I saw him in a dream, the dead man. He was dreaming too, and I couldn’t tell if I was in his dream or he in mine. He was floating over a delta, watching a web of rivulets running this way and that, the whole stream rushing to a destination I couldn’t see.

I woke up with the haunted feeling that I had been used to in my youth. I haven’t felt like that in a long time. The feeling of being possessed, inhabited, although lightly, as though a homeless person was sleeping in the courtyard of my consciousness. The dead man wasn’t any trouble; he was just sharing the space in my mind, not really caring who I was. But this returning of my old ability, as unexpected as it was, startled me out of the apathy in which I had been living my life. I wanted to find him, this dead man.

I think it is because of the Machine that these old feelings are being resurrected. It takes up an entire room, although the only part of it I see is the thing that looks like a durbeen, a telescope. The Machine looks into the past, which is why I’ve been thinking about my own girlhood. If I could spy on myself as I ran up and down the crowded streets and alleys of Park Circus! But the scientists who work the Machine tell me that the scope can’t look into the recent past. They never tell me the why of anything, even when I ask – they smile and say, “Don’t bother about things like that, Gargi-di! What you are doing is great, a great contribution.”

To my captors – they think they are my benefactors but truly, they are my captors – to them, I am something very special, because of my ability with the scope; but because I am not like them, they don’t really see me as I am.

An illiterate woman, bred in the back streets and alleyways of Old Kolkata, of no more importance than a cockroach – what saved me from being stamped out by the great, indifferent foot of the mighty is this...ability. The Machine gives sight to a select few, and it doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, man or woman.

I wonder if they guess I’m lying to them?

They’ve set the scope at a particular moment of history: the spring of 1856, and a particular place: Metiabruz in Kolkata. I am supposed to spy on an exiled ruler of that time, to see what he does every morning, out on the terrace, and to record what he says. He is a large, sad, weepy man. He is the Nawab of Awadh, ousted from his beloved home by the conquering British. He is a poet.

They tell me he wrote the song “Babul Mora,” which to me is the most interesting and important thing about him, because I learned that song as a girl. The song is about a woman leaving, looking back at her childhood home, and it makes me cry sometimes – even though my childhood wasn’t idyllic. And yet there are things I remember, incongruous things like a great field of rice, and water gleaming between the new shoots, and a bagula, hunched and dignified like an old priest, standing knee-deep in water, waiting for fish. I remember the smell of the sea, many miles away, borne on the wind. My mother’s village, Siridanga.

How I began to lie to my captors was sheer chance. There was something wrong with the Machine. I don’t understand how it works, of course, but the scientists were having trouble setting the date. The girl called Nondini kept cursing and muttering about spacetime fuzziness. The fact that they could not look through the scope to verify what they were doing, not having the kind of brain suitable for it, meant that I had to keep looking to check whether they had got back to Wajid Ali Shah in the Kolkata of 1856.

I’ll never forget when I first saw the woman. I knew it was the wrong place and time, but, instead of telling my captors, I kept quiet. She was looking up toward me (my viewpoint must have been near the ceiling).

She was not young, but she was respectable, you could see that. A housewife squatting on her haunches in a big, old-fashioned kitchen, stacking dirty dishes. I don’t know why she looked up for that moment but it struck me at once: the furtive expression on her face. A sensitive face, with beautiful eyes, a woman who, I could tell, was a warm-hearted motherly type – so why did she look like that, as though she had a dirty secret? The scope doesn’t stay connected to the past for more than a few blinks of the eye, so that was all I had: a glimpse.

Nondini nudged me, asking, “Gargi-di, is that the right place and time?” Without thinking, I said yes.

That is how it begins: the story of my deception. That simple “yes” began the unravelling of everything.

The institute is a great glass monstrosity that towers above the ground somewhere in New Parktown, which I am told is many miles south of Kolkata. Only the part we’re on is not flooded. All around my building are other such buildings, so that when I look out of the window I see only reflections – of my building, and the others, and my own face, a small, dark oval. At first it drove me crazy, being trapped not only by the building but also by these tricks of light. And my captors were trapped too, but they seemed unmindful of the fact. They had grown accustomed. I resolved in my first week that I would not become accustomed. No, I didn’t regret leaving behind my mean little life, with all its difficulties and constraints, but I was under no illusions. I had exchanged one prison for another.

In any life, I think, there are apparently unimportant moments that turn out to matter the most. For me as a girl it was those glimpses of my mother’s village, poor as it was. I don’t remember the bad things. I remember the sky, the view of paddy fields from my grandfather’s hut on a hillock, and the tame pigeon who cooed and postured on a wooden post in the muddy little courtyard. I think it was here that I must have drawn my first real breath. There was an older cousin I don’t recall very well, except as a voice, a guide through this exhilarating new world, where I realised that food grew on trees, that birds and animals had their own tongues, their languages, their stories. The world exploded into wonders during those brief visits. But always they were just small breaks in my life as one more poor child in the great city. Or so I thought. What I now think is that those moments gave me a taste for something I’ve never had – a kind of freedom, a soaring.

I want to be able to share this with the dead man who haunts my dreams. I want him, whoever he is, wherever he is, to have what I had so briefly. The great open spaces, the chance to run through the fields and listen to the birds tell their stories. He might wake up from being dead then, might think of other things besides deltas.

He sits in my consciousness so lightly, I wonder if he even exists, whether he is an imagining rather than a haunting. But I recognise the feeling of a haunting like that, even though it has been years since I experienced the last one.

The most important haunting of my life was when I was, maybe, fourteen. We didn’t know our birthdays, so I can’t be sure. But I remember that an old man crept into my mind, a tired old man. Like Wajid Ali Shah more than a hundred years ago, this man was a poet. But there the similarity ended, because he had been ground down by poverty; his respectability was all he had left. When I saw him in my mind he was sitting under an awning. There was a lot of noise nearby, the kind of hullabaloo that a vegetable market generates. I sensed immediately that he was miserable, and this was confirmed later when I met him. All my hauntings have been of people who are hurt, or grieving, or otherwise in distress.

He wasn’t a mullah, Rahman Khan, but the street kids all called him Maula, so I did too. I think he accepted it with deprecation. He was a kind man. He would sit under a tree at the edge of the road with an old typewriter, waiting for people to come to him for typing letters and important documents and so on. He only had a few customers. Most of the time he would stare into the distance with rheumy eyes, seeing not the noisy market but some other vista, and he would recite poetry. I found time from my little jobs in the fruit market to sit by him and sometimes I would bring him a stolen pear or mango. He was the one who taught me to appreciate language, the meanings of words. He told me about poets he loved, Wajid Ali Shah and Khayyam and Rumi, and our own Rabindranath and Nazrul, and the poets of the humbler folk, the baul and the maajhis. Once I asked him to teach me how to read and write. He had me practice letters in Hindi and Bengali on discarded sheets of typing paper, but the need to fill our stomachs prevented me from giving time to the task, and I soon forgot what I’d learned. In any case at that age I didn’t realise its importance – it was no more than a passing fancy. But he did improve my Hindi, which I had picked up from my father, and taught me some Urdu, and a handful of songs, including “Babul Mora.”

Babul Mora, he would sing in his thin, cracked voice. Naihar chuuto hi jaaye.

It is a woman’s song, a woman leaving her childhood home with her newlywed husband, looking back from the cart for the last time. Father mine, my home slips away from me. Although my father died before I was grown, the song still brings tears to my eyes.

The old man gave me my fancy way of speaking. People laugh at me sometimes when I use nice words, nicely, when a few plain ones would do. What good is fancy speech to a woman who grew up poor and illiterate?

But I don’t care. When I talk in that way I feel as though I am touching the essence of the world. I got that from Maula. All my life I have tried to give away what I received but my one child died soon after birth and nobody else wanted what I had. Poetry. A vision of freedom. Rice fields, birds, the distant blue line of the sea. Siridanga.

Later, after my father died, I started to work in people’s houses with my mother. Clean and cook, and go to another house, clean and cook. Some of the people were nice but others yelled at us and were suspicious of us. I remember one fat lady who smelled strongly of flowers and sweat, who got angry because I touched the curtains. The curtains were blue and white and had lace on them, and I had never seen anything as delicate and beautiful. I reached my hand out and touched them and she yelled at me. I was just a child, and whatever she said, my hands weren’t dirty. I tried to defend myself but my mother herself shut me up. She didn’t want to lose her job. I remember being so angry I thought I would catch fire from inside. I think all those houses must be underwater now. There will be fish nibbling at the fine lace drawing-room curtains. Slime on the walls, the carpets rotted. All our cleaning for nothing!

I have to find the dead man. I have to get out of here somehow.

The scientist called Nondini sees me as a real person, I think, not just as someone with a special ability who is otherwise nothing special. She has sympathy for me partly because there is a relative of hers who might still be in a refugee camp, and she has been going from one to the other to try to find her. The camps are mostly full of slum-dwellers because when the river overflowed and the sea came over the land, it drowned everything except for the skyscrapers. All the people who lived in slums or low buildings, who didn’t have relatives with intact homes, had to go to the camps. I was in the big one, Sahapur, where they actually tried to help people find jobs, and tested them for all kinds of practical skills, because we were most of us labourers, domestic help, that sort of thing. And they gave us medical tests also.

That’s how I got my job, my large, clean room with a big-screen TV and all the food I want – after they found out I had the kind of brain the Machine can use.

But I can’t go back to the camp to see my friends. Many of them had left before me anyway, farmed out to corporations where they could be useful with medical tests and get free medicines also. Ashima had cancer and she got to go to one of those places, but there is no way I can find out what happened to her. I imagine her somewhere like this place, with everything free and all the mishti doi she can eat. I hope she’s all right. Kabir had a limp from birth but he’s only eighteen so maybe they can fix it. When she has time, Nondini lets me talk about them. Otherwise I feel as though nothing from that time was real, that I never had a mother and father, or a husband who left me after our son died. As if my friends never existed. It drives me crazy sometimes to return to my room after working in the same building, and to find nothing but the same programs on the TV. At first I was so excited about all the luxury but now I get bored and fretful to the point where I am scared of my impulses. Especially when the night market comes and sets up on the streets below, every week. I can’t see the market from my high window, but I can see the lights dancing on the windows of the building on the other side of the square. I can smell fish frying, and hear people talking, yelling out prices, and I hear singing. It is the singing that makes my blood wild. The first time they had a group of maajhis come, I nearly broke the window glass, I so wanted to jump out. They know how to sing to the soul.

Maajhi, O Maajhi My beloved waits
On the other shore...

I think the scientists are out at the market all night, because when they come in the next day, on Monday, their eyes are red, and they are bad-tempered, and there is something far away about them, as though they’ve been in another world. It could just be the rice beer, of course.

My captors won’t let me out for some months, until they are sure I’ve “settled down.” I can’t even go to another floor of this building.

There have been cases of people from the refugee camps escaping from their jobs, trying to go back to their old lives, their old friends, as though those things existed anymore. So there are rules that you have to be on probation before you are granted citizenship of the city, which then allows you to go freely everywhere. Of course “everywhere” is mostly under water, for what it’s worth. Meanwhile Nondini lets me have this recorder that I’m speaking into, so I won’t get too lonely. So I can hear my own voice played back. What a strange one she is!

Nondini is small and slight, with eyes that slant up just a little at the corners. She has worked hard all her life to study history. I never knew there was so much history in the world until my job began! She keeps giving me videos about the past – not just Wajid Ali Shah but also further back, to the time when the British were here, and before that when Kolkata was just a little village on the Hugli river. It is nearly impossible to believe that there was a time when the alleyways and marketplaces and shantytowns and skyscrapers didn’t exist – there were forests and fields, and the slow windings of the river, and wild animals. I wish I could see that. But they – the scientists – aren’t interested in that period.

What they do want to know is whether there were poems or songs of Wajid Ali Shah that were unrecorded. They want me to catch him at a moment when he would recite something new that had been forgotten over the centuries. What I don’t understand is, why all this fuss about old poetry? I like poetry more than most people, but it isn’t what you’d do in the middle of a great flood. When I challenge the scientists some of them look embarrassed, like Brijesh, and Unnikrishnan shakes his head. Their leader, Dr Mitra, she just looks impatient, and Nondini says, “Poetry can save the world.”

I may be uneducated but I am not stupid. They’re hiding something from me.

Excerpted with permission from the story “With Fate Conspire”, from Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh, Zubaan.