Harakiri. My entire life flashed before me and looked so insignificant and worthless. It hung precariously, on a taut gossamer thread, agitated by the strong buffeting winds, in perpetual danger of snapping any minute, under the powerful aerial pressure, applied by an unseen hand. 


Life is just fragile! 


As the racing machine came near my hypnotized body, about to knock and roll me under its shiny wide radial tires on the gleaming asphalt road, a human hand miraculously yanked me off the road and pulled me to the relative safety of the curb—in a nano-second. The hiss of death missed me by a fraction of a second, by an inch only. It was an epiphany in face of sure death. For the second time, in the same evening, I was fortunate enough to survive the dangers of an ugly city. 


My senses slowly returned. I collapsed on the curb. Then the elixir was offered: a plastic bottle of cold water. I was lifted to my feet by a stranger. He was pitifully lanky, in his early fifties. He helped me rise on my shaken legs, the horn still sounding in my ears. I was made to sit down on a torn and battered, mattress, on the inner darker side of the pavement, under an open sky, slightly away from the tall mast lights of the road, in the soft lingering shadows. It was an unusual setting for a corporate type but heavenly under the present circumstances! 


The bedding was warm. The saviour put a blanket around me. And sat down beside me. I relished the human touch, the feeling of being alive, of being cared for by an unknown person, in an unsafe city. The human company, at that moment, felt delicious! 


Angels existed and definitely looked like him — my mysterious saviour, wearing a white shirt, old torn sweater and faded black trousers. The feet had no shoes. Only the chappals. 


“Phew! Babu*, why do you want to commit suicide? That too, in front of my little home?” 


I had no answers. My body shook involuntarily. Late reaction to danger. 


“These rich people have no respect for life. Especially, the low life.’’ 


I looked closely in the dark. A short skeletal figure, hollow face, white receding hair, yellow teeth, squinting eyes, bad breath. The typical underdog. 


“You, a gentleman. Why were you standing in the middle of a busy road? Hijack a bus or a fancy car?” He laughed loud, his voice hoarse, the voice of a smoker. I could smell cheap liquor on his breath. 


“Or, in a hurry to meet your Maker? The guy who lives in the sky and never cares to look down.” 


His bonhomie was infectious. The conversation was natural, unforced and easy. Life and death had no profound meaning. Mere daily facts of a wretched existence on the city pavements! 


“Or, you wanted to act like Spiderman?” 


I smiled suddenly. We were both of the same class now — two tramps, savouring the cold night, on the wide pavement, under an open sky, two expelled figures. He offered me country liquor. I gratefully accepted. Anything would do at this moment. We both drank from the same bottle, passing it on after wiping the bottle with our fingers, a bonding rare in the famed cocktail circles. The hot white odorless stuff burned down the gullet but revived the tired body. A few minutes passed. The neat country liquor gave a fast kick. The cold had now no effect on me. I felt relaxed and light. 


Babu, you from these parts?” 


“Yes.” 


“Staying late? Some woman trouble or boss trouble?” 


“Just got mugged. Broke like you.” 


“That makes us soul brothers.” 


He laughed again, showing his broken teeth. The dark curtain shimmered. There was nobody on that stretch of the pavement. The place so far was deserted. We two seemed to be the only remnants of the human race on that spot. He fished out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. 


“What is your name?” I asked. 


“Heera Lal.” 


“What do you do?” 


“I am a rickshaw puller.”

 
The low life! 

“It is a difficult life.” 


I knew. I have ridden in the rickshaws pulled by these poor skeletal wheezing men in many cities of India. Once I tried to pull one. I did not last five minutes on an undulating city road full of undisciplined vehicular traffic. The fiery white drops of the country liquor made me shed my inhibitions culturally acquired.

I asked Heera Lal, “Where is your home?” 


He laughed. “You are sitting right in it.” I got that. “It is a wonderful house, open on every side. You get all the air in the world…free.”

He laughed, blowing a grey cloud of smoke. I did not say anything. The underlying tone of deep bitterness was moving. A strong gust of the cold wind hit me on my inflamed face. Heera Lal poured out some salty roasted groundnuts on a piece of torn newspaper. “Eat them. Some salty thing is necessary with the drinks. It is my cocktail party for a Sahib like you.” 


For the first time in life, somebody lower in rank, was leading me. Calling the shots. And I was willing to be led by him.

 
“You sit cross-legged on the bed, my bed. It will make you comfortable. Then sip slowly the drinks. It will give a high to you. Then, you will forget all the discomfort.” I obeyed. The change in the sitting posture on the “bed” helped. The pressure on the beer belly of mine eased a lot.

This was my temporary home. I observed, “This is a dangerous place — infested with muggers and addicts and streetwalkers.” 


He laughed. “Do not worry. They will not harm you. You are in my custody. They will not mess with me or my guests.” Lal chewed on salted ground nuts slowly, rolling them in his mouth and then swallowed them with a large swig of the liquor. He did not grimace. It was like drinking water on a hot summer night.

Then he looked directly at me, “Yes. It is a dangerous place. Especially, after midnight. There are lots of brawls, street fights, even murders, in this vast area…The most dangerous persons…You know who they are?” I said, No. Guess. I still said, No. 
“The cops.” 
I looked surprised. 
“Yes, Babu, the cops are most dangerous persons in the world. In their comparison, the other riff-raff is a pack of lambs.” 
“How?” 
“Oh, you are a babe in the woods! You lead a protected life. We all live on the edge here. The daily wage-earners, the prostitutes, the muggers, the chain-snatchers, the gamblers… the list of the social outcasts is long.’’ He took another swig, munched some nuts, “I have to pay a hafta* to the beat constable for sleeping on the deserted pavement. If I do not, he beats me badly. The bastard. The cops have no conscience. They make us criminals.’’ 

My jaw dropped. 


“They have a cut in every crime committed in the area. The poor criminals have to pay a percentage to higher criminals…to survive on these mean streets of the mean city. Everybody needs money. Some get it from offices. Others, from the streets. It is an unequal world. Everybody has to survive. Those who are not lucky, die a violent death.’’ 
I looked at him, this time with respect. “You are very wise.” Lal smiled. “Only street-smart. I know one lesson only.” 
“What is that?” 
“Money makes a man big or small. It is the only thing in the world that can turn identical human beings into unidentical ones. It can make sinners out of the poor saints; saints, out of the wealthy sinners. Very, very funny!” 


The truth was simple, yet profound. Here I was sitting and sharing cheap liquor with a lowly manual worker, on a pavement, under an open night sky, a thing I would not have done or even imagined, in my pre-mugged life of costly gizmos and gadgets, airconditioned cabins, fast elevators, power lunches, overseas trips. That heady world was remote from this grim reality. The lack of money made me a witness to this world I had never, earlier, acknowledged. Now, I could understand the pain, the humiliation, the hurt of being denied the common human status. 
“Tell me more about you, Heera Lal.’’ 
“Why?’’ 
“I want to know your history.’’ 
Lal laughed loudly. “The poor man like me has no history, saab. It is the rich who have these histories.” 
“OK. Tell me about your family. I want to know.” 
He grew suddenly serious. As if stricken by a thunderbolt. I sipped from the bottle. 

Then he said, “Listen.” 


Heera Lal was born unlucky. “When I came into this world, my poor emaciated Ma died. Pa did not like the crying bundle in his hands, a thin male child born two months before the due date. He called me unlucky. 

“A drunkard, he would often beat me. Then he took another wife few years later and drove me out of his hut on the village border where we the low castes lived. I begged and starved in the unpitying small village. Finally, my maternal grandma took pity and raised me with difficulty, in a nearby village, where she lived, on the outskirts, in a rude little hut.

“The old lady, in her 60s, a betel-chewing feisty widow, named me Heera Lal. I was a diamond to her, a caring woman deserted by her own good-for-nothing sons and daughters. She worked a servant and somehow fed me till the age of twelve, when, suddenly, she died, without any warning. I became an orphan the second time.”

Here, Heera’s big sad eyes misted with tears that refused to roll down on his hollow cheeks. A white tuft of unruly hair danced in the cold wind. He kept quiet for some time, then resumed slowly.

“I hit the mean streets of the nearby town, an abandoned kid, living off the streets, uncared, unwanted, unloved. Then I moved on to the city. There I joined a street gang led by Yunus Khan, a lanky teenager like me but a dare devil. There were ten urchins in the gang. We did everything…short of murder. We ran drugs on behalf a local peddler, mugged the drunks, sold metal covers…everything to survive on the streets. Then, one day, Yunus Khan ran away with the daughter of a local Hindu shopkeeper. A few days later, we saw his dead body floating in the stinking gutter, several knife wounds on his lanky hairless body…a kind of honour killing. The cops turned heat on us and chased us everywhere, ready to pin his murder on any one of us.” Heera Lal paused.

The lost years flashed through his memory. The chase, the whistles, the fear becoming real again, at this moment, in a different setting…even after so many years. We sat like that. A pair of two unusual buddies; one still well-dressed and the other, ill-clad, sitting cross-legged on the battered mattress in a corner of the slow street, hugged by lonely shadows of the night, under an open glittering sky. A pair that could be immediately suspected for being obviously so odd in a segregated city made of many invisible barriers.

“I left that city and moved on to another state. There I worked many odd jobs, got married and settled down, in a slum. There, my young dusky wife, bored of the poverty around, ran away with a young lorry driver, leaving two kids behind. I raised them on my own. I did not marry for the sake of two of my sons. I knew the pain of being hurt by my stepmother for three –four years. But the bastards, once married, drove me out of my own room in a slum and later sold it to another person for a big amount. They shared the money and then went to different cities in the north, finding employment there, never bothering about me. I was made homeless by my own blood.

“Disillusioned, I came to this city, to escape that cursed place and the bitter memories of my past. Here, I pull a rickshaw, live in this corner, totally a destitute tramp, without any family or friends, alone, drinking and working. Each day is cheerless, empty, full of struggle, draining. Pulling a rickshaw manually is bone-crushing exercise. The passengers are rude. They do not pay the fare. The motorists, the public, the cops, the owners of the rickshaws…all are very insulting. We are not humans. Mere creatures to be killed. That is my life for you. Nothing but pain and rejections. I just pull on, forgetting the insults in the daily drinks.” 

Then, suddenly, without any warning, the sad man started crying. Long silent sobs shook his skinny body. The repressed tears flowed quietly. I could see a lonely son, a husband, a father crying on his repeated losses and daily humiliations. A worker, a deprived person, drinking himself to a certain welcome death, a release from a merciless system that denied his basic humanity. He knew if he died to-morrow, there would be nobody to mourn his untimely death, in a teeming vast city. Nobody to miss him, nobody to perform the last Hindu rites, to observe the mandatory rituals. It was a terribly lonely existence. An unmourned soul in a billion plus country. An unlucky person! 

I held his thin hand in mine. He grew quiet after few long minutes. It was now midnight. We sat—-like two lost brothers, holding hands, saying nothing, united by common penury. Two tramps on a lonely wintry night…the traffic was almost nil.

“Will you eat something?” Heera Lal asked.

I had no choice. My stomach was churning. There were knots in it, making me ravenous. I could have eaten anything. He took out a stale bread pakora, some fried chillies, salted onion rings and tomato slices, puffed rice mixed with coriander leaves with a dash of lime and topped with some green chutney— all wrapped up in a big newspaper. The sumptuous spread was unrolled before me. A pretty sight. The colourful assortment, with pungent smell, was real enticing! I hungrily tucked into the fried bread pakora, manually tearing a huge chunk of it, unashamed. I bit into its thick layers of bread and besan. It was delicious! It melted in my mouth. Five-star cuisines were tasteless before this brownish fatty deep-fried thing favourite of the workers, a filling cheap meal for the hungry. I took another piece and another, forgetting my poor host. When I finished eating the hot oily stuff, mouth burning, I realized my host was not eating. In fact, there was nothing for him to eat!

He was looking at me only, a bit amused. “Oh! It is so selfish of me!” I said, not meaning it really. To sound polite to my saviour only. I was still acting superior to him. The man was a superfluous item, in the scheme of things. His feelings mattered little to middle-class me. My hunger was satisfied. That was more important than his hunger. 


“Do not worry. It is OK. I am used to hunger. You are not.” 

Yes. It is true. I had hardly ever gone hungry. In fact, I had wasted lot of expensive food, in parties, hotels and home. The value of food was insignificant for me—-till this moment. 

Heera Lal chewed on the remaining nuts, salted onion rings and tomato slices. 

Babu saab?” 

“Yes.” I said, a bit tipsy, stomach full. I felt like a master of this remnant of a man, abandoned by his own people, a superfluous man anyway. 

“There is no difference between you and me. Ha-Ha, Ha. Hungry, you acted like us only. Attacking food the way we animals do. Wolfing it down. Thinking of your needs only. We are all same deep down…instinct wise. The only difference is that you were born into a rich house, went to the best school and college, and got the best job, home and the girl. But without money in your pocket, you are like me, a tramp, locked out of the system, a useless part; a discarded greasy cog …Ha-Ha –Ha…” 

I was thunderstruck! An epiphany. A simple but profound truth. 
There was no tangible difference. We were two tramps on this deserted street. Locked out! I — temporarily. He, permanently. Our destinies intersected on this moon-lit cold night. 

“You know you are as redundant as I am. You can be killed for all your costly clothes by the vagrants in these parts. These clothes can fetch a good price from a seller of the second-hand clothes. The money can bring a day’s supply of drugs or liquor or non-veg food for them. Nobody will miss you also for long. People get murdered here for petty things…for few rupees…”

Then he took out a gleaming long knife, from under the tattered mattress and raised it over my head, catching me off guard, the steel glinting in the cold moonlight, the reflected beam partially blinding me …a rogue wind screaming down the road, in the empty lots, rattling the sign boards roughly, the poster of a circus fluttering on the pole, a red-nosed joker looking directly at us out of the multi-colour poster, smiling at us from his high perch…on this lonely night in a mega city. 

*

PS: Many readers wrote in recently, asking for a suitable end of this strange story. There can be two ends:

1. The feel-good: Heera Lal raises his hand, holds it above the head of the narrator, then dramatically withdraws his raised hand that held the long-polished knife, dissolving in a laughter that convulses his famished body. “Babu, that is fear! Anybody could have killed you here. I do not do that. The knife is for my safety. I show it to any addict or mugger, out to mug or kill me. It works always. The bastards run away. Now, sleep here on the mattress. At the first light, get up and leave. I will loan you a small amount. You can go back to your home.”

It is nice and comforting and shows the poor labourer in good light. It does not challenge the received notions about the nobility of the working class. It confirms the essential goodness, honesty, simplicity, righteousness—in fact the basic idealism and harmlessness—of this deprived subordinate class and its overall reverence to the upper class. It fits in smugly with our general assumptions and ideas about the lower class. It demolishes our deep subconscious anxieties about the oppositional nature of the working class and demonstrates that it no longer is hostile to the rich. Most will prefer this ending! 


2. The anti-romantic second ending is that the drunk degraded dehumanised and brutalised tramp strikes and wounds or kills…for few rupees. It is another view about the working class. A diametrically opposite view that demonizes this class and portrays them as monsters, a permanent threat to peace and stability of the rich society. 


3. There can be other endings also: the idea that money and its lack can both brutalize the humans across the class divide. The rich and the deprived, both, are self-centered, callous and indifferent in their own ways! Call it skepticism. The world is absurd. So, do not meddle. Let it be like that only. Be individualistic. A survivor! Again, it is a bleak view of the human race, history and the post-modern world. 


4. Then, a more conventional end can be: The beat cop who rescues the bourgeois, or, the bourgeois himself resisting the assault and defeating the enemy, in a deadly combat, emerging as a victor or the vanquisher of the devil! It again suits our bourgeoisie need of being invincible and masters of the deprived people in a just, humane society! A master class that is justified to annihilate any threat to its security and safety from a subaltern class. The threat is eliminated, and the order is restored. Cathartic relief and smugness follow. All is right with the world. Everybody is safe. The bad guy gets his desserts! A happy ending! 


If these tentative ends still do not appeal to you as a reader and leave you aesthetically unsatisfied, you are welcome to evolve your ending (s) to this story, by becoming an author and impose a fictive, artificial finale to the long narrative

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*paisa – the smallest denomination of Indian currency. 1 rupee =100 paisa

*Babu – Sir

*Saab – Sahib or Sir

*Hafta – Weekly, refers to the weekly payment given illegally

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Sunil Sharma is Mumbai-based senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 21 published books: Seven collections of poetry; three of short fiction; one novel; a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award—2012. His poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015.

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