Branches jut towards us, splinters scrape our skin and sap leaks from bark split open, coating the curves of our shoulders, pooling in the dips of our clavicle. The forest anoints us.
We can’t see through the curtain of leaves; we part our way with batons. A decade ago, we would have used RazorSticks, sliced through the wood in nanoseconds, the laser whip-whip-whipping. Areas like these are under Earth Conservation laws now: the first global initiative in seventy years. The West, a construction of metal and glass and impossible heights, leeched of everything green, pays no heed. But out here in the wild the laws are words tumbling from the mouth of gods.
This country, partitioned into isolated chunks like the rest of the world, is heavily guarded. The border gates only relented when we pricked our thumb, smeared DNA on the scanner as an offering, Eklavya giving guru dakshina; no other Rep could have gained entry. Yet inside, we see no signs of surveillance, only the violent shiver of leaves in the wind. We don’t expect anything more than CCTV; even before it collapsed, this country was still using nanobytes and power stations. The last known British expedition into this region — Rep-funded, illegal — brought back relics for the World Museum in Bloomsbury. We went to stare at the exhibits imported from our homeland: mosquito rackets powered by batteries, dismantled parts of a rickshaw cycle, wide blades of a ceiling fan — how the blunt edges must have sludged through air.
We yearned to see in these bits of metal, a reflection of ourselves. But all we saw was rust. Restless, we rushed to the Hospital. The explorers had also brought with them dated petri dishes. We stood untouched but the Saps suffered, their immunity to local disease not including foreign bacteria. We pressed our noses against glass, breath fogging our vision. Raised spots on Sap skin, heat rippling from their bodies, faeces dribbling. Eleven dead: we had never seen such mortality. We marvelled; fear licked us clean. Perhaps this was our true reflection.
The air is swollen here. It clings to our nose: waterlogged mud, fruit ready to burst at seams. We hear the distant roar of water. Jharna — the word floats into our thoughts. Ever since we stepped foot on this land, words and images have been leaking into our minds: a buried language resurfacing.
Mosquitoes swarm us. They are harmless against the immunisation code we spent months developing in secret. The Rep Council warned us against chasing illusions. How could we explain the dream lodged into our brain stem like a virus? A lone figure sitting cross-legged under a peepal tree, whispering to us in our language: We don’t die, but we bleed. How could we explain that no word of our mother tongue ever passed anyone’s lips; that we thirsted to see others like us, touch their skin and know it wasn’t an aberration?
For months, after lights out, we hooked ourselves onto BlackNet, poured our dream into the system, waited for Globe to locate the phantom figure. Globe is off-limits to us; yet we stood with bated breath, tried to stifle our clicking hearts as pixelated images formed in front of us. We saw a chalky spire crumbling before our eyes; dark hands and machines rebuilding the tower, aiming for the sky, and that too turning to dust. Dharahara, Nepal. No recent footage from the region, nothing to show how the open space, the cemented roads, turned into a jungle thick with the smell of damp earth and old bones. We plotted our route on outdated GPS. We left under the blanket of night; the Council wouldn’t notice if one of us was missing.
If we bring back a mind-cache full of geographical data, our subterfuge will be overlooked: another victory for the Reps. The Council talk of expanding borders, claiming uninhabited territory, eyes turned towards Asia — speaking as if we’re not there. Against their warnings, two Saps travelled to the region six months ago and disappeared. As the Council says: Sap research is impractical, their bodies, ill-designed for collecting data, not like ours. If we succeed, the Council will ignore the fact our success shoots from our Nepali genes; perhaps they will finally own us as their own.
Our difference pulses from us. Ever since we remember, we have had our own pods, our own work stations, our own toilets, security so tight you’d think they were afraid of us. Years we tried to become them, the throng of slick, light-skinned bodies. We developed lightening codes for skin, hair, eyes. They took the codes, patted our backs, turned them into wholesale capsules, forbid us from using them.
Something is different under this canopy: the air sings to our skin.
Snakes, thin as earthworms, slither over our feet. Humidity makes salt water trickle down our chest and curl our hair. We reach a scheduled stop, tongue sticking to the roof of our mouth, feet throbbing. Our thermostat picks up a spike in heat. We shudder with relief, tears seep from our eyes. Weeks we have been travelling, walking, crawling.
The leaves part ahead of us. We stumble forward, wounded moths, and through blurred vision, we see that same vermillion-robed back. A figure who, from a distance, looks like a mutated laliguras, bloated and human-shaped.
Hope weights our whisper, “Hajurba?”
We feel his eyes open. We pause, surprise muddles our thoughts. We can only sense movements and thoughts of our sisters through the Hive, a live data stream in our mind. No one can infiltrate; no one can escape. Yet, we hear, as if it were happening to our own body, the way his breath creaks his ribs, the faint whistling at the back of his nose.
After the global data shutdown, no one knows anything for certain — there are only swirling rumours, snatched words from illegally tuned transmitters, half-lived dreams. But on BlackNet, we discovered coded reports speaking of a sadhu living deep in the woods, equidistant from what once bordered India and China. They say he was one of the first to spring to life. That he lives, tucking centuries of history into gossamer folds of his brain, one of the richest independent mind-caches in the world.
We don’t believe in myths. We know what happens when flesh is made god. We worship facts. Fact 1: We were born of need, hope and love. Fact 2: Saps can’t survive without us. Fact 3: We were migrated to the West in miniature glass cases. Our home ripped through by quakes that came in revolutions of eighty years, then twenty, then five, till the earth rolled under your feet as you walked. Fact 4: We don’t know who we are or who we used to be. Fact 5: Hajurba might be able to tell us.
Batons elongate into canes as we hike up, clothes chafing our skin. We round the hill, come to face him and stop. Hajurba doesn’t move. Though he has a beard, wisping into his chest, the breasts lumping his — her — body are unmistakable. We filter the information, add it to the Hive.
“Hajur,” we revert to a gender neutral term. All eyes turn towards us. The third eye, grooved centre of forehead, vertical instead of horizontal, lids lash-less, opening from the middle out, screams alien. They say third eyes look into your soul – if you have one, that is. “You called us here?”
Yes, chhori. Hajur nods, voice a pool of ice in our minds. Come, receive aashirvaad.
We don’t move, caution stilling our limbs. “How did you find us? What happened here?”
Hajur stares, third eye unblinking. We look at its ridged corners and wait, the click-click clicking of our hearts echoing with the shriek of birds. Let me tell you a tale first, and you decide what happened — who was right, who was wrong, who was human and who was not.
You are sitting on the chhatt, chin tilted up, the sun a field of orange behind closed lids. Phulmaya, massaging oil into your head, sighs, “If only we had a few sets of hands! Durga Mata was a bit kanjus, no? Made ordinary folk too limited.”
You smile, imagining Phulmaya floating on a lotus, hands in eternal mudras. “What would you do with the extra pairs?”
You expect her to say swing scythes and draw talwaars but her voice drops, “Cook, clean, knit. I could knead the pittho and roll rotis together. It would save time…”
She tapers off. You don’t ask what she would like time for. Head buried in newspapers and books, following blogs and Youtube channels, bouncing from lectures to talks, you are too busy to ever ask.
Your mother must have overheard because she shouts, “Eh Phulmaya, don’t take Mata’s name with your dirty mouth.”
Your shoulders stiffen. Phulmaya continues pressing your scalp.
A cry floats from the road below: “Sunnu hos, aaja ko Dinay rate, aunnu hos.”
The chowk pedlar at it again. A few months ago, this was something only whispered about in hospitals and research centres, perhaps debated in the secrecy of government circles. Journalists and newsrooms were banned from speculating, and internet posts written by college students taken down. But now, the city jostles with Nepali pedlars, bought out by Indian and Chinese corporations.
Your mother forbids you from conversing with them; these sellers of bodies and souls who will be punished in their next lives. She always speaks of karma and dharma. She believes Phulmaya — who fed you her own milk, fanned you tirelessly in monsoon heat, who slaves day and night in your tiny kitchen, pumping the kal, dragging metal cylinders of gas, eating baasi bhaat, washing your mother’s period rags — is atoning for sins in her past life. She thinks the bhikari who calls from the street — dark skin creased with dust, baby with bloated belly and slack mouth slung across her body — is also responsible for her own fate. Your mother doesn’t believe in accident of birth; she gives them a handful of rice, her own dharma done.
You find yourself paying attention to the discussions around this DNA project: social change, dismantle the caste hierarchy, revolutionise Nepal. You’re not naïve: you know it’s a way for multi-nationals to win over the militant left. There must be another line they’re spinning for the rich. The religious sects, sadhus and gurujis, pockets lined with rupees and yuans, trumpet it as the blessing of gods, who have spilled into human mind, the secret of being one and many all at once.
And yet there is a seed of hope stuck in your throat, a bald supari you have swallowed whole. That night, you dream of it flowering out of your mouth and decide: you will donate your DNA. You will not cheapen it by accepting payment.
You will be forty when you see the first one.
She appears in your living room as you click through channels. You stop when you catch sight of the hologram, sharper than the flickering images surrounding you. She cooks — steam billows from rice cookers, pressure cookers whistle, she wraps momo like a machine; she cleans — gone are jharus and mops; she blitzes dirt and purifies rooms in seconds; she plays with children — two babies at her teat, others gurgling as she sings. She is the face of the new domestic. One-time fee for a lifetime investment.
Goosebumps scatter on your skin. You clutch at facts: her eyes are glassy, she doesn’t smile. But as the hologram changes, she looks straight at you and you see it. A flicker in those eyes. An emotion. She looks exactly like you did when you were twenty years old.
Though it is mild, autumnal sun bleeding through the jaali, you blast the heating and wrap yourself in blankets, clinging to the hope that the Phulmayas in the world will soon have time to do whatever their hearts desire.
The second time, you see two of them, sitting side by side, as if they are friends or sisters.
You are at the CTC mall, dropping on a bench; your feet ache — you have inherited your mother’s bad knees and your father’s bad back. Someone sits behind, back against yours; their hair brushes your neck.
Something about the moment feels so intimate, you almost weep. Too fraught to relax, you struggle up, grab your bag and swing around to face the mirror opposite.
You see yourself three times. A woman in a wilting cotton dhoti, hair loose, cheap plastic at her ears, bright potay around her neck, kajal dots on her chin, an Om tattooed on her wrist: she is you when you were twenty.
The woman sitting next to her is also you, though her hair is shorn and she has smeared on candy pink lipstick, a colour ill-suited to your complexion. She has a wriggling baby at her left breast, hums quietly, while her companion rustles around in bags and boxes. Where did they learn it? This taste for cheap jewellery and religion; this predilection for short hair, pink lipstick and an instinct to mother. Could they naturally be so different to you?
You step back. Hearing, they look up, eyes catching yours. You are suspended for a few moments in this unholy trinity, longing to see in their gaze a deep-seated recognition, repulsed by the very thought of it.
Before either can move or say anything, you turn away, rush out into the sticky heat. From the left, you hear thunderous rumbling. People in tattered shirts, patched trousers, threadbare saris, once cooks, drivers, maids, nannies, helping hands integral to all homes — real people, you remind yourself — are blockading New Road, a people-led Nepal-band. Two years and nearly all of them are out of job and home. Their demand: abolish the new domestics.
You blink back tears, shove aside the knowledge that you helped make this happen.
Five years later the Court agrees to hear the first case.
The defence’s argument centres on the non-human aspect of the victim. Every time he stands to hammer the point — his client isn’t breaking any laws because there are no laws protecting domestics from battery, assault, murder, rape, only guidelines tacked onto property laws which don’t account for their very tangible aliveness — there are jeers from the public. The first time, you glanced back in surprise, eyes widening as dozens of you looked out, skin glistening with sweat, rage twisting their mouth. Gone was the glassiness; gone were the docile limbs.
Years you worked to improve the social condition of women. You volunteered at rape shelters for the abused and vulnerable. You ploughed your own money into maintaining schools for the under-privileged. You trained in victim counselling. How can you then ignore the whispers in the streets, the chants you hear on the cusp of sleep: We don’t live, but we breathe. We don’t tire, but we hurt. We don’t die, but we bleed.
You think of Phulmaya, her arthritic flesh sullied by male hands, unwanted and unrelenting; your mother cast her out of your home. Her corpse could be lying in some naali and you will be here, breathing easily. Though the realisation has been creeping on you, it is in this moment you admit that you were wrong. There has been no social revolution. People have transferred their cruelty onto a new social rung, deemed barely human.
The judge rules in favour of the offender. You shouldn’t feel shock; you have watched scores of women, young and old, cheated out of justice in this very room — why should this be any different?
He leaves, smug mouth under a brill-creamed moustache, hair oiled to his scalp, paunch jiggling, a cloud of aftershave around him as he shakes hands with his lawyers, the police, the judge. A seething silence from the seats.
It will be ten years before you witness a landmark ruling in favour of the domestics, acknowledging them as living beings. In between, there will be hundreds of cases: rape the forerunner. How easy it is for men to rape without consequence, to plough their dicks into a lifeless hole. They will go unpunished; no one will predict the revolution that will flood the streets, the quakes that will come in succession—the gods collecting penance.
Now, in the courtroom, there are only hands damp with sweat, cholos stuck to backs, hair frizzing into fearsome halos.
In two days, they will find the offender, hanging from a creaking ceiling fan, remnant of a brutish past.
We don’t anger, but we raze.
We gasp as the images stop. It is as if Hajur has pressed a switch in our brain and flicked it off again.
Faint sensations come to us: the burst of oranges on our tongue; the stickiness of mangoes on our fingers; tart berries staining our mouth red. Are these our memories?
There is something, some emotion, clawing up our throat. “What happened to her?”
That is not my place to say — you must discover for yourself.
“She looked like us.”
So this is the history that has been hidden from us. Our origin. Money and labour. An experiment gone wrong. Replicas of a Sap who thought she had a social conscience, who palpitated with useless guilt. The facts pillaring our existence start to crumble.
“And what you showed us, that is the truth?”
Hajur stirs. The truth is that there is never one truth.
“Why were we taken from here?” We imagine ourselves as dormant cells, pulsing with identical DNA, carried across oceans.
To be studied. Foreigners wanted to examine what in your genetic make-up made you prone to dissent.
We hold our breath, half predicting, half fearing what Hajur would say.
They wanted to find it and eliminate it. Replicate the genetic pattern, produce and subdue factories of their own fair-skinned domestics, workers, machines… but I hear Replica is the ruling force in Britain, that the humans live under their thumb.
The mosaic of our history is slotting into place, excruciating tile by tile.
“Replica hate the Homo-Saps and they hate us.”
So, they aren’t immune to social hierarchies or racial prejudice. They allowed you to mature untampered and the seed of dissent flowers. Will they praise it or punish it?
New images surge through our mind: masses of bodies heaving, gunshots, fire, buildings disappearing. The acid stink of vomit and blood. Charred bodies on countless pyres. A country in ashes. We don’t need a switch; the land speaks to us. Memory or dream? Past or future? Questions are forming on our lips when the sound of screams, raw and bleeding, overwhelm us.
A resounding click and everything fades.
We wake up to the earth under our body, flies buzzing around our head, ants crawling over our stomach, and a glimpse of the blue-veined moon.
Though the forest is dense with the screech of monkeys and the flap of wings, there is a yawning silence within us. Our mind-cache has been rinsed, data recoded. We — I? — have been cut off from the Hive. We scramble for facts, anything to shove the terror aside.
New facts structure us. Fact 1: Saps existed before us. Fact 2: Our home is being rebuilt; we must help. Fact 3: Our sisters are waiting for us. Fact 4: We must get back to them; we must fight.
We heave up, swallowing bile, vision sharpening. A figure, swathed in vermillion robes, advances towards us. Certainty builds within us; we know what we must do. We move towards Hajur and the fleet-footed crowd following behind.
We are ready. Leaves caress us as we pass; flowering trees drip nectar onto our skin. The forest anoints us.