A tangle of black comms lines, like a clustered neuron, hung dead on a wooden telephone pole. It was a web ready to burst into flame at the first signal surge. This was the first image Zed saw as he exited the Vijayawada air terminal. Wired lines at the end of the 21st Century? I have to rely on these to carry my “all safe” message home.
Zed had come to give a lecture at a new university, an up-and-coming institution in this Indian Capital of Learning. Twenty-four hours of planes through Singapore and Chennai, a slight kerfuffle at customs (he’d misspelled the address of his destination), happily countered by a warm greeting by his host and friend, Prof. Srinu.
“You’re going to be a big hit,” Srinu said, taking Zed’s bags. “Our design students can’t wait to hear from a top typographer like you.”
Zed put his hand to his chest in a gesture of humility. He knew his lectures on creative inspiration could excite a student audience, but he wasn’t sure about this one. What is a lecture on creating a new font going to teach them? He’d struggled with the topic of his talk most of the flight, unhappy with his current stock speech about his family legacy in type design. My mother was venerated for designing fonts like Googaw and Firmaq thirty years ago, but I’ve done nothing that even comes close. What on earth am I going to tell these kids? His mind had been in a muddle for the past six months, struggling with a series of letters and signs that just weren’t coming together. The old familiars of negative space, kerning, serifs were so limiting, only his twist on the thorn and eth for the Icelandic extension brought him any excitement. There had to be something else, some way to stand out rather than just adding or subtracting pixels. How can I teach the students something about design when I don’t have inspiration myself?
As Srinu and Zed waited to get into the peeling, silver Mercedes, the mud-thick heat encased Zed. He wanted nothing more than a long, cool shower. And to speak to his wife and daughter back home in Omaha.
As soon as he’d buckled himself into his seat, his host began to review his itinerary. “First to President Dutta,” Srinu said. “He’s hosting a casual lunch for you. Please don’t be disappointed, he wanted to meet you, and it’s all we could find on his schedule.” Srinu patted his guest on the leg with a broad smile.
Zed swallowed a sigh of exhaustion. Maybe he could at least change in a bathroom at the university before meeting the president?
“We’re just an hour from the university,” Srinu explained, “but after the president, we have a surprise for you.”
“A surprise?” Zed took this to mean that he would be forced to stay awake longer than he’d expected. No chance to get the rest he longed for nor the time to go over his talk just once more.
“I won’t say anymore,” Srinu beamed. “It’s nothing, but it will give you a little flavor of my hometown.”
The car honked its way past delivery trucks. “Move too slow, and the tires will melt onto the macadam,” Srinu explained the urgency of their belligerent driver. An open-bed transporter in front of them was full to collapse with gourds and unrecognizable greens wilting in the convection oven around them. Conversation with Srinu was a whirl of words, like the blue, pink, and orange advertisements pasted on the concrete walls of the myriad shops they passed. Amidst this assault, passing vignettes rattled Zed—a gaunt, dazed, shirtless man living on rubber pads under the highway, sacred cows walking on smoking garbage dumps.
When Srinu saw Zed staring, he explained: “Cows aren’t allowed on farmer’s plots. The landfills are the only place they can go much of the time.”
Zed slumped in his seat at the sight of the poverty. He had the same reaction to the streets of tents and trash around Skid Row in Los Angeles and the climate refugee encampments outside his hometown. At least here, as far as he could tell, they lacked the open drug use and candidly displayed guns and knives. Perhaps this is eons better still?
Perhaps, said the smothering furnace breath invading even the shade.
“President Dutta, this is Mr. Inaz.”
A diminutive man in a dun-colored linen suit and a boyish bowl-cut stood in front of Zed. His face was bright with a kind smile. When he greeted Zed, the handshake came with only the slightest pressure, as if the bones in one of their hands risked breaking. Zed had experienced these gentle greetings before. They always took him by surprise in the States, but here he took it in stride.
“Mr. Inaz, thank you so much for making the trip and coming to educate our students.”
“I expect it will be they who teach me, Mr. President,” Zed replied.
After ten minutes of friendly chat, the president went on to describe his goal of providing the world with the world’s most creative students, able to come up with the best solutions for the world’s most urgent problems. “That’s what your talk will do,” President Dutta said.
Not if they see what I’ve got for them so far…
After the perfunctory chat, President Dutta, Srinu, and a few staff and faculty led Zed into a white-tiled cafeteria, screened off from the empty student dining section. Zed mimicked his hosts’ handwashing at the open sink, relieved to apply his still-dripping hand to his forehead to cool himself down.
“We’re moving our dining halls underground, with all the classrooms,” President Dutta explained. “The 58-degree-C temperatures have become too frequent. We really should have thought of this years ago, but we had all this old infrastructure we didn’t want to waste.” Around 135-degrees Fahrenheit, Zed calculated. They’d seen these temperatures in heatwaves back on the plains too. What would he give for the cool, wet, muddy walls of his sod-roof shelter they’d dug for the same purpose back home.
The meal was a shock to Zed’s system, one he loved. It was like he’d never tasted any kind of Indian food before. The spices were pungent and lingering: ghee, cardamom, cilantro, fenugreek, grassy and green. Zed took a particular liking to the fried curd chillis: salt and smoke, the perfect counterpoint to a bite of the mild curd rice. Seeing his appreciation of the condiment, the president promised to get him some to take back home. Zed demurred, sure that the president was too busy for such an errand, even with the raft of assistants surrounding him.
“On to the surprise!” Srinu said after a clean-up splash at the sink. “There’s a dance festival being held this week. Both classical forms and tribal dance from around India. It begins tonight with our local Kuchipudi form.”
As evaporated as Zed was feeling, he knew he couldn’t beg off and let his host and friend down. But when am I going to get time to fix this presentation? Could he just explain to Srinu that it was for the students?
Did it matter? He still didn’t have a new idea that would transform his talk into something interesting.
Zed was seated in front as guest of honor and rapt from the first beat: peach-colored skirts with pleated saffron plackets that flashed with the movement, bronze bells that jangled, jeweled insets with strands of pearls draped above shockingly bright, smiling eyes. The music began with the running and skipping beats of the tabla, a sonic treat that twisted Zed’s brain. Then the second dance, the darting eyes, the jutting footsteps, the twisted stances, and long-stretched arcs. He’d seen numerous statues of the dancing Shiva Nataraj, and though he knew little of the figure’s iconography, with this dance, at least, he understood the gesturing third arm, the whirling cloth belt, the flaming aura encircling the avatar.
But it was the dancer’s hands that caught Zed’s eye most of all, stark and distinct as they flashed. Fingers splayed, switch to hands-flat, finger and thumb pinch, hands rigid, hands fluid, welcoming, playful, certain.
The movements were signals, pulsing, stopped, jumping, transmitted by the jumble of wires from his arrival: the landlines of communication stretched out to carry people’s voices to their family. If his wife could see this wonder right now.
He followed the dancer’s elegant, twitching hands. She was sending signals.
And then it came to him: this art was his new font. New comms units were coming out with a 3D holographic interface. If they could display 3D, they could capture it. There were already full-body interfaces for videoconferencing, but none this small. The new units could capture a face, but what else? A sign-language font of Zed’s design.
Thumb-texting and text-to-speech were unusable with others around if you didn’t want to be rude. But what about discreet hand gestures? Silent, perhaps under a table with the device on the lap, maybe just a glance to confirm the message was correct. And then, a whole new world for passwords!
Zed wanted to jump out of his seat. If he could stay up, he could rewrite his presentation to the students. Perhaps he could work with some of them to get the project done quickly? What he’d lose in intellectual property rights he’d gain in fame.
This was his moment, as rude as it might be. He had to get back to his hotel to sort through the images and order his idea into a new presentation before he lost the moment.
“Srinu,” he turned to his colleague, “I hate to do this, but I’ve got to go….”
Anthony St. George lives with his husband in San Francisco. He is currently working on a speculative fiction novel, Ann History, and an accompanying short story collection, The Warring States. Current short stories and flash fiction from this collection can be found at Blind Corner Literary Magazine and Fleas on the Dog. These and other publications are announced at @asgriobhadh and listed and linked to at anthonystgeorge.com.