The Literary Fictionist


By Sunil Sharma

Now imagine this scene, dear reader:

A serpentine road, unpaved, badly lit, and completely deserted; a damp chilly early-night of December; the moon-lit fields running down to the distant horizon, a gleaming railway track parallel to the long gloomy stretch, and a lonely traveler walking briskly along the empty road to a distant suburb, lights beckoning.

The main town is tucked away far behind, receding, merging with shadows, finally swallowed by the wintry darkness. An occasional fire illuminates a remote gypsy camp, on the left side of the railway tracks and a faint folk song can be heard.

There are stars in the clear sky and a biting wind eerily blowing into the face of the young and thin male traveler. Then the traveler suddenly becomes aware of another man, walking a few paces behind, along the empty road.

Where has he sprung from?

Maybe he has come on the road from many of the short cuts.

He is just a few paces behind. There is nobody around. Mild darkness. Thicket of trees harbors other figures.

Is he safe out here? The traveler has no answer—no defense, either.

The man is quickening his pace. He is trying to be level with me. Who is he? Let me not hurry to show to him that I have panicked. Here he comes… one-two-three … He is now walking by my side: a head taller than me, stout, bearded, with a glowing cigarette in his hand.

I search for another man along that stretch of road. No, none is there. He is quietly walking beside me. I am getting upset. Who can he be? A fellow traveler? But why is he walking side by side? Why does he not walk either ahead of me or behind me as people normally do? Only friends walk like this, not strangers.

Look, he is slightly unsteady.

Drunk! He sure is.

I abruptly stop, reach for my cigarette packet, take out one from it. He has also slowed down. Let me light it…he has stopped a few paces ahead. The match is unsteady in my hand, the wind blows it off. He is there patiently standing…these bloody matches, the wind is too powerful for them. Oh, God! That bearded stout man is coming towards me.

Tonight, I am going to be mugged by him.

My fault. I love taking evening walks along this completely deserted road. I love its deathly silence, the ghostly fields around it, the moon and the stars — the touch of nature which is missing in the heavily congested small town where I live, with its back-to-back houses, twisted narrow lanes and overcrowded bazaars. I love open spaces, the solitude of ploughed fields and the cold wind buffeting me in my face and chest. A sort of communion with nature; of meditation on life in the tranquilized moments — these are things I discover almost daily in my night walks.

Tonight, it will be a different story. He is here, reaching for his pocket. Goodness, he is going to kill me with a knife. Sweat stands out on my forehead.

“Hello? Let me light your cigarette with my lighter,” the stranger says to me in a thick voice, lighting my cigarette from a red-coloured lighter. Paralysed, I obey him.

We both exhale a ring of smoke and smile. And resume walking side by side.

“It is raw here in the outdoors,” he observes, his voice slurring slightly.

“Yes, it is cold tonight,” I return almost mechanically, my mind racing: What are his intentions? Why did he stop to light my cigarette? What does he want with me? I do not have cash with me. Suppose he gets angry after learning that I have only two rupees with me and starts hitting me. I will hit back.

A lonely stretch, no soul around. “A bit frightening, isn’t it?”

“Frightening?”  he is asking the obvious.

“No, not exactly,” I say, trying to steady my voice, “I love the quiet of a lonely place. It is so charming, so heavenly.”

“Ha-ha-ha. You sound romantic. What are you? A poet?”

“Yes, I write poems, stories and…”

“V-e-r-y good. Where do you live?”

I see. So, he is interested in knowing my address so that he can burgle it. He is a patient mugger. Enjoys stalking a hapless stranger.

“I live in the main town”.

“Everyone lives in a town or in a village. Ha-ha-ha. Where exactly in a town?”

“Near the clock tower. A bit crowded. I do not like crowded places”.

“Near the clock tower. That is near the vegetable market”.

I have given him false address. I changed the topic.

“And where do you live brother?”

“Me? I live in a village three kilometers away from here.”

“Will you walk down to your village?”

“I often do. I come to the town to visit my elder brother, spend few hours, toss down a couple of drinks and return to my village on foot. I enjoy these walks”.

I am feeling a little reassured by his friendly voice. But can it be deceptive? I do not know. These criminals come in different disguises. I must be on my alert. Why is he so gregarious?

The road stretches far into the night.

I ask him, “Are you not afraid?”

“Of whom?”

“Of, er, robbers,” I say, bit hesitant. “Muggers. Chain snatchers. Druggies.”

He stops suddenly, his huge body lurching. He fumbles in his coat-pocket and brings out a spring-actuated knife. My stomach chums. Now, I am trapped. Only God can save one from this drunken mugger. “This is a knife. This cuts into your belly and you are dead meat. And I am an expert with a knife. Tell me now: who should be afraid? Me or the robber?”

“Of course, the other party,” I sound to be normal, despite cold sweat and churning in my stomach. How to get rid of him? I suddenly see a moonlit short-cut going through the fields.

I hit upon a plan. “Okay, dear friend, here we part. I will take back this path to my home. Already it is cold. I must hurry up.”

The man stops too. He grins broadly. “Why are you making a fool of me?”

I freeze then and there, “What do you mean?”

“You are lying to me. You say you live in the town but no normal person will come to this place except those who live in the outlying neighbourhoods over there.”

I laugh away the truth, “Why should I tell a lie? I live in the town and often come here for my customary evening walks.”

He eyes me for some seconds — an eternity for me — and then says, “Okay. But do not return by this short cut. Can be dangerous for a townsman. Come with me till the next crossing and there I will point out a shortcut which is more frequented. Come.”

Again, feeling paralysed, I automatically begin walking by his side. Next crossing. At least, a seven-to-ten minutes walk. Enough time for him to mug me. I should be cautious. In case he threatens me, I can break into a run. Old stories come into my mind — dangerous or lunatic men waylaying innocent people and then doing them physical harm. Here I have a friendly and drunk highwayman with a knife. He seems to be enjoying his hold over me. Fear can make a man completely robotic!

“I also take this road,” he says in a natural manner, “I also love walking. Does a lot of good to your body. Often, I run into total strangers here and we talk, while walking. It helps while away the time”.

My suspicions grow stronger, “What do you do, Mr.?”

“I am a farmer.”

“Then you would be quite well-off.”

“By His grace, I am rich. I have many bighas (acres) of farm. 1 also have a shop at the town. Yes, we are well-off’.

“You must be having lots of enemies?”

“Why should I?”

“Because folks in a village are hot-tempered and pick quarrels easily.”

“They know me very well. My name inspires terror. I was jailed for a couple of years for a minor offence. I had murdered a thug in the open…in the day light. A goonda terrorizing the poor.”

That settled everything!

I do not have the nerve to further probe him for his past. I look sideways at him. He looks ordinary like a stout bearded farmer we come across in the bazaar. We walk quietly. He is lurching a little. The empty and silent road stretches ahead of us. All around us is deep tranquility.

The brilliant moon is shining in a cloudless sky. Now, far off, faint silhouettes of some houses spring into view. The crossing also is getting visible. We can see paan (betel leaf) shops and tea shops. One or two rickshaws are standing idle. A well-lit square has people in it. I feel greatly relieved. Thank God, I have been spared a painful experience on this deserted road. My companion has not hurt me. We reach the square. He insists that I must have a paan and a cigarette from one of the small shops. The owner greets him respectfully. They exchange pleasantries. I critically study my recent friend in the light of the shop: he is middle-aged, pockmarked, bearded and stout man of good height; an impressive man.

He looks harmless now in the changed context.

The paan-and-cigarette ritual over, the man writes down his name and the name of the shop and hands me the slip, “Well, you are welcome at my shop during evenings. I come down there in the afternoon and remain till evening. Come any day, buddy. I like poets.”

He smiles broadly, shakes my hand and bids me good night.

I start back from the square to my colony, a few paces from the next turning, which is ten-minute walking distance, I put the chit carefully into my hip pocket.

Relieved, I grin broadly. I am no longer afraid. Things become ‘normal’ again. I pat the chit.

One day I am going to visit him and explain my urban fears that can be spine chilling when I meet a fellow human being on an empty road on a moonlit wintry night.


Sunil Sharma is an Indian academic and writer with 22 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. Currently based in MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region).



The Literary Fictionist

Truth Cannot Die

By Sunil Sharma

The Doctor was livid with rage, “You, self-styled lieutenant of this damned outlawed liberation organization, you rascal, you cannot hold me here in this stinking hell of a hole any longer. Who do you think you are? Greater than the President of the United States?”

The object of his venom, a very tall and muscular man with a flowing beard and deep-set dark eyes, came over to the old doctor’s bed and standing over the lean and short doctor, spoke in a gentle voice, “Calm down, doc, please, Remember you are a heart patient and our chief guest in this jungle. You are most precious to our organization.”

The old doctor stared hard at the set of the dark penetrating eyes of his captor that were cold and blood-shot as usual and said in a low but determined tone, “You would pay this with your blood, man. You have kidnapped an internationally – known American nuclear scientist and not some bloody stinking oriental of your own lazy, corrupt government. My government won’t spare any effort in getting me released.”

“Tut, Tut,” the captor answered coolly, “Dr Sutherland, you should not sound racist, should you? You are our guest. We have extended all the facilities to you. Come on, doctor, don’t act like a boy and be your age. Thank your God that my boys in this room do not understand English. Otherwise this bunch of trigger-happy recruits would be very glad to bump off an eccentric old man.”

The ‘eccentric old man’ glared at him with open hostility but opted to remain quite. The towering lieutenant, in dark Pathani- kurta and pyjama suit, with elaborate red head-gear, sat down on a mat. Resting his AK-56 rifle against his left thigh, he looked back at his gaunt hostage and smiled serenely at the angry figure. Two strapping young men along with their guns were lurking in the afternoon shadows of the thick jungle outside, while three were keeping vigil outside the entrance of the one-roomed thatched cottage in a clearing deep in the jungle. There were three more such cottages equally spaced in the clearing that accommodated roughly one hundred guerillas. It was steaming hot.

“I am afraid, doc, I have some bad news for you,” said the guerilla in a cool and gentle voice. The doctor straightened up against his will, eager for more details. He was stripped up to his waist, sweating and cursing these ‘freedom fighters’ for an obscure cause the legitimacy of which was totally lost to any sympathetic soul. The guerilla remained quiet while the doctor continued to look expectantly at him.

At last the doctor said in a whining tone, “What bad news, lieutenant? Please don’t play this game of cat and mouse with me again. Why do you mentally torture me?”

“Well”, spoke the guerilla, “I am sorry to say that there are only twenty four hours left for your administration to meet our ultimatum.”


“Well, you know that….”

“Know what? Come on, be straight.”

“Truth may be frightening.”

“No truth in the world can put fear in a 63- year-old man, no, nothing!!”

“Well, if you insist, I will come out with the truth.”

“You are going to be executed tomorrow. The headquarters have given this command”

“Still there are twenty four hours left.”

“I am sorry but I am a bit pessimistic.”


“The negotiations have almost collapsed. The General of our great Republic says he won’t release our comrades under Yankee pressure. He is adamant and the public seems to be with him on this issue.”


“Only a chance miracle can deliver you and as a scientific man, you know, miracles have ceased to happen of late.”

The old doctor suddenly bent down and cupped his face. He looked very old and pathetic.

They remained motionless for an eternity. The windowless, low-ceilinged, mud-walled cottage in the middle of a steaming jungle was a far cry from the advanced technology of the West. The entire life flashed before the old man’s eyes. A glittering life of a successful scientist. Sitting in the semi-dark interior with a low-watt naked bulb and an ancient table fan and an improvised bed, the doctor was suddenly overwhelmed with ennui. Thanks to that crazy, power-drunk General with his harem of women and dreaded secret police, here he was holed up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by these morons – the sons of the starving peasants and workers, mouthing fiery revolutionary clichés in a parrot-like manner. He had lost count of the days of his captivity. Already he was feeling like a semi-savage. He felt crushed, defeated and humiliated.


“What the hell is it now?”

“I am genuinely sorry for you…”

“Cut that goddamned crap, you swine.

“Do not act smart with me. O.K.?”

“I say I am genuinely sorry. I mean it.”

The temperamental doctor stood up in a sudden rage and advanced towards the reclining figure, foaming at the mouth and shrieking hysterically, “You bastard, you son of a bitch, I will kill you with my bare hands. You a fanatic rascal, a mass murderer trying to act with me like a liberal civilized gentleman with refined language and manners. See his hypocrisy: The man who will shoot me tomorrow talking of sympathy. You disgust me: You are simply a butcher with no heart and no conscience.”

The babbling doctor was oblivious of the drawn guns of the anxious guards. Their leader motioned them to keep quite. As the doctor charged towards him, the tall guerilla expertly rolled over to one side and the old man crashed headlong onto the mat. They roared with laughter. Their leader was a usual cool. Finally, the old man composed himself. The guerilla gently lifted him to his bed and placed him on it.

The doctor was too humiliated to resist. The guerilla resumed his seat and took up a book. After a long and heavy silence the old scientist stood up from his narrow bed and began pacing the mud floor like some agitated chained animal.

“Hi, Lieutenant ?”

“Yes Dr. Sutherland.”

“Why do you not tell me about yourself? Name, family other details?”

“It does not matter at all. I am simply a soldier in the cause of Revolution. My identity is my ideology.”

Dr. Sutherland stopped suddenly and facing the leader, said in much horror, “Ideology! My God! I believe all ideologies have already been exhausted. Betrayed by a corrupt, self-serving leadership. You are simply fooling with your youth.”

“No, I am not. I am fighting a war.”

The doctor was quiet in sheer exasperation.

“Well, young comrade, you believe in God?”


“I see.”

After a pause, the doctor asked the leader, “Any other agency?”


“Not even humanity?”

“Oh, that I do, of course, I do”

“Does that imply that you believe in liberal humanistic values?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Okay. Then why do you kill innocent, helpless, poor people ? Why?”

The guerilla did not answer.

“Do you hate me? An old, neutral guy, on a visit to your country, on the invitation of one of the ministers who is an old friend! I demand an answer.”

The guerilla answered slowly, “No, we do not hate you, dear Dr. Sutherland. On the other hand, we respect you as a brilliant international scientist.”

The old scientist spoke vehemently, “Then why do you want to kill an old harmless man? What have I done to deserve this fate? I do not want to die.”

“I can understand, Doc, but orders are to be carried out by me.”

“You seem to me an intelligent, young man. Tell me what purpose my killing would serve?”

“It is all a part of military strategy prepared by the top brass.”

“I see! The top brass! That bunch of mass murderers; the merchants of death and destruction; killing, raping and plundering thugs…”

“Dr. Sutherland, I advise you to be careful with your assessment of our leadership.”

“Let an old, helpless condemned man speak.”

“Okay. Go on.”

“When would you execute me?”

“Tentatively speaking, tomorrow afternoon.”

“Who would have this honour?”

“Unfortunately, I am going to have that honour.’

“Would my murder hang upon your conscience? Would it affect your soul?”

“I am afraid we don’t have any conscience.”

“I see…let me tell you one more truth, my young comrade.”

“Please proceed.”

The old Scientist paused for a few second, heaved a long sigh and then said, “If this mask of civilization is ripped apart, what do you have here? A bunch of exhausted comrades or revolutionaries or freedom-fighters. The people suffering from exhaustion both physical and moral. I am afraid the ‘war’ waged by already exhausted, blood-thirsty animals leads to a no-win situation. Well, goodbye, young man. You will gain nothing, mind it, nothing, you or your bosses or the international powers behind you. It will provide sickness of mind and soul…and…”


“And,” the doctor said, “It will eat away all your vital statistics, your body, ideology, everything, in due course of time. Nothing will ever come out of this spiral of violence — nothing ever did so far. You will be defeated by your own wars of hatred and bigotry, all waged in the name of some cause! You can never kill a nation or an entire community, you fool! Bombs or bullets—never work. Love does! Insanity self-destructs! Mind it, this is a sober scientist speaking to the lieutenant of a programmed army of mercenaries, the merchants of death and mayhem, the so-called terrorists!”

The lieutenant smiled. Said nothing. He liked the bravery of the prisoner who was no longer afraid.

His moment of truth!

Truths can be relative, thought the young freedom fighter, wearing fatigues and a cap and smoking a cigar, while his juniors patrolled the area outside, guns ready.

“I am not babbling!” the doctor pronounced. “Hatred eats its own offspring — like the hungry cats eating their cubs. You will all die, disillusioned.”

Then, the doctor abruptly turned, climbed his narrow bed and lay down with his back turned towards his captor, as the fading light left a gloomy spot on the mud floor of the hut in that jungle.

First time, his captor was surprised by the sudden composure of the haughty scientist who appeared dignified and calm in the face of death – like some resolute Samurai facing the dagger that will enable hara-kiri — and the response of a condemned man, gaining tranquility and rare insight, kind of revelation!

The captor shrugged shoulders and continued to stare at the frail figure stretched out on the narrow bed lying silent…and then, at the bleak sky outside, trying to locate his favourite constellation out there—the Orion.


Sunil Sharma is an Indian academic and writer with 22 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. Currently based in MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region).



The Literary Fictionist

A Lunch Hour Crisis

By Sunil Sharma

Ms. D’souza burst into the cabin, breathless.

“S-A-R…S-A-R. He has done it.

“‘Sar” was on the phone. He placed his hairy hand on the speaker and said in an irritated tone, “Now, what is the meaning of all this?”
“So-r-r-ee, S-a-r, he has done it.”

“Cool down, cool down, Ms D’souza.    Done what? Who? What?”    

“He…he…,” she stammered, out of excitement, pointing to the hall outside, eyes popping out.

 “Take your breath…Good…now, tell me what the excitement is about?”

“He… Gopal… he says he is going to shoot himself      in the office…”

“What? SHOOT? In My Office?” Sir sounded crazy,” Where is he now?”

“There, in the mainoffice, outside, creating havoc. Out of control.”

Sir put down the receiver, adjusted the silk tie and the golden frame of the spectacles and walked with great authority to the main office, followed by an excited Ms D’souza.

The outer office was in chaos. The doors to the office were locked from inside and the heavyset Gurkha was standing there, guarding it ferociously. In the middle of the office, amid gaping colleagues, computers and files stood Gopal with a revolver pointed at his temple.

A hush fell. The boss had come.

“Good Morning, er…?”,  the boss said.

“Gopal, S-a-r,” prompted Ms D’souza.   “Yeah. Mr. Gopal, sir has come out to meet you?”

“Hi, Gopal!” the boss said.

No answer from a distraught Gopal, while colleagues waited, taking pictures.

“I am talking to you, Mr. Gopal,” the boss switched easily into his silky voice, usually reserved for tough customers and beautiful women. The room sprang into life. The assistant manager stepped forward reverentially.

“How are you, Mr. Parikh?”

“Fine Sir, thank you, Sir. How are you, Sir?”

“Well, you can see.”

“Oh, nothing to worry about sir. Sorry to have disturbed you… Sukhi bring a chair for Sir… here, take it, Sir.”

“Thanks, Parikh. Now, what is this racket about?”

“I will tell you, Sir,” said Vilas Joshi, coming forward, respect writ large on his lean leathery face, “we were taking lunch and chatting. He was sitting quietly at his desk. Suddenly, he jumps from his seat and takes out his revolver and says call the top guy, otherwise I shoot myself.”


“Only he can tell you, Sir.” The hush fell again.

“Mr. Gopal, I am here. Tell me your problem. You know 1 am your friend.”     

“Yes, yes, Gopal, tell Sir…”, Joshi said in a soft voice.

“Come on, Gopal bhai, ” saidRama Kamath in an equally gentle voice, “See, Sir has come, despite his very hectic schedule.”

“Yes, please, do not waste his precious time,” chirped in Subramanayam.

All eyes were focussed on the short, stout, ugly-looking Gopal.

“Gopal,” pleaded Ms Banerjee, “Sir is waiting, do not
hesitate. Tell him what agitates you so much.”

An eternity followed. Assistant manager perspired, despite the air-conditioner. The boss adjusted his tie, fumbled for his cigarette pack and took out one. Many hands darted forward with their lighters. The boss lit a cigarette from the lighter of the assistant manager and emitted a lungful of smoke. The asthmatic Ms. Banerjee dared not cough.

Gopal surveyed the scene with his red-shot eyes, cleared his throat, put the revolver in his left trouser packet and said, “OK. I want to talk to the boss and you all.”

“Go ahead.      I am listening.” The boss sounded gentle and all ears.

“You know my son is suffering from malarial fever?” 

“Is it? Since when, my dear Gopal?”

“That is the point. Nobody bothers here in this office. He has been very ill for the last seven days… I told everyone here but nobody bothers here.”

“Is that the matter? I mean,” the boss recovered quickly and added in a soothing voice, concern oozing, “nobody took notice? Strange! Awful! This must not happen in my office… really, terrible! Now, tell me, who did not notice your human agony… really, shameful!”

“All of them,” declared Gopal in a sad, broken voice, “All of them.”

A dreadful silence followed. People looked for escape routes in that air-conditioned, enclosed space.

A space dominated by the top guy who asked sternly, “Tell me, my dear friend, who did not listen to you?”

“I was feeling so miserable,” Gopal recalled in a tearful voice, “In the dumps. My only surviving child down with body-breaking fever for more than seven days… To-day, he is all alone in the flat… My wife and I have to report to work… We requested the maid to come and check him in between her busy routine…”

“What about   your neighbours?”

“Well, they are as indifferent as you folks… they think disease visits us only and not them…”

“Atrocious,” the boss boomed, puffing on his cigarette, “Death and disease, misery and accidents, are all the province of humankind.”

“Wonderful feelings — nobly expressed so subtly, sir,” gushed Parikh loudly. The boss glared at him.      Parikh immediately retreated. Kamath nudged Subramanyam. Both exchanged conspiratorial glances. And smiled at the expense of Parikh.

“For the first two days, my wife was on casual leave… then I took two-day casual leave… To-day, I came around 10 A.M. in the office. The torturedface of Sagar haunting me throughout the one-hour-and-a-half Journey from Dombivli to the CST here.” Gopal swallowed hard, his tired middle-class anonymous face cracking like a mirror, “I walked down to Colaba to ease the pain, to forget the face of a fever-ravaged sick boy… Even the beauty of Colaba failed to distract…The Arabs, the White tourists, the smilingcall-girls going in expensive cars, the Leopold Cafe, the food, the wealth — everything, just everything out there knew happiness, pleasure… I got more upset by this fun-loving world…indifferent to the suffering of a poor father!”

“I can understand,” the boss observed, “The whole world out there is wicked. Full of cannibals. They, the Czars of pleasure, have no concept of pain, suffering, fellowship. We are living on a strange planet.”

“Superb, S-a-r,” Ms D’souza heard her voice gushing like water. The boss, happily smiled at her, this time. More glances of “You, too, Ms D’souza!” were exchanged around the office.

“Well, they can be pardoned,” Gopal saidsadly, “They are strangers. What about my colleagues? I have spent ten years with them of my adult life. Ten years! Eight waking — hours of my life, six days every week.”

The air — stale and smoky — became thick with tension and a futile search for a hole in the carpeted floor of the swanky, hi-tech, expensive office on the fifth floor at Colaha, with asweeping view of the far-off sea and sprawl of the high-rises.

“No, this social behavior cannot be pardoned,” declared the boss.

“I went to Mr. Parikh”, Gopal continued the monologue, “He said he was sorry and then resumed his work.”

Parikh felt the sharp edge of the sword of the executioner, “No. No… I heard him out patiently and offered help but I was preparing the report for tomorrow’s meeting at the Taj.”

“Very unethical,” the boss admonished, “We, at Shah and Mehta, believe in management with a human face.”

“Then I went to unburden my soul to Mr. Kamath.”

Kya  bolte ho, Gopal bhai”, whined Kamath, ” We have been buddies for last seven- eight years. I even visited you at Dombivli from Virar, on a Sunday, to condole the death of your mother.”

Gopal smiled like a crazed man, “Yeah. You came there to finalise wedding details for your sister and en route, dropped in. That too, two months after my mother’s death!”

The boss glared. Kamath shrunk.  

“And what about you, Subramanayam?”

Subramanayam was already counting his number in the line of fire. “Well, I spent ten minutes with you. Then I had to prepare the salary statement. And, after all, it ismalaria — so common a disease here.”

“Even D’scuza and Banerjee spoke in monosyllables. Then I went to you, Sir.”

The bombshell. The ticking of the clock could be heard in the ensuing silence. The boss missed a beat.

“You were busy on the phone. Ten minutes I waited. Then you heard me out and said, ‘Take care, O.K.’ And dismissed me.”

The thick silence could be slashed with a knife.

“Then I decided to take my life.. As no point in living with friends who can no longer sympathise and make feel human. Not like an outcast. And I promise to keep my word — NOW.”

The boss leapt out, embraced the short, ugly man — a mere clerk and spoke in a tearful voice, “I am sorry. Do not leave us like this. We love you. “

That did it: the top guy, with silk tie, golden frames and apersonal Opel Astra, embracing the lowly, love-starved clerk. Gopal dissolved into pitiable tears and cried like a baby. Ms D’souza and Ms. Banerjee too cried. And the boss also cried. Normalcy was finally restored. After two Cokes, two sandwiches, Gopal was sent home — in the Opel. (The Opel left him at the terminus.)

Post-lunch, colleagues discussed the crisis and its apt handling by the top management.

“S-a-r was superb,” – Ms D’souza. “Real problem solver! I admire his skills.”

“This Coke – and – sandwich – and – car stuff was marvelous,” said Parikh.

“The man is nuts for sure. Seeking attention all the time. A cry baby! Cannot handle a small fever! Threatening suicide! See!”said Kamath.

“Your crisis management skills are matchless,” Subramanayam flattered Sir. “You prevented suicide by an unstable man. A disgruntled worker! Phew!”

“That is why he is the top guy at such young age, managing such a big company so well,” Ms. Banerjee said, grinning.

Boss blushed. Men nodded in agreement. The bonhomie was infectious. The boss not only sat with the juniors but shared lunch and cracked jokes—everybody smiled. Then, later on, the boss in an expansive mood, ordered a round of pastries and pizza by way of the afternoon tea party to the staff. The assistant manager summed-up the office mood, “Thanks, sir, for solving aunique crisis. It would have brought bad press and disgraced the office. Our reputations were saved by the quick thinking and timely action by you. You are great, sir!”

And the boss beamed in public adulation and boomed, “Oh, come on, guys!  It was just a small lunch-time crisis.”

Sunil Sharma is an Indian academic and writer with 22 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. Currently based in MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region).



The Literary Fictionist

The Dryad and I: A Confession and a Forecast

A playlet by Sunil Sharma

Cast:  A young Character as a single speaker

Chorus: A few more young actors

Venue: Any place as the stage

Total Time: Five minutes


(Bare stage. Only one character facing the audience. Steps forward.)

Character: Hey there! You, you…and you! Listen! (Pause) Hmm. Ready? (Pause) Well, well, here is my story…the story of a tree-man…yes, Sahiban-kadradan! A tree-man stands before you.

In the background, the chorus is only heard. It stays off stage.

Chorus: What a fiction, man! What a fiction!

Character: No, listen first!

Chorus: Fiction! Fiction!

Character: No, listen, please and then judge. Fiction often tells the truth! Listen, please!


Character: Well, there was a gnarled tree in our compound in an old mohalla of Budaun, Patiali-Sarai, the street there…

Chorus: Budaun? What is that?

Character: Yes, friends, Budaun, the old and historic city of jinns and saints; of fakirs and generals; of legendary mystics and poets…

Chorus: Wow! Go on!

Character: Here it goes…

The tree was old and always whispered in mornings and evenings to those that elected to listen to its gentle song—a deep mourning…a dirge, sad and heart-rending…

Chorus: Hmm! Interesting! Your version of Harry Potter? Hmm!

Character: No Potter, here!

Chorus: Then?

Character:  It is different. Let me continue…

…Returning home from school, I would throw stones at it and it would sigh and nod its head of branches…and drop its fruits on the ground. We would eat the berries and move around its girth, playing hide-n-seek. Then…

Chorus: Then?

Character: One day, I took out a knife and shaved off pieces of its skin. The moment, the bark came off, blood oozed, and the tree cried in a wounded tone. I was not paying attention…I carved my name on the tender heart of the tree and then…

Chorus: Then? Tell us fast. Interesting tale!

Character: Then…

…a woman appeared out of nowhere, startling me, on that memorable dusk full of fading lights and shadows, in that by lane where history meets the present, memory resides dormant… to be awakened in the young ones by an unusual encounter!

Chorus (almost seems to echo): … history meets the present; memory resides dormant… to be awakened in the young ones by an unusual encounter!

 Character: Terrified! I asked her, the bleeding maiden: Who are you?

I am a dryad.

— What is a dryad?

The spirit of a tree.

I was deeply scared! I asked her, ‘Why are you here, madam dryad?’

Because you have awakened me!

— How?

By turning your knife in my heart.

I was speechless.

And casting stones at me from childhood and tearing my branches and leaves. Your wanton acts of violence have caused injuries and wounds that fester…

— I am sorry! I did not know the trees have spirits.

You mortals are fools! Now it is payback time!

— What?!

Heard me right! Payback time.

So, she said to me on that memorable dusk with light and shadows in interplay in that dusty and narrow by-lane full of memories, my dear friends and I protested but she did not listen. Then…

Chorus: Then? Tell us fast, you foolish mortal!

Character: A sad story…

…The dryad turned me into a tree-man and left me suffering for my acts of violence against trees per se…

Chorus: How? Tell us, ignorant human, ignorant of other worlds, of realms, spirits.

Character: Patience!

…I was infected by the spirit of the wounded dryad and developed strange empathy with her pain. Now, whenever children cast stones on the body of the tree, I suffer and bleed! Any scratch there is a scratch on my body-soul. Look here! Scratches all over my body! I suffer and plead…

Chorus: Plead what?

Character: Plead with the fellow humans not to hurt trees or tear the branches or leaves, carve or cut them into dead wood or…

Chorus: Or? Tell us fast, tree-man. Your wisdom as the hybrid or shape shifter? Mythological or magical creature? Half-imagined and half-real? Tell us in words so that we can understand the others.

Character:  Listen, mortals! Words of wisdom, learnt in this new avatar of twin souls, of a tree and human, residing in the human form.

Here: “The Dirge Unheard”

The more you kill others,

of the silent species and natural order,

the more of your ilk

will be killed and soon,

listen you, homo sapiens,

your species will be annihilated


Chorus on the stage now, singing:

“The Dirge Unheard”

The more you kill others,

of the silent species and natural order,

the more of your ilk

will be killed and soon,

listen you, homo sapiens,

your species will be annihilated


The choral actors appear on the bare stage facing the audience. They wear cut-outs of trees — old; wounded, stumps, and new ones, greening.

The chorus faces the audience, while the protagonist or Character remains mute and downcast, on the sides of the wings.


So here was this tale extraordinary

From the by-lanes of Budaun

A tale as fabulous

As the city of Budaun!

Each street—

Steeped in history and magic!

The Character steps forward and chants the remaining part of the song.


Take it or leave it, you all!

If such stories fail to change you,

You are as dead as the stumps

In a forest, once rich,

Now made barren by

The greed of the corporations

And public apathy!


Then it is adieu!

Few years more

And it will be all a fading memory—

Sky, seas, rivers, forests, hills and trees!


Exit all.



Sahiban-kadradan: Valued patrons

Mohalla: colony


Sunil Sharma is an Indian academic and writer with 22 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. Currently based in MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region).



The Literary Fictionist

Love Beyond Words

By Sunil Sharma

It is raining!

 Such afternoons become depressing. It is a time when bare daylight is sliding into darkness of early night.

You are trapped in a grey zone.

 Winter rain triggers sadness…especially December rains when clouds, cold and gloom create overwhelming melancholy.

Rains add to misery. You cannot step out. Cooped, looking helplessly at the falling rain on empty roads…and the puddles.

It is the same depressing afternoon, my dear!

Can you hear it? Can you feel it? The pattering rain?

The icy drops. I can sense them on my skin. Big diamonds from the sky, grandma would say.

Grandma had this habit of muttering!


Short, frail, half-blind, she would talk in the deserted last room. In the darkness, snow-haired granny looked like a ghost!

Being young is always scary in a house of working parents.

“Why do you talk to yourself?” I had asked.

She smiled. “I have friends you cannot see.”




“In the room.”

“Why do I not see them?”

“Only I see them. Nobody else cannot. They follow everywhere,” said grandma quietly.

I got the creeps; her eyes wore the glazed look.

I slept in the corner room; her muted screams and mutterings would wake me up, frightening me.

She and her friends! Strange!

Now I understand better.

We are becoming the frail grandma. When I am alone, even I have started talking to myself . When I hear steps, I grow silent and pretend to read the newspaper. Or do something else.

The rains bring back childhood. No other Indian season has got such power of recall and magic. I see my grandma standing there in the lonely corridor and gesturing and talking excitedly, after a gap of almost sixty-five years.

Diamonds! How they sparkle in the courtyard!

The rain drops.

Hear them, my dearest! Feel the wind in your hair, coming in from the open window.

The wind caresses your sunken cheeks. They tingle…like my fingers on your bare back.

You always loved the outdoors. The wind in your hair. Rain on the bare skin. Catching the diamonds from the sky in the outstretched hands, water drifting from fingers of the cupped hands, your oval face blissful, eyes half-closed, chin raised, water coursing down your body…like a stream flowing in the soggy brown fields.

Are you listening dear?

You would run in the open ground, chasing the rain…a child…with the same delight and spontaneity.

“Come on!” You would say during our occasional tryst with Indian monsoon in the outskirts of Goa. I would smile, photographing you and the retreating rain over the undulating plain…a wet slim figure in white, your favourite colour, against a bleak quivering green backcloth.

 The Goan churches fascinated you. You would stop and insist on being shot against the imposing facade of the Church of St Francis of Assisi, reverential eyes soaking in the material and spiritual grandeur on display.

We would drift in and out of Goa or coastal Kerala.

Rains. Backwaters. Kerala looked magical during monsoons. I have five albums of you against the sun-washed horizons in various poses, with dimples and shy smiles.

We were so happy!

But that was more than four decades ago…a rare period of pure happiness that came from intimacy and togetherness.

Later those grew into mere memories.

“You have changed!” you would say.

“Even you have changed!” I would retort.

We would bicker and fight and sleep in different rooms.

Even if we slept in the same room and the same bed, distances would intrude.

You had exclaimed after a fierce fight over a trifle. I had shouted at you. You had pursed lips, puckered up brows and gone on to watch TV– calm and remote.

I could feel your increasing frigidity towards me. I thought I did not matter anymore.

We were turning into close strangers, from lovers into mere actors.

Our earlier romance looked a caricature, a ghost.

My increasing paunch and odour was a constant turn-off.

I could not help that.

Now, at this moment, all this looks so trifling, irrelevant, when you are slowly drifting into another land of forgetfulness.

I miss you. Our bickering, patched up silences.

Now you are beyond all this!

Are you listening dear?

What a life!

Never thought you would lie strapped, a prostrate figure on the cold metal of a hospital bed in a South Delhi private hospital, surviving on drips and tubes; eyes dilated, fluttering — when a visiting family-member calls out your name softly. Otherwise, you seem to be in total amnesia.

So near, yet so remote!

 Here comes the lightening. That always scared you. It is ominous. Thunder echoes. Darkness heightens. The darkness in the afternoon amplifies your helpless despondency.

I do not like sunless days. Now, with you strapped down, with the monitor on, breathing hard, I am drowned in loneliness.

Alone on this teeming, violent, mad planet!

My God! What would I do?

We were companions for more than five decades and fought and made up like other couples.

I never thought we would also age and reach expiry dates.

Human vanity!

Death and sickness were for the others. We were immortals. What a vain and false assumption!

Now, you and I, in this semi-private room. I am holding your hand in mine…as we did, when we visited the Vasai Fort, near Mumbai.

You always loved ruins. Particularly, the monumental ruins. Ruins of forts cast a spell on you: the citadels, ramparts, bridges, minarets, barracks.

“I can hear history.”You said that visiting the Red Fort in Delhi. “The Mughals, the British, the Indians. I can hear the cannon balls booming, the massacres, the war cries, the blood-bath.”

“Crazy!” I thought. “How one can hear the dead!”

I was wrong!

The dead never leave us. They hover over us.

One can never bury their dead permanently.

I can see the dead. At my age, the past suddenly becomes real. Like a hazy afternoon, it links a dying day with an upcoming night…a threshold to connect the present to past.

Ruins, decay, and a few lessons in life.

Nothing remains as it is. Things change. Empires decline…and new ones rise on those ruins.


We would see the young couples escaping the oppressive city in the ruins of Purana Quila in New Delhi on winter afternoons. Couples, linked, sitting under shades or lawns. The library of the Emperor Humayun, the staircase leading down from it, from where he tumbled and died after three days of the fall, looks desolate on windy afternoons. Structures survive as symbols of lost cultures.

“We are left with ruins!” You had commented, sketching the library, from the lawn.

“What?” I asked.

“The debris of relations only,” you had said and smiled mysteriously.

Again, I had lost you and your enigmatic personality.

Was it about me?

Now, holding your soft hand in mine, I understand.

We are left with the debris of our relationship only. Nothing is left except the departing shadows, fleeting outlines.

See, it is raining heavily.  Gloom has gathered and intensified. A rough wind escapes inside, ruffling your hair again.

What! I see my grandmother and mother clearly before my startled eyes, two figures tentative, quivering shadows.

Believe me. Each morphing into the other and then into you….

Even Maa had stopped talking to us before she died. She would also talk to herself in her dying days, few days of great agony and pain. She talked to her Maa and granny. At that point, I thought the disease could infect you too. But, it did not. In fact, busy as we were, we hardly talked. After a point, elderly Indian couples perhaps do not talk much, withdrawing into shells.

Work separated us.

You toiled in your office, commuting long, working late.

I did, in my office. We sacrificed for the family.

Some of the family does not understand us now. What an irony!

The kids are happy with their families.

We are alone; two of us, despite their living close in proximity. They hardly call us or come to meet us.

And now you are in coma!

Can you hear me darling!

I feel terribly lonely!

Who will care for me after you are gone?

Your absence, though painful, reminds me of your sweet presence!

In fact, I have begun noticing you in last few days only. Days when you were wheeled into the ICU, then moved to general ward and then back to a semi-private room. I began feeling your phantom presence hovering over me, your silent love, your sacrifices that remained unseen.

The way you cooked, washed, shopped, cleaned and cared for all of us.

I could never gift the advertised diamond necklaces or silver rings because we both were poor middle-class Indians working as slaves for surviving in hell! No respite. No money to spare. You dressed modestly. I did humbly. We walked, skipped Dutch parties, in order to meet educational expenses of a growing family.

When the maids would not turn up, you toiled on holidays and Sundays. In the last decade, we avoided long-distance trips and cinemas to save money in a country where all food items cost more than even gold!

We had evolved into mere automatons!

To-day, holding your hand, I reminisce and understand the value of love and togetherness.

Now, it is too late.

You are beyond all this humbug.

The doctors say you will not live long.

You are in coma. On life support.

How fragile is life!

It mocks our ambitions, unbridled desires.

How vulnerable!

Medicines can delay but not prevent decay and death.

After you move out of this bond, I will remain stuck, alone.

Your memories might help.

Now I realize your value. You were created as a superwoman to satisfy our selfish needs. We defied you and used you as a woman, my dear.

I wish I had talked to you more, walked into moonlit courtyards with arms linked. I could have laughed with you more and more…run with you on the open grounds in Goa or admired the heritage sites or listened to your songs…things that made us both human and artists.

Let me tell you, my dearest wife, you mean so much to me. Now, with you sinking rapidly into the oblivion, I realize this bitter fact.

Debris. I wander in the ruins.

And once we had almost split up!

Remember that?

I had seen this message on your cell-phone in the late night — woken by the beep in the dead of night, while you slept like a log. A short message of remembrance at 12.30 am. The next day, I secretly followed you to the bus-stop and saw this tall well-sculpted younger man talking to you. Both of you boarded the same chartered bus to NOIDA and in the evening, I saw both of you alight from the same bus. I watched, for more than seven days. Your smile was divine, your gait light and eyes beaming.

When later on, on Saturday night, I confronted you, you denied everything. When I persisted, you said cruelly, “Cannot a woman whose husband is not working for the last three months, talk to a friend working in another office?”

I was stunned! How you had changed!

“Leave the job,” I had thundered.

“Who will look after the bills?” You were cool, distant, triumphant.

“Who is he?”

“A fine man…kind. Nice. A friend.  Things forgotten by you.”

I was devastated by these icy remarks.

Oh! I could barely manage, a pain bursting inside and sundering my heart.

“He is so fine!” I had remarked viciously, a loser.

“He is a polite guy, a co-traveller. That is all.” You had concluded firmly and moved to your side of the bed.

I had continued to toss. A down-sized man, unwanted by the system. You had become more brazen and often praised him in order to insult my joblessness and enforced stay at home.


It had become a battleground!

From lovers to enemies.

You had begun to move away…in subtle ways, ignoring me. I was left with no option but to put up with the situation. Once I fell down on the wet floor of the house and you did not react beyond mere lip-sympathy. I saw a mocking smile on your face.

At that moment of coldness, I knew I had lost you forever as my beloved. Only, a spouse remained. Enacting fixed roles for the family and to reinforce our middle-class respectability and image.

We had evolved into perfect strangers. Whenever I raised the topic, you would say I was paranoid, a suspicious man. A cruel man.

Look after the bills and I am happy to look after the family. These two roles and your slurs, suspicions…they were too much for me to handle

You would taunt me. We stopped talking.

I did not have any evidence of adultery. Only my suspicions.

“Your insecurities!” You would laugh and say, “He is my good friend, not lover. Cannot a working woman have a good male friend? He is married…happily…with two kids.”

I had no answers. Perhaps, you were right. I was reading too much into a normal situation. A working woman. A courteous co-traveller. A common chartered bus going to the same locality. A simple fun-loving decent man! A good singer also. You loved singing. I never sang. You loved outdoors. I hated it. You loved travelling. I avoided travel. You loved reading and history. I was a Chemistry student.

Our worlds, exclusive, were held together by an arranged marriage. Subsequently, by the children only…like rest of the middle-class Indians. Two perfect strangers brought together by common practices, who had discovered each other in initial years of marriage. Then, pressurised by work and anti-romance conditions of our living in an Indian metro, we drew apart.…like others of our ilk.

Once you stormed out, remained away; then the children united us again. Then the hasty departure of the other man in our marriage — with a promotion — to Bangalore, cooled the anger and we somehow reconciled.

You became quiet and lost. Hardly sang or read for months. I checked your cell-phone and expectedly found no messages from your decent kind friend, the co-traveller.

I knew you were feeling used again. People had seen you dining and coming out of malls but you denied and threatened to quit always and my long unemployed status increased my humiliating dependency on you. Occasionally, I tried to sing a song and applied a talc powder but both acts of gallantry repelled you further.

I could not live up to the romantic image promoted by Bollywood. I was a Chemist working in a factory located some sixty kilometers away from home and I had no training or patience with sustained courtship.

How can a battered man be a perpetual romantic hero in life?

For me, life was never a constant candle-lit dinner party. It was a constant battle to survive in hell!

My idea of romance was — and is — holding hands and speaking silently.

Love is an emotion transmitted non-verbally.

Love is beyond words. A telepathic experience.

Hope, dear, you understand my love now, as I hold your hand and cry silently for having missed out so much in life simply because I could never afford those expensive signs of media-promoted notion of love and romance.

I loved you from the bottom of my heart. I still do. I could never tell you in these terms — not everybody is a born poet!

I might have mistreated you or neglected you as the long commutes drained me completely but my heart always with you.

Are you listening my love?

Listening to my heart?

Lo, here comes the thunder. And the darkness is increasing…

Sunil Sharma is the editor of SETU. He is a 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. 



The Literary Fictionist

Forgeries, Don Quixote & Epistemes

Sunil Sharma unravels the mystique of the Spanish ingénue, the man who fights windmills and has claimed much much literary attention post Quichotte

Don Quixote attacking the Windmill by John Doyle. Courtesy: Wiki

While learning Spanish in Mumbai recently, I came to enjoy Don Quixote immensely. And I also came to discover a unique tutor who came from the same enchanting land once traversed by the great philosophical Don on his poor steed Rocinante and in the company of his trusted fellow-adventurer, Sancho Panza. The shared links to Spain and her present and past culture made my wiry tall tutor a valuable guide. His observations vastly added to the pleasure of understanding the more than four-hundred-year-old sacrosanct text. He proved to be a skillful navigator, guiding me through the thick maze of the interesting book, generally considered to be the first modern novel of the West.

Spanish language is called the language of Cervantes — so rich is the effect and contribution of this artist on the overall national language and culture of Spain, and, on Western cultural life, by extension. The bulky rambling novel has inspired a host of great writers like Flaubert and Dostoevsky, among others. Picasso was said to be inspired by the adventures of this loveable simple man seeking beauty and romance in the most prosaic age of commerce and overseas conquest for colonies.

The Don’s creator can be called the precursor of magical Marquez and Isabel Allende and other experimental fictionists of the last century. The way even the mundane in Spain is fantastically transformed in the pages of this novel is an astonishing feat of unmatched artistic skill. It is a charming but lost place you come to see; a strange country that is conjured up for you. It is like catching a fleeting historical moment and preserving that elusive moment forever, for the succeeding generations of mind-travelers who want to revisit a famous literary site and be a participant in the unfolding seductive landscape marked by the surprising visual contraries.

The sheer magnitude, the solidity, the hugeness of the windmills can be experienced afresh by the reader through the eyes of the Don questing for the extraordinary in an ordinary age. The banal becomes the marvelous.

Don Quixote celebrates the creative difference in human perceptions — very much like the artistic genius of a Picasso or Dali who see things differently from the rest. This can disorient and yield a new insight. The windmills are not the ordinary windmills but are perceived to be giants. With the Don, the conventional view is drastically changed, and you get radicalised by a totally alien view. The usual appears unusual.

The artistic inversion and the radical reversal produce a startling breakthrough — the kind experienced in Kafka or Grass. There are other dramatic modifications. Deep transformations occurring in the text and within the reader. The world gets topsy-turvy. Don destabilizes stale perspectives and blasé viewpoints and manufactures refreshing realities, far removed from his current context and location.

The gentle sheep become an army of marauding mercenaries, a shocking opposite: the commonplace taverns and non-descript inns shed their dull features and turn into mysterious dark castles housing the secrets and weaponry of the ideal knights; the scheming magicians, it is claimed, make the precious libraries vanish. It is a continual collision of the real and the unreal, fact and fiction, heroic past and pedestrian present. In short, lands miraculous where things appear to be their reverse: everything appears to be what it is not.

For example, Dulcinea is a fair princess for the smitten fifty-year-something Don; in reality, she is an ordinary farm girl. Cervantes has upturned the existing conventions of romance by describing ordinary real people of his country in a most favourable light and this bold gesture inaugurates the process of democratisation of literature that deepens further in succeeding centuries. A working farm girl serving as the original for an ideal princess itself is a remarkable advance, a literary breakthrough, a literary coup.

These ideas did not come naturally to me in my readings of Don Quixote but were a result of my constant interaction with my tutor. He was, incidentally, from Madrid and had a strong resemblance to Don. He went by a long name of Juan Rodriguez de Silva but preferred to be called Amando. Once, during a break in the long afternoon lessons, the 45-year-old Mumbai-based freelance writer and part-time Spanish tutor — in the country for a year for some research on the early proselytizing of the Spanish Catholic priests in Goa, Mumbai, Cochin and Chennai, among other coastal cities of the South India — told me that the father of my favourite author, Don Rodrigo de Cervantes, was a very interesting figure, largely ignored by the later scholarship.

He said: “I found him, Cervantes senior, quite fascinating. He was a surgeon who wandered from one place to another in search of work. The family led a difficult and unsettled life due to this reason. In those days, in sixteenth-century Spain, the job of a surgeon was not high-paying and considered lowly. It did not enjoy any social prestige. The poor family suffered many financial problems on account of this vagrant lifestyle.”

I listened attentively to this family history that was like opening a window on the hoary past of a different era and nation. “Spain was feudal. Aristocracy prevailed. Finding acceptability, honour and respect was difficult for the disinherited and dispossessed. The senior Cervantes was a man of ingenuity, very much like Don Quixote of La Mancha. I have this feeling that the immortal Don Quixote was modeled to some extent on Rodrigo. A few parallels can be seen,” said Amando.

“How?” I asked.

“Well, the guy was like to-day’s harmless imposter, not willing to violate the law or break rules but willing to twist facts and invent a bit of illustrious history or lineage to make him look grand. You can call such desperate persons as simple pretenders who mean no harm. Cervantes’ father thought what he was actually not. He was very inventive. The wandering barber-surgeon claimed he was descended from a noble family. An aristocratic past, I would say, for his impoverished family. But, in the long run, this fiction did not help, and he landed up in the debtors’ prison for unpaid arrears, very much like John, the unfortunate overspending dad of Dickens, who served as a model for Mr. Micawber. In fact, both the writers were much haunted by the imprisonment of their failed fathers and the misfortunes that attend such a situation. Poverty and inequalities of an unjust system are sympathetically described by both chroniclers of two great societies, most poignantly by Dickens and satirically, by Cervantes.”

This sounded exciting.

Amando continued, “You can call them forgeries. Innocent ones, of course. Who does not want to have a duke or duchess in their blood? People invent an interesting past for themselves for different reasons.”

I agreed. I know of a young man who had created a Christian past to woo a European woman in a multinational corporation in Mumbai and was successful in this deception. In America, many Indians have adopted Anglican names to blend well in their society and avoid hostility.

“You see, we all are like that. We all fictionalise, invent and re-create things for ourselves, at one point or other, in our unremarkable lives. Don is an avid reader of books that talk of romance and chivalry and wants to re-create that lapsed order of things in an age hostile to such revival and the entire project is doomed from the beginning.” I nodded.

Amando went on: “I know many poor young men who say they are from wealthy families, but the lies get exposed. The truth is to be confronted. Rodrigo lived in a dual world of lies and bitter truths. He was escaping from bitter facts into the comforts of fiction. Don was also like him. The imaginative man wanted to revive an entire age that was gone forever. Naturally, such an attempt was going to be farcical and ultimately tragic, simply because history can never be reversed. You cannot run away from your present and reality catches up—finally.”

He was right. Fiction does not last forever. They do not help, either. One has to return — to a normal sane world or die dubbed insane. This dramatic tension between the past and the present, between romance and grim reality, between an imagined past and an impoverished stark present, continually informs the life and the optimistic but hopeless quest of the man from La Mancha.

“Rodrigo was using a language no longer understood in a cynical age of greed. Like Don Quixote, he was caught up in a cusp of crucial change. A new world order was starting and the older solid one was dying. Folks like Don could see things others could not. Don is a visionary or a mad prophet—take your pick. A genius or a phony. In fact, forgeries, deceptions, self-deceptions, thefts are all common in art world. All art, if you permit, is itself, a great forgery. It may scandalize the establishment, but it is a truth that cannot be denied. The Bard is a known literary thief. Many painters did forgeries and were never caught. Forgery proves one point: No art can claim to be original except the precocious Greeks. Everything else is a mere re-telling or mere re-working of the original. That is why geniuses like Shakespeare or Picasso never bothered about originality but, ironically, could produce some of the most original works that were commentaries on the preceding ones, kind of meta-fiction or meta-work or meta-criticism. Borges did that through his short fiction called ‘Pierre Menard, the Author of the Quixote’ raises the question of continued relevance of an artwork for the coming generations. It tells us how we re-create the classics and fashion them in our own image. A text is never static but an open and dynamic series. Borges himself did successful literary forgeries to prove the point that search for originality of vision is futile exercise and need not be undertaken by the modern artists. It also undermined the seriousness of art.”

Talking of Cervantes, the insightful Spanish tutor said somberly, “Even Miguel Cervantes did forgery of a different sort by inventing an exotic authorship for the fictional Don Quixote and his adventures that defy common sense. He attributed authorship of this long text to one Arab Benegeli. He said it was originally written by the Moor, translated by another and edited by him. But then, it was a common practice for many writers to do like that only. Stevenson did that. Authorship, originality and artistic vision were not exclusive preserves of the narrating voice but were diffused in the wider culture of the day.”

 I nodded.

He was quiet for long and then said, “In fact, this desire to recreate and represent the given facts is an act of forgery but since we are aesthetically conditioned or trained to view these as art objects, we miss the obvious and call it as a creation.” Now, this was revelation. “Don Quixote is an exquisite example of this human creative desire to recreate older realities or traditions in newer ways that can be shockingly, startlingly, daringly different from the older ones. They call them these days as revisions. In fact, every new voice is a renewed older voice. If you acknowledge the source, it becomes a tribute. Otherwise, it is plagiarism. Then there are other issues as well.”

I looked at him. A fine but unknown reader and critic, Amando said after a long pause, “The value of popular traditions, the value of books and the fictional truth and the outcome of a desire to implement these literary truths in the altered context of the contemporary reader of that text or tradition are all discussed by the writer. Rodrigo changes his pedigree, Don Quixote wants to re-create an imagined past in the romantic tradition of an era yet to come. Cervantes creates an Arab author for this history of an individual that reflects the seventeenth-century Spain and in the process, mocks that tradition and anticipates the emergence of another world that is no longer feudal. All these acts are forgeries of the prevalent facts. They challenge and change the facts and are changed by the subsequent facts of the succeeding generations.”

Yes, he was right.

He continued: “It is — great art — both local and universal. It is both temporal and eternal. It is both present and future. Now, the question is, can the great art of last century or much earlier, speak to us directly? Borges raises the same query in the Pierre Menard fiction and says a creative engagement with great texts like Don can be historically productive as we try to interpret these texts in the light of our own times. We try to refashion these multi-layered rich texts pregnant with multiple meanings and try to extricate valuable insights into the nature of time, humanity, life and society. Both creation and critical reading is a continual process of re-inventing, recreating, altering historical facts with imagination and then trying to make it give some historically true conclusions that can be called progressive at a later stage of its evolution. In a way, a great artist is able to transcend the limits of his social condition and rise above his historical moment and see the dawn of another moment. The past, present and future are all sedimented in great art that belongs to all the centuries and not to its century of creation. It is the great paradox of art. You commit artistic forgeries and produce genuine serious art out of this act of self-conscious tampering. Old knowledge being made contemporary and relevant by reading the present into the text of the old and making it yield new truths whose echoes can be found distinctly in that of the old text. Postmodern fiction does perform only this task for us. The only difference is they call it parody and avoid the term forgery.” That was brilliant.

“In our life ordinary, we all tend to fictionalise to some extent but have to return to bitter realities of the human existence. Fictionalised worlds are delightful ad hoc realms but fail to provide permanent sanctuaries. The real for a previous era or eras is unreal for us; the unreal for us was the real for our ancestors and out of the dramatic tension of the two, emerges newer dimensions and newer texts in a ceaseless manner.  As the wise, not mad, Don says to Sancho, in chapter sixty-six, that each person is a forger of his own destiny and he, of his own but without necessary prudence. This results in one disaster after another. This view marks a radical juncture between the ideologies of the feudal and the emerging world and shows the inevitability of the decay and death of the former and the birth of the latter.”

After another long pause, he said, this somber Spaniard, a look-alike of Miguel Cervantes, “Last consideration on Don. Last three centuries, the imaginary Don has shed his fictional character and become real — like Mephistopheles, Hamlet, Wilhelm Meister or Young Werther, Raskolnikov and Madame Bovary. These characters have become super real and cultural figures of eminence and reached cult status. It is amazing transformation within art. They speak to the curious and the willing. The Don could see backwards and forwards, Janus-like. The historically well-located Cervantes could witness the dialectics of change vividly. He announced the total eclipse of a dominant world order and the arrival of another world order.  In painting, the same was achieved by another brilliant Spanish genius. Velazquez achieves the same prophecy in his painting, Las Meninas, whereby he foresees the fading of monarchy and signals the end of the monolithic worldview of feudalism by splintering the single unified view into multiple perspectives. By rupturing the old and inaugurating the novel, serious art becomes prophetic and consecrates the new point of view that may look scandalous to many but gradually becomes accepted as the official version — till a new voice terminates the outdated and heralds the new beginnings for a changed age. Don does all this for us and by the inherent dualism of artistic projection and artistic cognition, renews and revitalizes the narrative traditions and their continuities. By constant re-engagement with the classics, we fulfill deeper needs for epistemologies and gain bold insights into the past, our present and dim future based on this temporal cycle. Great artists explain the world present past and future and tell us that nothing is eternal but subject to historical change. As long as they perform this task, they will never be irrelevant to us or others after us.”

Amando had just unfolded so many dimensions that others could not perceive in Don. But then, that is the art of reading and critically explaining to us through a consecrated cultural text of the yore. Is it not? All of us write our own Don Quixotes in our own way as close collaborators and gain rare insights, epistemes by this joint process. And feel educated or enlightened. ‘Epiphanies’ is what Joyce called these lucid moments.

Reading Don was such a moment for me in the company of my imagined Spanish tutor…

Sunil Sharma
 is the editor of SETU. He is a 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. 



The Literary Fictionist

Near the River Chenab and Under The trees

Sunil Sharma takes us on a journey to the banks of a river where life, love and death sheathed in terrorism cumulate to a peak

River Chenab: Photo Courtesy — Wiki

The River Chenab can be addictive.

It has a strange pull.

He comes daily to meditate on its grassy right bank.

And to find nirvana.

At the top of the stone staircase, a few steps away from the small shrine to the local deity, he sits and watches the Chenab flow majestically to its far-off home. Across the river, in the vast dusty plain, stands a grove of trees, in the distance. He can see the tree spirits dancing in the mildly-dark grove — like the dryads in an ancient Greek sacred grove. Mysterious airy figures flitting in the air.  The winter morning sun splashes colours in its gurgling waters. Dusk in that lonely plain paints the beautiful river in flaming orange!

He finds the interplay of the sun and the river mesmerizing. Misty December, the shrouded river is sad and abandoned, meandering its way quietly in the fields. The silence of the Chenab could be both healing and frightening. He seeks out the broad-shouldered river like a child hunting for his mother in a deserted house.

The Chenab speaks silently to him, as it has always spoken to its seekers from previous ages. The waters exert a strange fascination over him. He finds the buried centuries on the bed of the river that has irrigated the soul of many states and communities. Chenab is the breath of the people. The moment he sits, the lost centuries leap out of the glinting waters and he can hear folk songs, drum beats and dancers dancing around the bonfires burning in the village square, on moonlit nights. The cold winds of December cannot dampen the general mood of festivities. He can clearly hear the folk singers singing in throaty voices before the assembled rural audiences; the fair maidens blushing and the hardy young men twirling their moustaches. It is a strange riverine world that he witnesses daily from his elevated perch.

One late morning, he found both love and death near the eternal Chenab within a short span of one hour.

First he discovered love.

As he was walking near the Chenab with a blank mind, eyes seeing, yet unseeing, he saw her crying. A solitary woman, younger, in yellow salwar-kameez and red dupatta, sitting on a stone ledge, her feet dangling in the gently-flowing Chenab.  A bird was singing in the clump of trees ahead, near the right bank, her notes melancholy, musical and edifying. Both were surprised by the presence of the other at such a desolate spot.

He had rounded a long bend in the quiet river and immediately came upon the sobbing woman. The bend was in a remote corner and hardly visited by the busy villagers. He was shocked by the unexpected sighting of a fair maiden on a boulder at the edge of the river. She looked like a lost nymph, vulnerable and sad, suddenly appearing out of the cold river, before a startled human traveller. He was rooted to the ground, the river hummed in the tranquil morning.

Her face was very fair, eyes large and kohl-lined, framed by a mass of dark hair. The tears were big and rapid, sobs silent and shaking. Her face was cupped in a pair of white plump hands; a soundless cry escaping from a small open and full mouth. He saw her and felt smitten by this picture of stunning beauty, innocence and vulnerability. The dormant knight awakened quickly, after a hiatus of centuries long dead and interned in some tiny DNA sequence.

He wanted to reach out and protect her like the knights of yore.

At that precise moment, the damsel in distress looked up at this strange apparition from nowhere. Her doe-eyes first registered fear on seeing what she presumed was a predatory male figure. Then, they moved on to look helpless and trapped. She was paralyzed by this abrupt human encounter on a spot where no other being could be espied other than the couple destined to meet in a most dramatic way.

She stared, open-mouthed, tears still coursing down her oval face.

“Why are you crying?” He asked, his voice a little awkward but firm.

The query and the unexpected concern made her dissolve into a fresh bout of tears. The reassuring voice belonging to a stranger in an alien, deserted setting can trigger the release of hidden pain in a gentle human heart. She cried, uncontrollably. He watched. Both helpless and bonding in a strange way over the common form of rumination that can visit the human race so frequently and at odd hours.

Unbidden, he waded through the water, climbed the rock on which she was perched and hugged her tenderly, right hand giving reassuring taps to her upper half of the trembling body. The two entwined figures in a vast desolate place, in a timeless gesture of magnetic empathy were lost to the sense of time as the watch ceased to tick and the Earth stopped. She found him and his embrace harmless but comforting — the way strangers hug each other and comfort during national tragedies of epic scales. The two young clung to each other in a tight embrace and love was born in their lonely hearts.

After they had separated and she had washed her tear-stained face, he repeated his original question, tense modified, “Why were you crying?”

She said, face downcast, voice frail from crying, “Stepmother.”

“Oh!” He got it. “Are you from this village?”

“No,” said the woman demurely.

“Your name?”


He said nothing. They continued to sit on the boulder, a little higher, surveying the surrounding scene. The bird had stopped singing in the nearby clump of trees. A stork flew in the languid air. A tractor could be heard on the dirt road somewhere in the background.

“Your name?” She asked, long lashes fluttering.



“Nope. Iqbal Singh.”

She said nothing.

Then he asked,“Your village?”

“Six kms from here.”

“Why did you select this hour and spot?” Iqbal asked.

“I wanted to die. Away from my family and ancestral village…Did not want to disgrace my father. I chose this place where nobody would come and find me or my dead body. I want to die.”

“Die?” Iqbal asked mouth open, eyes uncomprehending. Like drowning a priceless gift in an angry or desperate moment.

“Just that. Sometimes you want to die—to escape being a motherless poor daughter or a woman unwanted in home and society. Nobody cares for me. I am becoming a burden to them.” Her tone was now quiet and firm. Thoughts in order and lucid.


“Do not ask a woman her age,” she said and laughed a clear laugh that rose and blended with the stratosphere. Typical mood swings! “Completed my eighteen years last month. They want me to marry an old widower of my caste and community. I want to study. My stepmother is cruel. She hates me and beats me daily. The widower is her distant relative. A wealthy landlord twice widowed. Giving a lot of dowry. My greedy mother is eager to sell me off to that old lecher. I ran away in a bus to this village and from the village square, came down to this spot.”

“Then?” Iqbal asked the run-away.

“I reached the deserted spot. Climbed up this high boulder in the middle of the river and wanted to take a leap into the rushing cold waters. I took the first steps also…”

“Then?” Asked Iqbal the way kids ask the story-telling tired mothers during bed-time at night.

“I clearly heard a voice.”


“Yes. The voice that commanded me to stop from drowning.”

Iqbal, surprised, looked around but saw only wild terrain.

“I do not see any mortal here,” he said, holding her hand in his.

“It was not mortal. It came from the world of the dead.”


“It was the voice of my dead ammi jaan,” she said. “I know the voice. It commanded me to stop and a hand pulled me off. I sat down and cried. My ammi jaan still cares for me beyond her grave. Her voice is still silky and soft. She doted on me, my poor mother. Then, she sent you here to me.”

The low voice melted his heart. He felt moved. He tightened his grasp — to prevent her slipping through his grip into the watery grave. Her plump hand did not resist. It remained limp and soft; like the hand of a yielding baby to the security of an adult care-giver.

“Your plans?”

“I will not go home. I will stay here.”

“Then, some jungle creature will eat you here in the night.”

“I do not care,” she said. “My home is also not safe.”

“I understand,” Iqbal said in a soothing voice. “I will not leave you here in the wild. You may get attacked by the wolves or hyenas. It is not safe. Or serpents. Or, stray drunk men.”

She said nothing. Only her dainty hand tightened her grasp over his broad muscular hand.

“Come with me to my home.”

“No.” She said, eyes scared.

“Why?” Iqbal asked, a little irritated.

“You are not us. You are them. How can I trust you?” She spoke clearly and frankly. Tone neutral. Stating a cold fact to the world in general.

“Have I done anything wrong? Immoral? Tell me. Did I molest you?” He asked callously and then realised his mistake as tears welled up immediately in her innocent eyes, stung more by the tonal harshness of this strange rescuer than the helpless predicament of a female run-away.

Iqbal softened quickly, “Come and eat there and then decide. I am not going to harm you in any way. Or, my family. We are honourable family of the Sikhs. I do not wear a turban or long hair. My father is a high-school head master and very respected in our small village. My elder brother is a police officer. I am studying in a nearby city college. I am an athlete. Do not worry. Come on. A long way to go.”

She remained undecided for long. Sitting on the boulder, immobile. More vulnerable and rudderless.

Iqbal stood up and lifted her tenderly in his arms, waded through the knee-deep waters and then planted her back on the dry ground. She said nothing.

She trusts me, Iqbal thought. A major battle won. “If you do not find my home safe, let me know. I will inform your family immediately.”

She said nothing. Drained out and limp, Aisha leaned slightly on his broad arm for support.

They started the new journey together; a journey determined by mysterious forces of the universe that no amount of rationalism can ever explain. A mere walk along the bank of the River Chenab had produced a most unlikely scenario for Iqbal. The river that had earlier fashioned legendary love stories of Heer-Ranjha and Soni-Mahiwal had now conspired to re-script the same folk narrative in a new format for these two 21st century young adults. Quietly the duo took the shortcut through the clump of whispering trees. And witnessed their last event…

The thick clump was on a steep rugged incline and afforded a good view of the riverine wilderness below. It led to the dirt road and to the village. As they entered the clump of the tall sturdy trees, they were stopped by another loud sound coming from the plain below, from the opposite side. They stopped and peered from behind the thick hedges and wild undergrowth. They could see a jeep coming up the dirt track, sound magnified by the empty silent plain. They held their breaths.

Soon the open jeep stopped and five tall and slim men climbed down from it. They were wearing masks and carrying guns. A sixth person, a blindfolded captive, was pulled down roughly from the back of the jeep.

Death was in the air.

One of the masked men fished out a folding chair from the dirty floor of the jeep and after unfolding it, forced the blindfolded man to sit down. Another man took out a handycam and began to record the scene. Satisfied, he nodded. Then another man stepped out from the loose group and faced the camera, voice booming in the wild, “We are going to behead the agent of imperialist America and Zionism. This man was acting on behalf of these powers and supported by the Indian government. Our next target will be the Indian government. We plan to destroy these unholy powers on the Earth. Long live the revolutionaries!”

The man next to the seated figure ripped out the blind folds of their captive. Iqbal gasped. It was a famous Western journalist, who had been kidnapped three months ago near the Chenab and whose face had been earlier beamed on all the TV news channels. The man looked ashen and withdrawn. His face looked haggard, although freshly-shaven and scrubbed. His hands and legs were then neatly tied  and the camera started shooting the gruesome episode. A man whipped out a sword from a sack and cleaned it slowly before the dazed foreigner, in a deliberate sadistic act. He was smiling crookedly. The commander of the group asked playfully, “Any last wishes?”

“No,” said the journalist in his late thirties, somewhat defiantly.

“You arrogant agents!” Exclaimed the commander loudly. “So haughty towards death!”

The journalist, beyond any uncertainties of life and death, spat out: “Cowards!”

Another man hit him hard on his face. The journalist did not flinch. His eyes blazed. He had reached the stage of no pain and fear. A state that stared  death in the eyes. “Leave the bugger. He is going to be beheaded soon,” said the commander. “He deserves it.”

The journalist laughed, startling others. “By killing innocent people like me you militants cannot shake the strong foundations of old nations and civilisations. Hatreds lead nowhere. Dialogue and sanity are productive. Violence and hatred can be counter-productive. They are useless. Bloodshed will lead you nowhere.”

The men were stunned by this slow outburst of a trapped civilian facing his own absurd execution at the hands of a few zealots fighting wars on behalf of the terror groups.

“Stop his voice,” commanded the man in ski-mask.

“No. Just record it for the whole world to see. They must know a journalist went down, fearless and defiant. My sacrifice will not go waste. You are all mad guys. Toxic guys spewing venom at innocent law-abiding citizens…”

The sentence was cut short mid-way by the swoop of the gleaming sword of the killer. A neat arc and the head rolled down, still partially connected to the neck. The handycam kept on recording the heinous act in a careful manner. Precisely. Clinically. In a detached way.

The killer raised his hand and this time cut away the loosely-held head of his human victim, eyes scornful and defiant; still triumphant in sudden death to his gleeful killers. The short stocky headless body, in fatigues, convulsed violently for minutes.

This was being recorded faithfully by a steady hand. After a few minutes, the gunmen danced around the decapitated body, firing guns in the air, unsettling the birds that made a racket and flew away. The gunmen left the headless body on the chair and before leaving, called up a few TV news channels and informed them of the location and of the job done. Then they departed, the jeep kicking up clouds of gravel and dust on the dirt track going up to the jungle.

When Iqbal — speechless and completely numbed by the sudden brutality and mindless violence choreographed with skill by militants in ski-masks carrying sophisticated weapons in a red modified Hummer, with high-fi communications system — looked around, he saw his frail female companion lying unconscious on the carpet of the moist grass and fallen leaves, fanned by a cool breeze in the clump of trees. Shaky, slightly trembling and nauseous, the tall and graceful athlete sat down on the green bed, trying to make sense of a world gone bloodthirsty and lawless.

He looked up to the sky for quick answers, sitting beside the prostrate body of the young woman. His faith  shaken, he waited for some comforting answers from the blue vault above. Only a sun shone weakly there and a group of shrieking predatory birds circled above the dead body of an unfortunate and helpless man in the middle of a thorny wasteland near the bloodied red-Chenab. The trees whispered quietly and then Iqbal also passed out, dreaming of a quiet village home and his loving parents and of the tenuous security of such a familiar environment…


Sunil Sharma is the editor of SETU. He is a 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. 



The Literary Fictionist

Monalisa No Longer Smiles Here

By Sunil Sharma

Everybody called her Monalisa.

Nobody knew or cared who the real Monalisa was. The name just stuck on. Just like that. Three months and she was already running the household like an old woman.

If grandma needed warm water, she would shout, “Oye, bring me some warm water. My feet are giving me hell.” Grandma — the poor soul! She suffers from joint pain and pain of every conceivable type — rarely stirred out of her large bed and needed lot of things in her ground floor room. The burly mustachioed Grandpa needed tea after every half-an-hour in the cluttered drawing room. He would sit throughout the day, watching television, smoking constantly and coughing and belching smoke —making the whole place look like a huge chimney — and, reading morning paper in installments, throughout the long and still days. Monalisa supplied him with tea every half an hour and grandpa would feel mightily happy with this service and say invariably, “Here comes my little precious Monalisa. The only soul who cares for an old man in this goddamn cursed house,” and while saying so, he would often peer over the glasses, his gray bushy eyebrows uplifted, reminding you of a tired Santa.

Bhavi wanted the breakfast early in her first-floor bedroom and would shout urgently, “Monalisa, run. I am getting late for office again.” Little Monty always forgot his tiffin. Monalisa would run after the auto and hand it over to fat bespectacled sleepy Monty. She was on her toes right from morning till evening. Within last three months, she had taken over all the responsibilities of an adult homemaker. Grandpa would often say, “If Monalisa runs away, we would all be in great trouble, starved and mad at the other.”

Bhavi would feel irritated by this grim forecast, “Why would she run away? The rich food she eats here, frocks of my Tanya she gets to wear, will she be getting all these things anywhere else?”  

Grandma would say, “Oye, Pa is getting soft in his head. Old age? He goes on babbling like that. Always seeing bad things first.”

Bhaiya* would shrug off, rephrasing his boss, “The world is full of such Monalisas. If one goes, another comes. Nobody is indispensable in the world. Is it not Pappaji*?” Pappaji would grunt.  

Tanya, doing her homework, would add, “Before her, there was Rani. Before Rani, there was Kusum. Before that….”

Little Monty would interrupt the total recall, “Look, Pappaji, Tanya is not doing her homework. She is disturbing me.” Tanya, hurt, would make faces, “Oh, the Einstein is working. How many marks did you get in math in the first term?” Little Monty, looking cross, would adjust his Harry-Potter frame over his hooked nose and say, “What about your physics, Didi*?” Tanya would sigh, “Oh, you would know when you come to class VIII”.

Deep down, everybody dreaded the prophecy of grandpa. The fact was that our house ran because of these servants.

When Rani had disappeared one evening, there was total chaos. It had continued for long. Nobody got anything on time and everybody cursed everybody else. Old grandma cursed her fate. Grandpa cursed rising prices and the government. Bhaiya and Bhavi fought bitterly everyday.

“Where is my breakfast?” he would ask.

“I am already late. You prepare one for yourself and one for the kids,” Bhavi would answer flatly.

“Oh, so I should leave my job with an international company and become a cook at home.”

“And who am I? An unpaid cook. What else? I also have a job to keep.”

“Leave that job then. I earn quite sufficient.”

“No. You leave your job first.  Why should I leave my bank job?”

This was routine. The mornings were awful ritual and a delight for the nosy neighbours.

Both would leave, cursing each other. Grandma, deprived of tea, would grumble, “Oye, my legs. I wish I were dead.”

“That you have been saying for last 45 years,” grandpa would say. “Oye, You always wanted me dead. Listen, old man, I am not going to die. If I do, I will come back as a bhoot* and torment you forever.”

“For   that you need not die. You have already been doing all that to me,” grandpa would say and laugh his belly laugh. “Oye, my kismet*. Nobody wants me. That bahu*, that son, my own man—nobody wants me anymore. What should I do, rabba*?”

“Keep your mouth shut. As easy as that.”

“Oye, nobody allows me to speak now. O good Lord! strike me dead,” she would cry.

Little Monty, dressing by himself, would say, “Why does grandma say Oye, Oye?”

“Oh, shut up, Einstein!” Tanya would shout.

“Oye, Oye, nobody allows me to speak, not even my fat sis,” he would complain. Tanya would fly for him across the room but our Einstein, a smart runner, would fly faster than a missile.

“This house is a nuthouse!” Grandma would say.

“No doubt about it. ” Grandpa would   confirm.

In this chaos, one August afternoon, walked in a little girl, later called Monalisa. It was unusually cold and wet day, dull and grey, the heavy rains whipping the high-rises of Vasant Kunj in New Delhi. Dark clouds had covered the area and mild darkness had fallen. The doors flew open magically and entered a child, followed by a short, slim man. The gloom of the day was lit up by the silver of the lightening that traveled like an enormous quivering white snake across the sky.

Papaji, this is my daughter.”

The girl looked frightened.

“Do not go by looks. She is small. She can clean, sweep, cook. She is very good at that,” the dhobi* said, hard selling her as if she were a new detergent.

“What should we pay?”

“You keep her full time. Feed her. Then pay whatever you want.”

 The deal was on. The dhobi did not say goodbye. He turned his back and went out in the pouring rain. The child looked longingly at the rain, the retreating figure, and the outside world. She half- raised her hand to wave at a receding father and then stopped in mid-air, lost in that instant between a fading and an emerging world.

 “Child, make me a cup of tea,” Grandpa said gently.

That moment on, she was sucked into a new adult harsh reality.

Her pearly smile won everybody’s heart. Her waif-like figure flitted silently from room to room and she cleaned, swept, mopped like a new detergent. The only difference in her appearance was an occasional shampooed hair and scrubbed-clean look. And she looked out of shape in the hand-me-down, ill flitting dresses of Tanya who had overgrown or discarded them for her hundredth dress. The madness had subsided but temporarily and everybody got food of their choice in time.

“This girl can work like ten horses,” Grandpa said one day.

“Oye, do not cast an evil eye. May God give her more strength,” countered grandma. In the duplex, Monalisa occupied a 3 ft 2″space on the threaded carpet of grandma’s room. That was her nocturnal home where she slept like a log. Her family never visited.

After Diwali, all of us planned to visit Agra. My job was to deliver her to the dirty basti*, 10 km away, where her family lived in a shack under a spreading old banyan, near a Hanuman temple, an open-air structure next to the tree where elders congregated for their daily fix of gossips, chai and smoke. As I left her there on the side street, I saw her running off the remaining 100 meters, the distance that intervened between a free world and a grown-up world. I sat in the car and saw her disappear in the crude shack made up of plastic and ropes and bamboos. The 10-meter yard was reclaimed from the weeds and dressed up. A tulsi pot bloomed. She came out immediately, waved her hand to signal safe arrival, and smiling, vanished again in the dark womb again.

Evening I came back to retrieve her. I was a bit early. Cold November dusk was settling down. The orange disc was slipping fast behind a bank of the fluffy, white clouds. Crows were returning. An icy wind had stated blowing. I got down from the car and walked the short distance to the home of Monalisa. She was not there. Her asthmatic battered graying starved mother went out to search for her.

 Then I saw her.

Some 600 meters away. She was playing with kids her age. She was running, her hair streaming, thin face flushed, yelling at the top of her piping voice, a little goddess in motion. Some kid was chasing her. In order to avoid the pursuer, Monalisa, happy and excited, began climbing the nearby peepul tree. All the malnourished brown kids, sweaty and out-of-breath, shouted and formed a circle beneath the tree.

A simple game I have never seen Tanya and Monty play.

The simple drama was rudely interrupted by the yelling of her mother. In a minute, she ran up to me, followed by her lean, semi- starved, ill-clad kid brother crying for her, “Do not go, do not go. Let us play one more time, didi, please. Come back.” The light went out of didi‘s eyes. Her mother grabbed the whimpering child but it cried louder. “You have to wait for her for so long. Please excuse her, she is just a child,” her frail mother, lifeless and bloodless, pleaded with me abjectly. “No problem. I can understand.” I said, already feeling like a robber. We went to the car. She looked back longingly, her eyes blank, face drained. Her friends came running, waved and then began playing. The brother cried. A cold wind sliced us cruelly in the middle. The sun, effeminate and yellow-faced, went down. The early darkness suddenly embraced us.

As soon as she entered, grandma shouted, “Oye, fetch me warm water. My feet are hurting.”

“And tea for me,” said grandpa. She went straight to her territory.

I said to grandma I was not in a mood to bring the child back, at least, for a night, “She would have enjoyed some time more with her family.”

“Oye,” Grandma glowered, “You have become like a woman. Men should be tough. These are poor people. They breed like pigs. If we had not taken her in our custody, her drunkard father would have sold her to a brothel. We provide safety, security and food to her. She gets decent treatment here. She is family to us.”

I did not argue. I went out and blended in the gloom of the advancing night. The cries of a phantom brother and sad eyes of Monalisa haunted me for long in that short winter night.

*papaji: An affectionate way of addressing a grandfather in Northern India

*bhoot: Ghost

*kismet: Fate

*bahu: Daughter-in-law

*rabba: God

*bhaiya: Brother

*didi: Elder sister

*dhobi: Washerman

*basti: Slum

Sunil Sharma is the editor of SETU. He is a 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.



The Literary Fictionist

In the Shadow of the Nataraja: A Kinship

Journey through Ellora, Rio de Janerio, Rome and Jerusalem with Sunil Sharma to find answers of a different kind


At Ellora, I found myself in the company of the serene gods, whose time-resistant deep calm could still vitally affect a present-day visitor to this holy site. It is a small upland country consecrated and claimed by the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain gods who had decided to dwell and rest, during their voluntary earthly sojourn, among this beautiful complex of sturdy caves. The experience can be terrific for the body and mind. It is like entering a floating ethereal region distinctly different from our tangible world. Or, to alter the analogy, a vast continent of spirit frozen in time and space but open as an entry point for a persistent seeker of truth. A happy age caught at a blessed moment, inscribed delicately and preserved permanently as a record, in the cluster of these humble ample-bodied temple caves. Welcoming all those who are explorers of the spirit world.

 But, a bit of the background.

We are visiting the famous Ellora, my friend, JS, and me. The sun kissed UNESCO world heritage site offers soul-curry. The weatherbeaten tall temples beckon the believer dormant in my I-pod-listening, internet-addicted, pizza-chomping, beer-guzzling, cigar-smoking, flabby unexercised physical body (my generous tummy is around 46 inches, still growing fast, protruding obscenely over my tight belt like an overstuffed sack). I am, let me confess, the true inheritor of the 21-century pure hedonism unleashed by a mass society on its citizens who can get everything on a made-to-order basis. I confess openly: I have got only the physical side; I am horribly one-dimensional. I love all the pleasures of the flesh and can go to any extent to satisfy the deep cravings for new physical sensations. Ellora promised to be new excitement from the dreary routinised life, a kind of escape from the killing mundane around me.

Last July, it was Bangkok and its painted women. Jaded. That is how I had felt every morning, badly hung-over and miserable, in my lonely hotel room, smelling cheap perfume lingering on in the unclean sheets, dinner remains all stacked up in trays with flower patterns on them; trapped and cheerless in the mornings and trying to find novelties again in the evenings, along with my middle-aged Indian business partners, hopelessly trying to search for new sensations in the robotic bosom and automaton thin legs of these abused women. Meanwhile, the child in me looked on all these indulgences with contempt. His censure was severe, to be drowned again in the evenings with more vicious partying. The descent has begun for my forty-five-old battered body. I wanted to make an escape from this crushing hedonism and save myself from further assault. This time, I wanted to do something for my soul.

I wanted to test the spiritual world, that soaring higher region experienced by the evolved and the mystics. I know I am not the ‘Chosen One’ but who knows I may become one: to-day’s sinners to-morrow’s saint kind of development. Ellora is to Indians what the Aztec and the Mayan temples are to the Mexicans and to Central Americans.

Ellora sounded the right destination, a choice made by the understanding gods for my bohemian self through my friend JS. So, on this golden lazy afternoon, I found myself in the abode of the eternal gods, sitting relaxed, beyond the pain and pleasure principles of the earthly life. I am not religious, at least, in the strict daily- temple-going and-prostrating Indian sense, but, let me tell you, I do all the rites and ceremonies religiously. I believe in higher power. You can call it a hierarchical thinking. A foundational thinking. A logical thinking: there is dad; then there is the boss; then, the Prime Minister and God as the super boss.

I know early gods are all anthropomorphic beings but there is a strong need to believe in some tenet, some force that shapes our world, nay, the cosmos. Coelho thing, you know, for me. I can be both the dissenter and the believer, in the same moment. A typical cosmopolitan, hovering between faith and complete agnosticism, bowing reverentially before the Ganesha, before opening my shop in the mornings and playing the video games on my computer in the evenings. I believe, when required by stressful personal conditions; I resort to agnosticism, when in the company of the rationalists or doubting self-assured intellectuals who seem to know all the correct answers to the profound questions regarding the universe and its unsolved mysteries. A man of contradictions and not apologetic about my dualism.

But here I was confronting the gods from an age that can no longer be retrieved, in a post-modern, hostile divided world of nuclear missiles and ethnic cleansing and hard-core evangelism on TV of all varieties. In fact, every mood, every emotion, every human feeling — hatred, love, belief, sacrifice, religion, pacifism — gets slickly packaged and becomes a lucrative business. Earlier there were the gods, now, the hip god men travelling in big cars. It is a blooming business of love, hatred and faith everywhere. So, as I was telling you, I felt a bit odd in this place. I was not sure what to do with it or how to make sense of the splendid Ellora for my epicurean mind that believed that gods had deserted the darkening planet long ago. Nietzsche had confirmed this act of divine desertion and certified a possible demise of the Olympians. The latter judgment I do not agree with. The gods are still hovering somewhere near us, watching us, as they show aliens watching our moves in an exciting Lucas or Spielberg film. But let us talk of Ellora.


The great Ellora constitutes of a series of thirty-four multi-storied caves where, by a happy coincidence of luck and state patronage, the philosophies of the Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism meet and interact in a strange and peaceful confluence of differing faiths and opposite world-views; this kind of co-existence is now very rare in to-day’s regimented, sectarian and divided India. The hand-made fine carvings, paintings and statues, all huddled together in a small geographical kingdom of two kilometers, are still invested with belief by the visitors of different religions and nationalities. The temples are the artistic evidence, executed in exquisite stone work, of the yearning souls searching for higher reality beyond the pale of the sheer physical plane of human existence. The entire cluster of temples have been gradually chiseled and scooped out of the mass of steep stubborn rocks of basalt. They were excavated lovingly between the 5th and 10th centuries by generations of sculptors and carvers, possessed by a higher guiding spirit, compelling them to labour hard in most harsh conditions.

The reverential collective of the industrious temple artists wished to remain anonymous, in striking contrast to the crop of the current Indian artists desperate for celebrity status, dollars, foreign fellowships and global awards. And, a final migration to another country, any outside India, an advanced cultural location from which to ridicule India as dark story for their white masters and   from where, they can talk easily of diaspora and displacement, a reversible situation for them, anyway.

These humble artists, on the other hand, were doing a daily service to the band of living and breathing gods who spoke directly to them and directed them to accomplish their gigantic collective task of love, devotion and labour. The obscure but dedicated carvers had transformed their surrounding wooded hills into luminous spiritual enclaves for an impoverished feudal age. The poor unpaid masons and master builders voluntarily embraced a harsh life, equipped only with strong belief and guided in dark moments by an inner light.

Their tools were primitive, working conditions poor but their global vision was superbly three dimensional, almost matchless in its breadth, width and depth. They started their monumental work of centuries from the top of the hills to the base, hammering and chipping away painfully the dusty crusty layers of stone; calloused human hands creating, in the slow process, an interlinked master narrative of stunning visuals, a super body of magnificent figures, animals and motifs, wonderfully alive, out of the sheer vertical walls of solid rock, over the unhurried centuries, now buried forever, in the womb of time.

They carved daily in a fit of feverish zeal, inch by inch, making the unyielding rock yield to their single holy vision and produced excellent and elevating sculptures and buildings, depicting three great religions symbolically on the facades and walls of the cave in close proximity and complete religious harmony –a remarkable synthesis possible only in the holy city of Jerusalem of the yore. It is an inspiring example of an early tolerant India at its best. Their act of cooperative labour created transcendental ideals of divine beauty, bliss and perfection, out of the mass of the dry unfeeling hard stones. The temples celebrate the cessation of human desire and the awakening of the divine. It is a mammoth exercise in self-realisation, betterment and wellness of the mind and body.


The huge linear site is a human marvel! It is a grand gritty combination of patience, belief and utter devotion that could create great monuments of art and rock cut architecture, erected in the midst of deep wilderness, in a time when gods were said to intervene directly in human affairs, like a community of caring elders, and the twinkling stars illuminated the paths of lonely mendicants towards salvation. There were no lingering doubts or anxieties, assailing the human mind. Terrified humans petitioned to these lofty airy beings living on the deserted icy frozen mountain caves where no mortal could ever venture or under the frightening infinity of a churning, hissing ocean barred from the prying earthly eyes. The earnest heartfelt anguished cries and loving pleas of the tiny earthlings were invariably heard by the sympathetic and all powerful mighty residents of an ethereal space that could never be measured by a latter calculating greedy commercial mind.

The imposing three-storied structures house some rare sacred glimpses into the mystic and the unknown for those who can penetrate that higher level of reality, that higher consciousness few realise in a lifetime of Earthly struggles, ego-clashes and vanities. These sacred profound truths are now no longer understood by more evolved homo sapiens, living longer and with a different set of the daily priorities, largely having lost the capacity to hear the divine songs in the chirping of birds, in the  falling rain on a freshly-ploughed field, or in the whisperings of the  breeze cooling the face of a hot Earth in the summer, or in the moving trees near the meandering pure crystalline river, or, in the sun fired orange by the dawn, rising from the horizon, like a full-bodied Venus. That is why the intelligent gods of the deep rainforests, pure romantic lands and mist-covered monasteries perched on inaccessible hills, finding themselves redundant like old parents, grandparents and ailing friends, safely retreated to their superior abodes in lofty realms of the stratosphere. They are no longer emotionally valid for a fun-seeking generation that finds its spiritual index in sensex, violent video games and gleaming cars.

The towering monasteries can be still breathtaking for a secular viewer. Today, they are art. For our simple seeking ancestors of the past, they were earthly gateways opening onto shimmering revolving metaphysical regions that could be accessed and finally grasped by meditating with purity in their hearts. Modern eyes can see only the stone statues in what were once the revelation of the holy. For humans in those days, the statues and icons were externalisations of a deep sacred ennobling pattern revealed to a minority of the pious seekers of hidden meanings of earthly life.

It was late Monday afternoon. The foreign tourist traffic was otherwise light. It largely consisted of a circulating mélange of muscular tall florid-faced, old Americans in blue jeans and wide-brim hats. In sharp contrast to the Yankees were some porcelain-faced delicate little young Japanese couples looking dainty and vulnerable on the sun-kissed courtyard of the sprawling complex of old hardy caves looming over us; the wealthy east-west touristy mix on an expensive discovery trail to a well-known oriental spot of curiosity: the typical occidental tourists in constant search for that elusive nirvana from the burning madness of a competitive capitalism, in some nook or dreary corner of the east.

The foreigners were all armed with Nikons and Camcorders, recording the modern encounter with the splendours of the past on the celluloid. The pure tranquility of the spread-out monasteries suddenly hit a powerful blow to my solar plexus — after a fast and furious escape from the seething Mumbai of humid hot June, it was a welcome relief to sit down on a crude stone ledge in uninterrupted silence, not to be disturbed by any harsh city sounds for hours; your mind drained off all the toxic residues of a hyperactive life of buying and consuming. The deep silence of the hallowed place came as a soothing balm to my fevered mind torn apart reluctantly from a bustling urban context.

JS or Jaydeep Sarangi was the author of this fantastic getaway for me, an offbeat place offering a chance of new kind of experience. He is a young bilingual poet, critic and literary editor from West Bengal. Medinipur, to be precise, and is visiting me in Mumbai for the first time. It was his idea to visit the world-famous heritage caves, going back, he said, like an operator of religious tourism to a mesmerized me, to thousands years of deep solitude and isolated meditation done by the ascetics in these roughly-hewn humble cells. A must-see, he said simply, leaving nothing to argue.

As a good host, I initially tagged along, an unwilling partner, in this quest of a different type. But the scene around me appeared pleasing. The air was thick with the dust from the ceased ages. One step and you were hurtled headlong into a different milieu. I stood on the borderland of the immediate transient moment and a remote episode cast in stone. The sensation was a bit electrifying, I must say. The ruins looked tempting, affording a peep into the cultural past read in the tedious history textbooks so far.  But I was a little hesitant also in venturing into these dark structures. The reason is Freudian — the unconscious.

Caves have never appealed to me. The subterranean forbidding structures, dark and damp, deep yawning orifices give me the creeps. I feel enclosed and trapped…in my mind, at least. In one of the early school picnics to a primitive vandalised site, I got trapped in one of the damp hollow caves that echoed every sound and magnified them hundred folds.

They were a chain of dark and damp caves, intersecting each other and delving as concentric circles deep in the womb of the tall wooded hill. Water dripped in some of the darker caves at the back, where an unescorted seven-year-old me had wandered, attracted by the raw mystery of those open wide and airy rooms with wide-stone ledges and inner staircases built into the walls. By accident, I lost my way, and wept in that scary gloomy empty vastness visited only by the howling winds. The silence was unnerving, till I was finally rescued by somebody desperate and panicked. I cannot recall now who it was. The vivid experience stayed on, instilling a fear of dark places. Even today, I cannot stand a lift with the solid steel doors; I prefer a lift with a collapsible channel. Claustrophobia makes me stay on the little projecting balcony of my eleventh-floor apartment in Colaba, Mumbai, for majority of the evenings, if I am early.

Somehow, the magic of this place starts playing on my citified mind. It has got rustic charm and refreshing unpolluted air. I look around and see the rock-cut caves in the background, suspended in time forever, where post-modern visitors try to scrape some spiritual truths from these old centers of meditation and art. Man does not live by bread alone. Somebody remarked once. I fully agree. There is a whole rich world existing beyond the standard sensual one. Some find it easily; some find it late in life. The only thing is that we have to make some efforts to find out this beckoning Lhasa on our own. If we do not, we miss out on a rare human opportunity of redemption and inner balance.


The sound intrudes on my rudimentary rumblings.

“There is a fifteen-foot –high Nataraja here. A marvelous statue! We must see that also.Nataraja is very special for me. He is the dancing god of the Hindus, an epitome of finer values, refined sensibilities. We must now go to the cave number sixteen. It is the largest monolithic structure in the world. It is called Kailasa temple. The pillars, the figures, the alcoves, the intricately-carved interiors are all magnificent art from a different age. Even the skeptics feel reverential inside the cave, the pull of the chanted mantras is so strong on our minds,” says JS.

I merely nod. Climbing the rough stone steps is extremely difficult for an obese and sedate businessman like me. I pant and heave and perspire; younger JS bolts up, reminding me of a playful deer cub on the loose in a verdant valley, leaping over the tree trunks and the singing springs, a mesmerizing combination of slow motion and grace, gamboling in an old forest illuminated by the rays of a hot summer sun.

I feel I am getting old and depleting fast. My swollen belly heaves up and down over my broad belt, tightly encasing my generous middle in large XXX blue jeans from California. While climbing those rude broad steps, I could still feel the expensive five-star brunch of chicken tikka and wine, now a liquid mélange, swirling and dashing repeatedly against my projecting ugly belly; the dead chopped chicken parts making me strangely queasy, in this upward climb for a feel of this otherworldly hermitage once walked by monks and ascetics — a sacred cove still largely insulated from the humdrum of a mad world of numbers and bank accounts, ledgers and rising corporate profits and falling losses or, vice versa, discussed over caviar in pricey hotels, in business dinners.

“You lost?” JS asks in his slightly musical tone. A typical tone that sounds sweet due to Bengali’s innate cadence. They roll the words in mouth and then expel the rolled-and-rounded words in a rapid fire sequence of quick sounds, achieving the dulcet auditory effect on human ear exposed to harsh traffic horns and harsher pop music at home. Kind of sensory poetry. The Sarangis are originally from Orissa. They left it four centuries ago for sonar Bengal and settled down in that land of songs and dance, music and rivers…now, they feel naturalised and a born-again true-blooded cerebral Bengali rather than an Oriya. (Excuse me, if I am playing on some cultural stereotypes. My experience with the bhadralok, the typical Bengali gentleman, is limited. I am writing what I think is the general feature of their community in this rush of images being recorded and recalled by my brain at this hour, this moment).

“You should have been a painter rather than a dealer of paints,” my friend JS says. Joking? I get no clue from his oval wheatish face. His is a kind face. The eyes are brown…and restless and searching. The face is topped with a mop of slightly wavy dark hair. He is tall, dusky and well-maintained. Hardly thirty-six and has authored sixteen books on art, criticism, poetry, literature…empty words for me.

We met on the Internet, became close and decided to meet in person. He came on a short visit to Mumbai, “to watch the rolling lazy Arabian Sea, the sand and sun, Tamasha theatre, and to eat hot local cuisines in the pouring rains at the Juhu sea shore.” Then, we decided to visit the caves and talk to the great Lord Shiva there in Ellora, some thirty kilometres or so away from Aurangabad in Maharashtra.

“The high statue shows the various dancing poses of a great dancing God whose gentle demeanor and stoic philosophy connects with millions across India and abroad,” said JS, in the first flush of dinner, in an expensive restaurant in Mumbai. “He is our collective aesthetic principle. He is an artist who creates works of art that are truthful and beautiful. He celebrates life in death and agonises over destruction, the great Nataraja. His creation is benign and the general welfare is the goal of his art. Rooted in cosmic reality, attached to worldly passions, yet detached from carnal sensuality, the Shiva is pure energy of a higher level; an enduring living symbol of the very best of  an old nation,” elaborated JS to me, in the authoritative voice of an Indian philosophy professor at Oxford.

I was into my fifth peg of rum. A roasted duck stared from a gleaming plate of an expensive China Restaurant in Colaba. Shiva made no remote connection with the cultural DNA of my psyche. Comte, yes! Croce, yes. My own culture was beyond me. All mumbo-jumbo to me and my English-educated boarding school sensibility. We must move beyond all this mythology. Somehow, at the end of a sumptuous dinner, I was committed to the entire project of finding the great Shiva for myself. And bringing him home for a cozy dinner.


The afternoon sun was pouring the golden molten lava on my bare skin. The yellow T-shirt stuck to my broad hairy back. To escape the heat, I entered the sanctum sanctorum of the cave sixteen…and, found the tall slim Shiva directly staring at me, his matted hair flying in the air, half-closed heavy-lidded fish eyes that immediately penetrated all my protective gear from a different culture and age, casting a sudden deep spell on my sweating corpulent body. His eyes were hypnotic. I felt rooted to the bare ground of the cave that was trod upon by millions of feet in the preceding centuries. I could see his eyes X-raying my body and scanning my dusty layered soul, layered with accumulated grossness of my indulging years of excesses. It was like the first ray of the sun lighting up the twisted roots of a gnarled tree.

Shiva Kailasa Temple Cave 16 Hindu Cave Ellora Caves India. Courtesy: Wiki

Suddenly, every other sound stopped…as if I had entered a soundless chamber. Absolute silence pervaded the hallowed space, cutting me off temporarily from the external world of phenomena. I was on a different plane. The spirit world. For the first time, I felt like floating in the air, a lightness of being hardly experienced by me during my adult life. The desires, the cravings, the baser instincts all ceased immediately. A powerful beam of white light came from some crevice and flooded my interiors in a surging wave.

I stood alone before the Lord. Then, the Nataraja, the first artist in the world, began his elevating performance witnessed by few blessed souls. The figure moved down from its perch of the centuries and began moving before my unblinking, wide-open eyes. The dance, documented by the rishis and few other evolved souls from a pristine age, started slowly. His legs were partly lifted, hands bent in a posture of sublime dance. His tall ascetic figure, alive, vexed his muscles of the feet, the anklets producing the honeyed harmonies, the Earth touched by the divine feet, trembled with the fluid cosmic energy. The dance began and I was entrapped in the frenzied movement. He whirled to the drum beat, his anklets tinkling. Then suddenly, the blue-throated, crescent-wearing, Ganges-carrying God stopped and smiled benignly at me…like an affectionate father. His eyes again fixed steadily on my flushed face. The figure became still and the statue of the Shiva grew perfectly immobile again. His face was still very luminous. The darkness within me felt illuminated by that glow. I was just speechless with wonder and elation.

My soul shed its gross outer layers and healed in that enclosed space in the shadow of the Nataraja. It was the great Shiva conceived as an artist, as dancer, originator of fine arts, the very essence of the finest principles of humankind, conceptualised some five thousand years ago by a thinking community of seers and visionaries. The great dancing god, strangely, had selected me for this holy communion: a mere mortal, a hedonist by any account; a flawed person finding life and meaning in a daily glass of red rum and a plate of meat, in a crowded bar in a fast and furious Indian metro, where everything was available, provided you had the right connections and lot of money. His eyes were still rested on me. I stood transfixed and alone on that memorable hot afternoon, facing the figure from a hoary past, feeling his beautiful mesmerizing eyes fixed upon me; the lips sending a telepathic message, in that lonely deserted cave. I was intoxicated with joy.

Once I was in Brazil and found myself electrified in the same way, while visiting the giant statue of the Christ the Redeemer, atop the Corcovado Mountain, in the violent city of Rio de Janeiro. The world-famous statue towered over the assembled awe-struck tourists. It was awesome. Nothing could beat that emotion.

I felt overwhelmingly small and puny, insignificant, a mere floating human atom in a vast universe, in the shadow of the giant statue of the white-robed Christ with outstretched hands, radiating unique peace. I saw people crying silently in the presence of the messiah.

I had experienced identical emotions while visiting the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a few years ago in Italy. The chattering groups of tourists fell silent in the hallowed precincts of the church. Inner peace flooded my clogged arteries. A strange kind of peace never experienced earlier, even if I had won a million-dollar deal or an international Rotary award. All my demons got driven out in an instant.

Even today, the beautiful and tender Madonna talks to me in a quiet corner of a Goan church on a rain-lashed morning, the tall palms swaying in the gray background, although I am a confirmed Hindu. The tranquility radiating from these icons affects me directly. Why? I have no plausible answers. Then there are the great art works of Raphael or da Vinci. The music of Beethoven. A strange serenity would overcome me. Here also, I felt the same. Suddenly composed and at peace. I was in the presence of a higher truth!

Have you ever visited the Jerusalem?

The cobbled streets, the Golgotha, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, the al-Aqsa mosque, form a strange rugged territory where, otherwise distrusting, conflicting Muslims, Christians and Jews, unite to find soul-foods in plenty, in scattered locations, in less hostile settings. The chemistry of Jerusalem is different from other cities. It can bring warring parties of a divided city into the folds of a common heritage of noblest teachings in the world and make them aware of the futility of aggressive hatred. The old city can bring tears to your eyes as every nook in it seeps with historical memories of different kinds.

History, myth, legend and faith come together in a heady mix for the travellers. The place, despite political rhetoric and violence, is founded on faith and consecrated with a common desire for peace and tranquility. The average people — the Arabs, the Christians and the Jews — feel overwhelmed by the strange magic of the city that has nourished three important religions of the world. And, most important, they find inner peace, poise and balance. They get centred internally by that pious experience. They feel transformative power of the teachings of the great men who had walked these dark alleys thousand years ago. Their quest for betterment ends and starts from there.

Ellora precisely did this to me. I had passed out in the cave, in the shadow of the Nataraja and woken up reborn…

What happened?” asked JS.

We were sitting in the small hotel, outside the premises. I narrated my incredible experience.

“The Shiva came alive before my eyes. It was marvelous!”

He paused. “I came and saw you reclining on the floor, in sleep, drenched in sweat. I thought you suffered a massive cardiac attack.”


“I sprinkled water on you. After ten long minutes, you woke up.”

I said nothing. I could still hear the drums and the anklets in my ears.

“This happens. Intensification of buried devotion. Sacred places can bring out this emotion. Euphoria. Reverence. When you see the first folio of Shakespeare or visit Stratford-upon-Avon, or, Yasyana Polyana, you get the same identical feeling in your brain.”

The drums receded in my ringing ears. “Yes. The Real Madrid. The Manchester United. The City Lakers. The ten number shirt in soccer. Things can be multiplied. Neuro-chemicals in the brain, etc…”

We sipped tea.

“Anatole France described this mood in his famous Juggler story.”

“Yes. And, Wilde, in his Selfish Giant. Dickens, in Christmas Carols.”

We said nothing. I was still in trance. Finally, we got up. On the way back, I saw a small Shiva statue being sold by the vendor, an old lady, near the main highway. I stopped and bought it, paying double the amount. It was a little Nataraja.

“You converted?” JS asked teasingly.

“Yes. You converted me. You told me about the Nataraja. He is beyond us.”

We started walking towards the hired taxi. “The gods are representations of the ethical. They teach us about the sacred, the beautiful, the elevating in life.”

JS nodded a yes. We stopped momentarily.

“The kinship is formed.”


“You, me and the Nataraja.”


“You told me about the Nataraja. The Nataraja taught me about the morality of living, the aesthetic side, the controlling of excess desires, the possibility of finding heaven on earth.”

And, we started moving again. The Shiva in my cotton shoulder bag. Yes, I was taking my kin, the great Shiva, the original artiste, to home for a cozy dinner and a cozy after dinner talk in my study or the little balcony. I was sure he would not leave me afterwards. After all, he was my kin. I know I can talk to him in private and pour out all my hurts, pain and anxieties. I know he will listen to me with understanding, without ridiculing or humiliating. He will listen like a good friend and tell me what to do…

Ellora has done the unbelievable to a battered body and a fevered mind thriving on competition and greed. It has made me reclaim my internal centre, balance and a soul. And, made me complete. My relationship with Him was unlike the other ones. It was not conditional and mercenary. I had found my liberation in an old stone statue in an old cave…simply because I had started to believe in things beyond commercial. Kin are those whom you can always relate and talk to… I intend to do just that with the Shiva in my home.


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.



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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


Last question.


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.”


“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.”


“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…”



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.