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Stories that Make Us Think

| Updated: September 10, 2021 18:14

In the last column, I spoke about ‘Stories that Open our Eyes’. I would like to continue from last week but with a difference. It’s like a leitmotif in Western Classical symphonic music, where something on a similar theme ends up lending us newer insights.

In times of hunger, in times of ever-reducing cost or even worry about human life, what better story to remind us of our state of existence than Frank Kafka’s “Hunger Artist”. This is a unique story, set in a unique setting. You might find the entire story here: 

Kafka’s story talks about the ‘Hunger Artist’, a person who would be shut in a cage, remaining hungry for several days and the people in the city would flock to see him. The fact that the Hunger Artist was fasting, would be strictly supervised. The hunger artist excelled at his art. Thus, he was much in demand during his heyday.

But the times had changed, and audiences didn’t come to watch the hunger artist as they used to in earlier days. For the hunger artist, “fasting was the easiest thing to do”, though, many in the audience believed that he was a swindler or that he was putting on an act. The hunger artist had become accustomed to the different ways in which the people looked at him. He had perfected the art of fasting. The impresario or the agent would keep forty days as the maximum length of a fast.



Those were different times. Back then the hunger artist captured the attention of the entire city. From day to day while the fasting lasted, participation increased. Everyone wanted to see the hunger artist at least daily. During the final days, there were people with subscription tickets who sat all day in front of the small barred cage.

–“Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka, translated by Ian Jonhston

Apart from the changing groups of spectators, there were also constant observers chosen by the public—strangely enough, they were usually butchers—who, always three at a time, were given the task of observing the hunger artist day and night so that he didn’t get something to eat in some secret manner.

–“Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka, translated by Ian Jonhston

Experience had shown that for about forty days one could increasingly whip up a city’s interest by gradually increasing advertising, but that then the people turned away—one could demonstrate a significant decline in popularity.

–“Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka, translated by Ian Jonhston


At the end of the forty-day period, “the door of the cage was opened”, doctors examined him, two ladies were chosen, and they got him out of the cage, where a meal was laid for him. The hunger artist had lived this life for many years, honoured by the acclaim of the world. But he was always sad, and his sadness came from his fasting. However, no one understood him.  Finally, at the end of Kafka’s story, the people forgot all about the hunger artist and he dies a slow and painful death.

I have always felt that the “Hunger Artist” was not just a story about a time that had passed him by but also a story that talks about how dehumanized we have become as a society. The extent of our dehumanization has only increased with passing decades after Franz Kafka’s work. If a person’s pain is a spectacle for us, then, as a society, we have completely degenerated. Or worse still, if it doesn’t even matter to us, at all, it is a kind of civilizational decay, something akin to the end of the Roman civilization.

On another note, I would like to talk about a story by the renowned Hindi satirist, Harishankar Parsai. This story is called “The Torch Seller” or “Torch Bechne Wala” in Hindi. I don’t think there’s an English translation of this story available, so, literary aficionados might want to translate it into English. You could listen to the story at

And you could also listen to it on the CIET (Central Institute of Educational Technology), NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) official website.

Before I continue with the story, I would like to add a snippet of information for you. It might as well be said that this story was written as a kind of satire on Rajneesh. In his novella, Ek Retired Bhagwan ki Aatmakatha (A Retired God’s Autobiography) Harishankar Parsai writes about Rajneesh, who later became Osho and Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh, a “godman”. Rajneesh was his BA student, quite meritorious, but who ‘spoke in a nasal tone’, couldn’t learn to differentiate the ‘s’ as separate from the ‘sh’ and used bad grammar. In the novella, Parsai is quite scathing about him.

But that is for another day. We might as well look at “Torch Bechne Wala”. This story is narrated to us in flashback and is about the protagonist, who says that he needs a month or so to grow his beard longer because he would then sell the “torch to the soul”. In a way, this story is also about the marriage of the capitalist marketplace and the spiritual beliefs that we might hold. The story is about two friends, who go about looking for some income because they have no work. The protagonist sells the ‘Suraj’ (Sun) brand torch and when he returns to the spot where his friend had promised to meet him after five years, he doesn’t find anyone there. So, he searches for his friend and finds a gathering of people, listening attentively to a person. That person is uttering the same kind of sentences that the protagonist used to speak, the hero giggles, the people gathered there to get angry at him. Finally, the person stops speaking, recognizes him and says, “We will discuss about knowledge at the bungalow”.  They talk to each other. Parsai tells him, “You were saying the same things I used to say. The only difference is that you said them in a mysterious manner.” To which, his friend tells him, “I’m known as a holy man, a saint and a philosopher.”



“A person who shows the fear of darkness to people actually wants to sell his company’s torch to the masses.” – translated by Roomy Naqvy


Finally, the story ends with Parsai, the protagonist, throwing away the ‘Suraj’ brand of torches and stating that after a month, his beard would have grown sufficiently big to be able to sell the “torch to the soul”.

I would like to leave you with these thoughts to ponder over. It is good to be spiritual or even religious but if we start worshipping mere humans as divine beings, then, we will keep on getting “torch sellers” all our lives. Devotion– to religion, to leaders, or to people– is good but one should beware of blind faith. Let us not be led astray by charlatans and let us not forget human empathy that is deep within us.

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