Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Martian and the Mumbaikar

A short story by Prashant C. Trikannad

The young Martian sitting beside me in the first-class compartment of the 7.45 am Churchgate local did not look as weird or creepy as the ones in Mars Attacks! He was a proper native of the Red Planet but he wasn’t scary or anything like that. His skin was a translucent green. His head was the shape of a rose apple. He had oversized eyes and no ears. He had a nice set of yellowish-white teeth. And he wasn’t sneering. He seemed like a decent bloke for an alien and quite friendly, for twice at least he tried to strike a conversation. I was in no mood to talk. I was engrossed in reading my e-book. I wanted to finish it before I got off in downtown Marine Lines so I could start on Ray Bradbury’s A Graveyard for Lunatics on the way back home.

“What’s that you’re reading?” He asked suddenly in a metallic but not unpleasant voice.

“A book,” I said, without looking up.

“I know it’s a book. But what’s that thing you’re holding in your hand?” He pointed a long thin finger at my tablet. I noticed he didn’t have nails. The tip of his finger was bulbous and curving outward.

“It's a tab,” I said. “I’m reading an electronic book as opposed to a paper book. It’s called an e-book. Do you guys have anything like this?”

I looked at him and almost jumped when I saw my gaunt reflection in his luminous black eyes.

“No, but we have this,” he said, and raising his finger in the air drew a three-dimensional holographic image of an open book with strange signs and symbols which I guessed must be some kind of Martian script.

“Wow,” I said. “How did you do that?” A stupid question. His civilisation was light years ahead of ours. By the time we caught up with it, the Martians would have inhabited half the universe; if that was, indeed, possible, the universe being without beginning or end.

“This is how we read books. In fact, this is pretty much how we do everything back home.” He traced an invisible line across the image and the astral projection vanished. The two office goers and the college kid who sat facing us were staring goggle-eyed at the Martian.

“Iron Man does that in his dream lab,” the teenager blurted out. He was a medical student. He was reading a chapter titled A brief overview of cranial nerve anatomy from a large open book on his lap. I was reading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye whose confused and rebellious young hero seemed to be the antithesis of the studious lad before me.

“Who’s Iron Man?” The Martian inquired.

I smiled, “He’s our superhero. I mean, he’s not real but we like to think he is. We all need a hero to look up to, and watch our backs.”

“We Martians have a hero, too. He’s called the Great Alphard. We worship him just as you earthlings worship your gods. He’s the absolute, supreme one. Except...” He paused a moment before continuing. “...we don’t fight over him.”

He couldn’t have been on earth for more than a few hours or days. No idea how much that was in Martian time. But, already, he knew enough about us.”

“Can you see him?”

“No, but we can feel him, here...” he pointed to the right of his chest, probably where his heart was, “...and here,” he said, tapping the side of his head. “He comes whenever we call out to him.”

At least we had something in common, even if our practice of faith went in opposite directions.

*        *        *

We fell silent. I went back to reading. The Martian looked out of the window. The train pulled into Dadar station where a dozen people jumped off even before it came to a halt and dozens more rushed in even as it moved out again. The compartment filled up and people talked in excited tones. To one uninitiated in suburban rail travel in Mumbai, it’d have felt like a party atmosphere.

Two large Martians managed to disengage themselves from the herd of perspiring commuters and pushed their way to where we were sitting. They were Martian Police. They wore bright red uniforms and yellow-ringed tin badges on their lapels. The badges represented their logo, a red cross against a dark green background. They were not allowed to carry firearms in civilian areas. That was the deal with the Martian Federation. 

“Blimp,” one of them said curtly.

So that was his name. I turned to look at Blimp. His green complexion had turned ashen. He was shaking violently, no doubt with fear. And his eyes were spinning in their oval sockets.

“Easy, Blimp. What’s going on?” I asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“They have come to take me back to Mars,” he stuttered.
I don't want to go back.” He was almost in tears.

“But why?”

Before Blimp could answer, the second Martian cop said, “He is wanted in Kraz for a crime of a considerably serious nature. He must face trial and punishment. It won’t be easy for him, I tell you.”

“What is Kraz? And what crime?” Although I barely knew Blimp I’d already grown to like this young Martian who showed prospects of a good friendship.

“Kraz is the largest city in the province of Zanzar in the northern hemisphere of Mars. I was born and raised there.” He was so terrified I was surprised he even spoke.

“What did you do, Blimp?”

“He ran away,” the first cop said.

“How is that even a crime?” I asked, incredulously.

“Sir, under Martian law running away from home is equal to defection or desertion. He did more than that,” the second cop said pointing at Blimp. “He abandoned our world for yours.”

“So what?” I shouted.

“He had no permission for interplanetary travel. You see, he’s too young, only a thousand years old. He was a stowaway on the Centaurus that came in last week.”

*        *        *

There was a buzz of excitement in the compartment as people, normally starved of a public spectacle, jostled each other for a glimpse of the runaway Martian. Some of the commuters were clicking pictures on their phones. The ones behind Blimp and me were taking selfies and probably had them up and running on social media already. We were soon going to become notoriously famous. Me more than him. You can’t really tell one Martian from another.

“How can Blimp be a thousand years old?” I asked the Martian cops who were by now struggling to stay on their feet.

But even before either of them could say something, there was a loud commotion — “Chalo bhai, Lower Parel, chalo, chalo, jaldi chalo!” — and the two Martian policemen suddenly found themselves off their feet and herded towards the exit and out on the platform, where they stood with bewildered expressions on their faces.

As the train moved away from Lower Parel station, Blimp stared openmouthed at the empty space where the lawmen from the Red Planet had been moments before.

“What just happened? Where did they go?” He looked astonished.

I laughed out loud and put my hand out to shake his. “Welcome to Mumbai, Blimp! My name is Epic. Have you been to the Gateway of India?”

© Prashant C. Trikannad, 2016


  1. Very cool. Lots of ideas percolating through this one.

    1. Thank you, Charles. That's how conversations run in our "local" trains.

  2. I love the mix of sci-fi and life in modern India here, Prashant! And what a lovely twist at the end. Very creative, and now I'm interested in Blimp as a character.

    1. Thank you, Margot. Commuters in Mumbai's suburban trains are notorious for taking anyone standing in their way, with them, especially if they're entering or exiting the coaches.

  3. Right out of the future of Mumbai, maybe, Prashant. Blimp is a fine character

    1. Thank you, Oscar. Blimp came out of nowhere. I have been toying with the idea of a bunch of short stories centered around Mumbai's suburban rail travel, minus aliens.

  4. Congratulations on this story! is it your first foray into the field of writing. Sounds so promising.

    1. Thank you, Mystica. This is, in fact, my second story. I wrote one titled DEAD IMAGINATION in 2011, later reproduced, which you'll find at the top of the bar on the right. I have several writing projects going.

  5. Replies
    1. Thank you, Col. I always wanted to know what it'd be like to commute to work with an alien.

  6. A lovely story, Prashant. And I like the title.

    1. Thank you, Tracy. Mumbaikar means a denizen of Mumbai. It's like saying Londonite or Londoner.

  7. Good story, Prashant. You set up the situation beautifully. Epic does not blink at being in the presence of a Martian while taking the train to work. Nice ending, too. The people rise up and will not allow a foreign authority to take Blimp away. Let’s hear it for independence! Bravo, my friend.

    1. Thank you, Elgin. Epic doesn't blink because the Martians have been in Mumbai for a while, and vice versa. Of course, I don't say that in the story.

      About the end, Elgin, I should have put a footnote. As I noted in my reply to Margot's comment above, if you stand in the way of commuters desperate to enter or exit, they will take you with them. You've got to be quick enough to move aside. That's exactly what happens to the Martian Police — as the train enters Lower Parel station, our new business district, they advertently find themselves in the thick of a crowd and are herded, not so gently, out of the compartment and on to the platform.

      The joke on our railway networks is that, if you want to get off at a station, just stand still and the other commuters will ensure you do. It's really funny, you know, walking out like penguins, only faster. If you lose your balance and fall, a dozen hands will pull you up and life goes on. It's a very Mumbai thing.

  8. Really like the mixture of the quotidian and the rarefied - very funny too - thanks Prashant.

    1. Thank you, Sergio. The suburban network is like a city on wheels, a cauldron of different cultures, languages, and castes, where everyone is more or less equal.

  9. Great story, and what a fascinating detail about the passengers exiting the trains - used to such perfect effect!

    1. Thank you, Moira. Commuting by Mumbai's suburban trains is quite an experience though it's not for the faint-hearted, especially during the peak hours.