There was a time when people in the great plains believed in nyāya. Not anymore. Not after what had happened.
They thrashed Subodh Adhikari with lāthis and threatened to chop him into pieces to feed the mangy dogs if he didn’t leave the village immediately. He ran for his life after they confiscated and burned his bike. He was two hours from the nearest highway when night overtook him. Soon, it was totally dark. A pahariya was anything but safe in the plains, even in broad daylight. He didn’t know what was waiting for him further down the road. Then he saw a flicker of light ahead of him in the night’s fog. Something told him he could trust it. A strange, warm feeling calmed his heart as he walked towards the old woman in the white sari holding a lantern.
“Adhikari Saheb, if you are too tired to continue your pursuit of truth tonight,” said the woman with a wicked smile, “please allow me to help you.”
“Sure, Mai,” he replied. Somehow he didn’t mind being addressed by his surname this time. Later he would find out that the old woman was actually a witch.
“Even if no one would believe the daayan’s stories,” he wrote in his memoir, “I have to tell them.”
— from Tara’s journal
The rain pounded on the roof like the sacred knots of Shiva’s mighty damaru. The cold water poured into the dark shed through the corrugated roof. Half of the charpai was completely wet and the mattress smelled like goat piss. Raja couldn’t sleep. He pushed the bed to a corner on the damp cement floor. As he wound himself in the cheap wool blanket on the dry side of the mattress, his body itched for a youthful revelation. But the night offered no respite. Yellowed comic books and magazines floated on the flooded floor like minnows in paddy fields.
A nameless package had arrived for Raja in the second week of June. The cardboard parcel contained a splinter of hope. Raja slipped his hand inside the pillow cover: the diary felt warm. He pulled out the elegant blue book with its soft cotton cover. Under the soft glow of his reading light, the blue handwriting glinted like lines of code.
The first entry was dated March 2nd:
I hope you are safe wherever you are.
The last entry was from June 3rd:
Finally I know you are safe. One Gurkha dai in the Indian Army Office gave me your address… Look, I don’t want to look silly by confessing my love for you. Come back, Raja. School started last week. I miss you. We all do. <3
After two heady days and nights, Raja had cracked the enigma of his heart: the mysterious girl behind the journal was Tara Basnyat, his classmate. He missed being around her in the classroom. He missed the feeling of being submerged in her giggles. He couldn’t stay in Sitapur any longer but Lala didn’t want to hear anything about it for two weeks. Some species of butterfly don’t even live for a week, Raja thought. Most die within two. There are a few that live longer.
“I would like to be one of them,” Raja reassured himself. “Tomorrow the floods will stop and the war will come to an end… for me.”
The grey clouds above Sitapur were gathering force when Lala showed up at the halwai’s sweetshop. The bazaar also served as the local bus depot.
“There you are,” Lala said. His breath stank of beedi.
“Have you brought the letter?” Raja asked him without getting up from the wooden bench outside the sweetshop.
“How could I forget?” Lala sat next to him and pulled two A4 sheets from a wrinkled leather bag with a chromebook in it.
Raja scanned the printed testimony:
Date: August 18, 2022
Subject: TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
Following the end of his compulsory service with the Bot Clearance Division of the Indian Army, Raja Babu Shrestha has been working with disabling unexploded drones. His programming skills have also prevented many cluster attacks. We haven’t seen the dragonflies for over three months. He has saved many Indian lives.
Major Shyam Rathod at Cheetah Brigade, Sitapur Post-IV, Bihar, can vouch for his loyalty to the Unified Territories of the Republic of India.
He is now returning home to resume his education, which would make him an even more useful resource for our country in days to come. As per the official record, attached herewith, his residential address is: Building No. 76-5, Lagan Tole, Kathmandu-44601, India.
“What do you think?” There was childlike excitement in Lala’s voice. “The stamp, I mean! I got it made first thing in the morning.”
Beneath Lala’s name was a red brand. LALA DRONES AND KABADIWALA, SITAPUR-IV, BIHAR, INDIA was printed between two concentric circles in Arial New Bold. Inside the smaller circle was an X mark over an etching of a war bot.
Raja smiled. “It’s okay. But was it even necessary?”
“Save that for the border police,” Lala said, “if you want to reach home in one piece.”
“You worry too much. It’s not like I’ve a price on my head…”
“Yet half of Sitapur wants nothing to do with me ever since I took you in,” Lala said. “When they look at you, they don’t see your cute face. All they see is a terrorist. Do you think the police will be any different?”
“It’s not my fault,” Raja said. “They invaded our country.”
“No, they didn’t invade your country,” Lala said. “After the Chinese incursion, your country voted to be part of the Unified Territories.”
“It’s the same thing,” Raja said. “Newars and Pahadis will never accept your rule.”
“Careful! That kind of talk will get you killed,” Lala said. “They bombed your country. They sent the clusters to eliminate your people. We taught you to hack the dragonflies. We made you a lakhen–”
The Mahindra bus came to a screeching halt across the road from the sweetshop, leaving a serpentine trail on the mud and pebble road.
“Why don’t you come with me?” Raja said. “I’m sure Major Rathod would arrange the papers for you and your daughters…”
“No, no. We belong here, Babu,” Lala said. He knew what the boy didn’t. The people of Madhesh and Pahad had been at each other’s throats even before Raja was born. Nepal was a small country ruled by a durbar of jackals without merit. “They might call it Unified Territories but it’s still a foreign country to me. This is our janam dharti. Our home.”
I know, Raja thought. He knew Lala didn’t mind returning to his former trade: buying and selling old laptops, scrap metal, plastic bottles, magazines and newspapers, second-or-third Bhagwan-knows what-hand furniture.
“I hate to bring it up,” Lala continued. “What if the diary turns out to be a joke? Are you sure you’d be able to handle it?”
“I’m seventeen for god’s sake!” Raja protested.
“Did you know my wife got pregnant when she was your age?”
“No, really?” Raja laughed, which he regretted immediately. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” Lala said. His eldest daughter, Heena, was now a big girl of twelve. Gauri was ten. Rahul would have been nine years old this year if the floods hadn’t swept his wife and son away.
The Mahindra started to hum. Lala grabbed Raja’s sleeve as they crossed the slippery street. The bus blared its horn as each waited for the other to say goodbye first.
“Don’t forget to mail your picture!” the old man finally said, winking at him. “You and Tara. Together.”
A pink and fuzzy feeling flushed Raja’s face. Lala knew that feeling well – he too had once run away from home. It had been many years since he had escaped to and from Kathmandu.
“I won’t forget,” Raja said, bending down to touch the elder’s mucky feet.
Lala placed his hand on the boy’s head; his five fingers formed the protective hood of the Sheshnag. “Farewell, son.”
Raja had mounted the moving bus when he heard Lala’s call. “Bhaiya.” He asked the driver to stop the bus. “Ek second.”
Lala leapt up a few steps and almost slipped before Raja caught his arm with a worried look on his face. “You will need the chromebook,” said Lala, thrusting the laptop bag towards Raja’s chest. “No, take it. You’ve earned it.”
What had swelled Lala’s eyes was now choking his throat. He didn’t have any word for it– but it was enough to protect him from the wrath of the invaders. For the first time after the quake, Raja knew that he was no longer alone. He knew he was part of it and Lala was part of it. And it was beautiful like the daayan’s heart.
The east-west highway was now functional but Raja knew that the war for Nepal’s independence was far from over.
The deftly engineered and self-programmable dragonfly clusters didn’t care if their governments had declared a truce: they had now discovered their own purpose. First they overtook the unmanned drones and destroyed much of the railway track connecting Gorakhpur to Kathmandu. Then they started attacking people in a more organized manner, and in huge numbers. Raja could hack into anything that was Chinese and programmable with the military chromebook. But the clusters always cut off the compromised jhyālinchā immediately from the central system. They learnt from each breach and reprogrammed themselves within minutes. They were like the human predators that kept getting better at killing every other species on the planet until they became sovereign.
Outside the window, a red ball of fire was setting across the Koshi River. The bus passed the ruins of small towns and the wreckage of destroyed lives along the highway. Raja didn’t have to look: he knew what was out there. Tara had copied out a few stories from the memoir of a retired UN officer that she had found in the school library. These stories couldn’t be true, she said. But Raja found them hard not to believe. As the Mahindra slowly hummed and whirred across the bridge over the river, he didn’t even realize that the bus was now in rebel territory – a country which was no longer free. But for the moment, he was too absorbed in the daayan’s tales to think about what awaited him at the army checkpoint.
Sita was about to draw the crown of a peacock on the wall when a stray bullet smashed her skull. No one heard the gunshot except Maati Ka Pret, the kind demon of the earth. He didn’t want people to see the headless body of the girl or the pale pieces of her scattered brain. He washed the wall with lime and cleaned the āngan with water. He let the ground absorb the elements of her body before he slipped back into the earth.
When Sita’s mother returned from the bazaar, she was angry to find that the colour pot was empty but the walls were still bare. She had gone to the bazaar with her husband’s lunch because Sita had wanted to paint. “No,” she had told the stubborn girl but she was already mixing colour in the clay pot. There was a red ribbon lying next to the empty pot. She picked it and shouted, “Sita!” The door was open but the girl wasn’t around. “What a careless girl,” she said. “Sita?”
“Maai!” Sita’s mother heard her daughter’s reply. “Maai!” It sounded like a cat’s meow. She gasped for breath when she saw a young fowl run towards her feet from the small garden behind the house. Bhadrapurwali was gathering wood nearby when she heard the loud sobs of Sita’s mother. The childless woman knew immediately what had befallen the bereaved woman. Sita’s mother had been afraid of Bhadrapurwali’s jādu-tuna. Oh, how she had hated Sita’s mother for thrashing the little girl for playing near her house!
“Go away, Mor Rani,” Bhadrapurwali shouted without approaching the house. “Your mother won’t stop grieving if you stay here.”
The little girl knew that Daayan Mai was telling the truth. She flew away, reluctantly, in search of a new home.
— from Tara’s journal
Lakhen and Dragonflies is the first instalment of a new series of speculative fiction by Salik Shah.