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California: The Cure

Legends of Quintessence – a Science Fiction column with a South Asian twist. 

Chapter 1

In a tiny house by the outskirts of Fresno, the morning was very quiet. Twenty years ago such a lull would be constantly interrupted by the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of the windmills. Today, the windmill farm had been replaced by an energy farm that used a combination of solar fields and wind tunnels to maximize energy output. Quiet, efficient, and as ugly as could be. This stretch of California had stayed virtually untouched by the development frenzy that had gripped the state for as long as one could remember. 

The silence was broken by the phone

She jumped at the sound. 

Her hands shook as she picked up the phone, not saying anything. 

“Ms. Sana?”

“Yes, who are you?” 

“I am Vink Bhatia from the Center for Disease Prevention: CDP. We are calling from the Richmond center. We would like to call you in for a meeting to advise us.” 

She panicked, trying to breathe normally, “Do I have to come? My case is closed and I have not been involved with the CDP for 26 years now. I have no new information or anything for that matter.”

“No ma’am,” said Vink “We need your help. We have no other hope for what is staring us in the face. Please come and see us this afternoon and I will explain everything.” 

Once she put the phone down, she sobbed fiercely as all the memories she had suppressed came flooding back. 

Twenty-eight years ago, she had graduated from Strafford University, ready to save the world through research on vaccines. She joined the Center for Disease Prevention (CDP) Research Center to work on the development of vaccines for targeted assignments. It was the perfect time to be in a perfect world. The political upheaval of ten years ago was far behind and they finally had a president that came from California.

A woman of mixed ancestral background was voted into Presidency and led the country to financial success and stability through her political tact and focus on science, international relationships, and trade. It was just as well since the world was moving faster towards space exploration and travel. All eyes were shifting from regional and national boundaries to planetary and galactic boundaries.

She joined the team headed by Professor Braun. Her work was a combination of genetic engineering and cloning to develop vaccines. What had become clear to space agencies and companies contracting space missions was that, without vaccines that could trigger the immune system to mirror and overpower microbes in space, humans would be defenseless. In the last two years, there had been seven outbreaks of diseases brought back to Earth by space travelers. They had been hard to contain and three of them had had very sad conclusions with entire communities being quarantined till they were wiped out. Never had the CDP felt the heat like it did then.

The whole world unanimously agreed on the need for accelerated research to develop potent vaccines to protect humanity. Money poured into top research institutes and whole departments sprung like wild mushrooms in monsoon. There was enough funding to last for decades of research and development. 

Chapter 2

She worked on some very bizarre and strange microbes that took a lot of effort to clone, control, and conduct tests on. More than once she and her team had to quarantine themselves, as they worked to contain the aggressive multiplication of microbes.

The worst were the ones that came from the outer asteroid belt beyond the solar system. That part of the belt was where space mining companies really wanted to go for expensive and rare elements. The outer belt was rich in both elements and pathogens due to the increased gravitational forces in that part of the galaxy. 

In her line of work, she would often assist astronauts, lifting planetary dust off of their gear before they went into the sterilization chambers. She knew the frequent travelers by name and they joked and shared stories each time they met her.

This winter when Salas came back he was hurt. The official story was that his communication link with base had snapped due to a magnetic storm and a tiny piece of asteroid debris had hit him with moderate speed. When they were alone she looked at him, “Hey man, this time you lost it”, she said as she winked with a smile.

Salas looked up and she recognized the fear in his face.

“Can you shut off the recording for a couple of minutes?” he said.

”What’s up?” she was puzzled and not taking her eyes off him as she used suction to lift off the dirt from his clothes into five separate partitions within the sampler.

“I need to tell someone. They told me on the base not to say a word. But someone has to know …they may be coming to earth?” He paused and then looked up at her, pleading with tears in his eyes, ”Please, can you just give me five minutes?”

She paused and then turned the room to reclaim mode: they had seven minutes before all processes would kick back on, including monitoring and recording. She knew she would have to sign tons of paperwork and instantly regretted doing it. 

Salas gripped her hand and started blurting, “They know that there is some form of life in the outer asteroid belt. They have known for a long time and are hiding it. They have destroyed evidence many times.”

“Hang on there buddy, who’s they, and what kind of life?” Now she was genuinely interested, even if Salas had gone completely cuckoo.

“The mining companies…They think that they understand the aliens and that they can control them. They do not want to abandon the asteroid belts. I met him”, he paused, “I met it while leaving Base 3, which is at the remote end and is not manned. It was flowing fast and at first, I thought it was a gas cloud but then it hit my shoulder here”, he said showing the back of his right shoulder. “It was hard as a rock and I fell off and I reached out with my gun. I must have hurt it since I felt deep vibrations through my organs and then it flowed away very fast.” 

“Look at my suit here,” said Salas, pointing to a part on his right side that had a splatter of grey almost rock-solid matter. “I think this came out of it”

She jumped up at his confession. Did he mean that he had alien microbes on his suit?

“Don’t move,” she said urgently and reached for a mini sampler and scooped up the hard substance from his suit. “Salas, who else knows about this?” she asked.

“The controllers on Base 2. I told them about the encounter and they did not seem surprised at all. Instead, they told me to not tell anyone, else they would come after me”.

She told him to take some time off to rest and get his nerves back and promised to not tell anyone. 

Chapter 3

She did not report the alien matter as she should have. She worked on it on her own. She divided the amount into two equal halves and experimented with one half – attacking it with earth microbes to see how they would impact the defense mechanisms of the alien matter.

She used the second half to develop immuno-adaptive vaccines for humans when attacked by microbes from the alien mass. She worked non-stop, knowing that there was no end to the greed of the mining companies. Very soon Earth would be facing aliens without knowing if they were friend or foe.

She wanted to be ready…for people, for humanity…for a future where Earth could protect itself against the aliens that mining companies were aggravating.  

Completely unaware of what was happening in parallel, she worked on her own and was able to create the two medical safeguards with which she could arm the world if the need arose. She was almost done and had to conduct the last tests for replication and vaccine stability.

“Just a couple of days more,” she said to herself as she entered her lab on that fateful day.

They were waiting for her at the lab entrance. They had quarantined her work and she was escorted to a remote intelligence location. During her interrogation, she realized that Salas had cracked and told his team leader that she had taken alien matter from his suit. When she asked what happened to Salas, they gave her blank looks. She knew then what could happen to her. But if she told them everything, there would be no hope for humanity.

No matter what happened to her, she would not tell.

She had stored her work in two places by then. One, in the lab where her tests had failed, and the other where the vaccines had worked. She gave up the location of samples where the vaccines had worked on alien mass. She did not tell them the location of the molecules that had the potential to invade alien mass. She was not going to give up the last line of defense! 

They made an example out of her for the other researchers, calling her a traitor for developing vaccines to protect aliens. Her trial and sentencing was one-sided, military, swift, and ruthless. Eleven years in a military prison in Kansas and they ensured that they found every reason to throw her into solitary confinement as often as possible.

She imagined during these spells that she was the trunk of a twisted old tree, with each solitary confinement increasing her rings. Her branches held the weight of future children that wanted the freedom to be born. And close to her roots lay Salas in a resting position. She would often comfort him and let him know that it was ok.

“You have done your part. You can rest. I am the one that failed and my branches feel heavy with this burden.”

On release, she was only allowed to work non-medical, low-income jobs. She chose to be a hairstylist. Given her record, the only place that employed her was a minimum wage salon in Fresno. Routine: wake up, breakfast, get to work, end at 8 pm, back home, eat and sleep. 7 days a week including Christmas and New Year. It kept her sane, it kept her going for 16 years until the phone rang that morning. 

Chapter 4

She opened the door before the bell rang and walked to the car they had sent for her. The 3 hours drive was heavy with silence and she kept imagining in her mind again and again what awaited her at the CDP. As she stepped into the CDP building, a flood of memories hit her and she shivered involuntarily.

A man standing inside came rapidly to her and dragged her away by her arm to a room in the back of the two-story building.

“I am Vink,” he said as he hastily seated her in a chair.

She nodded, “What do you want?”

“You were experimenting on alien matter and developing vaccines for it?” 

She felt her anger rising, “I was not. I have served a long sentence for a crime that I never committed.”

“Oh, you don’t understand?” he said, “ We will need your help now. The mining companies have been exploiting the outer asteroid belt for a very long. We did not know that they were aware that some of these asteroids hosted an alien form of life that can survive in very harsh conditions. A lifeform so evolved that they can move from being fluid to hard as rock. When they die, they become a rock, almost unrecognizable as a living form.”.

He took out some pictures and showed her, “Look, here is one in the process of transforming from a solid rock form to fluid.” 

“So what do you want from me?”

Vink looked at her, “They are sick of being driven out of their homes and have entered earth using our own spaceships. Earlier, we thought that we had managed to contain them within the transportation base, but news from across California and Texas has me convinced that they are out there in these states.”

“Did you guys keep my experiments and materials in my lab?” She jumped up, “We will need to find it back and I need you to give me a lab and any alien mass you might have collected from the transportation base.”

“What had you developed besides what we found?” asked Vink.

“Well….you see some of Earth’s microbes can cause a lot of damage to them and are hard to create vaccines against. How many types do we have?” she motioned. 

“We have three types: two from combinations of flu and a very old skin plague against which all humans today have immunity and one that impacts their external layer”, Vink replied.

“Let’s work with the two combinations and forget the skin diseases…we need lethal diseases, not tame ones.” She stopped and turned sharply to him, “You don’t understand do you?” Vink stared at her.

“Look, they are able to change their form from fluid to solid by diffusing liquids and gases. But when they have to change from solid to fluid form they need to absorb these gases through their outer layer. If that outer layer malfunctions, they can no longer change back to fluid form and are rendered immobile. That is when we can infect them with our microbes”. 

“Stop staring at me and let’s get to work. We have a lot to do…first I will need to replicate these microbes at a mass scale and once we have done that we will need to distribute the vaccines as well,” she said, exasperated. 

Vink looked excited and confused at the same time, “We have not been able to develop vaccines yet. We are working on it but need more time. I am afraid we will lose some people but we are looking to quarantine the two states if needed.”

She looked up from the table and spoke slowly as a matter of fact, “Yes, I know that. I have the vaccine ready. I had it ready before they took me to prison. All we need to do is mass produce it.”

Vink sat down and took a few moments to absorb this. “So you did? Where did you?…They sent you to prison…And all the time you were….”

She stood up restlessly, “Vink, take me to a lab. We can’t waste time chatting!”


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

In 2020, Science Fiction is Freedom

Legends of Quintessence – a column that interacts with Science Fiction in a South Asian context. 

The year 2020 has been a very strange one. This year has made me reflect on things I hold dear in my heart.

The first critical reflection was on people – family, friends, colleagues, mentors.

The second was freedom. Not just freedom of living in a free, democratic country but also mental freedom. I found my freedom in writing Science Fiction, where there were no boundaries to limit the imagination.

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Most of my early pieces found their way to the trash can due to various reasons: moving continents, writing on loose sheets of paper, journals getting lost unwittingly. The intent was never to publish but to find an outlet for creativity. Putting pen to paper as a means to satisfy that creative urge. And somewhere down the line, I realized that I liked writing science fiction more than other kinds of stories. The ideas would come fast and would demand to be written…and I finally shifted from writing on paper to writing on my laptop. 

Then came March 2020 and the COVID crisis. Suddenly daily travel, socializing, watching movies in theaters, and my son’s violin concerts came to a halt. Instead, I started focusing on new gifts of quality family time, exercise, making healthier meals, reading books, and writing science fiction more often. The impetus to publish my writing grew. 

I believe I am very fortunate that I got to launch a Sci-Fi Column (Legends of Quintessence) with India Currents. When our publisher, Vandana Kumar shared the news with me, it was hard for me to believe that I was becoming part of such a prestigious and long-standing publication. It has been an amazing experience to bring Science Fiction to our readers: Interview with an artist @colorsofhoney, Sci-Fi short story ‘Aberration’, and an interview with @addictedtospice who shared a recipe worthy of feeding Aliens

And now as we look forward to 2021, a year that promises to be better and brighter, I am excited to continue bringing Science Fiction to our India Currents readers. Wish you all a very happy transition to 2021 and see you in the new year!

If you would like to read the Sci-Fi short story ‘Aberration’, here are the links to the chapters:

Chapter 1: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-tales-of-a-deviant/

Chapter 2: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-2/

Chapter 3: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-3/

Chapter 4: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-4/

Chapter 5: https://indiacurrents.com/aberration-chapter-5/


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Aberration: Chapter 5

This story is published every two weeks as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Recap: In the last chapter, Sneha’s truth is revealed to the others in the shelter. She also discovers that she has evolved due to her interactions with her cosmic friends. She feels that they have come back for her and once she meets them again, she realizes that her mother is part of them, living on.

Final Chapter: Immortal Grounds 

Sneha sobbed with realization and relief. As she looked around at her new family, she found comfort that her mother was still alive within their floating shapes. She knew that she faced an inevitable question: Should she go with her new family or stay with the humans?

“There’s more like you on various bases across the Universe”. She looked up as the shape right in front communicated with her.

“How many?” she asked, surprised. She thought that Earth had been the only research base for clones.

“Not sure,” it replied, “But we have seen many men and women pass through this constellation that are clones”. Sneha thought for a few moments. She wondered how many of these clones would have free will like hers. “Come with us,” he said, “You are one of us. I can feel your mother’s joy.” 

Sneha sat down for a long time. She looked back at the shelter a few times and knew what would be happening there: They would be communicating frantically with the other bases to report that she was hostile and asking for backup. She knew however that it would be days before any backup would arrive. 

She did not realize how exhausted she was as she fell asleep in between the stories they were sharing with her. When she woke up, she found them wrapped around her, protecting her as she slept. ‘They care about me” she thought as her emotions welled up. Sneha had never experienced any form of love before this. However, based on all she had heard about human emotion, this was the closest thing to love that she had ever experienced. She got up slowly and started walking towards the shelter. As she passed through the shelter walls, she saw them following her inside, her floating circle around her. 

The base commander stood there looking pale. Everyone at the shelter was standing behind him. Both humans and clones looked at her in shock. They still did not understand what was happening and why.

Sneha spoke slowly: “I want all the humans to pack up what you may need for a long trip, find another base that you can go to, and leave this shelter,” She paused, “Please let the others know that this planet and constellation is now for clones only. These are my family’s orders.” She saw them look even more confused. 

“I am giving the clones an option to stay and be part of my family if they want to”. Sneha was not sure how the other clones would react since they had no free will left. Of the nine other clones, only one walked towards her. She looked confused and torn. For the first time in her entire captive life, she was being asked to make a choice for herself….she wanted to but was scared. She shivered as she came over to Sneha and stood by her side. 

Sneha watched over the next few hours as the commander communicated with other bases, trying to find one that could shelter them. They packed and prepared, scared and concerned. She felt oddly at peace as she looked around the shelter and her family. She knew they had been maintaining this in the absence of humans and that’s why it was still functional. Her mother had integrated all her wishes, aspirations, and memories into them. It was time for Sneha to do the same and merge her existence into a floating, shared pool of life and intellect. 

They were finally ready to leave. Sneha noticed that the ship no longer showed any damages from the rough landing. She still had to learn how they managed to carry minerals and metals through space within their lifeform to be able to repair, revive, and build. “Ah, that’s for another day” she told herself smiling. 

Sneha turned to the commander for her parting message: “Do not try to attack us. You will not win. And I will not forgive any attackers”. The commander nodded shakily, ready to move as far away from this base as possible.

As the ship faded away, Sneha turned back towards the shelter. “What are the locations of other bases that are holding clones?” she asked. She listened carefully as many in the floating cloud shared what they had encountered during their journeys. “We’ll start freeing them once my evolution is complete,” she said to them. For now, they all went inside the shelter to rest. 

Go back and read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4!


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Aberration: Chapter 3

This story is published once a month as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Recap

In the last chapter, Sneha was disappointed when she learned that she would not travel to the positron cloud. Instead, she would be part of the backup team and find refuge on HR 4189-GR. However, her first steps on the planet were anything but boring. She did not know yet, but what awaited her was more than she could have asked for…

Chapter 3: Unfamiliar Past

Sneha’s head hurt as she lifted it to figure out where she was. She had a hazy memory of double vision and at this point, she was convinced she had been hallucinating. She got up and walked around to realize that she was inside the shelter on HR 4189-GR. As she walked out of the room, she entered the regular sleeping quarters in the shelter. She noticed that at the far end were stairs going up…perhaps to the dome above ground that she remembered seeing as they had exited the spaceship.

The shelter still functioned rather well for an old abandoned structure. The technology must have been centuries old and abandoned for as long, but a few years ago, when another spaceship was forced to land here, they found the shelter still functioning. Since then, it had been used as an emergency refuge. Sneha crossed the sleeping quarters and walked up the stairs to enter the fiber enclosure and looked around at the eerie atmospheric display of HR 4189-GR. She was about to turn around and go back underground when she heard a thud on the round wall behind her. She turned thinking it was someone from the crew but felt her throat dry up as she watched floating vapor change shape and come directly in front of her.

She saw the double vision again. The floating vapor transformed into solid shapes that moved and then reconnected back with the floating mass of vapor. She wanted to speak but knew in her mind that her language would be useless in communication. Somehow, this creature had managed to communicate with her telepathically. She reached out her hand, scared, but wanting to touch the floating shape.

She heard footsteps and saw the fluid shape move across the room and disappear into the wall. Sneha was stunned by her realization: there was something else on this planet besides just humans and clones. She waited for everyone to fall asleep and when all was quiet, Sneha walked outside. She picked up the gravity modifier and then almost dropped it in alarm, as she heard a voice in her brain say, “You do not need it.”

She panicked and ran up to see if she could spot anyone or anything through the transparent dome.

For many moments, Sneha stood debating if she should step out of the structure on her own. “Come out,” she heard her brain speak to her again. She stepped back in alarm but then decided to follow her instinct. She had come so far for an adventure …so why back down now?

As she stepped outside she felt surrounded by the floating shape. As her hand passed through the dense cloud it felt heavy and empty at the same time. “Your mother knew us. She was here”….she did not even realize that she was walking away from the structure towards a far-field of shapeshifting stones. As Sneha snapped back to reality, she wondered, how she was able to walk comfortably while gravity shifted constantly on this planet. She had left her gravity adjuster behind. 

They arrived at the field and she saw the floating mass transform into two distinct shapes, almost solid and opaque. “Who are they?” she wondered. “We are the Zetarians that inhabit the space your people call Antilla”. “So the legends were true,” Sneha thought. “Yes,” they replied. 

“Have you always lived here? How long has your species lived in this Constellation? Why did you approach me?” Sneha asked with absolutely no attempt at pacing her questions. “How do you know my mother?” 

The shapes moved closer to her, “Do you not remember yet? We have part of your DNA and you have part of our Fasilogram.”

There was a long silence as if they were waiting for her to suddenly see the light. “Do you mean my mother had your ‘Fasilo’?” Sneha asked confused…her mind was now evaluating a million possibilities…”But how did she get a part of you in her?” She asked. 

One of them moved closer and dropped a part of its mass on her arm. She watched in part horror as the heavy droplet disappeared into her skin. “So you are now part of me?” She looked at the shape and asked awkwardly?

“Wait!” it said. “Give your mind and body time to remember”. “Go back now and rest,” the other one told her. 

“No, don’t leave now!” she shouted at the disappearing shapes. She thought she heard a faint reassurance. “Don’t worry, we will be back soon,” as they completely disappeared. Sneha walked back to the shelter and lay down to rest. Something was going to change, she knew that. She believed that they would be back but had no idea what would happen then. Should she warn the others? Then she looked at her arm almost hoping to see her skin throw out the mass it had absorbed earlier. Would she die now? Or get some horrible, uncurable cosmic disease? 

Why only her? They had approached only her. Her mind bounced around a thousand questions as she fell asleep.

Go back and read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Aberration: Chapter 2

This story is published once a month as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Recap

Sneha, our hero is one of many clones being raised within a research lab on earth. Unlike the others, she has free will. In the last chapter, we were left wondering if Sneha would get caught after switching places with another clone – a clone that was set to travel into space.

Chapter 2: Sudden Moves

Sneha was surprised how easily she got away with switching identities with another clone. They did not really care to investigate XT87’s death. She was now part of the group traveling to the Positron cloud and ready to get off of this old decaying planet. 

Two days later, Sneha sat strapped in the chair with her eyes closed and heart racing. She could feel her head pounding as the equipment whirred around her. 

They moved quickly from hypersonic to warp speed and she felt her inners lurch for a split second before a strange calm settled on the ship. She unclenched her hands and dared to breathe. Earth was behind her for now. Instead of being one of 3000, she was now one of 30 traveling to the positron cloud around the Fornax Void. There were nascent pockets of activity and the most recent research showed expansion of dark matter and the existence of multiple infantile positron clouds around voids and dark holes. Space had mysteriously been shifting violently for the last 5000 years with no indication of slowing down.  

This was going to be a rough and interesting voyage with the crew navigating many firsts. They had to avoid pathways linked to dark energy filaments across galaxies. Sneha was listening to the crew discussing the upcoming stop in 9 days on the base station close to the Sculptor Wall. Day 2 & 3 were easy to manage but days 4 & 5 got boring with very little opportunity to learn anything new as the crew restricted access due to systems checks.

On day 6, as they were out on the movement deck, Sneha realized something was not right. She overheard snippets of conversation from the crew…..“ new communication”….”old base” … “shelter for few days”…

The main deck hovered with communications. Things felt off and she felt shivers go down her spine. She waited to get back to her compartment and closed the door pretending that she felt disoriented like some of the others. Once inside, she touched the screen on the wall and started typing codes from her memory, hoping to get access to the communication channels. She knew she was shooting in the dark here. 

Soon she got frustrated, closed her eyes, and drifted away to sleep. She was jolted back to reality as a shrill voice repeated emergency instructions. They were making an unplanned stop on an old base HR 4189-GR within the Antilla Constellation. She remembered reading about it in the memoirs of some explorers that managed to survive on HR 4189-GR.

What made this constellation memorable were the rumors of alien life on its planets. Never verified, these accounts had become legendary since early intergalactic travels. Despite early romantic visions of interactions between alien species, it had been almost impossible to communicate or understand each other’s language, science, or other critical concepts. What had been documented was the expected life spans, conditions that led to the demise, and unique birthing phenomena for a few species that humans and humanoids could comprehend….at this point, any further conclusions were more art and imagination than science. 

She braced for landing. They had warned it would be tough as gravity was fluid in this constellation with the magnitude of its stars shifting constantly. Once secure on the surface, they were assembled on the transport deck and divided into two groups. Ten of them would stay here on the planet as backup and the other twenty would continue their journey towards the positron cloud. Her heart sank when she realized she would be staying on the planet. This was not why she came! She was meant to travel and be out there!

They had lost communication with Earth and a couple of other planets in the Virgo cluster. Incoming reports mentioned that the cosmic ripples traveling through the cluster led to the core of multiple planets collapsing. Sneha sat stunned as they narrated the loss of the research facility and their colleagues. She waited to hear some words of regret for the loss of so many Snehas. None came. There were no tears in the eyes of the crew….They were just samples- numbers in a log…Hundreds of samples lost in a catastrophe. She tried to contain the immense grief welling up inside her. 

As they exited the ship, Sneha was sharp again, absorbing everything she saw and sensed. Something told her to look at the far left corner of her vision. She was not sure what she saw but it was enough to shake her up. She felt her breath being torn from her for a second and then it started to become normal. Or so she thought momentarily …  but something stayed odd – she had two visions…it was almost as if there were two of her within one body! On one side she was seeing the path she was walking with other Snehas towards the shelter but on the other she saw something she did not quite understand – a vision of a dark path and moving shapes that seemed to drift between transparent and opaque forms. Her head started to hurt and she felt both visions collapse into one as she tumbled face forward, unconscious.


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

LoQ, Sci-Fi Column: In Conversation with an Artist

Legends of Quintessence – A column which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context.

As I look around myself, I feel inspired by the talent surrounding me. I am inspired by my South Asian culture.  I am inspired by Sci-Fi.  So the conversations I have with those around me have a natural proclivity to include all the facets of my identity.

And what better company than chai, pakoras, and friends?

So sit down with me, Srishti Prabha (IC Assistant Editor) and some chai, as we explore the themes of Hanifa Hameed’s artwork for the LoQ column. 

Hanifa is a UI/UX designer and is also very active in creating digital art with underlying South Asian cultural influence. Her art takes inspiration from real life and highlights concepts that are beautiful, real, thought-provoking, and essential. She and her art have recently been recognized by ELLE India. Her art dedicated to the movie ‘Sheer Qorma’ recently featured on the movie’s Insta page. You can find her art on her Instagram page

Watch the interview below!

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Sci-Fi Column, Legends of Quintessence is poised to introduce you to some great South Asian talent. We aim to bring you closer to South Asians doing creative stuff and breaking new grounds. So get ready to be wowed by some amazing artists, chefs, entrepreneurs, poets, and other creatives. 


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Aberration: Chapter 1

This story is published once a month as part of the column – Legends of Quintessence – which interacts with Sci-Fi in a South Asian context. 

Chapter 1: Coming of Age

Sneha lay wide awake as she looked out at the skylight. She hated the view of the stars from the building on the most primitive planet – Earth. She was stuck in a  planet used only for low-grade research, while the colonies thrived across the superclusters. Outside, some of the researchers sat and told stories of their travels. She marveled at how they felt no guilt, no remorse at holding her hostage.

She was surrounded by her family – almost 3000 other Snehas –  but she knew very well that she was not home. She envied the ones that had either perished or moved to another planet for experiments. They were free, she was trapped…  

She jumped up and paced around her room and stopped momentarily to peek at her mother’s picture on the wall. Tomorrow she would turn 23 – the same age when her mother donated her DNA for cloning experiments. As fate would have it, it was that batch of cells that led to successful, multiplicative cloning without errors. Her mother had been one of the most celebrated scientists of her time. Yet, here she was, just another number with no future and no permission to dream! She felt more restless than she had ever felt before. 

Sneha and the other clones had been designed and genetically altered and re-altered to follow orders. But in her case, somewhere between frozen cells and an acceleration incubator, nature had taken over. She was different! 

Sneha had known since she was an infant, sparked by moments of joy, resentment, excitement, and doubt. Soon after, overwhelmed by despair and anger and the will to be free. But she had her mother’s brains and knew she had to hide these emotions. No aberrations in clone samples were tolerated and she would be terminated if anyone were to know.

Laser focus on quality research had enabled humans to develop amazing vaccines against cosmic pathogens. It had also led to horrible deaths for many clones along the way. But they were just numbers, a homogeneous mass of experimental bodies that were dispensable to propel cosmic exploration. Her thoughts kept drifting as she slowly fell asleep.

The next morning she opened her eyes to the same dreary cell and remembered she was now 23. She turned to the screen in her room and realized that today they were prepping a batch of clones for travel to test new enhancement drugs against radiation damage. As she entered the dining area, she overheard that the new batch would travel to a newly discovered positron cloud. She felt her heart racing at the idea. She could just imagine herself on a ship deck approaching the ominous cloud.

She quickly snapped out of her dream. As she sat down to eat, she looked around at all the Snehas surrounding her.

Sn45XT34. That was her number.

They were all given numbers so that humans could identify them. She could tell each one of them apart but somehow humans could not handle the complexity of uniquely identifying clones in large groups.

The clones that would travel were huddled in one corner of the dining area with instructions. 

Her eye suddenly caught Sn45XT87 looking odd. She looked pale and her eyes were furtively looking at the guards across the room. Sneha watched her and realized that XT87 was panicking. That was odd…was she another aberration? Her mind was thinking fast. She realized XT87 was starting to choke …She got up and dashed towards her. She took off her number tag from her shirt as she ran. She shouted as XT87 fell to the ground “Move away from her, she might be infected” and immediately all the other clones moved away. She reached XT87 quickly and put her hands on her chest and started pumping. Deftly, she removed XT87’s tag and replaced it with her own. As she pressed the tag to the shirt she realized her heart had stopped beating: XT87 was dead! She looked at the guards and said simply “XT34 is not responding it seems”.

As she walked away to find XT87’s room, her head was trying to recall all the tests they could perform on XT87’s limp body. Her gait was nervous as her mind frantically played everything that could go wrong from here. Once inside the room, she closed the door and cried miserably, muffling her sobs. She felt like a criminal. A novice lawbreaker with a conscience! And now, all she could do was wait. Wait for what would happen next…

Read Chapter 2 HERE!


Rachna Dayal has an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and an MBA from IMD. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt comfortable challenging traditional norms that prohibit growth or equality. She lives in New Jersey with her family and loves music, traveling, and imagining the future.

Legends of Quintessence: Introduction

Legends of Quintessence (LoQ) is a new science fiction column that India Currents is introducing to cater to the varied tastes of our readers. This column will entertain you with science fiction short stories, introduce you to South Asian talent, and on occasion, invite you to showcase your own skills and imagination through the column. 

Author, Rachna Dayal

The author of this new column, Rachna Dayal, is a strong believer that science fiction lays the groundwork for future discoveries by providing an outlook for inventors to uncover. She, herself, works jobs heavily influenced by innovation and strategy. By day, she is the Global Director for Strategic Programs at Johnson and Johnson, and by night, she uses the same skills to unleash her imagination and pour them into her Science Fiction narratives.

Rachna finds that writing Sci-Fi provides a satisfying outlet to theoretical inquiries, transcending dimensions of reason, and challenging traditional norm. She is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion and has always felt Science Fiction to be a comfortable place to explore that. 

Dayal has introduced the South Asian lens to storytelling by giving her voice to Sci-Fi and has moved one step further. The featured image accompanying this article is created by NYC-based South Asian artist, Hanifa Hameed, and commissioned by Rachna. Desi touches begin to remove the racial barriers that may have limited readership. Stay tuned for an interview the Hanifa and her artwork, hosted by India Currents, in the near future.

The name of the column, Legends of Quintessence, is founded in the idea of the fifth element – one that cannot be seen. It is beyond Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. The term, Quintessence, is layered by the definition cosmologists give it. It is believed to be a unique form of matter distinct from normal or dark matter and has peculiar characteristics. According to them, Quintessence is the reason why the expansion of universe has accelerated.

Legends of Quintessence will be mystical – a perfect blend of science and imagination unbounded by the burden of proof or convention! Science belongs to the universe but science fiction feels so quintessentially human. That is until we discover that outer-worldly species also indulge in the activity of producing science fiction…

Expect the unexpected and embark on the intergalactic journey with us next Monday, August 3, 2020!

Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

Black and White Are Not Colors

The second-generation Bengali woman known as Mother in Devi S. Laskar’s emotionally raw debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, is forty-three years, six months, twenty-five days old when an unexpected, swift, and tragic chain of events transpires. Upon returning home from dropping her three young daughters at school, agents storm her house, she refuses to remain silent, then she finds herself lying on her driveway in an Atlanta suburb, bleeding from gunshot wounds. On the concrete, Mother zigzags through a montage of memories, leaping between present and past, recalling a lifetime of slights, taunts, comments, and snubs by society, wondering what in her life led her to this point. Now police, neighbors, and news crews work around her as if she weren’t there, solidifying the invisibility Mother has felt all her life. 

A woman of color, a wife, and a mom, Mother also is a former crime reporter, demoted to part-time obituary writer, and a novelist-in-waiting, her dreams never quite holding strong enough against those ubiquitous slights and snubs. Her husband, known as her Hero, the Man of the Hour, or Daddy—an American blonde with blue eyes—loves her but travels internationally for work and is rarely home long enough to notice her extreme isolation. Only Greta, the family’s late dog, offers Mother unconditional love and protects her.

To protect her children, Mother teaches them “the quiet game,” one in which one’s thoughts and feelings are kept to oneself. Mother is the master of the game, and she teaches her daughters to keep their heads down and stay completely still and silent in the face of discrimination, to take the abuse, to not cause trouble. Concurrently, the people in her neighborhood are seen and heard from a distance, her colleagues are mostly passersby, and only Mr. Patel, a shopkeeper, speaks to her without criticizing, asking why she is there, or suggesting she go back to where she came from. Ironically, like the author, Mother was born and raised in North Carolina. 

“Atlas” is a powerful story of the unacceptable, unforgivable treatment persons of color—especially women—are forced to endure even now in the twenty-first century. Vivid and honest in her pain during which she sees the blue sky and as voices laugh and joke about her, she is every woman in her desire to have a good life and one in which she is an equal; however, the equality to which she aspires carries a weightier load because her skin color—one so disparate from the neighborhood’s whiteness—prevents fulfillment of that simple, common wish. 

Despite not unfolding the offending incident linearly or in detail, it is disturbing, nonetheless. Laskar’s poetic precision gives us enough to be shocked, angered, left with much to consider and contemplate. Her writing’s beautiful lyricism juxtaposes the compactness of language with the prevailing ugliness of the world in which Mother and we live. The book, based on an incident that occurred at Laskar’s own home, never discusses racism, but the incidents in Mother’s short life offer abundant fuel for discussions that society must undertake. The Atlas of Reds and Blues is simply a must-read.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects.


THE ATLAS OF REDS AND BLUES by Devi S. Laskar. Counterpoint Press. 269 Pages.

 

Hop-On, Hop-Off

I saw the man for the first time in Budapest on the Széchenyi Bridge. The chain bridge connected the western and eastern parts of what was once two cities, Buda and Pest. We exchanged a smile, as any two people might. Standing a few feet apart, we saw the Parliament House and Margaret Bridge on one end, the Freedom Statue and Royal Palace on the other, and the quiet, flowing Danube separating and connecting the two cities. We watched the same things, like lovers seeing the moon on a dark night thousands of miles apart, yet together.

A Creative Commons Image by Brian Harrington Spier

A few hours later I saw him again, entering the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus my husband recommended. “This is the best way to see the city by yourself,” my husband said. He would be busy at the conference for the next few days and felt guilty about my being alone. Oh, how he wanted to see the city with me, he said, but I was glad to be on my own, free and independent, my sensibility so different from his.

From the upper deck with the open roof, my eyes followed the man who was heading toward the upper level. I turned and saw him walking toward the front, looking for a seat with perfect views, where I was seated. His eyes wandered to the one empty seat beside me. He gestured, asking if he could sit.

“I was hoping you’d ask,” I said with unaccustomed boldness and then hoped he might not understand English after all.

“And I was hoping you’d say okay.”

His voice was deep and full. He reminded me of my favorite Hindi actor, a tall, handsome man I fantasized about, a man of few words, confident on the outside, with a childlike vulnerability inside.

“First time here?” he asked.

“Yes, you?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re alone?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t ask me the same. I was tired of defending and justifying why I was alone—why I didn’t have a partner before I was married, why I was alone without my husband while I was married. The man didn’t ask, and I was relieved.

“Yes, always alone,” he said, shrugging casually and putting on his headphones.

How comforting he made it sound—alone, like an exotic indulgence.

Alone, I thought as I sat up straight, tucking my chin, feeling intoxicated instead of burdensome.

The man had an educated, traveled accent. His olive complexion and dark hair could have been from three-quarters of the world. His sense of style was European—a crisp blue shirt, narrow linen pants, and a printed scarf around his neck. He looked professorial with his black-rimmed glasses. He smelled like fresh rain, and I breathed him in.

A bit later he tapped my shoulder and pointed at the open map in my hand. I took off my headphones.

“How many days here, tell me again?” he asked as if I had already told him.

“Three.”

“A lot for us to do in three days, huh?” he said, peering over his glasses.

I liked his confidence.

“What would you like to see? The Gellért Bathhouse for sure, yes?” he continued.

“Hmm, yes.”

“I’m Raoul, by the way.”

“Revati.”

It was strange, even absurd, that this man invited me, a stranger, to be a part of his journey. He was either very dangerous and I, apparently, easy prey; or he shared the familiarity and warmth I felt. Either way, he talked, I nodded, I talked, he nodded. With fascination I watched his arms, his long fingers, his clean, clipped nails, and his mannerisms. I let myself be hypnotized by his vocal undulations, his accent sounding like musical notes. I was glad I wasn’t wearing my wedding ring. I noticed he didn’t wear one, either. Together we chalked out a plan to see Budapest.

In the nearly two years I’d been married, my husband and I never planned a day together. He decided what we did, where we traveled, what and who we saw, even the menu when we hosted. He was a stickler for detail. I’d been a thirty-nine-year-old spinster (too dark, too educated, too short). If I were a woman of a younger generation, I might have worn my personality and my education as a mark of pride. Instead, when my husband graciously offered to marry me without a dowry and implied I should be grateful, I acquiesced.

“Wait for me,” I said as we stepped off the bus at the bottom of Gellért Hill.

“Not going anywhere without you,” Raoul replied, offering his arm.

I took his hand and we walked up Gellért Hill to the Freedom Statue. For once I didn’t hear the voices I’d heard all my life—what will people say, what will they think, think of your reputation, please don’t bring us shame. For once I wasn’t a student, an employee, someone’s wife, someone’s daughter. For once I wasn’t the responsible, sensible one. Even as I was distracted by my thoughts, I realized this was the first time in twenty years I was excited by a man.

The liberation monument looked eastward, her metal hands holding a palm leaf above her head. She was majestic, exuberant in liberty. The monument was installed by the Soviets, who freed Hungary from Nazi occupation. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the monument was preserved and reinvented. A new plaque read: “To the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.”

“What would you do to reinvent yourself?” I asked Raoul.

“Become your pet, of course. A little Chihuahua that fits in your handbag,” he said, making me laugh.

“You want a photo with this view?” I asked, my hand still holding his.

The city below looked like a picture postcard. The sky was blue, and beneath it lay the Danube. On either side of the river were buildings old and new, each with a distinct style and built during different times.

“No, because all beauty can only be captured here,” he said, tapping his chest.

“Then you’ll take one of me? I want the river and bridge in the background, okay?”

I thought of my husband, of showing it to him if he asked.

I posed twice for Raoul—once for a photo on my phone, once for his.

“Want to see?” he asked, showing me his phone.

I didn’t recognize myself. My complexion looked radiant, my height seemed befitting rather than mockable, my hair cascaded–my “crowning glory,” just as my mother always said. I looked chic instead of homely. I had a smile I hadn’t had in so long. I blushed. He put his phone away, took my hand and locked it around his elbow, and in step we walked back toward the bus stop.

Raoul was an Italian-English translator. He was in his early fifties and single, though I found it hard to believe he didn’t have someone significant in his life. He was about six feet tall with a head full of peppered hair and a well-trimmed beard. Although briefly married when he was much younger, he said he had no children.

“Did you not find anyone else to marry?” I asked.

“Hard to live with a man who travels; it’s selfish, you know. And you?”

“I am a scientist, trying to change the world,” I said, surprised at my confidence and pride.

“Aha, no Chihuahua for you, then?”

“Oh, yes, yes, a Chihuahua-prince, like a frog-prince, of course,” I said. I watched him tilt his head back and laugh. I yearned to drop all caution and let go of the reserve that ruled my marital life.

I dreaded the thought of going back to the hotel room, of interacting with my husband. The room overlooked the busy street close to the old Jewish quarter and was central to sightseeing and public transport, yet it was dark, dingy, and claustrophobic. My husband didn’t notice. He came in late, did his work, and slept.

“Let’s change our room,” I said after we checked in.

He considered me fussy.

“What for?”

“I feel claustrophobic; the ceiling of the portico feels like it’s on my throat.”

“Aww, stuck in an elevator. Heard that story. Get over it.”

“Please,” I pleaded. “I find it hard . . . it’s like your OCD, you know,” I added, hoping he would understand.

“Oh, please, Revati, don’t compare my need for being clean to your silliness,” he scolded.

Once, early in our marriage, I suggested that my husband see a therapist for his OCD. Instead he called me lazy and clumsy.

“I’ll pack, I’ll get another room on a higher floor, it’ll be nice,” I persisted.

“Stop. Don’t waste my time,” he said, shooing me off without looking up from his computer.

An engineer from MIT, my husband assumed we would be a good match. Both of us were educated and independent. He was charming and convincing. I had heard of his brilliance in academic circles. He came to Budapest to negotiate an important contract, hopefully make enough money to retire and leave enough for our children, he said, then bit his lip. I didn’t believe he could ever retire, and by mentioning children, he made me feel like a failure.

At the hotel, after my first day sightseeing with Raoul, I was surprised to find my husband back early from his conference. I pulled out the Budapest map. I also wanted to show him the pictures Raoul took of me looking beautiful.

“Looks like these folks here are interested in closing the deal,” he said, his eyes on his computer.

“That’s good. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

I too was busy looking at my screen. That’s how it was with us. We carried on conversations as if nothing happened between us or ever would. A new email was in my inbox. Patent approved, said the subject line. My patent! Raoul brought luck into my life, I thought.

“I have good news too,” I said, but my husband didn’t respond.

I retreated to my world, recalling my mother’s words: “If he wants to share, good. If he doesn’t, excellent!” So I sent out some emails sharing the news of my patent, then showered and went to sleep excited about meeting with Raoul the next day. My husband worked well into the night. When I woke up the next morning, the room looked sterile. My husband had tossed out loose bills, receipts, brochures, and other trash. This was his routine.

Each morning I looked forward to meeting Raoul at the junction stop. I walked one level down from the street, went through the underground tunnel to the other side, climbed stairs, walked past coffee shops, and waited for him. We hopped on a bus and worked our way through the city, per our plan. No one paid any more attention to us than they would to any couple. Over the course of time, I rested my head on his shoulder, put my arm around his waist, wiped crumbs near his lip. His arm intertwined with mine, my hands interlaced with his. Like an entitled wife, I let him buy me lunch and care for me. I fussed and whined about my tired feet, and he indulgently got us foot massages. He sensed when I was cold and helped me put my jacket on. He watched me try on swimsuits, my first ever, so we could spend time in the bathhouse. I should have felt awkward or exposed, but I didn’t.

“Looks too old for you,” he said when I tried one on.

“Yes!” he said of another. “Perfect.” He pushed my wallet back into my purse, and I let him pay.

Ritually, each day he took two pictures of me, one on his phone, one on mine.

We got used to hopping on and off buses—green line, red line, purple line, yellow line—going to different parts of the city. We took breaks for coffee or lunch. We sat on park benches, people-watching, leaning into each other. Where had he been all my life?

On our last day together, Raoul and I pretended it was just another day. I hadn’t felt the need to talk about my life, and so I hadn’t told him about my patent or my past. We were like children with no concept of beginning or end. We were like the Danube—flowing on. That morning we were unusually quiet. We chose the longest route to the outskirts across the river. We held hands, as if letting go might jolt us back to reality. He guided me to the ferry, putting his hand on the small of my back. We cruised along the river and got off at Margaret Island and sat on a bench with our lunch bags. We watched the locals run and stretch, mothers and children at play, and young lovers lost in their own world.

I felt as old as the river and as young as a teen. I wondered if Raoul imagined a life with me, as I did with him. To have his baby, speak his language, sleep with him at night, grow old together, bicker about our pets and our kids. I stopped myself. Alone, I thought. Alone.

“We’ll stay in touch, yes?” Raoul said, as if reading my thoughts.

I held onto his arm as we walked back to the ferry. The evening sky was clear, and against it the Gothic Parliament House stood tall. The river reflected its lights’ glowing amber. Its Gothic steeples soared into the sky like dreams of all its people. Its Revival dome embraced old and new. With Raoul, my eyes opened to beauty. The din of life melted into silence, and we communicated without words.

As we approached the terminal, I dreaded our farewell. Would we make promises to each other? Would we rehash our time together? Would we ask each other questions that might or might not have answers? Would we exchange our contact information and plan to meet? Would this be a tearful goodbye? Did any of this mean anything to him? We would kiss, wouldn’t we?

I saw the hop-on, hop-off buses gathered, conductors removing their vests, marking the end of the day. A few of them sat at the roadside café, sipping coffee or beer. I was unable to let go of Raoul’s hand. We would always sit in one of the cafés—Raoul drinking beer, I sipping coffee—before we parted.

But before either of us could speak, I saw my husband sitting at one of the cafés looking at every passenger who got off the bus. I quickly retracted my hand from Raoul’s before my husband saw us. Then he came forward.

“Oh, there you are, Revati. I was hoping to find you here,” my husband said, hugging me uncharacteristically, his eyes scanning Raoul.

“Come, it’s getting late,” my husband said as he took my hand and led me away.

A Creative Commons Image by Nathan Hughes Hamilton

What happened then I don’t remember, just a few words like dinner, colleagues, contract, words I didn’t care to weave into anything meaningful. I turned around to look at Raoul, who still stood by the bus. When his eyes met mine, he pointed to the map in his hand and mouthed, “Your map has my contact info.”

That night at the company dinner my husband was in a good mood, probably because his male colleagues were impressed with me—beautiful, intelligent, funny, they said. My husband, talking with his boss, placed his hand on my back, claiming me. The evening came to an end inconsequentially, as all the company dinners did. Later in the night my husband stroked my arm… afterward falling comatose.

The next morning he was in a good mood. The meetings had earned him praise. He went down for breakfast, and I stayed to pack and to think about the previous day. I sat on the edge of the bed and closed my eyes. Over and over I replayed the last scene with Raoul. He wanted to stay in touch. He had a plan. He always did, and it was all on the map.

I toppled the contents of my purse onto the bed. I emptied my backpack. I opened my suitcase. I checked between the pages of my books. Where was the map? Then I remembered that I’d emptied all my papers on the bedside table before dinner last night. I looked there. Nothing. I looked under the bed. Nothing. I looked in the trash. Nothing. I left the room, looking for the housekeeping cart. “I lost something,” I said to the housekeeper, shaking her hand, and she looked at me with dread and pity. “Please find it. I lost something.” I ransacked her trash. She helped. Nothing.

Back in my room the phone rang. It was my husband, asking me to come down.

“The taxi will be here soon.”

“My map,” I said, “my map, the hop-on, hop-off map, where is the map? It’s red. Did you take it, did you toss it?”

“What map? I didn’t see any map,” he said. “I threw out some trash, that’s all. I didn’t see any map. Hurry up, Revati.”

I sat on the bed. Little plumes of tears sputtered down my cheeks, the room closing in on me.

After a few moments my husband came in, his expression shocked at seeing my clothes scattered on the bed.

I sat unmoving. “Where is the Budapest map? I want the map.”

“Enough of this nonsense!” he shouted, his spittle spraying. “Get up now, we have to leave soon.” He pulled at my arms to make me get up. I furiously punched his hands, and he swung his right hand across my wet cheek.

I stood up almost compliant, possessed by the ghost I’d become. But then I paused. I was shocked at what I did next. I grabbed his arm and bit deeply, then pushed him. He stumbled onto the bed.

“Don’t ever touch me again,” I said.

He looked bewildered. He took his right hand with his left and started slapping himself on his cheeks. I had never seen him do this. Then he kept hitting his head with the base of his hand. I wanted him to stop. “The bed is a mess. Clean it up,” I said, then took my purse, wiped my eyes, and left.

Photo credit: Vikram Valluri

Manikya Veena was born and raised in Hyderabad, India. She earned a master’s in economics from Osmania University, and authored a short story compilation for children, The Banjara Boys. She serves on the advisory board for Narika, a nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area, whose mission is to help South Asian victims of domestic violence. She also volunteers at Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA) in San Mateo, answering hotline calls. She is a master class student at the Writers Studio in San Francisco and works as an assistant editor at Narrative. First published in the Narrative Magazine. This story is reproduced with the permission of the author.

This story was originally published on November 14, 2019 and curated by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.

The Light Side of Music

‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’ (Speaking Tiger Books, 2019) is Hindustani classical musician Shubha Mudgal’s first attempt at fiction. The book is a collection of seven heartwarming stories about Indian classical music set against a contemporary backdrop. In the acknowledgements, Mudgal summarizes that “humor camouflages the inevitable sadness that often casts a shadow over the lives of artists.”

While the stories talk about the music business from the perspective of the media, diplomacy and the diaspora, it also addresses it from the country’s heartland—its small towns and villages. The stories subtly delve into how classical music in India has evolved over the years due to various external influences and the struggle among its practitioners of  traditional and modern schools of thought. 

The following is a short summary of five of the vignettes from ‘Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure’.

‘Aman Bol’ is a spoof on The Times of India’s real-life 2010 campaign with The Jang Group. This story involves musical collaborations between artists from two neighboring countries. The story presents a humorous side to all that went on behind the scenes to put together this publicity stunt–a ‘concert of peace.’ 

‘Foreign Returned’, on the politics of foreign tours in the music industry, shows how Indians living in the US perceive Hindustani classical music. The story also touches on some delicate, modern-day challenges that the art is facing, such as clashes between gurus and their shishyas. 

‘Taan Kaptaan’ focuses on a small-town musician who gets into the big, bad world of showbiz once he enters a partnership with a big businessman during a musical talent hunt. When he is duped, he has to, literally, ‘face the music’. 

‘A Farewell to Music’ is about a music label looking to reestablish itself as the country’s number one label. The story highlights how Hindustani classical music is being distorted in the present day, due to a conflict in ideologies between the traditionalists and young musicians, who are experimenting with music and altering it to fit the tastes of current listeners. 

‘Manzoor Rehmati’ is a story revolving around an average harmonium player who meets an influential Ustad in a quest to receive a Padma Shri award. The story sheds light on the prevailing lobbies that act to push for the prestigious national honor. 

While reading the book, it is evident that Mudgal is writing about so many people whom she may have possibly encountered and worked with during her long and illustrious career as a Hindustani classical musician. They all come together and make up an interesting cast of characters in this witty book that could even make for a fun Bollywood potboiler!

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul,’ an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

Settled & Unsettled: A Reflection in Migration’s Mirror

Literary writing is a mirror of sorts; it enables you to see yourself in its pages.  

For the first 20 years of my life, I had never read a book that reflected my life as an Indian or Indian-American.  Then came my middle 20 years and with it, two miraculous decades of discovering myself through the fiction of R. K. Narayan, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. Sadly, with the explosion of books from and about the Indian subcontinent’s diaspora for the next two decades, I began to take Indian literature for granted. 

Murali Kamma’s Not Native reminds me of the paradox of abundance; when we have too much of a good thing, we tend to diminish its value.  Not Native is a marvelous reminder to appreciate the reflection in the mirror.  Over the upcoming decades of my life, a life that is increasingly settled and looking in the rear-view mirror when life was more unsettled, I commit to reading more books that remind me of who I am and where I came from.

“Settled” and “unsettled” are good descriptors of the characters populating Not Native’s short stories.  Grouped into four thematic clusters, these 20 stories are not always happy, but they are consistently heartwarming in how they bring to life the immigrant’s experience of leaving a settled space (India) for an unsettled one (America) and sometimes revisiting India.  

Many of Kamma’s endings have a gentle hopefulness about them.  To wade into Not Native’s waters is to be soothed by them in the same way a gurgling brook takes one’s troubles away.  Especially in the first half of the book, one is reminded of how the legendary storyteller R. K. Narayan transported readers to his make-believe Malgudi.  The gentle language slows you down, makes you forget about your worries, takes you nostalgically to a simpler time. And in Kamma’s elegant simplicity is an engaging sophistication.  

There is a fine range in Not Native, which makes it accessible to a wide spectrum of readers.  While I was especially fond of the first half of the book, some readers will lean toward the back two sections (“Schisms and Surprises” and “At Cross Purposes”) which are somewhat edgier and more overtly political, especially the short story “Fragments of Glass.”  A couple of the stories have elements of a crime drama, with one hinting of tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York. But none of these pieces retreat from the hard-earned trust Murali Kamma has built with the reader in the opening chapters of his superb book.  Surprise endings don’t end in tragedy, and endearing characters do not degenerate into mawkish sappiness.  

 


NOT NATIVE:  SHORT STORIES OF IMMIGRANT LIFE IN AN IN-BETWEEN WORLD. By Murali Kamma.  Wising Up Press,2019.  173 pages. http://www.universaltable.org/libraryfiction/notnative.html


In honor of Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, Dr. Oza recently recently published Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas.  He can be reached at www.satyalogue.com or at https://amazon.com/author/rajoza where he has launched his new book.