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The Tetrahedron

by Vandana Singh

The story of the Tetrahedron – its mysterious appearance in the middle of a busy street in New Delhi, India – is known in the remotest corners of the globe. There are pictures of it everywhere, towering over the trees and buildings while an anonymous crowd stands outside the fenced area, staring up at it in awe. But few know the story of one of the witnesses of this extraordinary event – an apparently ordinary young woman by the name of Maya, who stood waiting at a bus-stop near the intersection known as Patel Chowk on the fateful morning when the Tetrahedron first appeared. To understand her story we must look upon her with the gaze of someone who cares, so she becomes more than a face in the crowd. The way her brother Manoj considers her, perhaps, when he imagines her standing at the bus-stop at the start of it all – the thin, heart-shaped face, the wistful curiosity in her brown eyes, like a child in a china shop that has been told not to touch things…

She was dressed in a somewhat gaudy red patchwork tunic over narrow black trousers; a cloth bag hung over her shoulder, declaring her unequivocally a student of Delhi University. She was late for Accounting class, had long since given up hope of arriving in time, and was therefore letting buses bound for the University pass her by. It was this philosophical resignation, and her preoccupation with her thoughts, centered at that moment on her fiancé, Mr. Perfect Kartik, that resulted in her witnessing the manifestation (for lack of a better word) of the Tetrahedron.

She stood a little apart from the crowds at the bus-stop: young, sleek-headed men with cell-phones, steely-eyed women in saris carrying brief-cases, students in a colorful knot discussing politics. It was a cool morning in February and the crows were hunched on the neem trees over her head, watching the peanut-seller with beady eyes. The air smelled of traffic fumes and roasting peanuts, and somebody’s flowery perfume.

What she was thinking about at this moment was how Kartik was beginning to irritate her. Maya’s engagement to Kartik represented her final surrender to the demands of respectability. Every foray she had made into the out-of-the-ordinary – playing cricket with the boys, climbing trees, buying an entire tray of bangles from a beggar girl in the market, making friends with the girl in the next apartment block who rode a motorbike and was reputed to be “wild” – had been met with parental consternation, lectures on family honour and marital prospects, and had left her with busloads of guilt. So she felt like a traitor even thinking about how Kartik was starting to annoy her…

Lately, whenever she met Kartik (under the watchful eyes of some elderly relative or other) he would lecture her on her failings. The halwa she had made for tea was a little too sweet, that sari was a little flashy – and by the way, could she bring him the newspaper? But the worst was the way her mother and father acted around Kartik, as though he were some minor deity that must be kept in a constant state of appeasement. If only her brother Manoj, two years her senior, had been there – he would understand, but he had escaped many years ago. He was in the Merchant Navy, stationed now in Vishakhapatnam. Her three elder married sisters were harried mothers and quite useless. As for her friends in college, Maya no longer found their obsession with the latest fashions, jewellery and eligible young men diverting. These days she had been feeling very much alone.

At precisely 10:23 A.M. IST, her musings were interrupted by the appearance of an enormous tetrahedron in the middle of the street before her. It came suddenly and incongruously into existence – a monstrous black thing, about two stories high, broad enough on its triangular base to span all four lanes of the road. There was a chorus of screeches as cars and scooters and motor-rickshaws braked in desperation, and then a series of prolonged metallic crashes as vehicles behind them made contact. A woman near Maya dropped her bag and began screaming.

Curses, exclamations, invocations to various gods, the sounds of running feet as a stampede began – then a fearful, wondering silence fell upon the crowds that remained on the sidewalk and the people emerging slowly from the vehicles. Even those who had started to run slowed down and turned back to stare. Faces peered out of windows in the building on both sides of the street. The crows themselves stood silent on the branches of the old trees.

Astonishingly, nothing had crashed into the tetrahedron itself, which stood quietly in the street. To Maya’s amazement it seemed as though the two buses, the cars and bicycles that had been in the place now occupied by the tetrahedron had simply ceased to be.

Moments later Maya found herself walking towards the Tetrahedron with a straggle of other bold onlookers. They stood gazing at its opaque sleekness, its geometrical perfection, wondering, but too afraid to touch. Until a small street urchin held out a dirty hand and touched the thing; then everyone followed suit, patting and feeling the smooth, unyielding surface. Behind them the crowd grew as people emerged from cars and buses to gaze open-mouthed at this unexpected sight and proffer theories. Depending on which religion the theorist professed, it was a signal from the gods that the end of the era of kalyug was come, and destruction was imminent, or that the one true God was about to emerge and pass judgement on the sinners… It was a government ploy (from a disgruntled clerk who refused to speculate as to how or why). It was a bomb from a neighbouring country that would explode any minute now and why were they standing there anyway. It was a new secret weapon the government had developed. It was an invasion by Martians (from a boy in school uniform) or by Egyptians (from his friend, who was contradicted by another schoolboy: “it’s a tetrahedron, not a pyramid, stupid!”). Arguments broke out regarding the possible validity of each theory. Some bemoaned the fate of the people who had been in the space occupied by the tetrahedron. They must lie crushed flat under this monstrous thing, they said, shaking their heads ghoulishly. Well, well, who knew where you’d end up when you left your doorstep of a morning?

Then the press came, eager-eyed TV cameramen, the All India Radio people, and, following at their heels, the police. The latter were rather at a loss – there was nothing in the Indian Penal Code about this. The police officer fell back on old ground and began waving his baton at the crowd, “Move on, you’re obstructing traffic!” while some responded, “what about that thing, it’s obstructing traffic, are you going to arrest it?” But finally, in the anarchistic, reluctant way of a large beast, the crowd was pushed back and railings set up around the tetrahedron. Sirens wailed discordantly while stalled traffic was diverted, and finally army trucks rolled in. Soldiers leaped out and took their places with clockwork precision, rifles agleam, but the Tetrahedron answered no questions or challenges. On the sidewalks a large crowd still stood and stared, and pickpockets and vendors of spicy and sticky concoctions did a roaring trade. Maya was interviewed by a reporter from The Statesman (“Did you really touch it? What do you think it might be?”).

When she went home (who could sit in a class after this?) her parents were watching the whole thing on TV. The TV was blaring because her mother had the sewing machine going, trying to finish an order from the tailoring shop where she worked. The youngest of her married older sisters, who was here for a visit, was cooking something in the tiny kitchen of the flat, while her firstborn, little Chanchal, babbled in her grandfather’s lap. Maya’s parents were horrified when she told them she had been there and had touched the thing, but when she mentioned that The Statesman had actually interviewed her, their horror knew no bounds. What would Kartik say?

Fortunately Kartik did not subscribe to The Statesman. When he came for tea on the following weekend, he talked at length about the Tetrahedron, unaware that Maya had actually been there when it appeared. Kartik’s theory was that it was a Pakistani secret weapon. Gratified by the attention of his hosts (his future father-in-law had nodded several times) he grew expansive, dandled little Chanchal on his knee (ignoring her outraged cries) and gave Maya a significant look. Maya, lost in thoughts of her own, stared blankly back at him, although her sister gave her a dig in the ribs and blushed and simpered. Maya had cause to be distracted.

The day after the Appearance, she had gone back to the Tetrahedron as though pulled by an invisible string. There were officious looking policemen guarding it from the public and a small army contingent occupying an entire block. Within the cordon, a group of people had been busy with instruments, in the important, oblivious manner of scientists. Among them she recognised Samir, a Ph.D student of astrophysics, who sometimes used the same University bus as Maya. He had once been introduced to her by an acquaintance on the bus, and she remembered his intense, intelligent gaze sweeping over her then with no more than a polite interest.

She had gone over to the cordon and called impulsively out to him, to his considerable surprise – but he was just finished and it had been only natural to go to the university together and to talk about the whole thing at the tea-shack. Nursing her tea in the chipped glass, Maya had told Samir about her witnessing of the tetrahedron’s arrival. “It didn’t arrive,” she’d said, “I didn’t see it come down from the sky, or through the trees. One moment it wasn’t there, and the next moment it was.” Samir had listened with great interest.

Now, as she poured Kartik more tea (the best Darjeeling her parents could buy), she thought about the past two days of drinking strong, cheap masala chai with Samir on the old wooden benches in front of the tea shack. She imagined her parents’ shock and horror. What would Kartik say to that?

Samir had told her that the night before the arrival of the tetrahedron there had been an unusual event – a series of radio pulses from the vicinity of an ordinary yellow star that was not known for such activity. He hypothesised that the tetrahedron was an alien device, travelling at near-light-speed through space via some unknown mechanism. He was disarmingly frank about his bias towards an astronomical origin for the tetrahedron – he was a student of astrophysics after all – but next to the Pakistani-American secret weapon-theory, the astronomical one was the most popular. The people whose relatives had been in the buses and cars that had disappeared were demanding a complete investigation of every possibility. Foreign scientists had flocked to Delhi in droves, as had New Age groupies, end-of-the-world cults, members of the international press and ordinary gawking tourists. The President of the United States had been restrained with difficulty from declaring war on India for possessing secret weapons of mass destruction, and had only been placated with promises of a substantial American presence among the investigators. Other suspicious governments from the West had also sent their representatives. Suddenly New Delhi had become one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. Maya and Samir had laughed over newspaper headlines – the government was building more hotels! The Western press was floundering, unused as they were to reporting anything but disasters and political unrest from the third world! A tabloid reported that India had been chosen for a special reason by a wise alien race, and would shortly receive a message of epic importance concerning the next elections!

But what Maya relived most often in her mind was the feeling when she had touched the tetrahedron – the feeling of how useless and insignificant her life was against the unending mystery of the universe. Now, with Samir talking eloquently about aliens traversing the distances between stars, she had felt it again, the pointlessness of a life lived small. In a few years she would be like her sisters, plump and resigned, children running at her feet while Kartik gazed benignly at her from the sofa over the evening paper. “Maya, you know that sari does not suit you…” Maya this and Maya that. Could she take a lifetime of it?

Of course, she had only herself to blame, choosing Kartik. Her parents had left the final choice up to her, from an army of eligible bachelors of the appropriate class and caste. Dressed in her best, serving tea to a succession of potential in-laws and their self-conscious offspring, she had been dazzled by Kartik’s assurance. Her parents had approved whole-heartedly – Kartik had a good future in a small company that manufactured shoes, and his parents’ flat was huge – large enough to accommodate a young, married couple. But now she was no longer sure of her feelings.

She stopped going to class. Every day she went dutifully to the university, where she hung around the tea shop, waiting for Samir, listening to old film songs that the proprietor, Ramu, insisted on playing loudly on the radio. They drank strong tea in ancient glasses that had seen better days, and speculated about the tetrahedron. The scientists had found nothing. The object was made out of an unbelievably hard substance that could not be chipped off for testing. X-rays bounced merrily off it. It was much too heavy to be moved (this to the disappointment of an American software billionaire who wanted to transport it to his mansion in the U.S.). Neither controlled explosives nor corrosive chemicals had the slightest effect on it. Digging under it for the remains of the unfortunate bus and car passengers, the authorities found nothing – no bodies, no crushed bones or flesh, no evidence of charred remains, just dirt and the impenetrable substance of the tetrahedron standing over it. It stood implacable, a question with no answer.

***

When she was not at the tea-shop, Maya began to spend her time gawking at the Tetrahedron with the large crowd that was always there. Like others in the crowd she felt as though she, too, was waiting for something. The road where the Tetrahedron stood was now blocked to traffic, of course, and its immediate vicinity was patrolled by a now international team of soldiers on permanent alert. Meanwhile a series of shops had sprung up as if overnight in the parking lot of an adjacent building. Soft drinks, tea, hot samosas, cameras, film, knick-knacks such as plastic replicas of the tetrahedron were being sold at exorbitant prices. Foreign languages from all over the world mingled with radio music from the shops and live commentary from TV station crewmen. Rich businessmen rubbed shoulders with hippies and street urchins; Americans and Middle-Easterners, Japanese, Koreans, Kenyans all stood gawking and chattering in little groups. People-watching became Maya’s hobby. Her favourite pastime was to eavesdrop on the conversations that sprang up in her vicinity – fragments of arguments, discussions, both academic and untutored – it was a feast for the ears.

“…the heat, the dust… Why here?”

“…the weapons theory has been more or less defused by now, no pun intended… except for the politicians, paranoid as usual…”

“Beats me… Place wasn’t even what I expected. No elephants, or dancing girls, or any of that shit…. Got my camcorder along and for what… All that thing does is to sit there while we sweat our butts off.”

“Reason… there’s a reason it’s special, if you read the paper by MacArthur…”

“…and they don’t even eat monkey heads, man, so much for Indiana Jones… bunch of vegetarians…”

“Don’t grumble, dear, it was your idea…”

“…what do you expect Hollywood to do, make documentaries…”

“Well, the Johnsons, they went all over this country… couldn’t stand their boasting…”

“…the term synchronicity? Meaningful coincidence…”

“…got some shots of the cows on the roads, weird enough for me…”

“…yes, like when you’re thinking of a song and the DJ starts playing it – what’s that got to do with…”

“…even the fast food joints aren’t the same…”

“…only in a place like this, look at the traffic. By Western standards, with conditions like this, most people ought to be dead or dying. What keeps them going, eh? How anything functions here is a small miracle. A modification of the Jungian concept of synchronicity…”

“…did you hear what happened to the Gustafsons? The hotel didn’t have any record of their reservations, poor things. They ended up you’ll never guess where…”

“…Never in Japan, no. Far more disciplined people. There’s something in the air over here, as though the chaos is intrinsic to the place…”

“…in the home of the student they’d hosted ten years ago, back when they were in Tucson..”

“…dimensional anomalies.. fellow called Bhaskar, native – I mean Indian mathematician, cosmologist… yes, in the Times… no, no, the London Times… theorises that dimensional anomalies must exist in this region, hence the Tetrahedron…”

“…intrinsic anarchy, I like that, no wonder we couldn’t hold on to the Empire…”

Maya would listen, fascinated. Sometimes a tourist would come up to her and ask if she’d agree to be photographed in front of the Tetrahedron. She was always discomfited by these requests and would back away with a muttered “sorry”. Mostly she kept a low profile, watching, listening, sipping a drink or two, letting her thoughts drift, wondering at the silence, the serenity of the Tetrahedron in the midst of all the noise and bustle.

At home, nobody guessed what was going on in Maya’s head as she pounded spices in the little kitchen, or hung wet laundry on the nylon clothesline in the balcony. In the evenings the tiny flat was full of the sound of the sewing machine. Her mother’s scissors went snip-snip as iridescent piles of cloth accumulated on the drawing room floor. She would put some of the bright cloth aside to make a dress for Chanchal or a patchwork salwaar kameez for Maya. Her customers never found out. “Your mother is a marvel,” her father said one day, when the dress was ready. “She can add two and two and get five!” “Dimensional anomalies!” Maya said with a small smile, and went into the kitchen to wash dishes. She gazed moodily out of the window at a view of rooftops and TV antennas, crowded streets, music and conversations blaring from tiers of lit open windows – over all this, in a hazy, dark sky, glimmered a faint star or two. Maya wondered what she was going to do with her life.

Tea with Kartik. Endless teas and breakfasts and dinners with Kartik. When he came the next evening he looked tired and a little vulnerable, and she felt a small pang. But seeing her parents bustling about him, deferring to his every wish, she felt her old irritation arise again. To make matters worse Kartik started talking about the Tetrahedron. This time he was convinced China had something to do with it too. After all, why stop at Pakistan? Maya set the teapot on the table down so loudly that everyone stopped talking and stared at her in amazement.

“What do you know about it?” she snapped at Kartik. Her heart was hammering in her chest. She was conscious for a moment that she was opening a door she would not be able to shut again. But her anger and confusion, held back as long as it had been, surged over what was left of common sense.

“China! Pakistan! Has it occurred to you that nobody – not anybody – can understand what that thing is? None of the foreign scientists, none of ours. Can’t you see anything outside your own damned backyard?”

She turned on her heel and went into the kitchen, shaking violently, leaving a dead silence behind her.

Then a clink as her mother set down her cup, and her apologetic voice saying desperately to Kartik,

“Please understand, she is just… you know, sometimes young women… that time of the month… she doesn’t mean it…”

And her father now beside her, looking at her in shock and hurt, saying “What have you done, child?”

What had she done? Insulted the man who was going to be her husband, damaged the fragile alliance between Kartik’s parents and her own, lowered the family honour by behaving like a squabbling fish-wife instead of a girl from a respectable family. She looked at her father’s upset face, at his shoulders stooping from disappointment, and burst into tears. She went blindly into the room she shared with her visiting sister and the child. Her sister patted her head.

“Listen, you donkey, that is no way to behave before marriage. You can quarrel all you want afterwards; look at Ashish and me – I shout at him all the time…”

“I don’t want to marry Kartik,” she said between sobs. It was a relief to have said it at last. But she could hear her parents in the drawing room, anxiously trying to placate Kartik. She heard his chair scrape on the floor as he rose, heard him say,

“I hope I have not been mistaken in her. If she comes to her senses…”

Then the front door shut.

After that, for some days, she really tried. She hadn’t understood before how vulnerable her parents were, how frightened at the thought that their youngest daughter might never get married. Three daughters had slowly depleted them of their meagre savings, and Kartik’s family had not even asked for gifts (the euphemism for the illegal dowry). They’d never find anyone like him. So the very next day she went to the phone booth at the corner of her street, called Kartik and apologised rather stiffly. He did not say anything except to tell her that he was going out of town on business for two weeks, and he would think about this when he returned.

Three days of attending classes and bearing with the questions of her friends put her in such a black depression that she returned to Patel Chowk. One day when the square seemed particularly crowded she fought her way to the edge near the parking area, clutching her soft drink in her hand, to stand beneath the generous shade of an ancient tree. It was then that she noticed a white van marked with the words “Ravindra Refrigeration Systems” parked near her. It looked familiar – she must have seen it there before without really noticing it. The side door of the van was open and a motley group of people were gathered around it, talking.

They were all so different from each other that it took her a moment to realise they were a group — three elderly men, two young women who looked Japanese, a lean young man who could have been from the Middle-East, and most incongruous of them all, an old lady in a beige salwaar-kameez perched in the open doorway of the van, knitting away. There was something indefinably different about them compared to the rest of the crowd – they seemed relaxed, they hardly glanced at the tetrahedron, they spoke to each other in low, easy tones.

Maya wondered why she had never really noticed them before. But the tetrahedron attracted so many kinds of people that perhaps it was no wonder. Now someone with a loudspeaker was shouting; policemen were pushing the crowds aside with batons. Another politician? No, it was a movie star, said a plump woman in a purple sari excitedly to Maya. Look, Malini Mehra herself in a glittering pink sari with a daring backless blouse, at the souvenir booth, waving flirtatiously at the gawking, camera-clicking onlookers. Maya turned away in exasperation. There, behind the trees, was the tetrahedron, the cause of all the excitement. As she glanced at its pinnacle rising into the sky above the treetops, she thought she saw one of the ubiquitous crows flying directly towards it. What was the bird doing? She squinted up at it but the sun was in her eyes. She thought she saw the bird reach one edge of the tetrahedron; then it disappeared.

She rubbed her eyes and blinked. The plump woman was still beside her, chattering away about Malini Mehra. “Did you see that?” Maya said. “Of course,” said the woman, “Malini Mehra likes reds, they suit her skin, don’t you think?” Maya looked away again, but the tetrahedron was just as before. Turning back she met the eyes of the old woman knitting in the doorway of the white van. The old lady smiled at her. Maya wondered if the woman had seen the crow vanish into the tetrahedron…

Later she met Samir at the tea-shop. He did not ask her where she had been the past three days. It was a relief to sit with him and watch old Ramu boil the tea in a battered saucepan over a kerosene stove. He added a thick pinch of powdered tea and cardamom to the simmering mixture of water and milk. The aroma filled her nostrils. Ramu’s radio, tuned to a station that played only classic Hindi film songs, sat perched on the stained wooden counter.

She told Samir about what she had seen.

“I know, I wasn’t quite close enough to see clearly if the crow did disappear. But so many strange things have happened, no?”

Samir was looking at her thoughtfully. As he started to answer, a sleek grey car stopped in the road across from them. A bright, confident, charming face leaned out of the back window, radiating ethnic chic – from the casually scooped up hair to the embroidered collar of what was probably a very expensive designer salwaar-kameez.

“Bhaiya, don’t forget to be on time tonight!”

Bhaiya – Elder brother. Samir waved and looked faintly embarrassed. “My sister,” he said apologetically as the car drove off in a puff of dust. “It’s her birthday today.”

It occurred to Maya suddenly that Samir was from a quite different stratum of society than herself. She had known this all along – he lived in Greater Kailash, after all, probably in one of those obscenely big houses – but it had never mattered, never seemed important, until now. His English was polished, hers just fluent enough to get by. She remembered meeting a friend of Samir’s on their way to the tea shack some days ago, and the way the friend had looked at her and then again at Samir with astonished surprise. Samir hadn’t introduced her. The friend had smiled at Samir and dug him in the ribs and muttered something to him before sauntering off. Something about fraternising with the vulgar proles? Words she only half caught and did not understand. After that Samir had kept talking to her as though nothing had happened, but just for a fleeting moment he had looked discomfited… Abruptly Maya was aware of herself as hopelessly lower-middle-class, belonging to the petty-tradesmen-uncultured bhainji sub-culture with all its implications. She didn’t know anything about Samir’s life, nor he about hers – what was she doing here with him?

But he was talking on, oblivious.

“…and maybe it was nothing, but maybe, just maybe, you’ve hit on something here. There’s been a lot of speculation about this. Look,” he drew out his notebook and tore off two pages. He tore one into a rough disk and put it against the edge of the other sheet, at right angles.

“Suppose you were a two-dimensional creature living on the surface of this rectangular sheet of paper. Would you know that this disk existed? No, because it is in the third dimension, right, which is not accessible to you. You would only see the straight line that is the intersection between the disk and the sheet where you exist.”

She concentrated, pushing back her other thoughts.

“Achha, so if I put the edge of my hand against my face,” she said, doing so, “my face feels only the edge. It has no idea of the extent or shape of my hand.”

“Yes, something like that. You see, it may be that the Tetrahedron is only a projection of a more complicated object in our three-dimensional world. This object extends in a dimension that is inaccessible to us – all we perceive is the Tetrahedron. To us it appears closed. But in another dimension, there may be doors…”

He stopped, lost in thought. Maya was fascinated.

“You mean that somehow the crow I saw got through into another dimension, got into the Tetrahedron? But…”

He took a sip of his tea and set the glass down on the edge of the bench.

“Do you know what topology is?”

She shook her head.

“Simply put, it’s a branch of mathematics that concerns itself with very general, basic properties of objects or spaces. Topologists look at what happens if you continuously deform the space or the object without breaking or tearing it… Here, let me give you an example.”

He held the page he had torn from his book in one hand, and the paper disk in the other.

“This rectangular page and this disk of paper are topologically identical, because you can shrink or stretch one to become the other. And your chai glass is identical to them both because I can theoretically deform the sides until it’s flat. But – ”

He tore a small hole in the middle of the page.

“Now this is no longer topologically equivalent to the disk, because by the rules of topology, however much you deform this page, you can’t get rid of the hole. So the page without the hole is a simply connected two-dimensional surface, and the page with the hole is what we call multiply-connected…”

“Oh… Like a tea-cup… I mean one with a handle, not Ramu’s chai glasses.”

“Yes, yes,” he smiled delightedly at her, immensely pleased. “Topologically you and I are identical to a teacup, or a vada, if you like South Indian food – the human alimentary canal is the analogue of the hole in the vada!”

She was staring at him, wide-eyed.

“Achha, but what has all this to do with-“

“The Tetrahedron? Plenty. Topology is relevant in two ways. One, if the topological structure of the Universe is non-trivial, multiply connected in several dimensions, then it might provide shortcuts for faster-than-light travel. Like the wormholes in space that the newspapers keep talking about. Two, the true shape or structure of the tetrahedron itself. If we could see it completely in all the dimensions that it inhabits, we might see something topologically very complicated. It would be incomprehensible to us – our notions of in and out, edge and surface would be lost, or at least very confused. Ever seen a Mobius strip?”

She shook her head, feeling awed and small before the vastness of his knowledge. Now what was he doing? His hands, brown and slender – she’d never noticed before how nice his hands were – tore a strip of paper from the long edge of the page. His eyes were alight with enthusiasm.

“Look at this strip of paper – see how I can put the ends together to form a ring?” He suited the action to the word. “Now suppose, before I do that, I twist the paper once, like this. Now I put the ends together. A ring with a twist! This is a Mobius strip.”

She put a tentative finger out to touch it. He smiled.

“Go on, move your finger along the outer surface, along the length of it… yes, just so!” He grinned at her surprise. “You start at the outer surface and before you know it, you are inside! Except that inside and outside have lost their meaning in this case, because a Mobius strip has only one surface, not two like the ring.” He was talking fast in his excitement. “People think that space-time may be a generalisation of a Mobius strip or some similar non-trivial topological object, in several dimensions… So also an object like the Tetrahedron could be very complex, very interesting, if we could see it in its entirety…”

Words failed her. She imagined a complicated structure with smoothly contoured edges and sculptured pathways curving dizzily, leading to hidden doors. She stared at him in wonder and envy.

“Hanh, I understand the idea… I think.”

He nodded approvingly.

“If the Tetrahedron is a projection in our space of a more complicated, multi-dimensional object, it might also explain the disappearance of the people who were on the road at the time the Tetrahedron appeared. Who knows?”

“You mean they might be inside the Tetrahedron?” she said incredulously. The thought had never occurred to her. Instead she had imagined that perhaps some kind of exchange had taken place, the tetrahedron for the people. That the bus riders, the car passengers and the bicyclists were at this very moment on some other world, walking about under alien skies with their mouths open. Another world! Her mind had conjured up bizarre vistas. Yet the thought of what the inside of the tetrahedron might be like was equally mind-boggling.

Maya sat talking to Samir for another hour. He told her about current theories of the birth of the universe, the mysteries that arose with each new discovery. She liked the way he gesticulated in his excitement, the way his eyes seemed to see the wonders his words described. Now he was expounding on the eventual death of the universe.

“The solar system, of course, will die long before that,” he said. “The sun will swell and swallow the earth, the moon, all the nearer planets, before collapsing into a white dwarf star.”

He stopped to take a sip of his tea, and suddenly the radio started playing an old Hemant Kumar favourite: “Na yeh chand hoga, na taare rahengeThe moon will be no more, nor will the stars remain…

They both laughed at the same time.

“I always wondered how in Bollywood films they contrive to have a song with the right words come on at the appropriate moment,” he said, smiling. “Just the other day a similar coincidence happened. There I was, wondering about what kind of star the aliens are from, if they are aliens, that is, and Ramu’s radio started playing ‚chand ke paas jo sitaara hai!’” That star by the moon…

“Oh yes, that is Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar,” Maya said. “I love old film songs. I think Ramu’s radio is tuned to the aliens’ favourite station!”

It was very pleasant to be able to laugh companionably with somebody. (Maya wondered with a pang whether she and Kartik would ever have anything to laugh about.) Then she remembered fragments of a conversation she had overheard.

“It is syn… synchronicity,” she said carefully. He looked amused.

“That’s a big word. Not a scientifically valid concept, of course, but… wasn’t it in one of the papers? Where did you come across it?”

“I heard it somewhere.” She felt a slight indignation. What did he think – that she was hopelessly ignorant? Then she thought, depressingly, that it was true.

But Samir was getting up, setting his glass down on Ramu’s counter with a rather awkward air.

“Got to go,” he muttered. He looked shyly at her, as though seeing her for the first time. “See you tomorrow!”

She didn’t understand until the radio sang the refrain again. “na yeh chand hoga, na taare rahenge, magar ham hamesha tumhaare rahenge…” The moon will be no more, nor will the stars remain, yet I will always be yours…

She stood staring after him, her face hot with embarrassment. She hoped he didn’t think – surely he didn’t?

***

When Maya came home one evening, her sister and mother were talking about a story on the afternoon news about a mental sickness that the tabloid press had nicknamed Tetra-fever.

“Isn’t it terrible, Maya, there are these people who are obsessed with the Tetrahedron, they can’t eat or sleep or function normally – they dream about it all the time,” her sister said, setting a plate of hot onion pakoras before Maya. “Some of them starve themselves almost to death, there is this fellow being kept alive in a hospital, fed through a tube…” Maya nearly choked over her tea, then took an extra-large helping of the pakoras. Her mother nodded.

“Yes, yes, they talked on TV about a man who stopped going to work, lost his job. He spends all his time staring at the Tetrahedron. He has three children! Poor things, such a terrible thing to happen. At least your father is a sensible man. And there’s this housewife, can you imagine, goes shopping at the plaza every day, has the largest collection of plastic tetrahedrons in the city, chee chee!”

Maya nodded, mouth full, and took another pakora.

“Still,” said her mother, pouring herself more tea and liberally adding sugar, “it is all in God’s hands.” She sighed, and Maya knew what she was going to say.

“Nothing to do with us.”

Her father came in at the door, stooping, tired from a long day of work and the hot, sweaty bus ride. Maya felt guilty. Maybe I am one of the crazies, she thought to herself, thinking of all the time she spent away from class, with Samir or at the Tetrahedron. Thank goodness Kartik was out of town… If only her brother, Manoj, was here! She had written to him some time ago but he was on a ship, and his reply would take time. Besides, letters were no substitute for seeing him face to face.

But at least she was able to talk to Samir about the Tetrahedron. Their mutual embarrassment had been short-lived; at their next meeting, they were comfortable with each other again. There was so much to talk about that she no longer paid any attention to Ramu’s radio. However, Samir had not been very interested in the occupants of the white van. On a visit to Patel Chowk he had looked them over rather dismissively – they were not a fascinating astronomical phenomenon after all. He did remark on the old woman knitting away – she was like Madam Defarge, he said, a character from some famous book she’d never heard of. She found this evidence of his class and education annoying, but at least he did not think she was crazy.

They talked about the latest development in the saga of the Tetrahedron. A man had been found wandering in the Thar desert a few hundred miles west of New Delhi. He had been pushing a bicycle over the sand dunes, a strange sight indeed for the villagers who found him. They related that the man did not seem to know where he was going. Upon being questioned he had replied in what seemed to be gibberish, or another language. He seemed happy enough to be led to a villager’s hut, where he had been fed and housed for several days. A social worker had come across him and, based on the contents of a bag strapped to his bicycle, had gathered that he was from New Delhi and contacted the police there. It had finally been established that he was one of the people missing when the Tetrahedron had first appeared.

As could be expected, this caused a sensation. Search teams were sent to comb the Thar desert, and there an astounding discovery had been made. The missing bus had been found in a sandy valley, with fifteen people in it – eleven of the original bus passengers, and four people who had been in cars when the Tetrahedron appeared. All fifteen were alive and well, physically that is. But two of them were in the same state as the bicyclist, and the rest kept eerily silent, reacting to nothing and nobody, confounding doctors and family members alike. Meanwhile the bicyclist’s family – he was a postal clerk – appeared on TV expressing relief that he had been found, and hope that he and the others would be cured of their strange malady. The tabloid press had a field day. Headlines across the world proclaimed, “16 people kidnapped by aliens free – but what happened to them?”

Maya and Samir could only speculate. As they sat drinking tea, a thought struck Maya.

“The world is like a cracked egg,” she said. “Our world, I mean, where we live. Everything we know and see and understand is in this egg. But the cracks tell us that there are things outside – a world outside our understanding…”

Samir gave her a startled look.

“You sound quite poetic,” he said, smiling. He cleared his throat, as though to say something. Maya shook her head. An idea had been nagging her for some time, and she had suddenly found the words for it.

“What if the Tetrahedron isn’t a spaceship? What if it is something we can’t even imagine, something totally unknown? You know, what bothers me about all this is that there is so much talk. Just talk. You scientists seem so sure about one theory or another theory – but how can you be really know something without any experience of it?”

“That’s where experiments come in,” Samir said patiently, ready to expound.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” she said. She grinned. “The other day when you were holding your cup of tea and you told me about what the tea was made of, atoms and molecules, remember? You said if we could understand the smallest constituents of matter we would be able to know everything there is to know about tea.”

“Well?”

“You forgot to drink it. Your theories can tell you a lot about tea, but not about the experience of drinking it. That is what I mean. I don’t have the words to explain it, but… do you know what I mean?”

She was conscious of his gaze suddenly, and it seemed that there was something faintly wistful about it. He hadn’t been listening to her. Embarrassed, she began to talk at once about something else that had occurred to her.

“You know, if the idea about the Tetrahedron being – what was it – a projection – of a larger object in another dimension – if that is true, then maybe this object is huge – so huge that it extends all the way to the Thar desert…”

He raised his eyebrows.

“Hanh, that is possible. Yes, perhaps there is another door somewhere in the Thar where they let them off. But what about the rest of the people who vanished?”

“Maybe they don’t want to come back, who knows. Maybe the aliens are nicer to them than humans are to each other. Maybe this and maybe that. Samir, what I’m trying to say is, how can we know anything about the Tetrahedron without ever having been in it?”

“It isn’t as though we haven’t tried,” he said a little defensively. “We’ve gone over every square centimetre…”

“Would you, if you could?” she interrupted. “If you found a way, would you go in? Go off on a journey through space?”

“Of course I would!”

He fell silent, rubbing his chin. He gave her an unexpectedly awkward look, then looked away.

“Listen, Maya… I’d like to go inside the Tetrahedron, of course, to study it. But I would have to be sure I could come back. You know,” now he looked at her directly again, but it was a very different kind of look, “I am very attached to my family… They’ve been wondering why I’ve been spending so much time here. My friends, too. They don’t always understand me, but still… family is family, don’t you think?”

He was looking at her meaningfully, his brown eyes sorrowful, and still she did not understand. Then suddenly she realised what he was saying, what he must think of her and the direction their relationship might be going. Young men and women didn’t fraternise one-on-one for weeks on end unless there was some intention, some basis for a very different kind of relationship. Through the host of confused thoughts in her mind, her pride rose like a sword unsheathed.

“I am close to my family too,” she said a little too hurriedly. “In fact I am engaged to this really nice fellow, Kartik, you must meet him some day…”

He was staring at her, open-mouthed. She couldn’t be sure whether he was angry or upset or both. Her face burned. How dare he presume? Their friendship had been strictly in the context of the Tetrahedron – she had expected no more from him than that… well, yes, she liked him, the way he thought about things, his generosity, the kindness in his eyes, the fact that he didn’t automatically assume she was stupid, oh and his hands, how they moved when he was describing something – and yet he had assumed. How could he think her so callow, so simple, like a heroine from a third-rate movie? She wanted to tell him: Yes, my father is a clerk and my mother works in a tailoring shop, but I have a sense of dignity. And, she wanted to say, if we were really interested in each other in that way, so what? Coward, getting cold feet before anything had begun! She couldn’t trust herself to speak. Angry tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. To hell with you and your expensively dressed-up sister and those snobbish friends you never introduce me to, she told him silently. He was getting up, looking at his watch, making some excuse. He had a class very soon. And some exams coming up… he was going to be very busy from now on. He gave her an uncertain, apologetic smile and walked away through the trees and down the street.

On Ramu’s radio, Geeta Dutt began to sing “Na jao saiiyan, chura ke baiiyan…” Don’t leave, beloved, stealing my heart away. She looked at the old man suspiciously. He winked, shrugged his shoulders and went back to scrubbing the counter, a pointless task, she thought inconsequentially, since it always seemed to be dirty.

The next day she did not go to the university. She went straight to Patel Chowk and stood watching the crowd. A crow watched Maya from the roof of souvenir stall. “What do you see,” she asked it in her mind. “What do you see when you look at the Tetrahedron?” The bird cocked its head and stared at her with beady eyes. It gave a caw that sounded like raucous laughter, then took to the air, flapping its wings heavily. Maya sipped her drink and sighed. She saw the old lady in the white van, watching her in a benign sort of way. On an impulse she went up to her.

“What are you knitting?” she said in Hindi. The old woman looked puzzled. Maya asked the question again in English.

“Ah! Only a sweater for my grandson.” She spoke with a peculiar accent. “I’m from Mexico,” she said, smiling.

“Here to see the Tetrahedron?” Maya asked, feeling stupid. What else?

“Si… yes. Three times I make the trip to your country. Much like Mexico, here. Hot desert, mountain, seaside, we have them all.” She smiled enigmatically. “Also old buildings. Yesterday I see the tall Minar, many tombs.”

“Are you with a tourist group?” Maya asked, wondering what Ravindra Refrigeration had to do with sightseeing.

“Tourist? Tourist, yes. Like to come?”

Maya shook her head, smiling distractedly. “I have to go…”

“Come see us if you like to come. We here until weekend – Saturday. What’s your name? Maya? We have that name too!” She smiled with great pleasure.

Maya waved goodbye and wondered rather miserably what she should do. Go back home? Kartik had written to say he would be back next week. It had been a cold sort of letter – clearly he was expecting her to make amends for her behaviour. She could go to class, for a change. Samir could go jump in a well. With that comforting thought she took the bus to the university. Once there she could not bear the thought of dealing with the inane chatter of her friends. It was a hot day – she walked to Ramu’s chai shack, thinking maybe she’d have some nimbu-pani instead of tea. The small open space in front of the shack was deserted. She watched the traffic on the road as she sipped her drink, trying not to think about whether Ramu ever washed the glasses. She tried to push away bitter thoughts of Samir. She would miss his friendship – and, she had to admit, the possibilities their relationship had contained. Lata Mangeshkar began singing on the radio: “aaj koi naheen apna, kise gham ye sunaayen…” Today I have no one to call my own, to whom shall I tell my sorrow…

Irritably she looked at Ramu but he had his back to her, doing something industrious with a rag. You go jump in a well too, she told him silently. Moisture beaded her glass of nimbu pani. She wiped sweat off her forehead with a handkerchief her mother had embroidered, and found a sudden lump in her throat. It’s not just space and time, she thought bitterly, that are multiply connected. If she could talk to Samir now, she’d tell him: outer space, inner space, both have unknown topologies. You couldn’t overlook one at the expense of the other. But he wouldn’t talk to her anymore, curse him…

On Friday night she was unable to sleep. A pale wash of streetlight lit the room – on the other bed her sister lay sleeping, her arm about Chanchal, who stirred fitfully in a dream. Maya went up to the window and sat on the sill, leaning against the grillwork. Down on the street a watchman banged his stick on the sidewalk as he passed. There was a light on here and there among tiers of darkened windows – she wondered what was keeping those people awake. She thought about the Tetrahedron, dimensional anomalies, synchronicity. The man walking his bicycle in the middle of the Thar desert, the old woman knitting for her grandson, smiling, saying she’d be here till Saturday. Which was tomorrow. In a few days Kartik would be back in Delhi.

Abruptly, everything fell into place. She got up with sudden determination, got the flashlight from her drawer and went softly into the dark drawing room. Carefully she found a sheet of paper, sat in a chair and began to write to Kartik in the dim light of the flashlight, hoping and praying that her parents, in the next room, would not wake up. After she was done she put the letter in an envelope and put a stamp on it. She would mail it tomorrow. She felt a great relief.

Next she wrote a long, affectionate letter to Manoj. “Try to explain it to them, Bhaiya,” she wrote. “I don’t think I can…”

She went back to the bedroom. Chanchal was awake, crying to go to the bathroom.

“I’ll take her,” Maya told her sister, who lay back in sleepy gratitude. Chanchal did her duty and was amiable again. She climbed into bed with Maya. Maya sang to her the old children’s song about Uncle Moon, about the child going up in a flying ship to play hide-and-seek among the stars. It was Chanchal’s favourite song, and she always asked the same question at the end. “Will I come back?” Only this time she said, sleepily, “Will you come back, Maya Mausi?” And Maya said, through her tears, of course I will.

In the morning she rose early, cooked breakfast for everyone and washed the dishes so her mother could rest a while before going to work. She saw off her father at the bus-stop and went to the post-box where she mailed the two letters. Then she took the bus to Patel Chowk, where the white van was parked.

“I will come,” she told the old lady. The woman smiled as though she had always known Maya would.

***

Maya’s disappearance on the day the Tetrahedron left New Delhi earned only a small item in the newspapers. What was a missing girl – one of those crazies, to judge from what she had written to her family – what was her absence, compared to the most significant event of the century, the appearance and disappearance of the Tetrahedron? Her family mourned, all except Chanchal, who assured the puzzled grown-ups that Maya would be back. Kartik wrote to say he had always been afraid Maya was a little unstable, and her running away (not to mention the lack of respect in the letter she had written to him) proved it – he considered he had had a narrow escape. If she were found, he hoped the family would punish her suitably for dragging their name in mud. Although they didn’t deserve it, he was sending back the little gifts her family had given him. Maya’s parents wept over the small package he sent – the final end to their dreams for their youngest daughter. Meanwhile, Manoj took leave and came home, torn between grief and hope.

It was one of the hottest days of the season – the square near the Tetrahedron was nearly empty. Even the man selling cold spiced cucumber slices gathered his things and wandered off into the shade, where he sat dozing. A group of bored soldiers watched Maya, the old woman and the others as they walked up to the Tetrahedron. They just wanted to touch it, and they were unarmed, the soldiers said later. They must have wandered off after that, the soldiers said. We weren’t really looking. But what really happened was that Maya and her companions went all the way up to the Tetrahedron and turned in a place where she had not known it was possible to turn. It was a kind of narrow corridor and she could still see the soldiers, the white van with Ravindra Refrigeration on it, the driver getting ready to leave – she could still see the hot, dusty square under the neem trees. But also she found herself in a large room which seemed to be made up of walls arranged at impossible angles, like an Escher picture – and the outside world, if it still made sense to talk of outside and inside – the outside world was projected on a plane slanting up from her feet, making her feel giddy. She looked up and she could see the dark of space amid spiral stairways going towards some distant destination; she saw with a shock that there were creatures going up on it, great beings made up of planes and angles and curves that didn’t quite fit. Some of them had human-like faces. She turned in wonder to the old woman beside her and stopped with her mouth hanging open.

For the old woman too, had changed. Her face was still the same, but her eyes had grown large and dark, and a succession of crests and ridges rose from her body in great arcs. There were growths dangling from her arms like the appendages of sea-creatures. She smiled at Maya.

Maya drew back. “You are an alien,” she said.

“No, my dear,” the woman said in chaste Hindi. “I am who I am. Remember what I told you? Do not expect to understand everything all at once. I will be your guide. But first, take a look at yourself.”

And the old woman took Maya gently by the shoulders and turned her to a silver wall that was opaque and reflective. Maya saw herself. Saw her face, mouth open in shock, her hair streaming around it, the great crenellations and sweeping ridges that rose from her body as gracefully as the plates on a stegosaur’s back. She looked at her two hands, the familiar river-valley of lines and tributaries, and she saw that they were the same as before, and not the same. Other hands branched off her hands, fading off into an infinity of hands, young hands, old hands, smooth and wrinkled. She took a deep, sobbing breath.

“What has happened to me?”

“Nothing. You see yourself as you are in more than three dimensions. Now don’t think about it too much. I want you to look around and tell me where you want to go first.”

Around – whatever that meant – was the darkness of space, and stars caught in a thin, delicate mesh. She saw the great rings of Saturn, the shadows of three of its moons like black pimples on its bright face. She saw other planets, dead stars, worlds that drifted in space without suns. And the spiral stairways moved up and up like escalators, vanishing into the fine intricacy of the web.

“Shall we start with something close to home, like the moon?”

“I thought you said this wasn’t a spaceship!”

“It is and it isn’t. You will get used to not thinking in the old ways, my dear. The categories we are accustomed to on Earth have little meaning here. A square does not have the same meaning for a flat-land person as it does for a three-dimensional one. You’ll see.”

Maya took a deep breath. Around her the Universe beckoned. She thought she heard Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi on Ramu’s radio, singing. Chalo Dildaar, chalo, chand ke paar chalo… Come, beloved, let us fly beyond the moon.

“Let’s go further,” she said.

Was that what really happened to Maya? How can we know? All she left behind was a very detailed letter to her brother, and some ideas and theories. Her story came alive from those scribbled pages, but it necessarily came to a stop when she left home. Perhaps in some dimension orthogonal to time and space, it is possible to see what came after, to follow her world-line, to see the post-script to her letter. But caught in the stream of time as we are, all her brother could do was to wait. He thought of all kinds of other scenarios, of spaceships that swept silently through space like owls through night, of aliens and alien languages, and Maya among impossible worlds, her face filled with a softness and yearning, a kind of tender curiosity. He remembered the child she had been, always straining at the barriers, being scolded and cajoled into doing whatever she was supposed to do. She had learned to replace outward defiance with a quiet raging within herself. He thought of her waiting at the bus-stop on that fateful morning before it all began, unaware of the person she would become, the person who would write so passionately in her last letter: “What if the Tetrahedron is something that is completely beyond our understanding? How can we know it without experiencing it?”

One day, some weeks after the disappearance, Samir climbed the three flights of stairs to the little flat and talked to Manoj rather incoherently about his conversations with Maya. He never doubted that she was out there somewhere in the distance between the stars. He was about to finish his Ph.D, he was going to an observatory in Chile later in the year, he would keep an eye out for her. At this, Manoj laughed a little bitterly. He guessed something from the dazed look in the young man’s eyes.

“I’ll be watching too,” he said. “I think if she comes back it will be in the Thar desert.”

“The Thar… why there?”

“She told me about the white van. It said Ravindra Refrigeration, Udaipur, Rajasthan. No such company, by the way, I checked. But my guess is that was where the Tetrahedron used to appear, in the middle of the desert. This time they made a mistake – or something – who knows? Although there was, I think, at least an exit door still over the Thar…”

Samir ran his fingers through his hair.

“But what does it all mean?” he cried.

He took his leave and returned to campus. He had an appointment with his professor in twenty minutes, and a class to attend after that. It was a hot, still, dusty sort of day, and the grit in the air burned in his throat. He stopped in front of the Physics building, then, abruptly, turned around and made his way to the tea-shack. It was deserted, except for Ramu stirring a potful of aromatic brew. Samir sat down on the bench. Ramu poured out some tea and handed him his glass wordlessly. In the background, the radio was playing an old Kishore Kumar favourite…

“Chalte, chalte, mere yeh geet yaad rakhana, kabhi alvida na kehena, kabhi alvida na kehena…” As you go through life, remember my songs, never say goodbye forever, never say goodbye…

Samir’s eyes filled with tears. In the tree overhead, a crow cawed.

Copyright © 2004 by Vandana Singh

Vandana Singh was born and raised in New Delhi, India, and currently lives in the USA, where she teaches college physics and writes non-Euclidean tales of science fiction and fantasy. Her short stories have been published in Strange Horizons, The Third Alternative, and several anthologies. One of her science fiction stories has bee shortlisted for the BSFA award and several have been selected for Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her first published poem also earned second place in the Rhysling Award (2004) for speculative poetry. She earned some acclaim for her Younguncle series of children books. Her first story collection The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet was recently published by Zubaan.

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