‘Sharma’ by Julie Bowen Kearney (Australia)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Sharma was our darling, at least for a while, and even after it was all over what we remembered was the man himself and not the annoying little things, like having to listen to the endless re-hashing of the Paddy O’Leary affair or the irritating hacking cough or the fact that he had foolishly and romantically put our lives at risk. Frank and I were more inclined to remember the way he had lead us out of danger and forget that he’d lead us into it in the first place, even to believe that this danger was justified in some mysterious way as part of some grand plan to guide us spiritually as well as physically through the back-blocks of India. In retrospect, Sharma is still my darling (though perhaps a dead one now) and my one regret is that when we finally stumbled out of the dark into the naphthol lights of the Hampi bus stop, I was too wet and enraged to say goodbye to him properly.

We only knew him for a few days. He had come up to us while we were drinking chai at the Krishna Café in Hampi Bazaar, a local man dressed in a worn lungi with a towel draped over one shoulder and a book in one hand. Like most South Indians he was a skinny man but that wasn’t what you noticed about him. What you noticed, what kept you captivated, was the intelligent bony face and the megawatt smile into which you fell as into a bear hug.

“Hello,” he said, appearing from out of nowhere beside our rickety table, and giving us our first taste of that smile. “I am Sharma.” And we looked up and smiled back because there was something about Sharma, something so candid and pure that just had to be responded to. We had stopped at the café to rest as much as to drink chai because I was still feeling frail from a bout of Delhi Belly. It was the first morning of my recovery and meeting such a friendly man seemed entirely appropriate to the occasion, a fresh beginning to our Indian adventure.

“What is your name?” he said, beaming at us, and in no time at all was sitting beside us chatting away like an old friend. Somewhere in the conversation, which went on for a long time and was conducted mainly by Sharma, he offered to take us on a little nature walk if we cared to meet up with him the next day. I thought “nature walk” a rather quaint English way to describe walking in the dusty heat of rural India though it never occurred to me not to take the description at face value. Nor did it occur to me – or to Frank – that what Sharma was offering, among other things, was his services as a guide and thus a transaction not unlike what was regularly offered us (and as regularly refused) outside every temple and ruin in India. Like most Australians, we regarded friendship as being separate from services and payment, not understanding how easily and intricately these things can be entwined in India. As far as we were concerned, Sharma was our friend and we were delighted to meet someone who didn’t want anything from us but our company. The next morning we went back to the Krishna Café to meet up and begin our little stroll.

Frank and I were dressed for the occasion in sturdy walking shoes and sun hats; Sharma on the other hand was bare-foot and hatless, wearing the same lungi and faded shirt we had seen him in the day before. It was only later it occurred to me that these were probably his only clothes.

We set off across the rocky ground, skirting pillars and broken pieces of sculpture until we came to a massive flat-topped boulder covered all over with small pyramids of stacked stones.

“What are those?” I asked.

“Pilgrims are making them,” Sharma told us. “They are asking gods to cure them or give them babies. Many things they are asking and giving thanks.”

I decided I wanted to be part of these mute offerings and went off to gather stones. It was a beautiful day and I felt very happy, what with having only recently thrown off the dreaded Delhi Belly and being in the company of a new and delightful friend, so the silent prayer I offered up when the precarious cairn was built was particularly silly, being no less than the hope that everyone and everything in the whole world could be happy and peaceful and full of love. After I had delivered these noble thoughts to the surrounding air I re-joined the men and we walked on listening to Sharma who had begun to tell us about his friend, an Irishman by the name of Paddy Ollery.

It was soon obvious to us that Ollery (who was probably O’Leary) was one of the European itinerants who come to Hampi and never leave. The place, in the days we were there, was full of these shadowy people whose visas have expired and who live out an illegal existence, sleeping in the ruins around Hampi Bazaar, smoking dope and generally dropping out big time. Sharma told us about the Irishman’s arrival in Hampi and the wonderful friendship that had sprung up between them.

“Ollery is very special friend. He is telling good stories, singing songs also.”

But then the Irishman had done something bad. He had stolen Sharma’s wife, Meenakshi, and herein lay Sharma’s dilemma: how to reconcile true friendship with betrayal.

“Ollery says wrong things to me. He tells me, ‘Sharma, you are called the talkative man but you don’t know how to tell one story, the story of Meenakshi. It is my story now and I am telling it.’ So then Ollery is making me sad.”

Poor Sharma, we thought. And what a terrible cough he has. He should get something for that. He was still talking about the Irishman when we came to a river, very broad and deep, bordered on both sides by enormous boulders.

“Tungabhadra River. Very holy river,” Sharma explained. “We are taking boat over Tungabhadra and you will be seeing my country. I am taking you where tourists are not going.”

Presently a man in a strange contraption began to ply across the river. At first he looked as though he was sitting in a giant soup bowl but after a while we realised it was a coracle that was coming towards us, entirely woven out of reeds. Sharma went down to talk to the boatman while we waited on the bank under the watchful eyes of three naked children who had slipped sleek-bellied from the river to stare at us  After observing us solemnly for a while, they burst into giggles and ran back skipping and leaping into the water.

“You remember when you were mucking around with those stones,” said Frank as we watched the children, “Sharma told me you had a beautiful soul.”

“Why would he say that?”

“He said you were praying for world love.”

We watched the children splashing in the shallows.

“That’s funny,” I said. “I was. More or less.”

Sharma was beckoning so we scrambled down the bank and climbed into the coracle where he waited, squatting on his haunches, clutching his book and smiling at us reassuringly. Then away we went, bobbing gently over the swiftly flowing water, listening to Sharma’s cough and the endless tale of the treachery of Paddy Ollery.

On the other side of the river a few miles of dusty track snaking through banana trees brought us to the ancient village of Anegondi. This was a sleepy place of white plastered buildings and ancient stone walls baking in the mid-day sun and we stopped in the shade of a chai stall for tea and gram. Nothing stirred in the dusty square before us and the only object of interest was an enormous carved chariot or rath occupying its centre. We knew it was a rath, having seen them before: one of the many ‘cars’ to be found all over South India, parked in side streets, waiting for the next festival when they will be pulled by sweating men through crowds of chanting devotees. These are the juggernauts that so caught the British imagination during their rule in India.

We watched a man on a bullock cart creak slowly by and suddenly – where had they come from? – dozens of children were standing around us. This was my opportunity so I took off my backpack and rather self-consciously began to distribute biros according to the advice in The Lonely Planet. I hoped Sharma would be impressed. But my Lady Bountiful act quickly degenerated into a melee; the biros ran out and the children began to squabble over them. Sharma took me aside. He was no longer smiling.

“You are spoiling these children,” he admonished. “They are learning badmash ways, always getting getting getting. Better to put your bag away.”

Damn! I thought in some chagrin. There goes my beautiful soul.

Chai finished, we set off again. We were travelling along a country road of unending straightness bounded by the usual piles of rocks – often the size of a house – that distinguish the landscape around Hampi and resemble nothing so much as the casual playthings of giants tossed down like so many marbles. Tucked below these strange outcrops, banana trees gave a note of green and every now and then a man on a bullock cart trundled slowly towards us and then receded at the same pace into the distance behind. But otherwise we were alone in a lunar landscape, alone with the voice of Sharma. His terrible cough was beginning to get on our nerves, in equal proportion, ironically enough, to the concern we had begun to feel for his health. For by now we suspected that this cough might be beyond medical help. In the meantime, we had to listen to the continuing tale of the Irishman.

“Goddess Meenakshi is having night life with husband, every night she is having it, but my Meenakshi is kicking up heels with Ollery.”

Shut up Sharma! Discreetly I slowed down, letting the space between us grow but after a while I began to feel guilty about leaving Frank on his own to do all the listening and caught up again.

‘I am watching them pack up, I am watching them go, but I am telling myself let them go. Soon Meenakshi will come back and everything will be ripe as rain.’

Oh God! Still at it! This was not the little nature walk I had imagined. Again I dropped back and abandoned Frank to his fate. He, my lovely husband, made no attempt to escape the unending recitals of betrayal but plodded on mile after mile lending them a sympathetic ear. I left them to it for another half hour and was rewarded when next I caught up to find that the topic had changed. For Sharma had begun to talk about his other obsession, a film he had seen called The Guide.

I had read The Guide by R.K. Narayan but couldn’t remember it very well and anyhow Sharma’s description of it, or at least the Hindi film version which he’d seen, seemed a little coloured by his own experience. Like him, the hero of the story, Raju, was a guide and like him, the hero loses his woman, in this case a dancer called Rosie. It was a complicated tale but what emerged in the telling were two things: first, that Sharma was a guide, which we hadn’t realised, and second, that he had been deeply inspired by Raju’s story which allowed him to see himself in a different light, as a guider of souls.

In the story, the loss of Rosie leads Raju into a chaotic world from which he emerges enlightened and chooses the path of leading others across the spiritually perilous river of life. Or that was how Sharma described it. I couldn’t remember all the details of the original story but I was pretty sure that Narayan had been more ironic on this last point and that Raju’s fate at the end was left ambiguous. But I thought Sharma’s account threw a little light on something that had been bothering me, which was that in all the talk about the Irishman our new friend had only occasionally shown much interest in his wife, being much more concerned with the moral dilemma of the Irishman. The kind of enlightenment Sharma was seeking would entail giving up physical desires and it seemed he was doing this. Or trying to. A vision of divine rather than sexual love was driving his troubled heart and we were being used as a sounding board in that struggle. Or so I thought as we walked along. But being with Sharma was more enjoyable now. All the talk about The Guide was a change from the Irishman and besides, Sharma was cheerful again, his dark eyes alive with enthusiasm, his beautiful smile back in place.

We walked steadily for hours, apparently going nowhere, listening to the stream of words when suddenly we looked up, attracted by a flash of light. It came from a brass lata in the hand of a man looking down at us from a rocky outcrop. He was wearing a pink lungi and behind him was a cave whose entrance was painted in broad vertical stripes of red and white.  Frank and I stopped for a better look, shading our eyes to peer at the cave which I thought resembled certain kinds of Australian Aboriginal rock art also painted on clefts.

“Pamppa Sarower. Very holy place,” explained Sharma as I pointed my camera, “Ashram is here. If you are wanting we will go.”

Why not? Wherever Sharma lead we would follow, even though as we now knew, it meant listening to whatever he wanted to talk about. Sharma the guide. Sharma the talkative man.

Pamppa Sarower, when we arrived after a good climb, turned out to be not only an ashram but a wonderful lake set like a blue opal in a bowl of giant boulders that glowed pinkly in the late afternoon light. In fact, Pamppa Sarower was the lake, Sharma told us, named after the goddess Pamppa who inhabited it and later visited by Sita who, according to local mythology, had bathed there on her way to Sri Lanka, leaving the pattern of her sari border and wet footprints beside the lake. That was the meaning of the painted rocks we had seen at the cave entrance – Sita’s footprint surrounded by the red and white pattern of her sari border.

After the dusty heat of the road, the lake was like a gift, cool and enticing, and we sat for a while on the worn stone steps, enjoying the reflections on the water. Frank took off his shoes and Sharma inspected them to see what they were made of. Oh no! Not leather! And from a cow! But he was very forbearing about this unfortunate fact. That’s all right, his smile seemed to say: You are walking on a dead cow but I forgive you. You are Australian after all.

When we had rested we went up the steps of the ashram to meet the man in charge. A tubby, self-satisfied fellow, the guru was seated on a bench in the entrance hall, lounging on bolsters under luridly coloured pictures draped in tinsel garlands. “You like photo?” he asked noticing my camera. The jolly smile that accompanied this question belied his eyes. “You take my picture.”

This seemed to be an order so I took his photo while he lolled on the cushions smiling broadly. But there was no hint of a smile a moment later as he shouted into the depths of the building: “Manu! Bring water.”

A tall, thin old man came hobbling through a doorway carrying a brass tray and tumblers.

“Hurry-hurry,” snapped the guru. “These people are walking in the sun.”

The old man bowed in a wavering kind of way and began to serve us. When he brought me a tumbler I smiled my thanks and noticed he looked surprised. In the meantime, Sharma was chatting away with our host and though we couldn’t understand a word they were saying, after a while the ashram boss shook out the folds of his robes and got down from the couch. An invitation had been extended. Obediently we followed his waddling figure through a confusion of passageways and dark doorways until we came to a shadowy room. It was already occupied but the three men seated on cushions on the floor didn’t seem particularly pleased to see us. Rather surprisingly for this out-of-the way spot where the lungi reigns supreme, they were all dressed in tight-fitting safari suits, nylon shirts and flared trousers.

They were busy passing round an enormous joint.

Frank and I weren’t bothered by this and anyway, Sharma was looking after us. The guru had seated himself on a bench above his strange assortment of guests and after he had finished puffing on the joint he passed it to Frank. There seemed no reason to refuse, but there was a reason as we soon discovered. It’s not easy to recall those men – perhaps I don’t want to – but I do remember that the moment Frank raised the joint to his lips they jerked upright on their cushions, waggling supple fingers in anger. Mystified, we watched as an argument broke out; we had never seen Sharma annoyed and it seemed out of character. What was going on?

“They are saying you are not Brahmin,” Sharma told us at last, looking embarrassed. “They are Brahmin men and they are thinking you are unclean. I am telling them you are clean but they are not believing me.” We knew that Sharma was a Brahmin, having noticed the tell-tale thread under his shirt. Obviously his Brahminism was of a more liberal kind, but then we would have expected no less of him. Eventually, after Frank had been shown how to inhale through cupped hands, thus protecting the joint from contamination, he was allowed to smoke and afterwards I did the same.

We became very stoned.

Being very stoned in unsympathetic company is not to be recommended. For what seemed an eternity Frank and I sat in silence while the men talked importantly among themselves. What a seedy looking bunch, I thought; this is no fun. Sharma whispered that the men were dealers. Dealers in what? Obviously, it was not the time or place to ask such a question and we digested the information in silence. For some reason, I have no idea why, I began to suspect the men were dealers in guns and after a while I got up unobtrusively and went outside.

Outside was a much nicer place to be. While we had sat in the darkened room, the sun had been slipping behind the giant boulders and was just about to disappear. Dust motes, ecstatically gold, hung suspended in the air as if in luminous water and a soft calm light bathed the holy lake. A little way off I saw the old servant man, Manu. He was accompanying (you could not call it herding) a number of cows up a slope beside the lake, making soft clucking sounds as he walked beside them. A tinkling of cowbells enlivened the surrounding silence and an old woman in a faded pink sari was filling pots at the water’s edge. Then the sun dipped below the horizon leaving behind a tenderness in the air as its former transparency began to thicken into the smoky textures of an Indian dusk. I stood there quite stoned, washed over with feelings of love for the old couple, for the bucolic scene and the gentle light. It seemed to me that the three of us, and not only us but the cows and the rocks and the water, were all linked in some way and I knew as well as I have ever known anything that Manu and the old woman knew this too.

After a while Frank and Sharma came out of the ashram and we set off again, on a different path this time, to who knows where.

Sharma was quiet now, hardly talking at all. In his stoned state he was more like an old friend who is comfortable with silence. On either side of the road along which we walked or rather floated, fireflies danced and flashed above feathery bushes as far as the eye could see, brightness and softness reaching to the horizon and dissolving in the night air. A feeling of immense wellbeing filled me to the brim and an hour went by as though in a dream. A little nature walk Sharma had said. Yes! It was a very pleasant nature walk among the fireflies whose messages I was on the brink of de-coding.

There was a rustle in the feathery bushes and we all stopped. The leaves parted and out stepped – Manu!

“Manu!” I cried, overwhelmed by feelings of love for the old man. It was the first time I had spoken to him.

He stood before us holding something. What was it? Shyly he held it out to me. My hat? Manu had come after us in the dark, all the way across country – to bring me my hat!

“Thank you,” I said accepting the hat and clasping it as though it was a new-born baby. “Thank you,” I repeated, faint with love as fireflies danced in a halo above the old man’s head.

Frank and Sharma looked on, not saying a word. Then the old man bowed and went back into the feathery bushes.

We walked on in companionable silence. Gradually the bushes and the fireflies disappeared as we left the low ground and picked our way in the dark up a narrow path between the boulders that had loomed over us all day. Small camp fires glowed here and there among the rocks and occasionally we caught glimpses of heads silhouetted against their light. “These people are not living in houses. They are junglee people,” Sharma explained when I asked, adding disconcertingly, “Soon we are meeting Ollery. He is having camp with junglee people. Meenakshi also.”

I was horrified. I thought that meeting the Irishman could only mean trouble. We might discover the lovers entwined beside their fire and then there would be a fight. Full of foreboding, I trotted on behind Sharma.

Occasionally we came round a boulder and almost stepped on a figure huddled beside a fire or lying in the shadows asleep under a shawl. Men would get up, moving out of the circle of light to talk to Sharma while Frank and I hung back listening. “Water is rising,” the dark figures warned. “Crossing is too deep. Water is three feet already.” But Sharma laughed off their fears. “No problem,” he told us waggling his head gently, “These junglee people are worrying too much. We will be crossing Tungabhadra in a jiffy.”

Some nature walk I thought bitterly, stumbling after him. I was tired and hungry.

“What time does the last bus leave?” I asked Frank.

“Eight o’clock.”

“And what’s the time now?”

“Seven I think. It’s hard to read my watch.”

“Seven!  We’ll never make it. We’ll end up stuck in Hampi.”

I was more worried about the prospect of having to doss down for the night in a ruin in Hampi than I was about the rising river we needed to cross in order to have that pleasure.  In the meantime, what about the Irishman? We would probably never even get to the river if he and Sharma met up in the darkness and the boulders. I imagined a fight, Sharma falling to the ground, a fractured skull, blood on the rocks. He’s so small, I thought, and so weak with that awful cough.

But in the end, when we did finally come round a bend and discover the Irishman’s camp, nothing like that happened at all. It was all confused in the dark and after we had been introduced to the sleepy Meenakshi, recumbent and silent beneath some kind of shelter, Sharma disappeared mysteriously into the darkness. We could hear men talking in low voices.  How many? Two? Three? Though I strained my ears it was impossible to tell if one of them was the treacherous Irishman. We waited with nothing better to do than stare at the erring wife who gazed back at us stoically, and after a while Sharma reappeared – reassuringly upright and not covered in blood – and we went on.  Ahead an angry growling roar was growing louder. The Tungabhadra!

“Dam is releasing.” The shadowy figure of a man called out to us as we began to descend the path to the river. He picked his way across the rocks towards us. “I am telling you go back. Water is coming.” It was so dark that even at this distance we couldn’t see our informant’s face. Another man appeared out of nowhere to add weight to the warning. “Water is having four feet already.” But Sharma was not impressed. “Crossing Tungabhadra will be easy as eating plantain,” he told us confidently. “Goddess will protect. Also current is not too big.” The decision of our guide had been made and we went forward towards the roaring, accompanied by the two men.

In the darkness we could make out the whiteness of foam on waves that bucked and collided as they raced past. The river had broken into a second channel as it neared the bank and we were a little comforted by the thought that we would be tackling the crossing in two stages. We stopped to take off our shoes, lacing them together and dangling them round our necks. I decided I would carry the camera high over my head, the only hope of keeping it dry, and thus prepared, stepped into the torrent. One of the men had walked ahead of me and was waiting on the bank of the channel shouting advice above the din. Sharma did the same for Frank. But after the channel we were on our own, for our helper remained on the bank between the two swirling bodies of water, still calling out advice. Stepping into the body of the river was an act of faith since there was no way of knowing the depth of the water or the strength of the current and Frank and I chose to do this together. Sharma walked a little ahead holding up his book like a periscope.

Alone in a wet, dark, noisy wilderness (for when death is near you are always alone) I was saved from the ravages of total fear by equally powerful feelings of indignation; the harsh thoughts I entertained toward Sharma as I struggled over slippery rocks, chest-high in water, holding up my camera like a tourist in the Sistine Chapel, proved quite useful as a means of steadying the nerves. Thus, slowly, slowly, each with their own private thoughts (if indeed mine were private since Sharma seemed able to read them), we reached the other side.  Sharma had been right. At its greatest depth, the water had surged to our shoulders but as he had promised us, the current was never strong enough to whirl us away.

So that is the story of Sharma our guide, who we hadn’t even known was a guide. Of course it went on for a little longer after that. We had to clamber over rocks in the pitch dark for some time until we reached Hampi Bazaar but I was so annoyed with Sharma by then and so afraid of missing the bus that had become my one hope, my means of escape from the next unpredictable adventure he might choose to throw at us, that I hardly spoke to him, either then or later when we stumbled out of the night into the harsh lights of the bus station. The bus was waiting and after a few words of farewell I squelched up the steps to sit alone, dripping and displeased, until it was time to leave. Frank waited outside with Sharma, probably listening to more talk about the Irishman, I thought crossly, and then the driver sounded the horn and Frank came on board and the bus started. Sharma stood in the yellow glare of the naphthol lights waving goodbye, a small wet man with a book in one hand, and

we never
saw him
again.

Glossary:

naphthol lights: portable gas lanterns giving off yellow-green light
plantain
: fruit resembling banana
ashram
: place for living and studying Hinduism
badmash: bad
Brahmin: highest caste in Hindu society
chai:  tea
junglee:  jungle dwellers
lata:  water pot, usually brass
lungi:  sarong style cloth worn by South Indian men
rath:  large carved wooden chariot used for religious festivals

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Julie Bowen Kearney is a 69 years old Australian writer and artist. She has published A Fabulous Beast, A Good Woman, Love in the Colonies, Even Paradise Has Serpents, Ambiguities of Time and Space in the Artist’s Book, Living Fossils, The Plural Gaze, Australia’s Elgin Marbles and others, including numerous literary reviews.  Her short story Last Laugh won the 2010 CJ Dennis Literary Awards and her manuscript Life After Marriage was shortlisted for the 2011 Finch Memoir Prize. Her short story, Sharma, is a work of fiction drawn from memories of travels in India in the 1980s. Find out more about Julie on her website and blog.

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