Published by: Authorspress. 2016
‘The Haunting and Other Stories’, a collection of short stories by Dr. Sunil Sharma, an extremely erudite professor of English, author, poet and editor starts off in an almost fable-like manner, weaving a story within a story narrated by a nine-year-old child, combining the elements of fantasy, folklore, adventure and the stark, seething world of our everyday realities. The reality of the daily ignominies of a struggling labor class family slaps us hard on the face, with the deep, haunting narrative of human trafficking that takes us to a grueling voyage to the city’s vicious underbellies. A widespread, crude, vicious world is woven with the author’s dexterous use of images that cement the apparently disparate worlds of Laxmi and Tanya, the burgeoning, sedate upper class and the trampled, anguished working class, and at the end of the story, their worlds collide in the subtly symbolic, allegorical way of storytelling.
In the stories that follow, including ‘A Teen Daughter’ and ‘An Indian Police Station: A Philosophical Thought’, ‘At The Party And After’, we see the subtle and timeless manifestations of various multi-faced urban voices that coalesce as a collective consciousness. The voices, that of the anguished daughter missing her mother in a critical, apathetic parochial family, the harrowed woman trapped inside the police station, looking into the inherent doom and catastrophe of humanity inside the surroundings, the bespectacled bald loner trapped as an odd display amid a vain, wealthy social gathering are pitted against each other as emblems of diminishing humanity, of a skeptic and brutal moral world where essential human values are dead and replaced by a sinister, decaying reality. The collective psyche of the protagonists of each individual story embraces a subtle, essential suffering, the suffering of a burdened human existence. The burden of the mutilation of a world of emotions, a world of deep-rooted human values lies heavy on their shoulders.
The protagonist of the story ‘At The Party And After’ mutters to himself over phone: “I am unwanted everywhere…In my family, by my brothers and sisters. In my office, in my neighborhood…..” In an interior monologue that follows, the author sums up his plight. “He knew he was trapped inside a hopeless social situation….he felt he was neither inside or outside. He did not belong…. felt like a permanent outsider.” With deft strokes, here the author highlights the pain, the alienation and the internal crisis of the ones living on the fringes of an emerging Indian society, a merciless, ruthless and banal society.
In the story ‘Borderless’, the fluid, multi-faceted visages of humans intersect with each other in a surreal, almost seductive journey into the Alphs, where each of the travelers, including the protagonist discovers his self-identity in an uncharted territory miles and miles away from their ancestral moorings. In the process, he, along with his co-travelers, rediscovers the true meaning and essence of ‘home’. “Janaab, home is where you truly get a feeling of belonging. Where you are able to do what you want to do. Where you feel respected, wanted and loved. Not a place, even if it is one’s home country, where there is always a sense of dread amongst the people and in the streets.” The introspective lines from Sahil, the immigrant from Pakistan sums up the human need for looking into the essence of our self-identities as integral parts of a country, a race or in terms of an overarching humanitarian landscape that defies spatial boundaries. Also, as humans, we are trapped into a lot of human-constructed parameters, and the evils of those parameters keep lurking from the nooks and crannies, the fissures and crevices of our mundane urban existence, which is evident in the immensely sad, dichotomous depiction of the urban India he portrays in this rich, dynamic collection of stories.
For me, personally, some of the most haunting depictions of the collection include the fictitious young waiter at the wayside hotel, who later is transformed into a ruthless hunter, the vulnerable, emotionally fraught parents of the little girl Smita in ‘Change’ who disguises herself as a boy in a desperate bid to earn acceptance and love from her gender-biased parents, the ruthless male chauvinist tormentor Sukumaran and his coy, timid wife Sudha in the story ‘Dream’, the guileless Ram Babu and his vain wife who had to pay an extreme price for her frailties and life choices in ‘Second Chance’. The author’s touching, gripping vision of suffering of the urban characters takes us readers on an unforgettable voyage, where he explores the dwindling emotional fabric of humanity. In the entire short story collection, the characters, images and their subtle representations are born out of the inimitable passion and instinct of the author/storyteller consumed in their complex, emotionally fraught microcosm. These are the stories that draw us to our own dark pits, where the author weaves the urbane human journeys of getting lured and sucked into common human frailties.
While the emotional journeys of the characters and their subtle epiphanies are riveting and profound, the author’s depiction of those journeys are unique and remarkable, as he leads us to some quintessential universal truths through those journeys, with his deft, inimitable use of images and metaphors. The images and metaphors are mostly the nucleus of these poignant narratives, and through them, Dr. Sunil Sharma, the academic and the author weaves his open-ended, deep, visually rich stories with a highly discerning emotional lens. Through this lens, he reflects on the decomposing fabric of a contemporary India, pitted against the relentless struggles of a socially conscious author.
The book is highly recommended for lovers of literary fiction, for those who love the presence of a subtle intertextuality running through seemingly benign narratives, also for those who love layered, canonical reproductions of literary classics with a subtle and unthinkable twist.
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