By Mohammad Majlisi
13th May 2022
This story was awarded second place in our spring sci-fi short story competition.
Across the golden sub-continent, basked again in hot, heaving sunshine, there was a strange silence this Sunday. Markets across the colourful regions, normally thrumming with the excited patter of almost a billion pairs of feet, were closed. Those that were open, languishing in the early morning warmth, baking away in the initial sun kisses – kisses that weren’t the full intensity of a midday blaze that would eventually cause what little people there were outside to hide in the shelter of their homes – sat in their shops watching the dust float in the morning sun, or were glued to any television sets or newspapers they could find. An old man in his dhoti chewed on his breakfast loudly, his lips smacking. Occasionally a lone motorbike would punctuate the uncanny silence. For once, the loud subcontinent was quiet.
The year was 1969 for the Christians, 1389 for the Muslims, 501 for the Sikhs, and 2026 for the Hindus, but it had been over 2400 years since Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, definitely longer since man awoke from the fertile soil of the banks of the Indus and Ganges and spread himself across the land. Between Afghanistan in the West, and Burma in the East, there was a silent stillness. Across the globe, even in the impoverished, backwards villages and old medieval lands run by petty gentry from a time one would have thought long forgotten, all were waiting on one event. Man was going to stride into the heavens, penetrate the tapestry of the stars, and land on the moon.
Four astronauts were chosen: one from the Muslim majority, Persianate, fertile west; another from the Sikh-dominated, mountainous, and beautiful north; a Buddhist from the rich, ancient south, and a Buddhist from the sunkissed coastal east. It was a perfect union of all that had happened and like the land itself, joined together in harmony. It promoted peace. The event itself would take place near the banks of the Indus, specifically near Lahore. Lahore would be big enough for the masses of people descending to see.
Only an hour left.
A sizable crowd had gathered around the banks, cordoned off just for them. Opportunists had come, vending street food, ice cream, and flags for supporters. Children played in the dust, faces painted with sweat and the livery of the rocket. The smell of sizzling oil, chapli kebabs, samosas and pakoras, roast chicken, hot steaming popcorn, all ready to be eaten. Model rockets were being sold by shrewd, insistent men and boys, the sales not backing down. Some rich people had managed to rent out a boat, and they watched, clad in imported sunglasses and traditional hats, warding off the heat they spent so much time avoiding.
There was an air of mute excitement, silent trepidation, and a slight hidden dread. Things couldn’t go wrong, could they? The calculations had been done, the maths was double, triple and quadruple checked. All the engineering checks had been made. The rocket and the shuttle had been blessed by so many different religious leaders over the last few months that the faint smell of incense remained in the ship. It would be fine. It stood proud against the cloudless sky, its livery a mix of black, white, green and orange.
More and more people were gathering, yet there was no fanfare. Along the banks, yogis prayed, imams came and performed dhikr, with the same happening in the pavilions. T-minus 30 minutes. The nation was fervent, silently bowed down in a single prayer. The astronauts were ready. Mission control was ready. Everything was ready. Everything was going to go to plan. Engineers and soldiers scuttled around the giant rocket, ants in their anthill, making final checks and ensuring all was to plan. This was the greatest moment of honour for the desh, and now the culmination of 8000 years of civilisation would reach a new level of wonder.
Only a minute left. Inside the cockpit, all the switches, toggles and monitors were being fiddled with, all the right buttons pressed for take-off. The astronauts were strapped down. They exchanged looks, silent acknowledgements that this was it.
Across the river, the nation held its breath. There was silence except for the hum of the river, swiftly beating onwards. A loud crash filled the air, the deep rumble of thousands of kilos of rocket fuel were burned to lift the rocket up. A great plume of smoke and flame, the wings of a falcon lifted the rocket into space. Eyes watched in wonder. The rocket was off.
Three days later, the world sat glued to the TV again. This time, grainy, monochrome footage of funny men in bulbous suits jumping on a rocky outcrop played. The desh, the people, the ancient nation had reached the moon.