Greetings from Kampala
By Angela Ambroz
12 January 2009
Ghada picked up her pencil and wrote, "They are all fuckers."
No. Doctor Rai said she shouldn't write statements like that, she had to write feelings. The category was called Feelings, after all. So she clicked the pencil once, pushing lead through the little hole (just like the Drops pushed steel through human bodies; splat), and wrote, squishing it in the margin, "IfeelthatThey are all fuckers."
When Doctor Rai picked up Ghada's half-completed Thought Log, he pursed his lips and sighed. Ghada pulled a tiramisu beedi out of her pack and gave him a look—can I smoke?—before lighting up. Then she sat back and waited. Curls of chocolatey smoke rose before her. Doctor Rai fingered the pad, looking distant. His eyelids drooped.
"Tired?" she asked.
"I am," Doctor Rai said. "Do you want to know why?"
"I've had a very long day."
"No shit." Ghada exhaled a cloud. "Two doctors for . . . what? Two hundred people?"
"One thousand, if you count the Chinese."
"We do. My last patient was Chinese."
Ghada didn't want to hear about this. But she knew that this was the only way to get them talking about something other than the Big Drop—that vast, empty hole in space that she had foolishly chosen to jump into, five years ago—and so she gave Doctor Rai a jerk of the head to indicate Please continue.
"He was just a boy, fifteen years old," Doctor Rai said. "He got lost somewhere in the lower levels. And some of our youths found him—kicked his head in. I just spent the last two hours rebuilding his nose and cheek."
Ghada winced. "Ouch."
"Yes. I just don't know what this ship is coming to," Doctor Rai said. He sighed and turned back to the small pad in front of him. "So. You didn't complete your homework for today, Ghada."
"Busy?" Doctor Rai asked, almost sarcastic. No one was busy on the Rahu Ketu, except for Doctor Rai, Doctor Abbas, and maybe some of the officers. Everyone else aboard—the refugees, the prisoners of war, whatever you called them—were just the ship's fat. Doing nothing, lazing around, trying to make the time pass on a ship where basic utilities were chronically depleted, but Chinese liquor came in twelve varieties.
"I didn't know what to write." Ghada shrugged.
"How many flashbacks did you have yesterday?"
"Three. No, four. Are we counting non-trauma stuff?"
"Meaning, you know . . . flashbacks of stuff that should be happy."
"Are you happy when you relive it?"
"Then that counts as a flashback and I want to hear about it."
"So how many, then?"
"Well, still only four, I guess."
"Only four? You know, Ghada beti, some would consider that four too many."
"You don't have any at all, ever?" Ghada asked, annoyed.
"My limit is two per week. If I get more, I start doing work on myself."
"Fine, well, maybe it's easier for you. I got writer's block."
Doctor Rai guffawed. "Four flashbacks and you couldn't think of a single thing to write?"
"Exactly." That was a lie. Ghada could think of a few things. She could write about the way the stars dripped from the night skies on foreign planets, about the way her stomach was pulled into her legs when the little ship shot up into the sky and dragged her into darkness. She could write about the Horsehead Nebula. She could write about what it felt like when a panic attack hit—when every nerve in her body came alive, glowing with fear. It was all very clichéd, and she was tired of being frightened and angry. She just wanted to move on, get over it. And yet here she was, with her brain and her gut stuck down the Big Drop, refusing to budge.
"Things won't change if you don't implement the skills I teach you in here," Doctor Rai said. "And that means doing your homework."
Ghada said nothing.
"Ji? You know, I don't think my Hindustani's up to this. What did you just say?"
"That," Doctor Rai said shortly, "is an avoidance technique. You can understand me perfectly well. And you have barely a trace of your charming accent. Face it: you're not putting in the work to feel better."
Ghada bristled. She would not concede to tough love wrapped up in cuteness. Or cuteness wrapped up in tough love, whatever. Bastard.
"You know why you come here, yes?" Doctor Rai asked.
"Obviously," Doctor Rai repeated. "You come here because you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—"
"Fuck 'disorder,' ji! I don't see how my reaction is anything but normal."
"Fair point. We're just calling it a 'disorder' by convention, for now," Doctor Rai said, calmly, "or we can call it the 'shakes,' colloquially, if that suits you better."
"No. That is an equally unsatisfactory term," Ghada said, even though she was, admittedly, shaking a little.
"My dear. You've been aboard for almost five weeks now, and Doctor Abbas and myself have been working with you for—four? And yet you tell me that you still get attacks when you're in the lifts, or in the crowds downstairs. Though I don't know what these attacks are about because—again—you refuse to do your homework and write it all down for me."
Ghada stared at her beedi pack; they had printed a little cartoon of the original, Earthly Taj Mahal on the cover. She felt the eyes of the camera on her; Doctor Abbas would be watching the tape later. The two doctors wanted to give Ghada a daily session, but neither of them had time in their schedules to fit it in every day, so they alternated, keeping themselves up to date with recordings. Ghada preferred Doctor Abbas. Maybe it was Doctor Abbas's maternal vibes (though that stank of sexist avoidance of Doctor Rai) or maybe it was Doctor Abbas's no-nonsense business style. Doctor Rai, on the other hand, sometimes looked like he could use some cognitive behavioral therapy himself. Ghada wondered about his two-flashbacks-per-week rule.
"Bhaiyya, you look seriously tired. Is Doctor Abbas around?"
Doctor Rai just sighed.
"Fine, theek hai," Ghada said, pissed off. "I'll fucking tell you about yesterday and then you can tell me how to do one of these logs properly."
The first two flashbacks happened because of the usual problem: crowds. Crowds were not for Ghada. And crowds were everywhere aboard the Rahu Ketu. They swarmed, they choked, they mobbed. Walking down the corridor, you would brush dozens of shoulders. Often you found yourself sandwiched in a human traffic jam, full body to body contact, waiting for someone to get popped out of the mob and back into a room. The air was thick with body heat and the smell of sweat, on every floor, regardless of how many fans were spinning. Then there were other smells: the sizzling mustard seeds popping in pans near the roti stand, the steaming cups of chai rolling by on their little automated waiter-trays, beedi cigarette smoke, hookah smoke, fried dumplings. When Ghada had first come, everything was exciting and new—she could almost forget where she had been. But now—now it was just heat and skin everywhere, no privacy, and anger.
Worse still, many of the New Peshawar refugees that inhabited the Rahu Ketu's midship levels had not seen Ghada yet, though they had heard of her. On a ship where nothing much happened anymore, Ghada had become a celebrity by virtue of being a new, non-Hindustani, non-Chinese face. Ghada even suspected that a lot of these New Peshawar people, being provincial colonists, had never even seen an African face before. There was staring and talking and the same stupid questions, again and again: Are you that soldier woman? (No, I'm the Holy Virgin, come to save you.) Is it true you did the Big Drop? (No, I fell out of the sky on an angel slide.) What's Earth like? (Probably exactly like New Peshawar, if the pioneers did their job right.) Are you lonely? Where are you staying? Do all Earth people look like you?
What a sorry bunch of idiots.
Ghada sometimes—well, often—wondered why the Rahu Ketu's captain had chosen to stop on New Peshawar right before it was attacked. Talk about wrong time and place. He must have made some karmic error long ago. And then the captain had compounded his problems by taking two hundred refugees aboard—all survivors by virtue of the fact that they had been attending one of those imitation Shah Rukh Khan concerts on the lucky side of the planet, the far side, when the bombs hit—and, icing on the stupid cake, he had dropped down the wrong Drop with them. The wrong Drop! Gravitational pulls, looming enemy ships, maximum ship capacity—who randomly picks survivors and stuffs them into an old cargo ship with dwindling life support?—and who drops down a Drop they don't mean to drop into? Hell, no. It was sick. It was dangerous on such an epic level of dangerous that Ghada was awestruck by the captain's lethal levels of stupidity. If you went down the wrong Drop, the space-time anomalies could rip you apart. You could end up with your head in your stomach, in the wrong universe altogether.
Ghada heard that, afterwards, the captain had turned into a religious hermit, retreating to some anonymous corner of the lowest levels of the ship and worrying only about perfecting his Hatha yoga postures. People still went to him for advice, except now they asked him about religious things—which blue should I use when painting Lord Krishna, Captain ji? Autumnal midnight blue or summer twilight blue?
And the new captain—well, he watched Ghada have her first flashback, and he was in the second one.
Ghada had been browsing the beedi stall. She had been crouching down, sitting on her heels, picking up the beediwallah's various packs and smelling the options: Black Forest cake, mango, Tibetan butter tea, Philadelphia cheesesteak (?!), variety pack. The beediwallah tried pawning off some of his hallucinogenic cigarettes on her, the ones that were tasteless, all chemicals, but Ghada just wanted a smooth ride, nothing crazy. And then a voice beside her shoulder, in a painfully familiar London-accented Hindustani, had said:
"Arré, bhai! Give the pretty lady tiramisu flavor, compliments of the ship."
It was, of course, Asadullah Khan, the new captain of the Rahu Ketu, and Ghada's ex-boyfriend from their university days on Earth. By the tragicomic physics of Drop travel, Asadullah was now a ripe old sixty-plus. By a coincidence that was magnificent, but not altogether improbable ("There are only a few roads in space," Asadullah rightly said), Asadullah and Ghada had been reunited, awkwardly and lopsidedly, after a forty-year separation for him, a five-year separation for her. His hair was still wild and curly, but it was white now. His eyes were still kind, but everything drooped. He had white peach fuzz stubble, white chest hair poking through a disheveled uniform. Old man teeth. He was old. But he was him.
And yet he was different. He had never taken the Big Drop, but he had spent forty years puttering around the colonies via the smaller ones, and Drops were Drops, big or small. Forty years of low quality of life showed. Most notably, Ghada's former teetotaling, semi-devout Muslim boyfriend had developed something of a drinking problem. She could smell the Chinese liquor on his breath immediately.
When they straightened—Asadullah taking longer, knees cracking—he handed her the beedi pack and smiled.
"For you," he said. "You look like you could use this one."
She took the gift and said nothing.
"How are you, dear?"
People were staring. Ghada felt like her skin was on too tight.
She wanted to tell him, God, I missed you. But what she would have meant was, God, I missed the younger version of you. She wanted to tell him to leave her the fuck alone, too, but she didn't want to hurt his feelings (and yet she also did, for whatever reason). She wanted, above all, for the idiot refugees to stop staring and give her a little space. Space! That was all she needed. And that was when it hit:
She was strapped into the pilot seat of the ship's outer arm, and she could see the whirling Drop below her. Space was bending in on itself, and refracted light from stars beyond the Drop bounced through, painting a glitter veil over her windowpane. She watched as one of the first ships, an Italian-Hindustani military cruiser, let itself be pulled in by the gravitational tug of the Drop. Its engines gave the lightest of spurts, just enough to send it gliding in the direction of the abyss. Then it picked up speed, gaining more and more momentum as physics kicked in and the Drop's claws took the cruiser and swallowed it. Ghada watched the cruiser stretch, expand, and then snap back into nothing. Oh Jesus, she was thinking. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, holy Jesus, don't let me die! The probability of a successful Drop here was a sickeningly low forty-two percent. That was fifty-eight percent death, forty-two percent life. The probability of psychological trauma just from the sheer Dropness of Dropping, the unnatural wrongness of human beings bouncing around the universe, was very high. And in that moment, sitting on the edge, the fear was sweeping through Ghada's body in an acid wave from toes to intestines to neck to goosebumpy scalp.
When the fear passed, Ghada was sitting in a quiet corner of the New Peshawar tunnels aboard the Rahu Ketu. Asadullah hovered over her, looking nervous and kindly and Asadullahy. She put her head in her hands and croaked, "Oh, hell, no."
The second flashback, if you could call it that, started right then in the same hallway. Whoosh! It blew through her head with the same emotionally intense kick, even though it was, objectively speaking, not so bad. Suddenly there she was again: London, blue sky, lying in the grass of St. James's Park, trailing her fingers across the back of her boyfriend, one Asadullah Khan. Asad's hair was deep black and curly; he needed a haircut. He had kind eyes and a charming smile. It was a hot day, and he had unbuttoned his shirt, revealing dark chest hair. He was young. They were the same age.
Down the hill, a bhangra dance troupe was practicing their routine. Their colorful costumes sparkled in the sunlight. Asadullah watched them, chuckling, making soft exclamations whenever one of the dancers fell off the human pyramid. Ghada and Asad could just hear the bouncing rhythm of the song they were using for rehearsal.
"Do you know," Asadullah remarked, chewing on a flower stem, "that 'tiramisu' is Italian for 'pick-me-up'?"
"Mmm?" Ghada said, dozing.
"Aw, hell. Are you asleep?"
Doctor Rai's head had nodded forward so that he sat chin to chest. When Ghada raised her voice, he gave a snort and twitched awake. And Ghada decided she wasn't going to cut him any slack: she gave him her fierce warzone Ghada glare. Doctor Rai blushed.
"Would you like me," Ghada said, over-enunciating the Hindustani and giving him the full-on formal treatment, "to start again, Doctor ji?"
"No, no need. I was just resting my eyes. You said something about bhangra and your boyfriend?"
Where was she? Oh, yes. (Ghada pulled out another tiramisu beedi and mused.)
What was love, anyway? They had been in love long ago on the St. James's grasses and under the London sun. They had romped and enjoyed life. It had felt eternal. But after the colonies, the war, and the Big Drop—after age and alcohol—she was not so sure she could tolerate this Asadullah's presence, much less reminisce about old times together. But London was the only thing he ever wanted to talk about, and he always wanted to talk.
"Can we talk? Ya Allah, I missed you," Asadullah said softly. They had found a quiet corner of the Rahu Ketu's tunnels. "You are exactly as I remembered you."
That would be the millionth time you've said that, Ghada thought.
Someone had painted religious and film iconography all over the walls in this corner, and the red paper lanterns strewn up and down the corridor were flickering with dim life. Ghada did not look to her right, where the corridor became dark. That was a no-go zone, where the gravity had blown and only the homeless, lonely people went to drift, high on their acid beedis. Ghada had learned quickly never to go where the lights were too dim.
Asadullah's hair was backlit in a red halo. He looked concerned, and he lowered himself carefully to sit in front of her.
"I . . . you . . . ," he began. "Doctor Abbas tells me she and Doctor Rai are fixing your—unhappiness."
"That's one way of putting it," Ghada said.
"You know, I love your accent," Asadullah suddenly said with a smile.
Ghada said nothing. Asadullah sobered.
"If you need anything—anything at all—let me know. Even if you don't need anything, if you just want to . . . I don't know, talk—I'd love to talk with you, Ghada. You never reply to my calls. I don't like knowing that you suffer for . . . whatever happened. I know we can't be 'us' anymore—maybe not—accha, right, definitely not—but maybe we can be a new thing now. Maybe friends?"
"You are really messed up, you know. Is this what colonizing does to people?"
"Arré . . . ," Asadullah drawled, and Ghada's stomach flipped, because she had almost forgotten Asad's drawl. "There's no need to be cruel. I missed you. I never forgot you."
"I heard you got married."
"Yes." Asadullah looked bleak. "I did."
"Oh." Was Ghada supposed to offer her condolences now? She just stared at her knees, counting her breaths. Should she tell him that she too had seen other people since Earth? And that some of her boyfriends had also ended up splattered on the sides of various Drops? Maybe it was just like Asadullah said, maybe surviving—and their reunion—was a precious gift from Allah. It was hard to see it that way. At least, it was hard to see life aboard the Rahu Ketu as anything other than a floating prison.
After the infamous wrong Drop, the Rahu Ketu had picked up a load of Chinese refugees, and the freshly promoted Captain Asadullah Khan, in an act of magnanimity, had declared that all wars were null, all colonial politics irrelevant. According to Asadullah's tolerance, who cared if the Chinese refugees were from the so-called "enemy side"? In the great, lonely universe, they could all be brothers. And so the Rahu Ketu's already strained life support systems were further loaded with eight hundred extra people. Not everyone shared Captain Khan's humanism, and the New Peshawar refugees had pushed their Chinese brothers and sisters down into the lowest levels of the ship. A turf war had begun, and now the Chinese refugees sent formal ambassadors up to the command deck to negotiate things like space, water, air. It stressed Asadullah out, he said, because he hated the Chinese leader, Margaret, who was usually smart and sober during their meetings, making Asadullah feel incompetent and drunk. The New Peshawar refugees hated him, the Chinese hated him, he hated Margaret, Margaret hated Asadullah's junior officers (who made all the decisions, anyway), and everyone else hated everyone else. It was a vile way to travel, with bad karma oozing off the ship in a sticky goo. The fact that they were all stuck here, with the nearest Drop still eight months away, meant that people had a lot of time on their hands—a lot of time to hate. And all this resulted in a fatigued Doctor Rai, an absent Doctor Abbas, and very bad therapy for Ghada. It was all a circle, just like the yogi ex-captain said.
"What are the probs looking like on the next Drop?" Ghada asked, businesslike. She scooted away from Asadullah, felt bad, scooted back.
"Thank you for changing the subject," Asad said. He picked at a paper lantern's torn edges. "The probs are good."
"Well? What are they?"
"Good. Fine. We have nothing to worry about."
"You're not telling me the numbers. I want to know the probabilities."
"I don't want you to worry," Asadullah said.
"Not telling me is worse than telling me!" Ghada exploded. "This is just like London! You did this in London after they had drafted you!" She was crying, unexpectedly. A fury rose in her, uncontrollable. She wanted to take something, anything, and bash her brains against it, rip herself apart, destroy everything and herself most of all.
"That's one way of reacting," Doctor Rai said, interrupting.
"You're going to say—"
"—That you're overgeneralizing, yes."
"And casting blame."
"You're getting better at this, Ghada."
"Still not feeling better."
"It will come, with time."
". . ."
"What? I didn't catch that."
"Well, I said 'fucking hope so,' but I didn't want you to hear me swear."
Ghada's next two flashbacks came when she had to float through the zero-gee zone. There were several zero-gee zones on ship, and this was the largest free-floating environment aboard: the ancient, unused gymnasium. Here, amid basketball hoops and waxed linoleum, someone had turned the gravity off and it had become a sea of air, where people came to float away their problems, drinking, smoking, lazing. It was also the only way to get from level fifty to level fifty-one without using a lift, and Ghada, who was developing a phobia of lifts, escalators, and moving carpets, always chose this route instead. She swam awkwardly, arms and legs flailing, usually with the horrible fear that she would end up stuck somewhere halfway in the vast space of the gym. She wondered if anyone would come to rescue her. Probably not, she thought. She suddenly missed Asadullah, the young version, and felt angry with herself for crazying so much in front of the old version earlier.
By the bleachers, which hung by loose screws and bumped each other gently like sleeping whales, they held the weekly Sufi session. Anyone, Muslim or not, would come to sit and listen and perhaps join the whirling dervishes, as they grabbed the bleacher edges and spun themselves off, achieving states of transcendent dizziness. Ghada loved them. She and Asadullah used to go to Sufi concerts and Sufi poetry readings often in London, and she could still be moved by the simple, sublime love of their art. When she heard that the Rahu Ketu hosted this weekly session, she had felt some of the demon panic drain away. Maybe an hour per week of spinning and droning qawwali would give her inner peace. If not, at least it was fun. She could just hear them beginning: the harmonium's quivering chords, the singer's long, wailing high note. Oh, this was a good one. Ghada recognized it immediately as she floated closer.
"Yeh jo halka halka saroor hai . . . ," the singer began. This light intoxication—the qawwali went—is due to your eyes, which taught me to drink.
This was a crowd favorite, and people were already swimming forward to whirl paper notes around the singer's head, dropping them into the zero gee and creating a halo of money. Thankfully, there were only a few stares as Ghada joined them. This light intoxication, light intoxication—Ghada smiled. This was really a good one, she thought, and then her gut lurched and she was back there again:
All the panels were flashing, insistent red beep beep beep. If the ship broke down now, they would be torn apart in the atmosphere. She could feel the heat burning through the paneling already; she imagined her organs melting into soup, her eyeballs exploding. Mauro, the cute guy from the de' Medici cruiser, had said earlier pilots had blown themselves all over their cockpits if they didn't normalize their systems before entry. The Chinese were already launching their sparklers, signaling the start of the fight. There was a flash on the far edge of the planet, and Ghada thought: atomic bomb.
No, no—Ghada shook her head free. She focused on the qawwali: Your intoxicating glances made me a drunkard. What a wine! My life is your love, only. But with all this talk of drinking and love and atomic bombs, Ghada felt herself slip further back:
"I should never have taken that stupid exam." Asadullah was slurring, and his hair was dark.
"What exam?" They were in London, in their cramped apartment. Ghada was sitting in the kitchen, Asadullah was leaning against the door frame. He held a crumpled piece of paper in his hand.
"Nuclear fucking Energy! Atomic bombs!" Asadullah exclaimed. He flailed his arms. "Drop Site Engi-fucking-neering!"
"Are you . . . drunk?" Ghada said, laughing a little. Asad didn't drink. He hadn't even had a drink after the very Drop Site Engineering exam he was now complaining about.
"It's not funny, Ghada," Asadullah said. He came forward and knelt down and hugged her lap and started crying.
Alarmed, she ran her hands through his hair. "What is it? What's happened? What is it? Asad?"
He gave her the piece of paper: "The Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, Hindustan, is pleased to request the presence of Mr. Asadullah Khan at 1200 hours on the first day of Jeth, at the Wembley Barracks, London, Hindustan, for preliminary testing and possible enrolment into C-Corps (Colonial Forces, Division Vishnu, Drop Site Engineering) for the eternal glory of the Empire (Hindustan zindabad!). . . ."
"This is dated three weeks ago!" Ghada exclaimed. "You're supposed to go tomorrow!"
"I talked to them, I went there, again and again," Asadullah said, crying. "I tried everything to get out of it, but it's no fucking use, I'm going, we're fucked, Ghada, I'm so sorry. I didn't want to tell you—I didn't want you to worry—ya Allah, will you wait for me? Maybe I can take a short one and come back and you won't be so old; the Drop to Sirius and back is only about fifteen years. . . ."
"Fifteen years?! I have to wait fifteen years to see you again?!" Ghada was crying too now.
"I don't mind older women," Asadullah said, and gave a snot-filled laugh. "Please wait, Ghada, please, please, please wait for me!"
"Are you upset that the Captain sahib got married after leaving you?" Doctor Rai asked.
"What?" Ghada said, startled out of her story. "What does that have to do with anything? I mean, it was, I don't know, ten years after he was drafted, right?"
"I think so. I ask because, well . . . Ghada, you have a lot of feelings of anger and you experience many of the typical PTSD symptoms. You're not the first person that I've seen onboard who's been down the warzone Drops. And what with the New Peshawar refugees—well, you can imagine. There's been a lot of trauma."
"Good," Ghada said. "That means you've had a lot of practice with helping people like me."
"Indeed," Doctor Rai said. "But your relationship with the Captain sahib is . . . particular. And a complication. I think we should work on your feelings with respect to him, as well. Many of your flashbacks are, as you note, about him."
"You mean, we should do . . . couples counseling?" Ghada asked, appalled.
"You still consider yourselves a couple?" Doctor Rai chuckled.
"No! Well . . . no, definitely no."
Doctor Rai smiled. "Don't worry. I don't mean couples counseling. I mean only that perhaps the Captain sahib should be making some appearances on your logs as well. That is, once you choose to start writing them."
Ghada slouched in her seat. Doctor Rai rubbed his eyes, and glanced at the clock on the wall.
"I should be checking on Nose-Cheek ji again," Doctor Rai said. "Do you mind continuing tomorrow with Doctor Abbas?"
Ghada just shrugged. She had finished four of the beedis in her pack. She would need a new flavor soon.
"I'll try again with the logs," she said, feeling charitable. Today had been a pretty pointless session, but at least it had killed an hour of the day.
"Good, thank you," Doctor Rai said. "You know, I quite enjoy hearing about what Earth is like. And we have a small connection—my ancestors were from Kampala, like yours."
"No shit," Ghada said, rising. They met at the door.
"Yes shit," Doctor Rai replied. Ghada almost smiled. Maybe Doctor Rai wasn't so bad.
"I'll see you whenever, ji," Ghada said. She glanced at the camera and gave a thumbs-up. "And I'll see you tomorrow, ji."