Categories
The Literary Fictionist

In search of Lewis Carroll

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

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

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

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

mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

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

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

have come here.’

“Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a

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

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

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

have been changed several times since then.’

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

“So, who is Lewis Carroll?”

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

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

“It is not a real name,” Grace said.

“What is the real name?” I asked.

“Oh! I forgot!”

“No problem, honey.”

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

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

“It is literature,” I said.

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

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

“OK. Who is Carroll?”

We were back to square one.

“Give me some time,” I said.

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

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

Can we?

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

How? 

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

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

All right.

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

Now, that is too much!

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

How?

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

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

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

Go ahead, I say.

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

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

Here is how, says Homocus:

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

Please explain.

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

Sorry!

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

Hmm!

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

Well, okay. Go on…

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

Good!

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

What about the hall?

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

Stretching it a bit?

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

For a lawyer, this is all Greek!

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

Sounds intriguing!

“The Cheshire Cat!”

What about it?

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

How?

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

What else is there in this marvelous book?

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

What is the message?

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

Hmm.

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

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

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

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

And what is marvellous?

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

Marvellous!

Last question.

Yes.

Who is Lewis Carroll?

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

Illustration?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was he in life? Our dear Carroll?

“He never existed.”

What?

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

“Lewis Carroll only.”

Now you sound like the Cheshire Cat or the Caterpillar.

“Not at all.”

Please explain.

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

Hmm! Not very clear yet…

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

STOP!

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

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Categories
The Literary Fictionist

A Stranger in the City

By Sunil Sharma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trauma of being the Other starts now. 

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is an early December night. 

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

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

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

I am now a stranger! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


*

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

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

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

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


Life is just fragile! 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“Or, you wanted to act like Spiderman?” 


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


Babu, you from these parts?” 


“Yes.” 


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


“Just got mugged. Broke like you.” 


“That makes us soul brothers.” 


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


“What is your name?” I asked. 


“Heera Lal.” 


“What do you do?” 


“I am a rickshaw puller.”

 
The low life! 

“It is a difficult life.” 


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

My jaw dropped. 


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


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

Then he said, “Listen.” 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you eat something?” Heera Lal asked.

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

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


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

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

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

Babu saab?” 

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

.

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

*Babu – Sir

*Saab – Sahib or Sir

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

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

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

Categories
Stories

A Dark Barbie Doll

By Sunil Sharma

 Her voice was excited.

“Hey, Nina Davuluri has won! The dark-skinned girl has won the Miss America crown for 2014!  Great! Is it not?”

“Wow! If she had been in India, she would have been rejected!”

“How can you say that?” asked my friend who gave me this piece of information on her cell phone.

“Simple. Indians hate dark skin! And the most hated one is a dark girl!”

There was a pause…longer one.

Then: “Yes. You are right.”

I could hear the pain in the voice.

“We are the most hated girls in our society.”  She said and did not wait for my response before hanging up on me suddenly.

Certain facts do not need to be confirmed.

I understand Rima. Both of us know the pain of rejection and taunts. I am called a Kali, a black bitch or a Dark Barbie by my classmates.

How I hate myself for being dark-skinned!

Rima and I form a strange sisterhood. A sisterhood of pain. We often chat in the evenings. Exchange tidbits. We are the discarded ones. Such sessions are a therapy. They are healing.

“My dad hates me!” She shared one night.

“Why?”

“He says I am a dark … and dark girls are not lucky!”

Her voice breaks and she starts sobbing.

I, too, become emotional. In life, we often mirror close friends.

“How will they find a suitable boy for you! Nobody wants to marry a dark girl. He always laments. This is how God has created me. How am I at fault?” asks she, broken.

I have no answer.

Every morning, the mirror screams: Ugly! Ugly!

I hate mirrors! Remarks by the louts, family elders, females. Words as cannon balls, designed to demolish you.

Nobody wants me except an old lady ejected from her son’s family and living off the temple premises. She often smiles kindly at me during my daily visit to the temple and says, “Dear, you are so beautiful! Like my own daughter…”   

On the other hand, fair girls are idolised.             

My cousin, fair, gets all the attention and love. She was gifted Blondie dolls and is affectionately called our White Barbie!

Together, we draw wolf whistles and — “Here comes the ebony and cream-white pair!” exclamations, things that please her and devastate me completely. I now avoid going out with her. Who wants to be jeered at and insulted by the boorish boys?

Rita, my cousin, has all the boys and even men swooning for her delicate skin and hair dyed blonde. On special occasions, she wears blue contact lenses and at parties, men take her to be a Westerner.

“Are you an American?” They invariably ask Rita dressed in a snug black T-shirt and slim jeans, impressed by her American English—-she had worked earlier in a call center where they coached her to use an American accent. She drawls and leaves the desi* audience completely overawed!

“Yeah!”

“Which part?”

“Washington, DC.”

And all the young men — overbearing MBAs, engineers, doctors or businessmen –would get floored by the sight of this sexy foreigner chic and quietly follow her everywhere, eager to win her hand. Her slim figure, fluent English and smiling blue eyes would convert men into permanent slaves ready to climb the Everest or dive from a helicopter into the Bermuda Triangle. Just for her yes! She would enjoy the cult status among the males. Even Uncles — the neighbourhood ageing males called Uncle-ji by the younger ones — would try to detain her with inane conversations, measuring her full figure through their lusty eyes.

“Bastards!” Rita would say disgustedly.

We would be s-o envious! In a room full of admiring Romeos and a stately Rita conversing on Hollywood or Desperate Housewives, other females would be invisible. Only she existed. Males could murder for her!

“What do you do?” asked a dashing man once in another south Delhi party where Rita was an anglicized Indian babe.

“I am a writer.” This time she was truthful. She did write and write well.

“What?” his mouth was about to fall off.

“Why? Can women not be writers?” she asked, eyes fluttering.

The man went limp. “N-o…Y-e-s, ye-s, I mea-n…” he stammered hopelessly under the chandeliers in that big hall, while other waiting suitors smiled.

“You write!” he managed to ask, going red and pink and white at the same time.

“Yes.”

“In Hindi?”

Rita, already headed in the opposite direction, spun around on her red high heels and glared for long and then spat out a loud exclamation, “In Hindi!!!” It sounded like an obscenity hurled at some defenseless figure. The voice echoed in the hall and a hush fell. The guests stopped immediately and stared at the insulted lady who repeated, “In Hindi!!! My Gawd!!!”

The man was killed — almost by the loud sarcasm and dripping hatred.

“Do not folks write in Hindi? Or, in any other language of India?” he blurted, unwilling to give up easily before a hostile audience of the socialites wearing leading western brands of the designer suits and gowns and loudly conversing in English only.

“Let them. I will NEVER write in Hindi or any other vernacular. I WRITE IN ENGLISH,” Rita screamed. “That is the future.”

A female got interested. “A vernacular? Hindi?”

“Yes,” Rita asserted, “For me, English is the language. Others are the vernaculars.”

“Is it?” asked her interrogator, tone mocking now, eyes rolling.

“Yes. English is the center. Rest is periphery. I live and breathe Beautiful English.”

“So, the vernacular is ugly!”

“Yes. It is,” announced Rita. “After sixty-six years of independence, middle-class India reveres English. Is it not beautiful for us then?”

The female smiled and then asked, “Fine. What do you write on? Your basic themes? Concerns?”

“Who are you?”  Rita was haughty memsaab by now; livid, impatient, ready to spar in a room suddenly gone hushed.

“I am a journalist working for a top English daily,” she said, unperturbed. This mollified Rita. She knew the value of the quick media- promotion.

“Oh! S-o n-i-c-e! I write on slums, poverty, rapes, violence, cows in the street, bride burning—Impossible India! Yes, that is my theme. Capturing India, a nation impossible to live,” she said, assuming a neo-colonial tone of complete dejection and implied evangelism.

The fat, bespectacled woman with tousled hair and a cigarette in mouth, smiled and said, “Okay. An area of darkness. Perpetual darkness. An impossible nation. A despotic oriental country refusing to be civilized. Then you can expect at least a Booker and a Hollywood contract soon for your notion of India as a barbaric country of one billion plus people!”

They both laughed.

“Who knows?” said Rita, pleased. “But what I see, I paint. Shouldn’t we give realities through fictions?”

“Only one-sided realities? Pandering to certain preconceived ideas about India in the West?” Asked the journalist, eyes twinkling, tone somber.

“Well, that is what India is basically. Writers give unvarnished versions.” Rita answered calmly.

 “Perhaps India is more than that. It is not about the gutters only.”

Rita smiled more broadly. “Sorry. I see only the gutters, despite its long post-colonial history. It is rotten!”

The journalist smiled. “Expect a Nobel also at the end of your career.”

They both laughed — neither serious about India.

I felt repelled by her outrageousness and stifled in that artificial place! Fakes!

Rita was like that — dominating, self-opinionated, brazen and very calculating. Some six years my senior, she lived in a bungalow maintained by servants. My uncle was a rich exporter of the ethnic wear and other apparel. In their comparison, we were very poor. My father was a lowly government clerk.

Rita had once confessed, “I am obsessed with the West. I was born in India but will not die in India.”

And she proved it—by seducing an American assistant director of a visiting movie crew that had auditioned her, among others, for a role of an Indian bride. During their stay on location, Rita got hired for the role, stole the heart of the restless 42-year-old American and left India after two months as Mrs. John Brown to settle in LA!

A writer, a bit actor and settled domesticity in the USA. Fair skin can be made to do so many things in this divided world.

I felt so discriminated and low!

“You also seduce some firangi* and leave this damn country. Some goras* love dark women.” That was her whispered last advice to me. Afterwards, she completely erased me from her memory!

Often, late evenings, alone in my little room in a congested north Delhi colony, I would pray to whosoever was listening up there for a quick end to my existential pain and 24X7-humiliation. One particular December mid-night, unable to forget the insults of the local thugs, I prayed to Him, voice breaking, “God! Why do you make girls in the first place, then make them ugly and dark and then, send them to India?”

A cold wind blew in from the open fourth-floor apartment and I saw a blurred face in the moon.

“God! Please make me beautiful and wanted! I do not want to die ugly and ordinary. Please, God, turn me into a blue-eyed, fair-complexioned slim maiden. Make my life a modern-day fairy tale. I know you can do this.”

And suddenly there was a blinding light and a clear booming voice that shook the earth—or so it seemed to my fevered mind, “Granted! Your foolish wish!”

I leapt out of my small bed, happy to have talked to Him inaccessible to fasting monks and sages and cried, “Thank God for your mercy!”

There was more rolling thunder and lightning in the vast sky and the baritone saying, “I never wanted to make the world monochromatic. I wanted the world to be colourful and diverse.”

“But we worship only the colour white,” I said, almost pleading.

A roll of thunder and a flash that blinded me and then…primeval silence.

The rest happened fast, almost dream-like, as in a Hollywood movie.

Next morning, on the college campus, a film crew was filming a segment of a reality show. They wanted to audition a couple of faces also. Hundreds of wannabes were milling around the crew. A thrilled Rima said we should go watch the shoot. We went. In the amphitheatre milling with students, a shoot was on. It was impossible to enter the crowded area and there was a near stampede. We timidly decided not to venture into such a risky situation where molestation was a reality. We went in the opposite direction, disappointed but safe and sat down on a bench under a Gulmohar tree. Rima said one of the visiting faculties for the mass media course had brought his TV production house team where he worked as an assistant editor and they were filming mass media students for current campus trends.

“We two could have become a TV star!” 

My tone was sad.

“Who cares for dusky girls these days? Everybody wants a fair-complexioned girl.” Rima was equally pessimistic.

“I care for dusky beauties!”

The booming voice—so God-like—made us turn around and face a bearded unkempt man, pony-tailed, wearing bifocals, dressed in an electric pink T-shirt and cream Bermudas. The man, in his early forties and smoking, almost popped out from nothing—another heavenly sign!

“I am the director hunting for real faces,” said he, puffing and coughing, while a female religiously followed his bulky figure, “Hunting for faces that are Indian. Authentic faces! Dark. Sensitive. Coy. Both of you have the classic Indian face and you,” pointing towards me, “you have that additional smoldering look!”

He peered closely—into my eyes and winked, “Yes. Perfect!”

I, a typical middle-class domesticated mute, blushed.

“Your name, my beauty?” He was openly flirtatious and I secretly enjoyed the adjectives and scarce male attention.

“Priya.” I said and blushed more.

“Wonderful! You are my heroine!”

He winked again and smiled. I went limp: Heroine!

Next day, in the studio, we both auditioned and were signed on for a contract. The director was helpful. “We are planning a show called Desi Divas. We would feature girls from small towns, suburbs and even villages. Our beauty coaches will train them for the final competition. Priya, you stand a good chance to be a winner with your round face and black eyes.” And he winked! I again went limp! We both returned home excited. Late evening, the call from Rima was heart-breaking, “Papa and elder brother have refused permission.”

“Why?” I was incredulous. “These days every parent wants a celeb status for their children and are crazy for money and fame TV or films can provide!”

“They do not see TV or films. They do not want instant stardom for me. Mum was hysterical. It is a sinful world there, she screamed.”

“Then?” I asked.

“I will forget this also as a dream…” and the poor simple girl cried. I, too, cried with her that night.

“Do you not have a voice?” I demanded.

“No. We, Indian girls, never have a voice.” And she cried more…

My short tryst with TV was eventful…a roller-skater ride.

A few days into production, the reality show Desi Divas, underwent a silent transmutation. One afternoon, a cigar-smoking fat man dropped onto the sets and told the team to change the concept.

“For TRPs, we want Desi Divas must look like an average Indian female. That is wheatish, if not very fair.” His tone was final as the financier.

“But s…ir…” the director was almost stammering.

“You want to continue?” asked the bald guy, more of an underworld don than a financier. The director immediately clammed up.

The concept got changed. Now it was blonde all the way to TRPs and bank but in a subtle way.

 In a way I was benefitted indirectly by this change. The major ad sponsor was a Detroit-based MNC (Multi-National Corporation) promoting a special fair-skin facial cream for the Asian countries. Temptingly called Blondie Cream, it promised a magical cream that turned a darkling into a lovely person that is a Blondie. They spotted me on the sets of the Divas and featured me in this costly 30-second prime-time TV commercial. I was shown as ugly and dark, lacking in confidence and after a month’s application of this wonderful concoction, turned into a fair-complexioned Indian girl! I was paid a good amount and the commercial had become a sensational source of revenue.

That commercial announced my arrival on the national scene as a competent actor.

I daily thanked God for this miracle. Of course, my face was airbrushed by the computer professionals in an upscale editing studio of Mumbai.

“These cream-sellers!”  the director had exclaimed. “They are running the whole show!”

“Why not? When we are pumping money into it, why should we not control?” the assistant to the financier asked.

After a long and detailed market research of the emerging middle-class market for beauty products in India — a $ 4.6 billion cosmetic industry growing at the annual rate of 15-20 per cent — it was decided to re-name the show as the Glam Divas of India.

“Every second Indian wants a fair-skinned bride or girlfriend for him. Skin is big business. Skin tones bring big bucks!” said the financier gleefully.

“Right Boss! These days even pampered Indian males have become conscious of their appearance. Even they want fair skin. This is a booming business,” said the assistant. “Going by their pace and ad-reach, very soon, there will be no dark-skinned people left on the face of the planet! Ha ha ha!”

“Good! When the Americans can make us eat Big Macs, then these smart guys can convert us for any other cause that brings dollars for them!” predicted the financier. They laughed uproariously, upsetting the director.

Then the preparations for the Glam Divas began in earnest.  The grueling sessions left no space for any frolicking by the teen middle-class participants from various regions of the country. Every girl was ambitious and confident of winning. During our stay in a big bungalow, we began as friends but ended up as enemies by the end of the show.

The initial weeks were very tough.

A team of stylists and makeover artists worked on us relentlessly. Henna madam was my mentor. A team of bustling professionals worked on the lights, clothes, accessories, make-up and camera angles. They applied foundations, rouge and lipstick to achieve the desired results. By highlighting certain facial features and skin surfaces and shooting at particular angles under certain lighting conditions, by sticking false eyelashes or darkening them further and pouting red-lips, they kept on creating and innovating the perfect image of a sexy desi diva. Human face became their live canvas. A slim diet and severe exercise regimen were strictly enforced by the production house. We did yoga, meditation, aerobics, speech training sessions. It was hectic and completely draining! During our long stay in the rented bungalow on the beach, family visits were few. It was a totally regimented commune of ruthless and competing models being finally groomed as the mercenary fighters for the coveted crown and the big purse it carried…and the ensuing stardom.

“Billions are riding on this show,” said the grim financier one late evening, “The Glam Divas will be telecast across the world. The UK, USA, Canada and Australia with sizable Indian presence are our favorite targets. More than two billion homes is our mantra!”

After weeks of intensive coaching, we were transmuted into the light-skinned, golden-streaked divas ready for the waiting world. When we arrived on the stage, before the shoot, air crackled with suppressed energy and implicit hostility among the ready-to-kill warriors for the crown and celeb status. The demure middle-class females had been transformed into merciless combat machines. As we entered in our fineries and practiced poise, the audience gasped by the dazzling spectacle. All the select members of the critical jury were equally impressed.

“That is wonderful!” financier exclaimed voice hoarse with anticipation. “Nobody wants a darkie on such costly shows. They want blondes. They are all MJ-clones!”

MJ-clones?

I did not know.

“It is the lightning of skin by the famous singer Michael Jackson. We call it in fashion industry MJ-syndrome.” Henna Aunty gave me the gyaan*. “The light-skinned beings are dubbed as his clones. Dark-skinned models prefer that look these days to get noticed.”

“We are successful in making these suburban and small-town teens into fair products. Our brand triumphs!” said the financier loudly and his team laughed dutifully.

The final contest was nail-biting. I was pitted against a chirpy thing from Chandigarh. We fenced with each other and the jury. Questions were rapid and tough.

“Your favourite novel?” somebody asked from the jury.

The Hunger Games.”

“Why?”

“Life is an arena. Tough gladiators survive.”

“Icon?”

“Miley Cyrus.”

“And twerking?”

A loud laughter followed.

“Why not? It is my body. It is a different type of dance that celebrates the female body.”

An audible gasp and some murmurings and smiles.

“Film?”

The Twilight Saga.”

“Why?”

“Because it talks of the possibility of a workable romance between a human teenager and a vampire. What girl would not swoon on a lover so unusual? Two different species united by love. It deifies love…love in all its manifestations, human and non-human.”

They were impressed. Secretly, I was thanking Henna madam and Rita, my cousin, for coaching me about popular culture. The final question from the Asia Head of the Blondie Cream proved to be the clincher.

“If reincarnation is a choice, where would you like to be re-born?”

There was a hushed silence. Ticking of clock can be heard. Cameras zoomed in on me. I smiled sweetly and said, “Born an Indian, my soul belongs to the West. Dark-brown outside, white inside. I am a dark Barbie doll with golden locks and skin. A perfect resident of a changing borderless world. A truly globalized resident, cosmopolitan, sensitive to both eastern and western cultures that I am proud enough to straddle. A citizen of both the worlds, developing and developed. I am like a classic harlequin moving about on a post-modern stage.”

A post-modern harlequin!

That clinched it!

The auditorium burst into applause. A standing ovation and I was announced as the Glam Diva of India, “a girl who represents emerging India in her originality, boldness, love for good things and appreciation of the global culture. She is the one who is not afraid of raising inconvenient issues and very calm in answering tough questions from a high-profile panel of international judges. PP or Pretty Priya is in fact a typical Indian girl reincarnated!”

That was true!

They placed the crown. I cried, hugged and thanked everybody and especially God. Confetti fell in a constant stream. Lasers beams added glitter. There were huge crackers and loud music. It was a staged fairy land for the TV-hooked audience!

I became an instant national celebrity and icon—thanks to the hungry media and a great reality show!

Katniss Everdeen has finally won!

A few nights later, woken up by lightning and thunder, I heard the famous rich baritone, “Happy?”

“Yes. Thank you, God.”

“You will soon realize the cost you have to pay for this dabbling in my plan,” He said and disappeared behind a white cloud.

Surprisingly, nobody else heard any voice or lighting and thunder that had totally shaken up the foundations of the neighbourhood and convulsed my bedroom.

Was it an illusion?

Too much of the unreality of Reality TV?

A manufactured high-tech fantasy?

Was I real or unreal? Some poor version of TV or B-grade film?

I could not figure out the right answers.

The answer arrived soon. In a non-glam setting, away from the camera lights and staged pomp of a big TV show.

It was a different show, a public spectacle of a different scale and appeal!

It was Ramleela. The open-air nightly public theatre free for all. The grand show! A costume drama where gods come down on the earth for their believers. A colourful show that is extremely popular in the north of India — kind of folk theatre involving loud music, dry humour and loud acting.

I was forced to watch this on a late evening in October in a village some 250-km away from Delhi.

We were returning from a show in a big vanity van along with an entire team of stylists, make-up men and body-guards hired by the Blondie Cream company for the product promotion in smaller cities and villages in malls and multiplexes that had recently mushroomed in the north Indian urban centers and semi-urban villages. Everywhere I was treated as royalty. Teen girls went berserk at every appearance. It meant good business.

Properly rouged, highlighted and enhanced, with large sunglasses and mandatory pouted lips, a black dress, I felt I was a real princess! There were assistants looking after my needs. And the company was paying good money. Two cars followed my van. As we were returning from a successful promotion, one of the senior personal assistants wanted me to visit his village to meet his grandmother and mother who was staying there for a few days. It was on the way. So, we decided to take a break and meet some village women for unscheduled promotion. The road-show manager liked the idea and so we halted at the village, some 10- km away from the national highway.

 A different world was waiting for us there…

It was a rural India hardly seen on television. Women roamed in half-veils. The eldest woman was the matriarch. Village elders rarely watched television. We were mere city slickers. I was not a gorgeous cover girl but an ordinary, overdressed female in that simple milieu. As the mother and grandmother had both gone for the local Ramleela and we were in a hurry to leave, we decided to trace them in the venue itself. The maternal family of the assistant seemed to be very important in the village and we were shown full courtesy and respect. With the help of a few volunteers, we could trace the grandmother and mother in the second front row. As the grandmother wanted to see Lord Rama, Sita and Laxmana, she asked us to sit for a while and watch the gods play their roles as human beings. Their avatars were sacred for the audience that sat spellbound by the spectacle being conducted on a well-lit vast stage.

The divines were before them in the human forms!

It was a special moment as women bowed at their appearance on the stage. They were very young actors taking their roles seriously. At one point in my life, I, too, was thrilled by the Ram Leela but this time, I found it primitive. Its earlier appeal was completely lost for me. The whole thing looked quizzically loud, garish and overdone. Actors were overly heavily painted, wore fake jewelry and long costumes. The make-up was too obvious for my refined taste. Phony hair-buns, dresses and arrows and aces looked out of sync. Even the dialogues were archaic for modern theatre. But the live audience loved every minute. The music, songs and long exchanges and monologues were hungrily lapped up. Many members could even recite the couplets from the Ramanaya along with the singers sitting at a corner of the stage.

It seemed that these rustics were producing/creating their individual versions of this popular epic by participating in this public event. The audience as the co-producer/creator of a public text held sacred by the Hindus across the centuries!

Even the brief comic interludes provided insightful commentary on the current political India and people laughed out loud at these crude jokes — as they do in the carnivals. Clowns appeared during the short scenery change and regaled the audience with their hilarious takes on corruption, casteism, communalism and other evils plaguing the nation of more than a billion people. Their buffoonery evoked universal mirth from the large public mainly sitting cross-legged on the green grass of the open ground under twinkling stars.

I was there for more than an hour and became restive. During another brief break, an over-done clown appeared and looked at me sitting on a sofa set in the front row — a few feet away, he shouted loudly, “A FREAK! A stiff  FREAK!”

“Where? Who?” asked his fat companion.

“There. Look at that figure. That freakish person.”

“Where?”

The first clown pointed at me. The second looked, confirmed and then shouted over the microphone, “Yes. A freak. Neither black nor brown nor white nor golden! What a freak! A devil in our midst!”

They slapped their hands and heads and laughed uproariously. People started looking at my direction. I stood up angry and hurt. Kids laughed. So did men and women. An old wild woman chased me out of the venue, cursing me loudly.

“You have defiled the show!” she shouted, angrily brandishing her staff, eyes crazed with hatred.

Then many urchins began running after me. I ran for my safety and when finally, I caught up with my driver and settled down in a running car, breathless and scared, I happened to glance at the rear-view mirror.

What I saw in the bumping car shocked me!

A multi-coloured cracked face was staring back at me!

Eerie!

Shocking!

It was like becoming an internal feature/ character part of a surrealistic work…perhaps by Dali!

And then the blackness of a long highway hit us…and a terror of new reality within the enclosed space of a moving car that almost left me nauseated and claustrophobic.

*desi — Local, Indian

*firangi — foreigner

*gora — white

.

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/

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

Categories
Poetry

The Starry Night

By Sunil Sharma

The Starry Night

Forced by the power cut,

Suburbanite went up

To his deserted terrace;

Was hit by the immensity

Of the starry night,

Felt overwhelmed by

The primeval beauty

Spread out,

The breath-taking magnificence

Of the swirling night sky

Stretched taught overhead,

The eternal space

That glowed with twinkling silver bulbs,

And beckoned the little child gaping

At this rapturous sight, along with his mesmerized dad,

The huge moon and the pale-white light

Washed the blue of the vast sky and produced

Strange lights that streamed down on a French village,

In a different era, when things were more quiet,

The darkness mild and the well-lit sky

Was an enthralling discovery by Vincent van Gogh,

Who had painted and immortalized this ethereal spectacle,

Through his Starry Night over the Rhone and The Starry Night,

The poetic painter, committed to sanatorium,

Suffering from delirium and what not,

Studied the curious effect of darkness and light,

The two paintings still transmit

The same sense of first-time wonder and delight

To the subsequent viewers, living in polluted cities,

Breathing fumes and pure carbon dioxide;

As the cold wind of November buffets the

 Father-son duo that stood silent,

Before gods of yore, now not recognized,

The two felt standing in a pagan shrine,

Found accidentally,

 In the heart of a commercial city,

And

Overawed by this rare divine sight,

Stared at the infinity and felt their own

Small size,

They then understood that

There exists a unique mysterious realm

Beyond the sodium vapour lamps,

For centuries,

That has been trying again

 To communicate

With humankind but in vain,

This rich world that was once deeply understood and captured

By the likes of Gogh and Wordsworth,

Now lost forever for the ever competing,

Rude,

Aggressive,

Utilitarian,

Raider

Called

Homo Economicus.

.

The lofty view from the barred window

May 1889. Saint-Paul Asylum

Through the east-facing iron-barred

Window of the second-floor bedroom,

The familiar sky grew into a revelation

That electrified a young inmate fighting

His own private demons;

The ether got suffused with luminosity

And the stars and the moon orbited

 In swirls very bright;

The other side of a mundane sky!

The vision uplifted the gloomy mood

Of a self-mutilated and starved artist, and,

The scene was painted and preserved as the iconic Starry Night.

That canvas still alive, despite the intervening time

And is part of a marvellous series and it

Forms a luminous summit of

World culture, easily recognized;

The sky was always there for those living

In the Saint-Remy-de-Provence and

Still there stretched out for other mortals in the world,

Yet its mystery, its spiritual dimension could only be

Captured by someone considered nuts

By the rest of the proper and the civilized,

What arbitrary cultural and social categories

To imprison and destroy tender creative minds!

Vincent van Gogh could see vividly the other side of the

Brilliant star-studded sky, and, the

Essence of the grim reality of his time and

Could easily locate its soul pristine in meadows

Sunflowers and the sky.

Asylum walls could not restrain his soaring spirit

And he drew furiously through his inner eye.

 .

Madness was never so lucid

So receptive to the beauty innate

In things ugly/ordinary!

.

Like the famous Don Quixote and the cat in the Wonderland,

Dear Vincent—and rest of us through the Dutch artist—can

See things only the crazy can see

Yes, the other side,

That the sane and practical always dislike!

.

Nightly visions granted to the blessed!

When night suddenly becomes

A brilliant image inspires

An inmate that went by the name

Gogh

And begets brilliant visions

Of heavenly bodies and playful

 Mix of colours— light-n-dark

And restive hands, in creative

Frenzy, caught on an oil canvas

Delighting by now

Millions of lonely hearts

Trapped in hopeless situations

 .

To-night, the same sky

Looks similarly beautiful

As it was for those red eyes

In the year 1889

 .

The dim space, a-wash

Stars redeeming the dark

And the boughs, all lit

Creating patterns divine

On the

Uneven walk.

.

Rare! This Spectacle, seen in another age, as well

…at this precise moment

when the sky is in a flux

 .

drenched in a riot of

dark-blue- grey colours

and a flowering tree, backlit

 .

the composite elements

of the heavenly composition

grab the fleeting attention;

 .

the viewer- concentration

divided between the two metaphysical

entities that uplift

the viewer

reads the live space and writes

lines on such an out-of-world canvas

that firmly echo

refer back, back of mind,

collective consciousness,

to a “mad” painter who goes by the name of Gogh!

.

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

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Baudelaire and Paris

By Sunil Sharma

Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877. 

I

Modern Paris was discovered by Baudelaire in his avatar as the flaneur. And Walter Benjamin made this figure intellectually respectful as a field of study.

In a recent visit to Paris, I hovered between two allied states of being a flaneur and a gawking tourist. I had come as a sightseer from Mumbai, India, allured by the tales and well-crafted image of a mythic Paris, drinking in the street flavours on those May days, passively registering the wide monuments and boulevards and palaces and towers in one clean and clear sweep — almost like a wide-angle shot in a Stanley Kubrick film. Spring had set in and the Paris of May 2014 was full of eager tourists from nations as wide apart as China and the USA; Africa and Middle East and Latin America. A bouquet of the ethnicities strung together.

Then, I became a flaneur, making a neat switch, in a single instant.

I became Baudelaire.

Different terms can make you look differently at a similar set of things or a common setting.

Of course, I did not have the urge to write a new millennium version of The Flowers of Evil. At best, you can parody a sacred text but you cannot re-write it, howsoever Borges-like you might be.

I am neither of the two.

Like Mallarme and Verlaine, you can carry forward an idea by expanding it further but cannot imitate with complete fidelity to the original.

So, not in a mood for a cheap replication of a master praised by Proust so profusely, I took on the stance of a flaneur and became a connoisseur of the street-life.

Was it possible?

Assuming the role of a figure long dead or supposed to be dead? Replaced by a tourist? Solo or in a group?

Armed with a camera or a cell phone, in casuals, the modern tourist — guided by brochures and online information and a city map — looks at the urban skyline vicariously familiarized by prior research. Or, could it be at a professional polyglot guide spewing bits and pieces of history like a typical street performer or an amateur actor? A mass tourist consuming the city, architecture, culture, food, arts and clothes — public life — in a predictable way and sequence largely decided by the tourist industry. A few breaks are possible in that routine.

But to resurrect the role and agency of the classic flaneur, you have to take on a different position and way of seeing.

And what was that?

I could not become a dandy—detached, arrogant, inheritor of a small fortune, an idler walking a tortoise on a Paris street of the nineteenth century. Even if I had the means, I could get arrested for an act of animal cruelty!

Those were different times!

So what can be done?

The clues lie in The Flowers of Evil, perhaps.

Will this title be acceptable today? With changing definitions of evil? With life becoming more liberal and open?

Baudelaire was a dandy and a cultivated flaneur—the painter of modern life; a gentleman stroller of the city streets. Part of, yet apart from, the crowds.

But then, not every dandy is a flaneur and every flaneur, a dandy?

Again, dandy is a historical invention, a social-engineering, manufacturing of a social type for a particular age.

Perhaps, a metro-sexual male, now no longer fashionable.

Is he a voyeur?

Perhaps, we all are, given the nature of our society.

Or, a keen participant, an acute observer, a chronicler?

For me, the answer lies in the personality of Charles Baudelaire who in turn was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. But that would be complicating things further.

Let us stick to our central figure Baudelaire. His genius lies in radicalizing the trope of the French flaneur. A theme that fascinated Walter Benjamin who, in the twentieth century, tried to essay the same role performed so well by Baudelaire in the industrialized Paris of the nineteenth century. The former could not capture the underlying passion of Baudelaire in this unfinished project.

In fact, by the late 1990s and start of the 21st century, author-flaneur proved an impossible figure.

Market forces, on global level, have incorporated author as a producer of kitsch or dystopia. Dissidents were slowly and subtly disenfranchised.

We are all sellers!

Baudelaire resisted this initial process in Paris. Beckett was next. Sartre and Camus too tried.

Then the flow stopped.

The Flowers of Evil mounts a challenge to the order and morality of the Second Republic.

The poems challenge the bourgeois morality and conception of order and beauty and aesthetics in a radical way. The book talks of evil and implies that the source of evil lies in its origins — capitalism.

In that simple gesture of observing, participating, recording of street life, Baudelaire liberates himself from his historical position and becomes a true artist. By talking of prostitutes and vampires, the poet shows the underbelly of capitalism. His creations provide the material basis for highlighting these themes and give credence to outcasts from the system that feed on the blood of the innocent and the gullible.

The Flowers of Evil is the greatest indictment of the French bourgeoisie by a person deeply embedded in it as a bourgeois but a radical one that unveils the brutal face of a system that once talked of revolutionary slogan of liberty, equality, fraternity!

An evil society can produce evil flowers!

Vampires are for real!

II

That Baudelaire had not died in 2014 was proven on a street near the Eiffel Tower on that memorable trip.

A Roma girl, bold and audacious, stole my son’s cell phone from his shirt pocket. She returned it after a cop intervened.

I could smell evil in the air. The disenfranchised and the ethnic Roma are still the threat — like the prostitute and the vampire, the perpetual outsiders.

The Paris of Baudelaire is not safe.

The shoot-out at the Charlie Hebdo proves that.

The vampires are out.

This time round, Baudelaire the flaneur has disappeared. There is no one to warn us of these sinister presences.

.

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/

.

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

.

Categories
Stories

New Masters

By Sunil Sharma

The “animals” were happy.

The Ape was their chosen leader, as he was considered by the rest of the heterogeneous assembly, the nearest cousin of the people who had terrorized them for centuries but were now behind the bars, refusing to come out of their hide-outs, due to the pandemic.

Besides that, the apes were generally regarded as intelligent primates, almost rivals of the creatures that walked on the two legs. The apes understood the humans better but were repelled by their behaviour and action.

The meeting was essentially a stock-taking exercise in a locked- down city.

The animals were openly roaming the waterfronts and boulevards, earlier places of terror, capture and possible death. They enjoyed these outings, reclaiming the city from its architects. They were not afraid of being run over by the traffic or caught in a trap.

The Ape was young and confident. He was trained by a reputed scientist in a huge lab but had managed to escape captivity and gone on living in the woods that bordered the city, as a fugitive. The Ape was huge but gentle in demeanour, never hurting anybody in or out of captivity. He knew the ways of the “civilized” masters and was a painter and wore frocks in his earlier life in the camp, where labs were run by a crooked man — who owned half the burgeoning city — for developing serums for the biological warfare.

As an elected boss, The Ape was tasked to strategise and lead the campaign of the equality as the animals felt they were often mocked, called dumb in the zoo or hit on the streets, by the drunks and the kids alike.

He told the mixed gathering of different species assembled in the Central Park, “Friends, welcome to the New World Order. All the bipedal tyrants have been locked in their vertical cages, thanks to the COVID-19. What a joke! An invisible virus can stall the manic world of mad humans! We are free now.”

“And we thought the human masters were invincible, these spoilt and arrogant people, most ungrateful!” exclaimed an abandoned horse, in anguished tone, “Serves them right.”

“These guys called us animals! See their temerity. Always treated us as inferiors. Tortured us. In fact, they are the true animals,” an African grey parrot retorted.

“They kept us in the cages. For display. Fun. Small cages that almost killed us. Now they understand our pain,” a gold finch observed.

“And us, on tight leashes and muzzles,” joined in the German Shepherd Dog, barking ferociously. “Breeding us for business. Training us for their ways. Expecting us to obey their commands. We are their pets and slaves. Then shot dead by them. They must be punished.”

The elephants, lions, foxes, monkeys, squirrels that had escaped from circuses and menageries chorused a loud, “Yes.” And the wise wolf added, “Real brutes! Tormentors! Killers. They whip, starve and tame us for profits, always, everywhere. Keeping us all in cages and chains, the cruel raiders of the jungles. Shame on them! Now they are in the cages. Serves them right, the bastards.” 

“Shh!Shh!” the old mama bear cautioned. “Mind your language, friend. There are many children and women here. We never curse like them. Bad manners!”

“The most cunning species in the world! They label us as cunning. Ironical! Is it not?” asked a hurt fox. “Always judgmental! Always treating those unlike them in dress, skin-tone, language, region and creed, as the perpetual Other. Never trusting each other. Killing their own for property or woman or money. We never kill our tribe.”

Everybody praised the fox for her “clever” observations and contrasts with the incarcerated humans that walked clumsily and dressed in outer skins and wore heads on their heads called hats!

“Now do not talk and act like the human masters,” cautioned the old bear. “Let us be ourselves. We must never imitate them. Never pretend to be like them, our oppressors. Mind it friends, we have our own code. Be natural. Be yourself.”

“Right. They term us as predators and kill us for hides and body parts and tusks,” said a senior tusker, towering over the gathering, trunk raised; one tusk missing, another broken. “Fact is they are the greatest predators on this crowded planet.”

“And looters and invaders,” replied the woodpecker. “They have destroyed nature and our nests.”

“Poisoned our rivers,” shouted an otter. “We cannot breathe regularly. We are dying along with the fish and other creatures. Plastic and garbage choke us. Oil spills worsen the living conditions. It is a watery hell!”

“Now,” commanded The Ape, “We must destroy their nests. Gardens. Streets. Vehicles. We must shake down the very ground underneath their feet. Show our strength to these brutes.”

The animals immediately agreed. They wanted to get even.

“Let us take back their spaces, as they did with us,” thundered the Orangutan, “Virus or no virus.”

The enraged animals first declared themselves as Free Species of the Quadrupeds and the Gentle Vertebrates and the city and woods as their New Republic.

Then, during the lockdown, they took over human habitats rising towards the sky like a hive of vertical columns.

The unexpected take-over by the animals filled the trapped inmates with fear and dread of another newly-arrived threat.

There were many scary encounters reported on the blogs or social media, with pictures or videos posted of the uncanny sightings.

One account said:

“Friends of the besieged city — here comes a fresh danger. Early morning, I opened up the French windows of my ground-floor bungalow…only to stare into the red eyes of a hungry tiger looking straight into mine! Believe me, I stood paralyzed, mind and body benumbed with cold fear, a trickle of sweat prickled down my spine, the bad hangover gone. I faced certain death. The tiger lazily yawned, baring deadly fangs, eyes glittering, this huge striped animal– one paw swung at me and I would be gone. My body stiffened. Never expected such a deadly morning guest on my porch!  He saw my rifle and mounted trophy on the wall and emitted low roar. His eyes were filled with revulsion. Yes, I would never forget that look of hatred!

“Just then my grand kid walked in and smiled and said, ‘Hullo, tiger!’ She giggled and walked up to the ferocious beast, this six-year-old innocent. My old heart leapt into my mouth. I was reminded of a hunting expedition where, years ago, I had shot dead a tigress before her cubs! There was an instant transformation and the big cat dropped his head and did not growl.

“They played with each other and as her mom came searching for her, the tiger vanished! Disappeared into thin air. I thought I was dreaming the whole thing. The excited child said, tiger, tiger! Her mom could not understand her. She told the kid, ‘Okay, we will bring you a tiger soon.’ The poor child could not explain her joy of meeting a real tiger on the porch. Strange but true encounter with the beast, truly majestic—never thought it could happen and end like this, real time, in my house! Thank God we escaped death by mauling. It was Him who turned a ferocious beast into a lamb! A miracle only! Praise to the Lord.”

There were other interesting accounts of simian, reptilian and mammal surprise visits to homes. The most common experiences from the humans were utter shock, dread, intimations of mortality and a sense of deep disbelief from this unexpected rendezvous in most unlikely urban settings. Most narratives ended with the question: Was it real? Or, imagined?

As the animals gained confidence and COVID-19 pushed humans further into isolation, self-isolation and quarantine, the general fear of the animals spread like another contagion. People were bewildered. Infants wailed inside their little airless homes. The old and sick and the chained dogs were getting restless over the long summer days and hot-humid nights in that coastal city. Overpopulation did not help either.

And compounding their collective miseries was the daily appearances of animals in their midst, on their well-landscaped and maintained properties and other glitzy places.

The superstitious found indications in hostile stellar positions.

The religious chided the younger generation for abandoning faith and their dissolute ways — things that brought down the plague on a prosperous, modern city.

The youngsters called them hypocrites and blamed wars, famines and flooding to the older generation’s selfishness and indifference.

The city changed — an open-air zoo run by what they earlier called ‘wildlife’!

The only change: The previous spectators were behind the bars and the timings of activities. The new arrivals freely roamed any time of the day and the nocturnal ones, in the night, enjoying the sites.

The media blamed the virus and the country of its origin for this new mess. Others called it racism and dirty politics. Power blocks were formed. Politics played itself out along predictable lines.

Meanwhile, the capitalists sensed a good opportunity to fire half of the working population, citing recession and losses. Social scientists called it downsizing! Academia studied the development clinically and conducted webinars — mere sound and fury signifying nothing, as they used to quote often.

“One virus! It has overturned their world!” declared The Ape, during one of his meetings in the Central Park, now totally theirs!

As the days rolled down in flat succession — uneventful; dull; seamless stretch of darkness and light, and, one date followed another — the citizens felt breathless, stressed-out and despairing. They envied the freedom of the birds and animals moving around on the spaces once the privilege of the human race only.

And cursed foreign bats for the outbreak of the deadly virus!

It was a painful reversal of fortunes!

The masters were now slaves.

Slaves, new masters.

Each one of the citizens were afraid of the other and maintained social distancing. The class and caste persisted in the subtle play of power from earlier. It got more complex by the presence of this tiny virus that could not be seen by the naked eye. Corona — the general lament went on– had dramatically changed the communal life style of the people that were earlier unbeatable. Now, they cowered before the invisible threat. It was a leveler also. Elites were quarantined but were slightly better off than the others.

The Ape called his Council and declared, “We have no enmity with the masses. Our fight is with the Club that runs this city and the country. We will not spare them in case of a war against us. We will target the Club and its militia.”

“What is that Club?” asked the donkey.

“The Club is run by the wealthy and powerful– five-ten folks. Some of them are into drugs, weapons, prostitution, wars and other illegal activities. They enter politics and gain power, position and respectability. And decide the agenda for the rest.”

“The rogues. Ha!” exclaimed the donkey as the others of the Council hissed in sheer contempt for the shenanigans of the corrupt ten.

“The Club runs the politicians and public offices. Nobody can cross these raiders. Those defying get killed. It is a dirty world out there.”

The Council agreed with the summing up of the “civilised” by one of their best from the “wild” side of the divide.

“Be prepared!” The Ape warned. “These guys can attack us any time. Very deceptive!”
“How?” asked the donkey again.

“They attack their own. Family. Community. Nations. They fight and kill each other. We never do that. We follow our herds and never kill for money, land or profit. Or sex.”

The donkey brayed in full agreement, “I have seen this with my mistress many times, this digression.”

The animals laughed at the un-satiated appetites of the humans.

Few days later, the fox woke up The Ape.

“The Club is meeting in the Town Hall. Planning to hit us. Let us give them a visit.” The fox said, “One of the humans sympathetic to the animals and their rights told one of our mutual friends. They are meeting after midnight.”

The Council agreed to pay a sudden visit.

The humans were completely taken by surprise as the animals entered the Hall by disarming their police outside. In fact, the cops quivered and ran away after seeing the real brutes coming towards them. They stood no chance.

“What do you want?” The Chair asked, surrounded by his body guards who cowered before the Ape and the Gorilla and Lion and Tiger. The quadrupeds could smell fear in the stale air of the large Town Hall—and relished it.

The Chair was tall, wiry with bulging eyes. He began aggressively: “Yes. What do you want, you a bunch of intruders?”

He tried to act brave, but the bluff was called-off in a minute; in fact, his raspy voice croaked and he gasped for breath, hands shivering, as the mighty animals surrounded his gilded high throne.

The other members of the Club hid behind the chairs, eyes closed as the Lion filled the chandeliered room with a blood-curdling roar that shook the silver ware and lamps and windows. The Tiger growled and the Gorilla screamed a waaaaaaah. That scared the entire assembly of the two-legged creatures. Many bipeds shouted and fainted, so terrified they were of their new guests and their controlled aggression.

The Chair got disoriented by the general racket but willful as he was, recovered fast and said in a softer tone, and with a false smile, “OK. What do you want? Tell me, pals.”

“You tell us, Boss,” mocked the Ape. “You run illegal mining and extortion and killing of wildlife operations. Tell us what do you want? A campaign to finish us off permanently? Finish off the jungles and the life there?”

The Chair grew very friendly, “No, Mr Ape. Never, ever. You are our distant cousins, remember? We are all related. Ha. Why would, er, should, er, I think of mass extermination?”

“Then, what is the problem? Why this clandestine meeting in the night?” demanded The Ape, hairy hands clenched tight, nostrils flaring.

“We want you beasts to leave our land, please. That is all. LEAVE us ALONE.” The Chair almost commanded.

That was a terrible mistake.

“Who is the beast here?” asked the Gorilla as he stood up and thumped his chest. “You are the beasts. Leave our land. You beasts of the two legs.” And the Gorilla did his chest-thumping again and released a wave of the classic sound: waaaaaaah.

 The humans shrank further by this dual assault — aural and physical –in that closed space. Some searched for the exits but those were blocked by the animals that were enjoying the discomfiture of their former tormentors.

The air was getting thick with the stench of urine and sweat.

“And what land you are talking of? Is it not our land also?” asked the Ape. “It belongs to us as well. Not your monopoly. It is our land now.”

“But…,” whined the Chair.

“But?” asked The Ape.

“We have…I mean…hmm,” stuttered the Chair.

“Go on.”

“OK, Mr. Ape. We have cleared the land and invested millions in developing the land, you know, the infra, you know…”

This time the Gorilla spoke: “Developing or destroying the land, hills, rivers? You call it development? You have totally ruined the planet by now. Understood? Time to payback now.”

“Made extinct many species. Destroyed rain forests. Created a hole in the Ozone layer,” added The Ape furiously. “And you capitalists and leaders never cared! Never listened to the saner voices!”

The Chair was taken aback. “How do you know all this, big and brainless monkey…I mean, Mr. Ape?”

The Ape stared hard. “I was trained by one of the top scientists in your labs only. One of the best minds. Later on, he went mad, feeling betrayed by you and your greed for more and more. In that notorious virology lab, he committed suicide for betraying ethics of science and applied research, that fine mind duped by your glib talk of patriotism and all that shit.”

“Oh!” the Chair grunted, going slightly pale. “The poor man! Most scientists are mad anyway.”

The Ape did not like this, “You are a bastard!”

Both the sides faced each other now.

“You speak our language well. Even the cuss words so well,” fawned the vice-chair, “How come?”

He sounded condescending, despite the efforts to be otherwise.

“Learnt your language but you have forgotten our language, you, the hunter with a rifle. The language spoken by nature. Sad! That is the cause of the present crisis, this imbalance.” retorted the Tiger. “You killed many of our species, but I spared your cub that day. Remember, hunter?”

The hunter said nothing. He was past that emotion of contrition or feeling sorry for his wanton acts of destruction and cruelty.

Killing gave him a libidinal high, as money did to the capitalists.

There were tense moments. The confrontation was becoming inevitable.

Both waited for the other to blink first.

Finally, the Chair coughed discreetly.

The Ape looked at him hopefully.

“We apologize, friends for our foolish acts of the past,” said the Chair. “We mean no harm. We can share the same spaces with you guys. Now leave the Hall as there are some women here who have fainted and need hospitalisation.”

The Ape agreed to withdraw, after seeing the plight of the fair and pale women, mere appendages of the wealthy.

Before leaving, the Ape said to the Chair, “If you break your promise, there will be mayhem.”

The Chair promised on his holy book never to attack friends who did not look like them, as the words beast and savage and brutes were found offensive by the guests radicalised by the human language, and therefore, banned.

“I do not trust them,” said the fox, once outside.

“Let us see,” said the Ape. “Let us give them a last chance.”

***

Three days later, the animals were brutally attacked.

A family of deer were sitting in the park when they were killed by the bullets of hunters.

More attacks followed on the animals roaming the streets. The Ape met the Council.

They launched a counter attack on the humans and destroyed their vehicles and labs and released animals from zoos, private and public.

Many humans were badly mauled. Some died of fright and shock and bleeding.

The pitched battle continued for the control of the territories during the day and night.

The hunters and the army used tranquillizers, guns and darts. But the primates were smart and dodged these tactics. Their agility was superb and might, matchless. They climbed the trees and buildings swiftly and could immobilise the militia by their screams and swinging fists and flinging trees at them.

Throughout the night, the battle went on.

The Chair was keen to trap The Ape, but the latter was as evasive as a trained assassin.

Next morning, the Chair and his goons adapted a new tactic to capture The Ape, the leader of the animals: They used a baby chimp from a private zoo as bait and asked The Ape to surrender or they would roast the baby alive on the live coals for its tender meat.

“Barbeque the babe!” That was their chant over the public address system.

“Surrender! Surrender, you beast!” They taunted The Ape.

Despite the Council’s reluctance, The Ape decided to surrender in order to save the baby chimp as he could not bear the hapless wailing of its young mother. The Chair was jubilant and put him in the shackles and lashed the big guy mercilessly and then something strange happened.

It began raining heavily. The skies darkened. As the hunter aimed to kill the shackled Ape before the mass of cameras — the ritual killing was to be televised live as some kind of reality TV, with the commentary by the triumphant Chair, as the vindication of the superiority of the homo sapiens over the dumb, witless brutes of the lower order before an audience of millions lusting for blood, as done earlier, in the Roman era, by the wild crowds— a troupe of baby monkeys sprang into view. The hunter was astonished to see his granddaughter, the six-year-old, leading one of the simian babies, and, hold your holy breath; the teenage daughter of the Chair and other school children formed a human chain and moved forward.

What the hell! The Chair shouted over the public address system.

The teenage daughter named Gaia by his third wife looked straight into the cameras and said, “Dad, shoot us before you shoot The Ape!”

And hundreds of uniformed kids and old women stood around the shackled Ape and shouted in unison, “Kill us! Kill us, first! We will not allow you to murder such a fine creature.”

The hunter’s grand kid shouted, “Tiger! Tiger!” as the same tiger came out of shadows and joined the human protestors, all unarmed. The kid said, “Tiger! Come here!” He did and nobody panicked. They all stood still, linking arms together, facing the hunter and his goons, as it rained.

The hunter and his killers were stunned by this turn of events.

Gaia said, “Today, it is a virus. Tomorrow, more pandemics will follow, if you kill the wildlife so brazenly. Learn to respect these creatures of God. Beware. We are wild, not them. If they are destroyed, we will be totally annihilated.”

“Kill us! Kill us!” The children and women shouted, daring them to shoot.

More animals joined the protestors in the main plaza as millions watched on their TV screens.

The children hugged the wounded Ape and patted him lovingly, applying turmeric and herbal medicines on his wounds.

The Ape cried for the first time in is life of struggles and humiliation.

The militia waited.

The chain of humans increased in length.

So did the chant: “Respect them. Respect Nature, our mother!”

There was thunder and lightning.

And the rain beat down furiously on the players on that open stage, witnessed by the rest of the world, on that memorable day…

.

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/

.

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

Categories
Poetry

Pidgin, Pockets & more…

Pidgin

We have no language 
in common, hence, turn
to pidgin. Pitch makeshift 
tents on half-hearted 
ground. Peg raw, jagged

adjectives, broken verbs
on stubborn clotheslines
of need to offer damp
confessions to the watery
sun of our understanding.

Some significations fall
into place like punctuations
well-meant. Others are lost
like winged seeds as they
spin towards uninviting

ground. For the rest, silence
rules; eats its way with acerbic
faith into the hesitation of 
spaces. We meet in pidgin's
transit; part without memory.




Pockets
When it comes to
chests, drawers, pockets,
I can be a nuisance.
Given one to myself
I pile an entire life in it
sans a sense of order.

Staples, clips, buttons, a
watch perhaps will jostle here
with currency notes, pencil shavings,
a chance leaf, an unfinished letter,
some candies for you, a book
I am trying to read. 

Their nature hardly matters
save they each matter to me.
In the way that sharing every
morsel of my hours with you
matters and I thoughtlessly feed you
with pieces of myself the day through.

Putting in guilt, memory, sorrow,
laughter all together, unsorted,
a mosaic of myself, a mess.
Is that why you left?



Granted


We grow up taking
too many things 
for granted - hems,
shores, rivers, knots,
words, locks, walls.
Yesterday, I
felt betrayed when
a door that had
promised to stay shut,
unwarranted, gave way.















Uncritiqued

In teeming landscapes of
punctiliously ordered signifiers,
I strive to break free of grooved
meanings to rebelliously create

my own. I knife through
assumptions, dig into inferences,
plunder synonyms, claw allusions.
But, on diet, it is futile to want

to turn words into salt-shakers
in the concrete hope of sprinkling
salvation. Some texts, perhaps,
are best swallowed, uncritiqued.

By Basudhara Roy

Pidgin

Pockets

Granted

Uncritiqued

Basudhara Roy is the author of two books, a monograph, Migrations of Hope: A Study of the Short Fiction of Three Indian American Writers (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and a collection of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019). She has been an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University where she was awarded the gold medal for academic excellence at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. She secured the UGC Junior Research Fellowship and has earned her doctoral degree in diaspora women’s writing from Kolhan University, Chaibasa.  Basudhara’s areas of academic interest are diaspora writing, cultural studies, gender studies and postmodern criticism. Her research articles and book reviews have widely appeared in reputed academic journals across the country and as chapters in books. As a creative writer, she has featured in an anthology, Dancing the Light: Poems from Australia and India,  and in magazines like Muse India, Shabdadguchha, Cerebration, Rupkatha, The Challenge, I-mantra, The Volcano, Gnosis, Daath Voyage, Das Literarisch, Reviews, Triveni, Setu, Hans India and on the Zee Literature Festival Blog. She is Assistant Professor of English at Karim City College, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand and can be reached at basudhara.roy@gmail.com.

Categories
Stories

The Savage

By Sunil Sharma

The Common Tiger butterfly (D genutia) lured him into the deep of the scrub jungle. The orange wings with black veins; double row of white spots of a Danaus genus can be as alluring for a camera-n-backpack-laden young birdie from Mumbai, as a call of the sea for a sailor!

Marvellous!

He began clicking the cluster of the butterflies perched on dry twigs as the afternoon advanced rapidly. Like a protective dark drape over a blue canvas, a cloud had partially covered the sky; the shadows had further deepened in the heart of the wilderness.

Hours ceased afterwards!

A time-sensitive honcho from urban Mumbai, Sandeep had deliberately not worn his wristwatch. He wanted a total disconnect with time and civilisation on that ordinary Saturday that was to prove extraordinary.

Life-changing events start with ordinary beginnings and contexts.

His bearded Guru Ananda Swami once told him.

Mighty oak in a tiny seed!

As he quietly clicked the colourful spectacle of the butterflies clinging to twigs in that green patch, Sandeep — Sandy for friends due to dull hair that looked like sand — recalled, in another part of his over-active brain, the last conversation with the Guru, in his expensive ashram.

I have reached the breaking point! I am burnt-out!

The Guru, surrounded by a bevy of the female white devotees, had smiled benignly.

I want to quit the rat race! Sandy had almost screamed in the morning session.

The Guru had turned his hypnotic eyes and fastened them on Sandy’s bulging face.

Calm down! He commanded in a sonorous voice.

Sandy did.

Go and find your inner self—in the jungle.

“In the jungle?” Sandy was incredulous.

“Yes,” the Guru said. In the jungle!

“But how?” Sandy persisted.

“Follow them,” came the order.

“Whom?” Sandy was lost before starting this Paulo Coelho-type quest across the unfamiliar terrain for selfhood and meaning.

“The butterflies!” The Guru said smiling, while the white babes smiled.

Butterflies? In the Jungle? 

Sandy thought an execution warrant was being read out to him in that small audience of the troubled super-rich of the world, in that cool and aesthetically designed mud-room of the ashram.

Yes. Somebody is waiting there for you. Predicted the Guru and then moved on to another disturbed soul in a Savile Row suit.

Although the young and handsome Guru was, few months later, arrested as a suspect in the murder of a sanyasin from Colorado, USA, his words had continued to ring as the guru-mantra.

Then one rainy Sunday, he enrolled for a five-Sunday- afternoon crash course from a freelance naturalist and butterfly-aficionado for a huge sum of money. Subsequently, equipped with a camera and backpack, he started on a solo journey to discover the Other.

That Sunday, indeed, proved to be a life-altering experience for a man who had plotted revenge and mergers on the board-rooms of many corporate houses in his rapid but short career as an e-entrepreneur and head honcho of another successful start-up for a hungry Indian market.

Somewhere, as destiny would have it — his Other was waiting.

The Jungle!

It was a wrong concept!

Rohit Mistry, the naturalist, told him in his studio in south of Mumbai.

“How?” asked Sandy over coffee and sandwich.

“We think of the jungle as a kind of space that is dangerous due to the predators and lack of human laws.” Mistry had taken on the colour and sanguinity of an oriental sage, while meditating on his common topic with his favourite student.

“The truth is,” Mistry continued softly, looking at the Arabian Sea in the background, “the jungle is an independent eco-system, much better than human society and civilization.”

Their denizens do not kill, pillage, destroy, for profit.

Mistry had chuckled. “They do not drop bombs; do not create wars for selling arms or for oil. No innocent gets killed for being the Other.”

“A frightening jungle is our conception, our collective invention. We call it wilderness. It is NOT. We call it dreadful place where we can, urbanites, get lost. No, we can NOT.”

Sandy was speechless by this reversal. This was pure revelation to the MBA from Harvard.

“We have created this strange myth, this urban legend — the Jungle as a killing field full of reptiles and other predators. Fact is — we are the mercenaries marauding that sacred place created by nature!”

Mistry’s tone was low, reverential, eyes far off. A priest speaking to a disciple!

“Jungle is much better than the society!” Mistry had passed his verdict. And left Sandy bewitched.

He wanted to explore that exotic place on his own— just to validate the sanctity of this credo of a post-modern pagan.

An opportunity came his way sooner than expected.

Sandy, after a huge fight with his wife over a trifle, decided to leave home stealthily. Next morning, he slipped out early and took a rickety public bus to this remote jungle and got down at the last stop and then trekked miles inside — on a relentless search for the kind of the Mistry-Jungle.

In fact, he wanted to escape from a screaming wife and kids and colleagues, all tucked inside his brain.

The Jungle! The pathway to Truth.

It is an expedition for inner transformation!

That was the text message to Mistry sent by Sandy; composed, while perched on a boulder.

Do not go with hyper expectations! came the warning from Mistry. In fact, do not go with any expectation. Let the jungle take over.

Follow the butterfly trail— to Truth — Mistry.

That was the last. Then, Sandy had lost the signal to all civilisation.

Butterflies took him to another land; another reality of this overcrowded planet.

And to Truth as well.

In the timeless zone, with a cloudy sky, butterflies hanging together as a happy large family, he lost his way—and found the real one.

Here is the how of it:

By late afternoon, Sandy got startled by an apparition—a semi-naked ghost. A ghost that walked and talked. No, not the masked phantom of Lee Falk but a real one.

A savage!

In his short and unhappy life of 32 years, Sandy never understood folks that survived on low wages and few clothes in a mega-city that constantly thrived on hunger for more. Born into a moderately successful merchant’s family in small-town in India, Sandy had followed the same career trajectory of middle class everywhere: a passion for higher education and hard work. Academic labour gifted him with failing eyesight and a bifocal. But, undeterred, he worked consistently and proved his brightness in chosen fields. Like rest of the working India, he, too, revered money. The very sight and sound of money turned him on. He aspired for obscene salaries and managed to get them. He bought apartments in Delhi and Mumbai. A fleet of cars and army of drivers waited. Naturally, the other India of slums and low-income households was beyond him and often invited derision.

“Their Karma!” Somebody once remarked over drinks.

“Phew!” Sandy spat out. “Their sloth and wanton ways.”

So, anybody with meager salary and a tiny room as a house in a bustling shanty town somewhere up on a degraded hill in Mumbai or Delhi would qualify them as the sub-species for Sandy.

And a semi-clad thin-as-reed-man would not qualify for even that.

Savages! He had observed, while watching a National Geographic documentary on the Aborigines of Australia. The underlying contempt was withering.

A representative of the same hated species was staring at him.

“You are lost!” The man said simply. “You cannot find your way back.”

Now that was too much!

Being led by a savage.

Impossible!

Sandy looked at the creature and did not like what he saw—sunken cheeks, bushy eye brows, matted hair, flat chest and belly, and, rippling arms. He wore old shorts and sandals—the only gesture towards modernity. And carried a catapult in hands. A striking contrast to his counterpart from the city — every inch customized or branded. Perhaps, thought Sandy, the savage does not know what a Ray-Ban Aviator is!

Sandy shrugged off and went on clicking against the light that began fading quickly due to the increased cloud cover. After five minutes, he looked up and saw the ghost. The man was still there — stock still.

“Yes,” he demanded, very much a CEO. His staff resented this particular tone. It was reserved for lower species of the corporate world.

“You are lost!”

“So?”

“You are lost.”

Sandy went through a series of emotions—anger, irritation, helplessness and finally, resignation.

“What to do with this forest sub-species?” he thought.

“Come on,” said the savage. “After evening, it becomes an unsafe place for the city folks.”

Then, as if to reinforce that grim warning, thunder rolled, and clouds raced across the sky.

Sandy, never-led, understood his precarious position: “The savage is right! I am not a jungle-man or the Mowgli-boy!”

Thus, planned by the gods, began an epic journey in a darkening forest for a butterfly-seeking, western-educated corporate tzar, in a most unfamiliar territory full of brooding trees and a gurgling river nearby, while cool shadows hugged him and a chill was experienced by the city slicker, despite the expensive jungle gear worn by him.

The jungle has its own mysteries! Mistry had revealed. It is a great leveler for humans.

As Sandy quietly followed the Other, he felt strangely calm. It was a state that had evaded him for last two decades of his waking existence. Now, being led, he felt free — of his responsibilities and roles and other allied urban burdens.

“I am feeling free!” Sandy exulted.

Then, he experienced a growing rapport with the savage.

As they entered deeper, the jungle revealed its mysteries that, alone, might have frightened him but, in the company of the savage, he felt no panic.

“I am in safe hands!” Sandy thought gleefully. For the first time, I am not guiding but being guided.

The jungle pathways were twisted and dusty; some places were strewn with carpet of leaves and twigs. As the two walked on those ancient trails, one after another, in silence, the citified member of the odd pair heard clearly and distinctly, what he had heard on the plasma TV so far–chatter of monkeys; breath of wind whispering among tree-tops; the bird song mingling with the dulcet notes of a river running nearby, in deep gloom, and the voice of the old jungle in that solitude!

“It is a magical world out here!” Sandy thought.

Birds of various hues were coming to roost. Then the savage shot a fowl with his catapult. After offering a silent prayer, kept it in an old bag strapped to his thin waist — a waist that shot a pang of envy in Sandy right from the beginning of the relationship.

“Why prayers?” He asked.

The man smiled. “Our way. We offer prayers to the departed soul. We never kill for the sake of killing. Just to meet our basic needs.”

Sandy was shaken to the core.

A fresh draft of wind shook the trees and made the leaves fly off, and, kissed their faces with cold hands. Its purity was oxygenating. Sandy felt a strange surge — kind of electrifying energy.

It was, in fact, another world.

“You live here?” Sandy asked and then realized his foolishness.

The savage smiled. “Yes. My home.”

“How many generations?” Sandy asked, as if interviewing him for an entry-level job.

“Many.”

“You do not remember?”

The savage smiled. “Can you give me the name of your great-great grandpa?”

Sandy, of course, could not. He could not even recall the name of his dad and grand dad during stressful situations!

“We are the children of the forest!” The savage declared. “We are the inheritors of the spirit of the jungle.”

“Spirit?” Sandy, the skeptic, asked.

“Yes. The spirit.”

“Can you show me that?” Sandy was the playful civilized man again, teasing the tribal.

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Come on.”

And they both entered the mysterious!

In the heart of the wilderness, stood a cluster of seven huts made of straws and mud. They were bare except for a few baskets, pitchers and a bare minimum of utensils. The savage was greeted with smiles by the rest of the “village” as he called it. The big fowl was handed over to the elders. Two more men had brought fowls and birds for the collective feast.
“We share all things,” said the savage. “It is like a big family.”

 Sandy nodded. Co-operation for him was, so far, a biz buzz only. Here, real-time, it was happening as a daily practice. The women started skinning the birds and some began open-air fires for cooking the meat. The naked kids gamboled in the clearing, while the male elders of the village sat in a circle and chatted.

“Open-air party!” thought Sandy.

“Come!” said the savage as gloom gathered around the huts overlooked by a wooded hill and surrounded by trees of varied sizes.

“Where?” asked the city slicker undergoing a culture shock of different kind.

“To our sacred grove,” said the savage, in the role of a teacher.

“Okay,” agreed the disciple.

The sacred grove!

It was nothing spectacular or Hollywoodian in scale or visual effect. A tiny shrine—crude and humble with a stone tablet smeared with daubs of orange and red—under a tall banyan tree. All around were trees and shrubs. A few meters away sang the river, now sparkling under a full moon.

That was all.

The savage bowed down to the ancient tablet –“our goddess”– in an act of deep reverence and chanted some incantation in a dialect beyond Sandy. As the shadows thickened, and the moon climbed further in a sky now bereft of clouds, a hush fell over that patch, Sandy started feeling sudden but subtle changes inside. Cut off from civilization, in the midst of nowhere, he lost bearings of place and time. The brooding jungle and the solitude never experienced earlier caused a hypotonic spell on his citified imagination. He started retreating to a different dimension. The savage finished his mumbo-jumbo and then waved a hand before sandy’s brown eyes fitted with blue lenses.

And everything altered.

Looking at the surroundings, Sandy felt a change happening within at a breakneck speed. Suddenly, he was hurtling down a tunnel of time — only to emerge a most fantastic scene before his reverential eyes:

In the moon-lit night, he saw, along with an ancient tribe of worshippers, spirits of the trees –dryads, a part of his subconscious rooted in anglicised education recalled, dancing merrily on the grass, while a nymph-like goddess came out of the sparkling river and joined them in this divine play. Trees bent down to kiss her feet and spirits squealed at the sight of the goddess willing to be their companion on earth. Every blade and bough emitted a strange fragrance that overwhelmed Sandy’s senses completely and left him intoxicated.

He was a mute witness to the tribals — mostly elders led by a stern priest — offering flowers and leaves to the goddess and singing hymns in her praise. They then went into frenzy and began swaying wildly, as if possessed. They were whirling around in that scented area, eyes crazed, hair swirling, hands raised in supplication. Sandy clearly saw them communing with the goddess. Everywhere he felt the presence of the sacred. That piece of the jungle had become a vast stage, an arena, for the gods and goddess to make their appearance and intermingle with the adepts and the chosen. The intensity of the spectacle was so intense that he, Sandy of the New Millennium, rational and goal-driven, felt his veins would burst.

Then the vision changed.

He saw, in that heightened state, a river dying a slow death due to poison and trees being cut down by the brute machines. The entire pantheon slowly disappeared, and the goddess died gasping for breath. Afterwards, rains, mudslides and famine followed.

Then, darkness returned.

Badly shaken, Sandy, much chastised and sober, guided by the savage, returned to the tiny village. There they all drank the rice wine and ate the meat roasted on the open fire. The savages then sang a song and danced in a group — for their city guest. The camaraderie was great. He enjoyed their openness, trusting nature and hospitality.

In that closeness, despite a sharp contrast in backgrounds, Sandy found a family.

Family!

Decades ago, it meant growing up in a joint family for Sandeep, in a small north Indian town, off Delhi-Amritsar highway. Three floors of a big house, at least 100 years old. Grandpa, grandma, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, guests. A crowded place with joint kitchen. His ma and other aunts took turns to cook meals for a large family. They were always busy. A big shop in the main market kept the family together, despite differences and fights. But it stayed on, like other families.

In the 1990s liberal India, Sandeep Gupta found a new direction and mantra. He earned degrees and combined education with ancestral knowledge to begin ventures in the virtual world for a hungry middle class that had, like Sandeep, changed as well. Feeling restricted in that old township and starved of space in the joint family — they owned only two rooms in the property and four siblings adjusted with mother and father for years — the brilliant Sandeep left the town — and the tearful family — forever, never to look back.

As he rose up the ladder, the contact with family shrunk down to few e-mails, SMSes and occasional calls to ailing parents. His siblings were not that successful, and Sandeep thought they were resentful of his hard-earned success and money and status.

“Jealousy!” His wife would say. For the siblings and parents and the rest of the joint family—it was betrayal, pure and simple!

“I have every right to be happy! To lead my own life! To take my own decisions!” Sandeep would argue, fortified with this new Me-only philosophy, a new cardinal principle of faith for entrepreneurs like him, in a globalised India. Naturally, the two — Sandeep and his family –drifted apart.

“I am on my own,” he declared. “Family means feuds!”

So, he junked them.

While watching the savages dance in harmony, each timing their steps with the other in perfect sync, bodies bending forward and then resuming an erect position, Sandeep, deep down, remembered his aged father and a very frail and ill mother. They had suffered huge losses due to the competition posed by the e-retail and were surviving somehow in that old place and because of the joint kitchen. But Sandeep had hardly bothered about them.

I will call up Ma first thing in the morning! He resolved.

After a long dance, the savage came back to the spot where Sandy was sitting.

“How do you feel?” The forest dweller asked, eyes shining.

Sandy looked into those eyes and found himself reflected as the Other.

“You are my brother!” Sandy blurted.

The savage smiled and held his guest’s hands in warm clasp. “We all are connected.”

“What is your name?” Sandy asked, hands linked.

“Ananta.”

“What does that mean?”

“The Eternal One!”

“Oh!” Sandy said.

“One of its meanings,” Ananta replied.

“You went to school?” Sandy blurted out but regretted instantly.

“The jungle is my only school. Besides, there are no schools for the poor!”

Sandy felt the sadness of the tone.

“You are comfortable?”

“Yes.” Sandy said, “Very relaxed.”

“Does the jungle look dangerous?”

“Not at all now. The one I left behind…well, compared with that, this looks very comfortable.”

Sandy was telling the truth.

“You can sleep here under the stars?” Ananta asked softly.

“Will there be any snakes?”

“No.”

Who was the savage? His mind was debating. Then the wind stirred in the valley and rose.

He felt lulled by the cool wind fanning his face — the man from the mega city and slipped into soundless sleep, after years, without taking any drugs or alcohol…

When he woke up, next morning, there was no camp, no village, no hamlet to be seen around. He was sleeping on the sand, a few feet from the river that was gurgling lazily, as a baby sun peeped out from a bank of clouds.

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/

Categories
Musings

Hope in Troubling Times

By Nishi Pulugurtha

My college is closed, classes are off and examinations have been deferred. We need to go in only if and when there is a need. It is not a holiday as I keep telling all my students, it is a shutdown, done for the sake of social distancing and isolation.  It is difficult convincing all about the seriousness of it all, how important it is to take precautions. There are many who dismiss it as media hype, as unnecessary, as India is safe, etc. Convincing does not seem to work, nor does rationale, some just refuse to see logic and reason.  No, I am not in a state of panic, just being careful. Trying to do my bit. As I began writing this. news came in of the first case in Kolkata.

As I was reading news about COVID_19 a few days ago it seems like some dystopia, a sci-fi movie or novel, only this time it is not fiction. It is for real and the earlier we realize it and take all necessary measures the better. Life for the daily wage earner could be even more difficult. The driver who came in yesterday morning told me that since many like me who will not be needing their services for sometime, his income is going to fall sharply. What happens to people like us, he said. I did not have an answer.

The shutdown gives most of us time to slow down, to work at other things that we can. I recorded my first lecture last night, a brief one, a test one. I shared it with my fourth semester students in a group that we created, our virtual classroom for the time being. I need to make sure that they are connected to their books and studies. Some of them did watch my video and even asked pertinent questions. I am sure many more will do it too, will take it seriously. Yes, we are angry and disturbed that so many of our plans, our schedules, our trips, our holidays, our getogethers, our parties, our functions, our movie dates, our programmes, so much of our lives that we looked forward to are all cancelled. We need to make the best of a bad situation. We are all in it together and maybe that is what will help us tide over it all.

Yesterday I noticed a post by a young dentist interning right now, miles away from home, she spoke about restraint, about taking precautions, about being careful. That post gave me hope, that in spite of the many who are throwing precautions to the wind and taking things very casually, there are sane voices. I know things sound depressing, who wants to be stuck at home. Even though I have prepared a long list of things I plan to do during this shutdown, I am not sure how much I will actually get down to doing.

It is going to be difficult for the elderly and for those with other health issues and ailments. My mother is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s Disease and is immobile now. I have been writing about our journey with the disease for some time now so as to create an awareness, just to talk about it, to give voice to those who are no longer able to speak for themselves as the tangled nerves in their brains prevent them from doing so. I need to be extra cautious as a result. She needs constant supervision, her hands need to be washed as she very often puts her fingers into her mouth, just like a baby. The caregivers at home have been instructed to take precautions.

A group of friends came up with a brilliant idea to reach out to those who need help. The Facebook post which I then shared spoke of reaching out to parents of friends, colleagues and acquaintances living alone in Kolkata as their children are abroad or in other parts of the country and are unable to come back now. It spoke of reaching out to them, checking on them to find out if they are alright, if they need anything, of making arrangements so that they have basic supplies, medicines they need. Work on it has already begun, people on both sides have begun to reach out, help is reaching homes. A friend is worried about her father undergoing dialysis at a city hospital and the worry is absolutely justified. The most I can do is to reach out to her. A word of help, of consolation, I believe work.  That friend, too, is part of this group reaching out to the elderly. There surely is much hope and compassion in times such as these. Let us look out for them, reach out, just be there.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film and has presented papers at national and international conferences in India and abroad and published in refereed international and national journals. She writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in Prosopisia, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The World Literature Blog and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.

Categories
Poetry

Witness to times past and Yellow Bird

By Nishi Pulugurtha

Witness to times past

A garden tracing its time back

Centuries,

The river flowing by

As it had always done

They have been there together

For years now

Bound by geography, by place

Witness to all that has changed

Witness to all that is changing now

Huge trees, overarching branching

Creepers, shrubs, foliage

Dry leaves – red and brown

Rustling, now quiet

The wind blowing through the green ones

Leaning on, some bent

Broken too,

Twisted and curled

Cut down, decayed

Banks derelict too

The river’s course has changed

Mud flats with debris

Muddied waters.

Glistening in the winter sun

On the broken bench a lone figure

Asleep in the winter sun

Some rest amid all the noise and bother

Before life resumes all over.

Yellow Bird

That yellow bird with a black band around its neck

Perched itself each year

December/January

Its winter haunt, I guess

It sits for a while perched on the branch

And flies off

To land on another branch

The little leaves barely a camouflage

Solitary on its perch

Chirping for a while

To soar away

It is back soon

Almost each morning

The pleasant winter sun seems to be just right for it

It feels nice

It makes me feel nice

The colour, the motion

The flight.

That happy yellow bird

With the black band around its neck.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film and has presented papers at national and international conferences in India and abroad and published in refereed international and national journals. She writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in Prosopisia, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The World Literature Blog and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.