Categories
The Literary Fictionist

Forgeries, Don Quixote & Epistemes

Sunil Sharma unravels the mystique of the Spanish ingénue, the man who fights windmills and has claimed much much literary attention post Quichotte

Don Quixote attacking the Windmill by John Doyle. Courtesy: Wiki

While learning Spanish in Mumbai recently, I came to enjoy Don Quixote immensely. And I also came to discover a unique tutor who came from the same enchanting land once traversed by the great philosophical Don on his poor steed Rocinante and in the company of his trusted fellow-adventurer, Sancho Panza. The shared links to Spain and her present and past culture made my wiry tall tutor a valuable guide. His observations vastly added to the pleasure of understanding the more than four-hundred-year-old sacrosanct text. He proved to be a skillful navigator, guiding me through the thick maze of the interesting book, generally considered to be the first modern novel of the West.

Spanish language is called the language of Cervantes — so rich is the effect and contribution of this artist on the overall national language and culture of Spain, and, on Western cultural life, by extension. The bulky rambling novel has inspired a host of great writers like Flaubert and Dostoevsky, among others. Picasso was said to be inspired by the adventures of this loveable simple man seeking beauty and romance in the most prosaic age of commerce and overseas conquest for colonies.

The Don’s creator can be called the precursor of magical Marquez and Isabel Allende and other experimental fictionists of the last century. The way even the mundane in Spain is fantastically transformed in the pages of this novel is an astonishing feat of unmatched artistic skill. It is a charming but lost place you come to see; a strange country that is conjured up for you. It is like catching a fleeting historical moment and preserving that elusive moment forever, for the succeeding generations of mind-travelers who want to revisit a famous literary site and be a participant in the unfolding seductive landscape marked by the surprising visual contraries.

The sheer magnitude, the solidity, the hugeness of the windmills can be experienced afresh by the reader through the eyes of the Don questing for the extraordinary in an ordinary age. The banal becomes the marvelous.

Don Quixote celebrates the creative difference in human perceptions — very much like the artistic genius of a Picasso or Dali who see things differently from the rest. This can disorient and yield a new insight. The windmills are not the ordinary windmills but are perceived to be giants. With the Don, the conventional view is drastically changed, and you get radicalised by a totally alien view. The usual appears unusual.

The artistic inversion and the radical reversal produce a startling breakthrough — the kind experienced in Kafka or Grass. There are other dramatic modifications. Deep transformations occurring in the text and within the reader. The world gets topsy-turvy. Don destabilizes stale perspectives and blasé viewpoints and manufactures refreshing realities, far removed from his current context and location.

The gentle sheep become an army of marauding mercenaries, a shocking opposite: the commonplace taverns and non-descript inns shed their dull features and turn into mysterious dark castles housing the secrets and weaponry of the ideal knights; the scheming magicians, it is claimed, make the precious libraries vanish. It is a continual collision of the real and the unreal, fact and fiction, heroic past and pedestrian present. In short, lands miraculous where things appear to be their reverse: everything appears to be what it is not.

For example, Dulcinea is a fair princess for the smitten fifty-year-something Don; in reality, she is an ordinary farm girl. Cervantes has upturned the existing conventions of romance by describing ordinary real people of his country in a most favourable light and this bold gesture inaugurates the process of democratisation of literature that deepens further in succeeding centuries. A working farm girl serving as the original for an ideal princess itself is a remarkable advance, a literary breakthrough, a literary coup.

These ideas did not come naturally to me in my readings of Don Quixote but were a result of my constant interaction with my tutor. He was, incidentally, from Madrid and had a strong resemblance to Don. He went by a long name of Juan Rodriguez de Silva but preferred to be called Amando. Once, during a break in the long afternoon lessons, the 45-year-old Mumbai-based freelance writer and part-time Spanish tutor — in the country for a year for some research on the early proselytizing of the Spanish Catholic priests in Goa, Mumbai, Cochin and Chennai, among other coastal cities of the South India — told me that the father of my favourite author, Don Rodrigo de Cervantes, was a very interesting figure, largely ignored by the later scholarship.

He said: “I found him, Cervantes senior, quite fascinating. He was a surgeon who wandered from one place to another in search of work. The family led a difficult and unsettled life due to this reason. In those days, in sixteenth-century Spain, the job of a surgeon was not high-paying and considered lowly. It did not enjoy any social prestige. The poor family suffered many financial problems on account of this vagrant lifestyle.”

I listened attentively to this family history that was like opening a window on the hoary past of a different era and nation. “Spain was feudal. Aristocracy prevailed. Finding acceptability, honour and respect was difficult for the disinherited and dispossessed. The senior Cervantes was a man of ingenuity, very much like Don Quixote of La Mancha. I have this feeling that the immortal Don Quixote was modeled to some extent on Rodrigo. A few parallels can be seen,” said Amando.

“How?” I asked.

“Well, the guy was like to-day’s harmless imposter, not willing to violate the law or break rules but willing to twist facts and invent a bit of illustrious history or lineage to make him look grand. You can call such desperate persons as simple pretenders who mean no harm. Cervantes’ father thought what he was actually not. He was very inventive. The wandering barber-surgeon claimed he was descended from a noble family. An aristocratic past, I would say, for his impoverished family. But, in the long run, this fiction did not help, and he landed up in the debtors’ prison for unpaid arrears, very much like John, the unfortunate overspending dad of Dickens, who served as a model for Mr. Micawber. In fact, both the writers were much haunted by the imprisonment of their failed fathers and the misfortunes that attend such a situation. Poverty and inequalities of an unjust system are sympathetically described by both chroniclers of two great societies, most poignantly by Dickens and satirically, by Cervantes.”

This sounded exciting.

Amando continued, “You can call them forgeries. Innocent ones, of course. Who does not want to have a duke or duchess in their blood? People invent an interesting past for themselves for different reasons.”

I agreed. I know of a young man who had created a Christian past to woo a European woman in a multinational corporation in Mumbai and was successful in this deception. In America, many Indians have adopted Anglican names to blend well in their society and avoid hostility.

“You see, we all are like that. We all fictionalise, invent and re-create things for ourselves, at one point or other, in our unremarkable lives. Don is an avid reader of books that talk of romance and chivalry and wants to re-create that lapsed order of things in an age hostile to such revival and the entire project is doomed from the beginning.” I nodded.

Amando went on: “I know many poor young men who say they are from wealthy families, but the lies get exposed. The truth is to be confronted. Rodrigo lived in a dual world of lies and bitter truths. He was escaping from bitter facts into the comforts of fiction. Don was also like him. The imaginative man wanted to revive an entire age that was gone forever. Naturally, such an attempt was going to be farcical and ultimately tragic, simply because history can never be reversed. You cannot run away from your present and reality catches up—finally.”

He was right. Fiction does not last forever. They do not help, either. One has to return — to a normal sane world or die dubbed insane. This dramatic tension between the past and the present, between romance and grim reality, between an imagined past and an impoverished stark present, continually informs the life and the optimistic but hopeless quest of the man from La Mancha.

“Rodrigo was using a language no longer understood in a cynical age of greed. Like Don Quixote, he was caught up in a cusp of crucial change. A new world order was starting and the older solid one was dying. Folks like Don could see things others could not. Don is a visionary or a mad prophet—take your pick. A genius or a phony. In fact, forgeries, deceptions, self-deceptions, thefts are all common in art world. All art, if you permit, is itself, a great forgery. It may scandalize the establishment, but it is a truth that cannot be denied. The Bard is a known literary thief. Many painters did forgeries and were never caught. Forgery proves one point: No art can claim to be original except the precocious Greeks. Everything else is a mere re-telling or mere re-working of the original. That is why geniuses like Shakespeare or Picasso never bothered about originality but, ironically, could produce some of the most original works that were commentaries on the preceding ones, kind of meta-fiction or meta-work or meta-criticism. Borges did that through his short fiction called ‘Pierre Menard, the Author of the Quixote’ raises the question of continued relevance of an artwork for the coming generations. It tells us how we re-create the classics and fashion them in our own image. A text is never static but an open and dynamic series. Borges himself did successful literary forgeries to prove the point that search for originality of vision is futile exercise and need not be undertaken by the modern artists. It also undermined the seriousness of art.”

Talking of Cervantes, the insightful Spanish tutor said somberly, “Even Miguel Cervantes did forgery of a different sort by inventing an exotic authorship for the fictional Don Quixote and his adventures that defy common sense. He attributed authorship of this long text to one Arab Benegeli. He said it was originally written by the Moor, translated by another and edited by him. But then, it was a common practice for many writers to do like that only. Stevenson did that. Authorship, originality and artistic vision were not exclusive preserves of the narrating voice but were diffused in the wider culture of the day.”

 I nodded.

He was quiet for long and then said, “In fact, this desire to recreate and represent the given facts is an act of forgery but since we are aesthetically conditioned or trained to view these as art objects, we miss the obvious and call it as a creation.” Now, this was revelation. “Don Quixote is an exquisite example of this human creative desire to recreate older realities or traditions in newer ways that can be shockingly, startlingly, daringly different from the older ones. They call them these days as revisions. In fact, every new voice is a renewed older voice. If you acknowledge the source, it becomes a tribute. Otherwise, it is plagiarism. Then there are other issues as well.”

I looked at him. A fine but unknown reader and critic, Amando said after a long pause, “The value of popular traditions, the value of books and the fictional truth and the outcome of a desire to implement these literary truths in the altered context of the contemporary reader of that text or tradition are all discussed by the writer. Rodrigo changes his pedigree, Don Quixote wants to re-create an imagined past in the romantic tradition of an era yet to come. Cervantes creates an Arab author for this history of an individual that reflects the seventeenth-century Spain and in the process, mocks that tradition and anticipates the emergence of another world that is no longer feudal. All these acts are forgeries of the prevalent facts. They challenge and change the facts and are changed by the subsequent facts of the succeeding generations.”

Yes, he was right.

He continued: “It is — great art — both local and universal. It is both temporal and eternal. It is both present and future. Now, the question is, can the great art of last century or much earlier, speak to us directly? Borges raises the same query in the Pierre Menard fiction and says a creative engagement with great texts like Don can be historically productive as we try to interpret these texts in the light of our own times. We try to refashion these multi-layered rich texts pregnant with multiple meanings and try to extricate valuable insights into the nature of time, humanity, life and society. Both creation and critical reading is a continual process of re-inventing, recreating, altering historical facts with imagination and then trying to make it give some historically true conclusions that can be called progressive at a later stage of its evolution. In a way, a great artist is able to transcend the limits of his social condition and rise above his historical moment and see the dawn of another moment. The past, present and future are all sedimented in great art that belongs to all the centuries and not to its century of creation. It is the great paradox of art. You commit artistic forgeries and produce genuine serious art out of this act of self-conscious tampering. Old knowledge being made contemporary and relevant by reading the present into the text of the old and making it yield new truths whose echoes can be found distinctly in that of the old text. Postmodern fiction does perform only this task for us. The only difference is they call it parody and avoid the term forgery.” That was brilliant.

“In our life ordinary, we all tend to fictionalise to some extent but have to return to bitter realities of the human existence. Fictionalised worlds are delightful ad hoc realms but fail to provide permanent sanctuaries. The real for a previous era or eras is unreal for us; the unreal for us was the real for our ancestors and out of the dramatic tension of the two, emerges newer dimensions and newer texts in a ceaseless manner.  As the wise, not mad, Don says to Sancho, in chapter sixty-six, that each person is a forger of his own destiny and he, of his own but without necessary prudence. This results in one disaster after another. This view marks a radical juncture between the ideologies of the feudal and the emerging world and shows the inevitability of the decay and death of the former and the birth of the latter.”

After another long pause, he said, this somber Spaniard, a look-alike of Miguel Cervantes, “Last consideration on Don. Last three centuries, the imaginary Don has shed his fictional character and become real — like Mephistopheles, Hamlet, Wilhelm Meister or Young Werther, Raskolnikov and Madame Bovary. These characters have become super real and cultural figures of eminence and reached cult status. It is amazing transformation within art. They speak to the curious and the willing. The Don could see backwards and forwards, Janus-like. The historically well-located Cervantes could witness the dialectics of change vividly. He announced the total eclipse of a dominant world order and the arrival of another world order.  In painting, the same was achieved by another brilliant Spanish genius. Velazquez achieves the same prophecy in his painting, Las Meninas, whereby he foresees the fading of monarchy and signals the end of the monolithic worldview of feudalism by splintering the single unified view into multiple perspectives. By rupturing the old and inaugurating the novel, serious art becomes prophetic and consecrates the new point of view that may look scandalous to many but gradually becomes accepted as the official version — till a new voice terminates the outdated and heralds the new beginnings for a changed age. Don does all this for us and by the inherent dualism of artistic projection and artistic cognition, renews and revitalizes the narrative traditions and their continuities. By constant re-engagement with the classics, we fulfill deeper needs for epistemologies and gain bold insights into the past, our present and dim future based on this temporal cycle. Great artists explain the world present past and future and tell us that nothing is eternal but subject to historical change. As long as they perform this task, they will never be irrelevant to us or others after us.”

Amando had just unfolded so many dimensions that others could not perceive in Don. But then, that is the art of reading and critically explaining to us through a consecrated cultural text of the yore. Is it not? All of us write our own Don Quixotes in our own way as close collaborators and gain rare insights, epistemes by this joint process. And feel educated or enlightened. ‘Epiphanies’ is what Joyce called these lucid moments.

Reading Don was such a moment for me in the company of my imagined Spanish tutor…


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

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

Categories
Poetry

The Rain-meditation


By Sunil Sharma

 The clouds grey and pregnant
 With condensed water,
 Bend down and
 Kiss the parched earth,
 In a gossamer embrace:
 And,
 At the same time,
 Sweep past,
 Caressing your oval face
 With their light fluffy cotton hands,
 Leaving your beautiful face wet
 with the spray of the passing shower
 Thrilled to the core 
 Of your sacred being,
 Your long eyes closed, 
 Thin curved lips, pouting a bit, 
 Revealing a white set of gleaming teeth,
 like the swaying silver birches,
  
 Singing a melody not heard so far
 By any mortal on this earth.
  
 The distended large clouds
 Are
 Now --
 Spread out like an unfurled black giant umbrella,
 Dripping water divine,
 On the people huddled in leaky corners
 on this Mumbai street,
 And, other creatures of God,
  
 Reviving the inner child
 who loved the racing monsoons, 
 From his tiny barred windows of a
 Deserted, dim, shabby home
 Of a tenant farmer,
 In a green rich meadow
 Of a now- forgotten ancestral land
 Left behind;
 Shrinking -- receding fast--
 Like the old river weighed down,
 Breathless, under the debris
 Of a city, of late,
 Indifferent to a dying river God.
  
  
  

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

.

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

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

Near the River Chenab and Under The trees

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

River Chenab: Photo Courtesy — Wiki

The River Chenab can be addictive.

It has a strange pull.

He comes daily to meditate on its grassy right bank.

And to find nirvana.

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

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

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

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

First he discovered love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said the woman demurely.

“Your name?”

“Aisha.”

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

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

“Iqbal.”

“Muslim?”

“Nope. Iqbal Singh.”

She said nothing.

Then he asked,“Your village?”

“Six kms from here.”

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

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

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

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

“Age?”

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

“Then?” Iqbal asked the run-away.

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

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

“I clearly heard a voice.”

“Voice?”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“Your plans?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Come with me to my home.”

“No.” She said, eyes scared.

“Why?” Iqbal asked, a little irritated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death was in the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

Monalisa No Longer Smiles Here

By Sunil Sharma

Everybody called her Monalisa.

Nobody knew or cared who the real Monalisa was. The name just stuck on. Just like that. Three months and she was already running the household like an old woman.

If grandma needed warm water, she would shout, “Oye, bring me some warm water. My feet are giving me hell.” Grandma — the poor soul! She suffers from joint pain and pain of every conceivable type — rarely stirred out of her large bed and needed lot of things in her ground floor room. The burly mustachioed Grandpa needed tea after every half-an-hour in the cluttered drawing room. He would sit throughout the day, watching television, smoking constantly and coughing and belching smoke —making the whole place look like a huge chimney — and, reading morning paper in installments, throughout the long and still days. Monalisa supplied him with tea every half an hour and grandpa would feel mightily happy with this service and say invariably, “Here comes my little precious Monalisa. The only soul who cares for an old man in this goddamn cursed house,” and while saying so, he would often peer over the glasses, his gray bushy eyebrows uplifted, reminding you of a tired Santa.

Bhavi wanted the breakfast early in her first-floor bedroom and would shout urgently, “Monalisa, run. I am getting late for office again.” Little Monty always forgot his tiffin. Monalisa would run after the auto and hand it over to fat bespectacled sleepy Monty. She was on her toes right from morning till evening. Within last three months, she had taken over all the responsibilities of an adult homemaker. Grandpa would often say, “If Monalisa runs away, we would all be in great trouble, starved and mad at the other.”

Bhavi would feel irritated by this grim forecast, “Why would she run away? The rich food she eats here, frocks of my Tanya she gets to wear, will she be getting all these things anywhere else?”  

Grandma would say, “Oye, Pa is getting soft in his head. Old age? He goes on babbling like that. Always seeing bad things first.”

Bhaiya* would shrug off, rephrasing his boss, “The world is full of such Monalisas. If one goes, another comes. Nobody is indispensable in the world. Is it not Pappaji*?” Pappaji would grunt.  

Tanya, doing her homework, would add, “Before her, there was Rani. Before Rani, there was Kusum. Before that….”

Little Monty would interrupt the total recall, “Look, Pappaji, Tanya is not doing her homework. She is disturbing me.” Tanya, hurt, would make faces, “Oh, the Einstein is working. How many marks did you get in math in the first term?” Little Monty, looking cross, would adjust his Harry-Potter frame over his hooked nose and say, “What about your physics, Didi*?” Tanya would sigh, “Oh, you would know when you come to class VIII”.

Deep down, everybody dreaded the prophecy of grandpa. The fact was that our house ran because of these servants.

When Rani had disappeared one evening, there was total chaos. It had continued for long. Nobody got anything on time and everybody cursed everybody else. Old grandma cursed her fate. Grandpa cursed rising prices and the government. Bhaiya and Bhavi fought bitterly everyday.

“Where is my breakfast?” he would ask.

“I am already late. You prepare one for yourself and one for the kids,” Bhavi would answer flatly.

“Oh, so I should leave my job with an international company and become a cook at home.”

“And who am I? An unpaid cook. What else? I also have a job to keep.”

“Leave that job then. I earn quite sufficient.”

“No. You leave your job first.  Why should I leave my bank job?”

This was routine. The mornings were awful ritual and a delight for the nosy neighbours.

Both would leave, cursing each other. Grandma, deprived of tea, would grumble, “Oye, my legs. I wish I were dead.”

“That you have been saying for last 45 years,” grandpa would say. “Oye, You always wanted me dead. Listen, old man, I am not going to die. If I do, I will come back as a bhoot* and torment you forever.”

“For   that you need not die. You have already been doing all that to me,” grandpa would say and laugh his belly laugh. “Oye, my kismet*. Nobody wants me. That bahu*, that son, my own man—nobody wants me anymore. What should I do, rabba*?”

“Keep your mouth shut. As easy as that.”

“Oye, nobody allows me to speak now. O good Lord! strike me dead,” she would cry.

Little Monty, dressing by himself, would say, “Why does grandma say Oye, Oye?”

“Oh, shut up, Einstein!” Tanya would shout.

“Oye, Oye, nobody allows me to speak, not even my fat sis,” he would complain. Tanya would fly for him across the room but our Einstein, a smart runner, would fly faster than a missile.

“This house is a nuthouse!” Grandma would say.

“No doubt about it. ” Grandpa would   confirm.

In this chaos, one August afternoon, walked in a little girl, later called Monalisa. It was unusually cold and wet day, dull and grey, the heavy rains whipping the high-rises of Vasant Kunj in New Delhi. Dark clouds had covered the area and mild darkness had fallen. The doors flew open magically and entered a child, followed by a short, slim man. The gloom of the day was lit up by the silver of the lightening that traveled like an enormous quivering white snake across the sky.

Papaji, this is my daughter.”

The girl looked frightened.

“Do not go by looks. She is small. She can clean, sweep, cook. She is very good at that,” the dhobi* said, hard selling her as if she were a new detergent.

“What should we pay?”

“You keep her full time. Feed her. Then pay whatever you want.”

 The deal was on. The dhobi did not say goodbye. He turned his back and went out in the pouring rain. The child looked longingly at the rain, the retreating figure, and the outside world. She half- raised her hand to wave at a receding father and then stopped in mid-air, lost in that instant between a fading and an emerging world.

 “Child, make me a cup of tea,” Grandpa said gently.

That moment on, she was sucked into a new adult harsh reality.

Her pearly smile won everybody’s heart. Her waif-like figure flitted silently from room to room and she cleaned, swept, mopped like a new detergent. The only difference in her appearance was an occasional shampooed hair and scrubbed-clean look. And she looked out of shape in the hand-me-down, ill flitting dresses of Tanya who had overgrown or discarded them for her hundredth dress. The madness had subsided but temporarily and everybody got food of their choice in time.

“This girl can work like ten horses,” Grandpa said one day.

“Oye, do not cast an evil eye. May God give her more strength,” countered grandma. In the duplex, Monalisa occupied a 3 ft 2″space on the threaded carpet of grandma’s room. That was her nocturnal home where she slept like a log. Her family never visited.

After Diwali, all of us planned to visit Agra. My job was to deliver her to the dirty basti*, 10 km away, where her family lived in a shack under a spreading old banyan, near a Hanuman temple, an open-air structure next to the tree where elders congregated for their daily fix of gossips, chai and smoke. As I left her there on the side street, I saw her running off the remaining 100 meters, the distance that intervened between a free world and a grown-up world. I sat in the car and saw her disappear in the crude shack made up of plastic and ropes and bamboos. The 10-meter yard was reclaimed from the weeds and dressed up. A tulsi pot bloomed. She came out immediately, waved her hand to signal safe arrival, and smiling, vanished again in the dark womb again.

Evening I came back to retrieve her. I was a bit early. Cold November dusk was settling down. The orange disc was slipping fast behind a bank of the fluffy, white clouds. Crows were returning. An icy wind had stated blowing. I got down from the car and walked the short distance to the home of Monalisa. She was not there. Her asthmatic battered graying starved mother went out to search for her.

 Then I saw her.

Some 600 meters away. She was playing with kids her age. She was running, her hair streaming, thin face flushed, yelling at the top of her piping voice, a little goddess in motion. Some kid was chasing her. In order to avoid the pursuer, Monalisa, happy and excited, began climbing the nearby peepul tree. All the malnourished brown kids, sweaty and out-of-breath, shouted and formed a circle beneath the tree.

A simple game I have never seen Tanya and Monty play.

The simple drama was rudely interrupted by the yelling of her mother. In a minute, she ran up to me, followed by her lean, semi- starved, ill-clad kid brother crying for her, “Do not go, do not go. Let us play one more time, didi, please. Come back.” The light went out of didi‘s eyes. Her mother grabbed the whimpering child but it cried louder. “You have to wait for her for so long. Please excuse her, she is just a child,” her frail mother, lifeless and bloodless, pleaded with me abjectly. “No problem. I can understand.” I said, already feeling like a robber. We went to the car. She looked back longingly, her eyes blank, face drained. Her friends came running, waved and then began playing. The brother cried. A cold wind sliced us cruelly in the middle. The sun, effeminate and yellow-faced, went down. The early darkness suddenly embraced us.

As soon as she entered, grandma shouted, “Oye, fetch me warm water. My feet are hurting.”

“And tea for me,” said grandpa. She went straight to her territory.

I said to grandma I was not in a mood to bring the child back, at least, for a night, “She would have enjoyed some time more with her family.”

“Oye,” Grandma glowered, “You have become like a woman. Men should be tough. These are poor people. They breed like pigs. If we had not taken her in our custody, her drunkard father would have sold her to a brothel. We provide safety, security and food to her. She gets decent treatment here. She is family to us.”

I did not argue. I went out and blended in the gloom of the advancing night. The cries of a phantom brother and sad eyes of Monalisa haunted me for long in that short winter night.

*papaji: An affectionate way of addressing a grandfather in Northern India

*bhoot: Ghost

*kismet: Fate

*bahu: Daughter-in-law

*rabba: God

*bhaiya: Brother

*didi: Elder sister

*dhobi: Washerman

*basti: Slum

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

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

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

In the Shadow of the Nataraja: A Kinship

Journey through Ellora, Rio de Janerio, Rome and Jerusalem with Sunil Sharma to find answers of a different kind

Ellora

At Ellora, I found myself in the company of the serene gods, whose time-resistant deep calm could still vitally affect a present-day visitor to this holy site. It is a small upland country consecrated and claimed by the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain gods who had decided to dwell and rest, during their voluntary earthly sojourn, among this beautiful complex of sturdy caves. The experience can be terrific for the body and mind. It is like entering a floating ethereal region distinctly different from our tangible world. Or, to alter the analogy, a vast continent of spirit frozen in time and space but open as an entry point for a persistent seeker of truth. A happy age caught at a blessed moment, inscribed delicately and preserved permanently as a record, in the cluster of these humble ample-bodied temple caves. Welcoming all those who are explorers of the spirit world.

 But, a bit of the background.

We are visiting the famous Ellora, my friend, JS, and me. The sun kissed UNESCO world heritage site offers soul-curry. The weatherbeaten tall temples beckon the believer dormant in my I-pod-listening, internet-addicted, pizza-chomping, beer-guzzling, cigar-smoking, flabby unexercised physical body (my generous tummy is around 46 inches, still growing fast, protruding obscenely over my tight belt like an overstuffed sack). I am, let me confess, the true inheritor of the 21-century pure hedonism unleashed by a mass society on its citizens who can get everything on a made-to-order basis. I confess openly: I have got only the physical side; I am horribly one-dimensional. I love all the pleasures of the flesh and can go to any extent to satisfy the deep cravings for new physical sensations. Ellora promised to be new excitement from the dreary routinised life, a kind of escape from the killing mundane around me.

Last July, it was Bangkok and its painted women. Jaded. That is how I had felt every morning, badly hung-over and miserable, in my lonely hotel room, smelling cheap perfume lingering on in the unclean sheets, dinner remains all stacked up in trays with flower patterns on them; trapped and cheerless in the mornings and trying to find novelties again in the evenings, along with my middle-aged Indian business partners, hopelessly trying to search for new sensations in the robotic bosom and automaton thin legs of these abused women. Meanwhile, the child in me looked on all these indulgences with contempt. His censure was severe, to be drowned again in the evenings with more vicious partying. The descent has begun for my forty-five-old battered body. I wanted to make an escape from this crushing hedonism and save myself from further assault. This time, I wanted to do something for my soul.

I wanted to test the spiritual world, that soaring higher region experienced by the evolved and the mystics. I know I am not the ‘Chosen One’ but who knows I may become one: to-day’s sinners to-morrow’s saint kind of development. Ellora is to Indians what the Aztec and the Mayan temples are to the Mexicans and to Central Americans.

Ellora sounded the right destination, a choice made by the understanding gods for my bohemian self through my friend JS. So, on this golden lazy afternoon, I found myself in the abode of the eternal gods, sitting relaxed, beyond the pain and pleasure principles of the earthly life. I am not religious, at least, in the strict daily- temple-going and-prostrating Indian sense, but, let me tell you, I do all the rites and ceremonies religiously. I believe in higher power. You can call it a hierarchical thinking. A foundational thinking. A logical thinking: there is dad; then there is the boss; then, the Prime Minister and God as the super boss.

I know early gods are all anthropomorphic beings but there is a strong need to believe in some tenet, some force that shapes our world, nay, the cosmos. Coelho thing, you know, for me. I can be both the dissenter and the believer, in the same moment. A typical cosmopolitan, hovering between faith and complete agnosticism, bowing reverentially before the Ganesha, before opening my shop in the mornings and playing the video games on my computer in the evenings. I believe, when required by stressful personal conditions; I resort to agnosticism, when in the company of the rationalists or doubting self-assured intellectuals who seem to know all the correct answers to the profound questions regarding the universe and its unsolved mysteries. A man of contradictions and not apologetic about my dualism.

But here I was confronting the gods from an age that can no longer be retrieved, in a post-modern, hostile divided world of nuclear missiles and ethnic cleansing and hard-core evangelism on TV of all varieties. In fact, every mood, every emotion, every human feeling — hatred, love, belief, sacrifice, religion, pacifism — gets slickly packaged and becomes a lucrative business. Earlier there were the gods, now, the hip god men travelling in big cars. It is a blooming business of love, hatred and faith everywhere. So, as I was telling you, I felt a bit odd in this place. I was not sure what to do with it or how to make sense of the splendid Ellora for my epicurean mind that believed that gods had deserted the darkening planet long ago. Nietzsche had confirmed this act of divine desertion and certified a possible demise of the Olympians. The latter judgment I do not agree with. The gods are still hovering somewhere near us, watching us, as they show aliens watching our moves in an exciting Lucas or Spielberg film. But let us talk of Ellora.

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The great Ellora constitutes of a series of thirty-four multi-storied caves where, by a happy coincidence of luck and state patronage, the philosophies of the Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism meet and interact in a strange and peaceful confluence of differing faiths and opposite world-views; this kind of co-existence is now very rare in to-day’s regimented, sectarian and divided India. The hand-made fine carvings, paintings and statues, all huddled together in a small geographical kingdom of two kilometers, are still invested with belief by the visitors of different religions and nationalities. The temples are the artistic evidence, executed in exquisite stone work, of the yearning souls searching for higher reality beyond the pale of the sheer physical plane of human existence. The entire cluster of temples have been gradually chiseled and scooped out of the mass of steep stubborn rocks of basalt. They were excavated lovingly between the 5th and 10th centuries by generations of sculptors and carvers, possessed by a higher guiding spirit, compelling them to labour hard in most harsh conditions.

The reverential collective of the industrious temple artists wished to remain anonymous, in striking contrast to the crop of the current Indian artists desperate for celebrity status, dollars, foreign fellowships and global awards. And, a final migration to another country, any outside India, an advanced cultural location from which to ridicule India as dark story for their white masters and   from where, they can talk easily of diaspora and displacement, a reversible situation for them, anyway.

These humble artists, on the other hand, were doing a daily service to the band of living and breathing gods who spoke directly to them and directed them to accomplish their gigantic collective task of love, devotion and labour. The obscure but dedicated carvers had transformed their surrounding wooded hills into luminous spiritual enclaves for an impoverished feudal age. The poor unpaid masons and master builders voluntarily embraced a harsh life, equipped only with strong belief and guided in dark moments by an inner light.

Their tools were primitive, working conditions poor but their global vision was superbly three dimensional, almost matchless in its breadth, width and depth. They started their monumental work of centuries from the top of the hills to the base, hammering and chipping away painfully the dusty crusty layers of stone; calloused human hands creating, in the slow process, an interlinked master narrative of stunning visuals, a super body of magnificent figures, animals and motifs, wonderfully alive, out of the sheer vertical walls of solid rock, over the unhurried centuries, now buried forever, in the womb of time.

They carved daily in a fit of feverish zeal, inch by inch, making the unyielding rock yield to their single holy vision and produced excellent and elevating sculptures and buildings, depicting three great religions symbolically on the facades and walls of the cave in close proximity and complete religious harmony –a remarkable synthesis possible only in the holy city of Jerusalem of the yore. It is an inspiring example of an early tolerant India at its best. Their act of cooperative labour created transcendental ideals of divine beauty, bliss and perfection, out of the mass of the dry unfeeling hard stones. The temples celebrate the cessation of human desire and the awakening of the divine. It is a mammoth exercise in self-realisation, betterment and wellness of the mind and body.

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The huge linear site is a human marvel! It is a grand gritty combination of patience, belief and utter devotion that could create great monuments of art and rock cut architecture, erected in the midst of deep wilderness, in a time when gods were said to intervene directly in human affairs, like a community of caring elders, and the twinkling stars illuminated the paths of lonely mendicants towards salvation. There were no lingering doubts or anxieties, assailing the human mind. Terrified humans petitioned to these lofty airy beings living on the deserted icy frozen mountain caves where no mortal could ever venture or under the frightening infinity of a churning, hissing ocean barred from the prying earthly eyes. The earnest heartfelt anguished cries and loving pleas of the tiny earthlings were invariably heard by the sympathetic and all powerful mighty residents of an ethereal space that could never be measured by a latter calculating greedy commercial mind.

The imposing three-storied structures house some rare sacred glimpses into the mystic and the unknown for those who can penetrate that higher level of reality, that higher consciousness few realise in a lifetime of Earthly struggles, ego-clashes and vanities. These sacred profound truths are now no longer understood by more evolved homo sapiens, living longer and with a different set of the daily priorities, largely having lost the capacity to hear the divine songs in the chirping of birds, in the  falling rain on a freshly-ploughed field, or in the whisperings of the  breeze cooling the face of a hot Earth in the summer, or in the moving trees near the meandering pure crystalline river, or, in the sun fired orange by the dawn, rising from the horizon, like a full-bodied Venus. That is why the intelligent gods of the deep rainforests, pure romantic lands and mist-covered monasteries perched on inaccessible hills, finding themselves redundant like old parents, grandparents and ailing friends, safely retreated to their superior abodes in lofty realms of the stratosphere. They are no longer emotionally valid for a fun-seeking generation that finds its spiritual index in sensex, violent video games and gleaming cars.

The towering monasteries can be still breathtaking for a secular viewer. Today, they are art. For our simple seeking ancestors of the past, they were earthly gateways opening onto shimmering revolving metaphysical regions that could be accessed and finally grasped by meditating with purity in their hearts. Modern eyes can see only the stone statues in what were once the revelation of the holy. For humans in those days, the statues and icons were externalisations of a deep sacred ennobling pattern revealed to a minority of the pious seekers of hidden meanings of earthly life.

It was late Monday afternoon. The foreign tourist traffic was otherwise light. It largely consisted of a circulating mélange of muscular tall florid-faced, old Americans in blue jeans and wide-brim hats. In sharp contrast to the Yankees were some porcelain-faced delicate little young Japanese couples looking dainty and vulnerable on the sun-kissed courtyard of the sprawling complex of old hardy caves looming over us; the wealthy east-west touristy mix on an expensive discovery trail to a well-known oriental spot of curiosity: the typical occidental tourists in constant search for that elusive nirvana from the burning madness of a competitive capitalism, in some nook or dreary corner of the east.

The foreigners were all armed with Nikons and Camcorders, recording the modern encounter with the splendours of the past on the celluloid. The pure tranquility of the spread-out monasteries suddenly hit a powerful blow to my solar plexus — after a fast and furious escape from the seething Mumbai of humid hot June, it was a welcome relief to sit down on a crude stone ledge in uninterrupted silence, not to be disturbed by any harsh city sounds for hours; your mind drained off all the toxic residues of a hyperactive life of buying and consuming. The deep silence of the hallowed place came as a soothing balm to my fevered mind torn apart reluctantly from a bustling urban context.

JS or Jaydeep Sarangi was the author of this fantastic getaway for me, an offbeat place offering a chance of new kind of experience. He is a young bilingual poet, critic and literary editor from West Bengal. Medinipur, to be precise, and is visiting me in Mumbai for the first time. It was his idea to visit the world-famous heritage caves, going back, he said, like an operator of religious tourism to a mesmerized me, to thousands years of deep solitude and isolated meditation done by the ascetics in these roughly-hewn humble cells. A must-see, he said simply, leaving nothing to argue.

As a good host, I initially tagged along, an unwilling partner, in this quest of a different type. But the scene around me appeared pleasing. The air was thick with the dust from the ceased ages. One step and you were hurtled headlong into a different milieu. I stood on the borderland of the immediate transient moment and a remote episode cast in stone. The sensation was a bit electrifying, I must say. The ruins looked tempting, affording a peep into the cultural past read in the tedious history textbooks so far.  But I was a little hesitant also in venturing into these dark structures. The reason is Freudian — the unconscious.

Caves have never appealed to me. The subterranean forbidding structures, dark and damp, deep yawning orifices give me the creeps. I feel enclosed and trapped…in my mind, at least. In one of the early school picnics to a primitive vandalised site, I got trapped in one of the damp hollow caves that echoed every sound and magnified them hundred folds.

They were a chain of dark and damp caves, intersecting each other and delving as concentric circles deep in the womb of the tall wooded hill. Water dripped in some of the darker caves at the back, where an unescorted seven-year-old me had wandered, attracted by the raw mystery of those open wide and airy rooms with wide-stone ledges and inner staircases built into the walls. By accident, I lost my way, and wept in that scary gloomy empty vastness visited only by the howling winds. The silence was unnerving, till I was finally rescued by somebody desperate and panicked. I cannot recall now who it was. The vivid experience stayed on, instilling a fear of dark places. Even today, I cannot stand a lift with the solid steel doors; I prefer a lift with a collapsible channel. Claustrophobia makes me stay on the little projecting balcony of my eleventh-floor apartment in Colaba, Mumbai, for majority of the evenings, if I am early.

Somehow, the magic of this place starts playing on my citified mind. It has got rustic charm and refreshing unpolluted air. I look around and see the rock-cut caves in the background, suspended in time forever, where post-modern visitors try to scrape some spiritual truths from these old centers of meditation and art. Man does not live by bread alone. Somebody remarked once. I fully agree. There is a whole rich world existing beyond the standard sensual one. Some find it easily; some find it late in life. The only thing is that we have to make some efforts to find out this beckoning Lhasa on our own. If we do not, we miss out on a rare human opportunity of redemption and inner balance.

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The sound intrudes on my rudimentary rumblings.

“There is a fifteen-foot –high Nataraja here. A marvelous statue! We must see that also.Nataraja is very special for me. He is the dancing god of the Hindus, an epitome of finer values, refined sensibilities. We must now go to the cave number sixteen. It is the largest monolithic structure in the world. It is called Kailasa temple. The pillars, the figures, the alcoves, the intricately-carved interiors are all magnificent art from a different age. Even the skeptics feel reverential inside the cave, the pull of the chanted mantras is so strong on our minds,” says JS.

I merely nod. Climbing the rough stone steps is extremely difficult for an obese and sedate businessman like me. I pant and heave and perspire; younger JS bolts up, reminding me of a playful deer cub on the loose in a verdant valley, leaping over the tree trunks and the singing springs, a mesmerizing combination of slow motion and grace, gamboling in an old forest illuminated by the rays of a hot summer sun.

I feel I am getting old and depleting fast. My swollen belly heaves up and down over my broad belt, tightly encasing my generous middle in large XXX blue jeans from California. While climbing those rude broad steps, I could still feel the expensive five-star brunch of chicken tikka and wine, now a liquid mélange, swirling and dashing repeatedly against my projecting ugly belly; the dead chopped chicken parts making me strangely queasy, in this upward climb for a feel of this otherworldly hermitage once walked by monks and ascetics — a sacred cove still largely insulated from the humdrum of a mad world of numbers and bank accounts, ledgers and rising corporate profits and falling losses or, vice versa, discussed over caviar in pricey hotels, in business dinners.

“You lost?” JS asks in his slightly musical tone. A typical tone that sounds sweet due to Bengali’s innate cadence. They roll the words in mouth and then expel the rolled-and-rounded words in a rapid fire sequence of quick sounds, achieving the dulcet auditory effect on human ear exposed to harsh traffic horns and harsher pop music at home. Kind of sensory poetry. The Sarangis are originally from Orissa. They left it four centuries ago for sonar Bengal and settled down in that land of songs and dance, music and rivers…now, they feel naturalised and a born-again true-blooded cerebral Bengali rather than an Oriya. (Excuse me, if I am playing on some cultural stereotypes. My experience with the bhadralok, the typical Bengali gentleman, is limited. I am writing what I think is the general feature of their community in this rush of images being recorded and recalled by my brain at this hour, this moment).

“You should have been a painter rather than a dealer of paints,” my friend JS says. Joking? I get no clue from his oval wheatish face. His is a kind face. The eyes are brown…and restless and searching. The face is topped with a mop of slightly wavy dark hair. He is tall, dusky and well-maintained. Hardly thirty-six and has authored sixteen books on art, criticism, poetry, literature…empty words for me.

We met on the Internet, became close and decided to meet in person. He came on a short visit to Mumbai, “to watch the rolling lazy Arabian Sea, the sand and sun, Tamasha theatre, and to eat hot local cuisines in the pouring rains at the Juhu sea shore.” Then, we decided to visit the caves and talk to the great Lord Shiva there in Ellora, some thirty kilometres or so away from Aurangabad in Maharashtra.

“The high statue shows the various dancing poses of a great dancing God whose gentle demeanor and stoic philosophy connects with millions across India and abroad,” said JS, in the first flush of dinner, in an expensive restaurant in Mumbai. “He is our collective aesthetic principle. He is an artist who creates works of art that are truthful and beautiful. He celebrates life in death and agonises over destruction, the great Nataraja. His creation is benign and the general welfare is the goal of his art. Rooted in cosmic reality, attached to worldly passions, yet detached from carnal sensuality, the Shiva is pure energy of a higher level; an enduring living symbol of the very best of  an old nation,” elaborated JS to me, in the authoritative voice of an Indian philosophy professor at Oxford.

I was into my fifth peg of rum. A roasted duck stared from a gleaming plate of an expensive China Restaurant in Colaba. Shiva made no remote connection with the cultural DNA of my psyche. Comte, yes! Croce, yes. My own culture was beyond me. All mumbo-jumbo to me and my English-educated boarding school sensibility. We must move beyond all this mythology. Somehow, at the end of a sumptuous dinner, I was committed to the entire project of finding the great Shiva for myself. And bringing him home for a cozy dinner.

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The afternoon sun was pouring the golden molten lava on my bare skin. The yellow T-shirt stuck to my broad hairy back. To escape the heat, I entered the sanctum sanctorum of the cave sixteen…and, found the tall slim Shiva directly staring at me, his matted hair flying in the air, half-closed heavy-lidded fish eyes that immediately penetrated all my protective gear from a different culture and age, casting a sudden deep spell on my sweating corpulent body. His eyes were hypnotic. I felt rooted to the bare ground of the cave that was trod upon by millions of feet in the preceding centuries. I could see his eyes X-raying my body and scanning my dusty layered soul, layered with accumulated grossness of my indulging years of excesses. It was like the first ray of the sun lighting up the twisted roots of a gnarled tree.

Shiva Kailasa Temple Cave 16 Hindu Cave Ellora Caves India. Courtesy: Wiki

Suddenly, every other sound stopped…as if I had entered a soundless chamber. Absolute silence pervaded the hallowed space, cutting me off temporarily from the external world of phenomena. I was on a different plane. The spirit world. For the first time, I felt like floating in the air, a lightness of being hardly experienced by me during my adult life. The desires, the cravings, the baser instincts all ceased immediately. A powerful beam of white light came from some crevice and flooded my interiors in a surging wave.

I stood alone before the Lord. Then, the Nataraja, the first artist in the world, began his elevating performance witnessed by few blessed souls. The figure moved down from its perch of the centuries and began moving before my unblinking, wide-open eyes. The dance, documented by the rishis and few other evolved souls from a pristine age, started slowly. His legs were partly lifted, hands bent in a posture of sublime dance. His tall ascetic figure, alive, vexed his muscles of the feet, the anklets producing the honeyed harmonies, the Earth touched by the divine feet, trembled with the fluid cosmic energy. The dance began and I was entrapped in the frenzied movement. He whirled to the drum beat, his anklets tinkling. Then suddenly, the blue-throated, crescent-wearing, Ganges-carrying God stopped and smiled benignly at me…like an affectionate father. His eyes again fixed steadily on my flushed face. The figure became still and the statue of the Shiva grew perfectly immobile again. His face was still very luminous. The darkness within me felt illuminated by that glow. I was just speechless with wonder and elation.

My soul shed its gross outer layers and healed in that enclosed space in the shadow of the Nataraja. It was the great Shiva conceived as an artist, as dancer, originator of fine arts, the very essence of the finest principles of humankind, conceptualised some five thousand years ago by a thinking community of seers and visionaries. The great dancing god, strangely, had selected me for this holy communion: a mere mortal, a hedonist by any account; a flawed person finding life and meaning in a daily glass of red rum and a plate of meat, in a crowded bar in a fast and furious Indian metro, where everything was available, provided you had the right connections and lot of money. His eyes were still rested on me. I stood transfixed and alone on that memorable hot afternoon, facing the figure from a hoary past, feeling his beautiful mesmerizing eyes fixed upon me; the lips sending a telepathic message, in that lonely deserted cave. I was intoxicated with joy.

Once I was in Brazil and found myself electrified in the same way, while visiting the giant statue of the Christ the Redeemer, atop the Corcovado Mountain, in the violent city of Rio de Janeiro. The world-famous statue towered over the assembled awe-struck tourists. It was awesome. Nothing could beat that emotion.

I felt overwhelmingly small and puny, insignificant, a mere floating human atom in a vast universe, in the shadow of the giant statue of the white-robed Christ with outstretched hands, radiating unique peace. I saw people crying silently in the presence of the messiah.

I had experienced identical emotions while visiting the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a few years ago in Italy. The chattering groups of tourists fell silent in the hallowed precincts of the church. Inner peace flooded my clogged arteries. A strange kind of peace never experienced earlier, even if I had won a million-dollar deal or an international Rotary award. All my demons got driven out in an instant.

Even today, the beautiful and tender Madonna talks to me in a quiet corner of a Goan church on a rain-lashed morning, the tall palms swaying in the gray background, although I am a confirmed Hindu. The tranquility radiating from these icons affects me directly. Why? I have no plausible answers. Then there are the great art works of Raphael or da Vinci. The music of Beethoven. A strange serenity would overcome me. Here also, I felt the same. Suddenly composed and at peace. I was in the presence of a higher truth!

Have you ever visited the Jerusalem?

The cobbled streets, the Golgotha, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, the al-Aqsa mosque, form a strange rugged territory where, otherwise distrusting, conflicting Muslims, Christians and Jews, unite to find soul-foods in plenty, in scattered locations, in less hostile settings. The chemistry of Jerusalem is different from other cities. It can bring warring parties of a divided city into the folds of a common heritage of noblest teachings in the world and make them aware of the futility of aggressive hatred. The old city can bring tears to your eyes as every nook in it seeps with historical memories of different kinds.

History, myth, legend and faith come together in a heady mix for the travellers. The place, despite political rhetoric and violence, is founded on faith and consecrated with a common desire for peace and tranquility. The average people — the Arabs, the Christians and the Jews — feel overwhelmed by the strange magic of the city that has nourished three important religions of the world. And, most important, they find inner peace, poise and balance. They get centred internally by that pious experience. They feel transformative power of the teachings of the great men who had walked these dark alleys thousand years ago. Their quest for betterment ends and starts from there.

Ellora precisely did this to me. I had passed out in the cave, in the shadow of the Nataraja and woken up reborn…

What happened?” asked JS.

We were sitting in the small hotel, outside the premises. I narrated my incredible experience.

“The Shiva came alive before my eyes. It was marvelous!”

He paused. “I came and saw you reclining on the floor, in sleep, drenched in sweat. I thought you suffered a massive cardiac attack.”

“Then?”

“I sprinkled water on you. After ten long minutes, you woke up.”

I said nothing. I could still hear the drums and the anklets in my ears.

“This happens. Intensification of buried devotion. Sacred places can bring out this emotion. Euphoria. Reverence. When you see the first folio of Shakespeare or visit Stratford-upon-Avon, or, Yasyana Polyana, you get the same identical feeling in your brain.”

The drums receded in my ringing ears. “Yes. The Real Madrid. The Manchester United. The City Lakers. The ten number shirt in soccer. Things can be multiplied. Neuro-chemicals in the brain, etc…”

We sipped tea.

“Anatole France described this mood in his famous Juggler story.”

“Yes. And, Wilde, in his Selfish Giant. Dickens, in Christmas Carols.”

We said nothing. I was still in trance. Finally, we got up. On the way back, I saw a small Shiva statue being sold by the vendor, an old lady, near the main highway. I stopped and bought it, paying double the amount. It was a little Nataraja.

“You converted?” JS asked teasingly.

“Yes. You converted me. You told me about the Nataraja. He is beyond us.”

We started walking towards the hired taxi. “The gods are representations of the ethical. They teach us about the sacred, the beautiful, the elevating in life.”

JS nodded a yes. We stopped momentarily.

“The kinship is formed.”

“Between?”

“You, me and the Nataraja.”

“How?”

“You told me about the Nataraja. The Nataraja taught me about the morality of living, the aesthetic side, the controlling of excess desires, the possibility of finding heaven on earth.”

And, we started moving again. The Shiva in my cotton shoulder bag. Yes, I was taking my kin, the great Shiva, the original artiste, to home for a cozy dinner and a cozy after dinner talk in my study or the little balcony. I was sure he would not leave me afterwards. After all, he was my kin. I know I can talk to him in private and pour out all my hurts, pain and anxieties. I know he will listen to me with understanding, without ridiculing or humiliating. He will listen like a good friend and tell me what to do…

Ellora has done the unbelievable to a battered body and a fevered mind thriving on competition and greed. It has made me reclaim my internal centre, balance and a soul. And, made me complete. My relationship with Him was unlike the other ones. It was not conditional and mercenary. I had found my liberation in an old stone statue in an old cave…simply because I had started to believe in things beyond commercial. Kin are those whom you can always relate and talk to… I intend to do just that with the Shiva in my home.

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

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

Categories
Interview

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: https://duotrope.com/interview/editor/26995/setu)

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: https://www.setumag.com/p/write-for-setu.html)

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.

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.

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Categories
The Literary Fictionist

In search of Lewis Carroll

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

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

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

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

mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

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

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

have come here.’

“Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a

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

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

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

have been changed several times since then.’

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

“So, who is Lewis Carroll?”

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

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

“It is not a real name,” Grace said.

“What is the real name?” I asked.

“Oh! I forgot!”

“No problem, honey.”

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

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

“It is literature,” I said.

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

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

“OK. Who is Carroll?”

We were back to square one.

“Give me some time,” I said.

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

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

Can we?

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

How? 

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

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

All right.

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

Now, that is too much!

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

How?

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

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

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

Go ahead, I say.

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

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

Here is how, says Homocus:

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

Please explain.

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

Sorry!

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

Hmm!

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

Well, okay. Go on…

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

Good!

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

What about the hall?

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

Stretching it a bit?

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

For a lawyer, this is all Greek!

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

Sounds intriguing!

“The Cheshire Cat!”

What about it?

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

How?

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

What else is there in this marvelous book?

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

What is the message?

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

Hmm.

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

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

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

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

And what is marvellous?

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

Marvellous!

Last question.

Yes.

Who is Lewis Carroll?

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

Illustration?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was he in life? Our dear Carroll?

“He never existed.”

What?

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

“Lewis Carroll only.”

Now you sound like the Cheshire Cat or the Caterpillar.

“Not at all.”

Please explain.

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

Hmm! Not very clear yet…

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

STOP!

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

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

Categories
The Literary Fictionist

A Stranger in the City

By Sunil Sharma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trauma of being the Other starts now. 

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is an early December night. 

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

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

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

I am now a stranger! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


*

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

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

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

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


Life is just fragile! 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“Or, you wanted to act like Spiderman?” 


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


Babu, you from these parts?” 


“Yes.” 


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


“Just got mugged. Broke like you.” 


“That makes us soul brothers.” 


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


“What is your name?” I asked. 


“Heera Lal.” 


“What do you do?” 


“I am a rickshaw puller.”

 
The low life! 

“It is a difficult life.” 


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

My jaw dropped. 


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


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

Then he said, “Listen.” 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you eat something?” Heera Lal asked.

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

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


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

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

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

Babu saab?” 

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

*Babu – Sir

*Saab – Sahib or Sir

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

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

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

Categories
Humour Poetry

A Dumb Query

By Sunil Sharma

There was this dogged donkey

befriended by a supple monkey.

The unusual pair

roamed freely, everywhere,

in the silent city,

resented by the bipedal monkeys

and donkeys, real,

long- imprisoned in

their smelly dens, 

by a new global master,

invisible,

and, to the wonderment

of the duo,

this dreaded dictator

called strangely

as COVID-19,

in the year 2020!

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

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

Categories
Stories

A Dark Barbie Doll

By Sunil Sharma

 Her voice was excited.

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

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

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

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

There was a pause…longer one.

Then: “Yes. You are right.”

I could hear the pain in the voice.

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

Certain facts do not need to be confirmed.

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

How I hate myself for being dark-skinned!

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

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

“Why?”

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

Her voice breaks and she starts sobbing.

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

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

I have no answer.

Every morning, the mirror screams: Ugly! Ugly!

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

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

On the other hand, fair girls are idolised.             

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!”

“Which part?”

“Washington, DC.”

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

“Bastards!” Rita would say disgustedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“In Hindi?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, the vernacular is ugly!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They both laughed — neither serious about India.

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

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

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

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

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

I felt so discriminated and low!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We two could have become a TV star!” 

My tone was sad.

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

“I care for dusky beauties!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Priya.” I said and blushed more.

“Wonderful! You are my heroine!”

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

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

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

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

“Then?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The initial weeks were very tough.

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

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

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

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

MJ-clones?

I did not know.

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

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

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

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

The Hunger Games.”

“Why?”

“Life is an arena. Tough gladiators survive.”

“Icon?”

“Miley Cyrus.”

“And twerking?”

A loud laughter followed.

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

An audible gasp and some murmurings and smiles.

“Film?”

The Twilight Saga.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

A post-modern harlequin!

That clinched it!

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

That was true!

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

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

Katniss Everdeen has finally won!

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

“Yes. Thank you, God.”

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

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

Was it an illusion?

Too much of the unreality of Reality TV?

A manufactured high-tech fantasy?

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

I could not figure out the right answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 A different world was waiting for us there…

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

The divines were before them in the human forms!

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

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

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

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

“Where? Who?” asked his fat companion.

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

What I saw in the bumping car shocked me!

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

Eerie!

Shocking!

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

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

*desi — Local, Indian

*firangi — foreigner

*gora — white

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Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
For more details of publications, please visit the link below:
http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/

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