Interview: Soumya Sundar Mukherjee

Michael: How has your creative practice changed as a result of living through this pandemic?


Soumya: The pandemic has changed mainly two things about my writing.

Firstly, I was more like a nocturnal creature, hunting words upon the keyboard at the dead of the night. My job as a school-teacher never allowed me much time during the day to write strange and fantastic yarns – the kind of things I love to read and write. But as my only connection now with the outside world in this lock-down period is the window beside my bed and the balcony facing south, I’ve developed a deeper relationship with my keyboard during the daytime. Yet, God knows how much I miss my children at the school. And I hope to meet them again when this is over and tell each other stories about winning a battle against the lethal little monsters we can’t see with the naked eye, just like a thing from a sci-fi or fantasy movie. And I really, really hope that all those happy faces will be with me again – all of them. ALL OF THEM.

Secondly, summer days have become lengthy in India, and the nights seem lengthier now. But, you know, though I’m very much afraid for my family, I think this situation has brought us closer. We know that soon there may come a time when we would say the final ‘goodbye’ to the ones we love, and there is every chance that that moment is just invisibly hanging overhead to crush us down, yet I feel that I’ve never before experienced the affection of my parents, the love of my sweet wife, the naughty, smile-magnet deeds of my little son with so much proximity to my heart. This gives me a maturity – both as a family-man and a writer – to feel that the world remains beautiful as long as we love each other, even in hard times like this.


Michael: How do you think the world will change?


Soumya: In the long run, it will be a better place. There will be death, there will be hunger, there will be unemployment. But earth has its own healing process. And we’ll live to tell the tale. But what happens for now? In my opinion, this is a lesson for us all. If we fight together, we will win. But after that? Corona will go away, and with it, our common sense, too. Human beings can’t stay satisfied without inventing enemies. Newspapers will again be full with the news of ‘us’ and ‘others’. So, we will fight each other again; we will blame each other again; we will plunder the earth again; we will destroy the environment again. There is no end of human stupidity and egoism which will very possibly lead us to a gradual doomsday – a point of no return. But, I’m sure, one day the earth will heal – with or without the humanity. The choice is ours to make.


—April 11, 2020

Under the Sunset Hill

Walking through the forest under the lights of the setting sun, I asked, “Is this all true?”

Pervu said, “Nobody here lies about the Sunset Hill, but the city-people rarely believe what we say, Sir.” The way he spoke made it clear that he didn’t have much respect for the city-people. An awkward silence fell as we walked, crushing the fallen yellow leaves under our feet.

When I questioned his ability to serve me as a guide, Pervu had admitted he was seventy-three. But he had been walking with me for almost two hours in this hilly forest area without a sign of tiredness. The old man was thin, but his bones had more strength than mine.

The sad light of the afternoon rested on the top of the towering trees. Cold had started to rise from the dark reddish earth. The crickets had already begun to sing. Rabbits crossed our path several times; once I spotted an iguana behind a bush. The forest seemed full of animals.

I noticed a spotted deer through the long Sal trees. It seemed to have no fear of us as we stopped to look closely at its beautiful hide.

None of the animals had run away seeing us. That seemed strange to me.

Pervu had spent his whole life in the forests of the Belpahari region. Breaking the silence, I prompted, “It’s good to see so many animals here.”

Pervu’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why, Sir?”

“Just saying,” I said.

His face had suddenly changed color, but he didn’t say anything more. I saw that he was lost in thought, walking like a robot along his familiar forest path.

We saw three more deer in the next five minutes.

Pervu warned me, “Not that way, Sir. Follow me; this is one of the shortcuts.”

The way he led me was hardly a way. Through the gaps between the huge trees were only more trees. The sun had leaned more to the west. Flocks of birds were returning to their nests and we could hear their cries overhead.

Suddenly Pervu asked, “Do you like hunting, Sir?” There was something strange in his voice.

“Hunting? No, Pervu. I don’t enjoy taking innocent lives. Why do you ask?”

He must have sensed my curiosity. He said, “It’s a long story. Would you like to hear it?”

“Why not?” I said. “But tell me, first, is this really a shortcut? We’ve been walking for hours. How much further to the ashram, Pervu?”

Pervu said, “Not much. One branch of this shortcut leads directly to the foot of the Sunset Hill. Hundreds of wild beasts roam freely at that part of the forest. That’s why it was once the poachers’ favourite part of the forest. But you know, Sir, now even they don’t want to go there.”

I hazarded a guess at his strange demeanor. “Don’t be afraid if something dangerous happens to cross our path. I have a revolver with me.”

Pervu said, “I know. It’s under your shirt, left side. Am I correct, Sir?”

I was so astonished that for a moment I couldn’t speak.

He said, “You don’t like hunting; then why are you carrying the gun with you, Sir? Don’t you want a rabbit, or at least a wild turkey?”

I recovered with a smile. “I’m a policeman, Pervu. Carrying the service revolver has become a habit even when I’m just out travelling. And I’m not interested in your rabbit or wild turkey, thank you very much. Now please walk faster, and take me to the ashram through your favourite shortcut before it’s too dark in here.”

Pervu smiled and again I had that uncomfortable feeling. Is the old man hiding something from me?

Our path was gradually becoming more prominent. It was evident that Pervu knew this jungle’s alleys well. He said, “Let me tell you the story then, it will help to pass the time.”

A hyena saw us coming and sat down to watch us. The sun moved behind the pillars of the trees.

Pervu met Sardar Harman Singh in this very forest. The forest was younger then; so was Pervu. The mighty Sunset Hill loomed at the northern end of the forest, as it had from the beginning of time. Sardarji beckoned him with his fingers. The fingers held a five hundred rupee note.

Pervu had never touched a five hundred note in his lifetime. He felt an urge to hold it in his own hands. His family was so poor that they used to eat ant-eggs at dinner. Pervu’s little sister was an expert at robbing those delicacies from the ant-holes.

Sardarji said, “This is yours, boy, if you do as I say.”

Pervu’s eyes brightened. “What do you want me to do?”

“I need you to go with me to the forest under that hill. Tonight.”

Pervu retreated at once. Everybody knew that that part of the forest was not to be visited even in the broad daylight. And here’s this man, speaking of going there at night! No amount of money could make him say ‘yes’. “I’m sorry, Sardarji.”

Sardarji’s gigantic figure advanced upon him. When the boot hit his abdomen, Pervu was so surprised at first he felt no pain, only the strange feeling of flying through the air. The pain came when he landed upon the dried leaves.

“Bastard!” Sardarji bellowed. “Nobody survives saying ‘no’ to Sardar Harman Singh, you dirty beggar.”

Shivering in pain and fear, Pervu saw the unshaking muzzle of a revolver pointed at his chest. He tried to remember his little sister’s face for the last time.

Then the muzzle dropped. Sardarji said, “Well, you get to live this time, boy, because I need you.” The five hundred note was replaced by a thousand rupee note. “What do you say now, beggar boy?”

The face of his sister flashed before Pervu’s eyes again. This note could change our lives. But that part of the forest was forbidden after sunset!

Sardarji said, “Let me put it straight for you, boy. Either you take the money and walk with me, or I shoot a hole in your worthless skull and walk alone. I give you thirty seconds. What do you want?”

Pervu said what he had to. “I’m going with you.”

“Good,” Sardarji said. “Now pick up that box and start moving.”

Pervu wanted to run, for he knew that what they were about to do was not only forbidden but wrong. He knew why Sardarji wanted to go to the foot of the Sunset Hill. He tried for the last time. “Sardarji, that place is not good at night.”

Sardarji laughed. “I know, I know. I’ve heard the story of that f***ing Keeper.”

Pervu shivered, hearing the name of the Lord, the Keeper of the Forest, uttered with so much irreverence. He silently prayed, “Forgive me, O Lord! I’ve said nothing bad about you!”

He said again, “Sardarji, those who have gone there to hunt, have never . . . .”

“Returned?” Sardarji snarled and showed him the revolver again. “If I don’t return, you will rot there with me.”

Pervu lifted the large box Sardarji had with him. He didn’t need to open it to know what was inside.

The Keeper of the Forest wouldn’t be happy! Forgive me, Lord.

Pervu wanted to cry. If he didn’t return, his parents would never be able to find a suitor for his beloved sister, for he was the only earning member of the family.

He recalled a saying he had heard from his father, who had taught him to look for the signs the forest gave to those who knew to see them. His eyes fixed upon a Neem tree that was gradually darkening under the twilight.

“One sparrow—no fear.

Two sparrows—dead tear.”

He remembered his father’s voice and prayed with his whole heart for the sight of one sparrow flying away from that tree.

Two sparrows flew from the tree’s leafy crown.

As they approached the part of the forest beneath the Sunset Hill, Sardarji said, “I know there are rare black bucks in this forest. Do you know how much money that animal may earn you, you beggar?”

Pervu said nothing.

“More than you can imagine. So open that box and help me fix the gun.”

They fitted the parts of the rifle together in silence. Finally Sardarji adjusted the scope and said, “Let’s go.”

They came to a juncture where the narrow road went into three different ways. They took the one that went north, and after fifteen more minutes’ walk, came almost under the Sunset Hill in the light of the sunset. To Pervu, it stood like a colossal, dark prohibition. In front of that enormity, Sardarji seemed even less significant that an ant.

Sardarji ordered him to stop at the edge of a rainwater pond. The tall trees seemed to be getting closer to each other in the spreading darkness. The silent air was almost suffocating. Sardarji climbed a tree and ordered him to climb another. As Pervu adjusted himself on the branches of the Jamun tree, Sardarji got ready with the rifle, facing the pond.

The black buck appeared at once.

Pervu remembered another lesson his father had taught him. The animals we see in the forest might not be just what we see.

Sardarji aimed his rifle; the black buck was drinking water at the edge of the pond. Pervu almost forgot to breathe.

He heard the sound of the gun. He was taken aback discovering the buck standing upright beside the pond just as before.

Sardarji has missed!

It was unbelievable. Such little distance and such a steady hand, yet the animal was calmly walking back into the forest, clearly not afraid.

Even Sardarji himself couldn’t believe his own eyes. “How did I miss that f***ing beast?” he murmured. He climbed down from the tree and ordered Pervu to come down, too. “Come on. I’m not going to spare it.”

Sardarji started following the buck. Pervu knew that this was his chance to run away, but he didn’t. A strange attraction lured him behind Sardarji to the Hill. He thought he knew what waited at the end of this drama, but it was as if the Hill wanted him to witness the ‘how’.

Another gunshot, another miss. The long muzzle gave off an uneven trail of smoke.

The black buck waited unaffected a few metres away, as if tempting him to try again.

Sardarji wiped perspiration from his forehead. “What the hell is happening? This time I’m sure I hit it!”

Pervu said, “I told you not to come here, Sardarji. There’s still time; let’s go back, please.”

“You shut up, beggar’s son! You got the money; now do as I tell you.”

Sardarji reloaded the rifle. The black buck retreated through the jungle at the foot of the hill. Once, it turned its head, as if to see whether they were still following.

Pervu knew that black bucks couldn’t smile. It must be an illusion!

The buck ran, and they ran behind it. They ran until they came to the very foot of the great Sunset Hill.

The buck waited for them under a big Shimul tree. Sardarji uttered under his breath, “This time you’ll taste real hotness, my friend!”

But Pervu noticed another thing under the tree. An old, rusty rifle, half-buried in the ground. Must be the property of a hunter who never returned. He remembered the scene of the two sparrows flying away from the tree. He was breathing hard. His heart was pounding dangerously just under his throat.

Sardarji’s gun thundered again.

“Got him!” Sardarji punched the air in excitement.

The black buck was lying on the ground. Sardarji proudly moved to his prey. The forest looked denser than ever in the darkness. Silence prevailed; even the crickets were not singing.

Suddenly Pervu felt that he was sinking in the hard ground, as if he had been standing on quicksand. The earth was swallowing him.

Panic-stricken, he screamed, “Sardarji!”

Sardarji ignored his cry; he was gazing at the buck on the ground.

The black buck was not dead yet. Its legs were still trembling a little. But, Pervu sensed, something more was happening around them.

The earth had captured him; he wasn’t sinking anymore, but he couldn’t move, only watch, and he realised this was his role: to see.

The black buck was transforming. Its hind legs became the paws of a lion; its teeth changed to the fangs of wild dogs, its front legs to human hands and its body to a human torso. Its eyes shone like two burning stars. The figure stood up.

“Oh, Lord!” Pervu whispered.

The rifle dropped from Sardarji’s hand; he stood petrified in front of that terrifying presence. The whole forest was filled with the unearthly red glow radiating from the furious entity. It seemed that the trees were on fire.

Two jackals passed Pervu and went to the place where Sardarji had been standing. Pervu saw hundreds of animals gathering round them to see the final moments of the man who had come to kill them. The red glow made them all red—their fur, their fangs, their paws, their eyes all warmed with the angry hue. They stood motionless, as if they, too, didn’t belong to the realm of the living.

The eyes of the entity were burning like coal, and Sardarji’s eyes were fixed on those glowing fireballs. His mouth was open, his hands were stiff. It came forward and touched Sardarji’s forehead with a burning finger.

Pervu lost consciousness with the explosion. In his dream he saw the dust from Sardarji’s disintegrated body getting mixed with the forest soil.

When he came back to his senses, he found himself lying at the familiar juncture of the three paths, although he couldn’t make out how he had come to this place. But he could recognize the Neem tree from which the two sparrows flew away.

He would have dismissed the whole incident as a dream, but the thousand rupee note inside his shirt-pocket was more than real.

We were still walking on the forest path when Pervu finished his story. He said, “Not only Sardarji, but a lot of poachers tasted that same medicine. No poacher returns after visiting that place.”

Pervu had the gift of making an unbelievable story palatable. I was about to tell him just that when, all of a sudden, he fell to my feet and started crying.

“Hey! Hey! What are you doing, old man?” I was so surprised that for a moment I didn’t know what to do.

I helped him to his feet. Tears were still pouring out of his eyes.

“What is it, Pervu?” I asked. “Why on earth are you crying like this?”

“Forgive me, Sir.” He was still unable to speak properly. His body was convulsing with powerful emotion. “Forgive me. I misjudged you.”

I was more astonished than ever. “What the hell are you talking about? What misjudgement?”

Pervu grabbed my hand and said, “Forgive me, Sir. You talked about the animals in the forest, and I saw your hidden revolver. I thought that you, too, had come to kill them.”

A bit harshly I asked, “What made you realise your mistake, wise man?”

Pervu pointed his fingers to a tree. “Look there.”

I at once saw the black buck looking at me from behind the tree. I couldn’t understand what Pervu meant.

I was going to say something when I noticed the beast’s eyes. They were glowing like two burning stars.

Pervu again fell at my feet. “I’ve lured you with my story under the Sunset Hill. This is no shortcut, Sir. I thought that if you’d come to poach, He’d take care of you.”

I couldn’t decide how angry I should be with him. The black buck was calmly watching us.

“But the Lord, the Keeper of the Forest, has shown me that you’re a good man, Sir,” Pervu said again. “Please forgive me, Sir. Please.”

Black bucks can’t smile. I know that black bucks don’t smile. And their eyes don’t shine like stars. It must be an illusion!

The buck moved away from us, deeper into the forest. The enormous presence of the Sunset Hill hulked behind the darkening trees.

My voice trembled when I spoke. “How do you know that I’m a good man, Pervu?”

“The Keeper of the Forest knows everything of nature; human nature, too. There! Look there!”

From the branches of a tall Neem tree, a little sparrow flew away.

Pervu whispered, “One sparrow—no fear. Let’s go back, Sir.”