Mother Ocean

WRITTEN BY
Vandana Singh

ILLUSTRATED BY
Jing Jing Tsong

In the ocean, Paro sometimes forgets she’s human.  It’s partly because water is her element, and water, as we all know, obscures, blurs and dilutes all boundaries.  She doesn’t remember the name her grandmother gave her when she was born – it is lost among the fragments of memory that remain of those early, difficult years.  Her mother, trying to hide her in the mass of people of India’s landlocked interiors, named her Parvati, which became Paro.  Her mother took her as far from the ocean as she could, to the dusty, blinding heat of Delhi’s shanty towns, hoping that the child would forget, that the hell that had been visited on the family would spare the child.  Hide, you are not safe, you must hide.  Never talk about history.  The only reality is the present, the only safety is on land, where there is hard ground beneath your feet.  Her mother’s cold, angry, averted face is what she dreams about sometimes when she’s asleep on the boat, or back in her narrow little bunk on the ship.

But Paro has another name.  Growing up, she felt as though there were two people inside her: one, an anxious child trying her best to placate her mother’s fears, the good little girl who tries so hard in school.  The other, a creature whose name has been lost with her history, a creature drawn, like her grandmother, to the water, to the ocean.

She doesn’t know her other name.

*

Which is one of many reasons she is here, inside this flying underwater boat in the Indian Ocean,,  following a blue whale.  The ship sails along at the same leisurely pace as the whale – a ship of strange design, once an eccentric millionaire’s luxury yacht, now converted to a ship of exploration, running on solar and wind power for the most part, the flexible, maneuverable sails a bright gold in the dawn light.  Here in the middle of the ocean, there is no evidence that land exists, that there are humans on this planet – here is where you understand that this planet really is mostly ocean, a blue dot sailing through space like a woman carrying a water pot, a woman swimming, a woman who is also mostly salt water.

The boat surfaces, the top unsealing and opening up, the solar panels spreading out like wings, oriented to track the morning light.  She sends a quick message to the ship, which is not far; she can see it balanced like an exotic insect on the water.  The ocean seems infinite in the dawn light, the horizon clearly delineated only in the east, against a pink sky.  On the western horizon sea and sky are one, the line between them smudged into a mysterious darkness.  The whale is close to the surface, coming up for breath, each exhalation a great fountain over the heaving seas.  Paro stretches lazily on the narrow boat deck, sipping tea from a cup with a spout, thinking about the dream that came to her in the night.

In the dream there was a palm-fringed island, and on the white beach, where green, glassy waves washed without breaking, there stood a slender woman, chocolate-dark like herself.  On one side of the beach was a cluster of short trees, with roots tangled and raised like fingers that went all the way to the water’s edge. The woman waded into the ocean, walking into it with calm dignity, as one might walk into a garden, until the water was over her head. The air shimmered, and the strange tree roots walked in with her, turning into dark human figures as they did so. The sea closed over their heads, leaving widening ripples.    Yes, this is a dream Paro has had since she was a child; then, it would fill her with an unspeakable sense of loss, and she would wake up crying.  Now she thinks maybe the dark woman is her grandmother, reportedly lost to drowning when Paro was a child, but her mother won’t tell her anything.  Once, as an eight-year-old, she had seen the stretch marks on her mother’s belly as her mother changed her shirt, and pointed, and said ‘Waves!” and had not understood when her mother’s face closed with anger.

Paro nearly drowned once.  She was swimming off the coast north of Chennai, when a rip current took her.  The other students from her first and last year in college were on the beach, drinking beer.  She had gone into the water with the dangerous confidence of the excellent pool swimmer, her strength a match for the waves, until the adrenalin rush of battling the elements was overtaken by a new and compelling desire: to swim for the joy of immersion into an element that felt truly her own.  Then the current caught her and she found herself unable to fight it – rip current, her mind said, as she was swiftly carried out to sea, then swim parallel to shore but there was only surging water around her, and she couldn’t see the beach.  She panicked – her breath came in short, hard, sobbing gasps as she fought the waves – but the water pulled her inexorably under, and she thought: I’m going to die.  Mamma, forgive me for being a bad daughter.  As the water took her, an unexpected calm came over her.  The water was warm, embracing her like no lover ever could, and she thought: I’m going home.  It was all right to give herself to the sea.  She stopped struggling, felt herself carried gently away, and suddenly there was a strong hand tugging at her arm, and someone guiding her to the surface, to air and life above the heaving waves.  She expelled breath from her lungs, gasped in air, clung to her rescuer – it was a strange man, who, she learned later, was a fisherman from the village that the frantic students had called to when they saw her struggling.  After that experience she realized two things – one, that the ocean demanded respect – arrogance and over-confidence could kill – and two, that she belonged there, she had to go back.  No matter that her mother had only permitted her to swim in a pool – “you must learn to swim for safety’s sake, but never swim in the ocean-“ and had been so unhappy when Paro went to Chennai for college instead of staying in Delhi – her mother’s terror of water had something to do with her grandmother’s death when Paro had been too young to remember.

“Tell me how she died,” Paro said to her mother when she was back in Delhi during winter vacation, a few months after the near-drowning.  They were sitting on the balcony of the flat after dinner because the small apartment was too hot; but the outside air was not much better, and smelled of exhaust fumes.  No stars were visible in the smoky sky, and the noise of traffic was a constant roar.

“There’s not much to tell,” her mother said, pausing to use her inhaler. She cleared her throat. “There was a boat accident and she drowned, along with some other people.  Since you seem determined to follow that path –“

“Ma, wait.  Where was this?  Did I… did I see the accident?  Was I there?”

A long pause.

“In Chennai.  Where you grew up.  No, of course you weren’t there.  We heard about the accident later.  Why are you bothering with all this?  It’s in the past. Enough about it!  Listen, Paro, I know people who can help you get into a good college in Delhi…”

Paro let the familiar words wash over her, thinking – if our people are from Chennai, why doesn’t my mother speak Tamil fluently?  Why do I keep dreaming the same dream since I was a kid?  The place I see in my dream – it isn’t like any beach in Chennai.  She had never told her mother about the dream.

*

When she is alone on the ocean, Paro likes to free-dive nearly naked.  ‘Alone’ means no other humans, of course – swimming with a whale for two months, she’s hardly felt alone.  No land is in sight, and her boat is the only human-made craft nearby, if you ignore the ship just visible some distance away.  Her boat is bobbing gently on the surface, the solar panels extended like the petals of some exotic flower, catching the tropical sun.  She’s already sent a message to the ship that she’s going to dive, and that they should check back with her in five minutes.  She wants to swim down to the top of a submerged mountain – its summit is only 87 meters below the ocean’s surface – they are a few degrees south of the equator, close to the eastern edge of the Chagos Ridge some fifteen hundred kilometers from Sri Lanka.   Ril, back on the ship, doesn’t like her freediving – you should never free dive alone, why do you have to take such risks? – says his voice in her mind from their conversation a few minutes ago, but it’s a familiar argument that he’s lost many times before.  Fussy big brother, she thinks, smiling a little, although he’s not her brother. She can freedive on one breath for a hundred and forty meters, and he’s worried about 87 m.  Her whale, whose name she has learned in his own language – you can sing it or render it as a waveform but words are inadequate – let’s call him ~>~^ for convenience – her whale has been down for about fifteen minutes now – blue whales don’t go as deep as others, and she is curious as to what he’s doing. She checks that the guideline is secure, breathes slowly in and out to calm her mind – takes a deep breath and plunges in.

She swims with nothing on but her flippers, and a belt-belt with an underwater camera, speaker and hydrophone.  Down, down down, one meter, two meters, five, ten, twenty, as the sunlight slowly fades, turning the pale green waters darker and bluer – and then the magic begins to happen – the experience for which she has risked her life again and again.   Achieving neutral buoyancy, her chest is contracted with the pressure of the water, the breath held, locked in her lungs.  At this depth the ocean stops trying to push her up, and she is suspended in the deep blue, held in the warm water like a fetus in the womb.  Acceptance, acceptance.  Now she feels the gentle, yet inexorable downward pull of the ocean, and she’s falling through the water without effort, pushed sideways by the local current, the upwelling from the trench to the west.  Below she can see the top of the seamount, a pale grey in the blue light, approaching swiftly.  She spreads her arms and legs to slow down ¾ her bare feet touch rock gently – and she’s standing atop a mountain under the sea.

It is so peaceful here, so quiet underneath the agitation of waves and wind on the surface.  Only the gentle underwater current pushes her sideways, toward the east, and her hair swirls in that direction as though by the wind.  On the summit there are colonies of anemones, their round mouths fringed with red and yellow arms.  Delicate, lace-like corals, sea cucumbers, a slug of some kind, purple and yellow with pink frills, a small school of fish.  On its west side the mountain slopes gradually away into darkness – the Chagos trench, which can be as much as 6000 m deep in parts.  To stand lightly on a mountain under the sea, to walk around in this underwater garden as though she lives here, belongs here – it is a wish she has had for a long time, since she was a girl.

There’s no sign of ~>~^. She presses a button on her belt for the speaker – it warbles his name first, then a short sequence of sounds that signifies her name to the great whale.  The name is Paro’s invention, with Stella’s help.  Stella, the Sri Lankan cetacean specialist on board the ship, made sure Paro’s unique identifier signal did not coincide with any of the known phrases, calls and songs of the Sri Lankan blue whale population. >‡>‡ is Paro’s name, therefore, and she’s developed, over the last month, a few other vocal signifiers to try to bridge the gap between human and whale.

But here, under the waves, the water itself bridges the gap between being and being.  She remembers hearing this from her teacher in the learning center in a fishing village on the Kerala coast.  The thoughts you think on land, the old man said, are different from what you think with the sea.  In the sea you learn to think with the water, the fish.  That’s why people who make decisions on land, separated from the world by glass and concrete, air-conditioning and software, have such terrible ideas for the world.  The fisherman-teacher had never been to a formal educational institution – he had, he said, been taught by the ocean, and what better teacher than that?  Ideas don’t just come from your head, he would say – they are shaped by the surround – can the coconut be what it is without the tree, the sand, the wind and the ocean?  No!  Then always watch how your thoughts change, your body changes, with the surround.  Use your coconut!

In the learning center, one of thousands of clandestine offshoots of the Barefoot College movement of the early 21st century, the teachers are mostly illiterate, or academics pushed out by the Exalted One’s take-over of universities, humbly willing to exchange their skills with those who have generations of experience surviving under precarity – fisherfolk, tribals, the rural poor.  “Useless people” is how the Exalted One and his cronies refer to those who stand in the way of the great March of Progress.  While the rest of the country dashes about in a daze, lost to the endless cycle of mindless acquisition, these are the people observing how the weather and the currents are changing, wondering why whales are washing up dead along the coasts, their bellies empty, or filled sometimes with plastic rubbish.  They are asking the questions that nobody dares to consider.  The fisherfolk had sensed long before the scientists did that the world was coming undone – the winds and waters had been speaking to them about a great and terrible unraveling, but they didn’t know why, until they were joined by renegade scientists on the run.  Although to speak of it in public is to invite retribution from the powers that be, they know that this unraveling has come about because the bountiful Earth has been hijacked, plundered for the benefit of a few, at the expense of the many.  Makeshift universities have mushroomed in secret in kitchens and alleyways, shanty towns and villages, where the ‘useless people’ teach, learn, and ask the hard questions.   And it is on their behalf, with their blessing, that Paro is here.

Here she is 87 meters under the ocean’s surface, the last place her mother wants her to be.  But it’s time to go up and breathe.  She swims upward along the guideline, breaking the surface, blinking in the sunlight, exultant. She takes a deep breath or two.  It is one thing to read somewhere that the ocean provides more than half of the world’s oxygen, and quite another to experience this marvelous aliveness, as though every cell in her body is singing. The sky is a cloudless blue.  The water is cooler here because of the upwelling current.  It is a feeding ground for blue whales and sperm whales, but few have been seen here of late.  The numbers are down dramatically.

Paro calls again to the whale, a little louder..  Then she sees him, coming up from the darkness of the trench on the west.  He sounds a call that she feels with her whole body, ending with the short phrase that is his name.  He has dived deeper than is usual for his kind, but ~>~^ is unusual in many ways.  He is less shy, more adventurous – after all, he had accepted her presence in the water by his side within their first month together, and even understands (she thinks) that the strange boat in which she sometimes dives under water is not something to be feared.  For the first month she had swum with him without gear except for headphones, belt and flippers, and felt, tasted and moved through his world.  She will never forget the first time he had let her come close, and in fact had moved toward her, emitting a series of deep ululations that had reverberated through her body.  Stella had warned her that sounds from the blue whale were so loud they could vibrate a human to death, and at the very least damage the eardrums, and in fact was reminding her at the very moment, via the headphones, from the ship a kilometer away.  But at that moment Paro had not felt anything but wonder, and a warmth spreading through her, as the huge bulk of the whale grew larger in her vision, and she saw herself in the great eye, caught in the curious, benign gaze that felt at once alien and surprisingly familiar, like a shock of recognition between apparent strangers.  Tentatively she had reached out and touched him – his mottled, blue-gray skin was hard to the touch.  He was vocalizing gently; she felt the sound in her body like a slow cauldron bubbling within her and knew she was being questioned, explored.  Suddenly he emitted a sound burst that felt like an explosion in her ears – she catapulted through the water, arms flailing, until she was at the surface gasping for breath.  Are you all right, are you all right, said Stella’s voice frantic in her ear, and she realized she could hear, and that the noise-canceling headphones had saved her eardrums, but her body felt sore – everything hurt.  Just then the whale surfaced near her, turning to catch her in his gaze, and she realized he had stopped sounding the moment she had been in distress.  A barely discernible tremolo came from him as he swam around her.  I think he’s just understood how fragile I am, she told Stella later, recovering on the ship.  The whale had never vocalized loudly in her presence after that.  He made his loudest calls and songs when she was above water, with her submersible boat in float mode.  To honor that trust – as much as to avoid having one more gadget on her person – Paro stopped wearing the protective headphones when she dived.

*

Three days later she got to see  ~>~^ feed on a great swarm of krill – well, actually, a kind of shrimp higher on the food chain, Stella told her from the ship.  The video footage was excellent.  There were still no other blue whales in the region – a pod of sperm whales had been sighted right over the trench, diving for squid.  At one point a young sperm whale came over to ~>~^ and sounded, but Paro was in the ship, getting supplies for the submersible boat, and could only watch in frustration from the deck.  The ship’s hydrophones recorded what may have been a conversation, but without being able to observe the whales under water, it was hard to say.

Paro is relieved to be back in the boat again with a three-day supply of food, back in the water with~>~^.  It is a cloudless afternoon; gentle waves make music against her boat.  The ship is a faint smudge in the distance.  This is how life should be, she thinks, as she dives to be with the whale under water.  She wishes her mother could see her now, her college drop-out daughter, with no prospects except in competitive swimming, but Paro turned her back on that, too, choosing instead to hang out with riffraff, the useless people.  Her mother, last time they met, had the familiar, resigned look in her eyes, saying as loudly as she could with her eyes, with her stiffly held shoulders and the rattle of dishes in the sink – I worked so hard to give you a good life, and look at you.  Paro wishes she could tell her mother: there is a whole other reality outside your little artificial bubble world, and I prefer to live in it.  

Diving about thirty meters down, Paro sees ~>~^ coming up toward the surface from the depths of the trench.  His attention is on a faint, pale-colored cloud in the water over the chasm.  A swarm of shrimp?  He accelerates upward – she sees the cavernous mouth open and swallow the cloud whole – and it is time for her to go up and take a breath.  Up at the surface she breathes slowly and deeply, but then there is an earsplitting crack on the water, and a giant wave knocks her hard against the side of her boat.  The whale’s fluke rises up and slaps the water again; his head rears up, and she catches her breath – across the head of the whale, and trailing from his mouth is a tangle of cables and meshwork.  He slaps the water again with his tail, sounding so loudly that she has to heave herself into the boat to protect her fragile body.  She looks around frantically, but the ship is not in sight.  She turns on the comm, but just as she is about to call for help, she sees that the ship has sent her a message already, while she was diving.  It is code.  It means: We have been boarded.  Do not signal the ship.  Stay hidden.

That means that what they had feared has transpired – a corporate militia vessel, or a government ship, not that there is always much difference between the two – has decided to investigate their cover.  Or piracy – the nearby Chagos archipelago, once a military base for five of the world’s major powers in rapid succession, had finally been occupied by a rebel group that (rumor had it) would not stop at looting passing ships for supplies.

All these thoughts pass through Paro’s mind in a fraction of a second.  Panic gives way to the studied calm she has practiced for nearly a decade.  All right, so she is on her own with a whale in distress.  The cable, or mesh, or whatever it is, will have to be cut.  She will have to calm ~>~^ down enough to be able to approach him with her rope-cutter – pray it isn’t steel cables.  Going close to a panicked whale means certain death – one whack from the tail or pectoral fin, and she would be smashed.

She gets the rope cutter out from her tool box and attaches it via a short cable to her belt. She practices her breathing, deep and slow.  The whale is still below the water surface.  Her boat’s hydrophones are picking up the long, low calls, the kinds that travel for a hundred kilometers, which are probably calls of distress, pleas for help.  But there are few, if any blue whales in this area, and they cannot help him anyway.

She flips neatly over the side of the boat, swimming down into the warm, clear water, calling through her speaker his name, followed by her identifier >‡>‡.  In the lexicon that she and Stella have been compiling of his calls and songs, there is one sequence that they had recorded when ~>~^ had briefly traveled with two other blue whales.  The whales had each used this sequence when they met, tacking on what were probably their unique identifiers.  A similar sequence had been recorded for a mother whale calling to her calf as it dove deeper than she – and the calf returned to its mother thereafter.  Did it mean come to me?  Did it mean happy to see you?  Nobody knows, but there is no time to speculate now.  She searches quickly through her library of calls, finds the one she’s looking for, and plays the sequence.  The whale has stopped calling – where is he?

There, a vast bulk ahead of her, coming up to breathe, and submerging again.  He lies still in the water, only a couple of meters below the surface, head drooping, the cables and lines tangling across his head as before, the very picture of misery and fear.  She thinks she sees part of the line falling into the deeper water of the trench, disappearing into the darkness.  Warbling her sequence of calls, she swims up to him, slowing down as she does so, holding her breath in her body.  There is a rope or mesh, thinner than the cables around his head, wrapped around one of the pectoral fins.  Perhaps best to start with that, because he can see what she was doing.  Hold still, she tells him in her mind.  She holds the rope cutter carefully and cuts through the thickest part of the rope.  It takes a while.  A shudder goes through the whale but the fin is almost free.  She has to breathe.  She lets herself bob to the surface, takes a quick breath, and goes below again.  Thank goodness he is close to the surface – if he decides to dive, this will become impossible.  She cuts the finer mesh around the fin, until finally it is free.  The whale moves the fin experimentally, looking at her with a gaze that holds – it seems to her – both terror and hope.  Good job, she tells him in her mind.  Now the real challenge begins.

She starts to cut the rope – it is some kind of thick, ridged plastic, not steel, praise all gods of the sea – around the head.  She goes up to breathe three more times.  The fourth time the whale surfaces with her.  He seems calmer, making small, reverberating ululations of what she feels must be distress.  When they go below the surface again, she sees with horror that the mess of cables go into his mouth – they are most likely tangled in the baleen fringes on his upper jaw that he uses to sieve his tiny prey animals from the water.  How am I going to do this, ~>~^?  Help me.  I can’t do this alone.

But when she tugs gently at a thick cable coming out of the side of his mouth, a tremor goes through the water that shakes her literally to the core – she doesn’t have to know the details of whale communication to understand that this is a No.  She senses before she hears the thunderclap of sound that follows, that she is in danger – she is up and over the side of her boat when his cry hits her.  He dives.

Paro sits on the tiny deck of the boat, taking deep, sobbing breaths.  Her arms feel like they are filled with hot lead, and her fingers are bruised and swollen from maneuvering the cutters.  There is nothing on the horizon but the heaving sea.  Where is the ship?  For a fraction of a second she wonders what would happen if the ship doesn’t return for her – she only has three days’ worth of food on the boat – but she needed to focus on the immediate problem, the possibility of losing the whale – a whale with cables tangled in its mouth can’t feed.  But there’s nothing she can do unless he chooses to return to her.  Come on, you bastard, you lump of blubber, you maybe-last-of-your-kind, come back and let me help you, curse you.  But the sea, under the afternoon sky, is calm.  She’s never felt more alone.

In the water again, she hears him calling.  She can hardly believe her ears, because he’s calling her name, the name she and Stella invented:>‡>‡.   He looms up from the depths and lies quietly next to her while she swims to him.

Now listen, you’ll have to open your mouth for me, as much as you can.  Please, please.  You have a brain much bigger than mine; you know I have to do this.  Your kind has lived longer on this planet than humans.  There are so few of you left in the world.  I don’t want you to die.  ~>~^

The whale, as though he has heard her, opens his jaws slowly, only about two meters.  The ropes and lines are tangled among the meter-long baleen plates that hang down from his upper jaw, some of which are broken – and in the light of her belt she can see that the whole mess goes into the cavern of his mouth.  She had thought maybe she could cut away at the tangle from the outside, enough to pull it out in small pieces, but this is impossible.  There is no way she can do this.  She forces herself to be calm.  Think with the sea. Use your coconut!  Her fisherman teacher’s words echo in her mind.  A slow terror takes hold of her then because the sea tells her what she has to do.  She must squeeze under the baleen plates and swim into the mouth of the whale.

She edges carefully under the baleen fringes and into the great cavern.  Holding on to the bony, bumpy inner edge, she begins to cut at the cables.  She has to proceed very carefully because there is debris in the water and even with the bright belt light, it is hard to see.  Before and below her lies the enormous, fleshy tongue, and far ahead, the dark tunnel of the throat.  Well, I can believe your kind are the largest animals ever to live on this Earth.  She feels a stretch of rope come loose in her hand.  Time for a breath.  She swims out of his maw, holding the cut mass of rope and meshwork in one hand.  Quick breath in the too-bright sunlight, then dive into the dark cave and cut, cut, cut.  Again and again and again, until it seems she’s done nothing else in her life.  The whale lies patiently in the water, enduring what must be quite painful. The inside of his mouth tastes of the sea, salt and fishy, but there is a taste that is his own, his signature.  The equivalent of smell on land is taste in water.  I now know your name in taste as well as sound, she tells him.  Her hands are bleeding, she should have worn gloves.  When she goes up again for air, he rises with her, blowing vigorously.  She knows he is relatively young, probably in his early thirties, like her.  She breathes, goes to the boat for a drink of fruit juice, and returns to her task.

I don’t know how much longer I can do this; she thinks.  She’s lost count of the number of times she’s gone down and come up.  I am so tired, and if I die of exhaustion, who will help you? 

When the whale opens his mouth this time, it is a lot wider – he’s edged out some of the loose rope with his tongue.  Good lump of blubber, she says as she resumes the work on the remainder of the cable.  This is the bit that has a long segment of rope trailing out of the mouth and into the dark abyss below them.   Steadily she works on it, the whale’s calm trust soothing her, helping her control the trembling achiness in her arms.  At last.  She swims out of the great maw, bringing the last of the tangle with her.  She hopes he hasn’t swallowed any of it.  She surfaces, takes a breath, and swims over to the boat, where she attaches the mess of cable to the side of the boat.  She turns to look at the whale.

He releases a fountain of breath that rains around her.  He lies still in the water.  A shudder of fear goes through her.  Has the ordeal been too much?  Has it rendered him so weak that he cannot not survive?  She swims over to him, diving to touch his flank.  She is held in his gaze; the great eye signaling a complex mix of emotions that she thinks she understands.  He will be all right, at least for now.  His life, like her life, is filled with unknown dangers ahead (will the ship return?), but they’re both all right for now.

*

The ship doesn’t come for her until the second day.  Before its arrival she has dived as far into the trench as she dares – a hundred and twenty meters – to see where the cables go.  But this part of the trench is too deep – the trailing cables go down into the dark.  She knows the history of waste dumping into the sea – not only plastic and chemical effluents, but also nuclear waste – warheads and submarines, tons of radioactive waste dumped during the twentieth century, a practice that has likely been revived in this new and chaotic age.  Knowing something of the history of abuse of the Chagos atoll – colonialism followed by militarization in which five superpowers succeeded each other – she cannot help but wonder what horrors lie at the bottom of the trench.  These cables are not fishing gear – people on the ship will be able to tell what they are, she hopes.

And so the ship returns – Ril tells her that they were accosted by the Free People of Chagos– the rumor of the islands being occupied by rebels was true after all, but these were no pirates.  They were descendants of the original inhabitants, brought from Africa and India in the 1700s by the French to work on coconut plantations.  She knows something of their history: having made the islands their home, and developed a unique culture, the Chagossians were forcibly removed by the British and Americans nearly eighty years ago to make way for a military base.  By the mid-twenty-first century the base has been rented out to three other militaries – India, AsiaCorp and United China.  Following its destruction in a great storm some years ago, the base was abandoned, although it is still a contested site.  After decades of exile and struggle, the Chagossians have returned.  They are trying, like Paro and her friends, to reclaim the world they have lost.

Lying on the deck of her boat under a star-studded sky, Paro thinks about her mother.  Yesterday she had sent her a message via the ship, through a convoluted route via the Chagossian settlement.  Thinking of you.  Hope you are fine.  Love, Paro.  She’s beginning to put things together regarding her shattered family history, and the dream that has haunted her since childhood.  Talking to the Chagossian representative on the ship, she is starting to reconstruct her own story from memory fragments and things her mother has let slip – She is not from Chennai, or any other part of mainland India- her people are island folk.  They have been forced to leave their home.  As the boat of the dispossessed refugees leaves, the child Paro is standing at the railing, looking back toward the white curve of the beach, the palm trees against an impossibly blue sky.  They are leaving home – perhaps because the rising seas have contaminated fresh water sources on the island.  Or maybe the island has something that the government or some corporation wants.  It doesn’t matter; the fact is that they have lost their home, and the grandmother and some other people have chosen to stay behind, and walk into the sea.  And the child, Paro, unattended for a moment, has seen the grandmother do this from the departing boat, not understanding what she’s seeing, but feeling the pain well up in her that has kept company with her all her life.   She doesn’t know what island system her people come from – the Andamans or Lakshadweep, perhaps – but when she’s back in Delhi she will find a way to ask her mother about it.  Her mother, who has learned to hate what she once loved – the sea.

Away in the darkness she hears the whale blow.  Through the speaker she warbles his name.  He responds with a long sequence that she recognizes as part of the lexicon that has been recorded previously, as yet incomprehensible.  It reverberates gently through her body, this new language she is learning, in which she has a name, and a teacher. The water sloshes musically against her boat.

Water obscures, blurs, and dilutes all boundaries.

She is Paro.  She is >‡>‡.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vandana Singh was born and raised in India and currently inhabits the Boston area, where she is a physics professor at a small and lively state university. Several of her science fiction short stories have been reprinted in Year’s Best volumes, and shortlisted for awards. Her second short story collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, came out in 2018 from Small Beer Press in the US and Zubaan in India, and was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick award.