Escape Pod 648: A Handful of Dal

Show Notes

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A Handful of Dal

By Naru Sundar

200g Dal
300ml Water
Ghee
Turmeric
Coriander seeds
Whole black pepper
Cumin seeds

Start with the dal. Wash it like one washes the feet of ascetics entering a temple: with love, with care. Shake loose the dirt and twigs that inevitably stow away alongside it. Perhaps this note will stow away with you onto the Yatra, a tiny mote of the past to accompany you on your grand journey.

Then, a finger of coppery ghee in the pot, and seeds of coriander fattening in the heat. Let the dal swirl into the now fragrant fat. Watch it flush as red and bright as the stones in Fatehpur Sikri that we marveled at once. Let turmeric dust it in gold, as bright as suns. Drown the dal in water quickly, before it blackens to ash—like the protesters in Chandni Chowk. Who can blame them, our people carry the sin of division under our skin, and the selection process for the Yatra was not immune.

You were chosen, Rajiv. I can only hope that when you grind pepper and cumin, you will think of your children’s children, fated one day to smell the air of a distant world. When the dal is ready, soft and lush and swollen, let everything marry. A tapestry of flavors, a gift from your ancestors to your descendants.


200g Dal
300ml Water
Soybean oil
Turmeric
Whole black pepper

Already the recipe is different from when grandfather made it, and his words no longer crackle in my ear.
“Red dal, red as old Earth, long left behind.”

Strange, melancholy words from Raj the navigator, full of unexplained histories and unknowable secrets. Be careful as you pour the oil, as it may spatter oddly under our imperfect gravity. Be patient while the pot heats, because you never know when your energy rations may dwindle, siphoned off to the palaces down-axis. Like Raj, who is nothing more than cosmic ash now, I too ramble.

Let not a single bead of dal fall astray, Mina—the fields of mid-axis will not last. Let it gloss in the oil, burnished gold by the turmeric. Let it become soft and luscious in the water. Understand that it is different, diminished from that which Raj made. Coriander, cumin, ghee. These words to you are as foreign and remote as our fabled destination. But the taste of dal is real, Mina. Even diminished, it may prove more sustaining than myth and fading memory.


200g Dal
300ml Water
Soybean oil

I could only salvage a handful, Qanj. Just enough grains to fit in my palm, clutched tight so they don’t float away. Remember to steady your hand when you pour the oil into the centrifugal heater. Don’t be wasteful Qanj. Don’t let a single drop go. Nothing is anchored any more. We broke the world, sundered it from gravity’s kiss, but it is you and all our other daughters and sons who pay the price.

You don’t need the oil or its hint of smoke, but it’s all we can do in this shadow time, this poor mirror of the world that my grandmother inhabited. Add the water in, let it turn from something dry to something edible. This is all I have, all I can give you. Read the older recipes with care, the dreams of our parents and our parent’s parents. The axis warlords have taken most of what we had away, papers, notes, old letters. They still believe that our ancestors held the keys to some other future. Somewhere in these tattered pages, you and your children may yet find the hope I have lost. Perhaps someday your children’s children will stand on solid ground, but that is a dream I have long since believed a lie.


200g Rice
350ml Water

I won’t lie to you. I don’t remember this dal my grandfather spoke of, this red grain our ancestors mythologized. These days all we have is rice, water, protein cubes. At least the rice has the hope of flavor. They say the archons have rebuilt the palaces down-axis, and the fabled gardens bloom fresh with lotus and chrysanthemum. No spiraling lines of floating poor waiting for their weekly rations there, only fat tables overflowing with lushness. There, the word recipe has a meaning. Here amidst the tattered shanties that hug the outer edge of the world, the very notion is an obscenity.

On occasion an invigilator comes, to burn us again with questions. Raj, navigator, first-class. An ancestor, they say. But what has he given us, Pari? What secrets has he passed down to us? Nothing but these recipes, these scrawls of yellowing paper that each of us has added to over the years. Grandfather said this world was a way station, a stepping-stone for our children to one day find a new home. I am tired of his myths. They do not warm my belly. One day I will burn these pages, so that the past cannot taunt us.


Dal, handful
Turmeric, a scraping
Water, two handfuls

I found the pitted and gouged statuette in Pari’s lockbox. An elephant’s head on a man’s body adorned by strange symbols. Hidden inside it: these tattered notes and more. A satchel of turmeric, a handful of dal, and most importantly—seeds. Perhaps one day you will harvest the red and gold from your own fields. I tried to approximate the recipe from the older ones, but I trust you will do better than I. I’m old, Gana. I won’t see your children dance on solid ground. I know—you’re skeptical. You think the world beyond redemption, but there’s always room for hope, Gana. My mother found hope, enough to convince her family to board the strange vessel moored on the outside of the world. It was she who found the hidden path, known to none, not even the archons or the warlords of the fields. It was she who roused its sleeping engines, knowing that whatever direction she picked, it would not contain the madness of the axis wars.

We have no fields in this small world, no place to grow, just a multitude of flavorless rations that we whittle away at. Maybe these symbols etched on the bottom of the statue will lead us to answers. If nothing else, believe in hope. Even if you don’t have any left in your own heart, save some for your children. Make the dal for them on an auspicious day, knowing it will come but once a lifetime. Let them know where the winding river of their blood came from.


200g Dal
300ml Water
Coriander seeds
Whole black pepper
Cumin seeds

When the Hala opened its archives to my grandfather, it opened the door to more than just food stores and seed banks. It opened the doors to knowledge, and destiny. So much to learn, so much to prepare for. Strange symbols, on the bottom of a statue, a kind of key—and Hala was the lock. Perhaps we should be skeptical that this new world, this New Yatra, even exists. But that road only leads to despair, and we have had enough of despair.

Each year we siphon off a sliver of the stores to make our dal, to celebrate the winding thread of history and family. This Raj who is but a name in our stories, did he architect all of this? Did he make the Hala when he saw Yatra descending into madness? Who can know. Perhaps the Hala would have opened its doors to anyone. Perhaps we are simply inventing our own mythology. It matters little to me. One day, Maya, your children’s children will harvest these seeds and grains from earth and soil. Until then, when that luscious gold first hits your lips, Maya, say a prayer for their future.


200g Dal
300ml Water
Ghee
Turmeric
Coriander seeds
Whole black pepper
Cumin seeds

Full circle, we arrive. I have only stories to distinguish whether the labors of our new world are any better than the world we once came from. But this is the first season in that long journey that this recipe returns to its origins.
Or is even that a lie, and the taste of cumin that we know is nothing like what the wise woman who wrote that first page knew. Does it matter? I don’t think it does. For you, Sura, I give you the future. I give you the fields that I have tilled, the russet red soil bursting with green stalks and plenty. Dal, coriander, cumin, turmeric. Our hands give them birth. Our tongues consume them.
The world contains both harshness and beauty, Sura. When you see our two moons setting against a turquoise sky, remember that the strength of beauty can overcome all the rigors of life. Then, taste the dal. Let that taste mingle on your tongue, knowing that it is itself a story, passed down over time. A legend of the past, a seed for the future.

About the Author

Naru Sundar

Naru Sundar

Naru Dames Sundar writes speculative fiction and poetry. His work has appeared at PodCastle, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and is forthcoming at Shimmer Magazine. He lives in the redwoods of Northern California.

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About the Narrator

S.B. Divya

Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Her novella ‘Runtime,’ was a Nebula Award finalist, and her short stories have been published at various magazines including Uncanny, Apex, and Tor.com.

She holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing, and she worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer before becoming an author.

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