Nobody knew or cared who the real Monalisa was. The name just stuck on. Just like that. Three months and she was already running the household like an old woman.
If grandma needed warm water, she would shout, “Oye, bring me some warm water. My feet are giving me hell.” Grandma — the poor soul! She suffers from joint pain and pain of every conceivable type — rarely stirred out of her large bed and needed lot of things in her ground floor room. The burly mustachioed Grandpa needed tea after every half-an-hour in the cluttered drawing room. He would sit throughout the day, watching television, smoking constantly and coughing and belching smoke —making the whole place look like a huge chimney — and, reading morning paper in installments, throughout the long and still days. Monalisa supplied him with tea every half an hour and grandpa would feel mightily happy with this service and say invariably, “Here comes my little precious Monalisa. The only soul who cares for an old man in this goddamn cursed house,” and while saying so, he would often peer over the glasses, his gray bushy eyebrows uplifted, reminding you of a tired Santa.
Bhavi wanted the breakfast early in her first-floor bedroom and would shout urgently, “Monalisa, run. I am getting late for office again.” Little Monty always forgot his tiffin. Monalisa would run after the auto and hand it over to fat bespectacled sleepy Monty. She was on her toes right from morning till evening. Within last three months, she had taken over all the responsibilities of an adult homemaker. Grandpa would often say, “If Monalisa runs away, we would all be in great trouble, starved and mad at the other.”
Bhavi would feel irritated by this grim forecast, “Why would she run away? The rich food she eats here, frocks of my Tanya she gets to wear, will she be getting all these things anywhere else?”
Grandma would say, “Oye, Pa is getting soft in his head. Old age? He goes on babbling like that. Always seeing bad things first.”
Bhaiya* would shrug off, rephrasing his boss, “The world is full of such Monalisas. If one goes, another comes. Nobody is indispensable in the world. Is it not Pappaji*?” Pappaji would grunt.
Tanya, doing her homework, would add, “Before her, there was Rani. Before Rani, there was Kusum. Before that….”
Little Monty would interrupt the total recall, “Look, Pappaji, Tanya is not doing her homework. She is disturbing me.” Tanya, hurt, would make faces, “Oh, the Einstein is working. How many marks did you get in math in the first term?” Little Monty, looking cross, would adjust his Harry-Potter frame over his hooked nose and say, “What about your physics, Didi*?” Tanya would sigh, “Oh, you would know when you come to class VIII”.
Deep down, everybody dreaded the prophecy of grandpa. The fact was that our house ran because of these servants.
When Rani had disappeared one evening, there was total chaos. It had continued for long. Nobody got anything on time and everybody cursed everybody else. Old grandma cursed her fate. Grandpa cursed rising prices and the government. Bhaiya and Bhavi fought bitterly everyday.
“Where is my breakfast?” he would ask.
“I am already late. You prepare one for yourself and one for the kids,” Bhavi would answer flatly.
“Oh, so I should leave my job with an international company and become a cook at home.”
“And who am I? An unpaid cook. What else? I also have a job to keep.”
“Leave that job then. I earn quite sufficient.”
“No. You leave your job first. Why should I leave my bank job?”
This was routine. The mornings were awful ritual and a delight for the nosy neighbours.
Both would leave, cursing each other. Grandma, deprived of tea, would grumble, “Oye, my legs. I wish I were dead.”
“That you have been saying for last 45 years,” grandpa would say. “Oye, You always wanted me dead. Listen, old man, I am not going to die. If I do, I will come back as a bhoot* and torment you forever.”
“For that you need not die. You have already been doing all that to me,” grandpa would say and laugh his belly laugh. “Oye, my kismet*. Nobody wants me. That bahu*, that son, my own man—nobody wants me anymore. What should I do, rabba*?”
“Keep your mouth shut. As easy as that.”
“Oye, nobody allows me to speak now. O good Lord! strike me dead,” she would cry.
Little Monty, dressing by himself, would say, “Why does grandma say Oye, Oye?”
“Oh, shut up, Einstein!” Tanya would shout.
“Oye, Oye, nobody allows me to speak, not even my fat sis,” he would complain. Tanya would fly for him across the room but our Einstein, a smart runner, would fly faster than a missile.
“This house is a nuthouse!” Grandma would say.
“No doubt about it. ” Grandpa would confirm.
In this chaos, one August afternoon, walked in a little girl, later called Monalisa. It was unusually cold and wet day, dull and grey, the heavy rains whipping the high-rises of Vasant Kunj in New Delhi. Dark clouds had covered the area and mild darkness had fallen. The doors flew open magically and entered a child, followed by a short, slim man. The gloom of the day was lit up by the silver of the lightening that traveled like an enormous quivering white snake across the sky.
“Papaji, this is my daughter.”
The girl looked frightened.
“Do not go by looks. She is small. She can clean, sweep, cook. She is very good at that,” the dhobi* said, hard selling her as if she were a new detergent.
“What should we pay?”
“You keep her full time. Feed her. Then pay whatever you want.”
The deal was on. The dhobi did not say goodbye. He turned his back and went out in the pouring rain. The child looked longingly at the rain, the retreating figure, and the outside world. She half- raised her hand to wave at a receding father and then stopped in mid-air, lost in that instant between a fading and an emerging world.
“Child, make me a cup of tea,” Grandpa said gently.
That moment on, she was sucked into a new adult harsh reality.
Her pearly smile won everybody’s heart. Her waif-like figure flitted silently from room to room and she cleaned, swept, mopped like a new detergent. The only difference in her appearance was an occasional shampooed hair and scrubbed-clean look. And she looked out of shape in the hand-me-down, ill flitting dresses of Tanya who had overgrown or discarded them for her hundredth dress. The madness had subsided but temporarily and everybody got food of their choice in time.
“This girl can work like ten horses,” Grandpa said one day.
“Oye, do not cast an evil eye. May God give her more strength,” countered grandma. In the duplex, Monalisa occupied a 3 ft 2″space on the threaded carpet of grandma’s room. That was her nocturnal home where she slept like a log. Her family never visited.
After Diwali, all of us planned to visit Agra. My job was to deliver her to the dirty basti*, 10 km away, where her family lived in a shack under a spreading old banyan, near a Hanuman temple, an open-air structure next to the tree where elders congregated for their daily fix of gossips, chai and smoke. As I left her there on the side street, I saw her running off the remaining 100 meters, the distance that intervened between a free world and a grown-up world. I sat in the car and saw her disappear in the crude shack made up of plastic and ropes and bamboos. The 10-meter yard was reclaimed from the weeds and dressed up. A tulsi pot bloomed. She came out immediately, waved her hand to signal safe arrival, and smiling, vanished again in the dark womb again.
Evening I came back to retrieve her. I was a bit early. Cold November dusk was settling down. The orange disc was slipping fast behind a bank of the fluffy, white clouds. Crows were returning. An icy wind had stated blowing. I got down from the car and walked the short distance to the home of Monalisa. She was not there. Her asthmatic battered graying starved mother went out to search for her.
Then I saw her.
Some 600 meters away. She was playing with kids her age. She was running, her hair streaming, thin face flushed, yelling at the top of her piping voice, a little goddess in motion. Some kid was chasing her. In order to avoid the pursuer, Monalisa, happy and excited, began climbing the nearby peepul tree. All the malnourished brown kids, sweaty and out-of-breath, shouted and formed a circle beneath the tree.
A simple game I have never seen Tanya and Monty play.
The simple drama was rudely interrupted by the yelling of her mother. In a minute, she ran up to me, followed by her lean, semi- starved, ill-clad kid brother crying for her, “Do not go, do not go. Let us play one more time, didi, please. Come back.” The light went out of didi‘s eyes. Her mother grabbed the whimpering child but it cried louder. “You have to wait for her for so long. Please excuse her, she is just a child,” her frail mother, lifeless and bloodless, pleaded with me abjectly. “No problem. I can understand.” I said, already feeling like a robber. We went to the car. She looked back longingly, her eyes blank, face drained. Her friends came running, waved and then began playing. The brother cried. A cold wind sliced us cruelly in the middle. The sun, effeminate and yellow-faced, went down. The early darkness suddenly embraced us.
As soon as she entered, grandma shouted, “Oye, fetch me warm water. My feet are hurting.”
“And tea for me,” said grandpa. She went straight to her territory.
I said to grandma I was not in a mood to bring the child back, at least, for a night, “She would have enjoyed some time more with her family.”
“Oye,” Grandma glowered, “You have become like a woman. Men should be tough. These are poor people. They breed like pigs. If we had not taken her in our custody, her drunkard father would have sold her to a brothel. We provide safety, security and food to her. She gets decent treatment here. She is family to us.”
I did not argue. I went out and blended in the gloom of the advancing night. The cries of a phantom brother and sad eyes of Monalisa haunted me for long in that short winter night.
*papaji: An affectionate way of addressing a grandfather in Northern India
*didi: Elder sister
Sunil Sharma is the editor of SETU. He is a senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 21 published books, seven collections of poetry, three of short fiction, one novel, a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Journey through Ellora, Rio de Janerio, Rome and Jerusalem with Sunil Sharma to find answers of a different kind
At Ellora, I found myself in the company of the serene gods, whose time-resistant deep calm could still vitally affect a present-day visitor to this holy site. It is a small upland country consecrated and claimed by the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain gods who had decided to dwell and rest, during their voluntary earthly sojourn, among this beautiful complex of sturdy caves. The experience can be terrific for the body and mind. It is like entering a floating ethereal region distinctly different from our tangible world. Or, to alter the analogy, a vast continent of spirit frozen in time and space but open as an entry point for a persistent seeker of truth. A happy age caught at a blessed moment, inscribed delicately and preserved permanently as a record, in the cluster of these humble ample-bodied temple caves. Welcoming all those who are explorers of the spirit world.
But, a bit of the background.
We are visiting the famous Ellora, my friend, JS, and me. The sun kissed UNESCO world heritage site offers soul-curry. The weatherbeaten tall temples beckon the believer dormant in my I-pod-listening, internet-addicted, pizza-chomping, beer-guzzling, cigar-smoking, flabby unexercised physical body (my generous tummy is around 46 inches, still growing fast, protruding obscenely over my tight belt like an overstuffed sack). I am, let me confess, the true inheritor of the 21-century pure hedonism unleashed by a mass society on its citizens who can get everything on a made-to-order basis. I confess openly: I have got only the physical side; I am horribly one-dimensional. I love all the pleasures of the flesh and can go to any extent to satisfy the deep cravings for new physical sensations. Ellora promised to be new excitement from the dreary routinised life, a kind of escape from the killing mundane around me.
Last July, it was Bangkok and its painted women. Jaded. That is how I had felt every morning, badly hung-over and miserable, in my lonely hotel room, smelling cheap perfume lingering on in the unclean sheets, dinner remains all stacked up in trays with flower patterns on them; trapped and cheerless in the mornings and trying to find novelties again in the evenings, along with my middle-aged Indian business partners, hopelessly trying to search for new sensations in the robotic bosom and automaton thin legs of these abused women. Meanwhile, the child in me looked on all these indulgences with contempt. His censure was severe, to be drowned again in the evenings with more vicious partying. The descent has begun for my forty-five-old battered body. I wanted to make an escape from this crushing hedonism and save myself from further assault. This time, I wanted to do something for my soul.
I wanted to test the spiritual world, that soaring higher region experienced by the evolved and the mystics. I know I am not the ‘Chosen One’ but who knows I may become one: to-day’s sinners to-morrow’s saint kind of development. Ellora is to Indians what the Aztec and the Mayan temples are to the Mexicans and to Central Americans.
Ellora sounded the right destination, a choice made by the understanding gods for my bohemian self through my friend JS. So, on this golden lazy afternoon, I found myself in the abode of the eternal gods, sitting relaxed, beyond the pain and pleasure principles of the earthly life. I am not religious, at least, in the strict daily- temple-going and-prostrating Indian sense, but, let me tell you, I do all the rites and ceremonies religiously. I believe in higher power. You can call it a hierarchical thinking. A foundational thinking. A logical thinking: there is dad; then there is the boss; then, the Prime Minister and God as the super boss.
I know early gods are all anthropomorphic beings but there is a strong need to believe in some tenet, some force that shapes our world, nay, the cosmos. Coelho thing, you know, for me. I can be both the dissenter and the believer, in the same moment. A typical cosmopolitan, hovering between faith and complete agnosticism, bowing reverentially before the Ganesha, before opening my shop in the mornings and playing the video games on my computer in the evenings. I believe, when required by stressful personal conditions; I resort to agnosticism, when in the company of the rationalists or doubting self-assured intellectuals who seem to know all the correct answers to the profound questions regarding the universe and its unsolved mysteries. A man of contradictions and not apologetic about my dualism.
But here I was confronting the gods from an age that can no longer be retrieved, in a post-modern, hostile divided world of nuclear missiles and ethnic cleansing and hard-core evangelism on TV of all varieties. In fact, every mood, every emotion, every human feeling — hatred, love, belief, sacrifice, religion, pacifism — gets slickly packaged and becomes a lucrative business. Earlier there were the gods, now, the hip god men travelling in big cars. It is a blooming business of love, hatred and faith everywhere. So, as I was telling you, I felt a bit odd in this place. I was not sure what to do with it or how to make sense of the splendid Ellora for my epicurean mind that believed that gods had deserted the darkening planet long ago. Nietzsche had confirmed this act of divine desertion and certified a possible demise of the Olympians. The latter judgment I do not agree with. The gods are still hovering somewhere near us, watching us, as they show aliens watching our moves in an exciting Lucas or Spielberg film. But let us talk of Ellora.
The great Ellora constitutes of a series of thirty-four multi-storied caves where, by a happy coincidence of luck and state patronage, the philosophies of the Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism meet and interact in a strange and peaceful confluence of differing faiths and opposite world-views; this kind of co-existence is now very rare in to-day’s regimented, sectarian and divided India. The hand-made fine carvings, paintings and statues, all huddled together in a small geographical kingdom of two kilometers, are still invested with belief by the visitors of different religions and nationalities. The temples are the artistic evidence, executed in exquisite stone work, of the yearning souls searching for higher reality beyond the pale of the sheer physical plane of human existence. The entire cluster of temples have been gradually chiseled and scooped out of the mass of steep stubborn rocks of basalt. They were excavated lovingly between the 5th and 10th centuries by generations of sculptors and carvers, possessed by a higher guiding spirit, compelling them to labour hard in most harsh conditions.
The reverential collective of the industrious temple artists wished to remain anonymous, in striking contrast to the crop of the current Indian artists desperate for celebrity status, dollars, foreign fellowships and global awards. And, a final migration to another country, any outside India, an advanced cultural location from which to ridicule India as dark story for their white masters and from where, they can talk easily of diaspora and displacement, a reversible situation for them, anyway.
These humble artists, on the other hand, were doing a daily service to the band of living and breathing gods who spoke directly to them and directed them to accomplish their gigantic collective task of love, devotion and labour. The obscure but dedicated carvers had transformed their surrounding wooded hills into luminous spiritual enclaves for an impoverished feudal age. The poor unpaid masons and master builders voluntarily embraced a harsh life, equipped only with strong belief and guided in dark moments by an inner light.
Their tools were primitive, working conditions poor but their global vision was superbly three dimensional, almost matchless in its breadth, width and depth. They started their monumental work of centuries from the top of the hills to the base, hammering and chipping away painfully the dusty crusty layers of stone; calloused human hands creating, in the slow process, an interlinked master narrative of stunning visuals, a super body of magnificent figures, animals and motifs, wonderfully alive, out of the sheer vertical walls of solid rock, over the unhurried centuries, now buried forever, in the womb of time.
They carved daily in a fit of feverish zeal, inch by inch, making the unyielding rock yield to their single holy vision and produced excellent and elevating sculptures and buildings, depicting three great religions symbolically on the facades and walls of the cave in close proximity and complete religious harmony –a remarkable synthesis possible only in the holy city of Jerusalem of the yore. It is an inspiring example of an early tolerant India at its best. Their act of cooperative labour created transcendental ideals of divine beauty, bliss and perfection, out of the mass of the dry unfeeling hard stones. The temples celebrate the cessation of human desire and the awakening of the divine. It is a mammoth exercise in self-realisation, betterment and wellness of the mind and body.
The huge linear site is a human marvel! It is a grand gritty combination of patience, belief and utter devotion that could create great monuments of art and rock cut architecture, erected in the midst of deep wilderness, in a time when gods were said to intervene directly in human affairs, like a community of caring elders, and the twinkling stars illuminated the paths of lonely mendicants towards salvation. There were no lingering doubts or anxieties, assailing the human mind. Terrified humans petitioned to these lofty airy beings living on the deserted icy frozen mountain caves where no mortal could ever venture or under the frightening infinity of a churning, hissing ocean barred from the prying earthly eyes. The earnest heartfelt anguished cries and loving pleas of the tiny earthlings were invariably heard by the sympathetic and all powerful mighty residents of an ethereal space that could never be measured by a latter calculating greedy commercial mind.
The imposing three-storied structures house some rare sacred glimpses into the mystic and the unknown for those who can penetrate that higher level of reality, that higher consciousness few realise in a lifetime of Earthly struggles, ego-clashes and vanities. These sacred profound truths are now no longer understood by more evolved homo sapiens, living longer and with a different set of the daily priorities, largely having lost the capacity to hear the divine songs in the chirping of birds, in the falling rain on a freshly-ploughed field, or in the whisperings of the breeze cooling the face of a hot Earth in the summer, or in the moving trees near the meandering pure crystalline river, or, in the sun fired orange by the dawn, rising from the horizon, like a full-bodied Venus. That is why the intelligent gods of the deep rainforests, pure romantic lands and mist-covered monasteries perched on inaccessible hills, finding themselves redundant like old parents, grandparents and ailing friends, safely retreated to their superior abodes in lofty realms of the stratosphere. They are no longer emotionally valid for a fun-seeking generation that finds its spiritual index in sensex, violent video games and gleaming cars.
The towering monasteries can be still breathtaking for a secular viewer. Today, they are art. For our simple seeking ancestors of the past, they were earthly gateways opening onto shimmering revolving metaphysical regions that could be accessed and finally grasped by meditating with purity in their hearts. Modern eyes can see only the stone statues in what were once the revelation of the holy. For humans in those days, the statues and icons were externalisations of a deep sacred ennobling pattern revealed to a minority of the pious seekers of hidden meanings of earthly life.
It was late Monday afternoon. The foreign tourist traffic was otherwise light. It largely consisted of a circulating mélange of muscular tall florid-faced, old Americans in blue jeans and wide-brim hats. In sharp contrast to the Yankees were some porcelain-faced delicate little young Japanese couples looking dainty and vulnerable on the sun-kissed courtyard of the sprawling complex of old hardy caves looming over us; the wealthy east-west touristy mix on an expensive discovery trail to a well-known oriental spot of curiosity: the typical occidental tourists in constant search for that elusive nirvana from the burning madness of a competitive capitalism, in some nook or dreary corner of the east.
The foreigners were all armed with Nikons and Camcorders, recording the modern encounter with the splendours of the past on the celluloid. The pure tranquility of the spread-out monasteries suddenly hit a powerful blow to my solar plexus — after a fast and furious escape from the seething Mumbai of humid hot June, it was a welcome relief to sit down on a crude stone ledge in uninterrupted silence, not to be disturbed by any harsh city sounds for hours; your mind drained off all the toxic residues of a hyperactive life of buying and consuming. The deep silence of the hallowed place came as a soothing balm to my fevered mind torn apart reluctantly from a bustling urban context.
JS or Jaydeep Sarangi was the author of this fantastic getaway for me, an offbeat place offering a chance of new kind of experience. He is a young bilingual poet, critic and literary editor from West Bengal. Medinipur, to be precise, and is visiting me in Mumbai for the first time. It was his idea to visit the world-famous heritage caves, going back, he said, like an operator of religious tourism to a mesmerized me, to thousands years of deep solitude and isolated meditation done by the ascetics in these roughly-hewn humble cells. A must-see, he said simply, leaving nothing to argue.
As a good host, I initially tagged along, an unwilling partner, in this quest of a different type. But the scene around me appeared pleasing. The air was thick with the dust from the ceased ages. One step and you were hurtled headlong into a different milieu. I stood on the borderland of the immediate transient moment and a remote episode cast in stone. The sensation was a bit electrifying, I must say. The ruins looked tempting, affording a peep into the cultural past read in the tedious history textbooks so far. But I was a little hesitant also in venturing into these dark structures. The reason is Freudian — the unconscious.
Caves have never appealed to me. The subterranean forbidding structures, dark and damp, deep yawning orifices give me the creeps. I feel enclosed and trapped…in my mind, at least. In one of the early school picnics to a primitive vandalised site, I got trapped in one of the damp hollow caves that echoed every sound and magnified them hundred folds.
They were a chain of dark and damp caves, intersecting each other and delving as concentric circles deep in the womb of the tall wooded hill. Water dripped in some of the darker caves at the back, where an unescorted seven-year-old me had wandered, attracted by the raw mystery of those open wide and airy rooms with wide-stone ledges and inner staircases built into the walls. By accident, I lost my way, and wept in that scary gloomy empty vastness visited only by the howling winds. The silence was unnerving, till I was finally rescued by somebody desperate and panicked. I cannot recall now who it was. The vivid experience stayed on, instilling a fear of dark places. Even today, I cannot stand a lift with the solid steel doors; I prefer a lift with a collapsible channel. Claustrophobia makes me stay on the little projecting balcony of my eleventh-floor apartment in Colaba, Mumbai, for majority of the evenings, if I am early.
Somehow, the magic of this place starts playing on my citified mind. It has got rustic charm and refreshing unpolluted air. I look around and see the rock-cut caves in the background, suspended in time forever, where post-modern visitors try to scrape some spiritual truths from these old centers of meditation and art. Man does not live by bread alone. Somebody remarked once. I fully agree. There is a whole rich world existing beyond the standard sensual one. Some find it easily; some find it late in life. The only thing is that we have to make some efforts to find out this beckoning Lhasa on our own. If we do not, we miss out on a rare human opportunity of redemption and inner balance.
The sound intrudes on my rudimentary rumblings.
“There is a fifteen-foot –high Nataraja here. A marvelous statue! We must see that also.Nataraja is very special for me. He is the dancing god of the Hindus, an epitome of finer values, refined sensibilities. We must now go to the cave number sixteen. It is the largest monolithic structure in the world. It is called Kailasa temple. The pillars, the figures, the alcoves, the intricately-carved interiors are all magnificent art from a different age. Even the skeptics feel reverential inside the cave, the pull of the chanted mantras is so strong on our minds,” says JS.
I merely nod. Climbing the rough stone steps is extremely difficult for an obese and sedate businessman like me. I pant and heave and perspire; younger JS bolts up, reminding me of a playful deer cub on the loose in a verdant valley, leaping over the tree trunks and the singing springs, a mesmerizing combination of slow motion and grace, gamboling in an old forest illuminated by the rays of a hot summer sun.
I feel I am getting old and depleting fast. My swollen belly heaves up and down over my broad belt, tightly encasing my generous middle in large XXX blue jeans from California. While climbing those rude broad steps, I could still feel the expensive five-star brunch of chicken tikka and wine, now a liquid mélange, swirling and dashing repeatedly against my projecting ugly belly; the dead chopped chicken parts making me strangely queasy, in this upward climb for a feel of this otherworldly hermitage once walked by monks and ascetics — a sacred cove still largely insulated from the humdrum of a mad world of numbers and bank accounts, ledgers and rising corporate profits and falling losses or, vice versa, discussed over caviar in pricey hotels, in business dinners.
“You lost?” JS asks in his slightly musical tone. A typical tone that sounds sweet due to Bengali’s innate cadence. They roll the words in mouth and then expel the rolled-and-rounded words in a rapid fire sequence of quick sounds, achieving the dulcet auditory effect on human ear exposed to harsh traffic horns and harsher pop music at home. Kind of sensory poetry. The Sarangis are originally from Orissa. They left it four centuries ago for sonar Bengal and settled down in that land of songs and dance, music and rivers…now, they feel naturalised and a born-again true-blooded cerebral Bengali rather than an Oriya. (Excuse me, if I am playing on some cultural stereotypes. My experience with the bhadralok, the typical Bengali gentleman, is limited. I am writing what I think is the general feature of their community in this rush of images being recorded and recalled by my brain at this hour, this moment).
“You should have been a painter rather than a dealer of paints,” my friend JS says. Joking? I get no clue from his oval wheatish face. His is a kind face. The eyes are brown…and restless and searching. The face is topped with a mop of slightly wavy dark hair. He is tall, dusky and well-maintained. Hardly thirty-six and has authored sixteen books on art, criticism, poetry, literature…empty words for me.
We met on the Internet, became close and decided to meet in person. He came on a short visit to Mumbai, “to watch the rolling lazy Arabian Sea, the sand and sun, Tamasha theatre, and to eat hot local cuisines in the pouring rains at the Juhu sea shore.” Then, we decided to visit the caves and talk to the great Lord Shiva there in Ellora, some thirty kilometres or so away from Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
“The high statue shows the various dancing poses of a great dancing God whose gentle demeanor and stoic philosophy connects with millions across India and abroad,” said JS, in the first flush of dinner, in an expensive restaurant in Mumbai. “He is our collective aesthetic principle. He is an artist who creates works of art that are truthful and beautiful. He celebrates life in death and agonises over destruction, the great Nataraja. His creation is benign and the general welfare is the goal of his art. Rooted in cosmic reality, attached to worldly passions, yet detached from carnal sensuality, the Shiva is pure energy of a higher level; an enduring living symbol of the very best of an old nation,” elaborated JS to me, in the authoritative voice of an Indian philosophy professor at Oxford.
I was into my fifth peg of rum. A roasted duck stared from a gleaming plate of an expensive China Restaurant in Colaba. Shiva made no remote connection with the cultural DNA of my psyche. Comte, yes! Croce, yes. My own culture was beyond me. All mumbo-jumbo to me and my English-educated boarding school sensibility. We must move beyond all this mythology. Somehow, at the end of a sumptuous dinner, I was committed to the entire project of finding the great Shiva for myself. And bringing him home for a cozy dinner.
The afternoon sun was pouring the golden molten lava on my bare skin. The yellow T-shirt stuck to my broad hairy back. To escape the heat, I entered the sanctum sanctorum of the cave sixteen…and, found the tall slim Shiva directly staring at me, his matted hair flying in the air, half-closed heavy-lidded fish eyes that immediately penetrated all my protective gear from a different culture and age, casting a sudden deep spell on my sweating corpulent body. His eyes were hypnotic. I felt rooted to the bare ground of the cave that was trod upon by millions of feet in the preceding centuries. I could see his eyes X-raying my body and scanning my dusty layered soul, layered with accumulated grossness of my indulging years of excesses. It was like the first ray of the sun lighting up the twisted roots of a gnarled tree.
Suddenly, every other sound stopped…as if I had entered a soundless chamber. Absolute silence pervaded the hallowed space, cutting me off temporarily from the external world of phenomena. I was on a different plane. The spirit world. For the first time, I felt like floating in the air, a lightness of being hardly experienced by me during my adult life. The desires, the cravings, the baser instincts all ceased immediately. A powerful beam of white light came from some crevice and flooded my interiors in a surging wave.
I stood alone before the Lord. Then, the Nataraja, the first artist in the world, began his elevating performance witnessed by few blessed souls. The figure moved down from its perch of the centuries and began moving before my unblinking, wide-open eyes. The dance, documented by the rishis and few other evolved souls from a pristine age, started slowly. His legs were partly lifted, hands bent in a posture of sublime dance. His tall ascetic figure, alive, vexed his muscles of the feet, the anklets producing the honeyed harmonies, the Earth touched by the divine feet, trembled with the fluid cosmic energy. The dance began and I was entrapped in the frenzied movement. He whirled to the drum beat, his anklets tinkling. Then suddenly, the blue-throated, crescent-wearing, Ganges-carrying God stopped and smiled benignly at me…like an affectionate father. His eyes again fixed steadily on my flushed face. The figure became still and the statue of the Shiva grew perfectly immobile again. His face was still very luminous. The darkness within me felt illuminated by that glow. I was just speechless with wonder and elation.
My soul shed its gross outer layers and healed in that enclosed space in the shadow of the Nataraja. It was the great Shiva conceived as an artist, as dancer, originator of fine arts, the very essence of the finest principles of humankind, conceptualised some five thousand years ago by a thinking community of seers and visionaries. The great dancing god, strangely, had selected me for this holy communion: a mere mortal, a hedonist by any account; a flawed person finding life and meaning in a daily glass of red rum and a plate of meat, in a crowded bar in a fast and furious Indian metro, where everything was available, provided you had the right connections and lot of money. His eyes were still rested on me. I stood transfixed and alone on that memorable hot afternoon, facing the figure from a hoary past, feeling his beautiful mesmerizing eyes fixed upon me; the lips sending a telepathic message, in that lonely deserted cave. I was intoxicated with joy.
Once I was in Brazil and found myself electrified in the same way, while visiting the giant statue of the Christ the Redeemer, atop the Corcovado Mountain, in the violent city of Rio de Janeiro. The world-famous statue towered over the assembled awe-struck tourists. It was awesome. Nothing could beat that emotion.
I felt overwhelmingly small and puny, insignificant, a mere floating human atom in a vast universe, in the shadow of the giant statue of the white-robed Christ with outstretched hands, radiating unique peace. I saw people crying silently in the presence of the messiah.
I had experienced identical emotions while visiting the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a few years ago in Italy. The chattering groups of tourists fell silent in the hallowed precincts of the church. Inner peace flooded my clogged arteries. A strange kind of peace never experienced earlier, even if I had won a million-dollar deal or an international Rotary award. All my demons got driven out in an instant.
Even today, the beautiful and tender Madonna talks to me in a quiet corner of a Goan church on a rain-lashed morning, the tall palms swaying in the gray background, although I am a confirmed Hindu. The tranquility radiating from these icons affects me directly. Why? I have no plausible answers. Then there are the great art works of Raphael or da Vinci. The music of Beethoven. A strange serenity would overcome me. Here also, I felt the same. Suddenly composed and at peace. I was in the presence of a higher truth!
Have you ever visited the Jerusalem?
The cobbled streets, the Golgotha, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, the al-Aqsa mosque, form a strange rugged territory where, otherwise distrusting, conflicting Muslims, Christians and Jews, unite to find soul-foods in plenty, in scattered locations, in less hostile settings. The chemistry of Jerusalem is different from other cities. It can bring warring parties of a divided city into the folds of a common heritage of noblest teachings in the world and make them aware of the futility of aggressive hatred. The old city can bring tears to your eyes as every nook in it seeps with historical memories of different kinds.
History, myth, legend and faith come together in a heady mix for the travellers. The place, despite political rhetoric and violence, is founded on faith and consecrated with a common desire for peace and tranquility. The average people — the Arabs, the Christians and the Jews — feel overwhelmed by the strange magic of the city that has nourished three important religions of the world. And, most important, they find inner peace, poise and balance. They get centred internally by that pious experience. They feel transformative power of the teachings of the great men who had walked these dark alleys thousand years ago. Their quest for betterment ends and starts from there.
Ellora precisely did this to me. I had passed out in the cave, in the shadow of the Nataraja and woken up reborn…
“What happened?” asked JS.
We were sitting in the small hotel, outside the premises. I narrated my incredible experience.
“The Shiva came alive before my eyes. It was marvelous!”
He paused. “I came and saw you reclining on the floor, in sleep, drenched in sweat. I thought you suffered a massive cardiac attack.”
“I sprinkled water on you. After ten long minutes, you woke up.”
I said nothing. I could still hear the drums and the anklets in my ears.
“This happens. Intensification of buried devotion. Sacred places can bring out this emotion. Euphoria. Reverence. When you see the first folio of Shakespeare or visit Stratford-upon-Avon, or, Yasyana Polyana, you get the same identical feeling in your brain.”
The drums receded in my ringing ears. “Yes. The Real Madrid. The Manchester United. The City Lakers. The ten number shirt in soccer. Things can be multiplied. Neuro-chemicals in the brain, etc…”
We sipped tea.
“Anatole France described this mood in his famous Juggler story.”
“Yes. And, Wilde, in his Selfish Giant. Dickens, in Christmas Carols.”
We said nothing. I was still in trance. Finally, we got up. On the way back, I saw a small Shiva statue being sold by the vendor, an old lady, near the main highway. I stopped and bought it, paying double the amount. It was a little Nataraja.
“You converted?” JS asked teasingly.
“Yes. You converted me. You told me about the Nataraja. He is beyond us.”
We started walking towards the hired taxi. “The gods are representations of the ethical. They teach us about the sacred, the beautiful, the elevating in life.”
JS nodded a yes. We stopped momentarily.
“The kinship is formed.”
“You, me and the Nataraja.”
“You told me about the Nataraja. The Nataraja taught me about the morality of living, the aesthetic side, the controlling of excess desires, the possibility of finding heaven on earth.”
And, we started moving again. The Shiva in my cotton shoulder bag. Yes, I was taking my kin, the great Shiva, the original artiste, to home for a cozy dinner and a cozy after dinner talk in my study or the little balcony. I was sure he would not leave me afterwards. After all, he was my kin. I know I can talk to him in private and pour out all my hurts, pain and anxieties. I know he will listen to me with understanding, without ridiculing or humiliating. He will listen like a good friend and tell me what to do…
Ellora has done the unbelievable to a battered body and a fevered mind thriving on competition and greed. It has made me reclaim my internal centre, balance and a soul. And, made me complete. My relationship with Him was unlike the other ones. It was not conditional and mercenary. I had found my liberation in an old stone statue in an old cave…simply because I had started to believe in things beyond commercial. Kin are those whom you can always relate and talk to… I intend to do just that with the Shiva in my home.
Sunil Sharma is Mumbai-based senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 21 published books: Seven collections of poetry; three of short fiction; one novel; a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award—2012. His poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Scott Thomas Outlar lives and writes in the suburbs outside of Atlanta, Georgia. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He guest-edited the 2019 and 2020 Western Voices editions of Setu Mag. Selections of his poetry have been translated into Afrikaans, Albanian, Bengali, Dutch, French, Italian, Kurdish, Persian, Serbian, and Spanish. His sixth book, Of Sand and Sugar, was released in 2019. His podcast, Songs of Selah, airs weekly on 17Numa Radio and features interviews with contemporary poets, artists, musicians, and health advocates. More about Outlar’s work can be found at 17Numa.com.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Satish never thought that one day he would become a character from The Plague.
He had enjoyed Camus and the pop Hollywood films on disaster and pestilence but soon lost interest.
Content produced for the core buffs thrilled by a grim future: catastrophes destroying civilisations; the bleak sci-fi talk of the mid-space interstellar collisions; meteorites decimating populations; apes or aliens taking over as masters — invasions of another kind, unpredictable, unseen events with tragic consequences. An Earth endangered. And a hero, as the last survivor of a devastation, impossible in real time, at least for him.
A big turn-off.
Yet, deep down, the end-of-the-world scenarios— extreme climate change; humans-turned- zombies; androids, apes running the world—exercised a morbid fascination also.
Was it a possibility?
Yes. Floods. Famines. Smog. Pollution. Melting ice. Pessimistic news that could no longer be denied.
One thing he could not escape was this terrible condition — the unseen fate of being overwhelmed by a tragedy of epic scales. Once it began to unravel without a warning, it could leave the planet paralysed.
Apart from terror and racial violence, disease and virus have emerged as new existential threats.
Pandemics could make the master race vulnerable, despite advancements of science and tech.
Naturally such disasters fascinated and repelled the mind.
Now arrives COVID-19.
His Mumbai apartment — his entire universe, post-work, shrank down to a cluttered space of 650 square feet. A mere glass cage, suspended in air; the Eastern Express Highway and an arching flyover, few kilometres away, as the bustling backcloth, signs of a busy mega city that never sleeps, a manic Mumbai in over drive — currently, it was in the quiet of a tough quarantine.
A state he never imagined could happen to him or the dream city.
But it was happening, like a nightmare, unspooling like a pestilential movie from Hollywood.
Fantasy becoming real!
He was both horrified and terrified.
Satish had never seen such a scene — a city of millions in lockdown.
Plague was an actuality.
And he was stuck inside his rented apartment, like a fluttering insect in a glass jar.
From the glass-window, he stared at the deserted highway. Half-an-hour later, he was watching the opposite tower, from the balcony, where families leant out or sat in view of the windows, bored to death by the lack of activity and movement.
It was lockdown.
Nothing could ground the wheels of a community like fear.
Mumbai had come to a standstill– like India — first time in history for this length of time.
He was in self-isolation.
For 21 days!
The Plague and Hollywood look convincing, plausible—almost prophetic.
Sometimes art points out the way and correctly maps responses, individual and collective, to a gigantic apocalypse.
I plan to read Camus again and watch pestilence-themed Hollywood flicks.
Satish wrote in his journal.
Some genius suggested in one of the WhatsApp groups, to blog, vlog or write in a diary, one’s innermost thoughts, ideas, fears, joys of living in the vice-like grip of corona virus: “Better try the diary, friends! Write in a neat hand the trials and tribulations of getting quarantined in your own home! Diary writing is a vanished art now! Revive it. Pour out your thoughts, stories, moods, views there. Call it the ‘Jottings of a plague journal’. Or any other name. The important thing is an account of the days and hours spent inside a home turned restricted space, sanctuary, fort or cell—whatever—where an inner or outer transformation takes place. Be creative!”
The idea sounded good.
The only modification: He created an online diary.
He had never felt this limited, immobilized!
For twenty-one days, you were asked to stay inside.
There were rumors galore.
Suddenly, the virus had become global obsession.
Catch-22: If you went out, you would get caught by the cops or the virus or both; if you stayed indoors, you stayed safe. But there was an uncomfortable sense of suffocation within the walls.
He wanted to rush out into the open.
Such moments were terrible!
A sense of claustrophobia and an urge to go to the garden in order to gulp fresh air, reclaim the empty streets, to run and shout from the intersection; talk to the trees and birds — activities never thought of as desirable for a 32-year-old business executive with a travel agency in the Fort area haunted his being.
Creativity offered liberation.
These can set you free and make you wander unknown realms!
Satish jotted down his fleeting ideas in the journal, sometimes in italics. Earlier, he had maintained a diary, writing down his feelings as he could not share the pain and sadness of being a shy and poor teenager in a small town. There were things he could not trust with his two close friends.
That is the power of the word.
Life caught on and Satish had forgotten his diary.
Writing had given him an outlet.
He was reminded of the packed guitar.
I will play the guitar.
He jotted down.
Given with this message: “You wanted to play the guitar. A sister’s humble gift to a younger brother. Love from Boston!” He had cried the whole night.
He took out the Hawaiian guitar, unpacked it and felt nostalgic.
A home in Ghaziabad. A widow gave tuitions and raised two children.
The sister worked part time and excelled academically. Later on, she went to America on H-IB visa. She sent money to her mama regularly from Boston where she eventually married an Irishman.
Few years later, Satish too joined the agency and moved to Mumbai.
The sacrifices of the mother and sister!
I will write to mother. Request her to come down here.
It all started on Saturday, April 4.
It began like the previous day — ordinary and dull.
At 8.30 am, the boss sent a note: “Temporary staff terminated. More heads to roll soon. Recession takes its toll.”
He panicked. What would happen, if I he got fired?
“Wait and watch,” said the boss.
Satish was on the edge of an abyss.
“First time I felt vulnerable. Uncertain future. I now understand the pain of the downsized whom earlier I dismissed as incompetent and poor performers.”
Call from a co-worker. She was tearful: “How should I cope? They fired a lot of people. My husband is already out of job. Two kids. Old mother-in-law in need of medical attention. What should we do?” And more weeping.
“Please, Janet. We are with you. You need anything, let me know. I have saved some money. I can spare something.”
“No, dear brother! Thanks…” Her voice trails off.
And the call gets disconnected
Moved, Satish writes:
Hope! It sustains the humankind in crises.
It was a revelation. God exists.
I see the flight of storks, parrots, pigeons, sparrows and crows. And a regal kingfisher.
The birds chirp.
And the song of a nightingale wafts on a fresh breeze from across the salt pens and few wetlands, at the back of the building.
I am hearing these natural sounds in a metro centre — after years.
Sheer delight, this heavenly symphony, confirms the presence of God again for me.
…I want to fly freely in the space, like the birds!
How precious this freedom!
Give me wings, God, please!
I want to fly.
The maid cannot come. I have to cook meals for the day.
Now I understand the value of home-cooked meals made by the women of family.
Sakshi is at her maternal home. Must thank her for her daily loving meals that I often did not appreciate. As I have to cook daily, I, now, appreciate the value of her cooking and caring.
Resolution: I will write a thank-you note to mama, sister and Sakshi tonight.
Urgent: I must check with the domestic help, if she needs money.
Is she getting her daily meals during the lockdown?
No response from the help.
God protect her and her family!
What about Chottu? Is he safe? Is he getting meals daily, this young boy from Bihar?
When Sakshi is not here, I go to this street-side cart where Chottu serves hot and sugary ginger-tea in little glasses. He always has a sweet smile, this frail kid with a mop of curly hair. Clad in the brown half pants and a yellow oversized T, bare feet, flitting between the customers and stall owner-cum-tea maker; washing the glasses quickly and then going to the shops nearby for the delivering the orders — it is like a one-boy show.
Everybody calls him Chottu. And loves his golden smile. Some regular patrons sometimes give him small tips. In the night, the boy sleeps in the hand cart only.
I must find out.
And Kaul Saab!
The elderly Kashmiri uncle, two floors above. Kind. Soft-spoken.
Once Sakshi had slipped down in the courtyard of the building, Kaul uncle immediately took her to the doctor in his car—and back.
Evening, he brought fruits to “my daughter Sakshi and son Satish. Anything you guys need, let me know. The retired person will be happy to be of some help.”
We both had felt indebted to this tall and gracious widower living alone in the teeming city.
Afterwards, we occasionally met in the elevator or the lobby and exchange few words.
How is he managing without his domestic help?
I will check with him also on phone, in case he needs something.
Got both on the phone!
Chottu was delighted and asked again, “Saab, you sure paying for my meals through the food- delivery app?”
“Yes, son. Sure.”
Kaul uncle was also happy. “Daily meals? Wow! Not tech savvy, though. Cannot handle these basic apps. Much appreciated! I will pay in cash.”
“No, Uncle! Let your son pay.”
“Thanks again for remembering your old uncle.”
I have this strange experience:
…I am getting lighter. The sky invites. Birds beckon. The sky is blue and beautiful. There is no smog. The air is intoxicating. I pray to God: I want to soar bird-like in the divine vault and savour the freedom of a vast expanse. Please, God!
And, suddenly, I get smaller, fly out of the window, grow instant wings, begin exploring the heavens, a man-bird in reality.
Up in the air.
The sun winks.
The clouds kiss my flushed cheeks
The birds include me in their joyous flights. I circle with them and describe patterns in the sky, like an expert.
I continue to soar above a city made better by the sights of strays being fed by solitary men; migrant workers being given rations or meals twice every day; cops served with tea and water bottles; the medical professionals presented with flowers — new unsung heroes and heroines — by strangers; trees and flowers grow fast; rivers cleaner; streets quieter; visibility increased: stars appear clearly before my startled eyes.
It is sheer magic!
This post-industrial world unseen, thanks to Corona, opening up, as a dream.
And me — flying and inhaling the fresh wind, so invigorating — over this altered landscape, freely, joyfully; I first time understand the meaning of life, positive living, despite the pandemic, COVID-19, the lockdown, the huge threat of infection and confinement.
The virus has completely destroyed the arrogance of humans as a master race.
Nature is taking back control. And giving lessons.
I keep on flying in my new avatar.
The towers and the city gleam beneath my gossamer wings and a full heart.
The network of twisted roads, almost empty of traffic.
No pollutants to sting skin or eyes.
Birds hop on the asphalt!
As I soar higher, I see the creatures out in the alleys and the highways, people reaching out, in a grand gesture, to those in need, like in a big community.
Free of earthly bonds, at last!
I fly lighter and higher into another realm of evolved consciousness, reality.
Ecstatic, I become one with the elements, in an odd transformation, in time of a pandemic…
Incredible! Is it not?
Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html For more details of publications, please visit the link below: http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/