Chapter 2, excerpt from ‘Metro’ by Susan Visvanathan, a novella
The waterlilies spun out in incandescent pink. In the middle of the water, was a tree, grown by the gift of winds and winged seeds. Somewhere, bees buzzed, tiny, brown, ephemeral. The honey from Neem trees was mildly tinged with bitterness, too subtle for the ordinary palate, which preferred the adulteration by cane sugar, the honey clotting at the dregs. People came from all over the state to buy sarees, gold, and to eat in restaurants. No one knew the price of things, they just paid whatever was asked.
When it got too hot in that seaside town they pushed off to the hills, faster than the traffic could carry them, taking lesser known routes, past exquisite churches all dressed up like white icing cakes. There was only the semblance of normalcy, for hunger ruled the land. The world was diminished by war, and more so by fear, for even where there was no disaster, people feared for their lives. Every morning was spent reading newspapers where obituaries ruled the moment. The stories of past lives were more interesting than the stories of every day rapes and death. Obituaries told the story of people who lived normal lives, where there was no terrible occurrence of violence. These were people one probably knew, who lived in the next village, or a nearby town. Marriages and deaths had a statistical regularity to them, for people lived in anticipation of one, and fear of the other. Young people found one another through the investigations of their elders. Beauty was not a criterion, it was whether one could cook or take care of old people that decided the day for the shy bride. It was the old world, caught between the eyelids.
Stella turned around in the wheel chair. It was another red hued day, with lightening flashes coming through the cardboard sky. The cracks which had formed were simply frightening, the thunder seemed ever louder. She knew that she would be here when the sky rent open, and they were vaulted into an open realm of stars, sun and nowhere to go. She shut her eyes and returned to the safe world of the past, which was indecipherable to those who had not lived in that familiar world. The past, so irredeemable, so ever present, so filled with latent desires before aluminium took over the world, and iron was constantly distilled for newer varieties of steel. No plants could grow in such an environment, and the desert approached ever closer, as did the captive hills, pushed by the energy of it’s galactic past to crush the present in its imminent lava flows and gravitational pull to the surface. The sky always red and dusty, was shut out by the blue painted canvas, which mimicked the skies in digital reconstructions of how the sky should be, with its fleeting clouds which when counted, could tell that time was passing, for the wind blew them here and there. The artist knew how to manoevre the clouds, create shapes, filter light. It was like being eternally in a planetarium, where the cloth sky absorbed the infinite beauty of the night, and when the lights came on, why, we were back in the auditorium of our very own earth.
The waters spilled around the outskirts of our city. They had become dank and very dreary. Every year, men and women in masks went out, and cleared the sewage with machines that droned for atleast a week. The water was distilled in larger tanks, and piped out. We never knew if there would be enough retrieved to last us for a year. But magically, the machines pumped out that clear fluid so essential for us even though we were now in the last phase of survival before leaving planet earth. How many of us would leave, no one knew.
Stella thought of the time when she had first come to the city, full of hope. The earth had crashed around them, and each of them believed that death was better than living in the ruins of what was once their great city. Yet, day by day, they found that the will to live was greater than their sorrow. They had picked themselves up from the rubble, and moved toward what the politicians said were their new homes, prefabricated aluminium sheds which had been put up overnight. Here, there was no sound other than that of people weeping, reciting litanies of their lost loves, and then the sudden sterotorus sound of someone breathing heavily in their sodden sleep.
Where was Anjali? The girl had become lazy, and was never to be found. The wheel chair had a back, hard and resolute, which jabbed her spine. So, she sat a little away from it, leaning forward. The loneliness of being old was not the problem, that she had managed several decades ago. The music that played in her ears constantly from the little box in her pocket was the best invention of the previous century. Time was ephemeral, it fleeted past. But the seconds pounded in her ears, as she thought about space travel, which the morning circulars had stated to be the next step in their sojourn on planet earth. They would have to leave soon. The question was who would be chosen, and who left out?
Stella asked this question of Anjali very often, who would desultorily turn her head away, not getting involved in the very real fear that Stella always communicated. How did it matter to her, whether the old woman went to Mars or not? Such a stupid question! She noticed as she looked out of the sparkling glass windows that the Administrators had simulated rain again. Clearly the sparkling bejeweled window glass was a gift from the lewd microbe replete troughs running outside the metro. The used condoms, the disgusting trophies of late night copulation and the indestructible plastic that was thrown by young mothers who had not found a way to potty train their children had been digested by the incinerators. The water returned to them, clean, flawless, with a lucidity that was no longer grey and worn out, but fresh, smelling of lavender. Everything was ofcourse chemically produced, but the effect was the same as if it was natural. As for drinking water, they had stopped accessing it from taps, or asking for it. It came to them piped every day, just as the food did.
Stella thought again of the days in Paris, when she had lost her memory, and was frightened that the State would notice. She had become frail, wind wafted, perfumed, bejeweled, not knowing where she was going, or how she would return. The days had been listless, watching the skies turn their incredible colours, as if congealed in the palette of the sky. She would lower the blinds, sleep till late in the morning, and then start again to wander the streets that her feet knew so well, she did not need memory, names, landscape, maps. Twenty years later, in another continent, with the tarpaulin sheds painted over the crumbling surface they knew to be ruined buildings of another century, long gone, she realized that life was only breath, breathing.
It was as if memory was a shard, sharp and double ended. At one level, she responded to the impulse to remember, and in remembering, live again in an opulence of a world which once she had known so well. The earth was tender and brought to her more gifts than she could have wanted. It gave her fruit and flowers, and the gentle gaze of animals, almost doe like in their captivity. Here, too, had been their protected canvas of the familiar, no one stepping out of their bourgeoisie tableaus. When the earth had rent apart, first by war, and then by convulsions unbeknown to them, they had realized that they were human, subject to geological change, galactic time. The newspapers reported the finding of new universe of stars and planets. With that, hearts calmed down, they returned to the chores so familiar to them, waiting for the seasons to change, and the fruits and flowers that beckoned them from the gaily blazoning shops with their lights and perfumes. They were happy to have more days at hand, and then when the darkness fell on them, their own sense of belonging was quite gone. Everything that was theirs, fell to another. In a commonality of loss, the powers that be became profoundly tyrannical, creating an artifice of light, sound, life. And things began to move again, simply at first, but with a growing complexity as the years went by. Fear was camaflouged, and civility reigned again.
Stella had chosen to leave Paris when the first tarpaulins came up above the great cities, and the sky had become punctured by air craft which had to leave from outside the known radius of the world as people knew it. They had to choose their destination, tunnel to airports which like filigree jewellery appeared outside the metropolis. And then in a matter of days, they would have assimilated in another part of the globe, a little frightened, but somehow sure that they had done the right thing, yes, moved towards their own survival.
If she had chosen New Delhi as the site of transitioning to outer space it was because she had been familiar with it in her youth. The intellectual world of writers always served to protect the narcissus, and she had thought she would walk through familiar streets in the new world, where the sign boards had changed, and the old became abused by neglect. She had no fear in the beginning, since her memories of her work world were somehow quite intact. And people had taken to her immediately, providing her with facilities and home, papers and Internet. She had served them well once, and the records of her brilliance were sufficient for the new municipalities, charged with electronic devices, not to repel her, or exclude her. Or so she thought, but then her foreignness was so palpable, her accent so pronounced, that she fell out of the web of belonging again, retreating into silence. The young girl she had adopted was the only one she now could turn to, but over the years, the sense of familiarity had reduced them to non presence, each busy with their thoughts, living life by the day.
How completely hopeful the girl had been when she had come to the house, and offered her services, in exchange for learning new languages, and the scientific aura which surrounded the old woman who expressed her innate ability to keep up with the alarming technological changes that most people found difficult to handle. Yet, unfortunately, the problem of memory had surfaced as the greatest deficit, and both Stella and Anjali started to feel they were sliding into a place of great danger. Stella managed to keep composed, putting her blue eyeshadow every morning on her heavy lids with a trembling hand. She felt that if she could communicate that dressing up was important, then the girl would make greater effort to dispense with the casualness of her own attire. Anjali was often dressed in crumpled pyjamas and her blouses though clean, were never distinguishable. She had none of the sophistication of the women Stella had been associated with, the pallor of her face showed that she had never had food which was nutritious. She was born in the days of piped food, and if she survived at all, it would be due to her will power and that of her boyfriend, who stayed listlessly with them, always poring over his work without looking up, or out at the cardboard sky. He had over the years, grown a little dense, his short frame picking up the carbohydrates in the food with ease, as he never stirred from his chair. However, the couple were happy, smiling at each other peacefully over their many chores. The government was now keen that people should inhabit the houses they stayed in as if indeed they were in outer space. The simulation of the circumstances of floating in a vacuum were being increasingly made available. For Stella, who was from an older generation, the act of looking out of the window was still replete with images she was comfortable with, familiar with. For Anjali and Ashter the inner spaces of their minds, without the vinyl of reproduced images was quite enough.
Stella could hear the drone of their conversations, sometimes there was muted laughing. They were always aware of her presence, and sometimes they would appear, looking innocent and yet guarded. Had she called, did she need something. Then, when she shook her head, a veiled look of relief crossed their faces, and they disappeared again, into that world of which she knew nothing.
The warmth of their personas was sufficient for her, they were alive, they were human, they lived in the adjacent room, making the house accessible to her wheel chair by their quick inventions, all plastic, but unimaginably brilliant. It had been a long time since she actually got out of it, her limbs had atrophied, but in a second, they were able to roll her out painlessly on to her bed every evening, and slide her into the chair in the morning. She had stopped thanking them, for they shrugged their shoulders placatingly, placing an affectionate hand on her shoulder when she did.
The world was not spinning anymore, gravity was congealed in the last echo of the wall that separated them from the universe. It was not clear when they had lost their axis, but just as they never enquired, so too, they never doubted. The radio told them that they were lost people, and that the will to survive must be their own. They listened, placating one another, as the days shredded into countless anonymity, each moment going unrecorded except for the cries of the cicadas, which had survived the catastrophe. It was not cockroaches that had survived, for they got eaten up during the last days of the war, when all else had been cooked.
Stella shuddered. She called out again for Angel and her companion. They seemed to be rising, she could hear the house come awake, with it’s several sounds. There was the beep of the alarm clock, the radio playing music, the buzzing of their conversation. She could hear the water being filled carefully, half a bucket each of lavender fragrant distilled water. Yes, she knew the sound so well, that she was comforted. She heard these every day. They would come soon, she knew that. She waited. The old world, the memories drew her back.