On Sunil Sharma’s Burn the Library and Other Fictions

Adelle Sefton-Rowston

Author: Sunil Sharma
Publisher: Authorspress, India
Year of Publication: 2021
ISBN-13: 978-9391314545

Sunil Sharma’s Burn the Library and Other Fictions (2021) is a collection of creative stories and poems that inform the post-technocratic expression of philosophical humanist ideas. This collection does well to transform familiar concepts, such as romantic love, into the eerily strange constructs of the modern world. Sharma’s deliberate flip-flopping of textual stereotypes for broad global consumption includes rewriting Hans Christian Anderson’s stories with an Asian avatar, Indian Romeos and Indian Juliet’s, and royal palaces of Jaipur placed in a fairy tale.

Adelle Sefton-Rowston
In this collection, Sharma urges his readers to consider the importance of the traditional imagination in this strange and fast-paced technological world – where the written word does not come from one’s mind, but from a dataset accessible through a specifically designed ‘App’. Sharma purports that to forget how to write, is to become a philistine – a science technocrat that ‘burns down the library’ in order to protect the status quo of a scientific world.

Yet, in a literary universe, the author shows us how ‘illogical things work quicker than maths’ and that humans should come out of their mental haze to discover again what it is to be human. This creative work puts a focus back on the Humanities by reminding us that ‘Humanism’ is an idea that cannot be deleted, not even in a (data)based technocratic world.

Burn the Library and Other Fictions is made up of 19 pieces of short stories, flash fiction and micro-narrative poems. ‘Silenced!’ for example, is only seven lines long, while ‘Stones’ is all of 20 words of fiction flashing on a page. To highlight some favourite pieces here is not so much an exercise of critical review, but to take up Sharma’s invitation to review life from a deeply philosophical point of view.

Readers are invited to review intercultural understandings of romance as a core human experience, for example, and in his second story, ‘In Love with a Smile’, readers are made to wonder whether the new millennium is collectively ‘anti-romance’. This is the belief that love (as it was) was once historically labelled and sold but is now nothing more than a cultural construct.

As an Australian reader, arranged marriages are not as common as they are in India, so indulging in stories of ‘anti-romance’ from a constructivist point of view takes on a different interpretation.

I am too indoctrinated with the laws of natural attraction and the idealism of falling in love. In ‘The Street’ for example, the drama of relationships does not end simply, and the author warns us of the ways that India is a costly place to fall in love, because love is transactional when it comes to big fat dowries.

 In his story, ‘Love: Beyond Words’ the author tells a tale of two love letters that are inspired by memories of Kerala. While at first romantically indulgent, these romantic themes are instead confronted with the reality of couples emotionally separated by work, then inevitably falling into a ‘coma’ of ‘anti-romance’. In other words, a disappointing marriage that is common to both romantic relationships and arranged marriages becomes a labour of complex work. What is refreshing about this story, however, is the feminist message conceding of how women are created as a super woman for ‘his selfish reasons’. In either context of arranged or romantic marriage, this represents a pressure of most women in relationships belonging to the patriarchal world. As this story ends, the reader sees t5hat it is after love that a spouse remains to fulfil roles and responsibilities that provide the constructed image of the world.

Something I have always known about good writers is that they can write about anything and make the topic interesting. In the story ‘Hand Wash’ we read exceptional writing conjuring a whole new world and performing art under the most limiting restrictions (only several lines) and of the narrowest of topics – hand wash. The most melancholic piece of this collection however, is ‘Unseen’ as it details the sad life of a farmer, and how in only a few words, the man is portrayed as hanging in the wind from a tree for heavy debts. Like one of Hemmingway’s seven-word stories, there is so much to be known in such little detail.

As a contemporary Australian reader, I appreciate the depths of unknown cultural and spiritual worlds that the author takes me to. For example, I am allowed to seek God in humble ancient objects such as stones. In ‘Two Black Stones and an Old God’ prayers to the stones allow me to take on the persona of a child saving their ill Pa from dying. An emotional act that cannot be performed by any technological invention or medical procedure devoid of meaning.

And finally, there is the familiar story of home in Australia where in ‘Beware! Migrants are coming!’ Sydney and Canberra get centre stage as global cities where a poor cabbie working nights and ferrying drunks and stranded passengers, is seen as a threat to a highly educated and cultured western society. A brave claim from a foreign author, but as an Australian reader, I can understand (with shame) that this xenophobic culture stems from a history of migration under a ‘white Australia policy’. It is a cultural cringe to be exclaimed, yet as an Australian reader, I am not so used to such a frequent use of exclamation marks. No doubt, Sharma is an author who has seen the world and talked to many people rather than simply researching people on the internet. This collection is emblematic of another way of education, and that is – talking and listening – a form of knowing that is deeply embedded in being human, and not dependent on the technocratic obsession of scrolling through channels of food porn and promoting buying.

Sharma attests that being a philistine means being obsessed with spending and therefore forgetting to read and write serious stuff. It is a crime attributed to burning down a library and it is technological fascist.

And so, this collection is too another form of education and freedom by preparing us for a world obsessed with data, images, and apps. Burn the Library and Other Fictions is an Indian ‘Meeting with Hemingway’ that draws readers from all over the globe to consider what it is to be human.

Sharma is a guy who creates things in his head, then packs the whole wonderful stuff in words called stories that tell you a lot about this real world and life.

In his literary universe, the author shows us how illogical things work quicker than maths, and that a writer is not a robot – they are a magician.


Bio: Dr Adelle Sefton-Rowston is a senior Fulbright scholar and Discipline Chair of the Humanities at Charles Darwin University. She lectures in Literary Studies and is a founding editor of the Northern Territory literary journal Borderlands Magazine. Adelle is a broadly published essayist, poet, and literary critic. Her debut book ‘Polities and Poetics: race relations and reconciliation in Australian literature’ (2021) is published by Peter Lang.

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