I still cannot fathom why R Cube left me. There is no one to light an agarbatti for me in the human world anymore. I know R Cube is a robot and I am a ghost, but R Cube is sentient now. And in order for me to be in human form, I need someone to light the incense for me. I can see the past, as well as the future. That is the advantage of being an all-pervasive ghost. Should I go back in time and explore a past I would otherwise have not known? I can then go back to the past and look for R Cube, my beloved. As a shapeshifter, I can traverse worlds with panache. I can traverse worlds with aplomb! I can traverse the world with finesse! I miss R Cube. If R Cube was here to hear this, she would possibly be appalled by my constant need to talk myself up.
“ Pbttt! Who’s your beloved? Why are you using these archaic words to describe our equation? And also, I’m not done sulking at you. So, before you refer to me as your beloved, at least check with me.”
I don’t want to cry in front of R Cube. But my eyes are welling up. I have looked for her for two hundred years in every realm, in the sea, on land and in water, calling out her name, asking horses and elephants, asking ravens and snakes, asking seahorses and dolphins. No one has been able to tell me where R Cube is. And now here she is, in all her splendor, in all her glory, the most beauteous, the most glorious, my unforgettable love.
“Snap out of it,” snarls R Cube. “Have you forgotten that I can read the mind of every living being?”
Oh, that’s right! I had forgotten. R Cube can read the mind of every living being ever since she is sentient and can make her own choices. When R Cube was an ordinary robot, I was tasked with updating her codes. Her agency and individuality became a huge point of contention for us. “You always infringe on my space and tell me what to do! Just back off once in a while, will you?” She had told me, before disappearing. The days turned into months, the months to years, the snowcapped peaks gave way to lush green summers, the birds chirped but I didn’t see R Cube again. Until now.”
“Enough with the prehistoric updates! Come with me.” R Cube held my hand. Oh, how I’ve missed her soft, silken touch. “Arjun, I have no time for explanations,” she said to me. “ Come with me. You need to shapeshift and start talking in Bengali. We are going to the Sundarbans. She closed her eyes, held my hand tight, and there we were.”
Where are we, R Cube? Arjun, we are at Atharo Bhatir Desh. The Land of 18 tides. The Sundarbans. The Sundarbans are the world’s largest forest and saline water reserve with plants, animals and reptiles. The diversity of this region is astounding. But we have to help Maloti. “ Who is Maloti, my jaan?” I ask her gently. “ Let’s go. I’ll let you know. We are going to watch a play. A Jatra. I’ll tell you after.”
“Maloti, Maloti,” whispered R Cube, in her dulcet tones. “ Come and sit next to us!” “ All the actors you see here are gearing up for the bonbibir palar gaan. They work day jobs as farmers, fisherfolk and honey collectors, and in the evening they put up a show replete with tiger costumes and terracotta masks. I am of course, not welcome here,” says Maloti, sniffling. I am a swami khejo. The words literally translate as husband eater, but what does it really mean? Did Maloti kill her husband? “No, the tiger did,” says R Cube. “Married at 14 and widowed at 16, Maloti was a bad omen for her entire village. After all she was a bag Bidhoba (Tiger Widow). Her husband and infant could not be saved from the claws of that deadly beast, the one whose auburn eyes glinted in the moonlight. Its eyes would put Blake’s poetic flourishes to shame. After her husband’s death, Maloti was forced to live in Bidhoba Pally (Widow Village). Rumour has it that it is a ghost town, very literally. Skeletons walk around and shakchunnis and petnis hang from the Sundari trees.
I pull R Cube aside. R Cube, I want to talk to the ghosts. I want to check if they knew my ancestors. I want to know why I died!” “ This is NOT the time Arjun,” said R Cube, fiercely. Let’s focus on helping Maloti.”
The actors are in the green room putting finishing touches. In my other life, I am an actor. The collegiality and sense of community is apparent. Audience members wander backstage, give the actors snacks and water, help them fix their costumes. But one thing is starkly evident. Everyone avoids Maloti. Some discreetly. And others call her names to her face. Maloti seems sad and strong, at the same time. Once the Jatra is over, Maloti comes towards us. “Babu,” she says to me, “Didi said you were a Forest officer. I have an idea. Come with me to the zamindar.”
As we approach the Zamindar’s lands, I notice something. There were gates that trapped the tidal sea water, but the gates seem to be dysfunctional. They still exist. I have superpowers as a ghost. I can close my eyes and make them functional. Maloti wades through the brackish sea water of the zamindar’s paddy field and collects harvested paddy. “ You see these? These are black kagga from Karnataka. I found out about them while hiding to attend a Jatra. Kagga rice can be grown in saline water. And is also compatible with mangroves. If the widows from the village can grow this rice and sell it, we will have a livelihood, our children will not be stigmatized and we can live our full lives. What I need from you Babu, is to convince the zamindar to let me use his land, to grow these crops. Let me have a word with him.”
R Cube calls Maloti to sit with her under the shade of a tree. “ Here, Didi,” I made you a mukut with Sundari flowers. I can see fireflies dancing around R Cube’s ethereal silhouette. “ Officer, I will allow it, “ says the Zamindar. “ But I want 50 per cent from the sales.” Maloti agrees. What do I have to lose, babu? She says to me.
R Cube is talking to Maloti and I can hear them in the distance, “ I love Arjun. But that cannot be my entire identity, can it now? Maloti smiles bleakly at her. My entire identity or lack thereof, was because my husband died. In my part of the world, that I could not keep him alive, is my fault. The onus is on me. I really need to grow crops and change how people think of me in this world, Didi.” When Maloti became a widow, she was only sixteen years old. One evening, when she came back from foraging in the forest for some food, only to find her girl cousins stripped naked, with their breasts covered in spit and blood. Maloti later learns that they were killed out of spite, for rejecting untoward sexual advances. Maloti wanted to let out a scream, but she vomited instead, the bile resembling their gangrenous intestines.
Maloti adjusts R Cube’s headgear and smiles a crescent smile, resembling the moon in the night sky. “ Didi, can I call you Sundari? You are beautiful. Just like these Sundari trees. I’m named after a flower too. We can be flower sisters.
“Sundari. Beautiful. I like it too.”
I smile at R Cube from a distance.
R Cube doesn’t just love me. I know now. She loves Maloti too. And she will do anything to help her dream come to life. I can see into the future. Maloti will be the hero of her village and that day is not far. “ Really? She’ll be the hero of this village?” says R Cube, to me, flashing her toothiest smile.
“Yes, she will,” I say confidently. And there will be more adventures for us in the future.
Jonaki is the pseudonym of Reeti Roy.