Enjoy this excerpt from the new novel, Turbulence, by Samit Basu.
Aman Sen is smart, young, ambitious and going nowhere. He thinks this is because he doesn't have the right connections — but then he gets off a plane from London to Delhi and discovers that he has turned into a communications demigod. Indeed, everyone on Aman's flight now has extraordinary abilities corresponding to their innermost desires.
Vir, a pilot, can now fly.
Uzma, an aspiring Bollywood actress, now possesses infinite charisma.
And then there's Jai, an indestructible one-man army with a good old-fashioned goal — to rule the world!
Aman wants to ensure that their new powers aren't wasted on costumed crime-fighting, celebrity endorsements, or reality television. He wants to heal the planet but with each step he takes, he finds helping some means harming others. Will it all end, as 80 years of superhero fiction suggest, in a meaningless, explosive slugfest?
Turbulence features the 21st-century Indian subcontinent in all its insane glory — F-16s, Bollywood, radical religious parties, nuclear plants, cricket, terrorists, luxury resorts, crazy TV shows — but it is essentially about two very human questions. How would you feel if you actually got what you wanted? And what would you do if you could really change the world?
Uzma stretches out on her old, creaky four-poster bed and looks out of her window. The sun is setting outside, and her room is bathed in amber light, tiger-striped on her wall through the palm trees just by her window. The sharp, pungent smell of the sea drifts in; a gentle breeze tinkles through her wind-chime. The breeze is warm and salty but her room stays pleasantly cool; the first thing Uzma noticed about her new home was how pleasant it was for Mumbai, almost as cool as the air-conditioned five-star hotels she has been drifting in and out of for her meetings with the tycoons of Bollywood.
Today is her first day in her Yari Road home; it's an old, somewhat fusty four-storey building – a very strange house for Versova, where most old buildings have been torn down and replaced by large multi-storied housing complexes with gates and guards and fancy names. Uzma has a whole floor to herself; her new landlord has warned her that she might have to share her floor with another tenant, but there's plenty of room – there are three large bedrooms on her floor alone. And there hasn't been any talk of rent. To add to this cocktail of delight, her landlord has not shown any definite signs of being a pervert or a werewolf. Only a certain excessive brightness in his eyes and an air of barely concealed amusement at everything around him prevent him from seeming completely ordinary.
Aman Sen is an unremarkable-looking man in his early twenties, medium everything. Most of the men Uzma has had conversations with since arriving in Mumbai have been extremely impressive one way or another; ambitious, well-groomed, fast-living, ultra-sharp entertainment types in various shades of attractive. There's certainly nothing unattractive about Aman, it must be said, but he's the person whose name everyone at a glamorous Mumbai party forgets within two seconds. Following the recently delivered commandments of Saheli's father, Uzma has Not Been Too Friendly with this Spouse-less Landowner, thus cunningly avoiding a Compromising Situation, but she had Aman pegged as eccentric but harmless within two minutes of meeting him; compared to the sharks she has been swimming with, he is but a goldfish.
Aman shares the first floor of the house with Tia, an effervescent, curvaceous and altogether adorable Bengali woman in her early thirties who swept Uzma up in a huge hug the second they met and has now decided, to Uzma's slight worry, to be best friend and constant companion. Tia and the other two inhabitants of the house, whom Uzma has not met yet, have only known Aman for the last two weeks, but already Tia and he are very close, unless Tia walks around in tiny shorts in front of everyone she knows. Uzma is on the second floor, and on the third are the two mysterious entities described to Uzma as The Scientist and Young Bob. Tia has taken charge of the house; she runs the kitchen, the errands and most of the conversation. This house was probably not built for renting out; there's only one kitchen, a vast hall-like room on the ground floor that has seen cooking on a mass scale once, but now lies mostly unused. The rest of the ground floor is divided between a dining room and a huge and draughty living room where a few very modern sofas, a foosball table and a very large flatscreen TV stand uncomfortably, like jugglers at a funeral.
This is the first time since her arrival in India that Uzma has been alone in a large room for any length of time, and now that she has space to breathe she is surprised to find how much she misses her family. Something about Tia reminds her of her eldest brother Yusuf's wife; it's probably the loud and tuneless singing that Uzma can hear drifting upstairs as Tia attacks yet another room somewhere, armed with a duster, a mop, a bucket and a smile.
Uzma's phone is on silent; she has decided not to go out tonight, to spend time with her new housemates. But her housemates don't seem to be particularly social; Aman disappeared into his room hours ago and hasn't emerged yet, and something tells her that The Scientist and Young Bob might not be the most delightful company. Uzma potters around her room for a while, wishing she was better at spending time by herself, when she sees Tia coming down the stairs from the third floor.
'I thought you were downstairs,' Uzma calls. 'Who's singing?'
Uzma listens again and finds, to her surprise, that there is indeed no singing.
Tia shrugs. 'It's Mumbai, Uzma. There's always some noise somewhere. You bored? Come with me.'
They head to the living room and plonk themselves down on the sofas, and Tia tells Uzma the story of her life, of her childhood in Assam and her marriage, at the tender age of twenty, to a tea estate manager from Darjeeling. It hadn't been a very happy marriage; her husband had been handsome but weak-willed, and her in-laws fierce and medieval. Evening turns slowly into night as Tia speaks lovingly of the green hills near Guwahati and the swift grey waters of the ever-shifting Brahmaputra, and Uzma listens in wonder, trying very hard to not reveal to Tia that she doesn't really know where Assam is. As she watches Tia's eyes shine, sees her laugh uproariously over the smallest things, she realizes that no matter how awful Tia's family had been, for her to abandon that life and come to Mumbai, to live in a house full of strangers younger than her, is a far more difficult journey than any she will ever have to make.
'It's not so bad,' says Tia. 'I'm really happy with this house. Aman's a sweetheart – you'll love him when he gets a bit more comfortable around you – the other two are hilarious, and I have to say I really like you. I'm glad I came to Mumbai.'
'You should have come years ago, then.'
'I could have – but I couldn't leave my son, could I?'
'You have a son?'
'Yes. Three years old now. You'll love him when you meet him.'
'You must miss him terribly.'
Tia's smile vanishes completely. 'I'm with him, always,' she says, rising from the sofa, not meeting Uzma's eyes. 'I'll never leave him. Dinner?'
Dinner turns out to be a grilled lobster, sitting red and voluptuous in the kitchen, and Uzma is delighted. 'Did you make this? When? How?'
'I'm very efficient,' says Tia. 'You'll see.'
They sit in the dining room in happy silence and devour the lobster. Aman doesn't make an appearance, but as the mighty crustacean's last white, succulent meaty bits are on the verge of vanishing there's a shuffling noise at the door.
'Uzma, meet Balaji Bataodekar, also known as Bob,' says Tia as a plump, dark Elvis-haired boy, not more than fifteen, enters the room warily. He sticks out a pudgy hand, which Uzma shakes with due solemnity. Bob, however, is here on matters far more important than meeting glamorous women from distant lands.
'Can I have some?' he asks, looking meaningfully at the lobster.
Tia glances at him, then at Uzma, and says 'Of course, darling. But not too much, no? It heats up your stomach. There's lots of ice-cream in the fridge.'
'I'm sick of ice-cream,' says Bob, scooping up the remaining fragments of lobster and shovelling them into his mouth. 'Sick of nimbu-pani, sick of mint. I want vada-pav, mutton kolhapuri and pizza. With lots of jalapenos. That's what I want.'
There's a huge muffled boom from upstairs.
'Scientist at work,' says Bob.
'Aman told me the sound-proofing was finished,' says Tia.
'It is,' says Bob, and sniggers.
'Can I meet him?' asks Uzma. 'Sorry, I've been up really late the last few nights and I'm terribly awake. Can we go up?'
'You should definitely meet him,' says Bob.
'I'd rather not,' says Tia, covering a forced yawn with a delicate hand. 'He hates being disturbed when he's working. I think we should all go to sleep.' Uzma recognizes refusals when she sees them, and doesn't push the matter.
An hour later, Uzma is nowhere near sleep; her body has become accustomed to heading out for the second party at around this hour. The coolness that enveloped the house has vanished; it's a hot and muggy night, and aspiring queens of Bollywood do not enjoy sweating under creaky fans. The only sounds to be heard in the house are dull clangs from the third floor. Uzma decides it is time to be social again.
Swiftly and silently climbing the stairs, Uzma finds the third floor's layout is the same as hers. The door of the room directly above hers is open; she sees Bob stretched out on his bed, asleep, his hands clasping his considerable belly. He appears to be in some discomfort; his face is clenched and he's sweating profusely. Not finding anything in this sight to engage her extensively, Uzma turns and walks down the narrow corridor by the stairs to the door behind which lie the Scientist and his Vulcan-like clangs. She knocks, quietly at first, and then loudly, and then, unused to rejection, starts banging on the door, even before she remembers the room has been soundproofed. After a few minutes, the door opens and Tia comes out, adjusting her clothes.
'What's wrong?' asks Tia.
'Nothing. I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd come up and hang out with the guys if they were awake. Am I – sorry, I think I'll just go back to bed. Good night.'
The door to the Scientist's room is ajar behind Tia, and a bright green light comes out of the room, making Tia's head glow a vaguely sinister green. Uzma flinches a bit when Tia beams at her and her teeth shine fluorescent.
'No, you're not interrupting anything,' says Tia with a giggle. 'I just like being here and watching him work, sometimes. Come in. Make as much noise as you like, you won't disturb him.'
Uzma wants to point out that Tia had said, just a while ago, that the scientist hated being disturbed. Instead, she tiptoes in and observes the Scientist's room with a mixture of awe and incredulity. The wall between two bedrooms has been broken, forming one large hall. The large windows have been shut and covered; a gigantic split air-conditioner hums away on a wall. To Uzma's left is a ceiling-high pile of assorted objects and apparatus; metal sheets, wooden planks, boxes full of screws and bolts and other little thingummies that Uzma cannot name, naked computer motherboards, containers of an incredible variety of shapes, materials and sizes, dozens of tools for cutting, welding and shaping, miscellaneous toys and gadgets, vehicle spare parts, gas cylinders, evil-looking liquids bubbling in flasks that sit on stands rising out of the debris like lighthouses. A lot of these have been wired, soldered or otherwise melded into nameless machines, each of which is performing its own assigned mysterious task.
The sheer variety of objects is stunning; it would not be surprising if the entire mass rose and formed a bizarre sentient golem-like creature, the love-child of a laboratory, a witch's cauldron and the bedroom of Leonardo da Vinci as a child. From this mountain of scrap, hundreds of wires trail out across the room, at first in amorously intertwined clusters, but then forming independent streams and tributaries, snaking across across an ocean of grease stains, spilt paint and burn smudges, dotted with islands of more clustered junk. In the centre of the room stands what appears to be a metal statue of a man, with green-glowing wires coiled around it like veins. Beside this stands a thin, short man in his fifties, clad in a frayed white shirt, pyjamas that were white once and big, bug-eye goggles. His head is exceptionally large, and bald except for a few wisps of hair drooping from above his ears in a defeated sort of way.
'Uzma, this is Sundar Narayan. The Scientist,' says Tia.
Uzma is surprised when the Scientist does nothing to acknowledge her presence; she's even more surprised when he moves and she sees that his face is completely slack, his mouth hanging open. He's drooling slightly, and his movements, for all their speed and dexterity, are somewhat odd, puppet-like.
Narayan hovers around his growing creation like a moth, prodding, poking, adding wires and circuitry, fingers almost blurring. It's as if he's a sculptor, or a musician playing the most complicated piano in the world; whatever it is he's building, it's something that's already perfectly designed in his head. Occasionally he darts off to another part of the room, plunges his arm into a heap of assorted junk and emerges holding something shiny, which he then runs to add to his strange masterpiece.
Uzma is irresistibly reminded of a video she'd seen on National Geographic years ago in Oxford, when a visiting uncle from Pakistan had insisted that she stop watching Friends and learn something instead – she'd switched channels unwillingly but had soon found herself engrossed in a show about a weaverbird building its nest, creating an elaborate colonial home with just its beak, its incredible skill rendered eerie by the madness of fast-forward TV. Narayan looks more like a token Indian extra in a zombie movie than a bird, but he, too, is constructing something solid and curvy and beautiful out of little bits of detritus the world has no further use for, another wondrous device that seems to follow scientific principles its maker should not be aware of.
'You're taking all of this in very well,' says Tia. 'The first time I saw him do his thing, I was completely freaked out.'
Uzma stares at Narayan in bewilderment, still waiting for some indication that all of this is an elaborate prank, some kind of bizarre household initiation ceremony involving balloons and streamers. As if in response to her searching stare, he turns away from his machines and towards her, his goggles making it impossible to see if he's looking at her, and she almost screams when he snores, loudly, and his head lolls to one side. Then he swings and sways, a flesh scarecrow, and returns to his tinkering, leaving Uzma breathing in great gulps and shuddering at Tia's reassuring pats.
'Is he…asleep?' asks Uzma, resisting the urge to run.
'Yeah. He does all this stuff in his sleep, and when he wakes up he spends all day in here trying to understand his inventions. I don't think he's gotten anywhere yet,' says Tia.
'Makes stuff from his dreams? How is that even possible?'
'Well, poets do the same thing, don't they? He says it's something to do with his subconscious working out the engineering problems his every day mind can't. Id-Design, he calls it.'
'So what has he invented so far?'
Tia gestures to Uzma's right and she sees, in the far corner of the Scientist's den, a strange assortment of objects in glass cases on little stands, a little exhibition of the insanity she feels snickering and gurgling in the air around her. There's what looks like a lava lamp, amoeba-like green globules floating in a viscous orange gel, with a sign in front of it on that proclaims XONTRIUM EGO SUSPENSION in a shaky child's handwriting . The next case contains what looks like a toy gun, the sort of thing aliens in science fiction B-movies use when asking you to take them to your leader, and its sign names it a TACHYON DISLOCATOR. A few other cases, containing more devices Uzma cannot understand; their signs are of no help either, the names written in Sundar's sleep-hand all gibberish, a child's attempt at science fiction names for the future-tech doodles in his school diary, names as meaningless to Uzma as iPod or Twitter would have been to her mother in the 70s.
The final case, in the corner of the room, is large and empty; this is clearly where Sundar's statue-with-wires-and-things will go once it is finished. None of this makes any sense; Uzma is suddenly reminded, again, of television, of Adam West Batman reruns, of villains with colourful lines and even more colourful costumes, building doomsday devices considerately labeled DOOMSDAY DEVICE so Batman and Robin knew exactly where to go CRASH! when dismantling the villain of the week's secret underground lair.
'What is this stuff?'
Tia shrugs. 'He doesn't know. He doesn't even know what to call these things until he labels them in his sleep.'
'I don't know the first thing about science,' admits Uzma, 'but this is very Dr. Who, yeah? Do a lot of Indian scientists do this?'
'Invent stuff in their sleep that no one understands? Maybe they all do. Maybe Id-Design is really popular among scientists. Who knows?' says Tia.
'I don't know if I can live here. It's not safe.'
'Well, if he did something naughty, I'm sure he would marry you afterwards. He's a gentleman.'
'Be serious, Tia. How can you share a house with this guy?'
'He's a complete sweetie when he's awake,' says Tia. 'And you'll barely see him if you don't come up here. The only time Aman ever meets Sundar is in the dining room, when Sundar's eating tomato rice.'
Narayan, hearing the magic words in his sleep, lurches towards Tia, and Uzma feels a lot better as she sees her new friend recoil sharply.
'Aman said it was a bad idea for you to meet him for a while,' says Tia, regaining her composure. 'But listen, don't get scared by all this. It's kind of cool to have a mad inventor living upstairs, no? And he totally looks the part.'
Before Uzma can reply, there's a loud banging on the door. Tia opens it.
'Ok, something very strange is happening on TV, and I think you need to see it,' says Aman. He's disheveled, wide-eyed, clearly very excited.
'Stranger than this?' asks Uzma in a voice of ice, gesturing dramatically towards Sundar and his statue.
Aman opens his mouth to speak, chokes on his first word and looks around the room thoughtfully, registering Tia's amusement, Uzma's indignation, and the intrepid Sundar, currently engaged in pulling a large length of glowing green wire out from under a stuffed one-eyed emperor penguin. Sundar chooses this moment to trip and crash into his pile of raw materials; when he stands up, there's a clothespin attached to his nose.
Aman meets Uzma's eye squarely and grins.
'Much stranger than this,' he says.