November 5, 2021November 10, 2021 3min readBy Joy Batra
For Kiran Mathur, life has always gone to plan. As a child, she dreamed of leaving India to support her parents. Now, at 28 years old, she is a biomedical engineer in New York City and the light of her parents’ lives. The next major milestone in her life is marriage, which everyone expects to be arranged. There’s just one tiny problem: Nash Hawthorne, a charming and attractive psychologist, has just moved into Kiran’s building and the two are becoming fast friends.
Annika Sharma’s latest novel, “Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words,” is the first in a three-book series about the Chai Masala Club, a group of four Indian friends navigating life and love in New York City on the cusp of their thirtieth birthdays. Sharma writes, “Just like New York was [Kiran’s] home away from home, the Chai Masala Club was her family away from family.” The club’s other members are the glamorous Payal, who dreams of starting her own fashion line, opinionated Sonam, a doctor who dreams of starting a nonprofit and writing a book, and feminist Akash, who wants to serve on a board. Their bond is palpable, and it is no surprise that Kiran describes this group as her “soulmates.”
The novel alternates Kiran and Nash’s viewpoints, which allows Sharma to do two things. First, Nash’s job as a child psychologist allows Sharma to draw on her own training in Early Childhood Special Education to discuss mental health. Nash survived a traumatic childhood and must now confront his trauma head-on (yes, that is a psychology pun) if he hopes to have a successful adult relationship. Second, Sharma turns Nash into a stand-in for the reader, so that Kiran can educate him about India. Between banter and blunders, the two take on everything from language (it’s “chai,” not “chai tea latte”) to the country’s demographics and customs, to even heavier topics like society’s expectations of women and how immigrants are treated overseas. Sharma balances these serious topics with the jokes throughout, so the tone stays light and bubbly. The book was clearly written with a lot of love and care, which resonates through the characters’ friendships.
Bucket lists propelled the plot, as the Chai Masala Club members get serious about what they would like to accomplish before they turn thirty. Unsurprisingly, all four want to fall in love. Sharma captures the seeming significance of the thirtieth birthday.
“Thirty though. What comes after that?”
“Thirty-one…[but] it was the age we always looked forward to when we were little so it’s hard to look past that.”
Their bucket lists filled me with nostalgia, prompting me to dig out my own… Maybe before the next milestone birthday, I will run that 5K I thought about doing. The backdrop of the bucket list and Nash’s new arrival provides a rare opportunity to see New York City with fresh eyes, as he experiences its skyline and tourist attractions for the first time.
Speaking of firsts, the book was surreal at times because it described parts of my life I had never seen in a novel before. In the book’s opening sentence, Sharma writes,
“For an Indian like Kiran Mathur, spicy-sweet chai might as well have run through her veins, fueling her existence in New York City like the diesel powering her uncle’s auto rickshaw back home.”
This was the first time I had seen both America and India together as the backdrop of a novel, without one location portrayed as more exotic than the other. This unexpected familiarity hit me several times throughout the novel, like when Kiran does the Doonya Bollywood dance workout I’ve loved for years, and when her friends understand the significance of love versus arranged marriages without needing further explanation (It also happened when the Chai Masala Club reunited in person after lockdown, but I digress.) I am thrilled to see the growing genre of novels by and about South Asians and to know that future readers will grow up with stories that depict their own lived experiences.
Familiar and comfortable, with just a hint of spice, Annika Sharma’s latest novel feels like a hot cup of chai on a rainy day. This emerging genre of South Asian romance novels has captured my heart and I cannot wait to see which member of the Chai Masala Club gets their own book next.
Follow Annika Sharma on Instagram and buy “Love, Chai, and Other Four Letter Words” today!
I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.
When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?
It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.
How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?
Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community.
Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?
My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience.
It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.
The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?
I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.
One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?
For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.
Why explore the psychology of a house?
It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.
What makes a family?
I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.
The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?
Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.
What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”
I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.
Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.
“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.
For BGM Literary, editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with writer Sri Nimmagadda. In this short story, we follow a man in a gray suit who makes a stop at a church to bide his time before a job interview. Sri Nimmagadda is the Chief Program Officer at MannMukti, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental health in the South Asian community through storytelling and advocacy. He lives in Los Angeles with his dog, Rani, and is passionate about authentically growing inclusion and diversity through storytelling in the entertainment industry. Editor Nimarta was extremely grateful to have Sri join the legacy of wonderful and moving authors for the literary vertical in honor of Mental Health and Awareness month.
A man in a gray suit stands in front of a church and looks up and through the entryway with the resignation of a desiccated man taking a bitter medicine he’s absorbed for years but simply accepts as a fact of his life, however unpleasant. So, the man in the gray suit — a get-up slim but not so lean as to emit a cockish, metrosexual air, scraggly lint escaping the seams across the surface in a manner that supposes either venerability or somewhat tired desperation — thinks about what it means to take a bitter medicine, the trade-off between the instantaneous sour, bitter, wretched, and cloying and the promise of perhaps a better tomorrow, or a better tonight, or a better five-minutes-from-now. After some consideration, this man in a gray suit — an outfit that some would’ve supposed he’d purchased from Goodwill, the night before, for a painfully wrought $95.67 with tax after getting into an argument with his wife about who was going to take the kids to school in the morning and fucking Brenda skipping out on babysitting again — steps inside the church.
This man in a gray suit — armed with a briefcase, and the last and latest copy of his résumé that he’d worked on until 1:30 a.m. the night before after Max and Annabelle had long gone to sleep and his angry, exhausted wife laid restless, in their shared bed, thinking about whether she’d consult the number of the divorce lawyer she’d been recommended by one of her girlfriends in the morning before deciding she’d give her husband another shot just as she had the night before and the night before that and the night before that — paces towards the front of pews almost cautiously, as if someone were watching him, afraid to be caught in the act of being vulnerable and giving himself up to some higher power. Maybe if you go to church and the pastor or some other demure, God-fearing soul sees you, they’ll call you out — who are you? why are you here? — and you’ll realize that for as much ado as people make about the unconditionality of God’s love, they make claims to His love the way they’d claim a parking spot or a position in a queue at a grocery store. Faith, it appears to the man in the gray suit, is really about paying your dues.
So the man in a gray suit approaches the front-most pew — the communion table before him standing guard ahead of a cross. He lays his briefcase down. He sits at the pew. He closes his eyes. Please, he begs Him in his own mind. I need this.
But then this man in a gray suit considers his pathetic whimper to God, how he can’t even acknowledge God by his name, how he begs Please rather than Please God like a weak, unfaithful man who cannot bring himself to say his wife’s name when begging her for forgiveness after his own infidelity. What a mess, he thought of himself. So, he tries again.
Please, God. I need this.
The man in a gray suit considers this again and admonishes himself for his cowardice — when you pray in your head, words and phrases, and sentences and prayers, and pleas twine and intertwine and mix until the signal becomes the noise and you can’t really figure out whatever you’re trying to say. So, for a half-second, you think the only way to get it out of your head is to blow it up so that it all spills out and maybe then God will understand how you really feel — and so he tries again, and puts his prayers to air. The man in a gray suit is not used to coming to church. This is his first time coming in a couple of years. He’s going to need a couple of tries to get this thing down.
“I’m sorry,” the man in a gray suit exhales, “I’m just not used to praying.” But that’s okay. Prayer is a process, the man in a gray suit would find, and what begins feeling ridiculous, or like grasping for spiritual straws, ends up feeling akin to a dam giving way to water; unrestrained, unexploited. So the man in a gray suit — the man who’s come an hour and a half early to an interview because the early bird gets the worm, only to find himself with an hour and a half to kill and nowhere but a church to grace with his presence — prays, and he prays faithfully, and he prays well. He picks up the Bible on the shelf of the pew in front of him, flips it open to whatever page presented itself and begins to read. He closes his eyes, and at that moment he feels safe, like God’s hands envelop him, and that tomorrow will be a better day, and everything will be okay.
Somewhere along the line, this stupid fucker in a gray suit fell asleep in the middle of Galatians and missed his interview.
For the literary vertical, BGM editor NImarta Narang was honored to delve into sci-fi with author extraordinaire Premee Mohamed. In ‘Sleeping Beti’, Premee details a wedding that is due to take place in two weeks after Anju wakes up 75 years later from cryopreservation…in space. The detail that Premee gives us is so engaging; her flair for creating new worlds is on full display. ‘Sleeping Beti’ also shows us that aunties are everywhere… even in outer space.
Anju was dying.
She knew she was dying because there was no possible way someone could feel this sick and live through it; she was sure she could feel death creeping through her bones as she heaved over the considerately-placed glass receptacle. Dimly she wondered who had put it under her head, and why it was glass — but her thoughts kept submerging in the pain and vertigo. At first, nothing came up; then, after an eternity, an endless rope of pink-tinged clear gel, as if she had eaten a whole bucket of the transparent fidget putty she kept in her office.
“Good, very good,” a voice said near her head. Anju seized on it like a rope thrown at a drowning woman. It was a warm voice, rounded, oddly familiar. “Good girl, Anju. Get it all out.”
She was good. She was being a good girl. She seized on that too.
The voice said, “It’s easier than having it extracted, believe me.”
Another more distant voice, said, “This is great. Better than we could have hoped, better than the model predicted. Her signs are all green across the board, look.”
The first voice said proudly, “She’s always been a strong girl.”
Anju sensed unconsciousness grappling for her, brushing its dark fingers warmly across her face. She fought it off and took a deep breath, rolling back onto the bed she had been dangling from. White ceiling above her. Square glass panels, bright white lights glittering against the glass-like stars. “What happened?” she croaked. “Am I in the hospital? Mom?”
A beat. Then a face leaning over her: not her mother but eerily similar, a resemblance more sister-like than twin-like, although Anju’s aunts on her mother’s side actually didn’t resemble one another in the least. This woman was a smudged copy. Same black hair, temples left artfully silver, worn in the same crown; same eyes, mouth. A bit bigger, more muscular. “No, beti,” she said gently, smiling. Same teeth, same shape. “You can call me Mrs. Sharma.”
But my mother is Mrs. Sharma, Anju almost said. “What’s going on?”
“… Let’s get you something to eat, hmm? It’s a long story.”
Her first questions were answered by the place Mrs. Sharma took her to eat: a glass table extruding smoothly from the wall as they approached, followed by two glass chairs and glass plates of food rising through the table’s hollow pedestal to sit neatly in divots on the surface. Anju stared at the food first. It looked like palak paneer and brown rice. She then stared out the window next to them, which looked convincingly like space seen from a movie spaceship. In real life, she knew, you rarely got views this pristine. The New International Space Hub, the CanaDorm, and the Pan-Asian Science Station, all had machinery, cables, screws, wires, bits of foam and plastic in the way. And none of them had windows like this.
Anju ate slowly and cautiously, because Mrs. Sharma told her to, and because she could barely speak anyway. The Earth floated below them, ochre swirls, yellow and amber, long streaks of sepia clouds, and below them somewhere the ocean, a dead-looking blue. They were in space. Genuinely in space. The fork, too, was made out of glass. She stared at it.
“Uh, isn’t this kind of … unsafe?”
Mrs. Sharma chuckled. She was eating the same thing as Anju as if to encourage her by example. She was wearing a baggy, oddly aerodynamic white jumpsuit like the one Anju had discovered she was wearing, and both now boasted tiny spots of deep green spinach. “It’s not glass. It’s transparent nanoceramic. Stronger than titanium. You’ll find we use a lot of it here. Hardly anyone uses real glass anymore. Artists, I suppose.”
“And here is … where exactly? Mrs. Sharma, I … what’s going on? Is this a … prank, a joke? Some kind of sim? Please tell me I haven’t been kidnapped for one of those billionaire reality shows.” She heard the whine in her voice and hated it but couldn’t help it. She’d never been so confused in her life and she didn’t want to be a bad sport, either. “The last thing I remember is going into Dr. Li’s office to get that mole removed on my chin…”
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Sharma said. “We did remove the mole. It wasn’t cancerous if you’re worried about that.”
“I was, but now I’m—”
“Let me explain. There’s a presentation later, also. A ‘sim,’ if you want to call it that.”
Anju gradually stopped chewing and simply stared as the explanation spooled out. Yes, she was correct to remember Dr. Li’s office, her mother fretting in the corner, Will there be blood? I will look away if there is blood! I don’t like to look! Mom prettied up in skinny jeans and sandals and a silk blouse because they were supposed to go to lunch later. The tiny, cold sting of the needle in her face. And then waking up here … 75 years later.
“Cryopreservation,” Anju said slowly. “But that’s not real. That’s … that’s sci-fi. I mean, movies…”
“Well, so was cloning, 75 years ago.”
“I … what? Are you a clone of my mother?”
“A modified clone descendant, not from original cells for several generations,” Mrs. Sharma said serenely, waving a hand to dismiss Anju’s horror. “Legally, modifications must be made. No unaltered clones. There are laws! And Precision Sharmaceuticals were the experts then, and the experts now. Which is why it was decided to take this very exciting step—”
“Are you referring to freezing me as—”
“We thought you would be delighted!” Mrs. Sharma seemed genuinely hurt, but Anju was quite used to this kind of unsubtle emotional manipulation from her mother, or even a lineage of her mother, and stared at her stonily as the older woman made a show of rallying to continue her explanation. Cryofreezing was already illegal on Earth, so both the cryo-tubes (“Wait, go back, why is there a plural there”) and the companies (“Again—”) (“Don’t interrupt, Anju, or we’ll be here all week”) had been moved into orbit, which was technically legal, and they did want to do everything by the books, after all.
And doing things by the books was precisely what Anju was doing here, to answer her question. An enormous tax loophole had been created when corporation mergers had been prohibited over a certain size, which the former CEO had realized they could dart through — “For everyone’s benefit, Anju!” — with a marriage and a specific clause in the prenuptial agreement, uniting not only two perfectly darling and very compatible young people, but two families, and two mega-corporations.
“But I didn’t agree to any of this! You’ve … My God, Jesus Christ, what the hell is going on here?! You … You abducted me, you froze me against my will, you—”
“I didn’t do any of that,” Mrs. Sharma said. “I didn’t even exist! Your parents made the decision. All the astrological figures have been calculated. A date’s been chosen. None of that was my doing. And,” she repeated meaningfully, “they thought you’d be happy.”
“My parents knew shit about me and my happiness! Or else they’d never have done this!”
“That isn’t true,” Mrs. Sharma said. “Come on, you need to watch the sim your parents left for you. And you’ll feel better.”
“One second,” Anju said. “I think I’m going to throw up again.”
It was a big room — like a miniature auditorium, a bowl shape sloping down to a platform in the center. Or, Anju thought morbidly, like one of those surgical theatres. They wanted to make sure that everyone could see the horror being enacted in the middle of the floor. Several more people, Mrs. Sharma had informed her, were expected; there would be a wait. Anju sat and shivered in her nanoceramic seat — relieved when Mrs. Sharma reached over and adjusted something on her white suit, sending a slow warmth creeping from her core down to her wrists and ankles, like the whole suit was one of those heated seats in a fancy car.
Cars. Did they still have cars on Earth? Or up here? Her car, a bargain-basement Honda Civic, hadn’t even had heated seats. That had been an add-on she couldn’t afford. Where was it now? Forget the car. Where was her life now? She had been partway through her master’s degree in sociology, (much to her parents’ highly vocal horror). Now she would never graduate. Her apartment! Had someone been watering her plants? No, they must all have died a few weeks later. Her mother had hated her place anyway. “Why can’t you live at home? We’re only a 40-minute drive away. Or at least in a nicer building!” Anju, upon reflection, didn’t think she had loved it; but she hadn’t hated it, either. It was somewhere to live and it was relatively quiet and it was hers. Away from her parents.
But her friends, the other grad students under her professor, the kids whose papers she graded at night … everyone would be dead now. Or almost a 100 years old. Her parents were dead. Everyone in her family was dead.
She waited for tears to come, but nothing happened, only a cold lurch of nausea deep in her core that the heated suit could not touch. People were filing in now, no one with recognizable faces like Mrs. Sharma, which she supposed was one small blessing. As he took his seat across the bowl, a dazed-looking young man nodded vaguely at her, and she nodded back: Hello, the gesture said. I see you’ve been cursed in the same way as me.
She wondered what had been taken from her husband-to-be, what kind of life they had destroyed. Better? Worse? How did you measure that kind of thing? She realized she was waiting for the shock to wear off before she could feel the full measure of grief and outrage and mourning and anger that she knew must be building up inside her. It couldn’t have all gone numb. She was not that kind of person. Her parents had never really seen that side of her, had they? She had been concentrating so hard on being a good girl.
The sim was short and very realistic; Anju even recognized, more or less, the speaker, who had been a chief something of her father’s company. He was a big shot now, sitting on the board of Precision Sharmaceuticals. He was joined by a brittle-looking, gorgeously haughty woman who turned out to be the former CEO of CellRegenixx, which Anju presumed to be the company they were marrying.
Together, spiritedly, they delivered their congratulations on the engagement, explained the legalities (no divorce, no annulment, for a period of 10 Earth years), displayed the spectacular bridal sari that had been preserved for 78 years in its very own anaerobic preservation tube, discussed the wedding ceremony, and the guest list (almost all of whom would be virtual, naturally). They were now thawing the pandit out as the stars, moon, and Mars were right.
“We’ll go over afterward and introduce you to Prab,” Mrs. Sharma murmured as the holographic man went on. “Later tonight. We’ll have to do your hair and makeup, of course.”
“I don’t want anyone to do my hair and makeup.”
“It’ll be easier, trust me. You won’t be familiar with any of the devices and they’re not very intuitive.”
“That’s not what I meant, I meant—”
“Don’t raise your voice, dear.”
Anju sat back and glared at the young man they’d chosen for her — Prab, was it? Must be short for something, as Anju was short for Gitanjali. Heir, like her, to a mega-corporation of impossible wealth and power and, like her, technically unable to inherit it. It wasn’t like a monarchy. This was the only way, the sim was telling her. She ignored him and studied the room. She’d already barked her shin about a dozen times on various half-invisible pieces of transparent furnishings or ship fixtures.
She thought about her apartment again and its opaque furniture and the exposed brick of the walls and the subtle, indefinable scent of the brick, the sound of her spider plants scraping gently against it in the breeze. And again she waited for grief and again it didn’t come.
The next morning, she tried to steal one of the ship’s escape pods.
It wasn’t something where she could have argued later that she thought was a good idea at the time; she had eaten breakfast with Mrs. Sharma’s supervision, and then asked about the “Uh, hygienic facilities?” Thankfully, the older woman hadn’t insisted on accompanying her to help her ‘figure it out,’ which Anju had been worried about, and on the way back Anju had darted into a side corridor.
At first, she really had just wanted to explore the ship by herself. She marveled at the combination of carpet and tile, all intricate and colorful, in sharp contrast to the pale metal walls and transparent nanoceramic everything else. And then she had looked up to see the surprisingly extensive signage indicating yes, the facilities, but also a gym, a spa, and directions to the engine room, control room … and “Emergency Exits.”
Of course, on a spaceship, she had reasoned, you couldn’t have an emergency exit; exiting was in and of itself an emergency. So, it must have been something else. She had followed the directions, therefore, initially out of curiosity, and then upon seeing the unguarded room full of beautifully-appointed, arrow-shaped pods, had instantly decided to take one.
For about 30 seconds, as the pod powered up and began its initiation sequence (“Please wait … determining power levels”) it looked as if this would be the easiest exit of her life. Much easier, frankly, than her attempts to sneak out of her parents’ fortress-like mansion as a teenager, what with all the hired help in the house and the security system, and the placement of her bedroom, and the wall around the—
Sirens, alarms, strobe lights, lasers, and attack drones. Mrs. Sharma hauled her away for a respectful but thorough talking-to. After that, there was no more unsupervised wandering; the only exception, she discovered, was spending time with her husband-to-be, Prab, because he had supervision of his own.
“Its name is Satya,” Prab said gloomily.
“I hate it,” Anju said.
“Me too.” He reached to brush some of the dangling leaves away from his face, but the drone was already doing it for him; a featureless grey sphere with a couple of pin-sized red lights on it and grey limbs that folded out from its equator as if it were taking things out of its Bat-utility-belt.
They were in the atrium, where they had been told the wedding would take place when the stars were right, in about two weeks. If Prab and Anju had thought the dense and tangled greenery would allow them a minute’s privacy, they were wrong; Satya the drone had no visible propellers (Anju had no idea how it was staying in the air) and simply nudged through the foliage like a determined bird. The air smelled of hidden flowers, damp earth, sap, dirt, mold, wet concrete. Ordinary smells of a greenhouse back home, or the botanical gardens on campus.
“Anju Sharma,” she said after a minute, leaning on a decorative stone bridge over a little trickling stream.
She didn’t shake his hand. Eventually, he came over and leaned on the bridge next to her, not too close.
For a long time, neither spoke. Then he said, “Those … aren’t fish, are they?”
“Oh. Huh.” She squinted. He was right; they were projections of koi and koi-shaped shadows; very good, but not real. Occasionally the water shimmered in just the right way and the fish seemed to glitch. “The future is bullshit,” she said bleakly.
“How did they get you?” she said, turning to look at him properly. He was about her height, with a lot of curly black hair held back in a ponytail and the beginnings of a beard. He also looked like he hadn’t slept for about a week, rather than, like her, having been asleep for a large part of a century.
He sighed. “My parents took me to a cookout at my cousin’s.”
“They put a pill in my frozen yogurt. I felt it in the back of my throat just a second too late to do anything about it. It was too easy. If I was a writer, I wouldn’t even have put that in a book. Who just swallows a small hard object they find in their dessert?”
“Well, same,” she said. “I went in to get a mole lasered off. And you know what? Now that I’m thinking about it, it was my mom’s idea. I’d had that mole my whole life. You can see it in the photos where I’m graduating from kindergarten, for Christ’s sake. And all of a sudden, she’s like ‘Darling it could be cancer, you’d better get it removed’,” Anju said, gritting her teeth with sudden anger as she realized it, “they knocked me out with the so-called ‘local anesthetic’ shot. I also genuinely think Mom wanted me to not have the mole in my wedding photos.”
“Oh man,” said Prab. He had a broad California accent, so that when they had first spoken on the way into the atrium Anju had thought he was putting it on. Now she found she rather liked it.
“I can’t believe they did this to us,” Anju said, pushing away from the bridge. She couldn’t stand the fake fish anymore. The stone path to her right led into a kind of fern tunnel, a dozen types of soft green fronds growing out of artfully placed stones or cement, so she walked through that. Prab followed. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to get out of this, how to, I don’t know, contact the authorities, something. It’s practically sex trafficking!”
“We don’t have to have sex,” he said meekly.
“Oh, shut up. That’s not the point. I mean, in an arranged marriage, at least in my family, you get veto power. You’re absolutely allowed to say ‘I don’t like that boy’ at any stage in the process. Then they find you a new one. Or they don’t. Listen, I’m not saying the system is perfect, but I have — had — friends who were perfectly happy with whoever their family picked, and some who insisted on normal dating, and everything in between. I’ve never seen it so you can’t say no.”
“Me neither. I mean … actually, I guess for the girl’s family,” he said as if he was thinking about it for the first time. “I think it’s just expected that the boy will say yes to whoever.”
They paused, in the fern tunnel, and thought about that for a while. Prab reached up and ran one of the fronds through his fingers, gently collecting a bead of water that he flicked to the floor.
“I did actually ask Mrs. Sharma if I could say no,” Anju said, nudging past him to reach the other end of the stone tunnel. This area was devoted to orchids, dozens of varieties and colors, impossibly perfect.
“Did you? Good for you. I can barely look her in the eye,” Prab said.
“She’s kind of overbearing,” Anju admitted. “Anyway. She said of course I didn’t have to agree to the marriage. But she also spent about 40 minutes explaining to me what it would mean for, you know, the company, the literally millions of employees back on Earth, how much better it would make their lives. And how long this has been in the works, and how hard they’ve worked to keep that family business loophole open. How much my parents wanted it, how hard they looked for a merger partner and a man my age who would be compatible, and how many times the birth charts were run. They were obsessed with that part. It couldn’t just be anyone. It had to be someone compatible at however many points of compatibility.”
“Don’t ask me,” said Prab. “I was born in America. My parents were the ones who knew all that stuff.”
“Yeah, same. And no brothers or sisters so I mostly had to go off what I heard at family weddings for cousins and whatnot.” And now all my cousins are dead, she almost said, but she was also thinking of the rest of that conversation with Mrs. Sharma: the letter from her mother, specified to be delivered ‘just in case’ Anju was being ‘difficult,’ still unread in her jumpsuit pocket. “Your life will be limitless now, Anju,” Mrs. Sharma had said sweetly, putting her big, warm hands on Anju’s shoulders. “It will be as big as the galaxy! You’ll have money, ships, travel, clothes, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Didn’t you always dream of a life like that?”
She hadn’t. She had barely been able to dream of a week where she got enough sleep and maybe got to see her friends for lunch once or twice. But it had been hers, her life, constructed by her out of materials she had chosen. Mrs. Sharma stared at her blankly as if she’d started speaking another language. “What does that have to do with anything?” she’d said.
“At least you got out,” Prab said, laughing weakly in the face of Anju’s silence. “You know, I had cousins that teased me about it. Look at Prab, he’s 26 and getting his Ph.D. and still living at home…”
“You were getting your Ph.D.?”
“Yeah, high-energy physics. Which is funny. If my parents had just waited a little longer to do this, they could have put me in one of those — you know. Like Best Groom Match Magazine. Saying ‘He’s a doctor!'”
“Wrong kind of doctor.”
“I guess so,” he smiled a little and then returned to his somber state. “I always did what they told me. I never thought they were telling me to do anything … really unreasonable. I never questioned them. What was there to question? I had the basement to myself in the big house, I had a nice car, they gave me money. I never had loans. We fought about my major but as long as I was going to be some kind of prestigious scientist, it was okay that I wasn’t going to be a real doctor. And then this. I wonder how long they were planning it.”
“Probably longer than you think,” Anju said. “Did you hear that they picked up that bridal sari three years before they ambushed us?”
“What are we going to do?” she said, louder than she had intended. Her voice cracked in the middle and she thought tears would finally come, but still there was nothing. Only the despair and frustration, as heavy as lead around her; inert, cold.
He blinked. “What do you mean?”
She stared at him. Then she turned and left.
Back in her room — beautiful, transparent, and incredibly dull, because no one had thought to take even a single personal item from her old life to carry into her new one — Anju opened her mother’s letter. Incredibly, after so many years, it still smelled of perfume. Mom liked perfume and had perhaps a hundred bottles in her vanity room, a place Anju had liked to go as a child and had been permitted as long as she didn’t touch anything. It was enough to just look at the ranked bottles topped with spheres or octahedrons, angels and demons, wings, feathers, faces.
She sniffed the paper and felt the tears build up. Even before opening the letter, she knew what it would say. It would not be a heartfelt missive about how much her parents had loved her and how they knew they were doing the right thing to give their daughter the best possible life. Nothing her mother did was heartfelt. It would be brisk and affectionate and above all, extremely confident that her daughter would do her duty as demanded. What else had Anju done all her life?
They had never fought. Fighting would have implied that Anju was maintaining a position. Instead, she had simply shrunk down, diminished, become quiet and obedient, gotten the grades she had to get, and escaped only after making it out of her undergraduate degree, expanding her boundaries the tiniest bit so that she could experience the wildness of real air and not something her parents had already pre-vetted and pre-filtered.
Now she wished that they had fought. At least it would have felt like a connection. She unfolded the letter and read it, trying to stretch it out, because it was so short. Everything her mother had felt necessary to say fit in ten lines. The clear expectation; the assurance that Anju would indeed do what she was told; the ‘caretaker’ that would make sure Anju would do it properly.
What were you going to do with your life anyway? MS.
No ‘Love, Mom.’ Just her initials.
Anju folded it up and sniffed it again and put it on the transparent shelf next to her bed. It was the only thing in the room with a scent.
“I don’t know,” Prab said. “I think you need to ask yourself what you want out of life, you know?”
“Are you trying to give me an existential crisis?”
“I hope I’m not,” he said. “Are you going to finish that?”
“No, go ahead.” Anju handed him the paper bag of doughnut holes; she had lost her appetite.
He said, “I mean, my parents had this talk with me all the time. You know. The reason they came to America. They asked themselves what they wanted, and they answered it, and then they went to get it. So I did the same thing. Money, security, safety, those were important to me.”
“Were they? Or were they just the things your parents told you were important?” She was looking down at the artificial fish again, even though they gave her a headache. Or maybe it was Satya’s electrical field, which made her hair stand up when it got too close. She waved the drone away. “Mine never told me but I knew. Yeah, money, security, safety. Prestige. Image. Status. They didn’t just want to make money quietly, they wanted everyone to know it. And they wanted their baby, their only child, to be this kind of … crown jewel. That’s why they did this, you know.”
“I know. But what can we do? This is what we were frozen for. Looked at a certain way, it’s possible this is what we were born for. And would it be so bad?” His voice took on a slightly pleading note — not for himself, Anju thought. Not for his ego, or their future marriage. But this life, in space, spectral and shimmering, constructed out of nanoceramic and gems and gold, was being dangled in front of them but neither of them could touch until the marriage took place.
“It’s not whether it would be bad or good,” Anju said. “It’s that they took my life away. And they gave me something I didn’t ask for and don’t want. Don’t you miss your life, Prab? Your work, your friends?”
“Of course I do! But we can’t get them back. We may as well make the best of now.”
“But we’ll be right back under their thumbs. More, if anything. We won’t have a life. We’ll be controlled and monitored the entire time. We can’t make the best of that!”
“Yes we can,” he said brightly. “I believe in us!”
“You’re an idiot,” she said. “I give up. I’ll see you at the wedding.”
As the day approached and the celestial bodies moved in their paths, Anju unexpectedly acquired several security-slash-drone ‘cousins,’ who began to follow her around in unnerving silence. This left Mrs. Sharma to complete the arrangements for what appeared to be a surprisingly traditional wedding, minus the celebrations that came before, since no one would be arriving till the final day. Anju was surprised to find herself upset by this. She was 24; marriage seemed like an infinite distance away. She never dated anybody seriously. She hadn’t ruled marriage out completely; no, but she had not been thinking about it at a conscious level.
Even so, there must have been a part of her mind that, like her mother’s, was grinding away somewhere, some hidden sub-routine thinking about what her wedding would be like. And if she had to say it out loud, she would have admitted that there should have been parties, dancing, music, all her far-flung cousins and uncles and aunties, a house full of flowers and real presents and joke presents and houseguests sleepily scratching their hair and yawning as they figured out the coffee machine.
Not this cold and sterile ship full of administrators and bureaucrats and cryo-tube scientists and security people. Definitely not putting her hands into what looked for all the world like a toaster oven and waiting while it carefully printed the henna lines onto her skin. That was when she finally burst into tears, but since she couldn’t move her hands while the chemical curing process was taking place inside the machine, she just had to cry and snot onto her jumpsuit. It wasn’t supposed to be a machine! It was supposed to be her cousin Vera, who had steady hands and did mehndi on the weekends for extra cash!
“Are you distressed?” said one of the security drones.
“Go eat a magnet,” Anju said.
When her hands were done and dry, she followed her entourage back down the hallway to a warm little room where Mrs. Sharma proudly dressed Anju in the red bridal sari, “All the best, darling. The sari is entirely hand-embroidered, which is literally, not metaphorically, unheard of these days.” Mrs. Sharma grabbed one of the specialized drones to do her makeup and hang the jewelry. Her mother’s, Anju noted. Gold and sapphires and diamonds like stars in the sky.
The atrium was filled with ranks and ranks of transparent chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the big central gazebo, hung with vines and garlanded with very convincing but again, Anju suspected, not real flowers. Prab and Anju walked down the stone path together, not touching or looking at one another, unaccompanied, painfully aware of it. Anju felt the makeup on her face only psychologically; in fact, it had gone on in a mist, and she knew there was only the thinnest possible layer of pigment.
To squeeze through the family loophole, legally, it must be the case that the predecessors are deceased and the successors are assigned positions out of necessity … Anju still had to admit she wanted her parents there, her quiet father, her glamorous mother, watching her walk up the steps to the tiny fire and the thrones and the cushions. She knew no one in the crowd of real and virtual people except the board. And Mrs. Sharma, sitting in the front, nodding encouragingly, dressed in a blue lehenga so encrusted with crystals that it must have weighed twice that of Anju’s sari. Many guests seemed recently thawed out, a little shaky, like the pandit.
She sat down and did as she was told. A comforting smell of incense filled the gazebo — synthesized, she could not help but notice and is emitted from a couple of small nozzles buried in the vines. A world of glass, a world of fakery. A world in which she would be pressed like candy into a mold, and come out like this, shaped and transparent.
How can I escape?
She was still wondering as she and Prab signed their names on the register, pressed their thumbs to the screen, allowed their retinas to be scanned. Prab was smiling uncertainly, but it had a glassy look to it, as if, Anju thought, he had asked for a sedative before the ceremony.
And somehow his odd, glazed pliability made it easier to do the next thing — another thing, she would tell people later, that didn’t at all seem like a good idea at the time, but seemed bright and obvious as a flame.
“So I’m officially CEO now?” Anju said, drawing her face back from the retinal scanner.
“Well, you and Prab are co-CEOs.” Mrs. Sharma was beaming. “You look so good, darling. So fresh and young! Now, we have a list of policy proposals that need your signatures, those were developed some months ago, so we need to—”
“And I can do… Whatever I want, right?”
“With the approval of the board, and with the approval of your co-CEO,” Mrs. Sharma said, her voice dropping into tones of suspicion. She was too late.
Anju’s heart pounded. Sweat soaked into the layers of fabric at her back. Could they put her in jail for this? Not very likely … “I’m abdicating as CEO. With my co-CEO’s permission, of course, and the board’s. I’m appointing Mrs. Sharma as the new CEO. Try to keep me and I’m not signing anything ever. That’s the deal. Any objections?”
All the air seemed to leak out of the room. At her side, Prab let out a frankly hysterical laugh. She knew how he felt. She couldn’t stop smiling. Everyone was staring at her, mouths open, whether they were hundreds or thousands of miles away or present. One woman, Anju couldn’t help but notice, had actually clutched her pearls.
She didn’t think Prab would follow her, but he did, and they left the room full of shouting people without much notice; the board hadn’t been difficult to convince, and the swapping of Mrs. Sharma’s name for Anju’s had been signed off by the company lawyers in two minutes. They had the forms all ready to go, after all. Anju felt slightly delirious and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream. “What are you going to do now?” she said over her shoulder.
“Oh my God. Oh my God! I have no idea. What did we just do? What did you just do? Why did I go along with it?”
“Because you always do what you’re told.” She stopped, pulled him into a doorway, and put her hands on his shoulders. She squeezed hard, digging her newly-painted nails into the thick fabric. “Prab! For Christ’s sake. Look at me!”
“But, but we … we can’t just… ”
“You can go back if you want! What are you following me for? They’ll take you back. You won’t be CEO, but you’ll have a job, you’ll have a cushion for the rest of your life. Money. Whatever you want. You know that! And if they don’t, I don’t know. Tell them you were coerced.”
“Anju, you turned down this … gift, I mean, not even turned it down, threw it back in their faces…”
“No I didn’t,” she corrected him. “I passed it on. I re-gifted it. And a gift you don’t want is a waste anyway.”
“I guess so.” He took a deep breath and started to laugh, the first real laughter she thought she’d heard from him. “That was amazing. Her face. What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to go find those escape pods again.”
“And then what?”
“And then I don’t know.”
“I’m your husband,” he said uncertainly. “I should go with you.”
“You can if you want,” she said. “Are you listening to me though? I said if you want. I’m okay being separated. What do you want out of life? I just answered it. You have to do the same.”
“What was your answer?” he said, stooping to pick up one of her earrings. “Here.”
“Thanks. Uncertainty. Poverty. Adventure,” she said. “I never had an adventure in my whole entire life. I never even met my friends at the mall after dark when I was a teenager. But now…”
“Anything goes. You can follow me if you want. Or you can go have your own adventures. No one’s going to tell you what to do anymore,” she said, looking up at the signage again. “Not even me. Here we go.”
The sirens blared; the strobes flashed. This time, no one responded, and the pods finished their initiation sequence, checked their power levels, ran through diagnostics … and shot free from the ship like dandelion seeds, bright specks against the darkness of the sky; unnoticed and unpursued.