“Balloon Man” by Shiv Ramdas (9901 words)
No Spoilers: Mithun is a boy gone to market with his mother when a camel calls him across the street...and into danger. What follows is part fable, part fantasy, and a complex examination and cross examination of guilt, tricks, and morality. The imagery of the piece is spellbinding and captivating, drawing the reader into a mundane world bordering one full of magic, gods, and holy quests. Mithun is just a bit out of his depths, but so are we as we must hold on for the wild ride the characters take us through. The piece is vivid and unfolds slowly, drawing together this situation far in the past and stretching all the way to the present. Mithun is audience, witness, and participant in the story, and it makes for a layered and fascinating experience.
Keywords: Balloons, Fables, Judgements, Tasks, Deception, Laws, Camels, Tricksters
Review: I love nested narratives, and this one does a great job of unpacking the story of Mithun and, within that, the story of King Vikramaditya, who is wise and just and who manages to get drawn into a rather wicked web of deceit and intrigue because of a god of mischief and trickery. And for me it really does a great job of complicating ideas of justice and morality by having Vikra put into these situations where he’s not exactly at fault for being in but where he’s not exactly innocent either. For me, it does a nice job of showing just how difficult it can be to act justly, and what that sometimes requires when even acting justly isn’t enough to do harm or even avoid judgment. To me, at least, the story becomes about how people can still navigate the world where there are people who will seek to take advantage of them, who will seek to enter into a decent system in bad faith in order to make it work for them and no one else. And how sometimes all there is to do about it is to continue to act in good faith and accept that making things right afterward might be difficult and time consuming indeed.
In particular, I like how King Vikram, at every turn, acts as best he can, according to his Dharma and with as much honor as he can. But that he is still tricked, put into a position where he loses everything, and where to avoid that he would have had to break his word. It shows just how corruption can form and spread, because logic and honor can be twisted, can be made to serve something wholly dishonorable. Especially now I feel that it’s a powerful and important message, because it reveals that even those seeking to do good can end up doing bad, but that the answer is not despair or cynicism. It’s something the characters grapple with even after Vikram has begun his great task to try anad do good deeds. Those, too, get tainted by how they might have been effected by the trickster, by decei, even if it wasn’t Vikram’s. And I like the way the story settles, not with logic absolute, but with the knowledge that ultimately someone has to judge. That it shouldn’t be about how cleverly someone operating in bad faith has disguised their deception, the letter of the law must bow to the spirit of the law if there is to be justice, and those people who do operate in good faith should be able to use their judgement to, at times, excise those who would seek only personal profit where the good of all should be the highest priority.
And I just really love a lot of the descriptions, as well, from the realm of the gods to the mysteries of the balloons. It’s a story that drew me in and entranced me with its beauty and grace, and this moving story about a man trying to do the right thing. And about Mithun, too, learning something about truth, about right and wrong, and about stories. It’s a wonderful read that you should definitely check out!