by Iona Sharma
The mali came in the morning to talk about their plans for the garden. “Flowers, madam,” he said, firmly. “We must have flowers.”
“Flowers?” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, amused at his determination, and he faltered for a moment, as though remembering whom he was speaking to. “Tell me,” she added, gently, looking at the sweat gathering on his forehead, the firm grip of his knuckles on the spade.
“Flowers,” the mali said, more softly this time. “I know the minister sahib would wish that we grew vegetables…”
“Not just the minister,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said. “We take the first steps towards ourselves, here.” She was quoting a governmental slogan; it had been drafted here, in this garden, produced on massive sheets in Devanagari calligraphy so beautiful that it had been drawn rather than written. “That means, self-sufficiency: that means, growing our own food.”
“But you love flowers, madam,” the mali said, and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya laughed and said,
She called for tea and Leila brought it, and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya and the mali took careful sips, looking out the light rising over the garden. Sunrises in Ur were pink, not the orange-red-pinks of home but true fuchsia, like the azaleas of her childhood window boxes. They watched it with reverence. “How is Chotu doing in the new school?” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya asked, when the light had wholly diffused over the bare garden.
The mali nodded. “He is doing well, madam. He had a good result in his exam.”
“I’m sure you helped him study,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, gently, and the mali shook his head.
“They did not teach this language when I was in school.”
Mrs Mukhopadhyaya smiled. “Not in my school, either.”
The minister came home for lunch, and he and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya sat on the verandah to eat. The government contributed some money to the running of the house, which they spent on wages for Leila, the girl who helped with the cooking and the cleaning and other matters of the household, and spent her evenings taking classes in the local college that had been purpose-built close by. The minister had learned the Xi Lyr language on Earth, at night classes in Meerut, impatient with being set homework and drills like a boy; Mrs Mukhopadhyaya had learned over his shoulder at that time, picking up his books from where he had thrown them down in frustration. Leila was learning from the same books – at least, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya thought she recognised them: they were the ones she had seen on Earth, and more than that they were the same as first books everywhere, brightly-coloured like the ABC and ka-kha-ga of her childhood – but when Leila spoke to the minister in words from those pages, her eyes seemed to flash with intense and unholy light.
“Leila,” the minister said, stiffly, over aloo paratha and imli, “I would prefer that we spoke in English. Or Hindi,” he added, as a vague afterthought, and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya hid her smile. Every mention of Ur had driven him to sarcastic irritation back on Earth: every verb in the new language, every fresh decree regarding his new role. She was wondering if this were some twilight trace of that rage, that ultimately impotent railing against a world under water.
“That’s fine,” Leila said, in English, then again in Hindi, perhaps for emphasis, or just absent-minded repetition; Mrs Mukhopadhyaya wasn’t sure.
Before they all rose, Leila to return to the kitchen; the minister to the legislative assembly building that was a shady five-minute walk down the winding old street; and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya to her garden, she said, “I was thinking of some flowers, with the vegetables.”
“Mmm?” said the minister, looking into his bag for his papers and data pad and stylus.
“Flowers,” said Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, with sudden confidence. “The other people grow vegetables underground, like carrots or parsnips, and above there are flowers. Perhaps we could grow those, to keep the garden beautiful.”
“Underground,” the minister said, and then repeated himself absent-mindedly in Hindi; Mrs Mukhopadhyaya was struck by it, so soon after Leila had done the same thing. “Beneath the ground. My dear…” – and he looked up at her, with a kind condescension that turned, as his eyes rested on her face, into only kindness – “you’re speaking of things that root, yes? Things that burrow deep down.”
“Yes,” she said, a little confused, “yes.”
“Bide a little time,” he said, gently, “before you put down roots. Be sure someone will be here for the harvest.”
She didn’t reply to that, and he turned away from her for a moment and picked up his papers, his fingers sliding automatically over his pad to see the afternoon’s legislative agenda. She said nothing as he smiled at her, and nodded, and left the house. As he left through the garden gate, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya realised that she had forgotten about the vote.
The mali went home just as the sun was dipping beneath the horizon, leaving his tools polished and gleaming with just a tenacious trace of Ur dirt. Without asking, Leila brought tea to Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, who was sitting in the garden as the evening breezes began to lift. From the smell, a few of their valuable Earth spices had been added to the blend. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya sipped it and listened to Leila humming as she closed the shutters. For a moment she allowed herself to imagine the possibility of a vote to withdraw – the possibility of packing up this house, and leaving this garden – until the steam from her cup reminded her of the care with which Leila had made the tea, and that it would be proper to drink it before it cooled. But the glass cup slipped unaccountably from her grip, bounced off a rock the mali had dug out of the ground earlier, and smashed into fragments in the grass.
“Oh,” she said, because life here was like life had been when she was young – things broken could not easily be replaced – and then she thought about the mali bringing Chotu to play in the garden, his little hands perhaps being cut, and she got down on her knees and tried to pick up the shards.
From behind her, a voice like thunder and bells said, “Madam, may I offer sahayatha?”
“Sahayatha,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, stupidly, and looked up. On the other side of the garden gate stood a person who was made of glass. Their body gleamed with iridescence, giving off an impression of deliberate restraint, as though a complex abstract sculpture had come to life and was eager for motion.
“You seemed distressed,” said the person, in English, and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya clambered to her feet and opened the gate.
“The cup,” she said, still stupid and uncertain, and the person drifted through the gate and began, effortlessly, to pick pieces of glass from the grass and lay them carefully on the table. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya realised that they could do so easily: their long pincers would grip, without being cut.
“Thank you,” she said in Hindi, “thank you.” And then, because after they had finished placing the glass in rows, they carried on standing there, looking at her and her garden with curious, warm interest, she added, “Sahayatha is Hindi.”
The person shook their great, lambent head. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya was not sure where their voice emanated from, or if it were a product of their body at all or something achieved mechanically. The minister would know. “I do not understand.”
“You asked me,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, “if I needed sahayatha. You asked me in English, but sahayatha is Hindi.”
“Another language,” said the person, and again, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya had the impression of blinking, of blurred but clearing understanding. “I see. Thank you for this education.”
“I cannot” – Mrs Mukhopadhyaya hesitated, then went on – “speak your language. Not well.”
“We are all learning,” said the person, brightly, and that, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya thought, at least, was true.
“May I bring you some hot tea?” she asked. It grew cool quickly in Ur in the evenings; the ground was baked solid from long-ago desert, letting the heat out at twilight. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya had once seen that dim night haze from space. Her hands were getting cold, away from the little steaming cup on the table.
“I could not drink it,” said her friend. “It is not for my body. But thank you.”
“Oh,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said. In English, she knew you would say you’re welcome, there, although not in Hindi, and now she thought of it, perhaps not in English either, not after thanks for a gift not given. When the person drifted on, down the path beyond the gate that led to the house next door, she watched them go with sunset catching pink and fiery in the crevices of their body, and thought, neighbour – and wished she had had something else to offer.
In the morning the legislative debates were broadcast, in Ur and on Earth, with each speaker choosing their language shortly before rising and trailing a comet’s tail of subtitles at the base of the screen. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya had lifted a trowel and was going out to help the mali; Leila was washing pans and stockpots with a piece of steel wool; but they both paused, set down their tools and looked up at the screen.
“DEBATES: ALIEN CITY VOTE”, said the headline above the subtitles, and that was what the first speaker said, as he rose and walked slowly to the podium. Although some of the representatives and delegates were on Earth and some in Ur, the technology worked seamlessly, so everyone watching felt themselves addressed, intimately and personally, from just a few feet away.
“The experiment,” he said, hesitating – his name was Patrick Adeyemi, said the text – “the aliens who run the experiment.”
Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, with a vehemence that surprised her, “They are people.”
“With respect to my learned friend,” a new voice was saying, from the front bench, “the people of Earth and the other people of Xi Lyr are the people of Ur, together.”
It was the minister. Leila and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya exchanged soft smiles.
“I grant that,” said Adeyemi, a little uncomfortably. “I grant that they are people. But for eighteen months, Earth time” – a year in Ur, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya was thinking; a year, so it was time now to think of planting – “we have left our people be. We have left them in this foreign city, of which we know nothing. It is the ruin of an ancient civilisation, say the other people, and we have chosen to believe them: it is on another world, they say, but it will be safe, and we have believed it. We have sent money and seeds and equipment and more money and asked no questions. Now is the time to assess whether the, ah, experiment in xenoanthropology, is over.”
There was a hubbub, then, as those who had put hard work into the city bristled, and others laughed with not a little derision. Leila said something to herself which Mrs Mukhopadhyaya didn’t understand, in the other people’s language, but she noticed that the steel wool by Leila’s hand shone a little, as though touched by spark and fire.
“It is foreign to all,” the minister said, above the throng. He had risen to speak, this time; the screen identified him as vithra mantri, the Ur minister of resources. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya noticed he had chosen to speak in Hindi, which was unusual; he was often ineloquent in it. “We are all foreigners, here. It is not their experiment, nor ours, but ours. We stand and fall together.”
It was strange, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya was thinking, but he looked surprised: as though until that moment, he had not known that that was what he was going to say.
Some people came to the garden, the following day: some women Mrs Mukhopadhyaya had known from the party grassroots back on Earth, and some of their children and partners, and some of the others. The women came into the house and helped carry stacks of steel tumblers and tea urns out onto the grass, and the other people stayed in the garden, their bodies catching the sunlight in prismatic splendour. They helped put out the cups and jugs, although they themselves drank only from saucers; their upper bodies could not uncurl enough to grip cups.
“Thank you,” said Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, in their language; that was a word she had been careful to remember. And then, because the nearest person to her was waiting patiently, as though expecting her to say something else, she added, “You drink water. Can you drink tea?”
“No,” they said, ponderous. “Tea has no meaning for us.”
Mrs Mukhopadhyaya smiled; she suspected they meant taste. “Is there something else I could bring for you?” she asked, and they made a gesture that seemed to indicate a negative.
“No,” they said, and quickly, “Water is fine and suitable.”
“I know,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, “but you have been kind, and I wanted to be kind in return.”
The person made a gesture that might indicate resignation, or approval, and drifted quietly away. On the open space of grass, children were making large banners out of old sheets: Ur says YES, Ur hamara hai. In the language of the other people, affirmation could not be conveyed concisely enough for an old bedsheet, so one of the children was busy with a stylised depiction, an economy of black brushstrokes somehow conveying the impression of one of those great glass bodies, making a gesture that again might indicate resignation, or approval. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya thought that if perhaps someday she attended a class with Leila, she would understand it a little better.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter either way to you,” said one of the women who had helped with the tea. Her name was Shanti; Mrs Mukhopadhyaya had known her vaguely on Earth. “I know the minister sahib will be glad to get home. Although your garden here is beautiful,” she added, as though those two statements had some connection Mrs Mukhopadhyaya did not quite understand.
“I suppose,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said. The words had made her unaccountably uncomfortable.
“The kids love the banners,” Shanti continued, seemingly oblivious to Mrs Mukhopadhyaya’s discomfort. “Not that they’ll do much here, not with all the voters back on Earth! But maybe the news feeds will pick them up in the background, the kids will like that.”
Mrs Mukhopadhyaya was not really listening; she was looking up at the tree at the bottom of the garden, and she had had an idea.
The minister left for the evening session just as the mali came down from the tree. For a minute it seemed as though he would hurry past without asking any questions, but then the mali’s spectacles caught the sun and with it the minister’s attention; he appeared to take the whole scene in for the first time, stopped, and asked, “What are you all doing?”
“We’re fruit-picking,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, amused.
“I can see that!” The minister waved an impatient hand at Leila, who had been good-humoured about catching the fruit in her skirt, laughing as the juice spread and stained. “What on earth for?”
No one corrected his idiom. “For our neighbour,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said gently, and when he still looked confused, added, “Parosi.”
“I know what a neighbour is!” the minister said, irritated. “Why…”
“So we can offer them something to eat,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya explained, and the minister gave an impatient shrug, as though casting off the whole affair, and went through the gate.
After he had gone, Leila began closing the shutters again, and lit the lamps. There were people in the city who had come from northern latitudes, on Earth or on the other people’s home world of Xi Lyr, and found the snapshot-short twilight eerie, as though the way the days neither grew nor shortened were a constraint on their consciousness. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya found it familiar, and a comfort: it made her think about long-ago twilights in bigger cities than this, listening to the tuk-tuks and the low hum of the generators.
In the kitchen they chopped and sliced the spiky red fruit into neat slices, each as large as a human could eat in a bite, so when their neighbor came past the gate at the same time that they had the day before, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya called them back. “Please,” she said, stumbling a little with their language, pointing to the plate of fruit slices balanced on the flat surface of the gatepost, “if you would like.”
“You can eat also?” asked the neighbour in English, and the fruit was an acquired taste for humans, sour and strange but not poison, so they ate together, careful of the plate. After a while Leila came hurrying out of the house, trailing a long chiffon scarf and wearing fresh lipstick; Mrs Mukhopadhyaya had wondered before if there was someone at the evening class whom Leila thought was beautiful. “I’ll be back late, I left the door to the verandah open,” she said, a little out of breath, and paused, looking at the plate.
“Eat before you go,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, and then, remembering when her mother had done the same for her, she picked up a slice of fruit and placed it directly into Leila’s mouth, as not to smudge the perfect lines of her lips.
“Thank you,” Leila said, muffled and grateful, and said something polite to Mrs Mukhopadhyaya’s friend in their own language, so her eyes glowed like embers for a moment before she scurried away down the street.
Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, curiously, “I know a very few words, and so does the minister sahib – but that does not happen, when we speak.”
“It is a language,” said her friend, and although they had no expression, only the petals of iridescence blossoming along the crystal lines of their body, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya could read that pause before speaking as the tentativeness of considered thought, “that lives in its speakers.”
Mrs Mukhopadhyaya considered it in her turn. “But we learned from books.”
“Yes.” They paused, and continued, “You might yet speak it so.”
Mrs Mukhopadhyaya nodded, thinking about what it would be like to see her eyes glow in the mirror. “What do you call the city?” she asked, in Hindi, remembering lessons in school of Ur, and Mohenjo-Daro.
The answer was more thunderclap and bells than word, but Mrs Mukhopadhyaya thought it was probably like Ur, too – a real, old place, from long ago, on that other world that she might someday see.
Much later, after the lamps Leila had lit had been turned off for the night, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya heard a banging sound from the kitchen. She moved through the house animated by curiosity, letting herself quietly inside. The outside door to the verandah was banging in the evening breeze; she sat silently on a wooden chair, waiting for her eyes to adjust, while the minister stumbled from object to object in the dark, muttering about food, using the same curses his mother had used.
“What do you need?” she asked, in Hindi; he startled so badly he hit the hard work surface with his knee, and almost fell, so she had to steady him, and bring him to her chair. He sat for a moment breathing heavily, and said, “You foolish woman” – but in Hindi, lovingly, and reached for the nearest, softest light.
After that he said nothing more, so she found the last of the fruit the neighbour had brought, placed it in a bowl and brought it to him; he ate it hungrily, licking the juice from his fingers, then looked up. There was a look of apology in his dark eyes that she did not try to decipher.
“I thought,” she said, carefully, “that you did not want to come. That when we came, you did not want to stay.”
He offered her his overturned palms, his hands still smeared with red. It would have looked like blood, were it not for the pomegranate tint of the juice, made pinkish by the dimness. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya was reminded, in that colour, of the sunsets that had seemed so alien.
“If we can get past this,” he said, in his impatient, blunt way, “then I will no longer sit in the chamber alongside the worthy men, the naysayers, the delegates from Earth who have come to help us keep an open mind.” In his voice was the bitterness of the fruit, she thought. “If we stay, then they will come. The others, from Xi Lyr. They will sit in that chamber alongside us. Or perhaps we shall go to their places of meeting. We can meet in either place; we will be we.”
He paused, his hands wringing, a little helplessly; as though he understood he had not answered her question, but could offer nothing better. He had fallen into Hindi again, just for the last sentence. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya found it a comfort.
The mali had come into the kitchen to drink some water – the day was turning hot – and to ask what Chotu should call the neighbour.
“They do not have names,” Leila said. “They are the others. What does he call the minister sahib?”
“Uncle,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said, and Leila nodded. The mali drained his glass, thanked them and went back into the garden; Mrs Mukhopadhyaya could hear him telling Chotu to say namaste, politely, and the distant chiming of the neighbour’s pincers.
“It is not only this,” the minister was saying, carefully. In English, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya noticed, looking up at the screen, and Leila paused a second, putting down the dish she was washing. “Certainly, it is this. Perhaps twelve or twenty or two hundred years from now, there will be no city on Earth worth living in. Perhaps the waters will have engulfed them all, perhaps the politicians of the day will read back the record of today’s debates and answer the question definitively. But there is more to it. Ur is the great experiment. Ur is the first time two sentient species have lived in the same city; have lived as one people; broken of each other’s bread.”
There was a murmur in the gallery; Mrs Mukhopadhyaya nodded. The phrase was calculated, for those in the ranks who came from Jewish and Christian backgrounds. English, she thought again. The view depicted on the screen tipped back slightly, to show the whole chamber, all homogenous old stone like every building in Ur, as though the city had been hewn out of the rock as the world was forming.
“We live in the remains of an ancient civilisation,” the minister continued, and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya smiled, a little foolishly, as though he had looked into the house through the other side of the screen and seen the thought in her mind. “We more than anyone should live in the shadow of momento mori; remember you must die. Who built the stones on which we stand? We may never know, though there are xenoarchaeologists arriving every six months with the transports. But we will never know – we will never know what might have been, if we are not brave enough to see what will be. To say, we go on.”
He paused, and looked at the assembled ranks with an expression of contempt, and in that look, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya saw years of frustration as the waters rose, moulded by pressure and anger into diamond. “Honourable delegates from Earth. If you have come in fear, go in fear. We will remain.”
He had spoken his last words in Hindi. When he sat down, the chamber was hushed, and across the millions of miles of space there was another silence, as though all the Earth were quiet. The minister gave a small, inarticulate cry as he moved to sit, shattering that soundlessness; his eyes were shining with a bright white light.
The legislature went into recess that day and the next for the polls to be conducted and votes counted. There was a complex system of eligibility for voting on Earth, and high tempers and barricades around polling stations. On Ur, Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, the mali and Leila went together through the cool of the morning and voted in the foyer of the legislative building. The people from Xi Lyr were not voting – the colony would continue with or without the people of Earth – but they seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, and stepped back to let the humans past.
On the second day, the Speaker sent a message: the outcome was to be announced before lunchtime the day after. She would bring them the result shortly before planet-wide broadcast. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya was grateful for that short reprieve, at least. When morning came none of them had slept more than a little; the mali took Chotu to school and returned dazed and distracted. “The other parents were asking,” he told Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, “but I said there was no answer. Not yet. Not yet.”
Their neighbour arrived not long after that, body made pinkish with the late sunrise, and paused at the gate as though waiting for something. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya recognised that tentativeness as a refusal to enter uninvited, and lifted the latch.
“Have water,” Mrs Mukhopadhyaya said to them in their own language, and they took it from her with gratitude, in a saucer. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya saw them start abortively towards the minister, then step back. He was sitting on one of the verandah chairs, quite still. During the course of their most of a lifetime together, she had seen him work days and work nights, reading reports two at a time with one in each hand; she had seen him at family weddings, checking his messages every five minutes; every morning she saw him reach for his data pad before his spectacles. She had rarely, if ever, seen this stillness in him; and never that light in his eyes.
“What happened to him?” she found herself asking, wondering after she had spoken if the neighbour would understand; but they did, with no further explanation.
They said, “He spoke in a language of Ur” – and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya wanted to say, no, that was Hindi. But they might all be here after this, she remembered. They might all be here, speaking Hindi and English and the language of Xi Lyr, and they would all be the people of Ur.
“Will you eat?” she asked, and when her friend nodded, she made up a tray of tea, coffee, water, fruit and pastries for all of them. The minister ate a bread roll when she handed it to him, although his mind was elsewhere. Perhaps not elsewhere, she thought: perhaps as much present, here in this garden in this city, as it had ever been. The mali refused food; he had begun work, planting out perennials not out of certainty, he said, but of hope. Mrs Mukhopadhyaya nodded and poured water into his glass. He had reached the end of a row and paused, leaning on his spade and sweating in the sun, when the gate latch creaked. It was the Speaker, holding an envelope.
“The vote,” she said, her voice carrying soft and clear across the garden, “the result has come” – and the minister and Mrs Mukhopadhyaya, Leila and the mali and their neighbour, turned to hear it.
“We stay,” the Speaker said, and sat down heavily on the grass.More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, Desi authors, Indian authors, UK authors, Women authors