So close to home, rich fold upon fold, the land rolled hot and heavy. Scruffy guava and taller kinnow trees lined up along the path to greet Noor upon her return to Phoolnagar. She tried not to stare at Kabir’s languid shoulders, the silver hair laid close to his skull, dark bruises skirting his ankles.
He still walked like a young man, a flitting bee hungry for nectar. But Noor knew he was exhausted by the long walk as he had been all the other times he had escorted her during previous inspections of the cataline crop. While there were many ills the Zensai could fix, old age wasn’t one of them. As prime secretary for the Zensai, she had offered him the anti-grav stabilizers stowed on her starship, but the pride of the malik was too much.
Kabir turned and smiled at her with a flash of gold teeth. In her journeys on behalf of the Zensai, time had moved slower for her and she looked younger than Kabir even though she had once been a little older than him.
At moments like these, she felt a nagging pity: his life had been harsh and brutal while hers filled with limitless fortune and bounty. Despite her elaborate diplomacy training as a polymath, the prime secretary couldn’t decide a response and instead lowered her gaze towards the lush grass lining the dirt path.
She snuck another peek at the old man. Kabir had been Noor’s last match for marriage a lifetime ago. Her long-dead parents had tried so hard to marry her off to someone from Phoolnagar, plotting a spider’s web of spurned marriage proposals spreading across the village. They asked the malik, the village council, and an army of relatives to help. But nothing worked. It never occurred to them to look for someone outside the insidious circle. With nothing but dirt poverty to their name, she had no potential, no dowry to offer to a suitor.
But then the Zensai came like a sunburst and gathered her up with their many rose-colored segments, taking her far beyond Earth. There, at what they called the Pillars of the Galaxy, the Zensai cherished her and she embraced all they stood for. Under a phalanx of misty columns in a blue sky not unlike Earth’s, she learned her potential and place in the universe. Silent so long, Noor blossomed and had risen high among their anointed acolytes.
She had now returned as more than an emissary to Earth and this once familiar, now alien country, the village of her birth. Phoolnagar! Everything seemed to have changed. A bird burst into wild song, alien and shrill. Sometimes the warping effects of time dilation felt too much but she knew it was a price worth paying. This was where the future and past merged. The cataline of Phoolnagar was about to sing her song!
She turned her mind to the cataline. The growth was not surprising. She was 12.5 percent agronomist after all. The nutrients in this soil, acidity levels, minerals in the river, and the generosity of the monsoon’s overflow along this bend in the river were all strong growth factors.
Just past the iron bridge over a steady, dark stream, he gestured more than said: There … feet sinking in rich, black soil, villagers clustered next to the bridge. And here she was. She coughed, the dust catching in her throat.
Kabir suddenly grabbed at her wrist, his screeched warning like a burst in the void. She never understood how it happened, how they had come so close to ending both her and this mission which no one else had the stomach for.
It always unfurled like a kaleidoscope in her memory afterward. The searing rush of air slammed her. Bedecked with colorful flags, chains flailing the ground, the caravan of fantastically painted trucks. Emblazoned with prayers for safe journeys and bombastic pictures of angels, forests, rivers, and fantastic birds, they roared on obliviously. Someone had even tried to paint a picture of the Zensai. Despite everything, she giggled at the anatomical misrepresentation the artist had made of Zensai physiology.
Panting and bent over, Kabir cursed the screaming convoy. The young drivers should know better. He suspected he had seen one of them pass through before. At last, he was spent and stopped talking. Smelling of sweat and the faint scent of mustard, he smiled again, guardedly this time. “They love the water, you know. Much, much more than the sugarcane we used to grow for the mills in my youth. So much … I’ve had to get an extra day’s allocation from the canal each week. Now the plants look fit to burst.”
It was nearly dusk as the villagers at the bridge joined the party of two diffidently, not speaking beyond formal greeting. As their feet crunched behind, she thought of nothing but scheming and lying. In Phoolnagar, she had seen how they exploited her parent’s plight in incremental, cruel fashion: the steepening payments to moneylenders, the expensive gifts for matchmakers, and how small they had made her feel, of her uselessness. After her parents had died, the village absorbed what little was left. Noor had no desire to know who took her father’s house.
Unsure how to counter her silence, Kabir didn’t relent. “You know, some people have a problem with any solution the Zensai bring. Not me. I’m smarter than that.”
She tried to match him tactfully. “So the changes in the village, they’ve all been good?”
“Of course”, Kabir declared pompously. “I want to kiss the first Zensai I see. But they’re very tall, so it might as well be one of those tentacles. The river is alive again, the wheat crop’s tall as a spear. Crime has vanished. Why steal now? Nobody starves anymore.”
Knowing he was exaggerating the benefits provided by the Zensai, Noor tried to smile benignly but no warmth reached her dark eyes. They were close now and she was now very conscious of her movements. Phoolnagar loomed ahead and she felt a tremor in her spine, remembering.
Somewhere in the distance, the call to prayer sounded from a mosque. She shifted the scarf on her head in deference and wondered if anyone would ask to stop and say prayers. The villagers looked at Kabir expectantly as it was customary for him to lead communal prayers.
But Kabir was too excited to tarry now. The terrain broke into a rocky incline and he unabashedly held out his hand to assist. “Give me your hand,” he insisted as if he wanted to marry her then and there. For a second, she froze, fighting an urge to escape and hide in her starship and wait for it all to end.
But this was the last step in a long journey. The hardest thing she ever mastered were the hieroglyphs the Zensai used. So many emotional subtleties nestled within them. She always loved the work they posted on vassal planets like Paan. Noor was there when news of the settlement broke. Paan would finally be freed!
It was hard to express what this meant. Like humanity, the Zensai had thirsted for their origins. As their empire grew, the question became more urgent and important. Wily Kabir tried to probe, his insecurity goading Noor to talk more. She imagined the home life of this widower who had until recently lived in a mud hut. The invalid son, the years of bad crops, the decade-long insurgency that had torn Phoolnagar. “What is this Paan, what does it have to do with us?”
Noor weighed her words carefully. “The best analogy, um … description, would be if men went to Mars and discovered an aboriginal population. They resort to a basic instinct to coerce and control. And then they discover the awful truth … The Zensai learnt that the origins of everything they held dear … their language, culture, even their faces were borrowed and inherited from them. A terrible burden, primitive fathers.”
It was an archaeological dig, led by a former farmer from Earth who had resembled Kabir, that set things in motion. The obsidian tablets he unearthed proved everything, even down to the way the Zensai held their robes pinched between two segments.
But who would grow the cataline now? Who would grow the crimson dye, rich like oxblood, for the segmented sacred robes that every Zensai wore on the holy days of the Long Lung? In a way few humans understood, Noor realized it was the key to preserving imperium. How many of those robes the ruler dispatched to his nobles that were assigned to far-flung regions of the empire was a key barometer for success, especially if the emperor was as young as this one.
And ancestors simply couldn’t be bound to the ancient and laborious form of its extraction. The trauma of this unraveling was her opportunity and she pounced. In a buzzing voice trembling with agitation, in the best rhetorical tradition of the Zensai, she made her case.
Noor had grown quieter the closer they drew to the village. She walked toward it in grinding steps. The muggy air coated her nostrils and throat, slowly suffocating her. The party continued to grow as it snaked through narrow dirt roads, gathering up the idling curious, past red houses built of burnt brick.
The village’s women remained inside; their only participation as silhouettes in doorways. How much had Kabir told the village about who she was? She wondered what the aged matriarchs who refused to make her part of their household would make of her, a creature from another world.
Shadows played on the path as the wind picked up sharply. “Is it an andhi?” she asked Kabir. The malik shook his head grimly—not a dust storm. More people waited at the site, all similarly dressed. Colorful shirts billowing, their tanned, guileless faces looked at her squarely.
So nauseating was her passage through the village, Noor didn’t realize they had reached their destination until she caught the first frond swaying in the weak light. Even in the night … Oh, how they flowered! Each was so beautiful, arrayed like a colorful bride in paddy fields for half an acre. Their tendrils flared and glowed like fire and gold. Each petal constituted a unique and indescribable rainbow. She knew the complex rhizomes of each plant would be rooted and burrowed firmly in the soil by now.
The cataline plants were even more beautiful than she had imagined in the native setting. This was better than her wildest projections. The members of the village buzzed with excitement. “We’ll have to move the schedule up now.” Noor was glowing as she spoke, “This is just fantastic growth. They’ll be ready soon.”
Kabir jostled to stand next to her. “You mean they are about to open?”
She nodded sharply. “Kabir saab, I think you should gather a leaf from these plants for every household. Chew it, grind it up, and toss it in your pots, fry it. However, you want … And trust me, you’ll never taste anything like it. All you will ever need will be there, I promise.”
Kabir’s bushy eyebrows bristled in surprise. “How can we do that when this is not even our property?”
Spoken past him, the words were delivered with true imperial majesty. “The results are excellent. As prime secretary, I am proud to inform you that we will require a quarter of each peasant’s landholdings in the borders of Phoolnagar.” Kabir stared blankly at the ground. She knew she was moving fast and had probably never seemed further apart from him.
Kabir’s brow knitted with worry and confusion, swallowing a farmer’s pride in his alien harvest. “That doesn’t make any sense. We’re farmers, we grew sugarcane or rice in these paddies and now it’s all gone, covered with these plants that seem to suck the life out of everything around them. Who’s going to feed us if this is all we grow?”
The woman who had returned could not relent now. Her intense gaze fixed him in place as she spoke with a feverish pace. “Take that one there, the one with the crimson leaves. Quick. Cut it up!”
Kabir’s eyes were blazing lanterns in his thin face. “You just said the crop wasn’t ready. Same as last time, not for another two months. But you’re telling us to cut it up. This is very confusing … And we need this to be right. Only then will the Zensai come to this accursed village and make our lives better.”
She ignored him and strode toward the plants. Her hand began to caress leaves that extended to her like thin, black fingers as a dreamy smile grew over her face. “No, it will be now,” she said in a whisper that somehow everyone heard.
The villagers looked at their malik and shook their heads slightly. No one had ever seen Kabir’s authority challenged before! And by a woman, especially one born so low. What was the world coming to?
She rose above the villagers, towering over them like an angel of vengeance. Over the roar of her anti-grav stabilizers, they yelled in panic. The air thrummed with her power. Aloft between her fingers, a black cataline seed glowed luminescent. “Don’t you understand? Here, I have given you the key to the heart of Zensai! And you worry of wheat, rice? No crop will ever match it. Not in human history. And I give this gift to my own village.”
Noor was of the Zensai, an extension of their will. Everyone understood now as Noor felt a rough strength prickling beneath her skin. Kabir glared at one of the villagers and tilted his head slowly, his surrender implied in the gesture. Unlike the rest, he hadn’t fallen for her magic but knew there was no real choice.
There was a shout and floodlights strung on trees snapped on. She barely had to instruct them as they enthusiastically plunged in poles to drag the brooding mass of the plant closer. A young boy, at the nod of his father’s head, opened a sluice at the edge of the paddy. The water drained rapidly, exposing the roots of the plant.
Even Kabir couldn’t contain his emotions. The rhizome, its root network the color of dark gold, was twisted and entwined into a lattice of humanity’s oldest dreams. Everyone began to grin stupidly as if somehow it was made of real gold.
Staring raptly, she witnessed the machetes rise and fall. She had wanted this sacrifice to be a solemn event but her patience had thinned. “Quick, quick! Cut it up.” A cold shiver ran through her body as they disemboweled and carved up the beautiful plant.
The villagers hadn’t worn gloves and soon their hands and billowing clothes were splattered by an emerald ichor. Like the survivor of a massacre, only alive because she had played dead, hidden under a mound of victims, her heart was afire with guilt and shame. Quickly, they piled the noble remains into a low cart drawn by a grey donkey blinking stupidly.
And she felt bold now. “Let’s get back home. All of you! Back to the village. Let’s have a feast!”
Kabir’s reserve finally cracked. He growled, pointing over his shoulder. “What, Prime Secretary? We’ve done what you asked, why don’t you just go back to that ship of yours and send that fancy report?”
Noor didn’t flinch. She took a quick sip of water from her canteen. “Your success is wonderful—delicious if I might say. Kabir sahib, you have exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. This is a moment to be honored and cherished. You still don’t know the magnitude of what you have accomplished, how history has changed. Some food is the least we can do to mark the occasion.”
Kabir was bound to accede. It would be dishonorable to deny a guest a meal, especially if they asked for it. She walked by instinct, her energy unflagging, toward the town center. The villagers closed ranks around her protectively like a family escorting a bride entering a wedding hall. As they entered, Kabir started shouting, and pots appeared magically next to the old post office.
No great slabs of fired carp, giant helpings of mustard greens and cornbread, or heaving plates of steaming pulao for her. Instead, Noor demanded pakorai, simple fritters like the ones her mother fried for her in childhood, not so big that the filling might be left raw in the middle, remembering the way they went with milky tea during the monsoon season … She didn’t say which filling she preferred so the cooks poured potato, aubergine, spinach, onion, and other ingredients into the enormous pitted fire-blackened pots. Faces blank with exhaustion, they stirred the wreathing, swirling mass of oil endlessly. She loved how angrily the deep frying pakorai sizzled as the smell wafted up to her when she sat down in front of an open fire with her reluctant host in tow.
Her cataline was already prepared. There was a hideous joy in her as cataline petals and leaves, cut fine like ginger, fell into the cooking pots. The veins caught fire with a rich decadence and she sighed, not unhappily, as the scent of the pakorai changed again. The cataline’s composition had been carefully spliced with Earth-origin opioids, but it went far beyond that. Once they took their first bite of cataline, her work would be complete.
The villagers would be cleansed, freed from the prejudices that had plagued them their entire backward lives. Their treatment would be unmatched by any other in humanity’s journey, leaving behind only a subject mellow and docile. A water buffalo happily wallowing in the mud.
Cataline’s addictive properties were a masterstroke. The Zensai was hesitant at first, but the appeal of her proposal was irresistible. Here was a process of wonderful, endless self-perpetuation. The more they consumed, the more cataline they would produce. She had history on her side. The British had tamed and broken a Chinese empire not so long ago.
Once Phoolnagar, the aptly named home of flowers, was branded like this … The prime secretary would push cultivation along the plains and fields of this country and beyond across her former planet. This settlement would be the first wave in a rainbow sea of cataline, flowing far beyond its humble origins, and there would be a rash of workshops to cut and dry the product. Thus Paan would be delivered and their ungrateful children, the Zensai, would have their precious dye in undreamt-of quantities. Everybody could be happy.
She sat next to the malik on a makeshift bench, silently thinking over the glorious revolution of Noor. Kabir’s eyes darted toward faces in the gathering. Eventually, he began to scratch the fuzz on his chin before sweeping his hand up and down his face. With closed eyes, as if far away, he asked her, “Do you remember the old cinema by Badami Bagh?”
Bright yellow walls, close to Ghulab Chowk. The one her family could never afford tickets for.
“I used to watch the same movies again and again because I wanted to be the hero, punish the villains, get the girl. The usual thing …” He leaned forward as if confessing. “You know, I used to watch you too, trying to get other people to pay for your ticket, and I imagined a gust of wind taking the village apart. I had silly fantasies about you, but I had those about a lot of girls.”
His face became drawn as if stifling terrible pain. “Movies make us stupid because dreams have nothing to do with reality. The years come at you like mad dogs chasing you up a closed alley. Drought, war, famine.”
Her gaze fell back to the fires lit below the cooking cataline. Involuntarily, her hand rose as if to shield her face as he continued. “And now you make promises which we’ll have to take your word for. We’ll have to give up our food, we who have so little, for your demands”
His eyes turned shrewd as he spun on her. “Do you even have authority to demand our land like this?” She gulped, unable to speak. He knew he had guessed rightly from her expression.
Noor had to have his consent as the highest representative of Phoolnagar, the Zensai had insisted. She bit her lip as Kabir waved his hand at one of his men holding a great steel mug. The villager moved with wiry ease as he handed it to her with both hands.
The old man leaned back, a satisfied smile tracing along his face. “I thought so,” he said quietly. “These Zensai, I don’t know them. But I have seen rebels screaming with rage, stone-faced policemen who stole our sugarcane … Don’t get me started on the government councils. All only ever stole from us! You stand before me now. Despite your time apart from us, whether you acknowledge it or not, you are one of us. You are not Zensai!” But his voice sounded strangely hollow at the end. “And that is all that matters.”
Kabir’s gift sweated cold in her hand. Noor peered inside. It was lassi. She took a deep swallow of the yogurt drink. Her tongue pushed aside the buttery dollop on the top, relishing its solidity. “It’s delicious, Kabir,” she said truthfully, noting how it settled heavily in her empty belly.
He nodded firmly and thumped a fist into his callused palm. “We’ll do it, damn it. Each harvest better than the one before it. I promise you till the last day I stand on this earth.” And the village roared behind him, exultant.
He had beaten her squarely and yet he still trusted her! At this moment she knew she loved this battered being. The moment threatened to swallow her. He would guide all the rest to her light, she knew it. And it wasn’t only out of fear of the Zensai, but because of her. Because of who she was. Could that be true in this viper’s nest called Phoolnagar?
The pakora feast began. All around, the villagers who had wronged her and their children and grandchildren ate hungrily. Noor stared deeply at Kabir with eyes the color of midnight. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed his first bite. He would now achieve the painless freedom so many religions had promised but never delivered. To be in this world but not of it. Was this not for his own good?
All Phoolnagar would soon feel a borderless, engorging hunger. Then its inhabitants would hoe and plant new seeds and watch flowers growing into rainbows. With regular cataline intake, even their irises would turn the color of burnished gold.
She arose awkwardly, feeling weakness creep inside her bones. Kabir called after her. She chose silence as she fled.
Her return to the starship was not the moment of triumph she had dreamt of. Alone with her thoughts, her body convulsed with coughing and retching as her hands drew across her chest. Something that had held her together for so long was disintegrating, and she knelt in the shadow of her revenge.
In the cool light of her lonely chambers, she wept bitterly, remembering her brilliant conversations with the Zensai and the wonderful, bright future. Her heart should have been soaring toward eternity and yet was weighed down by an anchor, a village called Phoolnagar.