By Monidipa Mondal
“I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.”
IThirty seconds after the engines roar to life, the Earth sunset stretches below them, casting a spectral shade on the walls. Meera hears the latch on their cabin door click and Anurag slip in as quietly as possible. He comes up behind her at the window, taps lightly on the triple-layered glass.
“There, do you see the Taj Mahal? A most rare sight.”
“Yes, beautiful,” she whispers. She follows his pedantic finger till her eyes stay upon the minuscule marble square, iridescent against the sea of grey. It bleeds red like a heart torn fresh from the body. Meera’s fingers move up to caress the locket pressed against her own heart, underneath layers of clothing. Noran, Noran, Noran.
The locket is one of the many things that her husband will never know. After nearly two decades of marriage, they have few surprises left for each other, least of all the terrain of each other’s bodies. For years, they have slept next to each other without rising ever so slightly at touch. Even though hatred isn’t what moves her towards Anurag, of this Meera is certain.
It is hard to actually hate the soft-spoken Anurag Kaul, whose quiet self-absorption conceals the brain that has sparked off all Human space technology of their generation. The two of them are made for each other, or so say the media and the people on Earth, a reputation Meera has reaffirmed by securing the Nobel Prize for literature four years ago. They are invited together to conferences, policy meetings, award ceremonies for schoolchildren, where parents urge their progeny to follow in the footsteps of this idealised, intellectual couple. No, it isn’t hatred that Meera feels for this affable man who, in two decades of marriage, has never managed to address her with a term of endearment.
It is more like nothing at all.
IIAnurag knew, of course, when the urn had arrived at their house eleven years ago. It had created a scandal in their otherwise placid life.
“But why would Noran XXVI want you to keep zir ashes?” he had asked her, perplexed.
Meera had shrugged, given him the same answer that she mouthed off to the journalists. “We used to be friends at school. I’d imagine ze made few friends later in life.”
And Anurag had gone back to his office, satisfied and quickly forgetting the matter, as Meera sat in their living room turning the vessel over with her fingers. She was amazed at its lightness, its appalling insubstantiality. Sylphians were built more slightly than Humans, with bones hollow like birds, and the cancer had gnawed Noran’s insides to nothing. It was perfectly reasonable, yet it had hit Meera with the blind shock that had always followed in the wake of Noran.
IIINoran was a wound that would never cease to bleed. Way past the Interstellar Exodus, past the War, past the dark decades of terrorism and bloodshed, Meera could close her eyes and wake up in the idyllic afternoons at school, reading out her first hesitant poetry under the long, cool gaze of a bright-eyed Sylphian teenager. Even in those days, upsetting balance had been part of Noran’s nature.
Meera’s third-world, middle-class parents had worked and dreamed hard to send her to an elite interstellar school. It was their investment in her future—a future that they knew would belong to those Humans who could interact effortlessly with the extraterrestrial race that had increasingly settled on Earth over the century past. Themselves old-fashioned Humans from less cosmopolitan times, Meera’s parents were still awkward around those odd, genderless creatures from the sky, who felt like something essentially incorrect, even unholy by many people’s standards.
It was not easy for a singularly superior race that had dominated a planet and its vicinity for millennia to go along with another. But at the sophisticated school, the children were rigorously trained on interstellar etiquette. With their alphabet, Human children memorised the basics of Sylphian customs and social structure, were lectured on the uncouthness of staring or making gendered remarks. In the classroom across the playground, Sylphian children practised distinguishing between male and female Humans and understanding the role of binary gender in the construction of Human society.
By the time the two classes were merged in Year Four, the children were adept at decorum. They worked and played together, admired the same books, celebrities and fashion trends, and carefully avoided stepping on each other’s toes. Stories were always afloat of someone’s mother’s colleague’s distant cousin’s son eloping with a Sylphian, but the level-headed teenagers at the interstellar school looked down upon such fetishists and radicals who ripped apart the very fabric of decency. They were training to become diplomats, policy makers, media personalities—pillars of a responsibly diverse community. Crazy behaviour like that was not cool for them.
Meera, too, had set out to be no rebel, but she had fallen into the company of Noran. It would have been futile to resist; Noran was one of those people who blazed through life like a forest fire, inadvertently attracting more timid individuals towards their vitality. Ze mingled with Humans and Sylphians with equal ease, winning people’s love and loyalty everywhere ze went. Ze was the only person in their class who didn’t scoff at Meera’s hobby of writing poetry in Sylphian; the one who merely shrugged when she gave up Earth Geography to study Advanced Sylphian Literature, a subject that attracted few Human students.
Norms and expectations bent themselves around Noran. Meera never hoped to match up to anything like it. Only once had she worked up the courage to ask sanction for her own small transgression, but even there Noran managed to upset her plans . . . by turning up at school in a lacy Human dress. Classmates had stared and whispered, but no one was particularly shocked. Only the supple grace of zir bird-like body in that dress had driven a splinter through Meera’s heart.
“You don’t have to be a girl!” she had screamed at her friend, biting down the tears.
“Why do I have to be a boy, Meera?”
There was no reason. Nothing she could decorate with words if Noran had not accepted it without them. For a Sylphian to settle down in a gendered Human role certainly set tongues wagging, but when had people’s disapproval ever deterred Noran from doing anything ze liked? That was not it.
That wasn’t it.
It was just that this wasn’t the first time Meera had silently wished it. Hoped that Noran would meet her halfway, fill her weaker vessel with the courage that she could never generate alone. That was no reason why Noran should feel compelled to reduce her fiery self to the limiting ways of Humankind.
Sylphians did not exist in pairs. Noran had been born in a cluster and raised by a rotating set of progenitors. Ze would move out to further and further clusters, to be chosen according to proclivity or profession, abandoned when zir times with them were done. Ze would live longer, and freely, in ways that Meera would never dare to emulate.
With a glare at her Noran had walked away, not for ever, but on that day Meera would not have been surprised. Two years later, when their friendship was finally torn apart by the death of Radine, the only thing to shock Meera was how quickly it came to pass.
IVGentle, doe-eyed Radine had been a genetic peer of Noran. They had the same eyes and delicate upward turn of the mouth. As a child, Meera sometimes played with Radine, while ze still lived in the birth cluster that ze shared with Noran. Radine was dainty, reserved, bookish; nothing like the rebellious Noran. They were not each other’s favourite peer.
Radine was the golden child of the cluster, the one who graduated with honours from Cambridge and Yale. When ze was appointed as a junior cultural officer of the Estrellas Unidas at the mere age of twenty-two, their progenitors had thrown a party to which the entire neighbourhood was invited. Sitting with the other Human guests at the table, Meera and her parents had feasted on Greek salad and vintage champagne. The adults had reminded the children to grow up to be like this brilliant young Sylphian who had raised the esteem of their city in the eyes of the worlds. Noran had, characteristically, sniggered. But Meera could not help being carried away by the festive spirit, more so for Radine had left her zir new tablet, the one which could read text in both Human and Sylphian scripts. It was the most expensive gift anyone had given her at that age.
Radine was murdered at the Interstellar Conference for Tolerance in Santiago the summer Meera and Noran graduated from school. Ze had been raped by zir Human assassins. Photos of zir mutilated body flowed ceaselessly on news waves all over both planets, until Meera shut herself in a room without electricity to drown the horror.
The two of them were about to leave for university in a week, but Noran never turned up. Ze did not come to see Meera off, wrote a curt refusal to her email asking permission to attend Radine’s cremation.
VIn the months that followed, an innocuous Human neighbourhood in Alexandria was torched by Sylphian hooligans; a Human satellite inadvertently crashed into a strategic Sylphian space observatory on a mountain of Io; a Human Hollywood crew was hijacked from a location shoot in the Southern Forests of Sylphia. A bit at a time, the Interstellar Alliance that had brought the two planets together nearly two centuries ago was torn apart, till all that was left was hatred and blood.
Each incident took Noran further away from Meera. As she submerged herself into university life, the daily rigour of classes, assignments and the rush of new friendships, Noran’s replies to her emails grew shorter, nothing so glib or incendiary as the speeches of the young Sylphian separatist leader that started appearing in the news waves soon after.
Draped in the traditional Sylphian wind-robe, Noran blazed on the dais like an insane supernova, lauded by similarly attired supporters whose numbers grew every day by the thousands. A wide-screen news wave showed their open-air assemblies like a ceaseless storm. At the eye of the storm stood Noran, proclaiming that the contact between Humans and Sylphians had been a historical mistake. That their two species were too different to co-exist in dignity and peace. That their civilisations were best left alone, the way they had evolved for millenia.
Those words were anything but a fanatic’s rant. Meera understood the political climate well enough to know that Noran had shaped zirself into a shrewd theorist, whose views gained a rapid following as the months of unrestrained violence gave way to the Interstellar War.
VIAnd perhaps ze was not mistaken, but to agree with Noran’s views was to give up on Noran zirself. Instead, Meera sought refuge in her writing—the only Human author to continue writing in Sylphian—working her way into a dwindling circle of anti-War activists among whom the very mention of a connection with Noran XXVI would be synonymous to blasphemy. For the sake of Noran, she wrapped Noran away within her private shame, never uttering zir name even in the silence of her heart. She tried to forget.
The War lasted nine years. The vital, youthful years of Meera’s life, years she had dreamed of spending lightly, except that there was no lightness left in the world. She graduated at the top of her class, published more novels, won awards, walked in rallies, met and got married to Anurag, moved with him to Delhi, volunteered tirelessly at her local hospital as more grotesque victims of the War kept pouring in every day.
And then, Noran had died.
VIITo Meera, the news had come as abruptly as the rest of zir life. It came at the very juncture when the heads of interstellar communities had started discussing the possibilities of an armistice and complete exodus of populations to their planets of origin—just as the most far-fetched of Noran’s ideas was on the verge of being put into action. It was from the news waves that Meera had learnt of the terminal cancer that Noran had battled for years. The blow had sunk in slowly, crushing her insides.
The parcel had arrived the next day, containing a small urn and a letter. It was the first time Meera set eyes upon Noran’s handwriting in more than a decade.
VIIIMaybe Anurag does love her, in some abstract way that makes sense to his mind. Maybe it was love that had impelled him to try to teach her Boolean algebra in the days of their courtship. He reads and admires her novels. He tries to describe to her all his work, even though she understands little of it. It was solely because of Anurag’s insistence that Meera has gained her place as interpreter on this starcraft, the first Earth mission to be sent towards Sylphia in more than a decade since the Exodus.
Still, when the first dispatch from Ulsoirus—the seat of the Sylphian Interstellar Coucil—flashed on her screen, Meera did not find it in her heart to inform her husband.
The crew of the starcraft only learn of the Sylphians’ opinion when a missile comes hurtling towards them, half a light year from descent. The deep red planet of their destination, its bright side striated with sand dunes, looms large on the viewscreen in the control room. The starcraft rattles like a tin can from the missile impact.
She can no longer hide. Everyone in the control room sees the warning message that arrives immediately on Meera’s screen:
ULSOIRUS TO EARTH STARCRAFT, DESIST AND RETURN. THE SYLPHIAN INTERSTELLAR COUNCIL SPEAKS FOR THE PLANET AND ALL ITS STELLAR COLONIES IN REFUSING TO RENEW CONTACT WITH HUMANKIND. ANY FURTHER ADVANCE WILL BE CONSIDERED AN ACT OF WAR AND WILL BE DULY RESISTED.
Their captain walks up to Meera’s desk, where Anurag stands befuddled, staring at the words. Others too look up from their work around the control room, stunned by the turn of events, waiting for direction.
“That is it, then,” sighs the captain. She watches as his face grows sombre, defeated. “It turns out just as many of us had feared. Even after so many years, the SIC is just as strictly right-wing Noranite as they were at the time of the Exodus. I’m afraid there’s nothing for us but to go back.”
Zir name on the lips of the man makes Meera shudder. The locket presses against her chest, cold talisman of a life’s devotion. Noran had known ze would never make it to Sylphia zirself, never live to see the Exodus for which ze had spent zir life campaigning. Despite all the admirers who hung on to zir day and night, why had ze burdened Meera with the hardest task ze had left to complete?
“The single-passenger shuttles we have,” she woodenly mentions, recalling the lessons about the starcraft’s anatomy that Anurag had tried to give her. “I believe they can penetrate the Sylphian surveillance systems and land on the planet without being intercepted, given certain precautions.”
“And then what, Mrs Kaul? We cannot possibly land up as guerilla peace emissaries on Sylphia.” The captain gives her a rueful smile. “We won’t last a day. Besides, that will destroy any premise we have for future peace negotiations with the Sylphians. No, we must leave. Let the leaders on Earth decide the next move.”
He turns to the crew. “I want everyone in the Conference Room right now, to announce the development and draft an emergency message to Earth. Inform the engineers, catering and medical staff.”
“Give me a minute to gather my thoughts,” Meera says, turning to her screen, raising a finger to her eyes to check for any indiscreet moisture. “I will be there right away.”
Anurag leans over her chair. “Are you sure you feel all right? I know how much you dreamed of this visit. How much it meant for you to finally walk on this planet whose language you have served like your own, to go into the Sylphian libraries and study their books in the original, to finally meet the Sylphian readers who once loved your books as much as the Humans. I understand how much it hurts to have come this far and learnt we will never reach there in our lives.”
Anurag . . . scholarly, austere Anurag. Anurag, who understands nothing. Meera presses his hand to her shoulder, holds it for a second before she gently pries it away.
“Just a minute to myself. Please.”
IXShe goes to work as soon as everyone has vacated of the control room. Anurag has led her through the motions several times. Launching the single-passenger shuttle requires only the giving of a command. That is not the hard part. A shuttle can never exit the mother craft quietly—it will raise an alarm and be brought back even before it can pick up top speed.
She recalls the vault door on the wall, behind which Anurag has shown her the automatic self-destruct button for the entire starcraft. It is coded to activate at the touch of any member of the ship’s crew, though the identity of activator will be conducted to the monitors on Earth. A turncoat, if there is ever one, will never be able to return to Earth unnoticed.
Meera does not want to return to Earth.
No one on Earth would understand why it was important—more important than all the lives on the starship, more important than painstaking, eventually futile peace negotiations—that Noran’s ashes be scattered to the winds of Sylphia.
She unlocks the vault and sets the self-destruction mechanism to commence after five minutes. Time enough to steer the shuttle beyond the impact range of the explosion. Another lesson, she thinks with a pinprick of pain, that she learnt at the hands of Anurag.
There are no words of farewell to be conveyed to him. No epitaph. No one against whom she bears a grudge any longer. As she steps out of the control room, she can feel every pore of her body bursting with the light of the years. If there is heaven anywhere in the wide stretches of politics and friction and interstellar dust, Meera is finally on her way.