Why ‘Tall Man Small Shadow’ is an Existential Novel: Philosophical Fiction for Searching Self



“It is good to pray even if you do not believe in God.
 Tall Man Small Shadow by

 Vipin Behari Goyal

The whole story of Vipin Behari Goyal’s Tall Man Small Shadow is woven around the theory of Existentialism. Before I venture into the novel's intricate patterns of  relationship ethics, let us summarize the  key five precincts of
Existentialism.

There are five basic themes incorporated in the theory of Existentialism
1. Existence precedes essence: We are sum of the choices we made. Whatever we are today, is result of choices we made in past.
2. Time is of essence: Our life is time bound and and our lived time is qualitative
3. Humanism: Society develops a pressure for superficiality and conformism by its socio economic structure, and human search of identity and meaning causes clash
4. Freedom: We have a chance to stand back from our lives and reflect on our experiences. However we are not free from responsibility.
5. Ethical Consideration: Existentialist may differ on what is ethical but at least they own the responsibility to examine our own life and our society.


The plot of the novel is well summarized by Dr. Rosa Maria DelVecchio, Cleveland State University as follows:
Tall Man Small Shadow
The primary narrator is Anupam. Appropriate to his personality, his name means “unparalled. He believes, among other things, “It is good to pray even if you do not believe in God. Anupams sanctuary, his place of meditation, is a park bench under his favorite tree, a jacaranda. His primary function in the novel is to coin existentialist philosophies for the day-to-day events that take place in his life, which centers on his wife, Sulekha, and their only child, Aalya.
Goyal also gives voice, at appropriate points in the novel, to some of the other characters. The philosophical issues explored in this novel are complex and challenging to the traditionally accepted social and religious beliefs of many cultures. However, the storyline has the simplicity of a fable, and it is this, if you will, “magically innocent element of the story that enables the author to succeed in “suspending our disbelief” long enough to experience this enjoyable controversial novel.

Having survived a suicide attempt after losing the love of his life due to their star-crossed situation, Salil begins to pick up his life in his new home and finds he is falling in love with the small shadow of the lovely girl next door, Aalya, the daughter of Anupam and Sulekha. A Ph.D. candidate researching “uneven relationships in English literature, Aalya develops a bond with her thesis guide, Seema, an older childless woman married to Paul, a drama director.

 Aalya and Seema become secret lovers, while Aalya falls in love with Salil and Seema continues to be faithfully married to Paul. A visit to a fertility clinic eventually results in Seemas giving birth to twins, whose biological parents are Salil and Aalya. Paul consistently demonstrates complete faith in his wife and never questions the parentage of his twins, though he is well aware they cannot be his biologically.

Salil and Aalya eventually get married, and an untimely accident renders Salil incapable of fathering a child. However, the kindness they showed to Seema and Paul is about to come back on them. Salil and Aalya will soon find themselves rich in all that is most important in life, and Salils philosophy, “Gratitude is a way of reducing the importance of what somebody has done for you, will give new meaning to the concept of “divine intervention.”

After we have come to know Aalyas mother, Sulekha, for the majority of the novel from her husbands point of view, she suddenly speaks directly to us as the narrator, and we get to know a very different woman from the bedridden asthmatic wife who is always drinking tea that Anupam has shown us. Sulekha emerges as the prime mover of the series of “coincidences that occur leading up to the marriage of her beloved daughter. Sulekha is the one who bridges the gap between what is socially unacceptable and what is divinely possible in order to preserve her daughters long and happy life.

Snippets from the book that I liked & those that made me stop & think–
“He who loves, cares. He cares about you more than he cares about himself. What you like and what you dislike. What please or displease you. If you feel sick, he takes better care than a professional. A professional care is mechanical. The care of your loved ones has a healing effect on your ailment, and also strengthens your emotional and spiritual bonding.” ~ Anupam
“A shadow has no colour of its own. It has many shades of gray to black, depending upon the intensity of light. It moves with the object and also with the movement of the source of light. A reflection and silhouette are different from a shadow since they do not have any existence. The shadow is positive; it’s not the absence of something. It’s an effect of the cause; it’s not part of the object” ~ Salil



“Not really, the opposite of good is not necessarily bad” ~ Anupam
“It is good to pray even if you do not believe in God” ~ Anupam
“All good stories lead to a resolution of escalated tension. How can there be a story unless something goes wrong?’ ~ Aalya
“When two strangers from different backgrounds & upbringings decide to spend their life together, how can they live happily together unless they are ready to make compromises? So life is nothing but a series of adjustments. If you love, all sacrifices are valuable” ~ Aalya
“he liked this old man. He always addresses him by his first name, and treats him as an equal. Most of the elderly consider old age to be a privilege. They expect respect just because they are elderly” ~ Salil
“The biggest enemy of fun is guilt. Anything done against conscience accumulates guilt, and soon you start living a religious life void of fun. Religion is not only opium for poor people but also for the rich, who can suppress their guilt and conscience with it” ~ Salil
“Whenever there was conflict in the value system of an individual & society, the winner is society. You may revolt and go your own way, but society will chase you until one day you will regret having chosen your own path. By then it will be too late and your generations will suffer. If you want to revolt, reach the highest level in any field – politics, literature, money-making – and then society will accept you, whatever you may do. You may even be quoted as an example” ~ Salil
“Traditions are time-tested and youth of every generation raised questions before adopting them. I have inherited only those traditions which survived because of their positive strength. The collective wisdom of our ancestors is a gift we can’t discard” ~ Anupam
“How strange this whole process is. The initiation of life by zygote is very mysterious and close to making one believe in God” ~ Aalya
Every character is truly an existentialist. Sulekha believes in determining the course of events, Salil finds a way out in suicide Aalya, tries to give a meaning to the life of her mentor by IVF, Anupam is always trying to find a meaning out of absurd day to day events. Absurd here is comparable to infinity and nothingness; it is an effort to experience something that is not perceivable to senses. Farce and tragedy make the mask of absurdity. If life is absurd so is death.
Vipin Behari Goyal’s Tall Man Small Shadow is for those who love to read philosophical fiction.