The supplicant

Indra Das | Updated on January 24, 2018

An alien: The Supplicant is a being from the sky, not the kind that’s just a human crossing the borders of a country that doesn’t want them. Photo: N. Rajesh

Indra Das

The Supplicant looks like a small tree at first glance. A tree shaped like a kneeling humanoid figure, perhaps — its trunk a bent torso robed in roots, folded limbs ingrown twists of branch. Its flesh, or bark, or skin — is a livid, dark red. It has no leaves, though a veil covers the stump of its head, a hood of tissue that grows like some filamentous weed to shadow its featureless face. Though the Supplicant is entirely still, its uncanny form projects the illusion of gentle, slow breathing if one stares at it too long, especially when a breeze touches its visitors and stirs the dust and grass around it.

Shraddha knows that the Supplicant isn’t a tree, but an alien. A being from the sky, not the kind that’s just a human crossing the borders of a country that doesn’t want them. She’s waited in line for hours to see it, even though she knows it’ll give her nothing. Not her husband back, nor money to ease her burdens and those of her children. But then, what have earthly idols ever given her? All her life, she still went — to shrines, temples, pandals. Anirban, her husband, still died by her hand, his lungs rattling like cheap toys, bluebottles on his bony face. She’d swung a scythe across the back of his neck, painting the yellow flowers of their mustard field red.

Idols hadn’t been able to stay Shraddha’s hand. She’d given eight years since the day Anirban dislocated her shoulder in a drunken rage. Those years, punctuated by prayers, did nothing to change him.

And yet here she is, in line to see the Supplicant. She doesn’t know what else to do. There is love for her wretched husband trapped inside her shuddering chest, guilt and grief like a sick and kicking baby nestled in her belly, making her heavier, refusing to ever leave her body.

She kneels and listens to the Supplicant’s silence, looks into the place where its face would be, if it were human

Shraddha can’t so much as look at her two sons and one little daughter, who are tending the farmland while she’s away. It’s too much to bear. She can’t give them back their father, and she can’t tell them why she took him away from them. They think he’s gone missing, when he’s lying at the bottom of a ditch, under a thin blanket of mud and weeds. She’s made her own flesh and blood sick with grief, and she can’t make them better. Instead, she woke one cold winter dawn and travelled 20km of National Highway, on foot and on the wooden pallets of inter-village motor-rickshaws, bracketed by reeking men with their dirty feet hanging over the road, to get to Bolpur. From there, she walked to the cratered field where the Supplicant kneels forever under rain and sun and mist, fallen from the stars years ago. She joined the line of people standing and waiting for their turn to see it, as the sun rose towards noon. The line stretched like a snake through the tall grass. Now, the sun is long past its zenith. The Supplicant casts a longer shadow.

She steps up to the Supplicant, aware that there are tired, impatient people waiting behind her. It feels like summer around it, warm and humid. She’d watched the old man in front of her wobble on his walking stick till she helped him to his knees (his lungi sweeping up the dusty earth). He stayed on his knees for five minutes, like a breathing mirror image of the Supplicant’s illusory (or not, no one knew) human shape. Then he clutched his walking stick — which wobbled like a top again under his fist — got up, and shuffled away, giving her no clue of what he’d seen or felt.

She doesn’t know much about the alien she is about to kneel in front of. Like everyone in the world, she’s heard many things about it, or them. One woman she met on the pilgrimage across the National Highway said that they eat prayers, that they’re actually cocoons that will hatch when they’re fully fed, like butterflies. Another said that touching them will rot away one’s fingers, which is why they remain un-painted and un-garlanded.

Shraddha remembers when they fell from the sky, when she was a young woman and it had seemed even more a miracle than it was. She’d seen a star begin to move in the night sky and become a long thin line of white fire to the horizon. A line drawn straight and true, as if showing humanity how far it is to fall from heaven to earth.

Other stars had fallen that night, all across India and the world, each leaving behind a silent Supplicant. In the years since, she’d heard that most of them had been walled off by governments and militaries. Others were still left alone, like the one in front of her. Not for long, she was sure. The farmer who owns the field charges people exorbitantly to see the Supplicant. His toothless but beefy bouncer took money worth several bags of rice out of her hand as she stepped into the field. But the Supplicant doesn’t belong to him. One day, someone will wall it off, just like the others.

She kneels and listens to the Supplicant’s silence, looks into the place where its face would be, if it were human. She wonders whether human prayers are turning it into a human under its thick cocoon.

For so long, nothing seems to happen. As she expected. So she keeps her hands clasped and concentrates on everything that is wrong with her life. Then, she hears something, feels something stir inside her like the dreadful warmth of a fresh fever. A sound envelops her, like the inside of a conch-shell, blotting out the sounds of the field, the rustle of the grass, the voices of the people in the line. Within that quiet roar, she hears voices that have no sound, that are like feelings inside her head. Like when she speaks to herself without opening her mouth.

Across the heavens, Shraddha hears another world, or another place, another time. She can hear other people beyond the stars. And they’re praying. They’re praying, like her. Somewhere on another world, maybe in the sky, or maybe in her skin, deep down in the space between what makes her and all things, somewhere, she sees others like shadows against her mind, cast by candlelight, cast by whatever invisible light the Supplicant emits, warming the air and raising her hair. She can’t see exactly what they look like, but she can feel the outlines of their long, silvered bodies under a vast sky where moonlight is spread from east to west in an arch instead of a sphere. They huddle around her, only it is not her, but another Supplicant on their world. Shraddha can feel their suffering in the wake of some vast tragedy — a great war and famine, violence spreading across their world. A pain so acute it trembles the universe itself, resonating with her own.

She gives the Supplicant her suffering, her guilt, her pain. She feels it drain out of her like water or blood. It is gone, across the years of light and space, to those silvered people, whatever they actually look like. And then it is over.

“Hurry up,” says the girl behind her, a teenager in a scant sari, shivering in the winter sunlight, her belly swollen with child. Shraddha walks away unsteady, understanding now why people come to the Supplicant. It is not a god, like other idols.

No, the Supplicant is like a radio placed on a bench in a tea-shack at the side of the highway, filtering strains of voices from a far-off city. But it both receives and transmits.

She doesn’t know what stories the Supplicant just told to its far-off people, what its language made her life sound like, what is lost or created in its unknowable translation. But she knows that she has given them strength — the story of a brave being on a blue world, who vanquished her violent mate to protect her young. She is now an idol, somewhere in time and space, her pain transmitted like radio signals across the universe to become myth.

Walking across the gentle slopes of the cratered field, Shraddha is aware of every aching joint, her throbbing teeth, her cramps, her itching hair. She feels attached to the ground like never before, so human — evil, mundane, a victim, a survivor, a murderer. Here on this world, she might have doomed her children to lives without their mother. If the police catch her, she’s as good as dead, condemned to misery in some prison in a distant city, even hanged. But on another world under an arched sky, she is heroic, triumphant, a legend among their stars. She leaves the warmth of the Supplicant’s strange aura, and walks back towards Bolpur through the tall grass, walking the thin line between those two worlds, a new balance beneath her feet. She walks back to her children.

(Indra Das’s speculative fiction The Devourers (Penguin) will release this April)

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Published on January 23, 2015
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