“When mathematics fails? There’s only poetry.” A nameless man speaks these words in another woman’s dreams. Enjoyable reveries such as these are common in Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories. Published by Zubaan Publishers in India, this collection is an assemblage of short stories that sets the irreducible nature of human experience within worlds where cosmic laws and temporality work in ways yet unknown to the human race, constantly reminding us that all known perceptions of the world are but limited. In these many worlds that Singh conjures up, there are ghostly visitations and mysterious courtyards, engineers with poetic sensibilities and scientist-poets, thought-worlds and dead people sleeping in the courtyard of another’s consciousness, “impossible machines that violate the known laws of reality” and settlements that “blur the boundary between the self and the other.” There are some dilemmas too: “But how can you explain metaphors to a man with a gun?” In a befitting metaphor-drenched prose, Singh’s deft depictions of these many worlds and dilemmas surprise, chill, delight and even shock, all along showcasing the unimaginable powers of the human mind as well as the universe.
In the short story “Peripeteia,” the protagonist Sujatha is convinced that the universe is a theatre performance, a sham run by aliens. Sujatha, a scientist working on a paper on the Higgs field finds her “straightforward and eminently publishable” paper too boring. She’d much rather write a paper on, “Alien Manipulations and the Unfinished Universe.” To Sujatha (or perhaps to Vandana Singh herself), a necessary element of science is the faith that the universe is comprehensible at all. Ambiguity Machines is interspersed with the appearance of aliens but never loses sight of the deep humanity of characters who must navigate uncertain worlds, often within their own minds. In “Lifepod,” an explosion has cast people into space and they find themselves adrift in the belly of a lifepod surrounded by aliens. It is here that an unnamed character (referred to simply as The Woman), a scientist-poet whose reality “was once forged by words and mathematics,” is told by a strange man in her dreams that poetry is always there when the rigours of arithmetic fail.
For Singh, time is pliant, a malleable dimension that shapes and alters human experience. In “Fate Conspire,” the sea has come over the land and has drowned Kolkata; everything has sunk except for the skyscrapers. Gargi, a slum-dweller living in a refugee camp for those affected by the flooding, has been brought to a high-rise by scientists; her captors, she calls them. The scientists have discovered that Gargi has a special ability with The Machine, an ability that they themselves do not possess. They therefore use her to spy on the past to recover lost poetry of Wajid Ali Shah, who to Gargi is a “sad, weepy man.” Instead, Gargi finds solace in watching the Bengali housewife Rassundari; she watches her from the future, from a point in Devi’s ceiling. In the present, Gargi knows that Rassundari Devi is celebrated for her writings. Devi is, of course, the much-loved and admired writer of Amar Jiban touted as the first autobiography by an Indian woman. But in the past, the housewife’s arduous life, the insensitivities of her family, her efforts to teach herself to read and write at a time when female literacy was forbidden, moves Gargi; she wants to alleviate the housewife’s pain in some way.
Now I know that she senses something. She always looks up at me, puzzled as to how a corner of the ceiling appears to call to her. Does she hear me, or see some kind of magic? I don’t know. I keep telling her not to be afraid, that I am from the future, and that she is famous for her writing.
For Singh, time is not merely a plot device to move the narrative forward, but something that is inherently the very essence of the plot itself, for it provides the possibilities of many different pasts, presents and futures. In “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra,” a 11th century poet is recreated in the future - fifteen centuries after his death - after a woman falls in love with his writings, a compendium of folktales and legends. In such ways, Singh, through deft prose and a writing that transmits emotion and whole eras from writer to reader, makes the past linger and the future beckon; the present is there, one moment, disappears in another moment, only to merge with some other block of time. Events are all mediated by the strange unknowability of the universe and the human mind. And then there are the machines. If Gargi’s Machine took her to a pre-set time in the past, Ambiguity Machines were those that could “blur and dissolve boundaries.” In this titular story, applicants for the job of Junior Navigator at the Ministry of
Abstract Engineering have to read three short accounts of experiences of people’s circumstantial interaction with ambiguous machines; upon completion of the three accounts, they are expected to answer questions such as:
What can we make of the relationship between human and machine? If an engineer can dream a machine, can a machine dream an engineer? In the first account a Mongolian engineer is captured by an extremist group. He spends his incarceration thinking of his beloved.
If he had been an artist, he would have drawn a picture of her, but being an engineer, he turned to the lab. The laboratory was a confusion of discarded machines: pieces of machines brought from online auctions, piles antiquated vacuum tubes, tangles of wires and other variegated junk… His intent was to make a pseudo-weapon that would fool his captors into releasing him.
The second and third accounts relate to corresponding ambiguity machines and job-seekers must consider if the intelligent machine might crossover the boundaries of machine and non-machine.
The fourteen stories in the collection reimagine plausibility and recast worlds, tearing them down as we know them and rebuilding them in magical, fantastical ways that tease and question. Folklore and mythology, science and poetry, cosmic laws and religion, spaceships and aliens, all come together in this collection that, through the tender humanity of life experiences, blur the lines between the possible and the impossible. Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines is one of those rare, sublime collections that often seems to collapse the rigid discursive boundaries between the scientific and the artistic, and in doing so produces much beauty and relish.