The self-renewing labyrinth

stairsThe other day, as I was simplifying some code I have written, I had a ‘realization’ about the nature of living.

(One might say that I have these too frequently. I suspect that psychedelics are partly to blame.)

It is tricky to articulate the realization, so it may be fun to try.

For my graduate school research, I have been building a sizable, complex software system with several interlinked modules, and am frequently confused by it myself as I improve or debug it. The other day, I noticed a minor aspect that could be simplified. But as I was about to do so, a small, annoying thought lingered for a moment: the simpler way seems obvious, so why had I written the more complex version in the first place? I suspected that I may have unwittingly complicated this aspect of the system while simplifying a different one.

Doesn’t that mean that my current ‘simplification’ project could again unknowingly complicate some other aspect of the code that is outside my present focus? Will this game continue forever, as I keep only solving problems in the code every day, yet unfathomably the behemoth persists, sprouting new complexities and problems every time one is struck down?

Where is the source of this dilemma? Well, let’s consider the feeling of gratification that arises when you solve a problem. Like many others, I look to this sense as a measure of progress, a reward for effort and time spent well. But is this feeling always a reliable indicator for true progress? I must have got the feeling even when a solution I just implemented produced a new unseen issue beyond my field of attention. As soon as a system is so complex that all of its parts and relations, causes and effects cannot be held in the mind at once, such lapses would invariably begin to occur. If a software system of a handful of interlinked programs is complex enough to delude true progress, what about more complex systems such as the economy, society, environment, with their innumerable interacting parts and participating agents with independent choices? This is a recipe for an endless self-renewing labyrinth, constantly feeding its captives a false sense of absolute progress towards a single simplest end.

I can’t claim to have really read Nietzsche, but he spoke of eternal recurrence. What if this sense of moving forward in life, of evolution, improvement, progress, is an illusion? What if it is an endless circle? We consider ourselves to be far more advanced than primitive societies. We have civilization, technology, medicine, civil rights and social justice, an increasingly interconnected global nervous system of information and economy. Every generation finds absolute ills with the previous, and strives to change the world to remedy them. There is a vision of utopia that the human enterprise is purportedly inching, sometimes bounding toward. At this rate, we ought to be many degrees more fulfilled than our primitive ancestors.

Are we? I profess to deeply doubt this commonly accepted notion of advancement through the eons. Haven’t we heard time and again that science, technology, religion and law have created as many problems as they have solved? We live physically in an increasingly polluted world amid an excess of material possessions, while struggling mentally with an excess of shallow, impulsive culture. The problem of too little has been solved with a device of too much. Like the shark that needs to keep swimming to breathe, our society needs to produce and consume at ever-escalating rates to keep up with its own needs. Yes, we are measurably better in terms of what we care about measuring today, such as GDP. But haven’t we lost sight of certain other measures that were abundantly clear to simpler societies, such as happiness, rest and communion with nature, and been silently regressing along those dimensions?

No, my realization at my work desk was not that a return to a simpler society of sustenance economy would solve the issues I am talking about. Nor even was it a bulletproof prescription that we consider a wider, global view of any system before we attempt to improve it, and all will be well. My intuition was much more dire: that such absolute progress is fundamentally impossible in this world. Life is a self-renewing labyrinth in its very nature, beyond our power and control. Like the endlessly ascending Escher’s stairs or the endlessly rising Shepard’s tone, it readily provides an obvious sense of relative advancement, while in the global picture shrouded from our finite eyes, nothing ever gets anywhere. Life deludes us with the illusion of unidirectional progress, while cycling and resetting all the time.

But this realization is equally liberating when we see that so it must be. When we see war, poverty and environmental destruction, we ascribe it so often to the intention of corrupt, malicious people, and this idea of absolute evil is born. Is it not more plausible that they, too, were only trying to solve some other relative, finite problem in their time? Indeed, how could life be so limitlessly varied across vast stretches of space, eons of geological time, and the ceaseless struggle and drama of different peoples, if it does not endlessly renew itself, and transmute its good into its evil? I find it difficult to believe in a story of the world that is marching along a finite linear trajectory from its beginning to an ultimate equilibrium. Instead, not only do I increasingly believe that this game is perpetually regenerating, but feel quite content to play it, to participate in its dopamine hits of illusory success and failure, its apparent purpose and meaning, its ever-shifting good and evil. Let me end then by asking you what Nietzsche asked: if life only goes through eternal recurrence, how would you like to play?

ভুলের মাশুল

[বাবার লেখা সত্যি ঘটনা ]

“ট্রেনের ধাক্কায় মৃত এক পরিবারের ছয় জন” — বড় বড় হরফে সংবাদ শিরোনাম (আনন্দবাজার পত্রিকা, ৮ই আগস্ট, ২০১৫)।

বিস্তারিত খবর পড়ে জানলাম মালদহের হরিশ্চন্দ্রপুরের কাছে এক গ্রামে আত্মীয়ের বাড়িতে বেড়াতে আসে বিহারের এক পরিবার। দুর্ঘটনার দিন তাঁরা সবাই যাচ্ছিলেন রেল লাইনের অপর পাশে অন্য এক আত্মীয়ের বাড়ি। রেলগেট থাকা সত্বেও সেখানে লাইন পার না হয়ে রেল লাইন বরাবর হাঁটছিলেন তিন মহিলা, প্রত্যেকের কোলে শিশু; ও এক বালক। সামনেই খাল — সেই খানে রেল লাইনের নীচে পাতা আছে লোহার পাত। তার দুই পাশ ফাঁকা। সেই পাতটির উপর দিয়ে খাল পার হওয়ার সময়ে পিছন থেকে চলে আসে এন জে পি – হাওড়া শতাব্দী এক্সপ্রেস। ট্রেনের ধাক্কায় তিন মহিলা, প্রত্যেকে কোলে শিশুসহ, ছিটকে পড়েন খালের জলে এবং ঘটনাস্থলেই মারা যান ছয়জনই। শুধু বালকটি বিপদ বুঝে খালের জলে ঝাঁপ দিয়ে আত্মরক্ষা করেছে।
খবরটা আমার এক ভয়ংকর স্মৃতিকে আবারও জীবন্ত করে তুললো আর সেই সঙ্গেই এক হিম শীতল রক্তের স্রোত এত বছর পরেও নিজের শিরদাঁড়ায় অনুভব করলাম। এমন শোচনীয় মৃত্যু তো আমার আর ভূপীর জীবণেও আসতে পারতো!

বছরটা ১৯৮৭-৮৮, সে বছর উত্তরবঙ্গে জলপাইগুড়ি জেলায় তোর্ষা আর সঙ্কোশ নদীর অববাহিকা অঞ্চলে জয়ন্তী-কামাক্ষ্যাগুড়ি এলাকাতে ভূ-তাত্বিক মানচিত্রণের কাজ করতে গিয়েছি। সঙ্গী অনুজপ্রতিম ভূপী। দুইটি জিপ, চালকদ্বয়ের নাম তালুকদারবাবু ও চক্রবর্তীবাবু। কাজের সুবিধার জন্য উত্তরাংশের কাজ করি জয়ন্তীতে থেকে, আর দক্ষিণ অংশে কাজ করি কামাক্ষ্যাগুড়িতে থেকে। চালক তালুকদারবাবুর থেকে কাজের ব্যাপারে যে সহযোগিতা পাই অপর চালক চক্রবর্তীবাবুর কাছে তার ছিটেফোঁটাও পাই না। বাধ্য হয়েই প্রতিদিন ভূপীর সঙ্গে আলোচনা করে কাজের এলাকা এবং গন্তব্যপথ এমন ভাবে পরিকল্পনা করতে হয় যাতে দূরবর্তী এলাকায় তালুকদারবাবুকে নেওয়া যায় আর নিকটবর্তী এলাকায় চক্রবর্তীবাবু।

সেই দিন পরিকল্পনা হলো কামাক্ষ্যাগুড়ি ক্যাম্প থেকে রওনা দিয়ে রায়ডাক নদীর উপর যানবাহন চলাচলের ব্রীজ পার হয়ে নদীর অপর পাড়ে গাড়ি ও চালক ছেড়ে দেব। চালক নির্দিষ্ট সময়ে রায়ডাক নদীর উপর যেখানে রেল সেতু পার হচ্ছে সেখানে আমাদের জন্য অপেক্ষা করবেন। আমরা পায়ে হেঁটেই দিনভর নদীর অপর পাড়ে কাজ করব। তালুকদারবাবুর গাড়ি নেওয়া হলো।

ভূপীকে নিয়ে দিনভর বিস্তীর্ণ এলাকা চষে বেড়িয়েছি। দিন শেষে ক্লান্ত শরীরে হাজির হলাম রায়ডাক নদীর উপর রেলসেতুর প্রান্তে। এখানে নদী বেশ চওড়া এবং সেতুর অনেক নীচ দিয়ে বইছে। ভূপী আর আমি রেলসেতুতে উঠেছি। আপ-ডাউন লাইনের পার্শ্ববর্তী অংশ এবং মাঝ বরাবর পুরু ইস্পাতের পাত। আমরা সেই পাত বরাবর হেঁটে চলেছি।

কিছুদূর চলবার পর দেখতে পেলাম ঐ পুরু ইস্পাতের চাদরও ক্ষয়ে গিয়ে জায়গায় জায়গায় গহ্বর, আর মরচে ধরা দুর্বল অংশ। পাতে গহ্বরের মধ্য দিয়ে দেখা যাচ্ছে অনেকটা নীচে বহমান রায়ডাক। বেখেয়ালে পাতের দুর্বল অংশে পা দিলেই সটান নদীর জলে পড়ব। অতি সন্তর্পনে চলতে হচ্ছে। ধীরে ধীরে মনকে এক ভয় গ্রাস করছে। পায়ের নীচে গহ্বর দিয়ে নদীর বহমান জল দেখেই মনে সৃষ্টি হচ্ছে বিভ্রম — সেতুটা যেন তীব্রগতিতে এক দিকে সরে যাচ্ছে, নদীর জল স্থির। সেতুর স্বাস্থ্যের হাল হকিকত না জেনেই পার হওয়ার সিদ্ধান্ত নেওয়া যে কত বড় ভুল হয়েছে তা হাড়ে হাড়ে উপলব্ধি করছি। ভয় আমাদের এমনভাবে গ্রাস করলো যে এক সময় সোজা দাঁড়িয়ে হাঁটবার অবস্থাও চলে গেল। রীতিমত চার হাত পায়ে হামাগুড়ি দিতে লাগলাম। অনেক চেষ্টায় সেতুর মাঝ বরাবর পৌছলাম।

এমন অবস্থায় ভূপী হঠাৎ পাতের উপর এক মৃদু স্পন্দন অনুভব করলো। দু’জনেই মুখ চাওয়াচায়ি করছি কারণ বুঝতে। সামনে যতদূর চোখ যায় সেখানে এমন স্পন্দনের কোন কারণ দেখলাম না। শুধু দেখলাম সেতুর শেষ এখনও বেশ কিছু দূরে।

“বিশুদা পিছনে দেখুন” — ভূপীর আতঙ্কিত কন্ঠস্বর শুনতে পেলাম। দূরে যেখানে সব লাইন এক বিন্দুতে মিলেছে সেখানে দেখলাম আমাদের মৃত্যুদূত। সেতুর উপরে দুইজন অসহায় একে অন্যের মুখের দিকে চেয়ে রয়েছি, বহু নীচে রায়ডাকের জল। সাঁতারও জানি না। নিশ্চিত মৃত্যুর জন্য অপেক্ষা করা ছাড়া গত্যন্তর নেই। ইঞ্জিনের হুইশেল শুনলাম। সারা শরীর অবশ, মনে হচ্ছে জ্ঞান হারাবো। ইঞ্জিন আরও কাছে আসতে বোঝা গেল ভূপী যে লাইন ধরে চলছে বিপদ সে লাইনেই। আমি চিৎকার করে ওকে বললাম আমার দিকে চলে আসতে। এতটুকু সময় নষ্ট না করে ভূপী আমার কাছে সরে আসলো। এবার মৃত্যুদূতকে আরও কাছে দেখতে পেলাম- রেক ছাড়া একাকী ইন্জ্ঞিন। দুটো দেহকে টুকরো টুকরো করে নদীর জলে ফেলে দিতে সে একাই যথেষ্ট। সেতুর এ পারে রেলিঙের যত কাছাকাছি যাওয়া সম্ভব সেখানে একে অপরকে আঁকড়ে ধরে রইলাম। ভয়ার্ত চোখে দেখলাম দানবটা সেতু কাঁপিয়ে চলে যাচ্ছে, আর চালক তীব্র ভর্ৎসনার দৃষ্টি দিয়ে আমাদের দিকে তাকিয়ে। বেঁচে থাকবার আনন্দে একে অন্যকে জড়িয়ে ধরেছি।

চকিতে সম্বিৎ ফিরলো — আর একটুও দেরী নয় — এখনই সেতুর অপর পাড়ে পৌছতে হবে। মনের সমস্ত জোর একত্রিত করে সেই ভাঙাচোরা ইস্পাতের পাত, রেলের লাইন, কাঠের স্লিপার যেখানে যেমন পেলাম তার উপর দিয়ে প্রায় দৌড়েই রেলসেতুর অপর দিকে পৌছলাম। এতক্ষণে বিশ্বাস হলো এ যাত্রা আমরা বেঁচে ফিরেছি!

সামান্য দূরে গাছের ছাওয়ায় গাড়িতে তালুকদারবাবু নিদ্রামগ্ন।

ভুল পথে হেঁটে ঐ বিহারী পরিবারকে চরম মাশুল দিতে হয়েছে; একই অপরাধে আমরা বেঁচে ফিরেছি, অভিজ্ঞতালব্ধ জ্ঞান সকলকে ভাগ করে দিচ্ছি।

The Answer

On X2 Prime, or X2603-A115 as it was referred to in the old databases of the Federation, it was always night. A slowly spinning skyful of stars shone tirelessly down on the barren landscape. The atmosphere was thin and dry, posing little obstruction to the cold, relentless starlight raining down from the great galactic bands stretching across the sky. Yet, it was never quite bright enough. The rugged, rocky terrain, mostly flat except for scattered low ridges rising to a few hundred meters, stretched to the horizon under a dim grey half-light, before giving itself up to the waiting darkness. Visibility was limited to about a mile, beyond which only the pale faces of distant dunes and highlands could be made out with difficulty. Even nearby, the starlit ground lacked clarity and detail, cloaked as though in a ghostly grey film. After some acclimatization, you could see better if you focused, and so walk around without great difficulty. However, if you were to shift your gaze, the landscape would dissolve suddenly into a blur, a ghostly haze. One thus got the unsettling feeling that this eerily quiet world deliberately withheld information, giving it out only as it chose in short, scattered bursts, remaining always unyielding and incomplete. X2 Prime was a world of emptiness bathed by the stars, desolate, yet somehow conscious. It was like being inside someone else’s dim, shadowy dream.

Lying on its side on this rough featureless terrain was something that did not belong to this world, a visitor that ought to have left this primeval, silent land long ago. It was a small cylindrical object about the size of a bus, whose pockmarked metal exterior shone in the starlight only slightly brighter than the ground. Through a clutter of double-glass portholes on its body the interior appeared dark. However, if on a sudden whim you were to crawl in through one of those openings, navigate the maze of cooling lines and squirm through a tiny access hatch to which all the wires led, you would reach the control room. Here a jumble of electronic equipment sat in disarray around a dark chamber, emitting feeble sounds and small, faint lights. Their tiny glow barely lit up a small part of the cramped chamber, as it did the tired, ancient face of Lincoln Selvo, poring over the little light, twiddling the machines here and there as the night wore on.

Lincoln was one of the last troopers of the Echo generation to leave Earth in search of habitable planetary systems. The state of his own planet had begun to succumb to complete political disarray half a century earlier, arising out of an escalating scarcity of land and resources, skyrocketing inequality, and consequent violence and upheavals. From this global chaos that spanned war-torn decades rose the Alliance, an improbable, tenuous coalition of the remaining governments, in a last desperate effort to unite all of humanity’s resources to formulate the survival of the species.

Foremost among the decisions reached in the long-drawn political debates at the Alliance parliament was to colonize other planetary systems that could support carbon-based life. Half a decade later, the Federation for Space Exploration was formed with hard-bargained funds funneled in from around the world, in order to develop the necessary technology and prepare troopers for exploratory missions. These soldiers, recruited initially from the Alliance army and air forces, received intensive, specialized training to handle years of solo flight and address all the varieties of situations that might arise in unassisted intergalactic travel. They were conditioned over years to blunt down their need for emotional support, their longing for community, friendship, family and contact with other people. At the end of their long, grueling program, the troopers would emerge almost sub-human, barely fit to blend into society, but perfect machines for the dangerous solo voyages they had been chosen for.

Only a decade into its formation, the Federation launched its first generation of troopers, among much celebration and optimism around the world. Every human being around the planet, across borders, cultures and political affiliation, was united in their desperate prayers for a successful expedition. The troopers were to travel to planetary systems that had been shortlisted by scientists at the Alliance labs. They would land if possible, carry out detailed measurements of the atmospheric and terrestrial conditions, and transmit back their reports. After completing a list of assignments on site, they were to return to earth with samples for a more comprehensive assay. However, time was of the essence, so the compact apparatus packed into each trooper ship was sophisticated enough to sufficiently gauge the fitness of a planet for human survival.

Following the launch, people the world over waited with bated breath for the first results to start pouring in. The nearest of the clusters that ships had been sent to would require only some years for any news to arrive. The situation on Earth, however was growing too politically volatile for the Alliance to wait that long before deciding their next step. To increase their odds, they needed to keep sending more troops every year to new star clusters, until news arrived of a propitious find. Entire floors of scientists and technicians at the central labs stayed busy analyzing light from the distant galaxies to decide which star systems held the most promise for human settlements. After the first generation of troopers had been sent off to the most promising destinations, the Federation turned to the next clusters in the list. This is how it had to happen, to save time, resources, and in the long run, the species. No stones could be left unturned.

Five years into the exploration, a grim cloud had gathered over the Alliance, with no positive results yet reported from the troopers. The global temperature had risen by another degree, half the coastal cities were flooded, and a great portion of the human population had been turned into migrant refugees. It was then, at the time of drawing up the Generation Echo destinations, that the small, fairly unremarkable planet X2603-A115, X2 Prime for short, entered the databases of the Federation. The spectroscopic signature had revealed nitrogen, silicon, some hydrogen and oxygen, and a lot of sulphur. This was hopelessly insufficient information on which to send a human on a potentially hazardous journey. But in the circumstances this sufficed for the Federation heads, who were now growing ever more desperate with every passing month.

Lincoln grew up in a modest household, dazzled by the Federation Space Trooper banners that promised a place of eternal honour and glory among the stars. At the age of 23, he found himself among the fifth fleet of space troopers, strapped into a tiny uncomfortable cockpit, waving goodbye through a misty porthole to his planet, headed for an unknown world which was little more to him than an alphanumeric code in a database.

Lincoln spent close to a decade in cryogenic near-suspension in a small spaceship hurtling at almost half the speed of light along a computer-charted course. The ship sailed through the Oort cloud, past Proxima Centauri and on towards a small system of planets, one of which was X2 Prime.

A month away from the cluster the computer woke him. Now that he was close, he had to re-examine the light spectrum, estimate the surface temperature, and evaluate whether the ground was solid enough to land. After an analysis he found almost nothing that held any new promise. The light signature was not remarkably different from his 10-year old data, the surface was about as warm and solid as the records indicated, only that hydrogen levels seemed to have dipped a bit.

Lincoln couldn’t call the Federation, of course. Any communication from this far would require almost a decade for a round trip, so there was no scope of requesting advice or directions. Weighing all the facts that he had at his disposal, Lincoln decided to land.

What he didn’t know yet is that it had started raining on X2 Prime. Active volcanoes near the equator were the source of the sulphurous gases in the atmosphere, and a combination of the planet’s rotation and tilt brought great clouds of them drifting towards the poles once every eight or nine years, where it would rain toxic sulphur acid for days across the great plains, transforming the surface of the planet into a deadly but beautiful dreamscape. And it was on just such a day, when the great northern stretches were being bathed by torrents of the venomous rain, that Lincoln’s small ship entered the atmosphere.

As the scarred surface of the planet came into view of his porthole, Lincoln realized that it was raining. He knew in all probability what it was that was raining. The exterior of the ship had some resistance against this sulphur acid, but in conjunction with the heat of atmospheric entry, the vital thrusters and sensing apparatus attached to the exterior would not be able to fend against this caustic liquid for long.

It was not yet too late for Lincoln to turn back. He could still power the rockets into a concentrated boost and safely skim off the atmosphere and out of bounds of the planet’s gravity.

Watching grimly the treacherous landscape unfolding below him and starting to feel the uneasy tumult of conflict arising within, Lincoln drew a deep breath and reminded himself calmly of his purpose. He hadn’t come all this way for nothing. He thought of the people who had sent him here, of how the last bit of Earth’s dwindling resources had been pulled from hungry mouths and begging palms to build this elite group of galactic explorers. He held a responsibility. It was through the decisions of people like him that the living might keep alight their existence in the unforgiving universe. He was a trooper. Not everyone could be a trooper.

Lincoln turned on the extra heat shields, switched off the autopilot and maneuvered the nose of his ship towards the surface.

Approximately ten minutes after entry, the primordial silence of X2 Prime was broken by a blunt, shining block of metal that ploughed through the twisting clouds and landed near a huge sulphur lake eight kilometers from the pole.


For days the sulphur ate slowly into the thick outer shields of the ship as the rain kept pouring interminably over the mute, lifeless plains. Lincoln powered down most of the equipment and kept himself busy in repair, maintenance, and sending more data to the Federation. He knew that it was of utmost importance that he stay alive at this time. But for that he had to find water. The ship was stacked with condensed synthetic chemicals which when combined with water could provide tasteless but essential nutrition to one person for essentially a lifetime. But water itself was too heavy as payload, and there was only a small stock onboard. Lincoln had to get out, and for that the rain had to stop.

And after some weeks it did, as it always had on X2 Prime. The lake dried slowly over days as the parched land soaked in the venomous liquid. A few days after the last of the puddles had disappeared, Lincoln finally stepped out of the ship in his protective suit.

He looked around for the first time now at the alien landscape. The rain-scarred highlands around the ship looked silently back at him. The clouds were gone, and starlight bathed again the tortured ground from which sulphur vapour still rose in heady fumes. Contrary to all appearances, however, the planet looked more promising to Lincoln than he had anticipated. The ground was solid and dry, the terrain was mostly flat, and other than the sulphur the atmosphere was devoid of dangerous gases.

Lincoln’s first task, according to his manual, was to examine his ship. On the first day he checked the photo cells that covered every imaginable square inch on the surface of the ship. All were badly damaged by the rain, but would probably survive a trip back home. On the second day he looked at the thrusters. They appeared fine on the whole, except one. A thruster at the bottom that had been under a sulphur puddle looked doubtful, but it was only required for a brief period during re-entry on autopilot, and Lincoln knew enough flying to handle that stretch on manual.

The next day he looked at the portholes and seals on the exterior that could have been damaged during entry. He found one that had been badly cracked from the landing. He ran some tests to gauge how much leakage it allowed. Barely any, but he calculated that at this rate he would lose all cabin pressure in approximately six years. It wasn’t a problem if he stayed on the planet as he only had to use mild pressure inside his suit to breathe, but the journey back would require the functioning of multiple equipment that needed cabin pressure for much longer. There was no repair he could attempt with his limited machinery that could seal the window against the vicious vacuum of space. This problem meant on its face, no matter which way he thought of it, that he wasn’t looking at going back home on his own.

At that moment, deep inside him, much deeper than his tough space trooper shell, an ominous dread began to settle on Lincoln’s heart.

He radioed to earth a short note about the situation, asking for a pick-up ship. It was the instruction. Article 5 of the Operation Handbook, titled Emergency Escort. Lincoln stared at the little writing in the handbook on his screen for a long time. Do not shift base. Leave radio beacon on. Continue assignment. Wait for rescue vehicle. It seemed so innocuous and routine when he read that. Help was coming. There was no issue here.


The next day Lincoln made an exploratory trip to collect samples of dirt and rock, which is all that the planet offered him off its lifeless surface. He returned and updated his spectroscopic data with the sample and sent them to earth. The soil showed signs of water, as had been expected from the initial analysis in the Alliance laboratories. But he needed water sources that were uncontaminated by the rain, so he would have to go farther.

As soon as he could put together some hiking gear from the stores of his ship, Lincoln set out on a longer expedition to look for caverns of sulphur-free water where the rain couldn’t penetrate. With a few days of scouting he found one twenty kilometers from his landing site. There were traces of sulphur in it, but with some basic purifying procedures that he could manage with the equipment in his ship, it was fit to drink.

Having solved this big hurdle, Lincoln felt himself filling with renewed hope and confidence. Not only was his own survival ensured, the planet could now be deemed fit for colonization. Perhaps, at this moment, he was holding the future of his entire species in his hands. He immediately sent a detailed and excited report of his new finding back to the Federation.

Buoyed by his new optimism, Lincoln moved to the next step in the instruction, to look for small silicon-based life forms. This kept him busy for a few months. He analyzed hundreds of soil and water samples from different regions, but found nothing. There was no trace of what could be counted as life by any stretch of definition. Perhaps this was because of the dryness of the soil. Or the acidity or thinness of the atmosphere. There must be some reason why life of any manner could not flourish on this planet. Or maybe he was wrong. Perhaps the conditions were always optimal, only that no life had ever got started by the fortuitous accident like it had happened on earth. Lincoln, with his soldier’s training, was not qualified to know.

There were forty-three instructions in the manual on operations required to be completed after landing. Lincoln was no scientist. These decisions were not his to make. He trusted the scientists who had made the list. But inside him a small voice would sometimes begin to speak of despair. This planet met some of the requirements, but failed in some other aspects that he could see even with his limited knowledge. What would possibly grow in this arid land? How would humans feed off this lifeless ground? Wasn’t the atmosphere too thin to breathe? And what about the sulphur rain? Lincoln would forcibly suppress the questions crowding his mind as he went on to the next instruction in the manual.

The last of his instructions was completed in four years. The time had arrived to go back home, except there was no way to. In these four years Lincoln had trekked so far as the equator of the planet. Everywhere he went had presented him with the same tired sight of dust, rocks and low ridges. The monotony of the terrain was almost deliberate, he would often feel. There was nothing to find, nothing to explore, nothing more to document. Everything had been analyzed, recorded, and sent back.

But the bit of information that he could never send as a trooper was what used to trouble him the most.

Lincoln missed everything. He missed earth, memories of which were slowly fading. He had almost forgotten daylight and sunsets, beaches, and how girls looked. His voice grew hoarse from lack of speaking. It sounded strange when he tried, so he stopped trying. He missed people and music and colours. But curiously, what he missed most about earth, he discovered, was rain.

When he was a kid, Lincoln loved to play a little game in his head whenever it would rain at night. He was a little embarrassed about it, and would run to a corner of the backyard patch where nobody could catch him playing. Here an old light by the garden shed lit up the wind-scattered raindrops against the dark night. Lincoln would stand under the light and look straight up at the raindrops falling from the sky. As the sparkling beads of water flew in towards him and broke over his face, he imagined himself to be at the helm of his planet, a majestic earth ship, sailing through a great dust cloud in space. The drops of water hitting him and the ground all around were a million specks of magical dust hanging motionless in space as the earth sailed silently through them. He was the captain of this ship, the only man on earth who knew the real story behind the rain. Lincoln found an inexplicable comfort in carrying himself away in this imagination, often drenching himself through for hours.

Now that he had been in a real spaceship through clouds of dust in the lonely blackness of space, the one thing Lincoln strangely found himself longing for, more than anything else, was rain. More than people or music or talking or daylight, he wished for the rain of the earth. And trapped for years in a metallic suit pressurized with dank, cold air, he was slowly forgetting what that was like too.

The only company of a man alone on a forgotten planet is quiet despair, and it was this, that in the third month into his fifth year, made Lincoln start sending radio messages to other directions than earth. It had been four years and a month. It would take more than three years before he would receive any Alliance response to his earliest transmissions from the planet. He hoped at least that someone else might be out there. Another trooper, a machine, perhaps a different species. How would it hurt to try?

He would sit for hours in front of blinking lights in his small dark coop, waiting for an answer. When his eyes got tired and his head grew numb from watching the tiny unchanging display, he would go outside and lie on the ground, gazing up at the canopy of stars above him spinning through the unending night, thinking of what his life had become. Sometimes he would read through the dry, voluminous technical manuals of the ship’s equipment to pass the ocean of motionless time. He would move around the ship, poking into its machinery, reading the labels on the control panels and porthole glasses, gazing for long at the names of the places where they had been made. There was no relevance of these words to this soulless, alien world; no trace of the society that had produced these machines was to be found in this dark, desolate land. These little labels and pieces of inert technology were his only thread to what he called home light years away, uncaring, oblivious. Slowly, pressing against his steely resolve, the cold, dimly lit walls of the ship would start closing in on him, and he would have to shut his eyes and scream inside his head to drive the thoughts away. Sometimes, on the bad days when it proved too difficult to keep the voices at bay, he would break the troopers’ protocol and cry inside his visor.

A year later, Lincoln tried turning on the cryogenics in his ship again. He knew he should save it for emergencies. But he wasn’t working on a plan. He was past the time of plans and ideas. He wanted to do it because he couldn’t bear staying awake anymore and listening to the constant buzz of emptiness inside his head as it echoed around his skull.

It didn’t work. Staying in an underpressured environment for years, much of the equipment had become dysfunctional. A lot of the cooling liquid had evaporated. There were no tools to attempt a repair. Vexed and dejected, Lincoln dropped the idea and returned to his cycle of staying alive and sleeping through the endless shadowy nights.

Three more years passed before the sulphur clouds arrived to cover the plains and it started to rain again. By this time Lincoln was aged far beyond his body. He barely moved out of his ship. He would sit in an unmoving stupor for days in his dark control room, staring at the flickering lights, sending radio signals every few hours, once in this direction, then another, sometimes towards earth, in an unthinking mechanical sweep of his fingers. He ate and slept in that position. His muscles had become terribly weak from his fixed posture and he could barely stand himself on his legs now. Any movement he made was after careful planning and deliberation in his head. It was far simpler to just keep on being. He couldn’t hear himself thinking in any particular language any more; it was always a tangle of thoughts that could not be told apart from each other, as if in the middle of a dream. Sometimes he could not tell what state of existence he was in: awake, asleep, or dead. He had lost almost all sense of identity: he didn’t know any longer who exactly he was or what it meant to be him as opposed to someone else, or not at all. The concept of other persons was now a vague notion. The spaceship was disintegrating around him from the sulphur in the atmosphere. With this rain, it had started getting worse.

It was one rainy night in the middle of this suffocating cycle of despair and hopelessness, eight years and two months after his landing, that as Lincoln sat in his tiny control chamber twiddling the displays, a small light started blinking in his machines.

Lincoln watched without the power to think as the light blinked on. This was not noise. This was a gradually revealing pattern, a signal.

Someone, or something, was sending information to the lone inhabitant of X2 Prime after a silence of almost a decade.

Lincoln’s heart was thumping wildly in his ears as the first stretch of the code ended and the chamber was immersed in darkness. As he stared at where the light had been blinking, he could scarcely summon the courage to believe what was now increasingly apparent in the emerging pattern. That this was, in fact, familiar code. Some long-dormant part of his near-comatose mind recalled what had been drilled into memory eons ago: Code zero of the Federation space troopers’ handbook, signaling the start of a message.

Lincoln felt himself waking slowly from a deep coma. Gradually the sound of the rain against the ship’s walls swelled until it was deafening.

With great difficulty, he managed to raise a shaking finger and press a button to start recording the signal. He was still powerless to think, and acted out of mechanical impulse. It was all happening too suddenly for his shocked and dazed mind to process.

The starting code repeated itself ten times, as was the standard. Lincoln was trembling and sweating uncontrollably now. An intense physical pain of tense anticipation started wrapping around his lungs and pushing into his throat. His entire life was arriving unbearably at its climax before his eyes.

Don’t mess this up, somewhere inside his head a little voice said. Lincoln clutched his chest against the rising pain and doggedly kept his eyes on the display.

The content of the message started. First was the broadcast origin. Lincoln read in his mind as the light blinked away before him:

Federation for Space Exploration, Alliance East, Earth.

Then a short break, followed by the intended recipient: Lincoln Selvo, Federation Space Trooper Echo to Proxima Centauri Sector A115. He had these codes engraved into his head.

Lincoln stole a quick glance through a porthole at the grey rain outside and found himself thinking: They are sending a ship. I have to survive for some more years. No, wait, they would have started long ago. It shouldn’t be much longer now.

And then, helplessly, his mind was suffused with images of his planet. A hero’s welcome. A sea of people around the pad where the return vehicle touches down. The flash of a thousand cameras, people trying to push through the security, his face on giant holograms doing rounds around the landing stage. Someone hands him a champagne bottle. So many things must have changed about the planet, and the people.

Lincoln turned back towards the machine where the light had begun to blink again. This was a brief code to indicate that the message would shortly start.

There was another short break before the body of the message began.

Lincoln found he had no need for a machine to translate the code. He could read it straight off the screen. It felt like an eternity to him as the tiny light blinked away in the dark room in its programmed dance, although the message lasted only a few minutes. This was followed by the stopping code, and then darkness.

Lincoln stopped the recording and sat in the dark for a long time. He didn’t know how long it was. It may have been minutes or hours. He found himself hopelessly incapable of processing the entire ramification of the message at one go. Just to give himself something to do, he slowly opened up a screen with the recorded signal and the code interpreter. He checked if he had understood the message correctly. He had. He checked again. There was no question about its meaning whatsoever. The dispatch was short and clear, and there wasn’t any room for interpretation.

Lincoln turned off the screens and sat in the dark chamber as the noise of the rain battering against the sides of the ship slowly filled his head to become an incessant drone.

No matter how many times he checked, Lincoln knew that the message would remain the same. There was no way to change it any more. The glowing letters on the screen spelled out in terse Federation format:

This is a recorded message. All Alliance operations have moved permanently to the new colony. Resources are insufficient to rescue troopers or accommodate returning ones. Thank you for your sacrifice.

That was it. Unanswerable, unmistakable, final.

Lincoln could feel only through his dazed trance that this was not a dream, that he was not imagining this through a confused, half-asleep delusion. But beyond that, he didn’t know what would be an appropriate emotion for him to feel at this point.

He sat in silence for some more time, thinking of Earth. So they had finally found a colony? Had earth been completely abandoned? Why did they leave the machines behind?

Lincoln sat in an uncomprehending daze for what seemed like a long time. Then, through the confused chaos of the delirium inside his head, he began to picture the rain in his backyard garden. There was no way that he could drench himself any more in that magical space dust like he once used to, years ago in a different world. There was to be no waiting any more for that, or for anything else. The message had arrived. There would be no help. This was it. There was nothing left in this story, except a long-drawn anticlimax of waiting in quiet despair inside a cold, unfeeling suit until time runs out. This story had ended.

Lincoln looked out of the porthole again. The stars were hardly visible through the great swirling sulphur cloud above. Grey sheets of the caustic liquid fell vertically through the windless atmosphere, beating mercilessly against the mute ground. Small puddles were already forming from which fumes rose in the air. Magic space dust, the words echoed around his skull.

Slowly, through the pain and the throbbing noise in his head, Lincoln felt an ancient knot release somewhere deep inside, as the tension of years of weighting began to let him go. The climax of his life had passed, and his verdict had been pronounced. There was nothing to hope for any more, nothing to work towards. He was now free.

For the first time, Lincoln did not send a dutiful message of his next operation to earth as he slowly took off his suit with his weakened arms and stepped out of the ship to embrace the magical space dust.

বাঘের ঘরে হাতির বাসা

[বাবার লেখা সত্যি ঘটনা ]

সে বছর ফিল্ড ছিল ভূটানের পাদদেশে উত্তরবঙ্গের জয়ন্তী এলাকায়। জয়ন্তী নামটি ভ্রমণপিপাসু বাঙালীর কাছে অতি পরিচিত। এলাকাটি বক্সা ব্যাঘ্র প্রকল্পের অন্তর্গত। কাজ করতে গিয়ে তেনার দেখা না পেলেও সক্কাল সক্কাল চরণচিহ্ন দেখেছি পাহাড়ী ঝোরার ভিজে বালিতে। ভোরবেলায় সামান্য বৃষ্টি থামবার পর কাজ শুরু করেছিলাম। জিপ ছেড়ে দিয়ে পাহাড়ী ঝোরার খাত বরাবর পাহাড়ের উপর দিকে উঠছি। হঠাৎ ফিল্ড কুলি ছেলেটি পিছন থেকে জামা টেনে ধরলো। ওর দিকে ফিরে তাকাতে আমার পায়ের কাছেই বালির উপর দেখতে ইশারা করলো। স্পষ্ট থাবার ছাপ। ভোরের বৃষ্টিফোঁটার ছাপের উপর থাবার ছাপ। অর্থাৎ টাটকা। ছেলেটি মন দিয়ে দেখে মন্তব্য করলো বাঘ উপর থেকে নীচের দিকে গিয়েছে। আমরা বাঘ এড়াতে দ্রুত নীচ থেকে উপরের দিকে উঠে এলাম।

তা আমার কাহিনী কিন্তু বাঘের নয় — হাতির। রাজাভাতখাওয়া ছেড়ে উত্তরদিকে জয়ন্তী পৌছতে যেতে হবে দমনপুর জঙ্গল এলাকার বুক চিরে। এ জঙ্গল যেন হাতির চারণক্ষেত্র। ব্যাঘ্র প্রকল্প হলেও হাতিই বড় বিপদ।

সে বছর আমার ডিরেক্টর সেন সাহেব ঠিক করলেন পশ্চিমবঙ্গের ভূ-তাত্বিক চরিত্রের একটা সামগ্রিক ধারনা তৈরী হওয়ার লক্ষ্যে দক্ষিণবঙ্গ এবং উত্তরবঙ্গ দুই এলাকার ভূ-তাত্বিকদের একত্রিত ফিল্ড করা হবে। উত্তরবঙ্গে আমার সহকর্মী ছিল দেহরাদুনের ছেলে ভূপেন্দ্র সিং, আদরে বা সংক্ষেপে ভূপী। দক্ষিণবঙ্গ ঘুরে সবাই এবার উত্তরবঙ্গে। আমি আর ভূপী আমাদের কাজের এলাকা দেখাব।

একটিমাত্র জিপে আমরা সবাই আরোহী। সামনে চালকের পাশের আসনে সেন সাহেব বসেছেন। আমরা বাকি সবাই জিপের পিছনের সিটে। সকলের চতুর্দিক দেখবার সুবিধার জন্য গাড়ির ক্যানভাস হুড খুলে রাখা হয়েছে। জিপের চালক তালুকদারবাবু। গাড়ির সাইলেন্সারে সামান্য আওয়াজ ছাড়া বাকি সব কিছু ঠিকঠাকই চলছে। সময় পেলে সাইলেন্সারটাও ঝালিয়ে নেব।

ভূপী আর আমি সকাল থেকেই ঘুরে ঘুরে আমাদের কাজ দেখিয়েছি। এবার আমাদের ক্যাম্পের কাছাকাছি এসেছি। এখন গন্তব্য সেই রাজাভাতখাওয়া-জয়ন্তীর পাকা রাস্তা দিয়ে জয়ন্তীর বেশ কিছু আগে ডান হাতের একটা ফায়ার লাইন ধরে জয়ন্তী নদী (দাবানলে জঙ্গলের ক্ষতি কমাতে লম্বা লাইন বরাবর গাছ কেটে সাফ করা হয়, আগুনের বিস্তার নিয়ন্ত্রিত করতে — সেই হচ্ছে ফায়ার লাইন)। পাকা রাস্তা ছেড়ে ফায়ার লাইন ধরেছি — ৪-৫ কিলোমিটার দূরেই জয়ন্তী নদী। জঙ্গলের মধ্যে গাছের ফাঁকফোঁকর দিয়ে জায়গায় জায়গায় রোদ এসে পড়েছে। একটা আলোছায়া ভাব।

হঠাৎ ভূপী আমাকে সতর্ক করলো — ও দূরে কালচে রঙের কিছু নড়তে দেখেছে। ফায়ার লাইনের ধারের দিকে। তালুকদারবাবুকে গাড়ি থামাতে বলা হলো। সবাই খুব ভালো করে নজর করলাম বেশ কিছু সময় নিয়ে। সবাই বললো ভূপীর দৃষ্টিভ্রম। গাড়ি আবার সামনের দিকে চলতে শুরু করলো। কিছুদূর যেতে না যেতেই এবার আমার যেন সন্দেহ হলো ডানদিকের জঙ্গল যেখানে ফায়ার লাইনের কাছে শেষ হচ্ছে সেখানে কিছু একটা নড়াচড়া করেছে। আবারও গাড়ি থামিয়ে দেওয়া হলো। আবারও সবাই মন দিয়ে নজর করলাম। কিছুই দেখতে পেলাম না। তবে, এবার নিছক দৃষ্টিভ্রম ধরে না নিয়ে স্থির করা হলো আমরা জিপের মুখ পিছনের দিকে করে ব্যাক গিয়ার দিয়ে জয়ন্তী নদীর দিকে যাব (কলকাতার বাসে কন্ডাক্টরের প্রচলিত নির্দেশ — পিছনের দিকে এগিয়ে যান — মনে করে দেখুন)। বিপদ আসলেই যাতে দ্রুত জঙ্গলের বাইরে পালাতে পারি। এই ভাবে সন্দেহজনক জায়গার দিকে অনেকটা এগিয়ে গিয়েও কোনরকম জনপ্রাণীর দেখা পাওয়া গেল না। তাই আবার গাড়ির ফ্রন্ট গিয়ার, এবং অচিরেই আমরা গন্তব্যে — জয়ন্তী নদীর পার।

একটা ছোট কুটীর মতন, সেখানে বনবিভাগের এক কর্মী থাকে। আশেপাশে কিছু চাষ-আবাদের চেষ্টা। তবে হাতির উপদ্রবে ফসল খুব সামান্যই জোটে। গোদা গোদা পায়ের ছাপ, আর স্তূপাকার বিষ্ঠা ইতস্ততঃ ছড়ানো। সেখানে বেশ খানিক ভূ-তত্বচর্চার পর ফিরতি যাত্রা। একমাত্র পথ সেই ফায়ার লাইন।

দিনের কাজ শেষে ক্যাম্পের পথে। দূর থেকে দেখলাম আমাদের পথের আড়াআড়ি একটা গাছের ডাল পড়ে রয়েছে। জঙ্গলে এক টুকরো গাছের ডাল থাকলে কীই বা অবাক হওয়ার আছে? কিন্তু প্রশ্ন হচ্ছে, কে ফেলেছে? আমরা ফিরবার রাস্তায় কোনো লোকজনকে যেতে দেখি নি। ভাবতে ভাবতেই সামনের আসন থেকে হঠাৎ সেন সাহেবের চিৎকার — হাতি! একই সঙ্গে তালুকদারবাবুর তৎপরতায় জিপের গতি জাতীয় সড়কে গতির কাছাকাছি। উনি জিপটাকে যথাসম্ভব ডানদিকে নিয়ে গাছের ডালটা এড়িয়ে গিয়েই আবার নিজস্ব পথে গাড়িকে আনলেন। গাড়িতে একটা প্রবল ঝাঁকুনি। আমি জিপের পিছন থেকে দেখতে পেলাম বামদিকের জঙ্গল ফুঁড়ে এক হাতি শূঁড়টাকে সোজা মাথার উপর তুলে মুখে বিকট এক চিৎকার দিয়ে গাড়ির উপর আছড়ে পড়তে চাইছে। প্রথম মূহুর্তে যেন একটা ধূলোর কুন্ডলী হাতিকে ঘিরে। ওর ওজন এবং গতির কারণে নিজেকে সামলাতে না পেরে ফায়ার লাইনের বামদিক থেকে লাইন অতিক্রম করে ডানদিকে গেল। তারপর আবারও ফিরে এসে জিপের পিছনে তাড়া করতে লাগলো। অভিজ্ঞ তালুকদারবাবু ততক্ষণে নিরাপদ দূরত্বে গাড়ি নিয়ে গিয়েছেন। হাতিও একসময় দৌড় বন্ধ করলো। হাতি দৃষ্টির বাইরে যাওয়ায় তালুকদারবাবুকে জিপের গতি কমাতে বলা হলো — ঐখানে ঐ অবস্থায় জিপ বিগড়ালে আরও বিপদ।
পাকা রাস্তায় পৌছে জিপের মুখ — না ক্যাম্পের দিকে নয়, আলিপুরদুয়ারের দিকে। সাইলেন্সারটা ঝালাই করতেই হবে।

Worrying about it

I think I remember that when I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, there was a story in it of the alchemist, who only wanted to make gold. A great sage told him that he would succeed with his ingredients, if only he added one more: unshakable confidence that he would be successful.

I may have just found the lesson that is common to insomnia, sex drive, and the above story:

‘Worrying about it doesn’t help.’