Categories
Poetry

The Starry Night

By Sunil Sharma

The Starry Night

Forced by the power cut,

Suburbanite went up

To his deserted terrace;

Was hit by the immensity

Of the starry night,

Felt overwhelmed by

The primeval beauty

Spread out,

The breath-taking magnificence

Of the swirling night sky

Stretched taught overhead,

The eternal space

That glowed with twinkling silver bulbs,

And beckoned the little child gaping

At this rapturous sight, along with his mesmerized dad,

The huge moon and the pale-white light

Washed the blue of the vast sky and produced

Strange lights that streamed down on a French village,

In a different era, when things were more quiet,

The darkness mild and the well-lit sky

Was an enthralling discovery by Vincent van Gogh,

Who had painted and immortalized this ethereal spectacle,

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

The poetic painter, committed to sanatorium,

Suffering from delirium and what not,

Studied the curious effect of darkness and light,

The two paintings still transmit

The same sense of first-time wonder and delight

To the subsequent viewers, living in polluted cities,

Breathing fumes and pure carbon dioxide;

As the cold wind of November buffets the

 Father-son duo that stood silent,

Before gods of yore, now not recognized,

The two felt standing in a pagan shrine,

Found accidentally,

 In the heart of a commercial city,

And

Overawed by this rare divine sight,

Stared at the infinity and felt their own

Small size,

They then understood that

There exists a unique mysterious realm

Beyond the sodium vapour lamps,

For centuries,

That has been trying again

 To communicate

With humankind but in vain,

This rich world that was once deeply understood and captured

By the likes of Gogh and Wordsworth,

Now lost forever for the ever competing,

Rude,

Aggressive,

Utilitarian,

Raider

Called

Homo Economicus.

.

The lofty view from the barred window

May 1889. Saint-Paul Asylum

Through the east-facing iron-barred

Window of the second-floor bedroom,

The familiar sky grew into a revelation

That electrified a young inmate fighting

His own private demons;

The ether got suffused with luminosity

And the stars and the moon orbited

 In swirls very bright;

The other side of a mundane sky!

The vision uplifted the gloomy mood

Of a self-mutilated and starved artist, and,

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

That canvas still alive, despite the intervening time

And is part of a marvellous series and it

Forms a luminous summit of

World culture, easily recognized;

The sky was always there for those living

In the Saint-Remy-de-Provence and

Still there stretched out for other mortals in the world,

Yet its mystery, its spiritual dimension could only be

Captured by someone considered nuts

By the rest of the proper and the civilized,

What arbitrary cultural and social categories

To imprison and destroy tender creative minds!

Vincent van Gogh could see vividly the other side of the

Brilliant star-studded sky, and, the

Essence of the grim reality of his time and

Could easily locate its soul pristine in meadows

Sunflowers and the sky.

Asylum walls could not restrain his soaring spirit

And he drew furiously through his inner eye.

 .

Madness was never so lucid

So receptive to the beauty innate

In things ugly/ordinary!

.

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

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

See things only the crazy can see

Yes, the other side,

That the sane and practical always dislike!

.

Nightly visions granted to the blessed!

When night suddenly becomes

A brilliant image inspires

An inmate that went by the name

Gogh

And begets brilliant visions

Of heavenly bodies and playful

 Mix of colours— light-n-dark

And restive hands, in creative

Frenzy, caught on an oil canvas

Delighting by now

Millions of lonely hearts

Trapped in hopeless situations

 .

To-night, the same sky

Looks similarly beautiful

As it was for those red eyes

In the year 1889

 .

The dim space, a-wash

Stars redeeming the dark

And the boughs, all lit

Creating patterns divine

On the

Uneven walk.

.

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

…at this precise moment

when the sky is in a flux

 .

drenched in a riot of

dark-blue- grey colours

and a flowering tree, backlit

 .

the composite elements

of the heavenly composition

grab the fleeting attention;

 .

the viewer- concentration

divided between the two metaphysical

entities that uplift

the viewer

reads the live space and writes

lines on such an out-of-world canvas

that firmly echo

refer back, back of mind,

collective consciousness,

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

.

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

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Categories
Slices from Life

Baudelaire and Paris

By Sunil Sharma

Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877. 

I

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

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

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

I became Baudelaire.

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

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

I am neither of the two.

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

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

Was it possible?

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

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

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

And what was that?

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

Those were different times!

So what can be done?

The clues lie in The Flowers of Evil, perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

Is he a voyeur?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are all sellers!

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

Then the flow stopped.

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

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

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

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

An evil society can produce evil flowers!

Vampires are for real!

II

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

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

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

The Paris of Baudelaire is not safe.

The shoot-out at the Charlie Hebdo proves that.

The vampires are out.

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

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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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Categories
Review

Bridging Continents through Poetry

Book review by Madhu Sriwastav

Title: Bridging Continents: An Anthology of Indo-American Poets

Edited by Sharmila Ray and Gopal Lahiri.

Bengali Translation Tanmoy Chakraborty.

Published by: Zahir Publication.

Bridging Continents: An Anthology of Indo-American Poets, edited by Sharmila Ray and Gopal Lahiri, veteran poets and critics with numerous anthologies to their credit is not a run off the mill anthology. It’s a carefully crafted volume comprising thirteen well-known Indian English Poets along with eleven renowned contemporary American Poets. That’s not all, it comes with a translation of these poems at the end of the book, on the reverse, in Bengali by noted poet Tanmoy Chakraborty.

The compilation of living poets is to make the reader dwell on the present, be in the moment across continents, poetically. Contrary to tradition this book doesn’t have a foreword. It begins with  ‘Let’s Talk’, a dialogue between the editors Sharmila Ray and Gopal Lahiri, putting forward the poetic intention of the book through a light conversation to give readers a free hand without the direction imposed by a formal foreword: “whatever meaning they come up with will be theirs entirely,” says Sharmila Ray. Gopal Lahiri adds, “I want our readers to be more of a free spirit and enjoy reading with an open mind”.

The editors seem excited in offering something unique. Poets featured in the anthology have been chosen by the editors. Browsing through the book, reading snippets of poetry geographically apart yet united by the richness of texture, one notices certain common grounds which unite mankind across the globe by the similarities in afflictions but their responses vary depending on their diverse cultural lores. The anthology posits both the uniformity and the uniqueness in human conditions across the globe from India to America and the poetic responses of contemporary poets towards common issues but coloured with their individual experiences.

With environmental crises affecting people worldwide, Indian and American poets alike poetize on it. Andrea Witzke Slot expresses her deep empathy with nature with a tone of foreboding in ‘The Time-Being of Oak’.

Hear the branches reverberate. See the mud soften like grief beneath our feet, where ropes of roots, push onward, ripping through steel pipes, cracking foundations, tearing up roads and pavements and fields sown with aversion and hate.

Kashmiri Poet Ayaz Rasool Nazki in ‘Morning at A Dying Lake’paints a pristine image of a mountain lake, shrinking and its flora and fauna gasping for life:

In the mountain sockets

Still laced with

A blemish of deodar trees

Sunil Sharma in ‘Water Dear’ uses very urban images to startle and shock the reader out of apathy:

The rationing is on, in tony neighbourhoods. One day, for one-hour only.

The fat women hoard it like gold

Terrorism is another common enemy tearing lives apart. ‘Bombs’ by Rainer Schulte versifies devastation:

 Bombs

turn dreams

 into unending screams

Its echoes are heard in ‘Time of Death’ by Rasool who aptly depicts desolation in a terror-struck zone:

Moth had written an epitaph

On the petals

On the marble panel

No one came to read it ever

No one came to light a candle

There was no mourning in death

In a world rife with disunity and discord, sensibilities of the poet cry to reach out, hold hands, cross bridges. Heath Brougher’s free verse ‘Invitation’ makes an urgent call:

I say the time

Is nigh to cast off these antiquated shackles

And free ourselves by taking a step forward.

I say we must cross the boundaries

Jaydeep Sarangi’s ‘True Indian’is a rhetoric on a quintessential secular Indian highly significant in the troubled times:

I see a rose

I gather lotus

I visit churches

The Indo-American poets do write about love, the most primordial emotion or the lack of it though their perspectives differ. In Gjeke Marinaj’s ‘Twenty-Four Hours of Love’ personal emotions beautifully coalesce with nature:

Twilight had sensed our need to seek out a hiding-place somewhere

It melted everything down to the color of chocolate,  which ends with a chic modern image:

“New evening and undid the top buttons of her black shirt;

And for us she hung on her neck the moon washed in gold”.

Parneet Jaggi’s ‘Love Transforms’ dwells on the feeling of love and its deep inner nuances:

“Eyes shut themselves to open to subtler visions

Ears turn inward to a wordless world,

Mind waits not for the lover to appear and make love”.

Whereas Sharmila Ray writes about her inability to write on love in a devastated and disillusioned world –‘I’ve forgotten how to write a love poem’.

For those of us fed on English poets Sanjukta Dasgupta’s ‘If Winter Comes…’ stands out as a marker of an Indian winter to be cherished as opposed to its western avatar:

“Winter is our season of feasts and fairs

 “We do not long for spring in winter”

“Of kash flowers in autumn

Till winter makes the jaggery drip”

There are poems by Dah Helmer weaving fairy tale characters in its tapestry to tell tales as well as poems that braid Indian and Western mythical characters by, Sunil Sharma and Sharmila Ray. Horrors of history are revisited in Gopal Lahiri’s ‘Jallianwallah Bagh Muse’ making it a living presence:

In the evening memorial lights are falling on the wounds 

Empty gaze of water is still misty, still hazy

Mandira Ghosh’s poem blasts into the sun’s periphery, deconstructs human body into atoms yet sees a solar eclipse and prays to the sun:

“Oh Sun! Purify us

Pardon our sins”

Vinita Agarwal’s ‘She wolf’remindsone of Blake’s ‘Tyger’, a pithy image shouting out the state of Indian woman:

 She has scented the wolf in her

uprooted the fake pews of pious womanhood…a fight for dignity

a sheet of self-esteem, an iron caress

 ‘Credit Cards’ by Rainer Schulte warns of the dangers of digitization balancing on the verge of spirituality. Pradip Biswal’s ‘Nero isn’t dead’ echoes the feelings of every man across the globe subject to governmental apathy. Time and space restrict the unravelling of the myriad hues in this collection which entice exploration.

Tanmoy Chakraborty has translated all the poets to introduce them to the Bengali reader as a teaser. However, his translations engage the critic into the processes of translating, word for word or transcreation and more so because arguments are rife about the translatability of poetry. “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” claims Robert Frost whereas Voltaire says “It is impossible to translate poetry. Can you translate music?”

In a translation of Between my country and the others, as ministry’, he translates ‘forget -me-not blues’ as ‘oporajita’ a blue Indian flower, this can be seen as an attempt to adapt the culture into the target language.  However, ‘Twenty-four hours of love’, does lose out on the sophistication in the image of night unbuttoning her shirt to hang ‘a moon washed in gold‘. But these could be seen as lost in translation — in transposing in words from a culture unfamiliar with the gestures of another culture. Bengali readers though can get an idea of the range of contemporary poetry being written in English across the globe.

The Anthology invites a detailed reading and exploration. It deserves a place in any poetry lovers’ bookshelf, for bringing in so many poets from across the world with diverse cultures in one place and offering the reader an eclectic and arresting read.

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Madhu Sriwastav is an Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English at Bamanpukur Humayun Kabir Mahavidyalaya. She is based in Kolkata. She is an academician, poet, translator, critic, reviewer and short story writer. Her articles have been published in National and International journals. She is a performing poet and has performed on various National and International platforms such as Guntur Poetry Festival, ISISAR Poetry Festival, Apeejay Kalam Literary Festival etc. She has published her poems in various prestigious National and International journals and anthologies such as The Vase, Setu, Glomag, OPA, Amravati Prism, Culture and Diversity etc.

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Categories
Stories

New Masters

By Sunil Sharma

The “animals” were happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The animals immediately agreed. They wanted to get even.

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

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

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

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

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

One account said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The superstitious found indications in hostile stellar positions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a painful reversal of fortunes!

The masters were now slaves.

Slaves, new masters.

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

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

“What is that Club?” asked the donkey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Few days later, the fox woke up The Ape.

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

The Council agreed to pay a sudden visit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was a terrible mistake.

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

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

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

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

“But…,” whined the Chair.

“But?” asked The Ape.

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both the sides faced each other now.

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

He sounded condescending, despite the efforts to be otherwise.

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

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

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

There were tense moments. The confrontation was becoming inevitable.

Both waited for the other to blink first.

Finally, the Chair coughed discreetly.

The Ape looked at him hopefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Three days later, the animals were brutally attacked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throughout the night, the battle went on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The militia waited.

The chain of humans increased in length.

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

There was thunder and lightning.

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

.

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

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

Categories
Stories

From A Lockdown Diary: On The Lightness Of Being

By Sunil Sharma

Satish never thought that one day he would become a character from The Plague.

He had enjoyed Camus and the pop Hollywood films on disaster and pestilence but soon lost interest.

Unbelievable! Absurd!

Doomsday-projections.

Content produced for the core buffs thrilled by a grim future: catastrophes destroying civilisations; the bleak sci-fi talk of the mid-space interstellar collisions; meteorites decimating populations; apes or aliens taking over as masters — invasions of another kind, unpredictable, unseen events with tragic consequences. An Earth endangered. And a hero, as the last survivor of a devastation, impossible in real time, at least for him.

A big turn-off.

Yet, deep down, the end-of-the-world scenarios— extreme climate change; humans-turned- zombies; androids, apes running the world—exercised a morbid fascination also.

Was it a possibility?

Yes. Floods. Famines. Smog. Pollution. Melting ice. Pessimistic news that could no longer be denied.

One thing he could not escape was this terrible condition — the unseen fate of being overwhelmed by a tragedy of epic scales. Once it began to unravel without a warning, it could leave the planet paralysed.

Apart from terror and racial violence, disease and virus have emerged as new existential threats.

Pandemics could make the master race vulnerable, despite advancements of science and tech.

Naturally such disasters fascinated and repelled the mind.

Now arrives COVID-19.

***

His Mumbai apartment — his entire universe, post-work, shrank down to a cluttered space of 650 square feet. A mere glass cage, suspended in air; the Eastern Express Highway and an arching flyover, few kilometres away, as the bustling backcloth, signs of a busy mega city that never sleeps, a manic Mumbai in over drive — currently, it was in the quiet of a tough quarantine.

A state he never imagined could happen to him or the dream city.

But it was happening, like a nightmare, unspooling like a pestilential movie from Hollywood.

Fantasy becoming real!

He was both horrified and terrified.

Mumbai stalled.

Satish had never seen such a scene — a city of millions in lockdown.

Plague was an actuality.

And he was stuck inside his rented apartment, like a fluttering insect in a glass jar.

From the glass-window, he stared at the deserted highway. Half-an-hour later, he was watching the opposite tower, from the balcony, where families leant out or sat in view of the windows, bored to death by the lack of activity and movement.

It was lockdown.

Fear!

Nothing could ground the wheels of a community like fear.

Mumbai had come to a standstill– like India — first time in history for this length of time.

He was in self-isolation.

For 21 days!

The Plague and Hollywood look convincing, plausible—almost prophetic.

Sometimes art points out the way and correctly maps responses, individual and collective, to a gigantic apocalypse.

I plan to read Camus again and watch pestilence-themed Hollywood flicks.

Satish wrote in his journal.

Some genius suggested in one of the WhatsApp groups, to blog, vlog or write in a diary, one’s innermost thoughts, ideas, fears, joys of living in the vice-like grip of corona virus: “Better try the diary, friends! Write in a neat hand the trials and tribulations of getting quarantined in your own home! Diary writing is a vanished art now! Revive it. Pour out your thoughts, stories, moods, views there. Call it the ‘Jottings of a plague journal’. Or any other name. The important thing is an account of the days and hours spent inside a home turned restricted space, sanctuary, fort or cell—whatever—where an inner or outer transformation takes place. Be creative!”

The idea sounded good.

The only modification: He created an online diary.

He had never felt this limited, immobilized!

For twenty-one days, you were asked to stay inside.

There were rumors galore.

Suddenly, the virus had become global obsession.

Catch-22: If you went out, you would get caught by the cops or the virus or both; if you stayed indoors, you stayed safe. But there was an uncomfortable sense of suffocation within the walls.

He wanted to rush out into the open.

Such moments were terrible!

A sense of claustrophobia and an urge to go to the garden in order to gulp fresh air, reclaim the empty streets, to run and shout from the intersection; talk to the trees and birds — activities never thought of as desirable for a 32-year-old business executive with a travel agency in the Fort area haunted his being.

Break out!

Creativity offered liberation.

Writing.

Music.

These can set you free and make you wander unknown realms!

Satish jotted down his fleeting ideas in the journal, sometimes in italics. Earlier, he had maintained a diary, writing down his feelings as he could not share the pain and sadness of being a shy and poor teenager in a small town. There were things he could not trust with his two close friends.

That is the power of the word.

Life caught on and Satish had forgotten his diary.

Writing had given him an outlet.

He was reminded of the packed guitar.

I will play the guitar.

He jotted down.

Guitar.

Given with this message: “You wanted to play the guitar. A sister’s humble gift to a younger brother. Love from Boston!” He had cried the whole night.

He took out the Hawaiian guitar, unpacked it and felt nostalgic.

***

A home in Ghaziabad. A widow gave tuitions and raised two children.

The sister worked part time and excelled academically. Later on, she went to America on H-IB visa. She sent money to her mama regularly from Boston where she eventually married an Irishman.

Few years later, Satish too joined the agency and moved to Mumbai.

The sacrifices of the mother and sister!

I will write to mother. Request her to come down here.

***

It all started on Saturday, April 4.

It began like the previous day — ordinary and dull.

At 8.30 am, the boss sent a note: “Temporary staff terminated. More heads to roll soon. Recession takes its toll.”

 He panicked. What would happen, if I he got fired?

“Wait and watch,” said the boss.

Satish was on the edge of an abyss.

Instalments? Bills?

Another entry.

“First time I felt vulnerable. Uncertain future. I now understand the pain of the downsized whom earlier I dismissed as incompetent and poor performers.”

9.30 am:

Call from a co-worker. She was tearful: “How should I cope? They fired a lot of people. My husband is already out of job. Two kids. Old mother-in-law in need of medical attention. What should we do?” And more weeping.

“Please, Janet. We are with you. You need anything, let me know.  I have saved some money. I can spare something.”

“No, dear brother! Thanks…” Her voice trails off.

And the call gets disconnected

Moved, Satish writes:

Hope! It sustains the humankind in crises.

10.30 am:

The birdsongs.

It was a revelation. God exists.

Divine notes.

I see the flight of storks, parrots, pigeons, sparrows and crows. And a regal kingfisher.

The birds chirp.

Parrots squawk.

Mynas chatter.

And the song of a nightingale wafts on a fresh breeze from across the salt pens and few wetlands, at the back of the building.

I am hearing these natural sounds in a metro centre — after years.

Sheer delight, this heavenly symphony, confirms the presence of God again for me.

10.55 am:

…I want to fly freely in the space, like the birds!

How precious this freedom!

Give me wings, God, please!

I want to fly.

11.25 am:

Food.

The maid cannot come. I have to cook meals for the day.

Now I understand the value of home-cooked meals made by the women of family.

Wife!

Sakshi is at her maternal home. Must thank her for her daily loving meals that I often did not appreciate. As I have to cook daily, I, now, appreciate the value of her cooking and caring.

Resolution: I will write a thank-you note to mama, sister and Sakshi tonight.

***

Urgent: I must check with the domestic help, if she needs money.

Is she getting her daily meals during the lockdown?

11.55 am:

No response from the help.

God protect her and her family!

What about Chottu? Is he safe? Is he getting meals daily, this young boy from Bihar?

When Sakshi is not here, I go to this street-side cart where Chottu serves hot and sugary ginger-tea in little glasses. He always has a sweet smile, this frail kid with a mop of curly hair. Clad in the brown half pants and a yellow oversized T, bare feet, flitting between the customers and stall owner-cum-tea maker; washing the glasses quickly and then going to the shops nearby for the delivering the orders — it is like a one-boy show.

Everybody calls him Chottu. And loves his golden smile. Some regular patrons sometimes give him small tips. In the night, the boy sleeps in the hand cart only.

I must find out.

And Kaul Saab!

The elderly Kashmiri uncle, two floors above. Kind. Soft-spoken.

Once Sakshi had slipped down in the courtyard of the building, Kaul uncle immediately took her to the doctor in his car—and back.

Evening, he brought fruits to “my daughter Sakshi and son Satish. Anything you guys need, let me know. The retired person will be happy to be of some help.”

We both had felt indebted to this tall and gracious widower living alone in the teeming city.

Afterwards, we occasionally met in the elevator or the lobby and exchange few words.

How is he managing without his domestic help?

I will check with him also on phone, in case he needs something.

12.30 pm:

Got both on the phone!

Chottu was delighted and asked again, “Saab, you sure paying for my meals through the food- delivery app?”

“Yes, son. Sure.”

“Thanks, Saab.”

Kaul uncle was also happy. “Daily meals? Wow! Not tech savvy, though. Cannot handle these basic apps. Much appreciated! I will pay in cash.”

“No, Uncle! Let your son pay.”

“Thanks again for remembering your old uncle.”

5.30 pm:

I have this strange experience:

…I am getting lighter. The sky invites. Birds beckon. The sky is blue and beautiful. There is no smog. The air is intoxicating. I pray to God: I want to soar bird-like in the divine vault and savour the freedom of a vast expanse. Please, God!

Freedom!

And, suddenly, I get smaller, fly out of the window, grow instant wings, begin exploring the heavens, a man-bird in reality.

Amazing!

Up in the air.

The sun winks.

The clouds kiss my flushed cheeks

The birds include me in their joyous flights. I circle with them and describe patterns in the sky, like an expert.

I continue to soar above a city made better by the sights of strays being fed by solitary men; migrant workers being given rations or meals twice every day; cops served with tea and water bottles; the medical professionals presented with flowers — new unsung heroes and heroines — by strangers; trees and flowers grow fast; rivers cleaner; streets quieter; visibility increased: stars appear clearly before my startled eyes.

It is sheer magic!

This post-industrial world unseen, thanks to Corona, opening up, as a dream.

And me — flying and inhaling the fresh wind, so invigorating — over this altered landscape, freely, joyfully; I first time understand the meaning of life, positive living, despite the pandemic, COVID-19, the lockdown, the huge threat of infection and confinement.

The virus has completely destroyed the arrogance of humans as a master race.

Nature is taking back control. And giving lessons.

I keep on flying in my new avatar.

The towers and the city gleam beneath my gossamer wings and a full heart.

The network of twisted roads, almost empty of traffic.

No pollutants to sting skin or eyes.

Birds hop on the asphalt!

As I soar higher, I see the creatures out in the alleys and the highways, people reaching out, in a grand gesture, to those in need, like in a big community.

Liberated!

Free of earthly bonds, at last!

I fly lighter and higher into another realm of evolved consciousness, reality.

Ecstatic, I become one with the elements, in an odd transformation, in time of a pandemic…

Incredible! Is it not?

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

Categories
Stories

The Savage

By Sunil Sharma

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

Marvellous!

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

Hours ceased afterwards!

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

Life-changing events start with ordinary beginnings and contexts.

His bearded Guru Ananda Swami once told him.

Mighty oak in a tiny seed!

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

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

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

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

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

Calm down! He commanded in a sonorous voice.

Sandy did.

Go and find your inner self—in the jungle.

“In the jungle?” Sandy was incredulous.

“Yes,” the Guru said. In the jungle!

“But how?” Sandy persisted.

“Follow them,” came the order.

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

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

Butterflies? In the Jungle? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jungle!

It was a wrong concept!

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

“How?” asked Sandy over coffee and sandwich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An opportunity came his way sooner than expected.

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

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

The Jungle! The pathway to Truth.

It is an expedition for inner transformation!

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

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

Follow the butterfly trail— to Truth — Mistry.

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

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

And to Truth as well.

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

Here is the how of it:

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

A savage!

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

“Their Karma!” Somebody once remarked over drinks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that was too much!

Being led by a savage.

Impossible!

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

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

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

“You are lost!”

“So?”

“You are lost.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am feeling free!” Sandy exulted.

Then, he experienced a growing rapport with the savage.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why prayers?” He asked.

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

Sandy was shaken to the core.

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

It was, in fact, another world.

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

The savage smiled. “Yes. My home.”

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

“Many.”

“You do not remember?”

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

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

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

“Spirit?” Sandy, the skeptic, asked.

“Yes. The spirit.”

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

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Come on.”

And they both entered the mysterious!

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

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

“Open-air party!” thought Sandy.

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

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

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

“Okay,” agreed the disciple.

The sacred grove!

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

That was all.

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

And everything altered.

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

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

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

Then the vision changed.

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

Then, darkness returned.

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

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

Family!

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, he junked them.

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

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

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

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

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

“You are my brother!” Sandy blurted.

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

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

“Ananta.”

“What does that mean?”

“The Eternal One!”

“Oh!” Sandy said.

“One of its meanings,” Ananta replied.

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

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

Sandy felt the sadness of the tone.

“You are comfortable?”

“Yes.” Sandy said, “Very relaxed.”

“Does the jungle look dangerous?”

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

Sandy was telling the truth.

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

“Will there be any snakes?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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