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The Literary Fictionist

Missing

By Sunil Sharma

Man Crying Out, Rembrandt (1606-1669) Courtesy: Creative Commons

The December morning came with a shock.

Pa was not in his room. It was crisp morning and the air brittle in your numb figure. There were raindrops glistening on the windowpane and on the treetops and the telephone poles. The cold hit you hard and your exposed skin felt like a reptile was crawling on it. It was as if your insides were being sliced with a cold dagger.

A Russian landscape, almost, that is typical of a Chekhovian story!

Bright, yet dismal!

Or Hemingway. Maybe.

The tall eucalyptus trees rose majestically in the distance. A clump of white, slender-waisted eucalyptus, half-a-mile away, near the shallow strip of river, swaying in the wind.

The silvery face of the river threw off a white haze. A few mud houses stood here and there. Vegetable fields ran down to the river edge, all green and rich, in the brilliant sun.

This side of the house, it is urban sprawl. That side, at the back, the country. This, ugly. That one, enchanting. The house he was standing in stood on a rising ground, all three-storied, of red brick, part completed, part painted, dwarfing other one-roomed houses of the small colony, recently sprung up, like the twisted innards, in an area, where basic amenities are as foreign as hunger is to the rich.

He surveyed the illogically constructed and misshapen houses where dirty and ill-clad children, nose running and feet bare, were playing, in the dust and garbage, with great gusto and abandon.

This house could not house a gentle soul! The man who spent his hard earnings in turning this dream into reality!

But where would Pa go?

The room, as usual, was very clean. The bed was made, the sheets smooth, the pillows neatly laid, the quilts neatly piled up. The English papers were kept in a corner. The bed was not slept in, at least, by the looks of it. The bookcases were lined with books — majority on philosophy and language, criticism and fiction. In English.

The soul had deserted the room!

“The aim of literature, good literature, mind it my boy, is to give courage, moral courage, to give insights into the nature of reality, the world,” a faraway look so typical of such encounters, “the courage to come to terms with life. To sort out the mess… to straighten up the whole twisted-up thing-life. What religion could not do, good literature does. It tells you about persons, the world, time…. A good artist is the seer…. Mad for conventional society but sane for the followers. Van Gogh, for example, and his sunflowers…”

During such moments, Pa looked unearthly. A halo appeared behind his head, the face dark in the erupting blinding light, the voice coming from clouds. He belonged to a different realm.

Is Pa an angel in human form?

How articulate!

So calm!

Looking at someone invisible, having a dialogue with that force, a dialogue liberating!

Pa communes with the spirits!

“Yes”, says he, “the dead speak. Through the mist of centuries. They come to me in dreams.”

He, the listener, is mesmerized. He cannot figure out the why of it.

But he looks and listens. Pa is majestic. Regal. Tall, thin. Fine face.

A straight nose. Thin full lips. A pair of piercing brown eyes. A rich husky voice. An erect posture. Commanding attention. That is the sum total.

Pa.

Cogito ergo sum. That is my philosophy.” Pa declared.

When he decides, he can be vocal. Very articulate. Precise.

Otherwise, he can be an iceberg.

Brooding. Off limits.

They had many animated discussions. Prod him on his favourite topic and he would be all animation. Gesturing. Eyes rolling. Hands moving up, down. Voice rising and falling.

“Nobody writes good literature. A soul companion in hours of solitude. Where are the Tolstoys, Romain Rollands, Hemingways, Nerudas in the 80s and 90s of the world? Human spirits speak through them. Now it is exhaustion. Personal idiosyncrasies. Language experiments”. He was dismissive. Hurt. Bitter. Literature had abdicated the messianic role. The artist celebrates a personal hell. What a climb down!

A reversal shocking. Market has ruined everybody.

Could Pa, this man of steel, desert us like this? Disappear?

He could not make any sense out of this sudden exit of Pa.

He returned to the room. It reflected the neatness of its occupant. A cold blast came from the narrow corridor adding to the silence of the room. Chilling! The wind ruffled up a stock of papers. The hissing sound unnerved him. He went out and down to the living room on the ground floor. The family was gathered up there. When he entered, they became quiet. He looked at them. They were lost in their own worlds. He thought he was intruding upon a private moment. He got up gingerly, without being obvious.

“Where are you going, Rajesh?”

It was Uttam, his eldest son.

“Just for a smoke,” he said.

“Any clue? Letter?” Uttam said without any conviction.

“No.”

“Where can Pa go?”  asked Raman, the second son.

“Only God knows.” Uttam said dully.

Their wives and children stared blankly. Two more neighbours dropped in.

“What happened?” asked one old lady. “Nothing.” Uttam said with a note of finality.

“He ate his dinner. Watched the 10 P.M. news. Read a book till 11:30 pm and then retired,” said Raman, voice devoid of emotion.

“Very strange!” The lady exclaimed.

It was a quest for Rajesh now. He went to Amol Shrivastava. The retired man was alone in the flat, sipping tea and reading morning paper. He answered the bell on the third ring. They went out into the small balcony. The news surprised the old man.

“I met him yesterday,” said the old man. “He was cheerful. We went for our regular walk of three miles. He was pretty jovial. I cannot believe it.”

They were quiet for some time.

“I also cannot believe it,” Rajesh said. A healthy man suddenly disappeared without any clues. He was not depressed. Went for a morning walk. It was very confusing!

“When did they discover his absence?” Shrivastava asked, his lined forehead a furrow of crisscrossing lines.

“At about six. The youngest daughter-in-law went to his room with tea. He was not there. She left the tea there. An hour later, she returned. The cup was still there. Untouched.”

“Hmm!” grunted the retired accountant. “She raised the alarm,” Rajesh said. They had searched the house, the neighbourhood. Pa had left no trace.

“Maybe he went for a long walk!” Amol said, the voice drained of any feeling. “It is almost eleven now,” said Rajesh. “A man cannot walk that long!”

“Umm!” grunted Amol.

“A man cannot walk out like this, on a bitter winter morning, wearing a woolen sweater, a shawl, shoes, with little money and vanish just like that! It sounds ridiculous.”

‘Right.” agreed Amol. A man cannot!

‘Why did he do it then?” Rajesh asked.

“Was there any quarrel in the family?” Amol inquired.

“Not. as far as I know.”

“I cannot guess, either.” Amol said in a tired voice.

“Did he ever say anything about his family?” queried Rajesh.

“Never.” Amol answered. “He was very happy with his two sons, their wives. With his three daughters and their husbands. His wife, you know, expired ten years ago. He never complained.”

They fell quiet.

“I cannot figure it out,” Rajesh said, “a man suffering from nothing, apparently very happy, healthy, leaves his own house. And at the age of 63, to top it all. It is absurd!”

His next stop was the college. Some of his colleagues greeted the news with bewildered looks. A.N. Jha, a lecture in English, was unable to believe the fact.

“He is not that type!” exclaimed Jha. “He can never run away this way. I met him three days go in a literary function. We chatted for an hour. There was no sign of any stress or depression. And why should he? His sons were settled. Daughters married. He led an active life. He retired as a lecture in English. He was well known in the town. A great scholar. And a fighter. I mean I cannot believe it at all!”

“Jha Saab is right,” Trivedi from the department of Psychology spoke. “He was a healthy person. Social and outgoing. Affectionate. A hard worker. He can never do such a thing!”

Others also joined in.

The Pa that emerged from this group discussion was the Pa he had admired: strong, heady, realistic, with deep convictions, widely read, honest. A great intellect who was largely ignored in media and university circles of Delhi because of his roots in a small town that was a satellite of a hot, buzzing Delhi with its palace intrigues.

Apart from two books, he never published anything in a long and beautiful academic year. Since these two books were on Marxism, very scholarly and difficult for the pseudo, the Left also was miserly in its recognition of a small-town intellectual. Most of the Left travelled in cars, lived in big houses in south Delhi, worked in the university and had their books published by major publishing houses and went to London, Paris or Moscow. The town was still painfully feudal and backward where goons and the police and the rich ruled, where casteism, in the year 1999, was deeply entrenched in the social consciousness, despite the arrival of pizza huts, MacDonalds, Hondas.

Pa worked against all this with workers and peasants — worked for a dream in a world without Berlin Wall, U.S.S.R., for a unipolar world without boundaries; a world where a young student no longer read Capital but invested his small capital in an Archie card and gave it as a valentine to a demure lower-middle-class girl in the college corridors. In this world eating spring rolls or burgers and drinking Pepsi was more ‘happening thing’ than taking part in the student protests. Where the only ideology was myself and my world. “The whole world is getting Americanised. Third world, too quickly, I am afraid. The MacDonald culture is everywhere. The Walt Disney culture. The dollar culture. American businessmen should be congratulated. They have made all of us Yankees, without any force or coercion. We are Yankee with our brown, black and yellow skins. Is it not marvellous? Ha, Ha, Ha!”

Pa had laughed loudly in a wayside eatery, over cups of sugary tea, surrounded by a group of gaping followers and former and current students. A happy, star-struck group of lower middle-class young men, idealism running like a molten lava in their veins, dreams of conquering Everest, talking Brecht and Howard Fast and Miller, in that steamy, thatched, mud-plastered, small eatery near the highway, on charpoys, under the swaying eucalyptus trees, on a pleasant March evening when early spring was in the air and flowers were blooming and the scented air and the orange disk setting in the western sky lent an ethereal touch to the whole encounter there. Some of them were M.A. students and some, recent post-graduates in English, were unemployed. Majority wrote stories or poems or acted in plays. They wanted to be either famous authors or actors. They lived in a realm of young imagination and pure ideas with an enduring appeal, universal and eternal. They wanted to be artists in a market-driven era, and, in a town where there were hundreds of hotels and restaurant and one, very small shop that sold magazines in Hindi and English and a couple of popular English novels! With no reading culture or very little theatre there, they dreamed, like Pa, dreams that looked impossible for those who were not part of the camp.

“It is like discussing Shakespeare with a whore!” exclaimed a detractor once. Pa was unfazed, unruffled.

All of us have our dreams, some black and white, some Eastman colour, that is the only difference! Pa had remarked, face deadpan.

Remember, guys, the dead never dream! Pa had fascinated him. A hypnotic effect. Whatever he uttered became new gospel for him and souls kindred. Souls that found themselves misunderstood in family, home, society. They thrived on ideas and hopes. They became members of the clan and the Pa was the grand patriarch, a Moses, who was to guide them through the Egyptian wilderness to the promised land. A small band of warriors assaulting the monumental stone walls of the town. He thought Pa was a Von Gogh, painting sunflowers in an ugly urban sprawl which did not have a single potted plant constricted uncrushed by urban squalor and poverty. Only the human spirit thought of sunflowers, open meadows, wheat fields — of freedom, equality, of liberating world of imagination with frothy seas and magic casements and aching hearts. Only a genius could do that.

And suddenly this man disappears!

“Socrates, Tolstoy and Lincoln have one thing in common: a nagging wife,” Pa said once, while taking a long evening walk amid a cascading landscape of mustard flowers and a setting sun that had set the heavens on fire in deep crimson. Bird songs were sonorously punctuated by a scented, tranquil, ethereal air. The humble cottages of a fast-vanishing hamlet, off the main highway and on the outskirts of the town, loomed like far off phantoms in the gathering dusk and the invigorating country air, now seriously endangered because of the rapid encroachment of the town.

“But”, he had paused and stood there for a minute, appearing as a solitary figure in that solitary place, out of breath, “All wives are nagging, my boy. Ha, ha, ha.” The deep laughter unsettled a stork and made it fly. He looked imposing and formidable there, framed by a dark sky, the gentle wind ruffling his hair. He was giant, touching the sky, tall and erect, powerful and mesmerising, amid those undulating fields of mustard.

He resumed walking. The trance was over. “Somewhere at same point, you feel lonely. Terribly lonely. A perfect stranger. Look at Tolstoy. Driven out of his own home. Suffering from pneumonia. Homeless. Old man. King Lear minus the kingdom. Or Marx. Broken by the death of wife and daughter. Terribly lonely and isolated figure. Or Van Gogh. Or Dostoevsky. The list is long and impressive. Masters creating beautiful worlds, blessed with noble souls, yet lonely at a basic human level, suffering pain and humiliation, rejection. Ordinary life is like that. The difference is the artist transforms all this through art and becomes immortal. The ordinary man dies with this pain unsung. He cannot even share this pain with anyone.” He stopped momentarily.

“The thing is, boy, life does not favour art. This age is not favourable to it. It destroys your nobility, soul, person at the altar of money, commerce, vulgarity. You were born with divinity and end up dying as an animal.” He resumed walking again in the gathering gloom, “This age belongs not to Rembrandt or Leonardo but to the stockbroker, to DiCaprio, to Mario Puzzo,” a long pause. Then, “Look at the greats. Joyce becoming blind. Virginia Wolf and Sylvia Plath and Hemingway, committing suicide. Their spirits shining through their monumental works. But the same spirit is caving in, after a long battering. Joyce died poor. O’ Neil and Mayakovski, again embittered. They could never belong to this inhospitable place and cracked up. The most beautiful children, sensitive, highly intelligent and gifted, superior imagination, language — all these beautiful and innocent children of life, totally wasted by a cruel mother!” His voice had cracked up and choked.

A mournful silence descended, and the darkness suddenly appeared as eerie and gloomy. Lights were twinkling in the mud houses and seen through mellow enveloping darkness, looked magical and sweetly assuring and beckoning. A fire in an open hearth danced merrily and lit up a small surrounding area with hovering shadows and the mysterious black beyond frequented by the nightly visitors — the unseen spirits of the forest. The whole thing was unreal.

Finally, they emerged from the dark curtain on to the highway. Ear shattering cacophony of motor sounds and harsh sodium vapour lights invaded these two minstrels of a lost song. They went to a nearby tea stall. Rickshaw pullers were sipping tea.

“The thing is,” Pa said in an even voice, “the fact catches up with you sooner or later. In a grim fight between the fine spirit and the fact it is the vulgar fact that triumphs.” The air was putrid, heavy with charcoal smoke and dust. The tea was served by an ill-clad urchin with a swollen eye and of indeterminate age. The boy listlessly stared at the duo and then shifted his stare at the highway. “Imagination does not offer a permanent sanctuary to the alienated spirit,” Pa said, gazing at the passing motors, the characteristic far-off look in his liquid eyes, voice resonating, “Fancy cannot cheat us long. Facticity returns to claim us back. More viciously. More grimly. We wage a war against the desertification.  A losing war but worth fighting for.”

And then, “What can you write in a bustling Las Vegas? Or what New York can offer you except its dazzling skyline?” If the name of John Barth were to be added to these stray observations, he thought, critics would have already started quoting and anthologising them! That is what marketing can do. They can create icons out of anonymity, obscurity. He looked at pa in the mild darkness lit up by a lantern. “You are wonderful. A genius!”, he exclaimed, admiration oozing. Pa smiled. Said nothing. Finally, “These are your sentiments. For the world I am a retired teacher. No more than that. Anonymous. Ordinary like millions. My name does not sell.”

“But market success is not everything!”

“Yes, it is,” Pa replied, sipping tea, “without market success, in a market economy, you are nobody, howsoever brilliant you are! It is the way you market yourself, that counts. The way you sell yourself. Otherwise, you are a zero.”

“Then why did you not sell yourself?”

“Because I hated the whole process. I can never do that.”

“But you are a great for me, for all of us here.”

Pa looked at him and smiled. “This small recognition is enough for me. And, by the way, after death, all are equal…unto dust thou shalt return.” He winked at him.

Now, looking back at this conversation, he could sense something which he had missed out at that time. Pa was deeply troubled and was trying to communicate this through this pantheon of artists, in an oblique manner, to him the loneliness, anguish, anger of an old, retired person who had made the painful discovery: that he was now redundant to his family and society. How dumb of him to miss the larger picture! A fine example of breakdown of personal communication.

But why did Pa take recourse to such a play?

Why did he not tell the plain truth to an adoring disciple?

That he was adored by a small group of artists who made him feel wanted and the feeling of being superfluous in the family, maybe, this social contradiction he could not resolve meaningfully. He had seen it happen earlier with others also. In late fifties, many had felt useless, with no defined role to play. The kids had outgrown their fathers. Most of them had turned to religion and yoga. They suffered diabetes, elevated blood pressure, angina pin, ulcers, and what not. Their eyes were sunk, skin leathery, teeth caved in, eyesight failing. They went on creating fictions. Reinventing themselves. Deep down they waited for the curtain call. A date with their maker. Religion comforted; paltry pension brought some cheer, but the gloom did not lift. The fact remained. They were no longer wanted. Had no price. Were irrelevant in a fast-changing society.

The police inspector, huge and rude, looked at him with malevolent eyes. So, what, if an old man is missing? He bawled angrily, is he a king or P.M.?

“Our Saab does not care about big shots,” the fawning sub-inspector said in a mocking tone. “He is the PM. of this station.” The huge pot-bellied inspector smiled. The graying handlebar moustache moved up and down on a fat face of a hard drinker. His blood-shot eyes were menacing, teeth pan-stained, garlic on breath. He looked intimidating. “A trigger-happy bastard,” he thought, “who shoots first and then asks.”

“See, officer, we have been made to wait here for two hours and nobody has bothered to take down out complaint,” he said in a mild tone, controlling anger and revulsion.

The inspector turned his full gaze on the speaker. The cop eyes were hard and full of hatred of a common, powerless man.

“Oh!’ He exclaimed and laughed. He pressed a button. A hungry-looking constable burst in.

‘Idiot,” the inspector roared, “where were you? Do you not see we have the governor sir here with us?”

The constable was confused. The inspector laughed uproariously. Sub-inspector also added a few decibels to the racket. “Governor, ha, ha, ha.” Inspector was rocking.

“Now listen Mr. Inspector,” he spoke in a commanding voice. The laughter died down immediately.

“Yes, Excellency!” the inspector said, taking out his revolver and playing it.

“I am Ashok Suri, news editor, with the star TV,” he spoke, slowly, a snarl dilating nostril. “A very good friend of S.S.P. and D.M. very close to the governor. A man is missing. An old man to people like you, but a father to these sons, teacher to me, a precious person to all of us! He is not a figure. He is a man. Ex-president of teacher’ union. Active on many fronts of the communist party. Do you get me?”

The inspector underwent a dramatic change.

Suri got up, followed by the two sons. “And I am going straight to S.S.P.,” Suri said, eyes blazing. “See you there, Mr. Inspector, the doorway. Except a lot of trouble tomorrow. Dharnas (strikes) by teachers, students and communist party workers. Goodbye, Mr. Governor. I will be there to cover it for my T.V. channel!”

They exited in a hurry. The cops came out in a fast-forwarding motion. The trio was escorted back. Tea and biscuits were served. The F.I.R. was lodged promptly. Half-an-hour later, they came out of the station.

Uttam shook hands with Suri, “Ashok you were superb!”

“What if they had caught your lie?” asked Raman.

“Oh!” Suri said, “you know I am a very good actor.”

“I spoke to them in the only language they understand,” said Suri.

The night came early and silently. The lanes were deserted. Houses stood shivering in the cold. Suri looked out of the window. The fog was swirling about like a ballerina, painting everything with a white brush. Somewhere a street dog was weeping, adding to the macabre. He was feeling tired and sad, Shambu came and sat down in the opposite chair. He lit a cigarette and spoke in a musical voice. Pa had come to me last Sunday.

“Was it?” asked Suri.

“Yes.”

“Was he disturbed?”

“Nope, slightly distracted.”

“I see. Anything else?”

“Well, well…lemme think… it was Sunday afternoon, and it was pouring…”

Pa had come around three in the afternoon. The overcast grey skies were pouring rain that came battering the neighborhood in a furious manner. Pa stood in the doorway, dripping, the grey hair being whipped by the cruel blasts of wind. Shambuda lived three houses away and was a good friend. Shambu sprang to his feet and welcomed Pa with a towel.

“So, what brings Marx here?” Shambhu asked.

“To meet Beethoven,” said Pa.

That was the opening gambit. Pa was Marx to Shambhu and Shambhu, Beethoven to Pa.

“What would your majesty have? Tea? Rum?”

“No Thanks.”

“No problem.” Shambhu, known as Da, went and brought two pegs of rum. Some salted cashew nuts.

“This lousy weather…pouring…kills my mood …to the angry elements and to Majesty’s good health.”

They sipped the liquid.

“Good stuff!” Pa said. “Fires up an old guy.”

“And makes the world red and golden,” Da said.

The wind-driven rain came in a sudden gust and lashed the shuttered glass Windows. Families were huddled around T.V. sets. It was bleak place. Dark, rainy, cold, cheerless. Pa was silent. Da refilled the glasses.

“Shambhu?” Pa said.

“Yes, boss,” replied the fiftyish portly man.

“It is dismal. This bleeding rain, this winter.”

“No quarrelling with your judgment, boss!”

“Can I hear a song from you?”

Da looked at his senior friend.

“No problem. Music is my first love.”

Da called his youngest son. Harmonium and tabla were brought out. Da sang a folk song, his favourite, in a sweet voice, the voice of a music teacher and a classical singer, a voice that always drew admirers, like pins to a magnet, from all the corners of the town:

Where are you,

My beloved?

I miss you dear,

In this rain and

Scorching summer,

Come back,

Come back,

Before I die,

Pining for

Your

Beautiful

Hair.

The melody, the earthly song, the rain and the rum. When Da finished and came out of the trance, he saw Pa wiping his tears with his hanky. Music had washed the souls of the two solitary figures on that wind-swept Sunday afternoon.

“I also have a distinct memory of that Sunday,” said Ashok.

Ashok’s Narrative

The sky was overcast, dull grey — a wet early evening gloom spreading in the vast skies, a strong wind pregnant with pearl drops of rain buffeting town and country. The streets were deserted. Pa was there in the doorway, smelling of hard liquor, wet and dishevelled, umbrella dripping. But Pa was always a welcome guest.

“Let us go, Ashok,” Pa said. A simple order. I look my umbrella and we went out on wet, slippery, pebbly road. Trees were shedding rain drops as big as stones. Birds were shivering. We walked two kilometers and then came to an abandoned culvert across a deep drain.

Around us were long stretches of soggy plains and looming mills and chimneys. We sat down on the wet culvert. Pa was quiet.

“Perfect setting for a rum-soaked evening,” I said, “for paneer pakoras (cottage cheese fritters), fried green chilies and roasted grams…”

“And hard-boiled eggs,” Pa said and laughed, his lean body shaking.

“If life were such a royal banquet…”

We lit cigarettes and emitted rings. Pa took out a half-bottle, two plastic cups, disposable soda and a packet of fried black grams topped with onion rings, tomatoes sliced and chopped coriander leaves, from the shoulder bag of khadi.

“Your wish is fulfilled, master.” Pa said.

“No, you are master, my master.” I spoke.

We drank and ate the grams. Pa was silent but I was used to his mood and unpredictable ways.

“Why do you love me so much?” he asked

“Because life teaches me through you. A fine, noble, learned man…”

“Who bothers an’ le guy like me? Who bothers for learning? For a mental worker? They bother for money. Cars. Good houses…Not a writer, a teacher, no, they do not care.”

“It does not matter…to me.”

“You are different, Ashok.”

“You, too.”

“That is why…we interact. I see myself in you.”

We sipped the rum. Dark thickness thickened.

“Folks like us are unhappy. Get crucified. Marked. We cannot escape our lot.”

I clung on to each word. Epiphany, you know.

“Once, during my young days, I walked along with my pop along a country road, on a dark wintry night, for five kilometers, to reach our village home. The road never seemed to end.

Father told many stories to lessen my fright. Then he lifted me up and put me on his shoulders. He walked, carrying his nine- year-old on his heavy shoulders, telling wonderful tales, to relive monotony, to comfort me, to ease my fears. The fields were full of mischievous ghosts…the wind produced strange music.

Shadows threatened…lions roared.

We were two Red-Indians walking the forest in night, watched by the spirits. I forgot my terror and listened to his comforting voice…

He paused for long period.

“That image still haunts me…Two figures and an unending road…A dialogue in the wilderness. He was my father, so was safe. Nothing could harm me. Twelve years later I had to travel the same road, alone. I had missed my last bus. The country road was same. My fears came back…lions still roared in my ears. Ghosts whispered. Shadows danced about. I was awfully scared. Death lurked. I died every minute. The journey took ages…when I arrived home, safe, I realised I was missing my father. A father who had died many years ago…”

Pa looked pathetic. Bent. Gaunt.

Ranting. They stood up on the fringes.

Sympathetically. Boundaries collapsed.

The steel in Pa was cracking up.

“When your own family denies you, mocks you, it is time to bid goodbye. “Listen to the Bard:

“……The tempest in my mind,

Doth from my senses take all

Feeling else,

Save what beats there! Filial

Ingratitude!

No, I will weep no more…”

The rain was pouring. Gently dark veil had obscured everything. Pa was looking across centuries where another old man was holding forth his own private audience…

Sitting now, in Da’s room, I came to realise the import of that last encounter on that rainy lovely night.

.

“I must leave now,” Ashok said suddenly.

“Why?” Asked da, alarmed.

“I am tired,” Ashok said.

“O.K.!” Da said. “Do you think he would come back?”

Ashok stood up and reflected.

“No,” he said. “He won’t.”

“What do you mean?” Da was surprised.

“Well, he said his goodbye, on last Sunday,” Ashok said.

He came out and bent a last look at Pa’s house.

Goodbye, teacher!

Tears were running down the solitary man’s face.

.

Sunil Sharma is an academic and writer with 23 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. 

.

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

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

Walls

By Sunil Sharma

Pegasus in Blue by MF Hussian, 2009. Courtesy: Creative Commons

“There is a man, at the gate, who says he is the brother of Madam Goodman,” the nervous Gurkha announced in a low, soft whisper oozing respect.

“A brother?”

“Yes sir.”

Mr. Goodman turned to his bejewelled short portly wife.

“Do you have a brother…I mean, a real blood brother?”

“Not as far as my human memory can recall,” declared Mrs. Goodman in a cheerful voice, surveying the Saturday-night-party going on in the big hall of exquisite chandeliers and imported Italian tiles.

“But there is a man, at the gate, who claims to be your kin,” persisted Mr. Goodman in a tipsy voice. Young couples, in various stages of drunkenness and fever, were dancing to a loud orchestra. December night of cold foggy winter and a howling wind was knocking the windowpanes of the huge hall. “A who?” demanded Mrs. Goodman, refusing to tear her slightly reddish eyes, from the un-rhythmic crude dance of the fused couples.

“A man,” Mr. Goodman said patiently, his alcoholic eyes surveying a lissome beauty’s body contours, like a hungry caveman attacking the raw flesh of an animal, “Your brother…resurrected from void…wants to see you.”

Mrs. Goodman felt irritated by this unauthorized intrusion of an alien. Her porcelain-white face, with painted cheeks, arched eye-brows distorted in fury, “We demand to see that imposter. Now… in our study.”

The small Gurkha cringed in fear.

The private study was small and comfy. In the tradition of a European or a British manor house. Hard, leather-bound books from the floor to the ceiling- all of them untouched. A leather -bound sofa; a centre glass-topped table; two low stools and a crackling hearth.  A large M.F. Husain– those galloping horses against a featureless background– to lend an ‘ethnic’ touch to essentially the foreign opulence. The man was ushered in, Mrs. Goodman did not like the appearance of this new object: small, medium-height, grizzly; wearing rumpled denim jeans, a brown turtle-neck sweater sitting tight on a protruding belly, a crumpled jacket and tear-shaped bifocals that enlarged his big brown eyes brimming with brotherly love and tenderness; and an imitation crocodile skin brief-case. Mrs. Goodman looked at him and looked hard.

The man, intimidated, said, “How are you, sis…my beloved sister?”

Mrs. Goodman did not register. Incomprehension. The man waited for a response.

“You OK., Leela?”

Mrs. Goodman looked on uncomprehending.

“I am your younger brother…Your little Kabir.”

Mrs. Goodman, a perfect picture of faded aristocracy, said, “I have no brother.”

Thunder rolls and lightning strikes. The little man said, “Have no brother? What do you mean?”

“You heard me.”

“Come on, Leela.”

“Mrs. Goodman,” said the lady sharply, “The wife of a top diamond merchant of South Africa, on a winter vacation in the mystical magical India.”

“Cut the crap…You are Leela…the same old little sis good at play-acting.’

A young man popped in, “Any problems, Ma?”

“How are you, Rajiv? I am your maternal uncle.”

The man smiled and said nothing.

“This little man says he is my brother.”

The young man smiled broadly, “Oh, not again! The rich and famous have carloads of unclaimed relatives.’

Roll of thunder and lightning. “I can prove it,” the little man insisted.

“How? By calling God to the witness stand?” the young man asked.

“Or through genetic study?” enquired the booming voice of Mr. Goodman from the doorway, “Welcome to our private and exclusive little world, Mr.….?”

“Kabir, your little brother-in-law.”

Both the men surveyed each other: the former with open curiosity and the latter with fond remembrance. Mr. Goodman sank in the sofa, whipped out a Havana cigar, lit it, emitted a rich aromatic smoke, “How do you prove your kinship, Mr. Intruder?”

The little man, a bit confused, sat down on the opposite chair of the sofa set.

“I can prove it — if proof were required, although in blood relations no proof is required…blood recognises blood.”

“Ok. Proceed,” says Mr. Goodman, “Make it quick…we have thirty guests on our hands for this champagne- and-dinner party.” The little man fishes out a frayed small pocket-sized family album, opens it on the third page and announces, “Here you are…This picture…see, Leela and I….”

The picture is grabbed greedily by the Goodman family: a sixteen-year-old “Leela” and a ten-year-old Kabir against a railway bungalow with lots of shady trees in the background.

“And this one: When she staged a play…. Ah! King Lear, yeah…at the auditorium of the Railway Officers’ Club…I am third there… And this wedding picture…she and you at the reception…”

The pictures were scrutinised carefully. “And this New-year greeting-card from Leela with her signature from Johannesburg…” Mrs. Goodman seems bored, “My cat, my cat…where is my favourite cat?”

The young man “Rajiv” presses a bell. A male servant puts his face in the doorway.

“Fetch Kohinoor.”

 Within seconds, a beribboned white cat is brought by a liveried maid servant. Mrs. Goodman is all affection, “Come on, sweetie, my precious, my L-O-V-E…”

“Anything else?” demands the merchant of diamonds and orders a large one for him.

“Like?” the little man asked.

“Anything… family trivia…”

“My L-O-V-E,” coos Mrs. Goodman.

“Family trivia? You mean family history?”

“Yeah…sort of…”

“My precious,” sang Mrs. Goodman.

“Well, our father was a station master at Lalitpur…he met your father there who was a personal valet of an English captain Mr. Goodman. Mr. Goodman was a bachelor and very wealthy…he was very fond of your family, especially your mother’s artistic talent…You were young and handsome…. People called you an Englishman.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” The merchant laughed like an Englishman, “He was more than a father to me…. Good.”

“The English captain acted as a matchmaker. He arranged this match between Leela and you. He stayed on in the free India and invested a lot and wisely here and multiplied his wealth. Then, in late 60s he moved on to South Africa along with your family…There he invested a small fortune in the diamond industry and became stinking rich. After his death, you inherited the business.”

“My cuties,” Mrs. Goodman crooned, “what a wonderful creature!”

“Wonderful,” declared Mr. Goodman.

Mrs. Goodman returned her attention to the new object of the study.

“Are you listening?” asked Mr. Goodman.

“Yeah…listening pretty good…So, this interview is now over?” enquired Mrs. Goodman.

“What is the judgment?” Rajiv quipped.

“Well, the photographs can be manipulated, autographs forged, and family trivia can be collected by any good detective. In short, this man is an imposter,” said Mrs. Goodman. Her voice is devoid of any emotion. Like a judge pronouncing death sentence in a cold, impersonal tone.

“And Leela, why should I do that?” asked the devastated little man, Kabir.

“For money, maybe,” ventured Goodman Sr.

“I see,” said Kabir, hurt obvious in the weather-marked, lined face and voice, “I see now…Your whole world revolves around money only…Money, status, parties…You have no idea of emotions and love and beauty.”

“Wrong,” butts in Rajiv. “My Ma and pop love animals, paintings and people. Ask our staff.”

Silence — heavy, awkward. The little man Kabir looks at their well-fed, contented faces. He faces them and asks Leela, “You recognize me?”

“No.”

“You, Mr. Goodman?”

“No.”

“You, Mr. Goodman, Junior?”

“No.”

And he was denied thrice.

“OK! sorry to disturb you. I did not come here to claim money but to claim the affection of my elder sister and her family. I wrote letters for many years and made an occasional call but got no response…Today, I made bold to come over here and reclaim a part of my emotional existence… Now, I find I was wrong in my pursuit.” He paused sadly and looked at them again. No response. He concluded, “If claiming a sister or a brother as your own is a crime, I am a criminal. Goodbye.”

As a courtesy, Goodman Jr, escorted the man to the gates of the spacious, sprawling farmhouse in Delhi. The party was in full swing.

Alcohol, tobacco smoke was in the air. “A parade of obscene wealth,” thought the intruder.

“OK! It was a nice encounter,” said Goodman Jr. ironically, lips pursed.

“Or a non-encounter?” asked the man. They shook hands. When he looked up, he saw his own face mirrored in the face of Goodman Jr.

Mesmerised, he again looked: his own face beamed back at him.

Kabir shuddered at the unreality of the whole situation and resumed a long walk towards the first bus stop.

Sunil Sharma is an academic and writer with 23 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. 

Sunil Sharma,PhD (English), is a Toronto-based academic, critic, literary editor and author with 23 published books. His poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015. Sunil edits the English section of the monthly bilingual journal Setu published from Pittsburgh, USA:
— https://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html  
 For more details, please visit the link:— http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/

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

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

Fragments from a Strange Journey

By Sunil Sharma

Odysseus: Etruscan alabaster urn 3rd – 2nd century BCE. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The Modern Odysseus

While travelling in the vast, vertical country buried in a grey-bluish haze in the post-modern hi-tech jungle, he saw bizarre and illogical things and recorded strange happenings in his notebook for a later recall. Some of the amazing things he noted during the course of this journey across an unfamiliar landscape are listed below in his diary.

— An unusual place. Folks are crazy. Do things non-natives cannot understand. For example: Reading the novels backwards. It is the fad picked up fast. One guy in a subway began this, somebody caught it on Smartphone and the two-second clip went viral. Since then, every decent guy doing it, as an in-thing. No rationale behind this act of reading! Just caught the fancy of the public. The Epilogue is big thing, because it contains everything — that is the fuzzy logic here! Like, eating the dessert first — skipping the main course in a fancy joint.

Folks!
Fads!

— Or, strange enough: Men buying bulky novels and not reading them. Saw a man tearing the fine art paper from the novel and using it as a tissue paper to wipe his low receding forehead that reminded viewers of his ancestors — the Neanderthals. Contemporary kin in designer suits and designer beards — minus the clubs! Next bus, everybody tearing the same art paper and wiping faces, sweat or no sweat!

— Other odd things. I saw a band of stiff musicians playing before a deaf audience who sat through the public performance with blank faces. Looking like regimented soldiers. The notes were discordant. There was no melody or harmony. Yet, after regular intervals, the deaf would all clap, on cue from an invisible prompter, the kind found in TV studios. Neither music nor audience connected or made sense. Yet, both parties continued the charade perfectly well. And yes, the five-star ambience and food were standard but folks were busy binge-drinking and eating only — music was mere noise in the background.

— In another part of the vertical city, I found a painter showing his paintings to completely blind persons in the antiseptic art district. The canvases were all bare. No colours, nothing. Some people were bored. Others were praising the experimental painter. Some rich were buying those large bare canvases. Art was in the air. Art in the form of emptiness, void — not visible but as understood by a mad visitor babbling around the long museum, where they were discussing money as the new erotica.

— A poet recited his long poem to empty chairs in an air-conditioned auditorium in an upscale wire-free section. After every pause, a round of applause was heard from the empty auditorium. The blind poet assumed it was packed with his admirers. I peered around but saw nobody but distinctly heard the claps — loud and clear. Strange! Maybe, somebody playing a recording somewhere!

— Writers wrote fantastic accounts of exotic journeys and sharing with each other in groups that had no memory cells intact, as their memories were all of the immediate instances that were there and then, lapsed forever, swallowed up in the gurgling mists of Time. They read, nodded and immediately forgot what they had read. Nobody could recall a single line, yet they talked books with aplomb!

— Entertainment stars walked the city as the new royalty and behaved like kings and queens. Their song/ scriptwriters begged on the indifferent streets filled with the hopefuls trying to be like them. Nobody bothered about them. They were fixated on the stars and their doings in closets and hotels. Trivia was sacred. Paparazzi, serious occupation. Star gossip magazines, roaring business! I saw poverty walking the glitzy roads—invisible!

— Publishers published books with blank pages. Yes. Like unwritten notebooks! Only the covers carried the titles; no authors’ names. They sold these to the public and school libraries.

Crazy country!

— I saw awards ceremonies. They were giving awards to the ones who said they had not done anything. For example, the state award for literature to a lab attendant who never read anything literary except soft porn. Or, to an ageing illiterate porter for bringing new perspectives and voices. Nobody questioned. The crowds hardly checked. Busy buying things in the mall during the discount seasons there!

— A long line of desperate poets, along with their collections of poems, ready to commit suicide by jumping into the ocean. I saw a couple of nutty ones — bearded and thin and mumbling — jump into the choppy sea waters also. One of them shouted at the amused spectators with their camcorders ready to film the event for their entertainment, “Better to die than live in an airless society that has banned poetry.”

— I saw huge mansions, gleaming offices and gardens and buildings but no living breathing beings, only dim shadows flitting about. I could see no figures, only mere outlines passing by the windows and disappearing in a second. It was strange! Unnerving. No presences. Only the ghostly voices that were hardly heard or understood by the other fleeting shadows. Only the soft whispers heard in passages or corridors dim and gloomy.

— Outside the metro limits, I saw a vast undulating plain called ‘The Forest’. There I saw paper trees and flowers planted everywhere. The real ones were all missing! The cut-outs and fakes were everywhere, bearing the names of 2000 trees that once grew in that country. A little stream was called Amazon. The hills were also fake. Miniature models representing huge hills. It was all manufactured. The kind seen in Hollywood. A studio set at a gigantic scale to replace the real that was extinct. It was scary scenario. The verisimilitude. The simulated reality. Although created artistically and with high fidelity to truth, the gnarled trees and green boughs and red flowers or pink could not fool me, the one who has, in a previous birth, visited many places and encountered many real adventures and even met the Cyclops and other strange creatures. The simulated version was disgusting and un-real!

— In the cities and the country, I saw only marching armies of synchronized machines with set timers and automatic expressions. It was hyper-reality and I desperately wanted to exit this nightmare…

— And I see mourners not mourning the dead but laughing at a funeral. In fact, on closer inspection, I see them neither crying nor laughing but completely blanch and dull, a void, the sound of laughter is coming from a chip in a micro-gadget strapped to their coats. It is recorded sound given by an actor! Nobody delivers farewell. They sit as a well-coordinated pack of automatons in grey suits and black ties, listening to the sounds of violin being played outside the funeral parlour by an old musician.

— The most frightening moment: I do not know if I am awake or sleepy; living or dead; real or fake; in present or past; writing or listening; watching the reality or being watched; an image or copy or genuine being in this strange land.

Am I sane or mad?

Sunil Sharma is an academic and writer with 23 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

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.

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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).

.

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).

.

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).

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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).

.

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