io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “Tongue” by Ashok K. Banker. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
Namaste, helloji, please to come in. First time visit, so nice you came. Thank you for removing gravity shoes. Please be comfortable, no formality. It is like your home only. What for I can get you? Mineral tea? Carbon Filter coffee? Gel Cola? If it is not in our supply ration, we can send Senthil to fetch from company concessionary on main asteroid. Senthil is our homebot, see, he is understanding our language fully now. Beginning time he was little confuse. Now he is fully understand. You are sure? Okay, ji. Senthil, get for guests three Mineral Tea, extra sweet, Indian chai style. Also some biscoot. What you call them? Cookie. Some cookie. Sweet ones with cream or jelly in middle, like cookie sandwich? Same one, exactly. Good boy, go quickly, come quickly, fly safe.
Yes, ji. He will come very soon.
How are you finding our house? He gave you directions, no? He gives perfect directions. Third asteroid, then twenty fourth vector, then . . . Ah, that is best way. Directly store in Nav-system, shuttle brings you here. Sometimes people get confuse. So many asteroids, no? Many families from India Earth here. This full colony mostly come from India Earth only. We first to come, settle, set up ecosystem, geo habitats, build infrastructure. India Earth people expert in going first to new places. He says lovely joke, I say, “You go to any planet in settled universe, you land, first thing they ask you when you come out: ‘What caste, sirji?’” Because India Earth people always sensitive about caste, no? Good joke, yes? I tell you, He is superb with the jokes.
Yes, yes, of course, ji, please to ask any question. No shyness. Why formality? It is your house only, ji. Ask anything.
Yes, I understand fully.
Logical question you are asking.
About my appearance.
You want to know how come I look like this.
I will answer but I am not so good at speaking so please to excuse my poor elocution.
You see, it all was started when I was nine years old, living in Chennai, India Earth. Maybe you are calling it Madras, ji? Same place.
I was nine when flower of my womanhood bloomed. You understand, ji? She understands, yes, ji, I became woman at age nine.
In our culture, when woman blooms with red flower, she is ready to make marriage. Because red flower means she can carry the pregnancy, so if she can be mother, she can be wife. My culture people are very anxious that once girl becomes marriageable age, she must be married soon. Otherwise, if she goes astray while single girl, then her life is fully ruined. You tell me, which decent gentleman family wants single girl whose reputation spoiled? Naturally. My family wants marry me into good family.
Now, you know how situation is in India Earth. Fourteen billion population, all caste problem, religious problem, the genome riot-wars, America Great Corporation using corporate military to do hostile takeovers of countries, Islamic Eco Terrorism, it is very bad state of affairs. My family very particular about caste, family, tradition.
Putting advertisements in all ’Streems online. Even off-world ’Streems. I am taking dancing lessons, hire saree consultants, poise, etiquette, English-speaking, all possible prep classes for becoming presentable bride. My father spend lot of money getting top Tollywood director to make ad commercial showing me dancing Bharat Natyam, singing Carnatic classical music, posing in saree, playing with children, cooking traditional food items, serving, cleaning, showing all my homely talents . . . Ad runs on all major India Earth and off-world marriage network ’Streems. Almost one full year pass. I am becoming almost ten years old. Mother crying daily, worried I will become old spinster living alone, unmarried, no children, life ruined. I also crying. Aunts and grandmother reading horoscopes, consulting pundits, trying to find what is wrong with me that good husband is not wanting.
Finally, when they are starting to give up hope, a proposal comes.
Ah, here is tea. Please to have while it is hot. It is to your satisfaction? Thank you! My duty is to serve, ji. Please have biscoot. I mean, cookie. Have cookie.
Where was I? Ah. He sends proposal.
He is widow living and working alone here on this same Asteroid #3 in Mineral Belt. Young man, only twenty-nine years. Good family background, caste and gotra matching, horoscope, everything, all matching. It is perfect.
Best of all, no dowry.
That is my father getting so impressed. See? In this ’Streem vid? Please touch it, expand size, view at leisure. See how happy my father looks. Never looks so happy in his life.
Dowry is big thing in our caste. All boys want dowry. Big dowry. For old girl like I am, almost ten years old, they ask huge dowry. But He says, no dowry. I take her as she is.
My family shocked. Then happy. Then celebrating.
Naturally, they say yes.
Marriage is arranged quickly. Lovely ceremony. I am prepared, anointed, dressed, jewelled, given away by my father to Him. Mother crying so much at time of parting, it is traditional for mothers to cry. I tell her don’t worry, maa, I am only half system away. You can reach in less than one light year travel by shuttle. I will come visit when He grants permission. Still she cries because she is so happy I found such a good match.
Married life is so good. He is so good. I cook, clean, maintain His mineralizer equipment, pay colony tax, do all chores required. I give Him no reason to be unsatisfied. Sometimes, I make mistakes, naturally He hit me few times. I am deserving to be hit. Wife’s job is to do what husband says when He says, however He says to do. I should not talk back. I talk back to Him, He hits me. I make food not hot enough, He hits me. I make food too hot, He hits. He is very good man. Only hits when absolutely necessary. We are very happy together. Married bliss. So beautiful. Like in Tollywood films, hero and heroine sing songs compose by A.I. Rahman, dance and make happy together.
Then comes hard times. Difficult patch. Not His fault. No, ji. He is very good worker. Only sometimes He is drinking too much alcohogel and not working for some days, or going to hunt asteroid dingos with other friends, or to Moon Reservation Casino for some downtime. Downtime is important for men. They are working hard all the time, they deserve to spend their hard earned money on Downtime also, no? I don’t know exactly what this is, this Downtime but men have to do it, ji. It is necessary evil, He says. Wife’s job to support and obey. I tell Him, go do Downtime, I will manage.
But when difficult patch comes, we are not even managing to get food to eat. Mineral vein runs out. Equipment old and always breaking down. New arrivals mostly America Great Again corporates, they always trying to be making trouble for India Earth colonists, telling us You Bloody Brown Buggers, you F-O to your own planet, why come here and take our jobs? Harder and harder to get mineralizer work, even for few days at a time. He drinks more, does more Downtime, beats me more, but nothing works.
Finally, I tell Him, take my valuables and sell.
He say, How can I take your things and sell? This is your legacy, from your father and mother. How can I take?
I tell Him, good India Earth wife lives to serve husband. Whatever is mine is yours. Whatever is yours is also yours. That is law of Manu since ancient time.
Take it, I tell Him, take my valuables and sell.
Finally, after much arguing, He agrees.
He sells some valuables from me.
Only minor items.
Kidney. Spleen. One lung. Forearm. Partial thigh.
Here, ji, have some more biscoot. I mean, cookie. Have more cookie. You like the jelly cookie? It is my favorite. Naturally, I cannot eat now, but when I had mouth and digestive system, I used to love jelly cookie. Please have more, no formality, it is your home only. Senthil, keep serving our guests.
Where I was talking? Ah yes. Hard times.
We manage for some while. Things are happy again. He drinking less. Doing less Downtime. He even buys new shuttle to go hunting with friends in asteroid belt. I tell Him, you go, have fun, I take care of home, I call you if any new Claims open. He goes with Sondra. She is also Mineralizer like Himself. Good friend. Very pretty woman. Good figure. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Still single because who will marry woman over twenty who is working such job? Poor thing. I feel bad for Her. I tell Him, spend time with her, she has no husband, poor thing. He goes with Sondra, takes care of her, poor dear.
Finally, new Claims open. I call Him. He comes soon as possible—-after wrapping up hunting trip and saying bye to Sondra—-and goes to work again.
Work is going good for some time.
Then another bad patch.
He sells some more of my valuables.
Another kidney. Another lung. Rest of arm. Full leg. Liver.
One time, Sondra needs some cosmetic work done. Implants in chest? I don’t know what it means, but she does not have medical insurance because America Great Insurance say being alive is pre-existing condition, so I feel bad for her. I tell him, we should help her, poor single woman.
I sell half of large intestine.
Like that it goes on for some time. That is marriage, no? Adjusting to life. Everyone goes through such ups and downs, it is part of life, ji.
More tea? Cookie?
Well, ji, that is the story of our marriage. Nothing unusual. India Earth arrange marriage stories all similar, no, ji? See? You are also smiling. Arre! Why are you crying now? Oh, you are crying for happiness. Yes, yes, of course. We are so lucky, to find good caste husbands and be married gentleladies. So many India Earth girls are spoiled by love marriage, all kinds of scandal. It is horrible to even see them on the ’Streems. Good material for the twenty-four/seven Soap feeds, but who wants to live life like that! Inter-caste marriage, girls wearing jean, working, drinking Alcohogel in public, eating non-vegetarian, chee chee chee. Disgusting. Sometimes, He watches such shows. I tell Him, put it off, I don’t want to see such cheap women doing cheap things. What if our daughter sees? It will spoil her morals.
Yes, ji. This is our daughter. We had her through artificial surrogacy. Because I am not able to carry to term. Womb, all related organs were sold for buying new Mineralizer He required for work. She is bred on farm but we have raised her since past eight years; I have taught her all our traditions, culture, religious rituals, prayers, cooking, everything. She is pitpat perfect. She even looks like me so much, I can tell you it is looking like my ’Streem vid from when I was also her age, nine years old. But with all her valuables intact.
Her name is Devi. Like my grandmother. It means Goddess, you know, ji.
My face? It was also sold, ji, along with the rest of my valuables. I made the choice, because in any case I was requiring this capsule to maintain my brain and heart in permanent life support. That is when we found Senthil in junkyard, He repaired him; He is so expert in repairing, reprogrammed Senthil to do all housework. I have trained him everything, even looking after Devi. He dresses her as per my instructions, shows her how to cook, everything just like me. When Senthil picks her up, it is like I am only picking her up. Hugging. Kissing. I feel like I am only picking up my daughter in my arms, holding her to my chest, kissing her with my lips. It is same thing, sir. Technology is so good, no? Miracle of men’s genius.
You take your time, ji. Make Devi dance. Make Devi sing. Make Devi show you how she drapes saree, cooks, speaks in our native language, does prayers, rituals . . . She is perfectly trained like good India Earth wife. Ready to serve for life.
Did I tell you all her valuables are intact?
And no dowry. He is insisting, He does not believe men should take dowry from girl’s family. He is strong believer in women’s rights. He is God only, ji. All husband is God to India Earth wife, no?
You are liking Devi? I think she will make perfect wife for your Krishnan. How old is Krishnan, don’t mind my asking? Thirty-four? Ah, it is perfect match. He is thirty-four, she is nine. Man should always be little older than wife. Because men need to be mature, to control wife, guide her in life’s journey.
Those vids on that screen? Oh, those are His previous wives. Yes, He was marry before me. Three times. That is why He is so good husband, He is experience.
What happen to them? Nothing happen, ji. They sell off their valuables also, to help with hard patches. Help him buy Claim, have Downtime. I include them in my prayers daily. They serve Him well. But finally all valuables finish, that time He not be able to afford Gel Capsule for full life support. So He have to let them go . . .
You understand letting go? Yes, ji. It is part of life. Wives come, wives go. But husbands have to live long and prosper. We live to serve.
Excuse me. I am speaking too much. It happens when I am very excite. Please don’t tell Him. He will be home very soon. He had to stop and visit with his old friends at nearby Bar-saloon. Coming any time now. Don’t tell Him I say all silly things. He will get angry and tell me, Revathi, you don’t know when to shut up. Now keep quiet, woman, or I will sell your tongue, then only we will have peace in this house.
You like Devi? Oh, ji. What are you saying? I am so happy! Over the many moons with joyful! You are making fine decision. Your Krishnan and my Devi will make good match. Perfect match. It will be lovely marriage. Full traditional India Earth style.
We will call my family also. I have not seen my mother, father, and family in almost nine years, since I am married and coming here at age ten. I am almost twenty years old now, I don’t know how they will recognize me. But my mother will know. She will see my tongue and know me. This is my original tongue, only valuable I have left now. Rest is all artificial life support. Mother will see my tongue and recognize me. Mothers always recognize.
One day, our Devi will also be happy and married and in your house on Planet #7, and I will come visit her for her daughter’s marriage also, with husband’s permission of course. Always with husband’s permission and blessing. We live to serve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashok K. Banker is the pioneer of the speculative fiction genre in India. His ground-breaking internationally acclaimed eight-book Ramayana Series was the first trilogy and series ever published in India. It revolutionized Indian publishing, creating a genre which is now the biggest selling in the country. Ashok’s 52 books have all been bestsellers in India, as well as translated into 18 languages and sold in 58 countries. He has also been credited as the author of the first Indian science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, and thriller stories and novels in English, creator and screenwriter of the first Indian TV series in English, the first Indian ebooks in English and other firsts. He is one of only a handful of living Indian authors represented in The Picador Book of New Indian Writing and the Vintage Anthology of Modern Indian Literature. Two new novels are due out in 2018: Upon a Burning Throne (John Joseph Adams Books) and Rise as One (Delacorte). He is of Irish-Portuguese-Sri Lankan-Indian parentage. Born in Mumbai where he lived for 51 years, he now lives in Los Angeles.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the August 2017 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Maurice Broaddus, Ken Scholes, Susan Palwick, Seanan McGuire, Carrie Vaughn, Bruce McAllister, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.