A fairy tale called Hans Christian Andersen

Sunil Sharma

- Sunil Sharma

Somebody once said Hans Christian Andersen carried fairies in his head. Naturally when you hear them so regularly, you create fantastic tales about them!
But he also did something else. He turned his own life into a lovely fairy tale!
Dickens also did the same with his. Both great writers admired each other for their skills.
But let us talk of the Danish author.
C.H. Andersen and his remarkable fictions about life!

He believed in his own greatness. There were some heavenly signs confirming this belief.  A travelling gypsy, it is said, once told him that Odense, his birth-place, would be illuminated in his honour. It did happen as predicted!
At age 14, he left for Copenhagen. He had lost his shoe-maker father--- the doting dad who really cared for his only son that was shy and awkward, ridiculed for his appearance, living in his own world--- and carried little with him except grit, a soprano voice and a literary imagination largely shaped up by an asylum for the insane and that included a grandfather! His artistic father---he made toys, cut-outs and talked Shakespeare in most sordid circumstances---claimed he once belonged to a noble family. The son was fascinated by the nobility.
Andersen created conditions for his own rise and a time came when the European royalty feted him!
Ugly duckling had become a swan!

We are standing in an arched doorway---driven there by a swift rain. European summers can be unpredictable. We started early as tourists, three of an Indian family, soaking in the June sun of Copenhagen. It is the year 2014 and my wife and I are visiting my eldest son in Billund. After a hurried tour of some nearby countries, we are in the Danish capital, the last leg of the journey. In the evening we have to catch a train. Copenhagen is ready at 10 am for the tourists. After visiting mandatory spots, we are headed for the fish-woman that has cast a spell for more than two centuries. It was sunny morning. By mid-day, however, the sky turns grey and soon it starts raining. Unprotected, we dive into a stone building with huge doors, partially open and catch a glimpse of some houses with ornate wooden windows. Copenhagen, the quaint! We huddle near the carved door. Along with the dampness, I smell centuries lying there preserved in the stones of the yard and facades of the houses. The street is empty. As the rain intensifies, we decide to walk down by covering our heads with kerchiefs. From Mumbai---with our enduring relationship with the hectic monsoons---we never stop in our daily tracks. What is most important here is our tryst---with the Little Mermaid. She is calling, and nothing can prevent us from meeting the hybrid being with a golden heart.

There she is!

In the pelting rain, with slender back to the harbor, sits the lonesome fish-woman first seen by Hans Christian Andersen. Then he made the world see her love and suffering. This 100-year-old statue is a must-see. At this moment, busloads of the Chinese and Indians arrive. Kids scream; adults smile. Many reach the strange creature and take selfies. For them, it is akin to taking a picture against personal icons in the Madame Tussauds Museum.

For me, it is pilgrimage!

When tourist traffic lightens, I go near the Little Mermaid and watch closely. Against the vastness of the sea, she looks fragile and tiny. I sense a certain melancholy around the sculpted figure. The rain is buffeting her body, part mammalian; part scaly. Big drops are sliding down her, enhancing her loneliness, at least for me.
Then she blinks and stirs slightly on the rocky perch, startling me.
“Do not be startled!”
I am speechless.
“I mean no harm to my sincere devotees,” says the iconic statue in a clear human voice.
Her reassuring tone makes me relax. Just then a huge cloud comes and cast a grey blanket around the worshipper and the deity, cutting the duo off from the rest.
“You are special character to me, dear mermaid,” I say. “Now part of my cultural psyche. I find a bit of others and me in your story. Besides that you haunt me on a subliminal level.”
She asks me innocently, “Why?”
“For me, you are an epitome of pure love, compassion, kindness and sacrifice. Virtues no longer there in the new millennium. You are a rare fusion of land and sea, almost mythical, almost mystical. You have been fathered by a man in search of love and appreciation for most of his life. You stand for unrequited love, a great symbol that will always speak to those who get denied.”
It makes her eyes brim.
“No, no. Please go ahead. I am talking to somebody after long.”
I pause, while the wet curtain further intensifies, obscuring us from the prying eyes of the loud tourists. “You are different and therefore do not belong, do not fit in. We, humans, never accept those who are not cast in our image!”
The Little Mermaid nods. “Yes. You folks are judgmental!”
“Seeking love, understanding and value as a creature perceived to be odd can be tragic in our culture,” I continue. “Little Mermaids are doomed to die in every age!”
She nods her agreement.
“And a person muted! A girl who cannot speak. Deprived of her speech by design.”
She smiles through her tears.
“You traded your golden voice for human figure and preferred silence. Are not some of us like you?”
She says, “Yes.”
“We want to but cannot speak. We fail and lose our voice at the crucial moments.”
She says, “Correct!”
“In fact, the losers among us, the sensitive ones, carry a version of little mermaid inside us. We create our own mermaids.”
“I know,” says the statue speaking softly, “I am nothing but an extension of my creator Andersen. He could see things others could not.”
“Yes.” I say. “He is a master.”
“Did you meet my artist?” she asks suddenly.
“Andersen?” I am again astounded.
“But he is dead!” I blurt out, regretting my haste. But it is a fact nobody can contest.
She looks at me sympathetically. “Some creators never die. They are the real immortals!”
I get shaken by the simplicity of this profundity of a literary universe where illogical things work faster than math. Alice, you remember?
“Look for him in the city. Near Tivoli Gardens.”
Then, the statue becomes inert and cloud-curtain lifts.
The clue intrigues me further.
Can I meet a dead artist again in his favouraite Copenhagen?
The dull afternoon sky with its gleaming contemporary skyline seems to contradict this possible encounter.
Am I seeing the fairies? Well, Copenhagen is known to do that also for the seekers of the exotic. Its canal, harbor, streets and shops twinkling in the dusk provide a romantic setting. Kierkegaard romanced it; so does Peter Hoeg.
Transformations of the familiar into the strange!

Now, I am on a bizarre hunt---catching Hans Christian Andersen near the famous Gardens in a milling crowd of various ethnicities, out for their bit of the city, trying to catch its smells and colours.

How am I going to find him in the crowd?

The rain has stopped. It is late afternoon. I stand scanning the faces of the excited tourists, while wife and son are taking pictures of the landmark, oblivious of my quest.
 After five minutes, I give up. Son decides to go with his mother to a nearby shop for some on- the- spot purchasing of the trinkets and memorabilia.

“Would you buy this ticket for The Ugly Duckling show, please?”
I look in the direction of the voice. The source is an Asian youth, tall and bit awkward, eyes pleading, tone requesting.
Something melts inside---the mermaid effect?
“And if I do not?” I ask.
He smiles sweetly. “No problem, sir. I will try somebody else.”
“You from India?”
“No. Sri Lanka.”
“Finished my education. Searching job.” He says.
“Why Denmark?” I persist, more of a hostile immigration officer than a fellow Asian.
“Well, I want to live a better life, a life of dignity. I am ready to work hard for that.”
“But why Copenhagen?” I persist.
He smiles, the tall man with a broad forehead, deep-set eyes. “My destiny took me here. Long story. It is my home now. I love it. Truly cosmopolitan city, welcoming, warm and open, never discriminating.”
“Your dad?”
“Ethnic strife. Years ago. My mum is a maid. I want to try my luck here in the civilized Europe. I did my research here…”
“Yes. Doctoral research on the Danish theatre for the children displaced by conflicts and wars.”
“A what?” My mouth drops.
“Danish theatre and its impact on the children ravaged by the ethnic wars,” he says very patiently.
“Finished it?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And you selling tickets?”
He smiles. “This is a place with maximum tourist traffic. The company hires people like us to sell tickets. We do odd jobs and survive. Selling trinkets, tickets, memory cards. Whatever. Copenhagen never starves the truly committed and  the driven.”
I look at him closely. “Would you be able to survive by doing odd jobs in a foreign city? How long?”
The man smiles and says, “Yes, sir. I will. One day, I will become successful.”
“Yes, sure.”
“I admire this self belief.”
He pauses and then says, “Not at all. As they say, every man’s fairy-tale is written by God’s fingers. That is my personal motto in life.”
I am stunned after hearing the famous quote of a master I have been searching all my life of long struggles and hardships!
I look again---Hans Christian Andersen smiles and then winks at me in his latest Asian avatar standing near the iconic Tivoli Gardens!
How his enduring fairy tales connect in most unusual settings!


  1. Very interesting and engaging write....Who doesn't love fairy tales?
    This real life story of the youngster has left me with moist eyes.

  2. brilliant portrayal of the city Copenhagen with your artistic insight, and your interaction with the Srilankan youth selling tickets for a Duckling Show is an eye-opener to the onslaughts and ravages on our society caused by ethnic clashes.


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