The Literary Fictionist

Fragments from a Strange Journey

By Sunil Sharma

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

The Modern Odysseus

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crazy country!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I sane or mad?

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



The Literary Fictionist

Bapu, Denied

By Sunil Sharma

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

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

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

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

Smart phones were their portals to instant nirvana.

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

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

But who is Gandhi, dude?

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


Within an hour, it was the top trending topic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The child raised voice: “Mahatma Gandhi zindabad !”

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

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

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

It was huge!

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

Soon the news spread.

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

His voice was strong, eyes steady, gait firm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fever spread further.

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

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

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

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

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

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


The City of Concrete was on fire.

A real hero had emerged from the darkness.

Everybody talked of Mahatma Gandhi only.

An antidote to the global doctrine of hate.


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

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

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


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

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

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

#New Messiah of Love! Another trended.

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


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

Bapu was brought before the Wise Council.

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

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

Leader: “Because you died many years ago…”

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

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

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

The leader nodded.

Bapu smiled: “Do you really know me?”

“Yes, Bapu.”

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

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

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

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

Bapu left smiling. Huge crowds waited outside.

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


The Great Leader was woken up.

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

The Great Leader replied: “Do not worry!”

“But Saab!” croaked the sycophant.

“Listen!” commanded the Tall Leader.

“Yes, sir!”

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


“Ritualize their memory!”


“And re-write history.”



“And? Sir?”

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

The Tall Leader chuckled and disconnected.


Satyagrah — Using truth to non-violently resist abuse

Zindabad — Long live

Ahimsa — Non-violence

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



The Literary Fictionist

The Chained Man Who Wished to be Free

By Sunil Sharma

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

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

— Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote


Surendra was firm.

So were they.

“You are mistaken,” said Raghu.

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, bro! But you are wrong.”


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

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

A collective sigh!

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

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

Raghu bent a look at his uncle.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Raghu got up to leave.

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

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

Ma waited there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gods willed it otherwise.

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


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

Surendra shouted at the top of his voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Others chorused a big yes.

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

They waited for the fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They laughed more.

“There is more.”

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

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

This made the crowd laugh uproariously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They jeered again. “He is the Government.”

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

The crowd began enjoying the show.

“You are the government?” They asked.

“Yes, I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am a citizen.”


“I am the republic.”



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

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

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

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

The crowd laughed. They were enjoying the show now.

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

“Dare what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd clapped for the puny man facing the cop.

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

“For what crime?”

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

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

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

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

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

He clapped the handcuffs on Surendra who said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Surendra’s joint family had gone underground.

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

Videos that excited the popular imagination.

Surendra and his disappearance no longer mattered.

After all, he was nothing — a zero.

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

Sadly, he was ignored.

The thing did not end so tragically, however.

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

But who knows? These can be urban legends.


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


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



The Literary Fictionist


By Sunil Sharma

Now imagine this scene, dear reader:

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

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

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

Where has he sprung from?

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

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

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

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

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

Look, he is slightly unsteady.

Drunk! He sure is.

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

Tonight, I am going to be mugged by him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Frightening?”  he is asking the obvious.

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

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

“Yes, I write poems, stories and…”

“V-e-r-y good. Where do you live?”

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

“I live in the main town”.

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

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

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

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

“And where do you live brother?”

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

“Will you walk down to your village?”

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

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

The road stretches far into the night.

I ask him, “Are you not afraid?”

“Of whom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am a farmer.”

“Then you would be quite well-off.”

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

“You must be having lots of enemies?”

“Why should I?”

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

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

That settled everything!

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

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

He looks harmless now in the changed context.

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

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

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

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

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


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



The Literary Fictionist

Love Beyond Words

By Sunil Sharma

It is raining!

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

You are trapped in a grey zone.

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

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

It is the same depressing afternoon, my dear!

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

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

Grandma had this habit of muttering!


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

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

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

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




“In the room.”

“Why do I not see them?”

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

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

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

She and her friends! Strange!

Now I understand better.

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

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

Diamonds! How they sparkle in the courtyard!

The rain drops.

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

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

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

Are you listening dear?

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

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

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

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

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

We were so happy!

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

Later those grew into mere memories.

“You have changed!” you would say.

“Even you have changed!” I would retort.

We would bicker and fight and sleep in different rooms.

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

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

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

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

Our earlier romance looked a caricature, a ghost.

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

I could not help that.

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

I miss you. Our bickering, patched up silences.

Now you are beyond all this!

Are you listening dear?

What a life!

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

So near, yet so remote!

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

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

Alone on this teeming, violent, mad planet!

My God! What would I do?

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

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

Human vanity!

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong!

The dead never leave us. They hover over us.

One can never bury their dead permanently.

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

Ruins, decay, and a few lessons in life.

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


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

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

“What?” I asked.

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

Again, I had lost you and your enigmatic personality.

Was it about me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work separated us.

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

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

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

The kids are happy with their families.

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

And now you are in coma!

Can you hear me darling!

I feel terribly lonely!

Who will care for me after you are gone?

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

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

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

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

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

We had evolved into mere automatons!

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

Now, it is too late.

You are beyond all this humbug.

The doctors say you will not live long.

You are in coma. On life support.

How fragile is life!

It mocks our ambitions, unbridled desires.

How vulnerable!

Medicines can delay but not prevent decay and death.

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

Your memories might help.

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

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

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

Debris. I wander in the ruins.

And once we had almost split up!

Remember that?

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

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

I was stunned! How you had changed!

“Leave the job,” I had thundered.

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

“Who is he?”

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

I was devastated by these icy remarks.

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

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

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

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


It had become a battleground!

From lovers to enemies.

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

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

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

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

You would taunt me. We stopped talking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love is an emotion transmitted non-verbally.

Love is beyond words. A telepathic experience.

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

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

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

Are you listening my love?

Listening to my heart?

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

Sunil Sharma is the editor of SETU. He is a senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 21 published books, seven collections of poetry, three of short fiction, one novel, a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection. 



The Literary Fictionist

Near the River Chenab and Under The trees

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

River Chenab: Photo Courtesy — Wiki

The River Chenab can be addictive.

It has a strange pull.

He comes daily to meditate on its grassy right bank.

And to find nirvana.

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

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

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

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

First he discovered love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said the woman demurely.

“Your name?”


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

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



“Nope. Iqbal Singh.”

She said nothing.

Then he asked,“Your village?”

“Six kms from here.”

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

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

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

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


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

“Then?” Iqbal asked the run-away.

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

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

“I clearly heard a voice.”


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

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

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

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


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

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

“Your plans?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with me to my home.”

“No.” She said, eyes scared.

“Why?” Iqbal asked, a little irritated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death was in the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunil Sharma is the editor of SETU. He is a senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 21 published books, seven collections of poetry, three of short fiction, one novel, a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection. 




Building Bridges Across Cultures

In conversation with the editor of SETU, Sunil Sharma

Sunil Sharma

Sunil Sharma writes multi-layered fiction. His stories delve into the depths of human nature and often suggest to us what is worthy. They experiment with different narrative techniques and reflect his erudition. Sometimes, he writes poetry about the downtrodden. He has also written a highly symbolic novel that weaves mythology, different lores and cultures into a rich tapestry for the readers. Sharma is a Mumbai-based senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with twenty 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 also an editor par excellence. Today, we celebrate him for running one of the most popular online journals – SETU, an e-magazine that hopes to build bridges across cultures and the best in literature. Let us explore this facet of Sharma in this exclusive interview.

SETU has completed four years of virtual existence. What started you on this journey?

A casual conversation with my cousin Anurag Sharma– a distinguished Hindi author and tech professional– from Pittsburgh, USA, for the need of a bilingual platform to showcase serious writings committed to a secular and democratic worldview and best ethical practices as citizens and individuals. In brief – the finest values and their artistic transmissions in various forms. The idea clicked and we both started a cultural journey for a better world or a dream thereof. Both the Hindi and English monthly editions — released from Pittsburgh — are autonomous content wise. We often consult each other on many common editorial issues and work as a strong team. We both enjoy this kind of service to the community.

What are the principles on which SETU runs?

A:  Merit. Objectivity. Transparency. Accountability. Preference for quality.

Tell us about your team. How many are you and how many languages do you support?

So far two principal players. And some good friends as our enduring editorial support. Though the journal is bilingual, we often publish translations from many languages, including European ones. So, open to all the language-systems of the world. Every talent, welcome.

You often have issues being guest edited — what do you look for when selecting a guest editor? Why guest edit?

Impeccable credentials, integrity, transparency, cooperation and scholarship. The why of it — to engage more and more writers in an ongoing and expanding dialogue, multi-cultural and multi-dimensional

What kind of submissions get accepted in SETU?

A: Quoting an excerpt from Duotrope interview:

—The one conforming to the guidelines and vision of the journal.
—One providing epiphanies most preferred.
—Form-content dialectics, must.
—Narcissism—big No.
—Social conscience—big Yes. (Please check the link:

Additionally: Of course, well-written texts, error-free; demonstrating native talent and judicious use of words and imagery.

What do you see as the future of SETU?

We would like to see it evolve as a sustainable platform for writers, artists and readers as a truly global home of quality; an interactive mode; a continued conversation; a way of recognizing talents through our humble awards — to spread positivity, peace and harmony.

SETU is bringing out books too now. Can you tell us a bit about that?

We bring out very select books only on no-profit-no-loss basis. It is another service extended to those willing to publish with a small press. Details can be found on the Setu site. (Please check the link:

As a writer, how has SETU helped you? Has it enriched you in any way? Has it impacted you?

Not much. It often acts as a distraction — but now, it has become a habit, part of doing my bit for the field. As a reader and editor, one gets in touch with the current literary thinking and trends and varied writing styles and content.

Your stories and poems centre around Mumbai. Why? What happens when/if you move out of Mumbai?

I am afraid it is not that, although frequency of Mumbai might be more. I have written about Europe, China, Canada and USA as well, cities that I have visited in my avatar as a tourist. Written about Delhi and Ghaziabad, where I grew up. About other cities also, imagined or real, in my recent fiction.

Mumbai is my present location — my muse. Hence, more references to the megacity. It acts as a background or a main character, in my fictions and poetry — its rich contradictions; pull; dynamism; professionalism; multi-ethnicity and vibrancy.

You cannot escape your place, city, town– the spatial reality, its geography and history and memory.

Place has its own value. It shapes you up and the host community and its overall personality.

How many languages do you write in? Do you translate? If so from how many languages?

I am a bilingual. But lately, I have been writing in English only. I occasionally translate Hindi-to-English and vice versa.

What are your future plans?

To write novels, other things being equal and His grace. Let us see.


Thanks for taking your time to satisfy all our reader’s curiosity.

Novel by Sunil Sharma which is currently being serialised in SETU

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty.



The Literary Fictionist

In search of Lewis Carroll

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

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

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

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

mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

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

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

have come here.’

“Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a

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

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

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

have been changed several times since then.’

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

“So, who is Lewis Carroll?”

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

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

“It is not a real name,” Grace said.

“What is the real name?” I asked.

“Oh! I forgot!”

“No problem, honey.”

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

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

“It is literature,” I said.

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

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

“OK. Who is Carroll?”

We were back to square one.

“Give me some time,” I said.

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

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

Can we?

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


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

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

All right.

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

Now, that is too much!

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


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

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

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

Go ahead, I say.

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

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

Here is how, says Homocus:

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

Please explain.

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


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


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

Well, okay. Go on…

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


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

What about the hall?

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

Stretching it a bit?

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

For a lawyer, this is all Greek!

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

Sounds intriguing!

“The Cheshire Cat!”

What about it?

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


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

What else is there in this marvelous book?

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

What is the message?

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


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

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

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

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

And what is marvellous?

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


Last question.


Who is Lewis Carroll?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was he in life? Our dear Carroll?

“He never existed.”


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

“Lewis Carroll only.”

Now you sound like the Cheshire Cat or the Caterpillar.

“Not at all.”

Please explain.

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

Hmm! Not very clear yet…

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



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



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?” 


“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.” 
“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.’’ 
“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


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.



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.


“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!


“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.


“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!”


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.”


“Life is an arena. Tough gladiators survive.”


“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.


The Twilight Saga.”


“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.”


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!



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:
For more details of publications, please visit the link below: