Heard, Half-Heard, in the Stillness
By Iona Datt Sharma
Ekta’s Dadi could tell the future. She didn’t read the tea leaves, or make or lay bets on the cricket. But she booked the photographer the week before the news came of Purnima Didi’s engagement. She told the panditji to get his blood pressure checked before he told anyone he was short of breath. The day before the Human Spaceflight Programme was suspended, she called Ekta in Sriharikota and said she should come home.
Ekta had been living in the dormitory attached to the ISRO flight training school. It took her twenty minutes to pack her things into two suitcases. On her way out, one of the boys stopped her and said, “Ma’am, your mail.”
He handed her a heavy package, which Ekta put in her bag without opening. It would be a technical document, now mockingly out of date—a systems report for a rocket that would never leave the ground. “Thank you,” she said, both to him and to everything around her. She took a moment to look as though seeing this place for the first time, taking in the clean white lines of the building, the landscaped campus, the soft blue water lapping the fringes of the barrier island—every small detail of a place she had loved. Mangalyaan, the Mars Orbiter, had left for space from here. Ekta would not.
She stopped in Delhi for a while, to see her sister and her family. Purnima Didi tried to make her eat fried luchi and laddoos for every meal. “You need to put on some weight, Ekta,” she worried at her. “You were always so healthy, healthy! Now you can eat a little.”
Ekta’s brother-in-law said at least now Ekta could stay here and be a good mashi to her nieces and nephews. Ekta fantasized about putting poison in his tea. After two days, she couldn’t take any more and set out for the hills.
Ekta’s first dream had been of space, and with her dream went the nation. At sixteen, she had stayed up late, reading mathematics and physics and astronomy while Dadi knitted in her rocking chair. At twenty, she was hitting the gym every day, building up muscle and strength. At twenty-two, she was a decorated officer in the IAF, and Mangalyaan had skimmed the edge of Mars. When the Human Spaceflight Programme was announced and crewed, she was selected from an application pool of thousands.
(“Chalo, thik hua,” was Dadi’s comment. It has come out all right. Understatement was her way, but Ekta treasured it more than any effusive congratulations. Dadi thought it only right and proper that Ekta should be one of India’s first astronauts.)
Then on Ekta’s twenty-eighth birthday, a routine ground test of an in-flight abort system resulted in a pressurization failure. The resulting fire burned out half of the facility. Ekta recalled being off-duty, on her way to get a shower, and then nothing: not even the roar of the flame, the sound of buckling metal. She came around in a hospital bed three days later with cracked ribs, minor burns, and a drip tube snaking out of her arm. She had been dreaming, strangely, sedatives and shock coalescing in a disquieting patchwork of imagery. She had been looking for the bathroom, or the canteen, or something—it wasn’t clear in her mind. Instead of the old flight control centre, now blackened with flame and redolent of burnt plastic, she had been somewhere new, bright with fresh paint, tessellated patterns on the wall, rows of screens that danced with numbers. The place was being opened; a pandit was on the threshold, holding a coconut and a copper lota. The screens had labels: Krittika, Mangal, Brahaspati. It was the most beautiful thing Ekta had ever seen. When she woke up, the nurses told her how lucky she was—to be alive, firstly; and secondly, not to have been dropped from the flight roster.
Two days later, the programme was suspended. All personnel, including astronauts, were furloughed on full pay. Ekta thought, at least I won’t be a burden on my friends and relatives, while bitterness suffused her like milk in water.
Up in Manali, the snow had come. Dadi was cleaning the house top-to-bottom for Diwali, although she was planning to spend the festival day with her neighbour, Sunita Auntie, with the three children and nine grandchildren, one of whom had just gone to America to be a doctor. He was coming back with his new wife for a visit. Sunita Auntie wondered if she would be too Western for the small houses with their corrugated iron roofs and squat toilets. Dadi had knitted a sweater for her out of pretty red and blue wool. “Bright colours,” she said to Ekta. “You young people, you don’t like bright colours anymore. All black-black. I saw on the YouTube.”
“I like it,” Ekta said. Dadi loved YouTube; she shouted abuse at Modi’s channel every morning and watched cooking videos with her tea. “You can knit one for me after you knit the one for Ram’s wife.”
“Poor Sita,” Dadi said obscurely, her mind leaping back in time several millennia. “You know, this is why we celebrate Diwali? All the people carried their diya to light the way to Ayodhya when Ram brought Sita back from Lanka. He should have treated her better after that.”
Ram’s shameful treatment of Sita after the end of the Ramayana was one of Dadi’s favourite topics, but her recounting of Sita’s travails eventually shifted back to Sunita Auntie’s son Ram’s wife, whose name was actually Leah. She was a kindergarten teacher and had been raised in the US. Dadi hoped she would be happy in this marriage; Sunita was a good friend but had never been much of a mother-in-law. “Her mother-in-law was a tyrant,” she explained. “She thinks now she should be like that only. Sab kuch saf-saf hamesha karna hai, no quiet time in the house. It will be better in the next generation.”
She was an incorrigible optimist, but that had the quality of prediction. Ekta tensed, wanting to ask, Dadi, will the programme be restarted, Dadi, will I ever go to space, Dadi, what do I do now?
Dadi caught her eye as she was thinking about it, sniffed a pail of milk, and made a face. “Go to the bazaar, beta, get one more litre and we will make chai.”
Ekta exhaled slowly and went to gather her coat and boots. She protested when Dadi tried to stuff a hundred-rupee note in her hand—“Dadi, I’ll get it, for God’s sake,”—and managed to avoid taking it even when Dadi tried to block her way to the front door. She grabbed her phone and her own wallet and headed out into the crisp, blue-bright world.
Diwali had come late this year and the snow had come early, icicles forming on the edge of the metal roofs. It was still the first hour of morning, quiet save for the soft chanting form the mandir next door. The air was scented with the first aarti of the day and the promise of further snow. If she had gone to the Gangayaan space station, Ekta would have returned home, perhaps to adulation and awe; if she had gone on to Mars, she would never have seen snow or a mandir aarti again.
To know her own place, and to keep it with her a while longer, was a minor consolation in the face of disappointment that hurt like a broken bone. Ekta remembered Purnima Didi’s annoying husband. Koi baat nahin, at least you can get married and have loud, sticky children. She smiled to herself: her sense of humour had survived, if ragged around the edges.
The little dairy had no other customers. Ekta went in and asked for Dadi’s litre of milk, and on a whim a small tub of butterscotch ice cream. It would melt in the mouth with hot chai, something sweet amid a bitterness that Ekta feared might consume her.
Old Prashant, who had run the dairy since Ekta was a child, smiled to see her. “Haan, beta,” he said. “See, Mangalyaan.”
People often pointed it out to Ekta, as if she were unaware of the Mars Orbiter’s picture on the two-thousand-rupee banknote, but she’d learned not to be irritated—she understood people’s urge to touch the beyond, to be a part of something they would otherwise never see. She looked at the note obediently, moved to hand it over and paused: for a second, the image was different. Instead of the familiar blocky shape of the Mars Orbiter, she was looking at a ship in space like a string of beads, hanging against a jewelled background of stars. The text read, in Hindi: “Krittika.” She blinked and saw Mangalyaan again, then Gandhiji on the back of the banknote, his face wrinkled by the touch of many hands.
“What is it, beta?” Prashant asked.
“Nothing,” Ekta said. She put her gloves on before touching the pot of frozen ice cream and went back to Dadi.
Sunita Auntie’s eldest son Ram’s new wife Leah pronounced herself delighted with everything. The village was quaint, the houses so atmospheric, the Diwali celebration so authentic. “You must be Ekta!” she burbled, on being introduced. “The local spacewoman! How exciting!”
Ekta rolled her eyes, feeling like a tourist attraction wheeled out for some local colour. “Very exciting,” she agreed nonsensically, and went to see if she could help Dadi and Sunita Auntie in the kitchen. But after only a minute of stirring the boiling milk, she decided she should give the woman the benefit of the doubt: Leah was enthusiastic, at least; she had put on the red and blue sweater immediately after Dadi gave it to her. She was trying.
And more than that, it was Diwali. The possible demise of the HSF made no difference to the diya burning brightly on the surfaces; the suji ka halwa and jalebi filling the air with sugar; the children setting off fireworks on the maidaan. Ekta resolved to welcome this stranger who was far from her own family at a festive time, and took Leah some elaichi chai ladled fresh from the pot.
“Keep wearing your gloves,” she said, stepping onto the verandah with a tray. “The cup is very hot.”
Leah took the cup as bidden, looked up, and said brightly, “So I hear you’re not going to Mars after all!”
Ekta blinked, not sure what to do with this conversational opener. “Uh, not exactly. The, ah, Human Spaceflight Programme has been suspended for an accident investigation. And I, ah, I might not have gone to Mars; I was just down for Gangayaan—that’s the Earth orbital space station, you know.”
Horribly, Ekta was embarrassed to speak of it now: of what had been the pride of her life, that now felt like failure. She set the tray down and gripped her own chai.
“Ram told me all about you,” Leah burbled on, unperturbed by Ekta’s uncertainty. “The whole family must be so proud. I guess this is all for the best though. You know, the cancellation and stuff.”
“Is it?” Ekta said, startled, looking out over the edge of the raised verandah to the maidaan below. “How is that?”
“It’s just, it must cost a lot, the space stuff,” Leah said. “Right?”
“It doesn’t cost that much,” Ekta said absently. In a televised speech, Modi had once pointed out that if you measured it in rupees-per-mile, the Mangalyaan mission had cost less than a rickshaw journey in Allahabad. Comparing our Ekta to a rickshaw-walla, Dadi had said indignantly before throwing dhokla at the computer screen. But despite its source, Ekta had liked the comparison. “As a percentage of the overall government budget it’s insignificant.”
She was having difficulty concentrating on the conversation. The kids on the maidaan were having problems lighting the touchpaper on their fireworks, and the air was thick with the residue of smoke. She remembered her moment of clarity in the early morning, amid the snow and the sound of the aarti. It seemed astronomically distant.
“But India’s so poor,” Leah said earnestly. “And it’s only a young country when you think about it. Maybe it’s better if you people stay home for now, huh? Clean up your own backyard a mite before you head out into the neighbourhood. It’s for the best.”
“Is it,” Ekta said. She chose the cup on the tray that was coolest and poured the chai down the back of Leah’s neck. The kids’ rocket caught and zoomed upwards, and the sky lit with blue, pink, and purple stars.
“The sweater, Ekta,” Dadi said, despairingly, a while later. It was very late now, the sound of the Diwali fireworks across the town dying away. Neither of them had wanted to go to bed after all the excitement. Ram had shouted a lot, Leah had cried, the kids had all been delighted—and so, Ekta suspected, had Sunita Auntie. Ekta and Dadi had retired when the worst of the hungama ended. Ekta would probably have to go and apologize to Leah and Ram in the morning. It would be all right, she thought. The moment of catharsis had been achieved regardless.
“I am sorry about that, Dadi,” she said. “It was a beautiful sweater. Maybe the dhobi will be able to clean the stain.”
“Maybe,” Dadi said, not like she believed it. “Sunita Auntie, she will be so difficult now.”
“She’s always difficult.”
“True,” Dadi said. “Ekta, beta, why did you do it? So-so foolish things she said, you know we all are so proud of you.”
“I know,” Ekta said. “I know, Dadi. I was just so . . . disappointed.”
It felt like a small blessing to give voice to it. Next door, perhaps Leah was still awake, too, perhaps nudging Ram to say, You see, I hit a nerve. But she hadn’t: Ekta had never been convinced by her argument. India could spend money on dreams as well as roti-chawal like any other nation. Ekta’s was a simple hurt, of a dream held and lost.
She steeled herself to it. This time, she was able to ask the question. “
“Chhee, why you ask me these things?” Dadi said. “We go, we do not go, bhagwan janne.”
“Sometimes you know these things,” Ekta said, as casually as she could. It didn’t work to ask Dadi things outright. It was best just to listen, her bird-like voice carrying around the room though age had cracked its sweetness.
“Sometimes,” Dadi said. “Bhagwan knows what is best, that’s all.”
“How do you know?” Ekta asked. No one ever pushed Dadi on this subject, but Ekta had pushed her way into the space programme.
“I look,” Dadi said, with unaccustomed force. “Just look, na. Everything is there when you look.”
Moving slowly through the treacle of this moment, Ekta reached for her handbag, abandoned on the table, and reached inside for the systems manual that had come with her unread from Sriharikota.
It was long and technical. It covered a proposed improvement to a cooling system, using a new formulation of fluid reagent. Ekta read it to the end and looked at the diagrams, rendered in elegant wireframes with the same beautiful curves as on the banknote. They depicted a ship made to hang in space like a pendant. Each diagram was labelled with the ship’s name.
“Dadi,” Ekta said. “What is, ah, Krittika?”
“English medium walli larki,” Dadi said, mocking. “Come, I show you.”
On the verandah at the back of the house they could see lights on next door: undoubtedly Sunita Auntie’s entire household still recovering from the shock. But the remainder of the lights in town were dimmed now, and there were no longer fireworks in the sky.
“There,” Dadi said, pointing. Her eyes, like her mind, were still knife-sharp. “See, Rohini, the lal-walla tara.”
The Western name for that star was Aldebaran. “You don’t tell the future by astrology,” Ekta said, accusingly.
“Arré, not like that.” Dadi sniffed, gesturing upwards again. “Next to it you will see Krittika.”
“The Pleiades,” Ekta said, following Dadi’s pointing finger and wishing, not for the first time, for a scientific education that had not been so wholly colonized. “Krittika is the Pleiades star cluster.”
“Haan,” Dadi said, impatiently. “Your cluster.”
The ship in the diagrams—Krittika; its name was Krittika—had had seven modules, each as perfectly formed as a drop of mercury. It had been—would be—named for the seven sister stars. It would have technical manuals, and cooling systems, and a beautiful new ground control centre with bright tessellated patterns on the walls. It would be depicted on India’s currency. It would shine in space like a Diwali light.
“Come,” Ekta said, dragging her eyes away from Aldebaran and the Pleiades. It was dark enough now for the Milky Way to sweep its way down to the horizon. “Chalo, chai banayenge. Dadi, come, you’ll freeze.”
Dadi submitted to being led by the arm. “You will go back to Sriharikota, no?” she announced as she bolted the door behind them. “You make so much trouble here.”
“I will if they call me,” Ekta said. She was sure that when she looked again, the Krittika systems manual would once again be a report about Gangayaan, a spacecraft that might or might not be launched. The banknotes in her purse would show the 2016 orbiter. She, Ekta Kapoor, aged twenty-eight and a month, would help Dadi around the house for a while, and wait to hear if they would call her.
Above her, the sky was clear and bright and infinite.
“They will call you,” Dadi said.
By S. B. Divya
I usually host a big, extended family dinner for Diwali, but last year we cancelled it due to the pandemic. Things have reopened more now, and I’m sure they’ll be celebrating a lot in India, but the situation in California is still dicey, especially for family with kids too young for the vaccine, and so we’re putting it off another year.
Still, we’ll have a small celebration with my parents. We’ll eat delicious sweets and maybe light some sparklers for fun. It’s too important of a holiday to let it pass unmarked.
Finding a science fiction story in honor of Diwali is no easy task. Holidays are not often the anchor point for speculative fiction. They’re such an integral part of all human cultures that I wish more authors would consider incorporating them into their stories. I came across today’s story by a happy accident–I happened to see the link to the story at a time that I could follow it, and I was immediately drawn in by the setting and topic.
I’ve been so happy to see India’s space program grow and thrive. It’s a great way to inspire younger generations to work in science and technology. It’s also a way to restore pride to a colonized people who, hundreds of years earlier, had commanded vast empires and overseen great insights in math, science, and philosophy.
Like NASA, ISRO has had its share of successes (Mangalyaan, the Mars Orbiter) and failures (Vikram, the Moon lander), but it continues to persevere. Every space program has setbacks. The key is not to lose hope, and that’s what Iona has captured with this story.
Diwali is a celebration of triumph over tragedy, of hope over despair. I love how this story skillfully weaves that theme with Ekta’s future and the future of India’s space program. That final line, “They will call you,” is a perfect way to encapsulate it.
And as we approach the end of a second year of this pandemic, I wish you all a happy Diwali, and a rekindling of hope for better times to come.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution noncommercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Do go forth and share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Desmond Tutu, who said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
Thanks for joining us, and enjoy your adventures through time and space.
About the Author
Iona Datt Sharma is a writer, lawyer, and linguaphile, and the product of more than one country. Their first short story collection, Not For Use In Navigation, was published in March 2019.
About the Narrator
Deepti Gupta is an Audie-Finalist, SOVAS and Earphones winning narrator and actress based in Los Angeles. Fluent in English, Hindi and Urdu, her career spans across India, Singapore, Pakistan and the United States. As an actress, she switches between big and small screens with ease and grace. She can be seen in Disney+’s High School Musical The Musical, Netflix’s The Politician, Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere and CBS’s MacGyver. Look out for her feature film, ‘India Sweets & Spices’, which will be released theatrically by Bleecker Street Films in the US on November 19th.