Shahrukh and the Tibetans

by Angela Ambroz

“You, sir, have been reared in great luxury as becomes your noble birth. How did you come here, by foot or in a chariot?”

“In a chariot, venerable sir.”

“Then, explain sir, what that is. Is it the axle? Or the wheels, or the chassis, or reins, or yoke that is the chariot? Is it all of these combined, or is it something apart from them?”

“It is none of these things, venerable sir.”

“Then, sir, this chariot is an empty sound. You spoke falsely when you said that you came here in a chariot. You are a great king of India. Who are you afraid of that you don’t speak the truth?”

The Debate of King Milinda, translated by Bhikkhu Pesala

***

For something that was supposed to have predetermined behavioral patterns, the Shahrukh clone had a lot of funny ideas.

First of all, on the nature of clones. The Shahrukh insisted that he was his own person, with all the rights afforded to a human being. If you got him started on it, the Shahrukh could talk for hours on gender prejudices, meat factories and the relativity of souls. He could quote the ancient philosophers – from Philip K. Dick to Fat Sharma – and he was a card-carrying member of the Clone Liberation Group. The fact that he was stuck aboard the Rahu Ketu ship as it drifted, lost in space, didn’t calm his passion. Instead, free of the Hindustani Empire’s shackles, the Shahrukh behaved in a most unclonely manner.

Second, on his name. The Shahrukh, like all celebrity clones, had been inculcated to know every mannerism, every gesture of his original. So he had watched and re-watched all of his original’s films – numbering almost two hundred – and learned all of the dance routines. Those years, his training in the meat factory, had been the worst of his life, he said. In rebellion, when the Shahrukh joined the Rahu Ketu ship and fell out of civilization with it, he vowed he would never watch one of his original’s films again. Instead, he became a fan of Sanjeev Kumar.

(Sanjeev Kumar had lived a generation earlier than his original, but the Shahrukh didn’t care. He modeled his hair on the stiff, 1970s shelf of the original Sanjeev Kumar, he carried his shoulders hunched with the same world-weary moral indignance of Sanjeev Kumar, smoked beedis so that he could look like Sanjeev Kumar, swallowed his consonants so that he could sound like Sanjeev Kumar. He also insisted that everyone call him Sanjeev Kumar, instead of “the Shahrukh”.)

But the Shahrukh’s weirdest idea was his third one, regarding the empires themselves. Maybe because he had been born in a test tube and brought up in a meat factory, maybe one of those pleasure-inducing charisma chips had knocked off his common patriotic sense, but the Shahrukh just couldn’t understand the war. Why all this fighting? What did he care if people were Hindustani, Chinese or Earth-born? Why was he supposed to hate the Chinese? He didn’t.

He hated the meat sellers, the clone buyers, the Shahrukh fans.

***

Doctor Naziah Abbas was walking back to her quarters after a long shift in the Med Ward. She kneaded the back of her neck with one hand, occasionally steadying herself on the wall with the other. A new outbreak of the New Peshawar pox had occurred, and soon half the NP Zone was complaining of itchy armpits and a yeasty stink. For the past few years, the pox had been occurring with alarming regularity. Every year, as they approached the anniversary of New Peshawar’s total annihilation, all the refugees would begin to complain of a burning sensation when they urinated. And no one thought to contact the counseling services.

Naziah didn’t live far from the Med Ward, only around the corner and down one level. It was a relatively quiet area of the ship. Immediately past her room was the main door to the engine floor, and every night she fell asleep to the low thrum of the Rahu Ketu‘s engines. Not many people lived here, but there was a steady flow of officers, busy keeping everyone else on board alive. Captain Khan’s rooms were also down the hall.

She was about to press her thumb against the door’s key scan when something rattled above her. At first, she thought it was yet another glitch in the ventilation system. It was not unknown on the Rahu Ketu to have a ventilation fan cough up something hairy and wet. The sanitation officers called these things “shipcrawler hairballs”.

Naziah steeled herself for something disgusting.

Instead, she began to hear the low huffing of a human being under physical duress. She waited, tense, and watched the ventilation grille dislodge itself. Someone grunted, the grille clanged, and then two long legs appeared. They dangled in the air above her for a moment before the rest of the person fell through. He was slick with black oil, but she recognized him immediately:

“Shahrukh!”

“That is not my name,” he grunted, wiping gunk out of his eyes.

“Right. Well, sorry, it comes naturally. How are you, Sanjeev bhai?”

Naziah was one of the few people on the ship – apart from Captain Khan, and perhaps the other doctor, Rai – who did not go into fits of celebrity worship every time she saw one of the clones. Honestly, she was not really a fan of the Puranas films – cultural loyalty aside. She had never had the patience for them, her legs fidgeting as soon as the first song began. Regarding the clones, she could take them or leave them. If the Shahrukh wanted to call himself Sanjeev or Sanjay or Samantha, that was fine.

“I’m,” he cleared his throat noisily. “I’m okay. A little dirty.”

“What were you doing up in the vent?”

“Oh, huh. It’s a secret.”

Naziah chuckled. Then she noticed some blood on his ear.

“Arré, yaar. You’ve nicked yourself. Can you imagine how many germs are up there? Come with me, I’ll clean that for you.”

The Shahrukh clone followed her obediently. They walked together back up to the Med Ward. At the entrance, they passed through the sanitizing clouds of the quarantine wash and entered the white, glowing lobby. Naziah indicated the Shahrukh to sit. The waterless wash had caked the oil into the Shahrukh’s skin, so that he looked like he had rolled around in black flour.

Naziah returned with some bandages, disinfectant and a bug reader. After clearing him of the NP pox and other viruses, she began to gently dab at his ear. He inhaled sharply.

“Sorry if it stings a little. Sit still.”

After a moment, the Shahrukh smiled wryly. Naziah was reminded of an identical look from the Shahrukh posters that were plastered around the NP zone.

“I bet Nurse Patel would faint, seeing you do this,” the Shahrukh said.

“Why do you say that?”

“I know what she thinks of me and the Shalu. Of what we’re supposed to be.”

“‘Glorified sex toys’?” Naziah laughed. “Sanjeev brother, why are you always so serious? Don’t they streamline that out of you at the factory?”

But she had struck too close, and the Shahrukh was sulking. After some chagrin (and chagrin at her chagrin; since when did she get star struck?), Naziah apologized.

“It’s okay,” the Shahrukh grunted. Then he sighed. “Changing people’s perceptions is a slow process.”

Feeling chastised and slightly bewildered, Naziah worked silently and carefully. Suddenly she was aware that any roughness or haste might be misinterpreted as anti-clone prejudice. When she finished, she touched his shoulder.

“If it hasn’t healed within a day or two, come back and let me know.” She tried to make herself sound friendly and indifferent. He avoided her eyes and shuffled out.

***

“By losing our language,” the woman, Pema, was saying, “much of our wisdom and culture was lost. It was the final blow that killed Tibet.”

Sanjeev was sitting on the floor, blowing on his butter tea. Prayer flags – white, red, yellow, green and blue – streamed across the crowded room’s ceiling, flapping pathetically in the ventilation fan’s breeze. There were hundreds of them, in various states of decay. Some women were seated on the floor, rolling beedi cigarettes in the special mandala flavor. The sacred flavor of all colors! the packets read. The wizened old Chinese woman, Pema, sat in front of Sanjeev, looking good-humored and a little sleepy. No, not Chinese, Sanjeev chastised himself. Tibetan.

Tibet

Before his first visit to the forbidden Chinese side of the Rahu Ketu, Sanjeev had never heard of the word. When the Rahu Ketu had found the destroyed Chinese colony, ten years ago, it had picked up nearly a thousand survivors. Some had died on board later from radiation poisoning – remnants of the atomic blasts which had destroyed their planet. But the rest had crowded into the Rahu Ketu‘s lower levels, demarcating their territory with a haphazard and impenetrable wall of junk. In a universe where to be Chinese and to be Hindustani meant to be at war, the Rahu Ketu‘s Hindustani and Chinese people lived for ten years in tenuous peace. They rarely mingled, sometimes individual acts of violence occurred, no one was ever truly at ease, but it was – in the words of Captain Khan – “not so terrible”.

Sanjeev had started visiting the Chinese side about three years ago. At first, he went just to spite his Hindustaniness, the ethnic heritage that had enslaved him as a “mockery of a human”, a copy of a frivolous movie star. Even though the Chinese side was much more crowded, he was never mobbed the way the Hindustani refugees rushed at him. Arré, bhai! Bhai! Shahrukh Uncle! Arré! On the Chinese side, they watched him warily, but left him alone. And he had learnt so much here. He had learned that they weren’t Chinese – they called themselves Tibetan, and they claimed direct lineage from Earth, direct from the original Tibet.

It was Tibet, Pema said, that had been the buffer between the two superpowers in the beginning of the colonial period. And it had been the loss of Tibet and its assimilation into the Chinese Empire that had sparked the first skirmishes along the Himalayan border. Skirmishes that, with the Drop network, would evolve into an intergalactic race to conquer the universe.

“Just think, Sanjeev brother,” Pema said, eyes distant. “Perhaps a free Tibet would have prevented the war? Perhaps it would have prevented the colonies?”

The way Pema spoke, Tibet had been a land of hyperbolic beauty. The sacredest spot on the sacredest planet in the universe. And they practiced their own form of Buddhism there, a form which – according to Pema – didn’t resemble the Imperial Chinese Buddhism very much at all. Everything was better in Tibet.

“I think I want to be a Tibetan Buddhist,” Sanjeev said one day, smiling suddenly. “What do I do to join?”

“Careful, brother,” Pema chuckled. “You don’t just rush into these things.”

And Sanjeev was rushing. He was carving a new identity for himself among the Tibetans. He was shedding the skin of the Shahrukh clone, a clone who was supposed to be Muslim like his original, who was supposed to sing and dance and copulate and never know anything else. Rubbish! Sanjeev was desperate to take on something fresh. And he knew he would find it in Tibet.

***

“Let me take a look at you, dear.”

The hands felt his body. They touched his legs, tickling his knees. A knuckle brushed his Adam’s apple. This was the meat factory.

“Say something for me, son.”

The Shahrukh coughed, squeaking, and said, “What do you want me to say, uncle?”

“That’ll do. Note this down, Kamal: physical development proceeding. Very good. Unit now aged six years, seven months. Voice has dropped. Raise your arms for me, son.”

The Shahrukh raised his arms.

“Deodorant injections, whoo! Begin immediately. Good, good. First hairs. Check off the puberty box, Kamal.”

“Yes, ji.”

Later, the Shahrukh was sweating from his exertions. They had made him dance until his knees hurt. He was tired, but he wanted to play. He didn’t want to play with Avi though. Avi had been mean to him.

The Shahrukh stopped by the doctor’s desk.

“Doctor Uncle.”

“Yes, son?”

“Doctor Uncle, Avi – Avi said I have no atman. Avi said when I die, I go out in the rubbish.”

The doctor sighed. He pulled the Shahrukh onto his lap. “Oof, big boy with big ideas! Well, dear, Avi is right and Avi is wrong. You are not going into the rubbish, obviously! Cruel child. But the atman… well, the atman is a very special thing, that only some people have.”

“What is it?”

“It’s the – how shall I put it? – the essence, the soul of a person. It’s a very special thing that some people have, like a special connection with God.”

The Shahrukh felt his lower lip tremble. “Well, why don’t I have that?”

“Oh, don’t be upset, my boy! Not everything has one. And it’s only a very special thing that some people have. You’re very special too, Shahrukh, you’re a star!”

“Is it better to be a star or have an atman?”

“Star, my son! So much less to feel bad about,” Doctor Uncle smiled sadly.

 

***

“Pema ji, can I tell you something?”

The woman cocked her head to one side, listening. The incense was burning strong, it was giving him a headache. He was sawing through a piece of flimsy metal, helping the nuns with their new dormitory. Everyone else was gathering in the Garden for Losar. He was eager to finish this last piece of board, even though Pema had reassured him that these things never started on time. Now they were alone in the throne room. An enormous statue of the Buddha was stuffed into the far end of the room, the top of its head poking a hole through the sloped ceiling.

“Go ahead, Sanjeev.”

“Well, first… my name isn’t actually Sanjeev,” Sanjeev mumbled. “The name I was given was Shahrukh.”

“What do you prefer to be called?” Pema asked. She was stacking the boards in a corner by the door.

“Sanjeev, please.”

“Okay.”

“There’s something else,” he said. He felt a lump forming in his throat. He started sawing with more vigor. “I – I don’t know if you know this, but I’m – actually a celebrity upstairs.”

“Oh yes, I think Li Bai was mentioning it.”

“Yes… I don’t know if he mentioned, as well, but, really, I’m a clone of a celebrity.”

“Oh?”

Sanjeev turned his face away, even as he strained to interpret her tone. He shrugged nonchalantly. “Yes, you know. Artificially made. Implants and… you know. Not original.”

“That’s interesting,” Pema said. Sanjeev bristled. The old woman asked, “I’ve heard that you people age much faster than us. Is that true?”

Sanjeev raised his voice to hide the tremor in it, “Uh. Well, yes. I’m eighteen years old, really.”

“Really!” Pema smiled. She came up to him, inspected his face. She touched his chin lightly, where he hadn’t shaved, “And all this white already!”

Sanjeev rubbed his stubble. “Oh, well, that’s stress.” He laughed. Then he swallowed. He had finished cutting, there was nothing else to do. He placed his hands in his pockets, pushing downwards. “So, I… Can I still be a Tibetan Buddhist?”

“Oh, Sanjeev,” Pema sighed. “I’m pleased by your interest, but – “

“I understand. Sorry.”

“No, wait, now you’re upset.” Pema touched his arm. “Sanjeev bhai, I understand that clones have something of a strange status for your people. But since you worry about it so much, yes, clones have bodhicitta potential, there’s nothing stopping them from becoming as enlightened as any other person. Your mind is the same as mine, the same as the Dalai Lama’s. And it’s through mind,” Pema put her thumb on his forehead, “that one reaches nirvana. So stop worrying about that.”

Sanjeev felt like crying. He tried not to smile. “The Dalai Lama?”

“An old bodhisattva. Listen, Sanjeev bhai, the original ruler of Tibet was called the Dalai Lama. Even though he had reached nirvana, he chose to live and die and live again on Earth, in order to help people reach enlightenment. He went through sixteen lives before he chose to leave samsara.”

Sanjeev gasped. “And I’m the sixteenth clone of Shahrukh.”

“There you are. We all come back many times before we reach nirvana.”

“He came back, again and again, sixteen times?”

Pema nodded.

“Was the Dalai Lama a star?”

“Oh, ha,” Pema laughed. “Sort of, in a way.”

Sanjeev smiled. “And you said I have the same mind as the Dalai Lama?”

“You have the same potential, yes. Why not? That brain of yours is no different than mine.”

“But what about – you know – the atman?”

“That’s a Hindu thing,” Pema said, gathering up her bag. “It is an illusion. All is impermanent. Didn’t I give you Milinda to read?”

Sanjeev stopped her before leaving. “Pema ji, maybe I’m the seventeenth Dalai Lama!”

At this, Pema dissolved into laughter. “Ha! Always someone famous with you! Well, I see I have quite some stories to tell you. Next time, Your Holiness. Right now, it’s time for Losar.”

***

They were laughing loudly, too loudly.

Sanjeev sighed – the sigh of the sober among the drunk. Here he sat, forced to watch the female clone – the idiotic Shalu woman – puppet-dance, while drunken people made idiotic drunken people talk around him. The ship’s captain, Asadullah Khan, was seated on the floor, leaning on his elbow and slapping his friend on the shoulder, laughing red-faced. His friend, Balbir Singh, former governor of the New Peshawar colony and Shalu’s current owner, was doubled over in mirth. He was spilling some of his drink on the ground.

“Arré, ji,” Sanjeev said, “you’re getting the baijiu on the carpet.”

Balbir Singh looked up blearily, blinking. “Oh, oh, quite right.” He made some sloppy attempts at drying it off with the edge of his suit. The Shalu, glowing with sweat, arrived with a towel. She gathered up her sari and plopped down beside him.

“Ji, ji, ji,” Captain Khan slurred. “Arré, Sanjeev bhai – you are our friend. Our pal! Our handsome dost! All this formality with Balbir bhai,” he made some movements with his hands, “distance, eh? Distance.”

“Well, he knows what I think of him,” Sanjeev mumbled.

“Oh-ho!” Balbir roared. “This again!” He nestled his face in the crook of the Shalu’s neck. “Heard that, my love? Sanjeev is going to tell us again why I’m evil and you’re a slave.”

“Leave Balbir ji alone,” the Shalu said.

“See! Balbir ‘ji’?” Sanjeev said. “Why am I so formal? Why is she?”

“I’m only as formal as malik ji wants me to be.” The Shalu smiled.

Malik ji?” Sanjeev exclaimed, shrill. Malik ji, owner sir.

“She’s joking! She’s joking!” Captain Khan said quickly. The Shalu giggled.

Captain Khan scooted over and pressed the white baijiu bottle into Sanjeev’s ribs. “Here, yaar. Have a sip and then let’s hear that Sanjeev Kumar impression again.”

“Yes!” Balbir exclaimed. “I’m tired of this old argument. Do the angry bit from Trishul.”

Sanjeev drank from the bottle. It burned a hole down his throat, raging like fire. He wanted to be angry, but was – like the others – tired of it. Apart from alcoholism and the New Peshawar pox, the Rahu Ketu‘s other main ailment was laziness. It crept in like a disease, wrapped around a person and then stayed there, stuck. There were so many things Sanjeev wanted to care about, but couldn’t.

Balbir and the Shalu had fallen into deep conversation, and so Sanjeev moved towards Captain Khan. The old captain looked half-asleep. He was red-faced from alcohol, his cheek rough with stubble. Sanjeev nudged him.

“Asad sahib,” he said softly.

“Hmm?” Captain Khan had his eyes closed.

“Asad sahib, it’s true you’re from Earth, na?”

The captain made an affirmative noise.

“When did you leave?”

“You mean, when was I forced to leave?” Captain Khan’s eyes snapped open. “When did the imperial wisdom draft me?”

“Hindustan zindabad!” Balbir said from the other side of the room.

“Hundreds and hundreds of years ago,” Captain Khan continued, drifting off. “Before the first gen Shahrukh was a speck of an idea in a tube.”

“No, I – I mean, what year was it?” Sanjeev asked. “Earth standard?”

“Oh! Uh. Two thousand…”

“Old!” Balbir interrupted. “Forever, ever old.”

“Why the questions, yaar?” Captain Khan said, looking up at Sanjeev. “Want to know something about the sacred motherland?”

“No, I just…”

“Arré, tell us, yaar!” Balbir said.

Sanjeev glared at him. Picking at the carpet, he shrugged. “I was just wondering. Asad sahib, have you ever heard of Tibet?”

“Bit-Bit?” Balbir asked. “The brand of biscuit?”

“No, Ti-bet, it’s…”

“Yes, I know it,” Captain Khan was wide awake now. He was looking at Sanjeev, watching him closely. “Where did you hear about it?”

“I – well, I heard this Chinese merchant mention it.”

“Which one? The vegwallah?” Balbir asked.

“No.”

“Baijiuwallah? He’s a bastard.”

“No!”

“Many of our Chinese guests claim their heritage from Tibet,” Captain Khan said.

“Yes!” Sanjeev said. “And I was curious. I had never heard of it.”

“Most colonists don’t know it.” Captain Khan waved his hand. “It’s ancient history for them, and ‘their’ history, not ours.”

“Yes. I thought, since you’re Earth-born, na…”

“And I know many, many things,” Captain Khan smiled.

“Exactly,” Sanjeev chuckled. “I thought maybe you knew something about it.”

The captain slouched down, getting ready to doze again, “Not much, yaar. Butter tea. Himalayas. Dalai Lama, etcetera…”

“The Befana?” Balbir asked. The Shalu was petting his hair.

The Dalai Lama! Sanjeev’s blood started pumping. He could feel the emotion building up within him. Most clones had built-in beta blockers to make sure they didn’t suffer from stage fright. It meant a lifetime of artificial contentment. Sanjeev felt his excitement growing, straining at the leash of his implants and training. So perhaps the Dalai Lama was a real figure after all, someone from Earth who chose to come back, again and again, to help people reach enlightenment! A man who wasn’t an “original,” but who was revered as His Holiness anyway! Sanjeev remembered reading the Dropedia entry with disappointment:

DALAI LAMA, n. (i) a brand of silk (New Ladakh origin), (ii) fictional rebel God-king who lives for thousands of years; featured as villain in films “Mountain Sky: Lost in Lhasa” and “Mountain Sky 2: Vengeance of the God-king.”

Not really the liberator of all human suffering that Sanjeev had been expecting. But what Captain Khan had said – this was hope, this was potential! If the Dalai Lama came from Earth, from Tibet, then he could not be of New Ladakh origin after all!

What had Pema said, “We all come back many times before we reach Nirvana?” Everyone was a Buddha, everyone a Dalai Lama!

“What’s wrong, brother?” The Shalu asked, her brow furrowed. “You look like you need to use the bathroom.”

“No, I’m okay.” And Sanjeev smiled.

***

Sanjeev was becoming very familiar with the ship’s ventilation system. He clattered through it, knocking his elbows and knees in ways that would hurt later. It was pitch black, with only the occasional light coming from an opening into a room or corridor. He felt his way along until he reached the place where it suddenly sloped downwards. He hated this part of the journey, since there wasn’t enough space to turn completely around and slide down on his butt. Instead, he had to slide on his stomach, hands reaching forward to knock aside any shipcrawlers or other alien objects. The ventilation shaft was slick with something that smelled lightly of yeast.

When Sanjeev had first crossed the Invisible Line into the Chinese zone, a group of youths had spotted him and cracked his forehead open, split his lip, kicked at his eyes and stomach and kidneys. Only a few Hindustani faces were ever allowed to cross the Invisible Line – Captain Khan and his officers, the doctors. They were all identifiable by their uniforms, except for Captain Khan, who was well-known by everyone onboard, and so sometimes came in his shorts. Any other Hindustani was potentially a target for the disaffected youngsters. After his first fight, Sanjeev had woken up hours later, stuffed halfway into the ventilation system. He had taken the hint and crawled back upstairs into the Hindustani zone using the air shafts.

Today he found his usual point of entry: the old pool. It had been drained of water long ago, and a giant stupa made of recycled metal had been constructed in the sloping center. Many years before, the Tibetans had gutted their side of the ship and rebuilt it, creating new rooms, rickety hallways, sloping stairwells, preserving only the main lines of sewage, water, air. The pool was one of the few spots that had been left intact, so that it matched the ancient maps of the ship that were held in Captain Khan’s desk upstairs. Not that Sanjeev studied them.

Sanjeev pressed his face against the grille, checking to see that the pool was empty, and then he started unscrewing the grille. Suddenly there were hands, arms, voices and noise. The grille was ripped off, screws flying, and Sanjeev was pulled roughly out of the ventilation shaft.

There were four of them, young men, angry. Sanjeev put his hands up to defend himself, but the first blow came to his ribs.

“Wait, wait!” Another blow caught him on the chin, and he banged his head against something hard. He put his palms together, “Dalai Lama! Dalai Lama!”

A boot hit his temple, and he hid his head in his arms, but then the boys were talking rapidly, and one of them stopped the other from continuing.

“Dalai Lama!” Sanjeev said. Something hot and wet was crawling into his eye. “Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama!”

Two of the young men came and grabbed him, pulling him to his feet. Sanjeev cringed, fought back, but they were too strong, and they started dragging him up the pool’s sloped floor and to the exit. “Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama…”

In the corridors, people exclaimed and gasped when they saw him. Sanjeev just kept his palms together and kept repeating Dalai Lama, since it seemed to have served him well so far. The boys took him to a room that was filled with smoke. Each wall was lined with hundreds of white baijiu bottles perched in precarious pyramids. There was a man in the center, smoking a beedi and tapping into an old keyboard. He looked up in unsteady curiosity when the boys and Sanjeev arrived.

Sanjeev was trembling. He thought he heard one of the boys say, Something something Dalai Lama.

“Dalai Lama?” Sanjeev confirmed.

“Oy!” The beedi-keyboard man spoke Hindustani. “You’re the Shahrukh clone!”

“Uh,” Sanjeev said. He wasn’t sure whether this would be helpful or not. He decided to try out what Pema ji had said. They had the same mind, Pema ji had said. “I might be the Dalai Lama.”

“Oh, Your Holiness! Forgive me if I don’t prostrate. My name is Li Bai. Don’t recognize me?” The man smiled. “Your captain knows me well. I sell the baijiu upstairs. Baijiuwallah, na?”

“Oh.”

“Did you get lost?”

“No…” Sanjeev began, but then, looking at the smoky room and angry men, changed his mind, “Yes.”

Li Bai narrowed his eyes. “So how was your vacation from samsara, Your Holiness?”

Sanjeev faltered, feeling ridiculed, and muttered, “Okay, I guess.”

“Have you been here before?”

“No,” Sanjeev said. Li Bai waited. “Well, yes.”

Li Bai smiled. “Why?”

Sanjeev shrugged.

“Surely you find the Hindustani side more comfortable. So much more space.”

Sanjeev said nothing.

“All right, off you go, Your Holiness. Don’t let them catch you here again, eh.”

They grabbed him again, jabbing him in the kidneys with their knees, and went back in the crowded corridor. Sanjeev felt deflated, defeated. His body hurt. He wanted to cry. This stupid ship! This stupid ship and this stupid war and the stupid empires! Sanjeev kept his face down, not wanting to see the surprised Tibetan and Chinese faces as he was shoved past, wanting only to return to his room and lick his wounds and never go to the Chinese side again, wanting to forget all about the Dalai Lama business.

“Sanjeev bhai!” A woman’s voice. Sanjeev looked up. It was Doctor Naziah Abbas.

She was kneeling down by an old woman, her medical kit opened up on the ground. She looked Sanjeev up and down, shocked. “What…?” Quickly, she flipped open her phone and dialed. “Hello? Yes. Naziah speaking. I’m sorry to wake you, Captain sahib,” she looked pointedly at Sanjeev, “but we’ve had a bit of an accident with the Shahrukh. I’m sending him up now.” She flipped the phone off and glared, “I don’t want to know. I don’t care. Just go back upstairs, where you’re supposed to be.”

***

“Ya Allah, Shahrukh, sometimes it’s like you’re one of those young punks I have to keep in line!” Captain Khan waved his hands, gesticulating. “You’re worse than a teenager!”

“I am a teenager!” Sanjeev exclaimed.

“No, no, you’re not. Don’t hide behind that! You are a forty-five-year-old man. And a mature adult does not go crawling through our ventilation systems and popping into Li Bai’s lap!”

“I didn’t pop – “

“Let me finish,” Asadullah roared. “Now look at you – you’ll get a scar there and you’ve probably caught the pox. How do you intend to perform for Diwali?”

“What if I don’t want to?”

Asadullah laughed.

“I’m serious!” Sanjeev exclaimed, feeling impotent. “I don’t want to! I don’t ever want to again!”

“You’d like to retire early, then?” Asadullah asked.

A clone’s “retirement” had long become a Hindustani euphemism for “death”. Sanjeev thought of the rubbish piles and Avi, his childhood friend. He thought of his atman and the Losar horns blowing and eternal space.

He said nothing, but Asadullah immediately softened. The older man rubbed his face with his hands. “Allah. Allah. Don’t look at me like that, yaar. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Sanjeev tried to sound mature, tried to use all the weight in his adult tenor. “I just don’t want to dance. I want to – do something else. I can do what I want.”

“No one does what they want.”

“Well, I can. I’m my own person!”

“Your own – what?” Asadullah suddenly exclaimed. “Shahrukh, you pick up identities like old pajamas! You don’t want to be the Shahrukh anymore, so you’re the Sanjeev Kumar instead! Li Bai tells me you’d like to be His bloody Holiness the Dalai bhenchod Lama now!”

Sanjeev stared at the floor, his face heating.

“Shahrukh, I understand your confusion. You were made to be a celebrity, but you don’t like the life of a celebrity.” Asadullah sighed. “I can sympathize.”

“It’s not about that!”

“Then why don’t you pick up a more mundane identity once in a while, eh? Why not be the Doctor Rai? The Uday Mohan?”

“It’s not that. You don’t – you’ll never understand,” Sanjeev pouted. “Only a Buddhist could understand, never a bloody Muslim!” He tried to load the final word with as much invective as possible.

But Asadullah just rolled his eyes and sat heavily in the chair.

“Fine. ‘A bloody Muslim.’ Okay. Go back to the Med Ward and see who’s there and see if they can’t fix you up. Insha’Allah, this will all pass for Diwali. Come back tomorrow morning, we’re going to discuss the program. And I’m asking Doctor Rai to turn on your tracking chip again.”

“No, no – please – no! I’m sorry!”

Asadullah shook his head, frowning. “Don’t do that. Stop that. Just go, please, Shahrukh, go.”

 

***

Doctor Rai said nothing as he worked on Sanjeev. He injected him with a local anesthetic, stitched up his forehead, gave him a few ice packs for his torso. He worked quietly and quickly, his eyes puffy and red. His hair was still tousled from where he had been sleeping, a pillow had left a crease mark on his cheek. Sanjeev sat very still, feeling ashamed. They had had to wake Doctor Rai up too.

Over and over, the hurt returned.

Dalai Lama was a brand of silk. Sanjeev’s forehead throbbed. He had been disrespectful to Captain Khan. His chest felt constricted. The baijiuwallah, Li Bai, had called Captain Khan and laughingly asked whether His Holiness would like to perform at the next Losar party.

“There,” Doctor Rai said softly. Sanjeev stared at the ground. “Come back in a few days to get the stitches out. Then you’ll need to come back again so we can smooth that scar down. But don’t worry. A couple weeks and you’ll be ready for the spotlight again.”

Sanjeev said nothing.

“Now, I’m going to update your biodata to say that you’ve had an accident and won’t be available for, ahem, your other engagements. Is that all right with you?”

Sanjeev shrugged. Most of his clients had stopped visiting him anyway when he had started coming back caked in black flour, smelling of yeast and rubbish. Sewage was not very sexy.

“Oh, do cheer up, yaar,” Doctor Rai said. “You’re supposed to be a star. People look up to you.” He pulled off his rubber gloves, snap-crack. “What were you doing there, anyway?”

Sanjeev muttered unevenly, “I don’t know.”

Doctor Rai made a sympathetic noise and ruffled Sanjeev’s hair. “Oh, my little dear. People forget you’re not as old as you look, eh? You went exploring then? Well, tell old Doctor Rai. What did you find?”

“Nothing,” Sanjeev said, annoyed.

“You know, if you ask me, this whole ship is full of fools,” Doctor Rai said. “We complain, we hit each other, we fear each other. People seem to forget that when we left the empires, we left the war behind as well. But ignorant people – you know how they cling to things – ‘Hindustan zindabad’ and all that rubbish – even when it’s not in their best interest.” He sighed. “If people read a bit of history, maybe they would realize that it wasn’t so long ago that we Hindustanis were being colonized. Arr�, Shahrukh, you like history, na? I think I detect a spark of intelligence in that pretty face of yours.”

Sanjeev shrugged again.

“Here, my boy, let me give you something.” Doctor Rai opened a cabinet by the door and rifled through old and scuffed laptop books. He retrieved one from the back, its monitor bent and flickering, the Page Forward and Page Back keys faded into gray. He handed it to Sanjeev, whose head burned hot and painful when he looked down. “Some Chinese thing – I can’t remember what. I bought it years ago, in Delhi Prime. History of the Himalayas or something like that. You like that sort of stuff, na?”

But Sanjeev was already hearing the choral voices of hope pounding with his migraine. The Tibetan horns, the joy, the freedom beckoning him again. The Dalai Lama! Freedom from samsara! A new life! He smiled at Doctor Rai.

“Thought so.” Doctor Rai smiled in return. “Now, don’t get caught again, you old punk.”

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