A Stranger to the Weave
From the Series: Decameron Relived
Suruli was playing down by the river when he found it. Something long and black, poking out of the wet sand. It could have come down in the storm; the river had been churning for days, fearsome and brown, too quick to approach until today. Or, who knows, it could have always been there. Things kept turning up in the muck beside the river, buried among the reeds and leaves. This was one reason why Suruli often drifted this way in the afternoons once the teacher had cut them loose from school. He was a collector. The thookku at his hip was always rattling with some assortment of things.
The boy stooped down to peer at the foreign object. The edge of it was fraying, but the thing held its shape as he tugged it out of the sand: a dark, floppy tube, long enough to drag along the ground, or to whip through the air with a satisfying thrum. Suruli hung onto it as he ran up the lane back to his house. He stopped now and then to bring one end of the thing up against his eyes. Straighten it out and you could see right through it, take in the world with a pinhole view.
Objects like this appealed to Suruli because there was hardly anything like them here. The hamlet where he lived, Maruthur, wasn’t especially rich or poor by the standards of that time. In fact, no place really was, in the years that followed the discovery of the Weave.
Discovery, no doubt, is a misleading word. Still, it’s more accurate than the other one—invention—that was invoked so often for the novel deeds of human creatures. People haven’t stopped making things. But the Weave has always been there too, quietly at work in the tangle of roots and fungi underground, in the paths that fish and bugs took through the water, in the currents that carried things too small to see through the air.
It had taken some time for people to find these threads and to draw them in. Many new habits had to be unlearned, some old lessons learned once again. Now, you couldn’t tell where a human settlement ended and the rest of the world began.
Like all such places, the hamlet was a knot, bound together with lines of living fiber: dwellings and stores, fences and walls, ties between one place and the next. It’s true that these strands were constantly coming undone, breaking apart, falling in pieces onto roads and trails where they were trampled again into the substance of the earth. This hardly ever mattered. Nothing ever depended on a single strand or thread. The lines of the Weave were always overlapping. It remained resilient even as individual strands came together and fell apart. Growth and decay were stitched together like the warp and weft of this world.
By the time Suruli got home, his grandmother Pacchi had already returned from the orchard with the oxen. She had tethered them beside the hydroponic feed wall while she cut a few vegetables from the roof garden. The biogas hearth was already hot. He poured some water from a gourd in the kitchen, sat beside the hearth to warm his hands.
“I found something down by the river,” he said, holding out the black tube to his grandmother when she climbed back down.
“Hanh,” she answered, fixing him a curious look. Like so much of what she’d say, it was somewhere between a simple acknowledgment and a question. There was something almost birdlike about Pacchi. It was in her eyes, piercing and inscrutable, her slight build and delicate limbs. Suruli always felt like she’d seen much more than she would let on.
“Who can say what the gods will bring us each day,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll take you somewhere tomorrow morning. There’s something I want to show you.”
Suruli and his grandmother were alone at home. His parents and sister had been up in the mountains for the past few days, harvesting manakkodi vines. For centuries, people had known about the medicinal properties of these leaves, the vivid hallucinations they could give. It took time to figure out how to build with plants like these, how to make them into collective channels for a society, instead of just means for individual visions. Woven now into the very texture of places like this one, such vines and plants made everything communicative, a structure, through and through, of both matter and image, feeling and meaning.
Living things did have plenty to say before. But people took time to decipher what other living beings were saying, and to find a way to braid what they needed said into the same fibers and tissues. Now, technology was a biological venture. Language and other arts had found their pulse in living tissue.
This is what had made that floppy black object so intriguing to Suruli. It was passive and inert in a manner unlike most everything around him. You could do things to it, or with it, but it was hard to discern what it could want. There was nothing to indicate how it grew, where it was going, whether it could even decay and become something else. It didn’t speak of anything beyond the fact of its presence, its physical form.
The boy was drawn somehow to such things. Now and then, over the years, he’d spy another object of this kind in the dirt somewhere: a little ball, a clutch of strange fibers, a tiny cup with scored edges, all stubborn and unyielding in the same way. Suruli coiled the tube into his thookku, beside some of his most prized possessions. He cleared the dishes into the rot pit under the hearth, and went over to a corner of the house, where Pacchi was already seated with her eyes closed, a pair of tendrils from the wall tucked into her nose and mouth.
The Weave was something that young children felt intuitively. Suruli had come to the age when they were taught to work more deliberately with its lessons, to explore its other planes of experience. He settled into the corner beside his grandmother, carefully tugging two strands of manakkodi from the matrix of the house. He closed his eyes and began to repeat one of the mantras they had learned at school. Ramalinga Adigal, one of the old ones from the time before, was said to have found the phrase.
Vaadiya payir kanda pothellaam naanum vaaduven. “Whenever I find a wilting plant, I too begin to wilt.” Suruli wasn’t sure what it meant, but he’d chant the way he was taught.
The tips of the leaves always tickled at first, made him want to sneeze. The taste was metallic. He could imagine a ropy green network of limbs extending in every direction. Then things began to blur, and movement took on a more ambiguous tone.
The boy could tell that his grandmother was somewhere nearby, which was reassuring. He could find his way to his parents too, to a semblance of where they were, what they were feeling. The Weave made tangible what many societies on earth had long insisted was true. No mind was ever alone, finding its place instead in a worldly nexus of intercalated consciousness, a vast network of impulses and ideas. With practice, one could navigate this space with greater ease, see things as they wish to be seen.
He knew, from school, that there were banks of data in this network, that knowledge had been gathered and stored, that most everything worth understanding could be sought out here. Suruli felt for a likeness to what he’d found by the river, that unusual black object. But all he could glean were vague and tumultuous impressions, almost painful to absorb. It was odd, the associations conjured by that thing. His sleep that night was restless.
Early the next morning, Pacchi and Suruli set off in the trackpod, hitched behind their speedy team of oxen. They took a road going east from the hamlet, past the craft yards and the photosynthetic reactor. Suruli called out a greeting to a cluster of kids playing under the shade of a banyan tree. The road soon faded into a network of trails, and the path they took seemed to disappear into a thicket of high shrubs. Clearly, no one had come this way for some time. They left the pod and oxen there to continue by foot.
Ahead was a hummock of earth, covered in a tangle of creepers. Pacchi pushed them gently to one side, exposing a small passage into the soil. Her grandson followed nervously behind her as they made their way below ground. An acrid smell hung in the air. As Pacchi held out her luminescent staff, Suruli could make out strange shapes jutting from the sides of the passage. All around them was a chaos of matter, crazy stacks of broken and abandoned things: bunched-up wires and tubing, folds of woven fabric, plates of material with jagged edges, translucent slivers that crinkled at the brush of his fingers.
“Adé!” the boy blurted out, thrilled by the sight of these buried heaps of treasure. His hands darted here and there, caught up in the excitement of what to stow in his small bag. But then a feeling of unease slowly stole upon him. Those rare and precious objects that he had found and kept so carefully, what did it mean that such things were piled up here in impossible numbers, in such a sorry and neglected state?
“How, paati?” he called out to his grandmother. “Who could have left these all these things behind? What could they have done with all this stuff?”
“Who else but those who were here before,” Pacchi said quietly. “As if the Weave was a net to grab whatever you could. They must have driven the gods of the forest away with all their clamor. Their temple towers slowly turning to heaps of garbage, growing and growing till they couldn't keep upright, at last just falling over . . . ”
The boy turned back to the objects scattered around them. It was as if his grandmother had brought him into some dark secret, a pact to keep with silence. For the first time he sensed the frailty of the Weave, the possibility of breaking through it. He knew hardly anything about the people who had left all this behind, he couldn’t guess how long these things had been here. But he could feel the danger in that still air, a need to leave these relics untouched. They spoke of a kind of heedlessness that had no place in the world he knew.
Suruli looked up to find Pacchi making her way back toward the mouth of the passage, stepping carefully around the murky liquid at their feet. He could hear her humming a song of mourning as she went—
Did the gecko declare
my forest destroyed?
Did that lizard decree
my island in ruins?
He felt a sharp jab of shame as he remembered his thookku, the things he had tucked away inside. On an impulse—he was still, very much, a boy—Suruli dumped the bag out into the cave, and ran to catch up with his grandmother. It was suddenly too much to bear, the thought of bringing them back home, finding them within the Weave.
I’ve come to believe that anthropology is a deeply speculative endeavor, dedicated to grasping the world not solely as it is, but also as it yet may be (an argument that I make in my recent book, A Possible Anthropology). In this sense, our method of ethnography has a kinship with fiction, especially speculative fiction, in the effort to elicit otherwise unseen textures and horizons of the world at hand. What might the world be, or yet become, if these other ways of living in the world were made present, palpable, real? In this story, I imagine a place in rural India that I’ve known for the last twenty years, and people there that I’ve known well, as if a few centuries from now: in the wake of this civilization and its detritus, with insights that we have failed yet to absorb. If we take such places and traditions to have a real future, rather than to stand for a disappearing past, what could they teach us about the impasses of the present?