Vandana Singh teaches physics at a state university near Boston and writes in her non-existent spare time. She was born and raised in the city of Dilli (aka Delhi, India), where medieval ruins lie strewn among modern-day edifices. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies and has frequently been reprinted in year’s-best publications. She is a winner of the Carl Brandon Parallax Award. Her most recent publication is a story for Lightspeed magazine. “Delhi” was first published in So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, in 2004.
Tonight he is intensely aware of the city: its ancient stones, the flat-roofed brick houses, threads of clotheslines, wet, bright colors waving like pennants, neem-tree lined roads choked with traffic. There’s a bus going over the bridge under which he has chosen to sleep. The night smells of jasmine, and stale urine, and the dust of the cricket field on the other side of the road. A man is lighting a bidi near him: face lean, half in shadow, and he thinks he sees himself. He goes over to the man, who looks like another layabout. “My name is Aseem,” he says. The man, reeking of tobacco, glares at him, coughs and spits, “kya chahiye?” Aseem steps back in a hurry. No, that man is not Aseem’s older self; anyway, Aseem can’t imagine he would take up smoking bidis at any point in his life. He leaves the dubious shelter of the bridge, the quiet lane that runs under it, and makes his way through the litter and anemic streetlamps to the neon-bright highway. The new city is less confusing, he thinks; the colors are more solid, the lights dazzling, so he can’t see the apparitions as clearly. But once he saw a milkman going past him on Shahjahan road, complete with humped white cow and tinkling bell. Under the stately, ancient trees that partly shaded the streetlamps, the milkman stopped to speak to his cow and faded into the dimness of twilight.
When he was younger he thought the apparitions he saw were ghosts of the dead, but now he knows that is not true. Now he has a theory that his visions are tricks of time, tangles produced when one part of the time-stream rubs up against another and the two cross for a moment. He has decided (after years of struggle) that he is not insane after all; his brain is wired differently from others, enabling him to discern these temporal coincidences. He knows he is not the only one with this ability, because some of the people he sees also see him, and shrink back in terror. The thought that he is a ghost to people long dead or still to come in this world both amuses and terrifies him.
He’s seen more apparitions in the older parts of the city than anywhere else, and he’s not sure why. There is plenty of history in Delhi, no doubt about that – the city’s past goes back into myth, when the Pandava brothers of the epic Mahabharata first founded their fabled capital, Indraprastha, some three thousand years ago. In medieval times alone there were seven cities of Delhi, he remembers, from a well-thumbed history textbook – and the eighth city was established by the British during the days of the Raj. The city of the present day, the ninth, is the largest. Only for Aseem are the old cities of Delhi still alive, glimpsed like mysterious islands from a passing ship, but real, nevertheless. He wishes he could discuss his temporal visions with someone who would take him seriously and help him understand the nature and limits of his peculiar malady, but ironically, the only sympathetic person he’s met who shares his condition happened to live in 1100 A.D. or thereabouts, the time of Prithviraj Chauhan, the last great Hindu ruler of Delhi.
He was walking past the faded white colonnades of some building in Connaught Place when he saw her: an old woman in a long skirt and shawl, making her way sedately across the car park, her body rising above the road and falling below its surface in parallel with some invisible topography. She came face to face with Aseem – and saw him. They both stopped. Clinging to her like gray ribbons were glimpses of her environs – he saw mist, the darkness of trees behind her. Suddenly, in the middle of summer, he could smell fresh rain. She put a wondering arm out toward him but didn’t touch him. She said: “What age are you from?” in an unfamiliar dialect of Hindi. He did not know how to answer the question, or how to contain within him that sharp shock of joy. She, too, had looked across the barriers of time and glimpsed other people, other ages. She named Prithviraj Chauhan as her king. Aseem told her he lived some 900 years after Chauhan. They exchanged stories of other visions – she had seen armies, spears flashing, and pale men with yellow beards, and a woman in a metal carriage, crying. He was able to interpret some of this for her before she began to fade away. He started toward her as though to step into her world, and ran right into a pillar. As he picked himself off the ground he heard derisive laughter. Under the arches a shoeshine boy and a man chewing betel leaf were staring at him, enjoying the show.
Once he met the mad emperor, Mohammad Shah. He was walking through Red Fort one late afternoon, avoiding clumps of tourists and their clicking cameras. He was feeling particularly restless; there was a smoky tang in the air, because some gardener in the grounds was burning dry leaves. As the sun set, the red sandstone fort walls glowed, then darkened. Night came, blanketing the tall ramparts, the lawns through which he strolled, the shimmering beauty of the Pearl Mosque, the languorous curves of the now distant Yamuna that had once flowed under this marble terrace. He saw a man standing, leaning over the railing, dressed in a red silk sherwani, jewels at his throat, a gem studded in his turban. He smelled of wine and rose attar, and he was singing a song about a night of separation from the Beloved, slurring the words together.
Bairan bhayii raat sakhiya …
Mammad Shah piya sada Rangila …
Mohammad Shah Rangila, early 1700’s, Aseem recalled. The Emperor who loved music, poetry and wine more than anything, who ignored warnings that the Persian king was marching to Delhi with a vast army … “Listen, king,” Aseem whispered urgently, wondering if he could change the course of history, “You must prepare for battle. Else Nadir Shah will overrun the city. Thousands will be butchered by his army…”
The king lifted wine-darkened eyes. “Begone, wraith!”
Sometimes he stops at the India Gate lawns in the heart of modern Delhi and buys ice-cream from a vendor, and eats it sitting by one of the fountains that Lutyens built. Watching the play of light on the shimmering water, he thinks about the British invaders, who brought one of the richest and oldest civilizations on earth to abject poverty in only two hundred years. They built these great edifices, gracious buildings and fountains, but even they had to leave it all behind. Kings came and went, the goras came and went, but the city lives on. Sometimes he sees apparitions of the goras, the palefaces, walking by him or riding on horses. Each time he yells out to them: “Your people are doomed. You will leave here. Your Empire will crumble.” Once in a while they glance at him, startled, before they fade away.
In his more fanciful moments he wonders if he hasn’t, in some way, caused history to happen the way it does. Planted a seed of doubt in a British officer’s mind about the permanency of the Empire. Despite his best intentions, convinced Mohammad Shah that the impending invasion is not a real danger but a ploy wrought against him by evil spirits. But he knows that apart from the Emperor, nobody he has communicated with is of any real importance in the course of history, and that he is simply deluding himself about his own significance.
Still, he makes compulsive notes of his more interesting encounters. He carries with him at all times a thick, somewhat shabby notebook, one half of which is devoted to recording these temporal adventures. But because the apparitions he sees are so clear, he is sometimes not certain whether the face he glimpses in the crowd, or the man passing him by on a cold night, wrapped in shawls, belong to this time or some other. Only some incongruity – spatial or temporal – distinguishes the apparitions from the rest.
Sometimes he sees landscapes, too, but rarely – a skyline dotted with palaces and temple spires, a forest in the middle of a busy thoroughfare – and, strangest of all, once, an array of tall, jeweled towers reaching into the clouds. Each such vision seems to be charged with a peculiar energy, like a scene lit up by lightning. And although the apparitions are apparently random and don’t often repeat, there are certain places where he sees (he thinks) the same people again and again. For instance, while traveling on the Metro he almost always sees people in the subway tunnels, floating through the train and the passengers on the platforms, dressed in tatters, their faces pale and unhealthy as though they have never beheld the sun. The first time he saw them, he shuddered. “The Metro is quite new,” he thought to himself, “and the first underground train system in Delhi. So what I saw must be in the future…”
One day, he tells himself, he will write a history of the future.
* * *
The street is Nai Sarak, a name he has always thought absurd. New Road, it means, but this road has not been new in a very long time. He could cross the street in two jumps if it wasn’t so crowded with people, shoulder to shoulder. The houses are like that too, hunched together with windows like dull eyes, and narrow, dusty stairways and even narrower alleys in between. The ground floors are taken up by tiny, musty shops containing piles of books that smell fresh and pungent, a wake-up smell like coffee. It is a hot day, and there is no shade. The girl he is following is just another Delhi University student looking for a bargain, trying not to get jostled or groped in the crowd, much less have her purse stolen. There are small, barefoot boys running around with wire-carriers of lemon-water in chipped glasses, and fat old men in their undershirts behind the counters, bargaining fiercely with pale, defenseless college students over the hum of electric fans, rubbing clammy hands across their hairy bellies, while they slurp their ice drinks, signaling to some waif when the transaction is complete, so that the desired volume can be deposited into the feverish hands of the student. Some of the shopkeepers like to add a little lecture on the lines of “Now, my son, study hard, make your parents proud…” Aseem hasn’t been here in a long time (since his own college days in fact); he is not prepared for any of this, the brightness of the day, the white dome of the mosque rising up behind him, the old stone walls of the old city engirdling him, enclosing him in people and sweat and dust. He’s dazzled by the white kurtas of the men, the neat beards and the prayer caps, this is of course the Muslim part of the city, Old Delhi, but not as romantic as his grandmother used to make it sound. He has a rare flash of memory into a past where he was a small boy listening to the old woman’ tales. His grandmother was one of the Hindus who never went back to old Delhi, not after the madness of Partition in 1947, the Hindu-Muslim riots that killed thousands, but he still remembers how she spoke of the places of her girlhood: parathe-walon-ki-gali, the lane of the paratha-makers, where all the shops sell freshly-cooked flatbreads of every possible kind, stuffed with spiced potatoes or minced lamb, or fenugreek leaves, or crushed cauliflower and fiery red chillies; and Dariba Kalan, where after hundreds of years they still sell the best and purest silver in the world, delicate chains and anklets and bracelets. Among the crowds that throng these places he has seen the apparitions of courtesans and young men, and the blood and thunder of invasions, and the bodies of princes hanged by British soldiers. To him the old city, surrounded by high, crumbling, stone walls, is like the heart of a crone who dreams perpetually of her youth.
The girl who’s caught his attention walks on. Aseem hasn’t been able to get a proper look at her – all he’s noticed are the dark eyes, and the death in them. After all these years in the city he’s learned to recognize a certain preoccupation in the eyes of some of his fellow citizens: the desire for the final anonymity that death brings.
Sometimes, as in this case, he knows it before they do.
The girl goes into a shop. The proprietor, a young man built like a wrestler, is dressed only in cotton shorts. The massage-man is working his back, kneading and sculpting the slick, gold muscles. The young man says: “Advanced Biochemistry? Watkins? One copy, only one copy left.” He shouts into the dark, cavernous interior, and the requisite small boy comes up, bearing the volume as though it were a rare book. The girl’s face shows too much relief; she’s doomed even before the bargaining begins. She parts with her money with a resigned air, steps out into the noisy brightness, and is caught up with the crowd in the street like a piece of wood tossed in a river. She pushes and elbows her way through it, fending off anonymous hands that reach toward her breasts or back. He loses sight of her for a moment, but there she is, walking past the mosque to the bus stop on the main road. At the bus stop she catches Aseem’s glance and gives him the pre-emptive cold look. Now there’s a bus coming, filled with people, young men hanging out of the doorways as though on the prow of a sailboat. He sees her struggling through the crowd toward the bus, and at the last minute she’s right in its path. The bus is not stopping but (in the tantalizing manner of Delhi buses) barely slowing, as though to play catch with the crowd. It is an immense green and yellow metal monstrosity, bearing down on her, as she stands rooted, clutching her bag of books. This is Aseem’s moment. He lunges at the girl, pushing her out of the way, grabbing her before she can fall to the ground. There is a roaring in his ears, the shriek of brakes, and the conductor yelling. Her books are scattered on the ground. He helps pick them up. She’s trembling with shock. In her eyes he sees himself for a moment: a drifter, his face unshaven, his hair unkempt. He tells her: don’t do it, don’t ever do it. Life is never so bereft of hope. You have a purpose you must fulfill. He’s repeating it like a mantra, and she’s looking bewildered, as though she doesn’t understand that she was trying to kill herself. He can see that he puzzles her: his grammatical Hindi and his fair English labels him middle class and educated, like herself, but his appearance says otherwise. Although he knows she’s not the woman he is seeking, he pulls out the computer printout just to be sure. No, she’s not the one. Cheeks too thin, chin not sharp enough. He pushes one of the business cards into her hand and walks away. From a distance he sees that she’s looking at the card in her hand and frowning. Will she throw it away? At the last minute she shoves it into her bag with the books. He remembers all too clearly the first time someone gave him one of the cards. “Worried About Your Future? Consult Pandit Vidyanath. Computerized and Air-Conditioned Office. Discover Your True Purpose in Life.” There is a logo of a beehive and an address in South Delhi.
Later he will write up this encounter in the second half of his notebook. In three years he has filled this part almost to capacity. He’s stopped young men from flinging themselves off the bridges that span the Yamuna. He’s prevented women from jumping off tall buildings, from dousing themselves with kerosene, from murderous encounters with city traffic. All this by way of seeking her, whose story will be the last in his book.
But the very first story in this part of his notebook is his own …
* * *
Three years ago. He is standing on a bridge over the Yamuna. There is a heavy, odorous fog in the air, the kind that mars winter mornings in Delhi. He is shivering because of the chill, and because he is tired, tired of the apparitions that have always plagued him, tired of the endless rounds of medications and appointments with doctors and psychologists. He has just written a letter to his fiancée, severing their already fragile relationship. Two months ago he stopped attending his college classes. His mother and father have been dead a year and two years respectively, and there will be no one to mourn him, except for relatives in other towns who know him only by reputation as a person with problems. Last night he tried, as a last resort, to leave Delhi, hoping that perhaps the visions would stop. He got as far as the railway station. He stood in the line before the ticket counter, jostled by young men carrying hold-alls and aggressive matrons in bright saris. “Name?” said the man behind the window, but Aseem couldn’t remember it. Around him, in the cavernous interior of the station, shouting, red-clad porters rushed past, balancing tiers of suitcases on their turbaned heads, and vast waves of passengers swarmed the stairs that led up across the platforms. People were nudging him, telling him to hurry up, but all he could think of were the still trains between the platforms, steaming in the cold air, hissing softly like warm snakes, waiting to take him away. The thought of leaving filled him with a sudden terror. He turned and walked out of the station. Outside, in the cold, glittering night, he breathed deep, fierce breaths of relief, as though he had walked away from his own death.
So here he is, the morning after his attempted escape, standing on the bridge, shivering in the fog. He notices a crack in the concrete railing, which he traces with his finger to the seedling of a pipal tree, growing on the outside of the rail. He remembers his mother pulling pipal seedlings out of walls and the paved courtyard of their house, over his protests. He remembers how hard it was for him to see, in each fragile sapling, the giant full-grown tree. Leaning over the bridge he finds himself wondering which will fall first – the pipal tree or the bridge. Just then he hears a bicycle on the road behind him, one that needs oiling, evidently, and before he knows it some rude fellow with a straggly beard has come out of the fog, pulled him off the railing and on to the road. “Don’t be a fool, don’t do it,” says the stranger, breathing hard. His bicycle is lying on the roadside, one wheel still spinning. “Here, take this,” the man says, pushing a small card into Aseem’s unresisting hand. “Go see them. If they can’t give you a reason to live, your own mother wouldn’t be able to.”
The address on the card proves to be in a small marketplace near Sarojini Nagar. Around a dusty square of withered grass, where ubiquitous pariah dogs sleep fitfully in the pale sun, there is a row of shops. The place he seeks is a corner shop next to a vast jamun tree. Under the tree, three humped white cows are chewing cud, watching him with bovine indifference. Aseem makes his way through a jangle of bicycles, motor-rickshaws and people, and finds himself before a closed door, with a small sign saying, only, “Pandit Vidyanath, Consultations.” He goes in.
The Pandit is not in, but his assistant, a thin, earnest-faced young man, waves Aseem to a chair. The assistant is sitting behind a desk with a PC, a printer, and a plaque bearing his name: Om Prakash, BSc. Physics (Failed), Delhi University. There is a window with the promised air-conditioner (apparently defunct) occupying its lower half. On the other side of the window is a beehive in the process of completion. Aseem feels he has come to the wrong place, and regrets already the whim that brought him here, but the beehive fascinates him, how it is still and in motion all at once, and the way the bees seem to be in concert with one another, as though performing a complicated dance. Two of the bees are crawling on the computer and there is one on the assistant’s arm. Om Prakash seems completely unperturbed; he assures Aseem that the bees are harmless, and tries to interest him in an array of bottles of honey on the shelf behind him. Apparently the bees belong to Pandit Vidyanath, a man of many facets, who keeps very busy because he also works for the city. (Aseem has a suspicion that perhaps the great man is no more than a petty clerk in a municipal office). Honey is ten rupees a bottle. Aseem shakes his head, and Om Prakash gets down to business with a noisy clearing of his throat, asking questions and entering the answers into the computer. By now Aseem is feeling like a fool.
“How does your computer know the future?” Aseem asks.
Om Prakash has a lanky, giraffe-like grace, although he is not tall. He makes a deprecating gesture with his long, thin hands that travels all the way up to his mobile shoulders.
“A computer is like a beehive. Many bits and parts, none is by itself intelligent. Combine together, and you have something that can think. This computer is not an ordinary one. Built by Pandit Vidyanath himself.”
Om Prakash grins as the printer begins to whir.
“All persons who come here seek meaning. Each person has their own dharma, their own unique purpose. We don’t tell future, because future is beyond us, Sahib. We tell them why they need to live.”
He hands a printout to Aseem. When he first sees it, the page makes no sense. It consists of x’s arranged in an apparently random pattern over the page. He holds it at a distance and sees – indistinctly – the face of a woman.
“Who is she?”
“It is for you to interpret what this picture means,” says Om Prakash. “You must live because you need to meet this woman, perhaps to save her or be saved. It may mean that you could be at the right place and time to save her from some terrible fate. She could be your sister or daughter, or a wife, or a stranger.”
There are dark smudges for eyes, and the hint of a high cheekbone, and the swirl of hair across the cheek, half-obscuring the mouth. The face is broad and heart-shaped, narrowing to a small chin.
“But this is not very clear. It could be almost anyone. How will I know…”
“You will know when you meet her,” Om Prakash says with finality. “There is no charge. Thank you sir, and here are cards for you to give other unfortunate souls.”
Aseem takes the pack of business cards and leaves. He distrusts the whole business, especially the bit about no charge. No charge? In a city like Delhi?
But despite his doubts he finds himself intrigued. He had expected the usual platitudes about life and death, the fatalistic pronouncements peculiar to charlatan fortune tellers, but this fellow, Vidyanath, obviously is an original. That Aseem must live simply so he might be there for someone at the right moment: what an amusing, humbling idea! As the days pass it grows on him, and he comes to believe it, if for nothing else than to have something in which to believe. He scans the faces of the people in the crowds, on the dusty sidewalks, the overladen buses, the Metro, and he looks for her. He lives so that he will cross her path some day. Over three years he has convinced himself that she is real, that she waits for him. He’s made something of a life for himself, working at a photocopy shop in Lajpat Nagar, where he can sleep on winter nights, or making deliveries for shopkeepers in Defence Colony, who pay enough to keep him in food and clothing. Over three years he has handed out hundreds of the little business cards, and visited the address in South Delhi dozens of times. He’s become used to the bees, the defunct air-conditioner, and even to Om Prakash. Although there is too much distance between them to allow friendship (a distance of temperament, really), Aseem has told Om Prakash about the apparitions he sees. Om Prakash receives these confidences with his rather foolish grin and much waggling of the head in wonder, and says he will tell Pandit Vidyanath. Only, each time Aseem visits there is no sign of Pandit Vidyanath, so now Aseem suspects that there is no such person, that Om Prakash himself is the unlikely mind behind the whole business.
But sometimes he is scared of finding the woman. He imagines himself saving her from death or a fate worse than death, realizing at last his purpose. But after that what awaits him? The oily embrace of the Yamuna?
Or will she save him in turn?
* * *
One of the things he likes about the city is how it breaks all rules. Delhi is a place of contradictions – it transcends thesis and anti-thesis. Here he has seen both the hovels of the poor and the opulent monstrosities of the rich. At major intersections, where the rich wait impatiently in their air-conditioned cars for the light to change, he’s seen bone-thin waifs running from car to car, peddling glossy magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Amid the glitzy new high-rises are troupes of wandering cows, and pariah dogs; rhesus monkeys mate with abandon in the trees around Parliament House.
He hasn’t slept well – last night the police raided the Aurobindo Marg sidewalk where he was sleeping. Some foreign VIP was expected in the morning so the riffraff on the roadsides were driven off by stick-wielding policemen. This has happened many times before, but today Aseem is smarting with rage and humiliation: he has a bruise on his back where a policeman’s stick hit him, and it burns in the relentless heat. Death lurks behind the walled eyes of the populace – but for once he is sick of his proximity to death. So he goes to the only place where he can leave behind the city without actually leaving its borders – another anomaly in a city of surprises. Amid the endless sprawl of brick houses and crowded roads, within Delhi’s borders, there lies an entire forest: the Delhi Ridge, a green lung. The coolness of the forest beckons to him.
Only a little way from the main road, the forest is still, except for the subdued chirping of birds. He is in a warm, green womb. Under the acacia trees he finds an old ruin, one of the many nameless remains of Delhi’s medieval era. After checking for snakes or scorpions, he curls up under a crumbling wall and dozes off.
Some time later, when the sun is lower in the sky and the heat not as intense, he hears a tapping sound, soft and regular, like slow rain on a tin roof. He sees a woman – a young girl – on the paved path in front of him, holding a cane before her. She’s blind, obviously, and lost. This is no place for a woman alone. He clears his throat and she starts.
“Is someone there?”
She’s wearing a long blue shirt over a salwaar of the same color, and there is a shawl around her shoulders. The thin material of her dupatta drapes her head, half-covering her face, blurring her features. He looks at her and sees the face in the printout. Or thinks he does.
“You are lost,” he says, his voice trembling with excitement. He’s fumbling in his pockets for the printout. Surely he must still be asleep and dreaming. Hasn’t he dreamed about her many, many times already? “Where do you wish to go?”
She clutches her stick. Her shoulders slump.
“Naya Diwas lane, good sir. I am traveling from Jaipur. I came to meet my sister, who lives here, but I lost my papers. They say you must have papers. Or they’ll send me to Neechi Dilli with all the poor and the criminals. I don’t want to go there! My sister has money. Please, sir, tell me how to find Naya Diwas.”
He’s never heard of Naya Diwas lane, or Neechi Dilli. New Day Lane? Lower Delhi? What strange names. He wipes the sweat off his forehead.
“There aren’t any such places. Somebody has misled you. Go back to the main road, turn right, there is a marketplace there. I will come with you. Nobody will harm you. We can make enquiries there.”
She thanks him, her voice catching with relief. She tells him she’s heard many stories about the fabled city, and its tall, gem-studded minars that reach the sky, and the perfect gardens. And the ships, the silver udan-khatolas, that fly across worlds. She’s very excited to be here at last in the Immaculate City.
His eyes widen. He gets up abruptly but she’s already fading away into the trees. The computer printout is in his hand, but before he can get another look at her, she’s gone.
What has he told her? Where is she going, in what future age, buoyed by the hope he has given her, which (he fears now) may be false?
He stumbles around the ruin, disturbing ground squirrels and a sleepy flock of jungle babblers, but he knows there is no hope of finding her again except by chance. Temporal coincidences have their own unfathomable rules. He’s looked ahead to this moment so many times, imagined both joy and despair as a result of it, but never this apprehension, this uncertainty. He looks at the computer printout again. Is it mere coincidence that the apparition he saw looked like the image? What if Pandit Vidyanath’s computer generated something quite random, and that his quest, his life for the past few years has been completely pointless? That Om Prakash or Vidyanath (if he exists) are enjoying an intricate joke at his expense? That he has allowed himself to be duped by his own hopes and fears?
But beyond all this, he’s worried about this girl. There’s only one thing to do – go to Om Prakash and get the truth out of him. After all, if Vidyanath’s computer generated her image, and if Vidyanath isn’t a complete fraud, he would know something about her, about that time. It is a forlorn hope, but it’s all he has.
He takes the Metro on his way back. The train snakes its way under the city through the still-new tunnels, past brightly lit stations where crowds surge in and out and small boys peddle chai and soft drinks. At one of these stops he sees the apparitions of people, their faces clammy and pale, clad in rags; he smells the stench of unwashed bodies too long out of the sun. They are coming out of the cement floor of the platform, as though from the bowels of the earth. He’s seen them many times before; he knows they are from some future he’d rather not think about. But now it occurs to him with the suddenness of a blow that they are from the blind girl’s future. Lower Delhi – Neechi Dilli – that is what this must be: a city of the poor, the outcast, the criminal, in the still-to-be-carved tunnels underneath the Delhi that he knows. He thinks of the Metro, fallen into disuse in that distant future, its tunnels abandoned to the dispossessed, and the city above a delight of gardens and gracious buildings, and tall spires reaching through the clouds. He has seen that once, he remembers. The Immaculate City, the blind girl called it.
By the time he gets to Vidyanath’s shop, it is late afternoon, and the little square is filling with long shadows. At the bus stop where he disembarks there is a young woman sitting, reading something. She looks vaguely familiar; she glances quickly at him but he notices her only peripherally.
He bursts into the room. Om Prakash is reading a magazine, which he sets down in surprise. A bee crawls out of his ear and flies up in a wide circle to the hive on the window. Aseem hardly notices.
“Where’s that fellow, Vidyanath?”
Om Prakash looks mildly alarmed.
“My employer is not here, sir.”
“Look, Om Prakash, something has happened, something serious. I met the girl of the printout. But she’s from the future. I need to go back and find her. You must get Vidyanath for me. If his computer made the image of the girl, he must know how I can reach her.”
Om Prakash shakes his head sadly.
“Panditji speaks only through the computer.” He looks at the beehive, then at Aseem. “Panditji cannot control the future, you know that. He can only tell you your purpose. Why you are important.”
“But I made a mistake! I didn’t realize she was from another time. I told her something and she disappeared before I could do anything. She could be in danger! It is a terrible future, Om Prakash. There is a city below the city where the poor live. And above the ground there is clean air and tall minars and udan khatolas that fly between worlds. No dirt or beggars or poor people. Like when the foreign VIPs come to town and the policemen chase people like me out of the main roads. But Neechi Dilli is like a prison, I’m sure of it. They can’t see the sun.”
Om Prakash waves his long hands.
“What can I say, Sahib?”
Aseem goes around the table and takes Om Prakash by the shoulders.
“Tell me, Om Prakash, am I nothing but a strand in a web? Do I have a choice in what I do, or am I simply repeating lines written by someone else?”
“You can choose to break my bones, sir, and nobody can stop you. You can choose to jump into the Yamuna. Whatever you do affects the world in some small way. Sometimes the effect remains small, sometimes it grows and grows like a pipal tree. Causality as we call it is only a first-order effect. Second-order causal loops jump from time to time, as in your visions, sir. The future, Panditji says, is neither determined nor undetermined.”
Aseem releases the fellow. His head hurts and he is very tired, and Om Prakash makes no more sense than usual. He feels emptied of hope. As he leaves he turns to ask Om Prakash one more question.
“Tell me, Om Prakash, this Pandit Vidyanath, if he exists – what is his agenda? What is he trying to accomplish? Who is he working for?”
“Pandit Vidyanath works for the city, as you know. Otherwise he works only for himself.”
He goes out into the warm evening. He walks toward the bus stop. Over the chatter of people and the car horns on the street and the barking of pariah dogs, he can hear the distant buzzing of bees.
At the bus stop the half-familiar young woman is still sitting, studying a computer printout in the inadequate light of the streetlamp. She looks at him quickly, as though she wants to talk, but thinks better of it. He sits on the cement bench in a daze. Three years of anticipation, all for nothing. He should write down the last story and throw away his notebook.
Mechanically, he takes the notebook out and begins to write.
She clears her throat. Evidently she is not used to speaking to strange men. Her clothes and manner tell him she’s from a respectable middle-class family. And then he remembers the girl he pushed away from a bus near Nai Sarak.
She’s holding the page out to him.
“Can you make any sense of that?”
The printout is even more indistinct than his. He turns the paper around, frowns at it and hands it back to her.
“Sorry, I don’t see anything.”
She says: “You could interpret the image as a crystal of unusual structure, or a city skyline with tall towers. Who knows? Considering that I’m studying biochemistry and my father really wants me to be an architect with his firm, it isn’t surprising that I see those things in it. Amusing, really.”
She laughs. He makes what he hopes is a polite noise.
“I don’t know. I think the charming and foolish Om Prakash is a bit of a fraud. And you were wrong about me, by the way. I wasn’t trying to … to kill myself that day.”
She’s sounding defensive now. He knows he was not mistaken about what he saw in her eyes. If it wasn’t then, it would have been some other time – and she knows this.
“Still, I came here on an impulse,” she says in a rush, “and I’ve been staring at this thing and thinking about my life. I’ve already made a few decisions about my future.”
A bus comes lurching to a stop. She looks at it, and then at him, hesitates. He knows she wants to talk, but he keeps scratching away in his notebook. At the last moment before the bus pulls away she swings her bag over her shoulder, waves at him and climbs aboard. The look he had first noticed in her eyes has gone, for the moment. Today she’s a different person.
He finishes writing in his notebook, and with a sense of inevitability that feels strangely right, he catches a bus that will take him across one of the bridges that span the Yamuna.
* * *
At the bridge he leans against the concrete wall looking into the dark water. This is one of his familiar haunts; how many people has he saved on this bridge? The pipal tree sapling is still growing in a crack in the cement – the municipality keeps uprooting it but it is buried too deep to die completely. Behind him there are cars and lights and the sound of horns, the jangle of bicycle bells. He sets his notebook down on top of the wall, wishing he had given it to someone, like that girl at the bus stop. He can’t make himself throw it away. A peculiar lassitude, a detachment, has taken hold of him and he can think and act only in slow motion.
He’s preparing to climb on to the wall of the bridge, his hands clammy and slipping on the concrete, when he hears somebody behind him say “wait!” He turns. It is like looking into a distorting mirror. The man is hollow-cheeked, with a few days’ stubble on his chin, and the untidy thatch of hair has thinned and is streaked with silver. He’s holding a bunch of cards in his hand. A welt mars one cheek, and the left sleeve is torn and stained with something rust-colored. The eyes are leopard’s eyes, burning with a dreadful urgency. “Aseem,” says the stranger who is not a stranger, panting as though he has been running, his voice breaking a little. “Don’t…” He is already starting to fade. Aseem reaches out a hand and meets nothing but air. A million questions rise in his head but before he can speak the image is gone.
Aseem’s first impulse is a defiant one. What if he were to jump into the river now – what would that do to the future, to causality? It would be his way of bowing out of the game that the city’s been playing with him, of saying: I’ve had enough of your tricks. But the impulse dies. He thinks, instead, about Om Prakash’s second-order causal loops, of sunset over the Red Fort, and the twisting alleyways of the old city, and death sleeping under the eyelids of the citizenry. He sits down slowly on the dusty sidewalk. He covers his face with his hands; his shoulders shake.
After a long while he stands up. The road before him can take him anywhere, to the faded colonnades and bright bustle of Connaught Place, to the hush of public parks, with their abandoned cricket balls and silent swings, to old government housing settlements where, amid sleeping bungalows, ancient trees hold court before somnolent congresses of cows. The dusty by-lanes and broad avenues and crumbling monuments of Delhi lie before him, the noisy, lurid marketplaces, the high-tech glass towers, the glitzy enclaves with their citadels of the rich, the boot-boys and beggars at street corners … He has just to take a step and the city will swallow him up, receive him the way a river receives the dead. He is a corpuscle in its veins, blessed or cursed to live and die within it, seeing his purpose now and then, but never fully.
Staring unseeingly into the bright clamor of the highway, he has a wild idea that, he realizes, has been bubbling under the surface of his consciousness for a while. He recalls a picture he saw once in a book when he was a boy: a satellite image of Asia at night. On the dark bulge of the globe there were knots of light; like luminous fungi, he had thought at the time, stretching tentacles into the dark. He wonders whether complexity and vastness are sufficient conditions for a slow awakening, a coming-to-consciousness. He thinks about Om Prakash, his foolish grin and waggling head, and his strange intimacy with the bees. Will Om Prakash tell him who Pandit Vidyanath really is, and what it means to “work for the city?” He thinks not. What he must do, he sees at last, is what he has been doing all along: looking out for his own kind, the poor and the desperate, and those who walk with death in their eyes. The city’s needs are alien, unfathomable. It is an entity in its own right, expanding every day, swallowing the surrounding countryside, crossing the Yamuna which was once its boundary, spawning satellite children, infant towns that it will ultimately devour. Now it is burrowing into the earth, and even later it will reach long fingers towards the stars.
What he needs most at this time is someone he can talk to about all this, someone who will take his crazy ideas seriously. There was the girl at the bus stop, the one he had rescued in Nai Sarak. Om Prakash will have her address. She wanted to talk; perhaps she will listen as well. He remembers the printout she had shown him and wonders if her future has something to do with the Delhi-to-come, the city that intrigues and terrifies him: the Delhi of udan-khatolas, the “ships that fly between worlds”, of starved and forgotten people in the catacombs underneath. He wishes he could have asked his future self more questions. He is afraid because it is likely (but not certain, it is never that simple) that some kind of violence awaits him, not just the violence of privation, but a struggle that looms indistinctly ahead, that will cut his cheek and injure his arm, and do untold things to his soul. But for now there is nothing he can do, caught as he is in his own time-stream. He picks up his notebook. It feels strangely heavy in his hands. Rubbing sticky tears out of his eyes, he staggers slowly into the night.