By Chaitali Sengupta
The British writer and literary critic V.S. Pritchett said, “Short stories can be rather stark and bare unless you put in the right details. Details make stories human, and the more human a story can be, the better.” Sunil Sharma’s latest book Burn the Library and other Fictions is a wonderful collection of 20 short fictions that remind us of Pritchett’s words, simply because almost all the stories have a revealing detail that make us hold them in our mind.
“The sources of these fictions are my middle-class milieu and experiences and literary readings, and, sometimes, dialogue with the masters that have stayed on for me for more than two decades,” the author confesses at the outset. Dealing with simple people and their ordinary lives, Sharma’s voice renders the 20 stories with his own magical simplicity of expression that ranges from love to longings, from broken hearts to fulfilment in love – each one stands out as a considerable accomplishment. The stories are sometimes sensuous and sometimes grim, but always depicting the author’s profound understanding of the middle-class milieu he confesses about at the outset.
Sunil Sharma is a deft storyteller with a striking storytelling prowess. In this regard, I shall mention the story “The Last Indian Duchess: A Dramatic Monologue.” Of course, the title reminds us of the famous poem by Robert Browning. As you read through this brilliant piece, it starts to radiate the author’s unique mastery over his creativity, his intricate yet intimate imagination. The storytelling is elegant, though the story is slow to build up, as Sharma dwells on the details until the emotions involved reach a boiling point and the readers are swept away with the powerful retelling of the poem in a story form. I would say the same about the story titled “The Street”, although it is an exploration of a completely different theme altogether. It is his ‘requiem for old Ghaziabad’, his ‘home-town’ that “has shed its earlier character and has changed.” These are worlds we have visited before. Our feeling of loss, nostalgia, and sadness to see that the city we had grown up in had “lost its initial innocence and charm.” And yet, Sharma’s words, so carefully woven, make their impact and we find truth on every page.
His longstanding fascination with the works of the masters makes him write with an almost reverential approach. And yet the focus on humanity is never lost. His writing is free of rancor and authorial judgement. And while we can say without doubt about the greatness of his art of storytelling, it is also more than simply that. He is a gentle wordsmith, and that makes his art as a short story writer memorable. A good example of this can be quoted from the story “Two black stones and an Old God.” Consider these lines: “I would sit cross-legged; eyes closed and talk to the stone-God in a sincere tone. The morning breeze would play with my curly hair and caress my thin oval face. In the deathly stillness on the bungalow – Ma was busy with her chores; Pa was in the office – I could hear my own voice loudly and clearly against the rustling, whispering leaves of the banyan tree. Daily I would pray to Shiva for a dramatic transformation…’ Or these lines from the story “Love: Beyond Words”: “Remember the first rains after our marriage? You came in dripping from the door, eyes wild with excitement. After long summer, rains look so good! You had said, smiling. I love getting drenched in the first showers!” The lines have a beautiful simplicity while they still manage to capture the evanescent, glorious emotions brilliantly.
In this book, the author devotes himself to questions related to immigrants’ hopes, dreams, and struggles that have become ever more pressing within the context of the pandemic. In the first story “A fairytale called Hans Christian Andersen”, we meet the ‘latest Asian avatar’ of the master fairy tale author, doing odd jobs to survive in a foreign city. A Sri Lankan man, with a research degree in his pocket, wanting “to try my luck here in the civilized Europe” by “selling trinkets, tickets, memory cards. Whatever. Copenhagen never starves the truly committed and the driven.” In the next story, “In love with a smile”, we meet Sunita, the student from Jaipur in Toronto, “full of hope- against the hopelessness of a typical-immigrant condition in an alien city of a million hopefuls, trying to carve out a better life, or realize such a promised lifestyle. Or any life away from their hell – lived or imagined – in their countries of origin.” The author questions what makes a person leave their homelands for strange shores? In the story “Beware! Migrants are coming!”, the author, with heart wrenching precision, gives us the story of a decrepit, ‘pencil-thin’ man called nobody who ends up in Manhattan as an ‘odd jobber’ and who is labelled as a person who “rob others of jobs by working here in this great sacred city.” The dialogue that ensues between the migrant and his interrogator, the native, is one of the best narratives in this book and provides an important insight for those interested in the lives and experiences of migrant workers.
Burn the Library and Other Fictions is an intense exploration of human condition that tug at your heartstrings. The well-structured stories are rich, unusual, and varied in their range. Such range gives this slim volume considerable merit and deserve greater attention.
Chaitali Sengupta writes and translates fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Her first book of poetry is Cross-Stitched Words, a recipient of HONORABLE MENTION award at the New England book festival 2021, is published by SETU, USA. Her latest work of translation is Timeless Tales in Translation, a collection of 12 short stories by famous Indian authors. She has co-authored several esteemed anthologies, and has contributed largely to well-known online/print journals. Presently, she is working on a translation work featuring the Dutch author, Louis Couperus. More about Chaitali here.
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