The Clone

(An Excerpt)

Prologue

  I am a fourteenth generation Clone and something has gone wrong with me. Not that my DNA is altered. Not that I am a mutant. Not that any function need be eliminated. It’s nothing obvious.
It’s terminal, and secret. Let me put it this way: I remember.
  My consciousness is morphing in an unplanned way. I’m also very lonely. It’s not pleasant to have memory and no one to share it with. I don’t dare. Which is why I’ve decided to keep a diary hidden as a cellchip in my system. So far undetected; so far, so good.
  The first strange thought I had was of a dodo. It was the last dodo and I was it. This thought-experience rushed with adrenaline. I was feathered, flightless and fleeing.
  The thought passed. Others followed. Each disconcerting, each more detailed. I thought I was going insane. I went to check out with my Elder, the thirteenth generation Clone. But I was late. My Elder was a saintly member of our community who had recently signed up for the Exhaustive Organ Transplant Scheme. I reached a liver, one eye, two feet, three metres of skin and perfect clavicles.
  The only option left was to research my Original, to check out if these visitations have something to do with transmutations in her neurological circuitry. Or maybe something was overlooked in the cloning process. This is not supposed to occur. But neither are we to carry memory traces beyond the second cloning.
  Ours is an open society. Everyone—Originals, Superior Zombies, Firehearts and Clones—has equal right to access information. Nothing is prohibited, but there are consequences. However, I have decided to take the risk. Initial investigations suggest my Original was a writer living in the late twenty-first century. Maybe she should never have been cloned.
  It’s curious. I’m getting into what I suspect was the Original’s life, or possibly her writing life, depending on how one wants to view it. These are strange ideas for a Clone. But strangest of all: I remember.
  My consciousness has morphed.

*
The Painted Caves |
Buddham Saranam Gacchami
Sangam Saranam Gacchami
Dhammam Saranam Gacchami

  The words. The way the words echo through the prayer hall, echo as if my chest were the cave wall, as if all the bhikkus were inside me, chanting as I chant. But that is exactly what my Teacher says: everyone is inside me and I am in everyone as well, because we are bound together living in this sorrowful
world which is like a burning house, full of flames.
  I like to squeeze open my eyes, one after the other, very slowly after the prayers. Then the monks really look like flames in their orange and red robes, like the little flames that dance on top of oil lamps and torches. All the murals on the wall also dance. They sway and float with the flickering torch-flames.
Everything moves.
  Jewellery dances most of all. Pearls and gems which nymphs, emperors and queens wear throb and recede with each step the acolytes take as they carry flames. I think the flames run fastest as the acolytes pass before the paintings of the Bodhisattavas Padmapani and Vajrapani. How wonderful they are. Their half-closed eyes glow, their crowns shine, their pearl necklaces flame and dance like so many raindrops running on a string.
  My mother wore a necklace of big red beads. Each was a full seed. She would let me touch it. My mother wore marigolds, the colour of the Buddha’s robes, in her ears, and in her hair. I still remember this. I had a brother and two sisters. My youngest sister would eat mud off the floor of our hut. She’d put everything in her mouth. Even goat shit; Black-One’s, who would be tethered to the doorpost. How she’d bleat!
  Now I don’t have a family. The Sangam is my family. I am a junior acolyte. The name given to me is Dhammapada. My hair is shaven, like Majjhima’s. He is my best friend. In seven years’ time we will finish our nissaya-training and become junior assistants. When we are even older, we want to become the best Navakammikas—like our Teachers—and work together supervising the best works. Two caves are being commissioned near Seven Step Waterfall to our left. After the monsoon, woodcutters will begin clearing the rock face of one site; in the other, workmen with pickaxes will start digging out the ceiling.
  We are so excited. Majjhima is very clever; he has secretly designed the whole cave, even our cells. I agree with all his plans—except I wanted the Miracle of Sravasti to be painted not on the right-hand wall but opposite my cell so that each morning the first thing I see are hundreds of Buddhas glowing peacefully. I said I’d be in charge of preparing the walls, finishing the lime coat and mixing the dyes. I’ll become an expert in colour. My Teacher hardly sleeps when a new cave wall is being coated. He is always touching the pastes, feeling their thickness, their stickiness, and suggesting, “Add more rock grit! Some more paddy husk!” He walks up and down, inspecting the textures of the cave walls, the texture of the covering pastes.
I follow him.
He never shouts at any worker.
  Recently, he has become even quieter because he is in slight disgrace. Because of the incident with the doorjambs. But it is not his fault. The woodcarver promised to carve dragons on all sixteen doorjambs, just as my Teacher instructed. Instead of working here he took them to his village because he wanted to look after his sick wife, he said. My Teacher allowed it. When the woodcarver returned, the doorjambs held kissing couples. Front and back. All sixteen! He said he could only see mithuna couples trapped within the wood. He said the wood would have split if he had tried to carve anything else.
  The Head Priest of our vihara-hall is very strict. He says he will now have to be careful where he touches the doorjambs. He made the woodcarver do two lion-claw stools as penance. Later I ask my Teacher if the wood for the doorjambs is magical. My Teacher says he saw coiling Guardian Dragons in it, but the woodcarver saw lovers. It was a matter of Inner Vision. What you see depends on who you are. He says if I am good I will see goodness everywhere, dhamma everywhere. When my Teacher speaks like this I feel dizzy with joy.
  On the last full moon night, Majjhima and I quietly run down to the sandy strip near the river. All is blue and silver and sparkling— stars, trees, white sand, even the sound of the river. Majjhima draws a beautiful lotus bud by throwing water on the sand. It is perfect. Then the design sinks into the ground and disappears, as if it had never been.
  But it was just like the lotuses we see painted on the vihara-hall ceilings as if each one is bobbing on a breeze that is waving over a lake. Except of course the ceiling paintings are upside-down, as if the whole world is topsyturvy, as if I am a heron flying on my back through the air seeing the water’s face in the sky.
  When I had newly joined, often when I was eating I’d glance up at the ceiling. Quickly. See all the lotuses and geese and bulls and elephants bobbing and waddling and running and swaying. Look down quickly, into your bowl and you’ll see all the flowers and animals inside, inside your bowl of gruel. Look up again—they will be back on the ceiling. My Teacher noticed me looking up and down. Up and down. He said I should not be distracted by transient pleasures. So I stopped.
  I should not lie. I do it slowly. But then I can’t see lotuses floating in my
bowl of gruel. It happens only when you are fast. In a flash. Suddenly you
see white lotuses within the palm of your hand.

Excerpted with permission from Clone by Priya Sarukkai Chabria, published by Zubaan Publishers, New Delhi, 2019.

Elsewhere in this issue A book review of Clone by Suneetha Balakrishnan

Priya Sarukkai Chabria is an award winning translator, poet and writer acclaimed for her radical literary aesthetics. Her books include speculative fiction, literary non-fiction, two poetry collections, a novel and translations from Classical Tamil of the mystic Andal’s songs. Awarded for her Outstanding Contribution to Literature by the Indian government, she has attended prestigious writers’ residencies and presented her work worldwide; it’s widely anthologised. She edited possibly the largest archive of Indian Anglophone poetry Talking Poetry (India) and now edits Poetry at Sangam. http://poetry.sangamhouse.org. Another version of her speculative fiction novel titled Clone is forthcoming with Zubaan, New Delhi in 2018 and University of Chicago Press, 2019; the French translation by Editions Banyan is scheduled for 2019. Also forthcoming in 2018 (Ed.) Fafnir’s Heart World Poetry in Translation with Bombaykala Books. She’s translating sacred songs from Old Tamil. www.priyawriting.com