Categories
The Literary Fictionist

Bapu, Denied

By Sunil Sharma

The City of Concrete (CC) was all excited and discussing the new viral video of a man claiming to be the “Real Gandhi”.

The middle class hardly cared for surnames but anything viral got them talking. And this real vs. fake debate always made them social– quick WhatsApp exchanges of videos and messages, that is all of it, then moved on for other limited conversations, mainly digital.

In fact, the City did not care about history and heritage and trifles got them interested– who is eating what, how and where? Or wearing what and where? Or dating whom or where?

The CC grew inward-looking and obsessed with tech gadgets.

Smart phones were their portals to instant nirvana.

And viral videos, their mainstay of an urban narrow existence cramped in few hundreds of square meters in the vertical cages!

So, on a crisp morning of a holiday, the City got jolted by the new sensation of a man claiming to be authentic Gandhi left them intrigued.

But who is Gandhi, dude?

Here was this video of a somber old man with a magnetic persona– yes, you could feel the electrifying currents across the small mobile-phone- screens that affected you directly– the high-energy field, halo around the man that left you in thrall.

Incredible!

Within an hour, it was the top trending topic.

As per the recording, the man in round glasses and loin cloth, told some slum children that he was India’s Bapu.

The folks were initially dismissive and some die-hard skeptics openly cynical of this grandfatherly, scantily clad man, and told him rudely to go some other place and let them enjoy the off day.

The man was quite understanding and patient and asked them, “What day is this?”

An out-of-job guy replied gruffly, “October 2nd.”

The visitor persisted, “Why is it declared a national holiday?”

The folks, gathered under the bronze statue of a man with round glasses and walking stick, had no answer.

Then a child finally replied, “Wait! It is the birthday of the ‘Father of the Nation’.”

The stranger smiled, “Yes, son, you are right! It is my birthday.”

Thereupon, the wide-eyed child asked, “Are you that iconic Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who delivered us from slavery to the wily British through your philosophy of non-violence and satyagrah ?”

The old man smiled and said, “Yes, I am that Mohandas, an ordinary son of motherland, who was lucky enough to serve my country in most humble manner, with the loving support of my country.”

The child beamed and shouted, “Lucky me! Meeting the Apostle in person! My dream has come true!”

The child raised voice: “Mahatma Gandhi zindabad !”

Children of the poor neighbourhood repeated it as a feisty slogan.

The old man smiled and kept on walking fast across the broken city.

The children followed — and soon others joined the long procession.

It was huge!

People clicked the man who seemed to be walking on another fresh mission.

Soon the news spread.

Citizens came out of their customary slumber and started following the kind old man who, a bit pale, still retained a strange luminosity and a hypnotic pull over his simple beholders. The moment he had stepped into their middle from nowhere, the whole space was lit in a strange way. There was a certain spring in his gait and his walking stick shone like some royal emblem. His watch had an unearthly chime—mesmerizing!

His voice was strong, eyes steady, gait firm.

This dimension collapsing into the other dimension; this reality fused into that reality– that kind of thing!

History was coming alive — in an unpredictable way! A professor wrote.

A sole surviving freedom fighter remarked, the visitor reminded them of the aura of Mahatma Gandhi, in an odd way.

This Gandhi looked other worldly, ethereal but inspired confidence—and faith!

Bapu’s smile was pure and eyes and tone, gentle.

The CC got enthralled by the heavenly presence of Gandhi and the residents went wherever this person went.

The fever spread further.

The WhatsApp exchanges galvanized the sleepy city, and it turned into a mass event.

There were the loud and regular chants of “Bapu! Bapu! Bapu is back for his country—again! We love you, Bapu!”

People got hysterical at the sight of the frail man. Many openly wept and said, “We need you Bapu, in our empty lives as mere consumers. You have made us whole!”

The freedom fighter cried, “Bapu! Nobody cares for us here!”

Bapu smiled: “They will. Follow the moral compass. The world will listen.”

The freedom fighter said, “Yes, Bapu. I will teach students your philosophy.”

.

The City of Concrete was on fire.

A real hero had emerged from the darkness.

Everybody talked of Mahatma Gandhi only.

An antidote to the global doctrine of hate.

.

The municipal corporation was busy celebrating the birthday of the ‘Father of the Nation’ via sterile speeches and garlanding.

Initially the corporators thought that he was another look-alike walking the narrow streets this morning, an annual practice for few models but when apprised of his increasing popularity, the bunch of the city fathers grew apprehensive of a new threat to their base.

By mid-morning, the national media grew aware of a new sensation. A man who called himself the original Gandhi and was visiting the CC for a reality check.

.

Of course, the new-millennial young crowd had never bothered about history or India, and they were least interested in searching for a name and legacy that no longer resonated within a geography being redone for the malls and foreign outlets of food, clothes and entertainment. Plugged into their iPhones, the cool set ate burgers and pizza and sang Western songs, wearing baseball caps turned around, dressed up in sneakers and cotton-Ts and cargo pants, tattooed up and ears, pierced.

What hooked them was the unusual sight of a bare-chested man radiating terrific energy and calmness, kind of raw star power unseen so far in a media culture and thinking of the possibility of the 5-second fame in the clutter, the teens and young adults raced to the spot where Bapu was talking to the masses. They wanted to join the trending hash tag: #Seen with our Beloved Bapu! The crowds from outside CC kept on joining that famous historical frail figure full of steely resolve and power.

Meanwhile, media arrived in big numbers and the circus started. The loud reporters asked questions about this phenomenon, without a match. One teen said he saw the statue of Gandhi in the garden coming alive; another claimed he saw the statue walking down the street in animated condition, while other versions spoke of witnessing Gandhi floating on a cloud or descending from the air! The viral videos flooded the cyber space, and the world began reacting to another trend: #Bapu, Alive!

#New Messiah of Love! Another trended.

Love Triumphs Finally! Wrote another on her blog: Young Nation.

.

The local leaders got unduly alarmed: Who is this pop figure? His minute-by-minute-increasing fandom and heavenly persona posed a problem. The cops were dispatched.

Bapu was brought before the Wise Council.

One of the senior leaders asked: “How can you be Bapu?”

Bapu asked calmly: “And why can’t be I?”

Leader: “Because you died many years ago…”

Bapu: “When did I die? I never did. Hatred can never win. I live on…”

The leader fumbled: “But, we are told you died, years ago. How can you be re-born?”

“Ideas never die. They live on. Faith revived me.”

The leader nodded.

Bapu smiled: “Do you really know me?”

“Yes, Bapu.”

“Any idea about the incident at Pietermaritzburg station? The year 1893? June 7?”

The leader did not know anything. He looked like an idiot.

Bapu said calmly: “A leader must know the history of their nation. Lead by example. By honesty. Simplicity. Ethically. Remain connected to the fellow citizens. Create a legacy of love and ahimsa! Understand?”

The leader nodded again, crestfallen before this luminous being, beyond the pale of death.

Bapu left smiling. Huge crowds waited outside.

“Gandhi is alive!” They shouted. “He has come back for his children!”

.

The Great Leader was woken up.

The media in-charge, a seasoned man handling information technology cell of the party, reported the developments that could cast a shadow on the Tall Leader.

The Great Leader replied: “Do not worry!”

“But Saab!” croaked the sycophant.

“Listen!” commanded the Tall Leader.

“Yes, sir!”

“The surest way to neutralize is to institutionalize them.”

“Sir!”

“Ritualize their memory!”

“Sir!”

“And re-write history.”

“Sir.”

“And…”

“And? Sir?”

“The best way is to erase history by making it ugly, unreadable and unproductive!”

The Tall Leader chuckled and disconnected.

.

Glossary:
Satyagrah — Using truth to non-violently resist abuse

Zindabad — Long live

Ahimsa — Non-violence

Sunil Sharma is an academic and writer with 22 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

The Return of a Ghost

By Sunil Sharma

A Dhaba or roadside eatery. Courtesy: Creative commons

“Ghosts are required for the post-industrial society!”

“Why?”

“Like the spectres of art, philosophy and heritage. Great artists continue to survive mortality. In ideas. Via ideas. Clothed in them.”

“Hmm!”

“Skeptical.”

“I am a born skeptical.”

“Well, in that case, I can tell you about the return of a ghost.”

“Return of a ghost! That must be the province of Hollywood!”

“No, not at all!”

“Then?”

“It happened in India. In my own town.”

“Hmm!”

They were sitting in a corner of a popular dhaba called New Delhi Café, off the national highway NH 24. The golden fields of ripe wheat lay stretched before them on this lazy afternoon, other side of the road.

A thin boy served them thick-milk tea in kulhads, along with fried pakodas.

“When will the van arrive?” the female asked.

“In an hour,” the male said.

“What should I do here?”

“Enjoy the scenery,” the male said. “The ambience. Feel of the country.”

“Hmm. OK. Tell me the tale.”

“Which one?”

“Of the return of the ghost…”

“Well, I will tell you about the spectre of Surendra.”

“Who was he?” she asked, watching the heavy traffic.

“I will give you the back story first. Here it goes like this. Surendra was a man who had come to claim in the evening of his life that he represented democracy, nation and the republic.”

“What?!”

“Yes. You heard right.”

“How is it possible, yaar! Preposterous!” she exclaimed, while munching the pakodas.

The male smiled. Sipping the tea, he replied, “Indeed! The people were shocked initially. The cops came and took him away, the well-read man from his village to some place, considering the old man as a threat…”

“Oh! So common!”

“Yes.”

“What happened then?”

“He was not to be seen afterwards. His family vanished from their ancestral home.”

“Sad! Is it not?”

“Yes, it is. Entire family suddenly uprooted. Honest lives disrupted.”

“Go on.”

“Well. After a few months, Surendra’s ghost was seen…”

“Is it?”

“Yes. Seen by some. The ghost quoted Gogol!”

“Gogol!”

“Yes, Gogol.”

“Must be a learned man.”

“He was a good reader and aware of his rights. He wanted to make fellow villagers aware that they, too, were like him – representatives of a democracy and the republic but the majority scorned this idea, while others supported the prophet of a dumb age!”

“Correct!”

“After few sightings, the cops said these were rumours.”

“They might be right.”

“No. They were not.”

“How?”

“Because I met the ghost of Surendra.”

“What?!” Her kulhad slipped down her dainty hand, eyes wide in shock.

He smiled. Lit up his cigar. Drew in the smoke, rolled it in his mouth and then expelled the rich smoke.

The duo, sitting on the cots, watched the highway. Overloaded trucks were moving in a slow line. There was chill in the breeze.

After a long silence, the male resumed, “Here, it goes…the encounter with the spirit on that memorable early evening, few miles down this highway, near the river; an unusual event in a liminal space, experienced by few mortals…”

The man had materialised suddenly and stood beside the man with the camera taking pictures of the quiet countryside, and a shrunken river meandering down, as a thin strip of dull silver, towards the railway bridge in the distance. He stood near the photographer and watched the sun set from the motor bridge, like an old companion. The photographer paid no attention to the stranger who looked a bit pale and odd in appearance. A dog barked somewhere in a field nearby, as the vehicles passed over the long bridge. But the latter was used to such silent visitors—country folks being outgoing and friendly, even chatty. He took shots of a passing train; the rising fires from the crude camp of nomads, near the right bank.

It was a bleak scene.

But sun sets and rivers fascinated him. He often got down from his bike for taking pictures. Preserving some Instagram moments!

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” The stranger said, talking in general.

“That is Seneca!” the photographer exclaimed, now looking closely at this rustic man of indeterminate age and hollow voice.

“Yes, Seneca.”

“How do you know the Stoic?” the photographer asked. “Seneca in this rural area?”

The stranger coughed. A muffled voice came out, “Not every villager is illiterate. You will find fools in educated cities.”

His voice came as hollow, something metallic that echoed on the stale air.

“I did not mean to offend you, sir. Just curious.”

The stranger nodded. “Sharing thoughts with a man who carries his Seneca in the backpack. I, too, loved On the Shortness of Life.”

The photographer was floored. “Great! Nice meeting you, Mr…?”

“Surendra Kumar.”
“Hi! I am Daniel.” He offered his hand but Surendra did a Namaste.

They stood there watching the sun plunge down into the waters of a choked river. A song wafted forth from the camp of the gypsies—a rich male voice lamenting the passing of youth and a love unrequited. The dholak, bansuri and dhak could be clearly heard in the open-air mehfil there–fascinating concert! The riverside. Gathering dusk. Cool breeze of early November. Pungent smells of food being cooked on earthen stoves there and a tribe of nomads, taunting the civilization and its materialistic possessions, by its unsettled ways of living on the outskirts of cities for centuries.

“Simple folks, often demonized by the urban imagination.” Surendra remarked in a raspy voice.

Daniel nodded. “You are right! We try to demonize everyone that does not fit into our limited and relative ways of looking at the wider things.”

“Woes of civilization!” Surendra said. “A faulty civilization that outlaws those who are defaulters. The ones that prefer to be non-compliant with its codes.”

Daniel was surprised. “Amazing! Where do you live? Nearby?”

Surendra smiled. The yellow face cracked a bit. “In a village, some fifty miles away from this place.”

“Here, visiting?”

The frail figure croaked, “Often I haunt the highway.”
“Oh! Poetic!” Daniel remarked. “How do you travel from your village?”

“Astral paths are many and open for spirits!”

Daniel laughed. “You write poetry?”

“No but I know the provinces travelled by the poetic minds, my friend.”

“Impressed! I am impressed.” Daniel replied.

“Come, let us sit on the bank for some time.” Surendra spoke in his hollow voice.

Must be a terrible smoker, thought Daniel. They went down the bridge and sat on the bench, few feet away from the river. The promenade was deserted at this hour.

Across the turgid waters, a pyre crackled ferociously. Few mourners there, some leaving slowly the burning ghat.

“Death! What a grim reality!” Daniel exclaimed. “Total cessation. Nothing left. Except some bones and dust!”

Surendra seemed not to agree, “There are realms beyond the reach of the yellow fingers of death, my friend!”

“Now you sound a true philosopher, sir! I am enjoying.”

Surendra was silent. Then: “Death is not final destination! Ask Orpheus. Or Lazarus!”

“Then what happens? Where do we go from here?”

“Well…there are spaces where this and that world meet to cohabit.”
“Is it so?”

“Yes.”
“How do you know for sure?”
“Because, my friend, I am a denizen of such realms.”

“Is it? Daniel laughed. “Funny man!”
“I speak the truth. There are few takers for truth these days!”
“Right. Absolutely right. Nice talking to somebody bright, after such a long time!”

“Certain encounters are destined.”
“Oh! Yeah. Absolutely.”
“Like Hamlet the King meeting Hamlet, the Prince.”
“Oh, my God! You are full of cultural references and profundity.”

Surendra replied, “Friends are chosen by fate. You are one of the chosen.”
“How?”
“To listen to the message from the other side of reality…”

“And what is that message?” Daniel played along. “All ears!”

“Certain dimensions lie beyond the physical. Once shed the mortal coil, the other dimensions come into the play…”
“What are these dimensions?”
“When you are dead, yet alive.”

“No. Not possible!”

“Mere transformation of energy. From one form to another. You continue to live beyond the daily prison of your body…”
“How can it be?”

“It is like ideas. Ideas continue to operate beyond their originators. Seneca dies yet lives!”
“A paradox!”
“Yes. The paradox of a civilisation obsessed with the real, the tangible, the objective,” continued Surendra. “As said by the Bard: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’  Remember the famous lines?”

“Sure! Your high-school Shakespeare! Well, I will say, it is getting curiouser and curiouser!”

“There are things that an eye cannot see. Transcendental things. Truths that reside in the non-physical states. Only artists, mystics and philosophers can comprehend.”

“It is heavy-duty stuff for me.” Daniel chuckled.

“Not at all, Daniel,” the man observed, while strays barked a mile down the embankment, as the shadows thickened.  The gypsy singer broke into another throaty song, the snatches heard over the wind:

The hungry skies have
Devoured the full moon.
Go back to the camp early!
The dark harbours dangers
On the way, maiden fair
and the
Dead may visit tonight!

“We tend to live on forever in our words and legacies, dear Daniel. When I hear a Ghalib being recited with a full heart, on a full moon night, in a corner room, the poet comes alive for me. Yes, get resurrected in a shadowy form. Real presence evoked through words or visuals or film! That is the power of the cultural things to summon the dead and make them re-born, for few minutes, for you!”

Daniel nodded, distracted by the song:

Beware, innocent girl!
The ghosts are around
The night is dark.
Do not trust the shadows, 
O, pure one!
The dead want to talk to a fair maiden
And steal her gypsy heart!

The music increased in tempo and other singers joined, a few males danced, while some women clapped and also sang—a happy group. Daniel smiled…

“What happened afterwards?” asked the female. They were travelling in the van. The highway was crawling with cars headed towards Delhi. Soft music played on in the interiors smelling of new holster and tobacco. The young driver was humming along.

“The end was equally fascinating!” the male said.

“Tell me…a long journey ahead!” insisted the female.

“The gypsies!”

“Yes. The gypsies there…”

“They are the Original People.”

“What is that?” asked Daniel. “Come, let us see their dance.”

Surendra walked along lightly. “These are the wanderers who could see the other worlds.”
“Like?”

“The ghosts, the gods, the realms intangible discussed in arts but now lost.”

“Absolutely!”
“These tribes straddle an innocent age and the post-industrial age as a bridge.”
“Excellent!” Daniel remarked.

“As certain peoples can still see the elves, these diminishing tribes can see the fairies and spirits–the other universe.”

“Right. I agree.”

As the duo approached the camp on a rising ground, off the dirt road, facing the river, their dogs barked furiously and then became quiet. The dancers kept on dancing before the rude bonfires.

“Daniel, remember, certain ghosts are necessary. The unredeemed souls, ideas. They continue to guide the present. If exorcised and finally forgotten by collective amnesia, then that civilization is doomed to die soon…”

As Daniel entered the outer ring of the camp, an elder beckoned him inside the circle. The gypsies welcomed him as one of their home. He sat down on the cot and watched them sing and dance.

Then he remembered his companion. “Where is my friend?”

The elder said, “There was nobody with you, Babu!”

Daniel just stared around.

No trace of Surendra. A mild mist swirling around…

“So how did you know that he was Surendra?” the female asked.

“Because, next day I came across a news item on an online site about Surendra and his haunting in that area. It was titled: The Ghost of a Democrat Citizen!”

“Ha, ha-ha!” the female laughed. “You must be fictionalising again Daniel.”

“No, darling! I am not a writer.”

“That is precisely the point. A writer can be dismissed for using fiction. However — not those who do not write but produce fantastic tales!”

Daniel smiled but did not reply…

.

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).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

The Chained Man Who Wished to be Free

By Sunil Sharma

Prometheus Bound, charcoal by Christian Schussele. Courtesy: Creative Commons

When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

— Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

.

Surendra was firm.

So were they.

“You are mistaken,” said Raghu.

“No. I am not.” Surendra replied. “You are mistaken.”

“You are free! Free to move around and visit any place of your choice. Nobody can stop you. Nobody is stopping you. Inside or outside. Doors are open. Go for a stroll. You will realise this freedom. Why do you keep on saying this, father,” said the eldest son, while others listened and nodded.

“No, I am not free here—elsewhere. This is the truth. I am in chains. I carry them as a heavy burden, everywhere.”
“Why do you say that dear brother?” asked Mukesh. “Your son is trying to make you understand that there are no chains around you. But you are adamant…and wrong.”

“Where am I wrong, Mukesh? You know me better.”

“Sorry, bro! But you are wrong.”

“How?”

“You say you are chained.” Mukesh replied patiently. “There are no chains. Look around — no chains. It is your illusion only.”

“It is a fact, Mukesh. I am in chains. Trust me, please,” said Surendra calmly. “I mean it. Every word. You know I never tell lies.”

A collective sigh!

Surendra was his usual composed self. Tall and dignified, he sat on the edge of the bed, in a meditating pose. A subtle aura made him appear otherworldly, a sage, among the philistines.

They sat for long. The distant forest could be glimpsed from an open window, a mass of soft shadows.

Raghu bent a look at his uncle.

“What nonsense, bro! You are totally free. I assure you. Absolutely free.” Mukesh broke the stalemate. “You are a well-read man. Why are you tormenting yourself and the rest of us? Please stop believing this wrong notion. You have always been logical. Now, come on. Walk with me to the nearest hotel on the highway. Nobody will stop you from moving around. I repeat, it is a free country!”

“Uncle is right. For the last three hours, we have been trying to prove the simple fact that you are not in chains. It is only a delusion! Come out of that, please, father and spare us this stressful drama.” Raghu pleaded with folded hands.

Surendra was unmoved: “That is the sad part!”

“What?”

“That my chains cannot be seen by my own son!”

“Please! Do not start again this argument now. It is a democracy in which all of us are free. That is it. Final! I do not want to argue on a given. Period.”
“You are a fool. You are in chains, too, invisible chains but you don’t realize that, right now, like the silent majority. Living under the greatest illusion. That is it.”

Raghu gave his father a resigned look, “No point in talking further about this. Nobody can convince you. I am done.”

Raghu got up to leave.

“Fool! You will realize this fact soon.”  Surendra said quietly. “It took me all these years to understand this simple and fundamental truth! We are all in chains in a free country! That is the biggest irony of human condition globally!”

Raghu did not engage with him. He exited, along with others, into the courtyard.

Ma waited there.

“Wastage of time and energy. Refuses to listen to reason. Stubborn as usual. He has never listened to me anyway. The fact is that he does not want to see reason. If not insane, he is not sane, either!”

Ma nodded. “I knew it from the beginning. Married to a top-class nut. Told you also many times. You never believed. Now face it.”

“He was a graduate, first in the community. Mad guys do not finish a B.Com with a first class,” replied Mukesh agitatedly. “Our mother said you drove him crazy. He was an intelligent man who did a lot to the extended family but you and your constant nagging made him mad.”

Ma retorted, “Defending the elder brother, as usual. You all gang up on me — mother-in-law, five brothers-in-law and two nasty sisters-in-law, all these years.”

The brother glowered. Ma glowered back. Mukesh muttered something and left in a huff.

Raghu and others met again, late night, to discuss ways of avoiding a possible public embarrassment of a rational, law-abiding, articulate man going mad in the autumn of his life, for no apparent reason.

It was a big mystery — his absurd claim of being in chains.

They discussed, debated but were unable to figure out the apparent trigger for such an odd behavior of the patriarch.

“We must act fast. The village should not learn that he has lost his mind,” Raghu said. “It will be great shame!”

They agreed to take him to the mental hospital the next afternoon on some ruse.

The gods willed it otherwise.

The village learnt about Surendra’s madness, very next morning, in a most dramatic manner. The author of this revelation was none other than a composed Surendra announcing it in the morning in the public square.

.

“You all are chained! Listen to me. Break your chains, you fools!”

Surendra shouted at the top of his voice.

People came out and watched, curious by the sudden transformation of a much-lauded supervisor in a textile factory in Kolkata, who had moved to Delhi, after the textile mills had closed down and driven taxi and finally owned three, in the Capital for two decades—saved money in the process, raised a large family and returned home in the village in Bihar to spend remaining years in the shadow of his ancestors. Surendra had renovated his old property in the village still mired in poverty. He taught children from the low-income families English and Math. A well-respected son of the soil who was not claimed by the city, like many others, and had returned to his roots.

At the moment, he appeared the usual self– calm, composed, dressed in simple cotton shirt and trousers, all white, and a pair of sandals. He wore a white Gandhi cap and spoke in measured tones.

As more crowd gathered near him, with children jostling for space and better view, he climbed a pile of crates, outside a grocer’s shop and addressed the audience in his familiar baritone: “Hear the truth! Be liberated!”

An old man asked lightly, “Okay. Give us the truth.”

Surendra smiled and said, “You ready for the shock?”

“Yes. We are.” The old man said. “Nothing surprises us anymore.”

Others chorused a big yes.

“Listen then, old man. This will surprise you a lot…” here he trailed off, building up suspense. Surendra surveyed the crowd and exhaled.

They waited for the fun.

Surendra looked again at the assembly of friends and neighbours and declared loudly: “Listen! The Truth. You are all shackled. All in chains!”

The old man was taken aback. “What? Are you drunk?”

Surendra laughed. “The drunk do not tell the truth. They spill secrets, after a peg too many.”

“That is also the truth,” countered the old farmer who had once stood for local elections. “The drunken truth. It also reveals things.”

“Truth is much higher than the alcohol-induced revelation.”

A murmur went around. Some youngsters jeered at the pompous man standing atop his perch, like a self-appointed guru.

“Fools! I give you the truth and you laugh at me!”

They laughed more.

“There is more.”

“What is that?” the old farmer demanded. “More truths!”

“I am the republic!” declared Surendra. “I am the democracy.”

This made the crowd laugh uproariously.

“He is out of mind,” said a neighbor. “How can a common citizen be the republic and democracy?”

“He always thought in grand terms,” said a school chum. “Treated himself as superior to rest of us!”

They laughed and some repeated derisively, “Hey, Republic! Hey, Democracy!”

“Tomorrow he will say he is the President of the Great Banana Republic!” said the chum.

“And day after, he will be the God!” observed the old farmer.

Surendra did not flinch. “Fools! You do not understand. You, too, are the republic and the democracy.”

They jeered again. “He is the Government.”

“Yes. I am the government.” Surendra shouted at the top of his voice. “I am a citizen — and everything. The basic unit. The fuel that keeps the system going.”

The crowd began enjoying the show.

“You are the government?” They asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“Then solve the problem of poverty, my government.” The farmer mocked.

“Who is the government?” A burly inspector asked in a husky voice. He had joined the crowd few seconds earlier. The crowd made way for the new arrival, haughty and walking with a swagger.

“This old villager says he is the new government,” said the school chum sarcastically.

“And the republic and democracy.” Added the old farmer with glee. “See his arrogance, audacity, a common man claiming to be the government!”

The inspector was amused. “Did you say that, old man?”

Surendra showed no fear. “Yes, I did.”

“What did you say?” the inspector asked. “Say it again.”

“I am a citizen.”

“Right.”

“I am the republic.”

“Wrong.”

“Why?”

“Because I am saying that — the police officer who is the real government. My word is last.”

“You are a mere pawn in the power game.”

“Let it be but I am the real government of this area.”

Surendra was patient and then said quietly, “Let it be. Anyway, I repeat, I am a citizen, the republic, the democracy and the government.”

The crowd laughed. They were enjoying the show now.

The inspector was amazed by the bold assertion. “How dare you?’

“Dare what?”

“How dare you call yourself the democracy, the republic and the government?” blazed the inspector.

“And why not? Why cannot I claim that?” persisted Surendra.

“A puny citizen! A low-life — that is what you are — nothing else.”

“Why low-life, inspector? I am the basic unit, like you, of the democracy.”

“So you say you are the government?” the cop jeered.

“Yes. I am. Part of the elected government.”

The crowd clapped for the puny man facing the cop.

The inspector replied, “That is going too far. I have to arrest you…”

“For what crime?”

“For anti-government stand. Being a grave threat.”

Surendra laughed. “Do I look like a threat? An old man standing in the square? How do I constitute a threat to the mighty state?”

The inspector scratched his bald head, pondered and then said, “I say so. I am the authority to decide that.”

“Then you are abusing your office,” replied Surendra.

Surendra’s statement surprised the fat officer. He thought and then said, “Enough! You are proving to be a danger to the security of the country. You are a public enemy number one. I arrest you for inciting people.”

He clapped the handcuffs on Surendra who said nothing.

People mocked him: “The new government goes in handcuffs!”

Surendra smiled and declared, “Fools! If truth leads to arbitrary arrest, you too, are under threat. I am ready to die for my convictions, my truth, which is the universal truth. The real government is always the public!”

Now few youngsters began shouting, “He is right. We are the real power, the voters. He is right!”

A carload of tourist was passing by. They stopped and filmed the scene. There was a local journalist and a lawyer who demanded an explanation from the cop: “How can you arrest a citizen for claiming that he is the legit democracy?”

The crowd was split into two camps: pro- and anti-police.

The seasoned cop understood the gravity of the situation and the volatile mood of the frustrated masses. He was one pitted again a crowd that might question his ways.

The man in khaki dialed a number desperately. Soon two jeeps arrived and took the disruptor to the police station, 10 miles away, followed by a large crowd and the carload of tourists. Within hours, the video began circulating and became viral. Foreign press caught on. Then the national press arrived and parked itself outside the police station.

The inspector refused to budge. “He is a public enemy number one, out to destroy the general peace and to incite people against the state by his bizarre claims of being the State, Democracy and Republic. A real danger to the legitimacy of an elected government. He needs to be kept behind the bars for the sake of peace and order.”

As the “Free Surendra, the Citizen” drive spread within 24 hours, the cops secreted him away to some other place, and, he was never seen again.

Some said he died due to torture. Others said Surendra was put in a maximum security jail in an island. Others claimed he was offered money and land by an opposition party to run on a ticket against the ruling party member.

The opinion was divided: Surendra, the Mad vs. Surendra, the Prophet: The former challenged the status quo and the latter revealed the plain truth to an unbelieving public!

Meanwhile, Surendra’s joint family had gone underground.

As happens in such viral cases, public memory being short, the world soon forgot Surendra  and moved on with other viral videos about crazy dancers, weddings and stars spotted in the public.

Videos that excited the popular imagination.

Surendra and his disappearance no longer mattered.

After all, he was nothing — a zero.

Add zeros — and you become millions! He had once declared.

Sadly, he was ignored.

The thing did not end so tragically, however.

…on moonless cold nights, the ghost of Surendra could be seen in many locations, breaking his big chains and occasionally heard muttering — some said — two Russian names: Akaky Akakiyevich Bashmachkin and  Gogol. After such sightings, the witnesses too, began mimicking his action and wanted to break out of their chains.

But who knows? These can be urban legends.

Fiction.

Or truth. In these days of doctored versions, it is difficult to decide on such matters…

.

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).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

Scarecrow

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).

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
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.”

“So?”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Then?”

“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.

“Doc?”

“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?”

“No.”

“I see.”

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

“No.”

“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…?”

“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.

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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).

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
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.”

“Why?”

“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).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
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

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(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!

(Silence.)

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

forever!

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

forever!

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.

Chorus:

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.

Character:

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!

Chorus:

Then it is adieu!

Few years more

And it will be all a fading memory—

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

Adieu!

Exit all.

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Glossary:

Sahiban-kadradan: Valued patrons

Mohalla: colony

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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).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
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!

Creepy!

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.”

“Friends?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“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.

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.

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. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
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. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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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?”

“Aisha.”

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.

“Iqbal.”

“Muslim?”

“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.

“Age?”

“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.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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…

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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. 

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL