Peer Readings: Subhash Chandra deconstructs Haunting and Other Stories

AN AMAZING BOOK!

Haunting and Other Stories by Sunil Sharma, Authors Press; Rs. 295, pp. 167

-Subhash Chandra

It has taken me two-plus years to snap out of the spell cast by

‘Haunting.’ Reason: if I find a profound thought, a striking idea, or beauty of style in a novel or a story, I underline the sentence/s. (Two mauled pages appended below).

Each story creates a throbbing universe; each universe is inhabited by individualised characters that are a diverse mix of class, gender, and sexuality. They are ‘familiar’ and yet surprise us; they reveal unexpected traits which make the narratives immersive. Most of them are morally bankrupt.

Subhash Chandra

Some are sensitive and cerebral, however; they reflect on society and feel anguished to witness inequity, injustice, and exploitation of a large dispossessed majority. Sharma is a trenchant critic of urbanisation which he thinks has a baneful effect on people: they become unfeeling and ‘phoney.’

This brings me to the passionate averment by Sunil Sharma that all art has (or should have) an ethical responsibility to make society a better place to live in. “Any book that fails to effect a deeper moral transformation of characters due for that cleansing process, and concomitant and parallel purifying process in readers, will remain a hoax, a sham, a counterfeit, a minor and largely forgotten product” (“The Haunting”:115). Gillian Dooley rightly remarks in his Foreword to the book, “There is no mistaking Sharma’s passionate ‘social conscience” (5).

A number of stories depict oppression, even victimisation resulting from gender, class, and sexuality.

Sunil Sharma

“A Story Told by a Maid Servant’s Daughter,” is a layered tale, constructed in the style of the ‘frame story,’ used in One Thousand and One Nights.

“And then Tanya asked Laxmi to tell her a two-minute story.”

There was a woodcutter who takes two of the four daughters to the jungle and comes back alone and tells the sisters that the lion has eaten them up. The next day, Tanya wants to know what happens next. The father takes the third child and repeats the same reason. Then Laxmi herself disappears.

It is a heartrending tale of cruelty towards the girl child.

In our society, it is the girl/woman who always bears the brunt of poverty, vengeful feudal feuds, and war.

WHY?

The differential treatment of a girl and a boy in families is rife in India. She bears the burden of household chores, and she is the one who is regimented to fit into the prescribed feminine codes.

The protagonist in “A Teen Daughter,” (in epistolary style) writes letters to her mother, away in the US on an exchange programme. She writes, “Helping out with the laundry. Spreading the linen -- alone. Dusting daily. Today brought some raw veggies and made breakfast for bro and granny … Granny says I watch too much of TV. Bro says I do not do any work. … I do not study. . . Dad shouted. Could not get his Sunday tea on time… I miss you, dear Mom.” (19)

The girl child is made to slave and is yet chided.

WHY?

In “Dream,” we meet an oppressed wife; the husband, Sukumaran, whips up fights over trifles. He is “Always mocking, Sudha, trying to snub and hurt by verbal weapons,” all through their domestic life. She goes silent.

Silence is the strategy adopted by women to keep peace.

Once she dreams, and the dream signifies death, but she has no time to mope over it; she has to ready the mid-day meal for the joint family!

It is an everlasting grind for the woman.

WHY?

“At an Indian Police Station: Some Philosophical Thought,” is yet another story that highlights the torture of a woman by her husband, and the apathy of the androcentric police. The battered young woman pleads with the Duty Officer, “Do something Saab. He [her husband] is a monster! I am scared for my life. The uniformed man was jaded. “Don’t worry,” he barked. “Tolerate. Learn tolerance!” (23).

WHY?

One of the most poignant stories is “Change,” which brings up the issue of double oppression resulting from gender and sexuality. Smita is not a welcome addition to the family, as the father had wanted a boy; and she is ill-treated because a male inhabits her female body.

“On weekdays … Smita would do what she could always deftly do – turn herself into a boy … an empty home was a perfect stage for any dramatic mid-afternoon gender-reversal.”! (47)

Il-treated by the father, and chided by the overworked mother, Smita deeply longs for parental affection. She empathises with her depressive father and tries to cheer him up by acting as a boy. Ironically, he is enraged and turns her out of the house into the chilly night; she develops fever and dies. Both, the mother and the father, have dreadful dreams: the mother sees Smita as angry Durga, father witnesses desolation all around which is symbolic. The story is an angry denunciation of the city … “where innocence can never survive …”

Then there is a cluster of stories about modern urban life. The wealthy treat the poor with contempt, or at best indifference. “The poor are the non-living species … They are the dead people.” “At the Party and After...” (3). Banbari Lal, BL, is a poor, lowly government clerk, but he occupies an important desk. He is invited to a party, hosted by and for the elite. He is brutally ignored both by the hosts and the guests. BL begins to feel out of place and sorts. He flees from the party, but not before the writer has used his agency to expose the greed, promiscuity, and hypocrisy of the wealthy.

“Profanities” is yet another acerbic critique of urbanisation that breeds callousness.

“The ole bastard did not like Chicago at all. More than two lakhs were wasted on transporting him to and fro America” (99). Shockingly, these words are spoken by the eldest son, Rahul, settled and practising in the US as a doctor, who has come to Mumbai to perform the last rites of his dead father.

The system is all-powerful. It eventually incorporates rebels, much like the Beat Generation was in America. The protagonist, Ramesh, in “The Man Who Wanted to Write like Marquez,’ eventually turns into a power-and-pelf-hungry bourgeois.

The title is mischievously misleading, as it suggestively foregrounds the story “The Haunting,” and prepares us to encounter a world proliferating with ghosts, ghouls, and spirits. Instead, we meet living people with their distinctive angularities and travails, aspirations and disappointments, frustrations and suffering.

However, “The Haunting,” and “The Meeting with Hemingway,” disinter the ghosts of writers: Dickens and Hemingway. Sharma is an ardent admirer of Charles Dickens for his passion to ameliorate the condition of the poor, and Hemingway for his outspokenness.

A brooding, grim darkness in the stories disturbs you, but then that is the purpose of the author – to shake you out of complacency and indifference.

A word about style: Socrates, a character in the story, “Mr. Socrates,” tears into a certain tribe of writers who get millions in advance royalties from foreign publishers.

Socrates was livid: “These upper-class guys living in New York or London … criticize India and get the Nobel. They talk of displacements and lost homelands and prefer to live in advanced countries and do writing ... They sell their country -- for personal gain. Who stops them from returning to a poor country and toil here like their peers? They are all fakes. Charlatans. Brown Sahibs, of the post-colonial country” (90).

A pulsating energy seems to course through Socrates' words, much in the style of D.H. Lawrence. To wit: ““The world is a raving idiot, and no man can kill it: though I’ll do my best. But you’re right. We must rescue ourselves as best we can.” (Lady Chatterley's Lover).

My recommendation: Go for it … if you love fiction with a purpose.


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