T he tuktuk driver spits a small fiery globule out of the side of his mouth. It spins as it flies, striated by angular momentum, and burns a hole in the street, burrowing instantly into the asphalt. I crane my neck outside the vehicle as the tiny, bubbling crater recedes into the distance, watching the curl of smoke until I have to duck back inside to avoid decapitation. Traffic is so loud we can only speak by shouting, but I still think I can hear the fireball hissing. And then gone, lost beneath and behind in the past, heading for the Mohorovičić discontinuity while the street moves on.
The tuktuk driver’s name is Piter, according to the worn label on the back of his seat. Piter is telling me a story about digging a hole to hell, which is also the story of his life, and I am trying to explain to him why his life is meaningless, while he does the same to me. We are locked in ideological struggle, because ideology is ontology and we cannot live in each other’s worlds. I can’t remember how long we’ve been arguing.
“In 1989, I was a student in Russia, interning at the Kola Superdeep Borehole project,” Piter says. All his stories start like this in the deeps of his past, beneath the crust of the mundane. “I was there when they dug the deepest, the day they decided to stop. Do you know why they stopped, brother?”
When I speak to him I address myself to the back of his head, a great dome imperfectly covered in oily curls; his scalp is unnaturally pale in contrast with his umber skin. He, meanwhile, does not catch my eye in the rearview mirrors but speaks to my disembodied voice as if I were a bourgeois ghost and not quite human, bruised and embodied on the rattling back seat of his deathtrap. Like every passenger he has ever driven, I have placed myself at serious risk of injury or death. He owes me a life, whether he takes mine or not. This is why I am compelled to undo his narrative.
“Snopes dot com,” I say, in triumph. “They say they dug a well to hell and heard the howling of the damned. It was a hoax.” I wave my phone at him where I have the page open.
He glances backwards, so quick I see no pupils, only a slice of his mad yellow sclera. “Who are you going to believe, the internet or an eyewitness? Anyway, that’s not the story.” Piter is always interrupting his own stories, shifting his weight like a boxer when I punch a hole in his defense. “I heard the other day that Putin is starting the project up again. They will open up the hole and send soldiers through. The Russians intend to capture a piece of hell.”
“Which hell?” I ask. I have long since lost count of such things. We learned the superstitions of our ancestors in school, handled safely with thick gloves and goggles, sanitized by Mahavamsa and Marx alike. “There are at least nine hells.”
“Twenty-one,” he says, disapproving. “Or twenty-eight. Pick your purana.”
“Which so?” I concede the point quickly. Never argue the Vedas with a Marxist. “Which one did you find?”
“The one under Russia, obviously,” Piter says, “I am not interested in sophistry.” This is the kind of thing Piter says when he engages in the rankest sophistry. “Soon people will be able to, literally, go to hell. Hell will become a territory that can be contested. Colonized.”
The tuktuk swerves alarmingly, bumping against a passing car and scraping its side. The noise is like something dying, and I smell paint and gasoline. Piter swears, and the car’s driver gives him the finger. We don’t stop. Nobody ever stops. Piter even speeds up a little.
A tuktuk is open on both sides, not aerodynamic. The wind tunnels directly into me in the backseat, the focus of all the drag, as if our headlong rush is actually an attempt to erode me away. The wind is hot and dry, a sirocco formed in concrete canyons blistering in the sun. My face feels dusty and abraded, the skin dry and hot. I am forgetting the story of my life.
Along with Piter’s name, the label on the back of his seat has a hotline number for complaints. AM I DRIVING SAFELY? it asks, disingenuously. I tell him I’m contemplating calling, and also that hell is not real. But this is a weak rejoinder.
“You don’t have a scientific mind,” Piter scoffs, deservingly contemptuous. “All territories are stories told by Empire. Otherwise a place is just stones and trees.”
“Our ancestors once worshipped stones and trees,” I say, automatically as if it were catechism. In a way it is, the catechism of curated history. This is what we are taught as children: in ancient days, our ancestors worshipped stones and trees, serpents and demons, before Buddha came. Then for a while they worshipped Buddha. Then Empire came, and for a while they worshipped Empire as well. Then came Nation, the horse-headed twins Marx and Market, and so many others, so many warring, swiving gods that heaven is crowded and our sins flow, uncountable like water. This is why our hells are so many they must be numbered: to follow any law we break many others. We exist only in violation, always on the cusp of being unmade. A new regime, a new revolution, a new philosophy, a new definition of what it means to exist: we might become hyperreal, like Piter, or almost unreal, like me. Argument is life, definition is survival.
He does not, Piter hastens to add, support Putin’s imperial ambitions. He merely sees them as an inevitable part of history’s machinations. “Empire is the means,” Piter says, “By which ontologically suspect entities, like Lanka or Russia or Hell, are transformed into territory. All the worlds are void and without form, until Empire moves over them.”
I am about to speak when Piter sticks his own head out of the tuktuk, looking back the way we came. His hands are steady, and the vehicle does not waver at first—but my heart does, and my counterargument is lost on my tongue. It tastes like salt. All I can wonder is whether his name is an error, a typo for “Peter,” and whether it looks the same on his birth certificate. That’s the hand of Empire, right there, the idea that his very name could be an error made real, so perhaps it makes sense that he thinks so much of it. How well both forms of the name suit him, though, their chthonic solidity, the suggestion of magma beneath his crust!
The vehicle begins to tilt alarmingly while Piter holds his pose, still looking backward while we speed up. I’m breathing fast but shallow. I don’t want to seem like I’m panicking, because that’s a cheap way to lose an argument. I try to think slow thoughts not of collision at high speed, not of dying in mangled metal.
“What are you looking at?” I snap, finally. “How do you claim to know what Putin intends to do? Gods as witness, will you watch the ro—” And the rest of my words are lost in the roar of a truck overtaking us. I startle, jerking away and clutching at the sides of the vehicle. The smog of its exhaust in my face makes me cough.
“A snail crossing the street,” Piter says, facing forward calmly as if he had only been waiting for me to ask. He corrects the subtle drift of the vehicle out of our lane, away from certain death back into mere probability. “But too late, a car already has crushed it.”
“Why, you wanted to help it across?” I’m almost laughing in relief, but only almost. I must put as much scorn in my voice as possible. Piter has his entire vehicle and our deadly, unending motion to use as part of his argument. I have only voice and words. I have to remind myself that I can still feel my extremities, that I am flesh and blood. Without argument I am fading. In Piter’s world, I am not sure I exist. He wants to make me a ghost, one way or the other. Not a kin-demon or a hungry ghost or a dispossessed lumpenproletarian, but that bourgeois ghost with clanking imperial chains.
“It was an opportunity to do good,” Piter says. He sounds bitter at having missed it. I am piecing together his hierarchy of gods. Buddha over Marx, Empire as the mother of Nation, above them all the need to assert definition on the world. Call it Law, or Dharma: this last is the only way in which we are the same.
“Snails are stupid,” I say. At this he lapses into sullen silence, and I rejoice. But the argument is not yet settled in favour of his dharma or mine: the world is still in flux. Somewhere a little fireball, digging a hole deep into the earth; on the sea of magma under crust, continents in slow imperial drift. The ghosts of the chains growing heavier on my wrists, while my bones grow light and feverish.
“There are at least twenty-two hells,” I tell him. I’m dug in too deep now, too close to the magma. “Or twenty-nine, pick your purana. I mean, there is one more than they say.”
Piter twists his head completely around to look at me, swiveling like an owl. I fight the urge to scream at him again for not watching the road while driving. Instead I try to brace my feet more firmly against the floor, though I cannot get purchase. He doesn’t say anything for a long moment, during which time my heart stutters and speeds. I can’t meet his ember eyes because I can see the cars and buses and trucks in front of us swerving away to avoid an accident, the bleating horns growing frantic. I flinch at every scream of tearing metal. Piter is focused on me, and we’re moving faster than ever. My vision is narrowing to a tunnel focused on the inside of Piter’s mouth when he speaks, which is a hot, glowing red.
“What makes you think this world is a hell?” Piter says, finally. He does not seem angry, only interested.
“Because the snail,” I say. We’ve drifted into the wrong lane and I’ve given up on even the pretense of calm, both arms extended to grasp the frame of the tuktuk. “We are meat for the grinder in this world.” But Piter does not seem convinced. Theodicy means nothing to him because Buddha taught him that he deserved it.
“Because we’re not special,” I say. Behind Piter, a car turns too sharply to avoid us and crashes into a motorcyclist, who flips and arcs across my field of vision. I can’t see him land, but even over the din I think I hear the crunch.”In all the worlds, why should we be special?” I say. “There are more hells than heavens. The definition of a hell is pain. Are we not in pain? If they in heaven cracked the sky and listened to us screaming, wouldn’t they call us the howling damned?”
And Piter finally laughs, turning to face forward again. My grip on the vehicle tightens, and I feel solidity in my bones. The ghosts of chains grow fainter, though they will never fade.
“That’s true,” he says, weaving between two buses that scrape the vehicle on both sides, metal screeching so long and loud that I hold my breath until it’s over. When we come out alive on the other side, I lean out the side and spit a fireball so spherical, so perfect, that it could have been a sun.
|Vajra Chandrasekera lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and on Twitter as @_vajra. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Static, Lackington’s and Lightspeed, among others. You can find more work by him at vajra.me.