Aliens at the Coffee House**
** This story, originally written in Bengali by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya, has been translated by Rituparna Mukherjee. The story was first published in Aponpath in 2019.
A cup of black coffee on the table was slowly getting cold in the humid air. The thirty-rupee veg sandwich next to it fulfilled the meal. Both had been kept on the table, with a soft thud, a while ago by the aged waiter clad entirely in white. One could spot a hint of cucumber green and tomato red, peeking from the immaculately cut, triangular pieces of bread. Udayan was contemplating how this food item labelled number seven in the menu card had turned appealing with the touch of nature. Thinking about it, he started ruminating on another subject, the essence of which he wanted to consume entirely, after which he wanted to sink into the very depths of yet another issue. At that moment, that was all Udayan wanted to do and he had enough time at his disposal to achieve his goal unhindered. He had come to the Coffee House because this was exactly how he had wanted to spend his time. He wanted to start thinking about anything that would inhabit his mind, move it without the slightest imposition. For the moment it was the colourful sandwich.
A girl was sitting across him in another table opposite him. Since she was alone at the table and three chairs were in for the taking, she was receiving urgent requests from people around her, wanting to occupy those seats. She was refusing everybody. Udayan heard her saying that she had been saving those chairs for her friends who would arrive at any minute.
The normal Saturday evening crowd at the Coffee House was three times its usual number that day. The three unoccupied chairs looked a little out of place in such a circumstance. In the past one hour, at least fifty polite requests had surrounded the table. Udayan’s mind too bent in that direction at that moment. It didn’t seem from the girl’s disposition that she was waiting for someone. However, that didn’t mean that waiting would customarily have to be accompanied by the tell-tale signs of glancing at the watch periodically or enquiring over the phone her friends’ location or how soon they would reach, because she was claiming three chairs to her ownership, rather uncomfortably, when there were so many people roaming aimlessly, waiting for a seat. No, the girl did not demonstrate the slightest discomfort or impatience in her visage. Rather it seemed to Udayan, on looking at her face, that she did not want to be disturbed. Udayan was well aware that no matter how gregarious humans seem, however well they love to talk, they look for quietude. Everybody wanted that. But that particular person sought to be alone in a completely different way. He was well versed with the mannerisms of someone wanting to stay alone amidst the myriad famous poets that gathered at the Coffee House regularly. Perhaps he knew well the facial expressions of a person who sought out solitude like him. No, the girl’s behaviour did not fit lucidly to any of the known expressions. To state plainly, the girl’s disposition demonstrated signs of both wanting and not wanting to stay alone. Udayan recalled the English word for it. Juxtaposition.
Udayan had recently garnered quite a reputation for himself for writing film reviews. There was a significant traction and interest in his blogs about sci-fi movies. He was not only a good student of physics but also had an abiding love for the performing arts and literature- a rare combination found only in a handful of people. Udayan was one such person. No matter how simply the English movies tried to present the complexities of Einstein’s relativity through graphics, the audience would still be a little confounded. Udayan’s blog was then the only answer to their bafflement. His blogs explained difficult concepts such as relativity, black hole, quantum gravity through the use of sonorous, meaningful and pleasant words extracted from the dictionary coupled with his love for the craft that would create an irresistible attraction for the film among the audience. He had watched a science fiction film around two days back. In the film screen, he had seen the earth gradually suffused with poisonous sandstorms. It showed a time when the entire earth was devoid of a space hospitable to man. As a solution to this problem, the protagonist of the film journeyed through space from one galaxy to another in search of a space as beautiful as the Earth. That new world would be the final destination for humankind, a place that would shelter the despondent and distressed. A prolonged investigation revealed a place that was almost ten times the weight of the earth. It had a unique play of colours, as if every inch had aurora borealis. But problems crept up in this potential homeland for the human race- it had to do with the aboriginal inhabitants of the place. One could not forcefully impose ownership of a place by just bringing a large crowd of people without the permission of the dwellers. The problem was further complicated by the language barrier. The citizens of the space did not speak, they communicated by shaking their heads to a signage that seemed like shouts and gibberish to the listener. It was impossible to gauge from their expressions if they were friends extending helping hands or enemies hiding bad intentions. Also, their bodies could not be distinguished into human parts like the hands, feet or stomach. The protagonist of the film thus faced a unique challenge. His repeated and tireless efforts to understand the minds of the natives in the new world and to establish channels of communication with them for over a month, remained futile. They were after all dwellers of a separate planet, aliens. He kept staring at the aliens for a long time without batting his eye. He felt that they did not perceive time in terms of a past, present or future. All time was mixed and relative in their conception. They stood in the present, while dwelling in the past and simultaneously looked at the future. That is why the aliens knew beforehand that the people of the earth would come to their planet one day, seeking a solution to their endangered existence. The hero, habituated to the beings of the earth, kept searching for eyes in the cyclopean beings of the new world.
Udayan wanted to search for and thoroughly experience a brave, new, colourful and exciting world, away from all that was familiar and stable, much like the hero of the film. But the horns of the yellow cabs ringing in his ears along with the known cacophonies of familiar voices from the footpath stalls would not let him experience that world fully. The sun had stopped shining at that exact moment while he was still writing the review. He came out of his home like a gust of wind. He roamed around in every direction, in search of that rush of feeling, for a place that was lightyears away, exactly like that new, colourful, exciting planet, despite knowing its futility. Udayan wanted to quell the embers of old loves and his revolutionary spirit as far as possible, to come face to face with the alien. His face was wet with an unknown anticipation, his heartbeat soared beyond normal, yet he forgot all consequential possibilities of harm to his physical self and wanted to confront the alien.
When he had been immersed in the world of quantum physics in college, Udayan had searched for a purity of feeling among people around him, a feeling that was as absolute and unwavering as the quantum world, where there was no pretension, no space for manipulation. He avoided the usual celebrated company that was commonly sought to elevate social status. He had loved a girl. He wanted the girl to visit him like an old memory on a winter afternoon. He wanted to talk to her a little. Udayan would find a rhythm, a symphony in those words. He hoped that the girl would understand his research, his thoughts, which probably seemed entirely eccentric and unrealistic to the rest of the world. He wanted to converse with her in his own language. The girl had not understood.
Udayan was familiar with everyone who drank coffee in the Coffee House that evening although he didn’t know them personally. Without ever coming face to face, he could map the direction of their conversations, lay out their past, present and future, their boundless coldness or the vastness of their overactive emotions. Udayan clearly saw through their nonchalance. He could also perceive their diminishing desires for small revolutions, sedimented in the cyclical pattern of life. The only exception was that girl, sitting at the table opposite him. Udayan had realized by then that the embers of a rebellion still burnt consistently in that girl. Perhaps the mutiny had exhausted her so much that she did not prefer the company of even the best of friends, although she seemed struggling to express her innermost pain, waiting with eager eyes to put it into words with someone. She too wanted to inhabit a world composed of just quantum purity, filled with the thrilling possibilities of negating the established certainties at any moment. It seemed to Udayan at that moment that the tables of the Coffee House, packed to their brim, comprised people speaking gibberish, banging their hands emphatically on them. Looking into their eyes, he found the purity eroding steadily. He saw the Coffee house slowly turning colourful. The old, heritage walls revealed the hues of the aurora borealis. The eyes of the people around him, their bodies tinged in spectacular shades, disappeared one by one. The only exception was that girl. He gazed at the girl’s eyes. She looked at him at the same instant. Udayan moved towards the seats that she had been saving. He came face-to-face with the girl, a new exploration began, the symphony rang clear.
Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi
College, under the University of Calcutta. She is currently pursuing Doctoral degree in
Gendered Mobilities in West African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar.
She is a published poet and short fiction writer. She works as a freelance translator for
Bengali and Hindi fiction and is an editor at the Antonym Magazine. She is also an ELT
consultant and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.
Shankhadeep Bhattacharya is a software engineer who is keenly interested in spreading awareness about the environment, society, the socio-economic impacts of technology through regular seminars and webinars. He likes writing for little magazines. He is associated in the editorial capacity with Pariprashna and Sangbartak magazines. He has strived to create narratives in his stories and personal essays that centre around the current realities. He was awarded the “Namita Chattapadhyay Sahitya Samman” in 2022.