Lambda by Mandira Pattnaik

The night before my parents moved to Delhi, Lambda reclined on his armchair, bony legs like long strokes joined at the knee. I knelt on the dew-damp terrace, frock hem skimming dirt, observing the luminous band of stars in the dark void above.

My grandpa looked like his namesake, sitting on his chair in the hall all day, hence the name. Lambda. He didn’t mind me calling him so. When someone carried him to the terrace, like tonight, he shared snippets of his life and that of the stars. I treasure-collected, knowing they’d last me a lifetime.

It was a speckled night. He spoke little: we both knew it was probably our last. Pointing to the dense packed stars near Scorpio, the constellation under which I was born, he said he didn’t expect to find the core of our galaxy, obscured by interstellar dust, but he knew that’s where the heart of the universe was located. I squinted hard, hoping to surprise him with discovery.

The wait for his silence to end stretched longer than ever. In my mind, I scrawled notes — too many to fit into the moment, too inadequate to fill my comprehension.

Downstairs, in Lambda’s farm lodge sprawled in the middle of paddy fields, 200 kilometres from the nearest town, hollow, pillared corridors reverberated with lost sounds of those it was meant to house: his children, their families. Rooms, balconies, halls, Venetian windows — he’d wanted them to stay, as a large joint family. Jobs, partners, opportunities, tastes; they’d left one by one. We were the last.

‘I bet the Wild Ducks will never find their way, Lambda!’ I said, my shrill adolescent voice perforating the stillness.

‘Won’t let them go,’ he said, with a wistful glance at the spectacular open cluster close to the Sagittarius.

‘Let’s swim.’ I wanted to make this evening like usual, just the same.

‘Go, go, go!’

Lambda paddled his infirm limbs as we pretended to drift, imagining ourselves remnants of a collapsing gas cloud.

It lasted only a few seconds before he was panting.

‘Keep looking out. I didn’t say we’re done,’ he shouted.

I flung my arms, flapped them like wings, swam some more, watching him follow me.

‘Lambda, a dolphin! Delphinus!’

‘Sure, my child!’

The words came like dimming light, truncating my final lap.

We sat in silence again. Hoping he wouldn’t notice my wet cheeks, I devoured the sight of the galaxies accelerating away from each other.

Lambda observed the cosmological constant, lending itself to the eternal expansion of the universe.

The NFFR and Mandira Pattnaik Interview

Is your MicroLife essay related to anything else you’re working on?

I’m glad I wrote this essay, because CNF is not something I attempt usually, focusing more on fiction and the odd poetry. But this piece enabled me to look at bits of me that were lost somewhere, gathering dust. I look forward to writing more.

Your flash fiction will be featured in Best Microfiction 2021. How do you feel the intense gaze of this kind of storytelling influences creative nonfiction?

For me, it acts like seeing the narrative through a magnifying glass, what kind of experiences have shaped those stories, the tiny fragments appearing more in focus, enlarged, and therefore, nearer to the truth.

How has this unusual year affected your writing and reading?

We’ve taken the lockdown restrictions very seriously, which has meant more time with family, and being thankful for whatever we hold at the moment. I have returned to my first love of reading and writing with renewed vigour.

Mandira Pattnaik’s work has appeared or is shortly due in Watershed Review, Passages North, EllipsisZine, Bending Genres, Citron Review, Prime Number Magazine, FlashBack Fiction, Reflex Press and Amsterdam Quarterly, among other places. She has received nominations for Pushcart Prize 2021, BOTN 2020 and Best Microfiction 2021. Her writing has been included in anthologies and is due to be translated soon. She lives in India.

Desert horizon in black and white

Photograph by Wes Hicks.

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