Gifted Vision: A Review of Burn the Library and Other Fictions

Review by Sutanuka Ghosh Roy


Title: Burn the Library and Other Fictions
Author: Sunil Sharma
Page: 105
ISBN: 978-93-87883529 (Hardbound)
Edition: (2021)
Published by Authors Press New Delhi-India.

 Sunil Sharma is a Toronto-based academic, critic, literary editor, and author with 23 published books. He is, among others, 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.

Sutanuka Ghosh Roy
 Burn the Library and Other Fictions his latest is a collection of 20 short fictions. The collection stands out on account of its simplicity, a quality whose virtues can never be overstressed. Sharma’s mastery over the genre and the language is quite obvious from the short stories that testify to his power of observation. William S. Burroughs had once commented, “Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it”. Sharma has an exceptional talent for framing observations that are insightful and wise. The opening story “A Fairytale called Hans Christian Anderson” is a celebration of the magical transformation through human ingenuity. Sharma writes, “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! (9). In “In Love with a Smile” Sharma is like a pianist who can tease a Steinway to produce jagged harmonies. “He continued to clasp her small hands that registered each tremor that released pent-up frustration and layers of sadness coiled up for long inside a feeling heart. The sudden warmth emanating between the clasped hands further radiated their beings…and her face flushed a shade redder” (26).

 The titular story “Burn the Library” makes the readers sit back and ponder as to whether they are in Asimov’s company. “In the year 2071, the world being fully automatic and robotic, the most developed nation – rebranded Version XX LX as per the compliance with the stringent norms of the tech manual called T-M Galaxy for such nations – was concerned with the detection of a new threat – a viral app called Advanced Homer (AH) with a lethal aim: Altering consciousness about culture!” (41). The ancient story of the burning of the Library of Alexandria is in the background. “Burn the Library” becomes an unsettling yet insouciant game of what is and what isn’t, what could be, or is about to become. The imagination of Sharma is quirky as he presents intricate forms with minute detailing in delicate tones that lend two stones a wispy, ephemeral quality in “Two Black Stones and an Old God”. ‘They are no longer mere stones but two sacred objects for an entire town. “Humans need sacred objects in their lives. If you do not have them, you are doomed. You must have two holy stones to guide you,” my granny had told me once’ (62). This skirmish of matter and void, belief and non-belief turns the two ordinary stones into multiple suggestions. The ordinary shapes and tones of the stones, palpably unstable wrestle with disruptions and belief that offer no reprieve from precariousness.

 “Beware! Migrants are coming” is a startling metaphor for human vulnerability, the image of the decrepit man resonates as an urban predicament. The rootless anonymity of the individual lost in a crowd, his presence-in-the flesh as a migrant seemingly dissolved. “The decrepit man was out of breath and terrified. His dirty clothes were tattered, eyes sunk in big hollows, cheeks pale, and greying hair plastered in sweat. He looked at the group of his tormentors in a pleading manner, sad eyes almost blank, mouth open and breath irregular”(75). The image is equally disconcerting because of the utter defencelessness of the migrant, cringing lumps that becomes part of an ambiguous racist attitude of the predators. “You deaf?” asked the interrogator haughtily. “What Ya Doing Here? This is our city.” Sharma uses his pen with equal dexterity. With a few strokes of a word-brush, he conjures up wide-open spaces with humanity standing upright against the horizon.

 Stories like “Silenced”, “Unseen”, “Skeleton in the Attic” shows his mastery over the short form. He is a master craftsman so he uses language with verve and rare vitality. At times his sarcasm unnerves his readers as in “Hand Wash”. The story is rooted in the high-decibel anxiety of these Covid times. “To ease his bad conscience, Appu sheepishly asked both his bored wife and son. The instant consensus - old Ma does not deserve the pricey liquid hand wash, in these hard recessionary times. The luxury of the cheap bar of soap is enough for the widow, who never complained in life and willingly worked for hours in a sweatshop to raise Appu and his siblings. But that was in a different era that nobody now wanted to remember. In fact, what is the need for washing hands after going to the western-type toilet for her? Even that bar costs us something, is it not?” (97). The bitter truth is out as the family isn’t seen as a network of support systems but a scatter of atomized little figures that are caged in.

 Burn the Library and Other Fiction is a surprise to the readers. From a winking nod to surrealism, from a mock-serious open-endedness to the cohesive strength of a composite it talks of different concerns. This collection will surely be a glorious addition to any library and will add to the oeuvre of English short stories.

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