Manoj Das’s “Sharma and the Wonderful

Lump”: A Study

 

P. RAJA

 

The editors of magazines and journals, both Indian and foreign, often look up to Manoj Das for a significant story that would give an authentic portrayal of the Indian scene with characters presented in an entirely credible frame.

 

But all the stories of Manoj Das are not strictly “realistic” on the surface–in the scene and the characters they depict–though the realism of a deeper plane is not lacking in any. A number of his stories are set in a fairy-tale world (“Operation Bride” and “He who Rode the Tiger”, for example); some are apparently folk-tales resurrected (the three stories in his series The Panchatantra for Adults, for instance). But they too have earned commendable popularity.

 

Why? One is tempted to ask. If one reason is that despite their fairy-tale like form they suddenly surprise us with a message that is of great relevance to our time, the other reason is the element of a chaste dignified humour that marks his stories. Needless to say, it is only this aspect of literature–humour–that suits universally the moods of readers. And Manoj Das amply charges his stories with this. In fact his stories are always embelished with an original humour, subtle undertones and sparkling new metaphors.

 

One of his best from this point of view is Sharma and the Wonderful Lump. Serialised in The Illustrated Weekly of India, this novelette was later included in Fables and Fantasies for Adults (a collection published by Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1978).

 

Sharma and the Wonderful Lump is the story of one Mr. Sharma, a dutiful clerk at the Rooplal Textiles, who has a growth on his head, diagnosed to be a “True or Neoplastic tumour.” Under the auspices of his employer he is admitted into a posh private clinic in the United States to have the crown of flesh liquidated by a surgeon, But to his amazement, he finds that the very aboo ( Sharma likes his tumour to be known by that native name), his brethren India did not care two hoots for, is hugged and applauded as a medical wonder by the Americans. Like Aladin in the Arabian Nights, who does miracles with the help of his wonderful lamp, Sharma postponing the operation, is out to exploit the promises held out by his wonderful lump, He becomes a celebrity almost overnight, after appearing in a TV programme. Money floods in. Since money and fame are formidable forces, Sharma, in his innocence, drifts to questionable paths for the sake of more and more bucks. Consequently he is on the verge of losing Miss Marilyn, his caretaker in the clinic who later became his true friend, and under unavoidable circumstances is obliged to leave America for his own land. Back with his mother, Sharma who once had little faith in the healing powers of the Gurus, now submits his precious aboo to his mother’s Guru, who makes it vanish like a block of ice.

 

Every situation in the novelette is tinged with humour and satire, but what makes them irresistibly effective is the naive goodness of Sharma and a remarkable laugh at the society, but he does so as though without the slightest sign of a sardonic smile on his own face.

 

He gives us clues to make out for ourselves the ways and means by which the society thrives on a pack of false values, and pinpoints how an innocent individual can be reduced to a scapegoat. One party of vested interest after another uses Sharma and his tumour for its own profit. They are not just characters but types–types of exploiters we encounter in our day-to-day life. The America of the story is the symbol of the whole strange world of ours. There is hardly a character which is villainous. All are the victims of a cross-current of automatic occurrences–set to motion by men who have forgotten the true goal of life. But the innate goodness inherent in man has not forgotten the man. Even those who kidnap Sharma for a political end, shed tears with him. While no character is positively bad, there are characters that are positively good like Marilyn, the conscience-incarnate, and Sharma’s mother. Dr. Hardstone, the surgeon, instead of liquidating the “medical wonder” on the head of his “significant patient tempts, like Satan of Paradise Regained, Sharma to accept the offer of a TV network that proposes to feature the patient for his lump, in their programme which will fetch him five thousand dollars. Dr Hardstone cajoles Sharma only with the personal motive of earning a similar sum and the fame as the discoverer of what becomes known as “Hardstone’s Tumour” (in the fashion of Halley’s comet!) and he succeeds in his attempt. What a wonderful set of values we have come to worship!

 

Once Sharma has become a celebrity, the newspapers pounce on him for their own end, under the pretext of “enlightening the masses.” A mass-circulation weekly, Holocaust, takes a photograph of Sharma with an abominable background of the bare-breasted Miss Chichi leaning over his head, to suit the already framed caption “The Top Against the Topless.” Though Sharma mumbles out his protest, Mrs. Younghusband, the reporter of Holocaust, silences him with her cool statistical logic–which is yet another value;

 

“…..if we print your picture with Miss Chichi in this fashion, all our readers will read the feature I shall write. They cannot do otherwise. But if we print your lone picture, only sixty per cent of our readers would care to glance at the article below it. These are the conclusions drawn from careful readership surveys…..” (P. 31)

 

Thus the readership is not spared the butt-end of ridicule for their share in making the potboiler publications what they are.

 

The focus is then directed, after covering the makers and the public patrons of the publications, to those who condescend to become their content!

 

The angry Miss Marilyn chides Sharma for allowing himself to be snapped for a sensation vendor, posing with a slut:

 

“...this irresponsible and irreverent paper has not only reduced you to a clown through this picture but also put a sackful of nonsense into your mouth: Your aboo contains occult powers! You have grown it with a great deal of secret discipline and practice of voodoo...(P. 33)

 

By and by the aboo-man’s demand soars sky high. There was a time when Sharma used to keep himself hidden from the world as much as possible and had even thought of committing suicide because of the repulsive lump. What could be more significant than the fact that the very lump had now made him world-famous! When greeted as the pride of his country, Sharma intones softly and sadly:

 

“Oh India! Sujalam, sufalam, malayajashitalam–although the aboo which has made me great was formed on thy soil and under thy sky–thy children failed and failed miserably, to give it its due...” (P. 53)

 

And when W. W. Sanitarywalla from the Indian Embassy in America calls on Sharma to inform him that his movements in that country might have serious repercussions on Indo-American relations, Sharma is hurt and annoyed:

 

“It’s clear that not only did India refuse to recognise me, but also the Indian Government is on tenterhooks the moment I am recognised abroad...” (P.52)

 

Is the author making fun of India that fails to recognise the talents and coolly leaves them at the mercy of the foreigners to be evaluated? Perhaps there is more to it in his motive that meets the eye. The element of satire here is double-edged, pointed at the highbrows who pride in selling their talents abroad as well.

 

There comes M/S Eagle Hats, who plan a “lasting career” for Sharma by stationing him at the entrance of their main show-room. Sharma is expected to raise his hat and bow from time to time as customers enter the hall, carrying on his neck a heart shaped board, reading, “The Hat with a Heart, the Eagle Hat; the Eagle Hat protects the world famous Aboo!” All great firms to run business smoothly make use of big names to lure the customers, thanks to their study of mass psychology.

 

Portraying different kinds of exploiters, Manoj Das comes finally to politicians. Baldbreast in America and Rooplal in India wish to make use of the aboo to lure more votes, the form by giving a huge sum to Sharma and the latter by his bossy stance. The comment now is on the strange values that circulate in the world’s richest democracy on one hand and the largest on the other. The aboo is the common factor for beguiling the voters in both the countries.

 

What does the aboo in this context symbolise? Money? Irrelevant fascinations? Both and the sum-total of much more–falsehood, in one word. An opportune exercise in this falsehood ultimately crowns Sharma with a political success. He is elected to his State Assembly! And follows a typical Indian scene:

 

“...Political instability threatened the fate of the infant ministry before it has any time to induct new blood. A number of legislators crossed the floor and then half of them return to the threshold of the parent party, saying that they had put their signatures to the document of defection after taking some drink which, innocent as they were, they had assumed to be coloured soda-water. Sharma who had been elected as an independent candidate, was yet to choose a party when the ministry collapsed and the assembly was declared dissolved. Fresh election was announced.” ( P. 62)

 

A by-election is announced. Sharma’s supporters confide to him that his aboo might not caste the same spell it cast the first time as some people had begun to find it rather anachronistic! Sharma, applying the ordinary logic, wishes his aboo to become twice its size in order to cultivate a new wave of awe around it. But the aboo disappears all on a sudden. Sharma is disheartened, but his mother is delighted. In the disappearance of the aboo, she dreams of a future bereft of the gigantic aboo of darkness and arrogance.

 

From a natural plane the writer suddenly takes us–without giving us any jolt–to a supernatural plane when the aboo disappears through the intervention of a mystic power. The allegory lies perhaps in the author’s vision of a transition to a better future that a spiritual awakening alone can bring.

 

While this author was interviewing Manoj Das on behalf of a daily (The Hitavada, Nagpur–Sunday, June 15, 1980) he had said, “I always remember what Jonathan Swift said: ‘Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders generally discover everyone’s face but their own.’ But I never forget to try to behold my own face in that mirror.”

 

This seems to be the secret of Manoj Das’s satire being so effective without being offending.

 

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