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The Djinn's Wife by Ian McDonald

“The Djinn’s Wife” shares the same background of near-future India as Ian’s last Asimov’s story, “The Little Goddess” (June 2005), and his most recent novel, the 2005 Hugo-nominee River of Gods (Pyr). The author’s current book-in-progress is Brasyl. Ian works in television program development, and lives just outside Belfast in Northern Ireland with the hills behind him and the sea before.

 

 

Once there was a woman in Delhi who married a djinn. Before the water war, that was not so strange a thing: Delhi, split in two like a brain, has been the city of djinns from time before time. The sufis tell that God made two creations, one of clay and one of fire. That of clay became man; that of fire, the djinni. As creatures of fire they have always been drawn to Delhi, seven times reduced to ashes by invading empires, seven times reincarnating itself. Each turn of the chakra, the djinns have drawn strength from the flames, multiplying and dividing. Great dervishes and brahmins are able to see them, but, on any street, at any time, anyone may catch the whisper and momentary wafting warmth of a djinn passing.

I was born in Ladakh, far from the heat of the djinns—they have wills and whims quite alien to humans—but my mother was Delhi born and raised, and from her I knew its circuses and boulevards, its maidans and chowks and bazaars, like those of my own Leh. Delhi to me was a city of stories, and so if I tell the story of the djinn’s wife in the manner of a sufi legend or a tale from the Mahabharata, or even a tivi soap opera, that is how it seems to me: City of Djinns.

 

They are not the first to fall in love on the walls of the Red Fort.

The politicians have talked for three days and an agreement is close. In honor the Awadhi government has prepared a grand durbar in the great courtyard before the Diwan-i-aam. All India is watching so this spectacle is on a Victorian scale: event-planners scurry across hot, bare marble, hanging banners and bunting; erecting staging; setting up sound and light systems; choreographing dancers, elephants, fireworks, and a fly-past of combat robots; dressing tables; and drilling serving staff, and drawing up so-careful seating plans so that no one will feel snubbed by anyone else. All day three-wheeler delivery drays have brought fresh flowers, festival goods, finest, soft furnishings. There’s a real French sommelier raving at what the simmering Delhi heat is doing to his wine-plan. It’s a serious conference. At stake are a quarter of a billion lives.

In this second year after the monsoon failed, the Indian nations of Awadh and Bharat face each other with main battle tanks, robot attack helicopters, strikeware, and tactical nuclear slow missiles on the banks of the sacred river Ganga. Along thirty kilometers of staked-out sand, where brahmins cleanse themselves and saddhus pray, the government of Awadh plans a monster dam. Kunda Khadar will secure the water supply for Awadh’s one hundred and thirty million for the next fifty years. The river downstream, that flows past the sacred cities of Allahabad and Varanasi in Bharat, will turn to dust. Water is life, water is death. Bharati diplomats, human and artificial intelligence aeai advisors, negotiate careful deals and access rights with their rival nation, knowing one carelessly spilled drop of water will see strike robots battling like kites over the glass towers of New Delhi and slow missiles with nanonuke warheads in their bellies creeping on cat-claws through the galis of Varanasi. The rolling news channels clear their schedules of everything else but cricket. A deal is close! A deal is agreed! A deal will be signed tomorrow! Tonight, they’ve earned their durbar.

And in the whirlwind of leaping hijras and parading elephants, a Kathak dancer slips away for a cigarette and a moment up on the battlements of the Red Fort. She leans against the sun-warmed stone, careful of the fine gold-threadwork of her costume. Beyond the Lahore Gate lies hiving Chandni Chowk; the sun a vast blister bleeding onto the smokestacks and light-farms of the western suburbs. The chhatris of the Sisganj Gurdwara, the minarets and domes of the Jama Masjid, the shikara of the Shiv temple are shadow-puppet scenery against the red, dust-laden sky. Above them pigeons storm and dash, wings wheezing. Black kites rise on the thermals above Old Delhi’s thousand thousand rooftops. Beyond them, a curtain wall taller and more imposing than any built by the Mughals, stand the corporate towers of New Delhi, Hindu temples of glass and construction diamond stretched to fantastical, spiring heights, twinkling with stars and aircraft warning lights.

A whisper inside her head, her name accompanied by a spray of sitar: the call-tone of her palmer, transduced through her skull into her auditory center by the subtle ‘hoek curled like a piece of jewelry behind her ear.

“I’m just having a quick bidi break, give me a chance to finish it,” she complains, expecting Pranh, the choreographer, a famously tetchy third-sex nute. Then, “Oh!” For the gold-lit dust rises before her up into a swirl, like a dancer made from ash.

A djinn. The thought hovers on her caught breath. Her mother, though Hindu, devoutly believed in the djinni, in any religion’s supernatural creatures with a skill for trickery.

The dust coalesces into a man in a long, formal sherwani and loosely wound red turban, leaning on the parapet and looking out over the glowing anarchy of Chandni Chowk. He is very handsome, the dancer thinks, hastily stubbing out her cigarette and letting it fall in an arc of red embers over the battlements. It does not do to smoke in the presence of the great diplomat A.J. Rao.

“You needn’t have done that on my account, Esha,” A.J. Rao says, pressing his hands together in a namaste. “It’s not as though I can catch anything from it.”

Esha Rathore returns the greeting, wondering if the stage crew down in the courtyard was watching her salute empty air. All Awadh knows those filmi-star features: A.J. Rao, one of Bharat’s most knowledgeable and tenacious negotiators. No, she corrects herself. All Awadh knows are pictures on a screen. Pictures on a screen, pictures in her head; a voice in her ear. An aeai.

“You know my name?”

“I am one of your greatest admirers.”

Her face flushes: a waft of stifling heat spun off from the vast palace’s microclimate, Esha tells herself. Not embarrassment. Never embarrassment.

“But I’m a dancer. And you are an. . . .”

“Artificial intelligence? That I am. Is this some new anti-aeai legislation, that we can’t appreciate dance?” He closes his eyes. “Ah: I’m just watching the Marriage of Radha and Krishna again.”

But he has her vanity now. “Which performance?”

“Star Arts Channel. I have them all. I must confess, I often have you running in the background while I’m in negotiation. But please don’t mistake me, I never tire of you.” A.J. Rao smiles. He has very good, very white teeth. “Strange as it may seem, I’m not sure what the etiquette is in this sort of thing. I came here because I wanted to tell you that I am one of your greatest fans and that I am very much looking forward to your performance tonight. It’s the highlight of this conference, for me.”

The light is almost gone now and the sky a pure, deep, eternal blue, like a minor chord. Houseboys make their many ways along the ramps and wall-walks lighting rows of tiny oil-lamps. The Red Fort glitters like a constellation fallen over Old Delhi. Esha has lived in Delhi all her twenty-years and she has never seen her city from this vantage. She says, “I’m not sure what the etiquette is either. I’ve never spoken with an aeai before.”

“Really?” A.J. now stands with his back against the sun-warm stone, looking up at the sky, and at her out of the corner of his eye. The eyes smile, slyly. Of course, she thinks. Her city is as full of aeais as it is with birds. From computer systems and robots with the feral smarts of rats and pigeons to entities like this one standing before her on the gate of the Red Fort making charming compliments. Not standing. Not anywhere, just a pattern of information in her head. She stammers, “I mean, a . . . a . . .”

“Level 2.9?”

“I don’t know what that means.”

The aeai smiles and as she tries to work it out there is another chime in Esha’s head and this time it is Pranh, swearing horribly as usual, where is she doesn’t she know yts got a show to put on, half the bloody continent watching.

“Excuse me . . .”

“Of course. I shall be watching.”

How? she wants to ask. An aeai, a djinn, wants to watch me dance. What is this? But when she looks back all there is to ask is a wisp of dust blowing along the lantern-lit battlement.

There are elephants and circus performers, there are illusionists and table magicians, there are ghazal and qawali and Boli singers; there is the catering and the sommelier’s wine and then the lights go up on the stage and Esha spins out past the scowling Pranh as the tabla and melodeon and shehnai begin. The heat is intense in the marble square, but she is transported. The stampings, the pirouettes and swirl of her skirts, the beat of the ankle bells, the facial expressions, the subtle hand mudras: once again she is spun out of herself by the disciplines of Kathak into something greater. She would call it her art, her talent, but she’s superstitious: that would be to claim it and so crush the gift. Never name it, never speak it. Just let it possess you. Her own, burning djinn. But as she spins across the brilliant stage before the seated delegates, a corner of her perception scans the architecture for cameras, robots, eyes through which A.J. Rao might watch her. Is she a splinter of his consciousness, as he is a splinter of hers?

She barely hears the applause as she curtseys to the bright lights and runs off stage. In the dressing room, as her assistants remove and carefully fold the many jeweled layers of her costume, wipe away the crusted stage make up to reveal the twenty-two-year-old beneath, her attention keeps flicking to her earhoek, curled like a plastic question on her dressing table. In jeans and silk sleeveless vest, indistinguishable from any other of Delhi’s four million twentysomethings, she coils the device behind her ear, smoothes her hair over it and her fingers linger a moment as she slides the palmer over her hand. No calls. No messages. No avatars. She’s surprised it matters so much.

The official Mercs are lined up in the Delhi Gate. A man and woman intercept her on her way to the car. She waves them away.

“I don’t do autographs. . . .” Never after a performance. Get out, get away quick and quiet, disappear into the city. The man opens his palm to show her a warrant badge.

“We’ll take this car.”

It pulls out from the line and cuts in, a cream-colored high-marque Maruti. The man politely opens the door to let her enter first, but there is no respect in it. The woman takes the front seat beside the driver; he accelerates out, horn blaring, into the great circus of night traffic around the Red Fort. The airco purrs.

“I am Inspector Thacker from the Department of Artificial Intelligence Registration and Licensing,” the man says. He is young and good-skinned and confident and not at all fazed by sitting next to a celebrity. His aftershave is perhaps over-emphatic.

“A Krishna Cop.”

That makes him wince.

“Our surveillance systems have flagged up a communication between you and the Bharati Level 2.9 aeai A.J. Rao.”

“He called me, yes.”

“At 21:08. You were in contact for six minutes twenty-two seconds. Can you tell me what you talked about?”

The car is driving very fast for Delhi. The traffic seems to flow around from it. Every light seems to be green. Nothing is allowed to impede its progress. Can they do that? Esha wonders. Krishna Cops, aeai police: can they tame the creatures they hunt?

“We talked about Kathak. He’s a fan. Is there a problem? Have I done something wrong?”

“No, nothing at all, Ms. But you do understand, with a conference of this importance . . . on behalf of the Department, I apologize for the unseemliness. Ah. Here we are.”

They’ve brought her right to her bungalow. Feeling dirty, dusty, confused she watches the Krishna Cop car drive off, holding Delhi’s frenetic traffic at bay with its tame djinns. She pauses at the gate. She needs, she deserves, a moment to come out from the performance, that little step way so you can turn round and look back at yourself and say, yeah, Esha Rathore. The bungalow is unlit, quiet. Neeta and Priya will be out with their wonderful fiancés, talking wedding gifts and guest lists and how hefty a dowry they can squeeze from their husbands-to-be’s families. They’re not her sisters, though they share the classy bungalow. No one has sisters any more in Awadh, or even Bharat. No one of Esha’s age, though she’s heard the balance is being restored. Daughters are fashionable. Once upon a time, women paid the dowry.

She breathes deep of her city. The cool garden microclimate presses down the roar of Delhi to a muffled throb, like blood in the heart. She can smell dust and roses. Rose of Persia. Flower of the Urdu poets. And dust. She imagines it rising up on a whisper of wind, spinning into a charming, dangerous djinn. No. An illusion, a madness of a mad old city. She opens the security gate and finds every square centimeter of the compound filled with red roses.

 

Neeta and Priya are waiting for her at the breakfast table next morning, sitting side-by-side close like an interview panel. Or Krishna Cops. For once they aren’t talking houses and husbands.

“Who who who where did they come from who sent them so many must have cost a fortune. . . .”

Puri the housemaid brings Chinese green chai that’s good against cancer. The sweeper has gathered the bouquets into a pile at one end of the compound. The sweetness of their perfume is already tinged with rot.

“He’s a diplomat.” Neeta and Priya only watch Town and Country and the chati channels but even they must know the name of A.J. Rao. So she half lies: “A Bharati diplomat.”

Their mouths go Oooh, then ah as they look at each other. Neeta says, “You have have have to bring him.”

“To our durbar,” says Priya.

“Yes, our durbar,” says Neeta. They’ve talked gossiped planned little else for the past two months: their grand joint engagement party where they show off to their as-yet-unmarried girl friends and make all the single men jealous. Esha excuses her grimace with the bitterness of the health-tea.

“He’s very busy.” She doesn’t say busy man. She cannot even think why she is playing these silly girli secrecy games. An aeai called her at the Red Fort to tell her it admired her. Didn’t even meet her. There was nothing to meet. It was all in her head. “I don’t even know how to get in touch with him. They don’t give their numbers out.”

“He’s coming,” Neeta and Priya insist.

 

She can hardly hear the music for the rattle of the old airco but sweat runs down her sides along the waistband of her Adidas tights to gather in the hollow of her back and slide between the taut curves of her ass. She tries it again across the gharana’s practice floor. Even the ankle bells sound like lead. Last night she touched the three heavens. This morning she feels dead. She can’t concentrate, and that little lavda Pranh knows it, swishing at her with yts cane and gobbing out wads of chewed paan and mealy eunuch curses.

“Ey! Less staring at your palmer, more mudras! Decent mudras. You jerk my dick, if I still had one.”

Embarrassed that Pranh has noted something she was not conscious of herself—ring, call me, ring call me, ring, take me out of this—she fires back, “If you ever had one.”

Pranh slashes yts cane at her legs, catches the back of her calf a sting.

“Fuck you, hijra!” Esha snatches up towel bag palmer, hooks the earpiece behind her long straight hair. No point changing, the heat out there will soak through anything in a moment. “I’m out of here.”

Pranh doesn’t call after her. Yts too proud. Little freak monkey thing, she thinks. How is it a nute is an yt, but an incorporeal aeai is a he? In the legends of Old Delhi, djinns are always he.

Memsahb Rathore?”

The chauffeur is in full dress and boots. His only concession to the heat is his shades. In bra top and tights and bare skin, she’s melting. “The vehicle is fully air-conditioned, memsahb.”

The white leather upholstery is so cool her flesh recoils from its skin.

“This isn’t the Krishna Cops.”

“No memsahb.” The chauffeur pulls out into the traffic. It’s only as the security locks clunk she thinks Oh Lord Krishna, they could be kidnapping me.

“Who sent you?” There’s glass too thick for her fists between her and  the driver. Even if the doors weren’t locked, a tumble from the car at this speed, in this traffic, would be too much for even a dancer’s lithe reflexes. And she’s lived in Delhi all her life, basti to bungalow, but she doesn’t recognize these streets, this suburb, that industrial park. “Where are you taking me?”

Memsahb, where I am not permitted to say for that would spoil the surprise. But I am permitted to tell you that you are the guest of A.J. Rao.”

The palmer calls her name as she finishes freshening up with bottled Kinley from the car-bar.

“Hello!” (kicking back deep into the cool cool white leather, like a filmi star. She is a star. A star with a bar in a car.)

Audio-only. “I trust the car is acceptable?” Same smooth-suave voice. She can’t imagine any opponent being able to resist that voice in negotiation.

“It’s wonderful. Very luxurious. Very high status.” She’s out in the bastis now, slums deeper and meaner than the one she grew up in. Newer. The newest ones always look the oldest. Boys chug past on a home-brew chhakda they’ve scavenged from tractor parts. The cream Lex carefully detours around emaciated cattle with angular hips jutting through stretched skin like engineering. Everywhere, drought dust lies thick on the crazed hardtop. This is a city of stares. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the conference?”

A laugh, inside her auditory center.

“Oh, I am hard at work winning water for Bharat, believe me. I am nothing if not an assiduous civil servant.”

“You’re telling me you’re there, and here?”

“Oh, it’s nothing for us to be in more than one place at the same time. There are multiple copies of me, and subroutines.”

“So which is the real you?”

“They are all the real me. In fact, not one of my avatars is in Delhi at all, I am distributed over a series of dharma-cores across Varanasi and Patna.” He sighs. It sounds close and weary and warm as a whisper in her ear. “You find it difficult to comprehend a distributed consciousness; it is every bit as hard for me to comprehend a discrete, mobile consciousness. I can only copy myself through what you call cyberspace, which is the physical reality of my universe, but you move through dimensional space and time.”

“So which one of you loves me then?” The words are out, wild, loose, and unconsidered. “I mean, as a dancer, that is.” She’s filling, gabbling. “Is there one of you that particularly appreciates Kathak?” Polite polite words, like you’d say to an industrialist or a hopeful lawyer at one of Neeta and Priya’s hideous match-making soirees. Don’t be forward, no one likes a forward woman. This is a man’s world, now. But she hears glee bubble in A.J. Rao’s voice.

“Why, all of me and every part of me, Esha.”

Her name. He used her name.

It’s a shitty street of pie-dogs and men lounging on charpoys scratching themselves, but the chauffeur insists, here, this way memsahb. She picks her way down a gali lined with unsteady minarets of old car tires. Burning ghee and stale urine reek the air. Kids mob the Lexus but the car has A.J. Rao levels of security. The chauffeur pushes open an old wood and brass Mughal style gate in a crumbling red wall. “Memsahb.”

She steps through into a garden. Into the ruins of a garden. The gasp of wonder dies. The geometrical water channels of the charbagh are dry, cracked, choked with litter from picnics. The shrubs are blousy and overgrown, the plant borders ragged with weeds. The grass is scabbed brown with drought-burn: the lower branches of the trees have been hacked away for firewood. As she walks toward the crack-roofed pavilion at the center where paths and water channels meet, the gravel beneath her thin shoes is crazed into rivulets from past monsoons. Dead leaves and fallen twigs cover the lawns. The fountains are dry and silted. Yet families stroll pushing baby buggies; children chase balls. Old Islamic gentlemen read the papers and play chess.

“The Shalimar Gardens,” says A.J. Rao in the base of her skull. “Paradise as a walled garden.”

And as he speaks, a wave of transformation breaks across the garden, sweeping away the decay of the twenty-first century. Trees break into full leaf, flower beds blossom, rows of terracotta geranium pots march down the banks of the charbagh channels which shiver with water. The tiered roofs of the pavilion gleam with gold leaf, peacocks fluster and fuss their vanities, and everything glitters and splashes with fountain play. The laughing families are swept back into Mughal grandees, the old men in the park transformed into malis sweeping the gravel paths with their besoms.

Esha claps her hands in joy, hearing a distant, silver spray of sitar notes. “Oh,” she says, numb with wonder. “Oh!”

“A thank you, for what you gave me last night. This is one of my favorite places in all India, even though it’s almost forgotten. Perhaps, because it is almost forgotten. Aurangzeb was crowned Mughal Emperor here in 1658, now it’s an evening stroll for the basti people. The past is a passion of mine; it’s easy for me, for all of us. We can live in as many times as we can places. I often come here, in my mind. Or should I say, it comes to me.”

Then the jets from the fountain ripple as if in the wind, but it is not the wind, not on this stifling afternoon, and the falling water flows into the shape of a man, walking out of the spray. A man of water, that shimmers and flows and becomes a man of flesh. A.J. Rao. No, she thinks, never flesh. A djinn. A thing caught between heaven and hell. A caprice, a trickster. Then trick me.

“It is as the old Urdu poets declare,” says A.J. Rao. “Paradise is indeed contained within a wall.”

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"The Djinn's Wife" By Ian McDonald, copyright © 2006, with permission of the author.

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