In the morning, after the storm had finally blown itself out and the thunder and lightning had stopped, Suhas found the man from space lying in his father’s paddy field.
Of course Suhas knew right off it was a man from space. He’d been reading some of the books his father so disapproved of, the ones that were very much not part of the curriculum of the village school, and in those books he’d seen pictures of men from space more than once. And this one was obviously one of them.
For a few minutes, he stood on the earthen dyke of the paddy field, looking down at the man from space. He was lying partly submerged in the water of the paddy, with only his head, arms and the upper part of his torso showing. And if Suhas hadn’t been all familiar with men from space from the books he read, he might have been scared.
The man from space was big. To Suhas, who was small and skinny even for his age, most men, even those from the village, looked big, but this man looked even bigger than them. His head, itself, had to be at least the size of the big copper pot in which his mother fetched water from the well in the yard. It looked a bit like the pot, too, being round and hairless, only black, not copper coloured. His body too was black, and covered with seams and ridges as though he was wearing a leather jacket, but Suhas could not see any divide between it and his head and hands.
It wasn’t all that much a mystery how he’d come there either. Hadn’t there been that strange orange flash of lightning in the middle of the storm, so bright that it had illuminated every bit of the inside of their house? And hadn’t it been followed by a clap of thunder so great that the house had trembled on its foundations and Suhas’ mother had begun loudly praying to all the gods until his father had snapped at her to shut up? Suhas had read enough stories of the space people’s rockets to know one must have crashed somewhere nearby. In fact, looking around, he saw something partly buried on the far side of the paddy, a curve of metal that looked like the back of a huge chair.
“Suhu?” he heard his mother call, her voice skipping with the ease of long practice past the plantain grove beyond the fish pond, on the homeward side of the paddy field. “Aw Suhu! Where are you?”
Suhas ignored her for the moment. He fancied he saw the man from space stir slightly, moving his arms and trying to lift his head. He stepped a little closer, right to the edge of the dyke.
“Man From Space?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
The man from space moaned something that might have been words, and pushed himself upright in the paddy. His ridged hands came up and began wiping mud and water from his face.
“Suhu!” his mother yelled. “Where are you? Always off somewhere instead of reading-writing. Just wait.”
Suhas ignored her for the moment and took a couple of cautious steps towards the man from space. He was cautious because he remembered that men from space tended to have ray guns with which they burned people who tried to attack them. But of course he wasn’t trying to attack the man from space, and the latter didn’t bring out a ray gun and blast him, either.
“Man From Space,” he repeated, this time in English, the unfamiliar syllables crawling slowly over his tongue, “are you hurt? Do you need help?”
Evidently the man from space wasn’t hurt, or at least not so badly that he needed help. Slowly, as though pushing against an immense force, he stood up, swaying. And then Suhas gasped and stepped back fast, because the man from space was at least as tall as his parents’ house, if not more.
He was quite clearly a man from space. His huge spherical head had no visible nose, mouth, or any features except two flat round eyes, from between which a ridged appendage like a pipe hung down to the middle of his torso. His elbows and knees were swollen ovoid masses the size of melons, and his hands so large they looked like the jute sacks old Uncle Shomoresh from across the village sold for everyone to pack their rice in. He held one hand out to Suhas and moaned some more.
Although Suhas didn’t understand the moaning, there was no mistaking that gesture. He leaned forward and took the man from space’s hand, and the man from space came up out of the paddy with a huge squelch of mud and water that splashed everywhere, and got up on the dyke beside him.
“Well,” Suhas said, “do you need to go somewhere? Is your rocket somewhere close by?”
Apparently the man from space did not need to go somewhere. He moaned and shook himself, spraying mud and water all over Suhas’ white singlet and shorts, and stood waiting.
“I suppose you should come home with me then,” Suhas said. The man from space seemed agreeable with this and followed him.
They’d just rounded the plantain grove when they came across Suhas’ father, who was coming down the path with bloodshot eyes and his thick cane in his hand. He saw Suhas first.
“Where have you been?” he bellowed, raising the cane. “You need a lesson. Always running off instead of reading-writing. I’ll break this over your back today. I’ll...”
And then he saw the man from space, and his mouth went a funny shape and the cane dropped from his hand. “Babago,” he groaned, and fell over backwards in a faint. His head landed on a pat of cowdung, so he didn’t get hurt.
“What? What has happened to you?” Suhas’ mother, who had evidently been watching from the house, screamed, loud as knitting needles driven into one’s ears. “I knew that boy would be the death of us. Did he raise his hand to you? Did he...” She came rushing down the track, jumping clear over the little ditch in the way, and then came face to face with Suhas and his companion.
“My friend, the man from space,” Suhas explained.
“Mago,” his mother groaned, and would have fainted, too, only there wasn’t another convenient cowdung pat for her to land on, so she contented herself with clutching hold of a plantain and swaying with her eyes rolled right up under her upper eyelids.
“He’s not going to hurt anybody,” Suhas said. The man from space moaned in confirmation.
And it was at that point that, drawn by all the recent yelling and wanting to see the fun, the neighbours arrived.
Of course they didn’t believe he was a man from space.
“It’s the god Ganesha,” they said to one another. “The god Ganesha has come to us!”
“He doesn’t really look much like the god Ganesha,” one or two doubters murmured. “He doesn’t have a paunch...or elephant ears...or tusks.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the rest snapped. “Look at that trunk of His. Who can it be except the god Ganesha?”
“He’s a man from space,” Suhas bleated. “I found him, and he’s my friend the man from space.”
“Shut up,” someone said. “Don’t meddle in your elders’ affairs.”
“But,” Suhas persisted, “he really is a man from space. His rocket crashed somewhere last night and he...”
Someone else cuffed him sharply across the back of the head. “Mind your own business,” he or she said. “Go and do some reading-writing. Talking too big to fit your mouth!”
So Suhas went off a little way, rubbing his head, though he didn’t actually go off to do anything. The whole village was gathered around the man from space by now, and people were bringing him fruit and sweets and flower garlands. He ignored the fruit and sweets and his head was far too big for the garlands. He just moaned a few times.
“He’s talking god-language,” some people said.
“No, no, that’s elephant-language,” others replied. “He’s got an elephant head, so He’s speaking in elephant language.”
“He’s just tired,” others gave their opinion. “It must be a long way from the halls of heaven, after all.”
“Maybe He’s angry,” the remainder replied, shuddering fearfully. “He needs to be in a temple where He can be properly worshipped, not out here in the open.”
“We need to take Him to the temple then,” everybody agreed. “He needs to be put in the temple. That’s only His rightful place.”
But there was a problem, because the only temple in the village was a Shiva temple, since nobody thereabouts had ever worshipped Ganesha. It was also far too small for the man from space to enter, even supposing he wanted to.
“There’s a bigger temple in the town,” someone pointed out. “If we took Him there He could fit in it.”
“Why should we take Him to the town?” other man said angrily. “He came to us, to our village, and you want to force Him away? What kind of blasphemer are you?”
For a moment it looked like the two would come to blows, but the village priest, Pandit Girish Bhot, intervened.
“All we have to do is build a newer and bigger temple,” he said, licking his lips greedily. “The old one’s too small. And now that Ganesha is here in person, there will be much greater pickings...uh, I mean offerings...so we need a bigger one anyway.”
“It’ll take some days to construct,” people said. “Where does He stay till then?”
“I’ll tell you where He’ll stay,” Suhas’ father, who had long since recovered and wiped the cow faeces off his head, said. “He came to my field, not yours, and He met my brat, not yours – so He’ll stay here on my land until the temple is ready. Got it?”
Girish Bhot looked less than happy, glancing wistfully at the piled fruit and other offerings, among which was an increasing amount of money. “Very well,” he said reluctantly. “But the faster you get a move on with building the temple, the better. And,” he added, with another look at the pile of offerings, all of which was untouchably on Suhas’ father’s land, “not a word to outsiders until the temple is ready and he can move in.”
Of course there had been no school that day, because everyone was there gawking at the man from space, and no other work done either. Fortunately, the policeman, Brijmohan, from the police station in the next village didn’t put in an appearance either, so the news didn’t get out.
All through this the man from space had stood, with his expressionless spherical head towering over the crowd, with only the dangling trunk twitching to and fro. Then, all of a sudden, he raised one of his immense hands and pointed.
Everyone turned to see where he was pointing. It was at Suhas, who was sitting on a branch of the mango tree eating a half-ripe mango, since he’d had nothing else since breakfast.
“The god Ganesha is angry with that boy,” some of them yelled. “Throw him out of here.”
“No, the god Ganesha wants to say something to that boy,” others shouted back. “Bring him here.”
The two factions, once again, may have come to blows, but just then the man from space stepped forward, and, as the crowd melted away before him like water, he went to the tree and gently lifted Suhas out of it.
“The god Ganesha wants to keep the boy with Him!” the people said. “He wants him to be His priest!”
“That’s ridiculous,” Girish Bhot said, turning white. “That slip of a boy can’t be a priest. Why, he...”
He was shouted down. “You think you know more than Ganesha Himself what He wants?”
“Have it your way,” Girish Bhot subsided, muttering angrily. “See if I care when He loses his temper and breaks all your necks.” But nobody paid him any attention.
“My son’s good for nothing else anyway,” Suhas’ father said to Uncle Shomoresh. “He never helps in the field or does any reading-writing, just his story books. So if Ganesha wants him as priest, he’s welcome to him.”
“My son is the greatest,” Suhas’ mum burbled to her neighbour Shreemoyee. “That’s why Ganesha chose him out from all the others in the village. Isn’t my son great?”
“Um, yes,” Shreemoyee said, edging away. “Totally. Absolutely.”
Meanwhile the man from space had taken Suhas by the hand and pulled him into the middle of the plantain grove. There, he sat down with his back against a stout plantain and sat Suhas down next to him.
“I think He wants to be left alone with the boy,” the people said. “He must have divine secrets to tell him.”
“We’ll be back later,” they all decided, drifting away to make lunch.
“Bring more offerings when you do,” Suhas’ father called after them, as his mother began gathering up all the fruit and money as quickly as she could. Soon, only the flowers were left, scattered on the path.
By now it was mid afternoon. The man from space looked at Suhas and made moaning noises.
“I can’t help it,” Suhas said. “They think you’re someone else. A...” he tried to think of how to explain. “A man from heaven, not a man from space. They don’t even know what space is.” He pointed up at the sky through the plantain leaves. “You know...from up there.”
The man from space moaned excitedly. His long fingers fumbled at one of the ridges on his thigh, and a seam seemed to split open. He pulled out a rounded pinkish object.
“What’s that?” Suhas asked, looking at it. It resembled nothing so much as it did a conch like the one Girish Bhot blew in the temple every evening, with a spiral at one end. Holding it up, he fiddled with it.
Suhas wasn’t quite sure what happened next. There was a brief flicker, almost purple, in the air, and an instant when he heard a hooting noise, rather like a conch as well. Then the flicker and the hooting noise seemed to rush skyward as fast as they could go, leaving a great silence behind. Suhas could even hear the yapping of Aunt Shreemoyee’s dog.
“What was that?” he asked. But the man from space had put the pink thing back inside his thigh and only moaned in reply.
“I suppose if must have been frightening when your rocket crashed, wasn’t it?” Suhas asked. “What happened, did lightning hit your rocket? My mother says lightning is an iron rod which falls from the sky and when it hits the earth, gas comes out from holes in it. But my book says it’s elec-tri-city.” He tilted his head and thought of the word, nearly certain he’d said it correctly, but not quite. “When I told my mother that she was wrong she slapped me and told me not to contradict my elders and betters.”
The man from space moaned a little. His moaning sounded commiserating.
“When I grow up,” Suhas said, “I’m going to go to the big city, maybe even Calcutta, and I’ll be a big scientist. Then I’ll make a rocket and go into space and another planet, and I’ll be a man from space myself, just like in the books.”
The man from space moaned encouragingly.
“Of course I can’t expect anyone from here to understand,” Suhas said. “They don’t know anything about life outside the village and they don’t care. They...”
“Suhu,” his mother shouted. “Leave the god a while and come and have your supper.”
“I’ll be back,” Suhas said, rising. “I’m a little hungry, actually. What about you? Should I get you something to eat?”
The man from space moaned in negation. Suhas was really getting very attuned to his moans.
“You probably have something to eat inside your suit,” Suhas said. “Is our earth food poisonous to you?”
The man from space moaned noncommittally.
When Suhas returned it was dark, and fireflies were flitting through the plantains and over the paddy. His mother had given him a kerosene lantern, and in its light he saw that someone had evidently been there, and left another pile of fruit and money. At first he couldn’t see the man from space.
“Man From Space?” he called anxiously. “Where are you?”
There was a moan, and he saw the tall silhouette of the man from space on the other side of the pond. He was standing by the water, shaking himself as though he’d just emerged from it. When he saw Suhas he walked back to the plantains.
“Were you hiding in the pond from the stupid people?” Suhas asked, sitting down next to him. “They won’t do you any harm, you know. They came to worship you, not harm you.” He looked up at the sky. “Which planet did you come from, Mars? All my story books say that men from space come from Mars.”
The man from space looked up at the stars, too, but didn’t say anything.
“Only in the books they always come to earth to invade it, but you aren’t invading it, are you?” Suhas wondered which of the planets was Mars. It was supposed to be red, but they all looked white to him. A mosquito landed on his ankle and he slapped at it. “I wish I could go to space with you. I have no friends here, you know? None of the other village boys wants to play with me. They say I’m weird.”
The man from space moaned enquiringly.
“Yes, I read books other than those they make us study in the school, and I don’t like playing guli-danda with them, and I’d rather watch the stars at night than sit at home reading as loudly as I can from the textbooks so my parents know I’m studying.” He flicked a plantain leaf moodily. “Will you take me with you if you go back to space?”
The man from space moaned.
“I wonder what your planet’s like,” Suhas said. “Does it have red skies and yellow grass? I wish I could see it. Are there people there thinking about you?”
The man from space moaned again.
“So when you go back, I want to go with you.” Suhas rubbed his eyes. “My mother said I can stay with you for the evening, but I’ve got to go back to the house to sleep.” He yawned widely. “Could you call me after some time? I’m feeling as though I can’t keep my eyes open any longer.”
The man from space moaned encouragingly, so Suhas leaned back against the plantain and went to sleep.
He dreamt of the man from space firing a rocket at the sky. The rocket was long and blunt ended, and the man from space threw it up and it went up and up with a trail of violet smoke, and then exploded in tiny points of fire, green and purple and yellow, which were so bright it hurt his eyes to look.
His eyes flicked open. He was lying on his back, and though the lantern had gone out it was not dark.The sky above was filled with points of fire, green and purple and yellow, so bright it hurt his eyes to look.
Sitting up quickly, he looked for the man from space, but he wasn’t there. Scrambling to his feet, he finally saw him, standing by the pond, looking up at the sky. He ran to stand by the man from space’s side.
“What is it?” he asked. “What are you looking...”
Then he didn’t say anything more, because it was obvious what the man from space was looking at. Something huge hung just above the bright sparkling points of light, something so incredibly huge that to Suhas it looked bigger than the village, and though he couldn’t see it clearly because of the lights, it seemed to have wings everywhere.
The man from space took out his pink thing again, and blew on it. The sound was exactly like a conch.
The man from space’s rocket came out of the pond. First the water bulged, as though it was a sheet, and then it burst and fell apart as the rocket emerged. It was so large that it was hard to believe that the pond had been able to hold it at all. And it didn’t come out like the rockets in Suhas’ books, with smoke and fire. It simply came out.
“Don’t go,” Suhas said desperately. “You promised you’d take me with you”. But it was already too late. Reaching out with one of his long arms, the man from space took hold of the rocket and swung himself aboard. He slid into a hole in the top, displacing a wave of scummy water, and blew on his conch again. He reached out and his hand touched Suhas’ briefly.
“Goodbye, then,” Suhas said. “Don’t forget me when you get home.”
The man from space moaned and waved, and then his rocket rose to meet the vast winged object hovering above. There was a last burst of bright light, and then it was gone.
Suhas turned away to see the entire village rushing towards him, drawn to the noise and bright light.
“The god’s gone,” people shouted. “The boy’s driven the god away.”
“I knew he was a rascal,” his father stormed. “Good for nothing, doing nothing all day. No wonder he offended Ganesha. Just you wait till I get you home.”
“He wasn’t a god,” Suhas said desperately. “He was a man from space, and he’s gone back to Mars or wherever he’d come from.”
“The boy’s right,” Girish Bhot said, chuckling. “Don’t beat him. But since we’ve been thinking of making a new temple, we’d better begin making one right away. Next time it might be a real god.”
While they were arguing, Suhas walked away a short distance and looked at the thing in his hand, the thing the man from space had put in it when their hands had touched.
Tiny and pink, the little conch lay glowing on his palm.
He looked at it and suddenly his spirits lifted. In that instant, he knew that all he had to do was blow on it again.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016