The Unbeing of Once-Leela
By Swapna Kishore
to the sound of Bridge of Sighs by Shakti with John McLaughlin…
This story appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 7.
IN PERSISTENCE-SPACE, once-Leela cannot see anything. Or feel, or taste, or smell. But she is still Leela Manchanda who worked at Naveen Traders, Bangalore, and who looked after her mother. Her memories still exist — all, except for haziness about her transition. Sharp in her mind (or whatever she still has — she cannot see herself) are beeps of modem connects, and endless ramblings of cricket commentary. Sharp are the cold and metal smells of her glass and steel office cube, and the chill air she exhaled as she walked out of her office that last time, and then, as she entered home, the smell of Mother, sour, stale, and full of reproof. From some things there is no escape.
The onces are communicating again, using a mechanism they don’t understand. Once-Leela aligns to them to escape memories of before.
“—a census.” That is once-Sarah.
To once-Leela, once-Sarah’s vibration has a depth that connotes a stolid masculinity. Surely Sarah had been a tall buxom woman with manly biceps, had an evangelistic zeal about Christianity, and an incongruously delicate cross dangling from her neck. Leela, nominally a Hindu, is secular (if not downright atheist) and is surprised at how Sarah’s name generates such a strong stereotype.
“Census?” says once-Leela. “Why?”
“We should know how many of us are here,” once-Sarah says. “How else will we fulfill God’s purpose of saving us?”
“We can make our own gods and own purpose,” says once-Maya, a nervous trill to her vibration. Must be typical New-Age, with rounded specs and an anorexic frame, her nervousness causing a tremor of fingers as they brush back limp hair.
Once-Leela wonders suddenly what stereotype the others tag to her vibration. No one stays abstract too long.
“I assume we are worth saving,” booms the ever-energetic once-Milind, probably handsome, determined, like Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De India. “I’m game for a census.”
“Census of what?” once-Leela asks. “We don’t even know what we are or how we came here. We could be a mutant species, all mind or soul or bare consciousness. Or excised brains squatting in formaldehyde vats, thanks to a scientist.” That’s from M.A.D. comics: a bespectacled man in a flapping white coat.
“The point is, what next?” says once-Milind. “And why.”
“Does it matter?” Once-Leela can’t stop the sarcastic edge in her ‘voice’ even though other onces will pick up the nuance.
Once-Milind persists. “If we are a new species, we must ensure we — you know — propagate.”
“Maybe we are immortal,” says once-Leela, annoyed. “But most likely we are dead.”
“Or virtual constructs in a program, or brain dumps of people who are still living,” says someone once-Leela does not recognize.
This space could be seething with gazillions of onces, all eavesdropping and grinning at our stupidity, thinks once-Leela. She will shut up; why make a fool of herself when she can remain unnoticed?
“Let’s start the census,” says once-Sarah. “Let’s begin by listing ourselves and our families.”
Families. Mother. Dead and gone, lucky her.
“Looking after a demented person is difficult,” the super-specialist told Leela when he diagnosed Mother. Leela gaped at the doctor, hurt at the insulting word, but his matter-of-fact tone and direct gaze made her register that he was using ‘demented’ as a medical term, technical and exact. Thus began her unlearning and learning.
Mother had Alzheimer’s. Her brain abounded with dead and dying neurons full of tangled tau (It took Leela a while to realize this was tau, a protein, not the metaphysical Tao). Beta-amyloid plaque crowded spaces between Mother’s brain cells (or so the doctors expected to find in an autopsy). That meant messed up and absent memories, inability to think, learn, or do ‘activities of daily living.’ That meant difficulty.
Difficult was an understatement.
“Your mother lies,” declared the latest home-help, twenty-first — or was it twenty-second? — a few months before Mother choked to death. “How can she remember her childhood and then claim I didn’t give her breakfast?”
“She has dementia,” Leela tried explaining.
“I’ve looked after old ladies.” The home-help strapped tight her bag and slung it over her shoulder. “I know meanness when I see it.”
“Dementia is different from normal aging,” Leela explained yet again. “It is…” But even as she talked, she recognized the futility. Trained nurses were unavailable and unwilling to work as home help; others saw dementia as a rapid version of aging, and considered Mother stubborn and inconsiderate.
Mother, on her part, was suspicious to the extent of paranoia.
“Why should I believe you?” she asked Leela only too often, her face wrinkled with mistrust. “Who are you?”
“I’m your daughter.” Leela fought a familiar twinge of helplessness in her chest. She knew the theory, she had read innumerable books and created login IDs in too many online support groups, she could chant the jargon like an alphabet game: A is for antecedent, B is for Behavior, C is for Consequence, right up to V is for validation. Pity for her, the sequence ended with ‘Z is for a Zero life.’
“Use counselors,” suggested online support groups (she had no time for the present-in-flesh variety).
So she tried.
“Never ask why,” a dementia care counselor advised Leela. “Ask any other question. Ask when, what, how, who, where. Never why. It will drain you.”
“No?” But Leela asked herself ‘why’ when she cleaned Mother or mashed food for her; she asked it when Mother tore off her diaper at night; she asked it when she saw a face vacant of a person behind the eyes. She asked it of herself when she surrendered her own career, one missed meeting, one slipped deadline at a time, till it stretched too thin to sustain itself. She asked it of the mirror where a crone stared back at her, eyes ringed dark, shoulder bones jutting out at the throat, anxiety etched deep into her once-smiling face.
“Learn from your mother to live in the moment,” the counselor droned on. “Cherish the gift of care-giving. Admire the way your mother is fresh every moment.”
Crayon drawings decorated the soft-board behind the counselor. You cling to sketches your children make, Leela thought. My mother doesn’t remember me. Why my mother, dammit, and why me? And who am I if the person I live for does not recognize me?
Once-Sarah and once-Milind are facing problems with their census.
“We suspect not everyone stands up to be counted,” once-Milind explains.
Once-Leela does a nothing-body giggle. “Stand up? Like you’ve got eyes, and everyone here is flesh and bones.”
“It was figurative,” once-Milind says stiffly.
“I’m sure more people will come forward soon,” once-Leela says quickly. Funny how, even in a world without form or face, free of obligation, she wants to reconcile. A pleaser.
A once vibrates its presence nearby. “Leela? Leela Manchanda from Naveen Traders? Recognize me? I’m Sujoy Bose, your boss.” He sounds pompous even here.
“I don’t understand why you let your mother affect your career,” Sujoy told Leela when she handed in her resignation a year before Mother died. “People continue normal lives despite parents with problems.”
Not from what support group members said — those living normal lives were those who had siblings to do the actual care-giving.
“A negative attitude doesn’t help,” Sujoy continued. “You must—”
Leela’s mobile rang: home. “Excuse me,” she muttered.
“You never cooked food for me,” Mother’s voice was shrill. “There’s not even a katori of daal or one thin chapatti—”
“Everything’s in casseroles on the table, Mother,” Leela whispered fiercely. “Daal, vegetable, curd, roti. Hasn’t Lakshmi fed you?” The maid dropped by every afternoon to warm the food and serve Mother.
“A Koli woman tried to enter the house,” Mother said. “I hit her and she ran away.”
Lakshmi, oh. Another worker lost. Leela looked at Sujoy. “I have to go home. Mother’s totally disoriented; she could even walk out.”
He shook his head. “Really, where’s your creativity? Lock her in.”
So that she breaks the window and calls the neighbors, claiming torture? Leela patted her resignation letter in front of Sujoy. “I don’t have a choice.”
She has a choice here, now, in persistence space. She ignores Sujoy.
She thinks, instead, of Mother. It is lucky Mother died before this transition, whatever it was. Even in before-world, Mother had forgotten her name. She could not communicate in any way, or learn anything new. How would she have managed here? Once-Leela imagines Mother, bewildered, a curled-up fetal ball of unbeing.
“Once we get a complete picture of all present, we must make an action plan,” says once-Sarah.
Once-Leela stays in the background, refraining from comment.
“But surely we are dead….” says once-Maya.
“This is not about religion, and I’m not discussing post-death scenarios,” says once-Sarah. “I feel alive, so I act as one who lives. We think, therefore we are.”
“I think we are Atman,” says once-Maya. “Atman just exists; I’m not sure it acts.”
Rebirth. Karma. The belief that we carry on through births accumulating and working off karma like dieters work off calories, and it’s always a losing proposition — whatever you do, you pile on bad karma like adipose.
“And is this a waiting station between deaths and births?” once-Leela asks, intrigued.
If so, what will her next life be like? Images fill her: golden sands, sapphire waters, emerald palms. No, silly, that’s like a holiday brochure — in fact, it’s the Goa tourist brochure she saw on Sujoy’s table ages ago.
“Once-Sarah is right; we must act,” says once-Milind. “Remember the Bhagawad Geeta, when Lord Krishna exhorts Arjun on the battle-field?”
Restlessness seizes once-Leela — suddenly she wants out. Out of this limbo or heaven or hell, or a set of jars in a lab or a computer simulation. She’s damned if she’ll let herself be used for a purpose she doesn’t know.
“Faith in God,” Mother told thirteen-year-old Leela, “is a confidence in a being outside. Instead, have confidence in yourself.”
Leela had asked Mother about religion, faith, God. She was shaken up after reading No Orchids for Miss Blandish (hidden inside her bio workbook, because Mother hated ‘cheap’ thrillers by ‘that Chase’). Rich, spoilt Miss Blandish, brutalized by Slim Grissom, committed suicide after being rescued. “I’m a person without any background, any character or any faith,” Miss Blandish told her rescuer. “Some people could cope with this because they believe in God.”
Can religion help handling whatever this is? Stuff like faith, hope, love?
In before-world, Leela called herself Hindu because her parents did so. She watched the Ramlila drama in Parade Grounds every Dusshera and ate spicy potato chaat after the effigies were burned. She burst crackers on Diwali, and slurped over syrupy gulab jamuns. She read Mahabharatha comics and acted out scenes with toy bows and arrows. She did not bother about intricate underpinnings of religion like advaitism or sankhya. Come to think of it, Leela knew Adam and Eve just as well, and mugged up Bible favorites for inter-college quizzes. Like Mathew 7/7: Ask and ye shall receive.
Ask whom? For what?
“Why me?” Mother asked Leela on her more coherent days. “What is the reason?”
On such days, Mother’s face registered the horror of her one-way ride into oblivion. Leela dreaded these more than times when Mother cursed, abused, or hit. Tools existed for difficult behavior — deep breathing, eye contact, validation, distraction. She could parry questions with fiblets, unrelated answers, oblique answers. Difficult patient days required creativity, fatigued Leela, and made care-giving a heavy and awesome occupation.
But on days when Mother showed flashes of cognizance, Leela was torn by the full measure of Mother’s loss. And of her own. Death, neuron by neuron, memory by memory.
Enough, screams once-Leela to herself. Stop brooding like once-Maya. Snap out of this. You wasted enough time out in the ‘before’, after Mother’s death.
Leela had not resumed a normal life after Mother died. A care-giver without her patient, everything seemed meaningless. She had no wish to contact friends who had dismissed her as a stay-at-home bore when she was house-bound and overwhelmed with care-giving, because she could not share vacation anecdotes of China (or Greece, or New Zealand). What Leela needed instead was a brand new set of friends, but that would take energy. A job — okay, after a break — but where was the energy to relax? Three months crawled with inertia and indecision.
Enough, repeats once-Leela. When she first registered her transition to wherever she is, she assumed this was intended by an overarching God entity to be a neat way of resolving her claustrophobic past, an expansion, a way forward. Some benevolence would grasp her hand and move her on gently, effortlessly. At a minimum, it would gift her with new friends, a new community. But now she knows that the only way out of the hell inside her is the way she makes herself, because even here, where Mother is obviously not, she is trapped inside that corroding overwhelm.
So what if she does not know what persistence space is, or how she transitioned here? She has tackled that with labels: the ‘once’ prefix for names, the phrase ‘persistence space,’ and these give structure and comfort to her new reality. So what if she has no senses? She can think, and isn’t that how one navigates the world? Isn’t that how the world started — with a word, a thought? A primordial Aum?
Thus will she act now, through her mind.
Once-Milind was right — we must act.
“When I was a child, I was raped,” whispers once-Maya. “Fear haunted me throughout my college, my job. I hated men. Then I started meditation.”
Once-Leela absorbs this information. “Did that help?”
“Sometimes. Mostly, though, I feel a crawling on my skin when there are men around. That once-Milind, for example, is always talking about propagation—”
“We are formless here.” Surely once-Maya can see how irrelevant such fear is now? “If you have to remember the past, pick up something pleasant to remember — maybe from your job or a good friend or your family…”
“Guess you are right,” says once-Maya, not sounding happy at all. “But it’s not easy…”
No, it’s not.
Once-Leela herself is a cluster of personas — the affectionate daughter, the overwhelmed one, the indifferent neighbor, the efficient professional, the self-actualized woman — and she cannot determine her ‘me’ in a flavor-of-the-moment style. Her mind flits between them at random, her mood fluctuating accordingly. Luckily, something unites them into an overall sense of ‘I’ — but suppose the integrating thread breaks? When beads fall off a broken necklace, where’s the necklace?
Disintegrated like Mother? The glancing thought of Mother throws once-Leela off on a tangent. Is this persistence space merely her imagination? Is she a mind sealed from the outside, in coma, or…demented? Unwinding thought, circling…was this what Mother went through?
Forget it. Mother is her past, to be folded away.
If once-Leela really wants to understand this funny…adventure?… she must move beyond thinking. Not bewildered by disease, but choosing to let thoughts drift in and out, cumulus clouds obscuring a softness of being, and allowing glimpses of cloudless skies. Reaching beyond thought — not before thought, not without thought, but beyond.
Once-Leela releases the thought that thinking must stop, and its texture lightens and softens as it drifts away, insubstantial, inconsequential.
Hey, this is fun.
Too many of once-Leela’s memories are heavy with emotional substance; she cannot ignore them. The more she pushes away a memory, the more it bulldozes its way back in a ‘don’t think about the pink elephant’ way. She must accept and resolve these memories to be free of them.
Thrilled by the challenge, once-Leela parses her memory threads. Her innumerable sub-personalities would fascinate a shrink. Timid ones, skulking ones, angry ones, suppressed all her life, but expressed in that perpetual shoulder-ache she had in the before-world, that stubborn sinus.
Sometimes, though, she wants to give up. Like when she glimpses an evening a few months before she quit her job. The memory, twisted and tucked away, is the black of a charred paper ball.
She unfurls it reluctantly. Late evening. A business meeting ends. Her car battery is dead. A colleague from a different branch offers her a lift home. Traffic is heavy, and waiting times at red lights extended. They talk. They find common interests, hobbies. They argue politics, discuss terrorism. They chuckle over the humor of Bheja Fry. Finally he stops at her apartment complex. They both bend down to pick up her laptop bag.
Leela feels his hand brushing hers, smells his Old Spice. Her chest is all aflutter. She almost calls him in. Then she remembers. Mother is late enough into her dementia to be paranoid, to accuse, to blame, but early enough to sound coherent to an outsider in a limited social interaction. Coherent enough to embarrass. So she thanks her colleague and walks away, aware of his hurt — not even invited for a cup of chai?
She enters the apartment, busies herself immediately with chores, with Mother, stays busy till late at night when she stares at the ceiling where the fan whirrs round and round and round, creaking with every revolution. The Old Spice still tingles her nose. She will have to wait till Mother…dies. Wanting someone dead…
Once-Leela remembers the sick taste that filled Leela’s mouth, though her eyes remained dry.
If tears were possible here, once-Leela would shed them. But even without tears, the memory fades off under the brightness of her attention.
Has the memory gone, or has she merely surrendered access to it? Well, she is free if the connection is severed. A tree falls in a jungle — so what?
“The census results puzzle me,” says once-Milind. “Our detailed survey is showing far fewer people.”
Once-Leela has removed the emotional footprints of most of her memory threads; this discussion doesn’t interest her. “Really?” she drawls in a bored tone.
“Why don’t people participate?” he says. “Look at me, I’m eighty years old, I have had three heart-attacks, and I’m still active.”
Eighty? Ouch. Out goes her Shah Rukh Khan stereotype. And this chap is obsessed about ‘propagation?’ She thrashes around for a new face to tack him on — Morarji Desai? Sitaram Kesari? Atal Bihari Vajpayee? Oh, and who knows, once-Sarah may be slim and delicate, and Maya a muscular sort. Anyway, tacking images to onces is like clinging to thought. Pointless.
Without an image tacked to him, once-Milind is easy to ignore. She resumes her letting go. She wonders sometimes (fleetingly) why Mother had a problem. With every released stream of thought, her surroundings get buoyant.
A memory after a long time.
Leela is in class, sociology. Or psychology? A professor lectures from a diffused podium. Leela is drowsy, inattentive. But what he is saying is important now, in persistence space.
Once-Leela gropes for it. She wavers at its edge, flounders, despairs. Damn.
Later, once-Leela pays for the lapse.
This weakness of wanting a memory makes her feel horribly loaded, far more than ever. Like a life-long frutarian after eating a roasted pig.
Everyone makes mistakes, she tells herself. Cut yourself slack. Don’t be hung up on the goal. You aren’t on a deadline.
She resumes her disengaging, and the spurts of lightness occur more frequently now.
The onces crowd her, alarmed.
“Stop harming us,” says once-Sarah.
Once-Leela is mildly puzzled. “I’m not doing anything to you.”
“Sometimes I cannot remember who I am,” once-Sarah says. “You have taken away my memory.”
“I didn’t even know you before this happened,” says once-Leela.
“Oh, yes?” says once-Sarah. “Don’t you remember me?”
Only as a stereotype, a muddle of people I knew, once-Leela thinks. She allows her reaction to flow out, unsaid; she is translucent, barely retaining an image or idea. She is atremble with what lies beyond, hoping, waiting, and trying not to.
“What about me,” once-Maya says. “Was I not a friend?” Something in her tone gives once-Leela pause.
She senses some memories edge slowly up, find no purchase, and surrender to nullity. A slender thought lingers. Find the last strand, and then there will be none.
A once ripples faintly, “If you surrender, you destroy not just yourself but—”
Projections. A stick-figure professor. Oh!
The onces around her are projections. Jumbles of people. And projections of projections. No wonder the numbers declined as she released memories. Stop thinking and they will disintegrate, every one of them.
Should she? Is it nihilism? No, it is the lightness of unbeing, indescribable. Beyond pain and suffering.
Once-Leela pauses to mark the finality of what she is about to do, and then releases her last thought into the embracing vastness. She is so small, so insignificant, but then she is everywhere and everything. No one and everyone. And there is a potentiality of a beginning, and the freshness of it.
Swapna Kishore lives in Bangalore, India, and writes both fiction and non-fiction. Her speculative fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Nature (Futures), Ideomancer, Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, and other publications. For more about her, please visit her website: http://swapnawrites.com.