This year Kavita and her family went to Khumukcham on summer vacation.
Khumukcham, as you must know, isn’t far from Meeteinganba, but unlike it, isn’t a grimy factory planet where the air has to be filtered so people can breathe it, and absolutely nobody goes who doesn’t have work there. Kavita’s father had gone to Meeteinganba once, and he said it was the worst place he’d ever seen.
Kavita’s brother Sanchit, who was very interested in machinery of all kinds, said he’d rather go to Meeteinganba than Khumukcham any day, but their father said he could go alone then, because none of the others were coming along. So Sanchit made a face and said he’d go to Meeteinganba someday and nobody could stop him.
Everyone assured him that they wouldn’t try.
On the day of the trip, Kavita and her family just took the commuter train across town to the Gateway Terminal. Kavita’s dad told them while they were waiting for their turn that when he was a child people only used to imagine going to another planet, and when they did, they’d think they would have to ride on spaceships for months or even years, so that by the time they got there, it would already be too late for them ever to come back again. Both Kavita and Sanchit had a good laugh at that.
“Just imagine being so silly as to think it’d take years to go to another planet,” Kavita said, sitting back in the nice soft cloth-covered chair in the Terminal waiting area. The place was full of other travellers, and shops selling everything from bags to clothes to food. She wondered what sort of person would be so silly as to take food along on vacation, and then remembered that not everyone was going on vacation. “People must have been very stupid then.”
“Well,” Dad replied, “they didn’t have the Cosmological Gateway, you see. Nobody imagined such a thing could ever exist. Even the science fiction writers were thinking about all sorts of Light Speed Drives and other super fast engines. It’s only the Cosmological Gateway that allows real space travel and vacations like this one.”
“How does it work?” Sanchit asked.
Both their parents replied together.
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” Dad said.
“Stop bothering your father with endless questions,” Mum said. “How does it matter how it works as long as we get there?”
“I want to know,” Sanchit muttered, “that’s why I’m asking.” But Kavita could see clearly that her Dad didn’t know the answer, and that Mum knew he didn’t know, and was trying to cover up for him. It made her feel deeply embarrassed for them both.
“Come on,” she said to Sanchit. “Let’s go and have a look at those displays.”
“Don’t go too far,” Mum warned. “We’ll be called any minute.” She looked harassed, with strands of hair escaping to fall over her face, her hands twisting nervously in her lap. She always hated travelling, even when the travel was just an instant’s blink between planets across the galaxy. “If we miss our turn...”
“We won’t miss it,” Kavita assured her. “Look, we’ll just be over there.”
Sanchit trailed behind her as she walked over to the display, kicking moodily at a paper cup someone had thrown on the floor. Kavita’s teacher, Mrs Bhattacharya, would call someone like that an “inconsiderate litterbug.” Thinking of that, she tried to imitate Mrs Bhattacharya’s exaggerated mouth movements and began laughing.
“What’s the joke?” Sanchit asked.
“Nothing.” Kavita looked at the displays. One of them was supposed to explain how the Gateway worked, and she pointed it out to Sanchit. It was something about crumpling spacetime between sets of coordinates, and illustrated with yellow and lavender lines on a green lattice on a black screen. She herself understood nothing much, but Sanchit looked much happier immediately, almost pushing his face into the screen.
There were other displays, mostly of vacation spots around the galaxy, and some of them looked quite good. One had lovely purple grass under a violet sky, on a plain that seemed to go on for ever. Little animals with long legs jumped in and out of the grass as though they were on springs. High overhead, something turned in slow circles, borne on four long tapering wings.
Another was Hakidar, which Mrs Bhattacharya had once mentioned that she’d visited on her honeymoon. It didn’t seem the kind of place Kavita would want to go to on her honeymoon – low cottages of wood, just one floor each, covered with vines with pink and blue flowers, set before a high pouring waterfall. It looked like the sort of place Kavita’s best friend Prerna’s elder sister Dipika’s romance novels all rhapsodised about.
“Rhapsodised” was another of the words Mrs Bhattacharya liked to use.
Tiring of the vacation displays, Kavita looked around. Across the big hall, the Gateway employees in their orange and yellow uniforms sat behind counters while long lines of travellers wended their way slowly towards them. Her father had shown them their booking, a zigzag of encoded information on his phone. Her mother had then moaned about how travel was no longer romantic, that once they’d have got a colourful ticket in a booklet, one for each of them.
Kavita was beginning to suspect that there was no pleasing her mother.
“Hey,” Sanchit said, still bent over the screen. “That’s interesting.”
“Well, it’ll have to wait. They’re calling us.”
Their mother was already fussing over her bags as they came up. “Come on quick,” she said. “They already made the announcement.”
“Don’t worry,” their father told her. “There are hundreds of others going, and besides it’s not as though it’s a plane or something. Anyone who misses one transfer can just wait for the next.”
Her mother looked unconvinced and began pulling the luggage along as though she was chasing something.
Absolutely no pleasing her, Kavita decided, and, more slowly, followed.
The Transfer Room was round, and had just the one door. There were benches set all around the one circular wall, and blue lights in the ceiling. Kavita felt as though she was inside a huge can.
They sat down on one of the benches, which her mother had rushed to occupy as soon as the door had opened, even though her Dad said there would be plenty of room for everybody. In fact they were one of the first in, and many others didn’t even bother to sit. They just dumped their luggage in the middle of the floor and stood next to it.
As the room filled up, Kavita began to feel the first bit of anxiety. She’s never made a Transfer before. How would it feel? The more she thought about it the more worried she got.
“How did we ever invent the Cosmological Gateway,” she asked her father, to take her mind off it. “You said nobody imagined it could exist.”
It was Sanchit who answered. “It was all in the display,” he said scornfully. “If you’d bothered to read it instead of mooning over honeymoon cottages you’d have seen it yourself.”
“So tell me now,” she challenged him. “Since you know it already.”
“We got it from the Ibochoubas in the war, of course,” he replied. “They attacked us and we beat them, didn’t we? So we got the Gateway.”
“If the Ibochoubas had the Cosmological Gateway and attacked us,” Kavita asked logically, “how did we ever beat them?”
“How does it matter how? We wiped them out, and now we’re the only planet that has it, and so we own the universe, and –”
“You’ll know when you read your history books,” their father broke in. “Now shush.”
The Transfer Room had quite filled up by now, and an orange-and-yellow uniformed attendant stuck her head in through the door, looked around, withdrew and closed it. Kavita was expecting something – maybe the room would begin spinning, or at least there would be flashing lights or a siren. But nothing happened at all, and a moment later the door opened again and the attendant stuck her head in again.
Only this wasn’t the same attendant, or in the space of a few seconds she had somehow managed to change her uniform to a green-and-maroon one. She looked around and smiled.
“Welcome to Khumukcham,” she said.
And that, Kavita realised, was that.
They got a shuttle bus from the Gateway Terminal down to Macha Tumbi, the town where Kavita’s dad had booked their hotel. On the way Sanchit kept blabbering about how he’d noticed the shifting of phases as they’d crossed the gateway, or something, so that in the end their mother snapped at him to hush up and sit still. Kavita hardly heard him. She was staring out of the window at the scenery.
Khumukcham, as you probably know if you’ve seen even a single tourist brochure or advertisement on the place, has pink skies with greenish clouds, and maroon seas the colour of wine. All the way down to Macha Tumbi, the sea stretched towards the horizon, between stands of the tall spiky trees with their round ball-like leaves at the tips of the branches, in greys and blues and yellows. There were some of the waikhoms, too, who stood beside the road and watched the shuttle bus go by.
The first time Kavita saw a waikhom, she was startled for a moment, almost afraid, before she remembered who they were. The waikhom was a male, thick-armed and bowed, his leathery grey skin covered by a mantle of black cloth that hung from his shoulders down to his knees. He turned his head slowly, watching them pass, and then suddenly raised one huge hand. Kavita flinched back instinctively before she realised that the waikhom was waving at the bus. Tentatively, she waved back.
Sanchit laughed when he saw that. “They’re just dumb animals,” he said. “It’s as pointless waving at one as it is waving at a cow.”
“They aren’t dumb animals,” she shot back. “They were here before we came and they...”
“...are still just as they were, living in villages.” He held up the guidebook their father had bought and told them to read. “It says here they never even developed electric power or industries of their own. If we hadn’t come along they’d still have been wearing grass and tree bark like the pictures here.”
Unwilling to spoil her mood by arguing, Kavita went back to looking out of the window. They passed a waikhom family, the mother walking ahead, her litter of children scampering along behind on all sixes. The children made Kavita want to laugh, and she turned in her seat to watch them as long as she could until they were lost to view.
Then the shuttle bus stopped and they got out. Macha Tumbi was like something out of a colouring book, with its bright yellow walls, green and red roofs, and streets made of white stone blocks. Everything seemed very neat and tidy, even the trees, which seemed to have been planted so the colour of their leaves matched the colour of the surroundings. The pavement stalls were crowded with tourists of all kinds, short and tall, fat and thin, black and white.
A drunk red-faced man in a pineapple shirt lurched down the street, waving a bottle half-full of a thick purplish liquid and singing. He saw them and came up, grinning stupidly.
“Welcome,” he said expansively. “Great place, isn’t it? You’ll have a wunnerful time here, especially the kiddies.” Kavita had a hard time understanding him, not just because he was drunk, but because of his accent. “Here,” he continued, thrusting the purple bottle at her mother, who was shrinking back in mingled fear and disgust. “Go ahead, ‘ave a drink on me. It’s lovely stuff, it is.”
“Go away,” Kavita’s dad said slowly and distinctly. “Leave us alone, or I’ll call the police.”
It seemed to Kavita to be an unnecessarily churlish thing to say, and the red-faced man certainly seemed to take it that way. “All right,” he muttered. “If you want to be like that...” Taking a long swig from the bottle, he wandered away.
“Let’s just go to the hotel,” Kavita’s mum said. “But how do we drag all this luggage along?”
“I’ll hire a porter,” Kavita’s dad said, pointing to a stand behind which a number of waikhoms in dark green and gold mantles were waiting. “He’ll know where the hotel is, too.”
The waikhom porter was only about as tall as Kavita’s mum, but broader than all four of them put together. He picked up all their luggage in his four hands without any apparent effort and stalked off, walking surprisingly fast on his short legs. His huge head bobbed at every step.
“He reminds me of that doll you used to have,” Sanchit said. “The monkey one which nodded when you moved it.”
Kavita frowned at him, but secretly she was thinking exactly the same thing. “Does he resent having to carry luggage for us, you think?” she asked.
Sanchit laughed. “Why should he? He’d getting paid for it. Otherwise he’d still be in a grass hut somewhere, remember.”
Kavita looked at the waikhom. He certainly didn’t seem to be resenting anything. He just plodded on, carrying their bags as though they weighed nothing at all.
Her parents were talking about something to do with shopping, and how expensive it might be. She tuned them out and looked around. Several of the stalls they were passing by sold only the purple liquid, some of which was in tiny bottles smaller than her hand, and some in flasks almost as tall as she was. She wondered what it might taste like. Her mother would have a heart attack if she asked to buy one to have a sip, she thought, and smothered a giggle.
They came to the hotel. Its name was Jiteshwari. Isn’t that a nice name for a hotel? It looked nice, too, made of blocks of stone the colour of honey. They had two rooms, side by side, looking out over the sea. The beach started just below Sanchit’s and Kavita’s room. The sand so dark red that it was almost black in colour and from up here looked like a carpet spread out along the sea.
“Look at all those kids swimming,” Sanchit said. “Do you think Mum is going to let us go in the water?”
Kavita snorted. “She’ll be screaming about monsters and tides. We’ll be lucky if she lets us take our shoes off to walk on the sand.”
Later they went down to dinner. Their father said hotel food was always much costlier than and not as good as food elsewhere, so they went to a diner he found in the guide book. It was only a couple of buildings down from the hotel and called itself the Restaurant Robindro. There was a waikhom doorkeeper in a red and gold uniform at the door, complete with epaulettes and lanyard, who looked like a general from an ancient painting. He saluted with one of his hands as he held the door open with one of the other three. Kavita had to restrain herself from saluting back.
The food their father ordered, after checking the menu and referring to the guidebook, was something that came in a tough, leathery shell that looked a bit like a pine cone. The waiter – a human, of course, not a waikhom, a waikhom wouldn’t be allowed inside a human establishment – cut open the shell with a special knife with a hooked tip, and the inside was all soft, steaming, and the colour of strawberry ice cream. He then scooped it out on to all their plates with a ladle that scraped the inside of the shell so that there was nothing left inside to go to waste.
“It’s called crottled greeps,” Dad said, picking up a spoon. “It’s one of the specialities of Khumukcham.”
“I’m not eating this,” Mum said, looking at the food as though it might eat her instead. “You never know what it’s made from.”
“It’s a sea plant,” Dad told her. “Says so right here in the book. Anyway, it’s one of the only vegetarian items on the menu, so it’s eat it or starve.”
Kavita chewed the crottled greeps meditatively. It tasted a bit like the meat Prerna clandestinely shared with her at lunchtime in school, but with flavours she couldn’t name. On the whole, it wasn’t bad, but she really would have preferred meat, like the sizzling steaks the waiter had just delivered to the black couple at the next table.
The restaurant had dim lighting, soft and amber, but she thought she could recognise the drunk man from this afternoon, sitting a few tables over with a woman. He had changed out of the pineapple shirt and was in something black and purple and green, and had apparently sobered up. At least he was talking and eating like anyone else.
Sanchit and Dad were talking about going for a walk, but Mum said something about being tired and turning in early. Kavita, listening with half an ear, wondered how she could be tired since they’d done almost nothing all day except walk from the Terminal to the hotel and from there to the restaurant. She was just about to say that she’d like to go for a walk too, when something happened.
The restaurant door burst open and several waikhoms rushed in. In their hands they held weapons, and one in the lead had something that she recognised as a megaphone. With one hand he fired a gun into the ceiling. It made a loud noise, and everybody froze into silence.
“Everyone stay where you are,” he shouted into the megaphone, in English. “We don’t want to hurt anybody.”
“What’s this?” someone asked. “A robbery?”
The waikhom’s heavy head turned towards whoever had spoken. “We aren’t robbers or thieves,” he said slowly. His voice was deep, the words carefully enunciated, as though he was in an elocution class. “We’re just struggling to take back our world, which was stolen from us.”
“Stolen from you?” Kavita couldn’t help repeating. She’d suddenly recognised the waikhom. Though he was no longer wearing the green and gold mantle, it was the porter they’d hired earlier.
“Shush,” Mum hissed. “Keep quiet!”
“No, young lady, there’s no need to keep quiet.” The waikhom slowly advanced between the tables towards them. The black mantle he wore was so hung about with pockets and pouches crammed with things that he seemed almost too big to fit in the aisle. “I remember you from this afternoon,” he said, peering at her from under his immense brow ridges. “You were wondering whether I resent working as a porter. Right?”
Kavita couldn’t make herself reply. Her mouth dropped open with a hiss of breath.
“Well, young lady,” the waikhom continued, “you have your answer here. This is our world – and we couldn’t even come inside this restaurant if we didn’t have weapons on us. We can open the door for you, haul supplies to the back entrance, and take away your trash, but we can’t set a foot inside. How do you think that makes us feel?”
Kavita felt her lips move, but she couldn’t make them utter a word. The waikhom was standing by their table, looking down at them. She could smell him, a smell that reminded her of dry grass on a hot day.
“I see you’re eating crottled greeps,” the waikhom said. “Do you know that the greeps farms use waikhoms as labour? They wade in the sludge from morning to night, planting and weeding and harvesting, but they aren’t allowed to eat a morsel. All greeps are reserved for human consumption. Did you know that?”
“No,” Kavita whispered.
The waikhom’s huge head nodded. “Of course you didn’t know. You humans don’t even acknowledge that we can think, do you? I’m sure all of you are amazed I can even speak English. Right?”
Nobody said anything.
The waikhom turned away and raised the megaphone again. “Listen, everybody. We’re the Khumukcham Liberation Front, and we’re taking you captive. We aren’t planning on hurting anyone, so please keep calm and cooperate. You’ll be let go when our demands are met.”
“You’ll never get away with it.” Kavita recognised the voice. It was the drunk man from earlier. “The government will never give in.”
“We probably won’t,” the waikhom acknowledged. “But it’s just the beginning of the struggle, and it’s going to go on for as long as necessary. You see, unlike you, we have nowhere to go and nothing to lose, and so, no matter how long this goes on, we won’t give up. Sooner or later, we’ll –”
There was a sudden flash of light so bright, and a blast so loud, that Kavita thought she’d gone blind and deaf for a moment. When she could see and hear a little again, the restaurant was full of smoke and shouting figures. The waikhoms were crouched at one door, shooting across the room at men in uniform who were climbing in through the windows and shooting back. And then her father grabbed her by the arm and pulled her down under the table. Sanchit and Mum were already there.
“We’re going home this instant,” her mother moaned. “As soon as this is over, we’re going home.”
After a little while the noise died down, and a human voice called out that it was safe to get up. The restaurant seemed to have been utterly destroyed. Tables were overturned, people were crying, and the air was thick with smoke. There were no waikhoms to be seen.
A man in uniform came around to check if everyone was all right. “They got away for now,” he said, his face grim. “But we’ll track them down, never fear. We won’t allow these hooligans to destroy the relationship between us and the waikhoms and to smash up the tourist industry.”
“We’re so glad you’re here,” Kavita’s father told him.
“Wasn’t that exciting?” Sanchit whispered, nudging Kavita.
Kavita didn’t say anything. She was somehow glad the waikhoms had got away, but she thought it wouldn’t be well received if she said anything about it now.
“There have been a few other attacks,” the man said, “but this is the biggest yet. They’re getting too bold. We’ll need to take more aggressive measures against them.”
“I knew we shouldn’t have come on this vacation,” Kavita’s mother said.
Kavita got the top grade in class for her essay on What I Did On My Summer Vacation, of course. Mrs Bhattacharya had just one criticism to make.
“I wish you’d temper your imagination with a smidgen more verisimilitude, dear,” she said.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015