Embers, or Flames – New Nonfiction by Surya Milner

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Nonfiction


Sholay means flames. Or, it is what remains once flames consume: embers, small and glowing, wink and die. The line between embers and flames fades, in my mind, because the words, as referents in Hindi, operate within a script I do not comprehend and whose fullness I cannot see. Instead, I see a woman dancing on shattered glass, blood streaming from her feet, anklets jangling on stone outcroppings. I see her from above, from the top of mountains. Surrounded by stone-still men and horses, she is the only moving image, the only person painfully alive.

In the beginning there was a steam engine. It groaned before I could see it; it groaned in the dark. When the screen lit up, I saw this whole flat world, a carpet of dirt and blue sky, borne into by this single train. I saw granite and greenstone, budding fields circumscribed by barren clay. I felt a kinship with it, because it was something I had seen before, but different.

Like most conventional Bollywood movies, Sholay runs for more than three hours and is melodramatic, chimerical, excessive. In its excess, it lacks irony. When I sit down to watch a commercial Indian movie, from any era, I anticipate certain narrative elements: a blossoming romance will be thwarted and renewed, a villain will threaten to destroy a community. Song and dance sequences in the rain or a field will publicly divulge already apparent feelings. All is well that ends well because some simulacrum of good prevails. The community returns to what it was before, when the movie began.

The story of Sholay is some amalgam of the above, with the added aesthetic veneer of the American Western. See Jai and Veeru, two charismatic and loyal bandits, ensconce into an interior Indian village at the wish of a retired police chief, Thakur. Thakur wants revenge on another bandit, Gabbar Singh, who once cut off the police chief’s arms and terrorized his village for years. Jai and Veeru are in love with the chase, with one another, and eventually, with two village women, Radha and Basanti. All of their subplots, flashbacks, and song and dance sequences culminate in this penultimate scene: Basanti, dancing.

Picture her again: in a sari, kohl enveloping both eyes, her feet fluid over sharpness. She sings. If she stops, the rifles are loaded and rested, waiting. To blow to bits not her, but Veeru, the bandit-hero she somehow loves, which would not entail the end of her per se, but certainly what they share: the frenetic space between her and him. This seems to me a key impulse to living, perhaps even definitive of it. To me, these stakes are high: each shard of glass wedged further into her skin is a stiffening, a prayer for release.

The formula of the story doesn’t make its affect any less gripping. All lovers of Bollywood, in fact, know these formulas. All over the world, we delight in them. Once, in Fes, Morocco, a woman named Majda sat across from me at lunch and began a conversation in Hindi. We had previously spoken in her native Darija, my English. Aren’t you Indian? she puzzled, when I met her remarks with a knitted brow. She proceeded to list her favorite Hindi movies, her favorite actors. Bollywood loves to not only resurrect familiar content in every successive flick, but to deploy the same rotating cast of actors in each. Shah Rukh Khan, she proffered, her mouth curved, her eyes light. She didn’t have to say anything more, because we both could hold, in that moment, awe for the enterprise that, on the surface, appears and still charms the same, time after time.

I am particularly attuned to Basanti’s stomps and chimes, the soft melodies of her voiceovers, which weave amidst the coarse wind. I listen closely because my grandfather recorded these sounds, and songs, a long time ago. He recorded, mixed, and mastered the sounds for hundreds of Bollywood movies, but I am watching this one because of two curiosities. The
first is that despite Sholay’s predictability, it’s difficult to classify. Even in the ways that Sholay indulged in the aesthetics of American westerns, it does not fully become one. It’s too taken by the idea of being too many things: romance, comedy, adventure, feudal drama, Japanese Samurai
epics, Bollywood itself. In its numerous crossings of genre, the movie becomes something unstable, winding, epic. At its release in 1975, it was a new story, told through a new medium: the first surround-sound movie on 70mm film in India.

I wasn’t alive then. But when I saw it decades later, I was struck by the film’s second curiosity, which is how the sounds of Sholay, so affective and obvious, succeed. They tell me how to feel. I suppose all strategic sounds, music in particular, perform some version of this. But here, in particular, there exist so few inlets of emotional ambiguity. This is how the formula achieves affect: I hear the plaintive passing of the steam engine, I am desolate; I sense the drum beat before Basanti takes the stage and I am braced for her salvation.


In Emigrant, Montana, I’m on my feet, walking. Down the road, up the river, back down the river, up the trail, back home. My mother worries when I walk: this place, even from the vantage point of its own firm ground, manifests as an enormous, unfocused image, shorelines of the snaking river and the mouth of dense, volcanic and granite peaks. But in fact the hills of Emigrant contain much more than she and I can make out, much more than we can immediately see.

My mother and father once drove me and my brother down these roads, in middle school, reading aloud the roadside geographies. As recently as 2.2 million years ago, these types of stories would begin. Basalt lava flows, hardens, erodes away. What remains sits atop a finegrained sedimentary rock once deposited in an ancient lake, which would have, were it still here,
swept us all away. Now it’s crushed by glacial till. And there you have it, one parent would say, motioning toward the mesa around which our car wove.

But that was just material circumstance, elements meeting each other and reacting, forming or falling away. Geology is a process. It interprets the durable world as one, too. “More extensive / Than any other earthly things, are Mans earthly lineaments,” wrote William Blake. Our earthly lineaments: the fault lines, the outlines, the boundaries of our material selves. My
feet on land, Blake’s left foot meeting “all this Vegetable World.”

I’ve been thinking about various explanations of the history of the world. Hannah Arendt called these ideologies, that is, how people are wont to interpret the story of the world through a particular and explanatory lens. She says that racism, the ideology that interprets history as a natural fight of races, and Marxism, which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, have, in the modern world, captured public opinion.

Myths and legends explain, too, but neither claim the stature of history. While all of it — history, myths, ideologies, legends — are to some degree fabricated, the latter three are done so in a bid to appeal to what we believe to be essential and undying within us, something like a soul.

The western mythos does not seek to validate the historic contours of material change that the west has endured, the changing hands and ever-present disputes about land ownership, mineral rights, preservation. The west’s myths are an escape from those very material constraints — redrawn borders, property deeds, public and private lands — that define life here. Every April, we argue with our neighbors about the runoff from Emigrant Peak, how much water will flow to our house, how much to theirs, through a little dirt ditch. I run to and from the two-lane highway, where the water comes, re-negotiating the plank of wood that intersects the ditch and dictates our supply. This is important. It could mean a flood, or it could mean a seedling waiting, or gone.

But that is not a story, only something that happens when the snow melts. My stories are fractured, scattered. I am walking across Emigrant and thinking of Mom who distrusts this empty space, so dissimilar from her raucous Mumbai streets; I am thinking about Dad who brought us here. I am thinking about all of the other mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who led to this, how absent they are here. We are hundreds and thousands of miles apart.

It seems true to me that, in a fractured and scattered world, ideologies, perhaps more than myths and legends, hold currency as governing stories. For instance: I might view my own history as a curious story of two races meeting. A therapist once told me to recognize the marriage of my parents as a retold union of colonizer and colonized. (As if imperial history had
somewhere, along the line, settled in their bones, become inherent qualities). If I accept this fundamental antagonism, I might understand myself, then, as something of a compound, both a colonizer and a colonized. (This would be complicated, though, I did not tell the therapist, by the high caste background of my mother, the so-called colonized).

There is something both inevitable and inviable about such stories. I sense, in myself, a desire for a rooted, deeply-laid story too, one with lineaments that I can make out, stand up on, feel beneath my feet. But what’s dangerous about ideologies is that they not only claim to represent the past, but also the future. If I believe that the history of the world could be primarily
explained by this heuristic — the sweeping story of a natural tribalism among people from different parts of the globe (as opposed to the single origin of humankind), then it follows that I should interpret my walking steps, now, in the direction of that story too. This type of story bores into my being, tells me how to feel.

My issue is that, in the story, I am hawkish, foreclosed. My issue is that, out here, I don’t feel that way.


In Chandigarh, a cop tries to imitate Gabbar Singh’s cylinder spinning and shoots himself to death. In Kanpur, a middle-aged man climbs a one-hundred foot tall water tank, a la Veeru, and says he will jump if his family doesn’t continue to let him slack off work to watch Sholay. In America, I observe the bruised and bloodied feet of Basanti, how her feet traverse a ground that glimmers and yet burns.

I believe that this is the rhythm of living: to oscillate between given stories and the material facts of our lives; to want something that holds us, and yet to not be contained.

Basanti’s pained performance culminates in salvation. It’s followed by a shootout, and then a martial arts spar between Thakur, the armless ex-officer, and Gabbar Singh. Thakur, somehow, triumphs, gets Singh on the ground. He could kill him, if he wanted to — this man who murdered his wife and children, who incapacitated him. His steel-studded sole hangs over Singh’s worried face.

This is where the story splits. Sholay was released in 1975, when Indira Gandhi, prime minister and daughter of freedom fighter Jawaharlal Nehru, declared a state of emergency over India. Accused of dishonest election practices, she was found guilty in the high court. When she called the emergency, she claimed the existence of a threat to the internal security of the nation, which suspended most political life: free speech and assembly, a free press, the power of the judiciary to curb executive overreach.

Sholay, in kind, was subject to a censor’s certificate. The governing board deemed the film’s final scene irresponsible: a former cop taking justice into his own hands, impaling Singh with steel, would lionize an absence of state power. “India is Indira, and Indira is India,” was the slogan of Gandhi’s lackeys at the time. Indira wanted all to know that India, the state, was in control. So the scene was changed, re-shot, re-done. In the final scene of Sholay that I watch now, policemen appear from the backside boulders and scold Thakur, asking, does Justice not have any respect left? They handcuff Singh; Thakur and Veeru walk away.

The emergence of real life — the artificial emergency that enacts a true crisis state — undercuts such great stakes. The political landscape does not neatly sit atop the narratives that storytellers desire.

Sholay, nonetheless, was a success. It was perhaps the most successful movie in Indian cinema of all time. At Mumbai’s Minerva Theatre, it ran for five years after its release, where audience members recited lines at the screen by heart. Tera kya hoga Kaliya? (Now what will happen to you, Kaliya?) they would ask alongside Singh, though everyone knew what would happen: Kaliya, only an accessory, would die. I think that they probably wanted to live there, in the wild west of interior India. They wanted this, it turns out, regardless of where the story ends. It was just a good story, because it made people believe.


As Basanti’s anklets jangle on stone and glass, her blood pools, seeping into the earth. She is image and sound, combined. When I watch this scene with my mother, I am particularly attuned to the ways in which she cannot hear. She is not deaf exactly, but hard of hearing to the utmost degrees. The irony is not lost on me that we watch the films for which her father recorded the sounds, and yet she can barely hear any of them, can barely make them out. His is a phantom presence: my mother senses him as pure energy. This is different from what she is able to see.

Outside our window the foothills of Emigrant are bathed in a magnificent golden light. It feels fitting to watch Sholay here. In Emigrant, Montana, my mother and I are relative foreigners atop a quiet landscape that conveys the sublime. In its appropriation of the American “Wild West,” Sholay becomes, to some degree, foreign to itself. The film is, as I have mentioned, too
much, a chimera of multitudes. Its stories, like this landscape, are vast.

But the beauty of Basanti remains. In a story that tells one how to feel, she does not: her stomps are nothing but constant, a kind of heartbeat. The drumbeat to her dance echoes in my chest. This strikes me as sublimity: a deep abiding, a grit, a face-off of feeling and flesh.

I sit next to my mother in silence.

It occurs to me that this is my pursuit: to keep lit some abiding, almost wordless flame, a luster that disrupts all the stories and undoes me.

The pity of Veeru, the rage of Gabbar Singh, the despondency of Radha: these are for later, for the big picture. For now Basanti’s feet shimmer across the screen, and I don’t classify the feeling. I sense that it would be useless to try.

Surya Milner is a writer based in Chicago, Illinois, where she is an MFA+MA candidate in Northwestern University’s Litowitz Program. She has published works of creative nonfiction and journalism in High Country News, Catapult, The Willowherb Review, The Audacity, and elsewhere; her work interrogates the boundaries of nationhood, class, and race in the American West and is centrally inspired by her experiences as an Indian American woman in this landscape. She has taught writing and literature in Morocco, Maine, and Chicago.