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The Spider

Rahul Kanakia's first book, a contemporary young adult novel called Enter Title Here, is coming out from Disney-Hyperion on August 2nd, 2016. Additionally, his stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Apex, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, The Indiana Review, and Nature. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and a B.A. in Economics from Stanford, and he used to work in the field of international development. Originally from Washington, D.C., Rahul now lives in Berkeley. If you want to know more you can visit his blog at blotter-paper.com or follow him on Twitter @rahkan My story notes are: During the partition of India, the capital city of Punjab, one of India's wealthiest states, ended up on the other side of the border, in Pakistan. So the new country invited the Swiss architect Le Corbusier to come over and design a new city to replace the now-lost Lahore. It couldn't have been an easy task. Lahore is a beautiful, ancient, and graceful city--there's nothing else like it in South Asia. It has a cool climate, beautiful old architecture, and although it's crowded, it still feels extremely spacious. I suppose my bias is obvious here. I grew up in another planned city (Washington, DC), and I've often found planned cities to be a bit sterile and unlivable. It's odd, but cities that grow organically often seem to have a certain logic to them: it's easy to get to where you want to go, because neighborhoods and hot spots grew up along transport corridors. In unplanned cities, streets snake and wind and end up exactly where you need them to go, whereas in planned cities, they're fast and straight and don't go anywhere. I've never been to Chandigarh (which is why I changed the name of the city in this story), and but I'm told that it's beautiful. Someday I'd like to go
Razabad is a city of white stone and straight lines.
This wasn't always true: for a time, migrants tried to put up wavy shanties in empty lots and build huts of corrugated tin that leaned against the stone pylons of underpasses. They tried to live inside cement cylinders and within the few feet of space between the side of the tunnel and the side of the train. But the spider picked their tiny nests apart and tucked everything back into its proper place. The spider is the only thing in Razabad that is allowed to be curvy and jagged.
Although Razabad was planned by a white man, he was chosen because he fit the spirit of modern India: careful, precise, and forward-looking. The planner had to be coaxed across the sea by a saffron-robed freedom fighter who was well-practiced in bringing tears to the eyes of a certain kind of Anglo.
Long before the city became a reality--long before there was even a nation of India that was capable of desiring a monument to its newfound modernity--the planner had spent hours in a tiny office in Geneva where he rotated and maneuvered the pieces of his dream city, bringing them together and pulling them apart, until he despaired of ever producing something that wasn't just a jumble of conflict and ugliness. Until, on one marvelous day, the pieces snapped together and that vision of order rose above him.
He wanted to create a city that was so perfectly efficient that its residents barely noticed it operating around them. A city that put a minimum of barriers between its residents and the things that they wanted to do.
And that is the plan that the freedom fighter allowed him to enact.
With one tiny addition.
Since the planner refused to design the spider, it has no order or unity. It is a dull grey heap of wire and jagged servomotors. The planner's only concession to its existence was to create a bunker--hidden by a line of hills--in which to store it.
The migrants rarely try to assert themselves upon Razabad anymore. Now they live orderly lives: rectangles drive them from the light-filled and spacious circles where they live to the vast obelisks where they work to the tree-lined squares where they are allowed to play. It is only very rarely that a rumbling builds up inside them and they spill out of their appointed rectangle and stop up the orderly flow of traffic by overturning vehicles and dynamiting buildings and laying waste to gardens
This is not a problem.
The spider simply skitters out of its distant hangar and sits among the fire and disorder for a few moments. And then it flies into action.
Afterwards, the streets and buildings are in different places, but the city retains its essential unity of form and vision. It takes several weeks for new maps and directories to be printed. During this time, residents of Razabad sometimes wander the reconfigured streets for days before they can find their homes.
Several decades after its construction, the planner returns to Razabad to accept India's second highest honor: the Padma Vibhushan.
For him, it's a return home. As he's grown older and sicker, more of his mental life has been spent wandering the ur-Razabad that has never left the back of his mind. But the real Razabad is not the same. A vast slum begins on the other side of the ring road--just beyond the spider's range. From the air, Razabad is a white spot amongst the brown. And he can feel his vision humming through the landscape, but... it's somehow been diminished. The roads are narrower. The buildings are smaller. And he thinks, Well, I suppose it never really existed in the way I imagined it did.
So he puts on a smile for the freedom fighter--a man who's only increased in power and respect and responsibility--and they accompany each other to the reception and the ball and the expedition to the newly built power plant. And both of them try to ignore the dark stare they receive from the people who've been pushed behind the barricades so their motorcade can pass.
Only once does the planner venture, "They must be in a great hurry to get where they need to be?"
The freedom fighter smiles and says, "It's been too long since you've lived here, my friend. Or you'd remember that Indians are never in a hurry."
But when the planner arrives at the staging area for the parade, he's startled. He remembers this hill: it had once been terraced with cool white homes that stared out over the city through eyes of tinted black glass. Now the hill's decorated with the delicately intertwining ribbon patterns that are impressed into the brown dirt by thousands of wheel treads. Hundreds of thousands of people fill the streets of the city below. The crowds--pushed into thin lines by the barricades--vibrate faster and faster.
He says to the freedom fighter, "What happened, what have you done to my city?"
The freedom fighter's response is, "It was not easy, but we've managed to maintain the purity of your vision, my friend."
Just then, one barricade falls and the crowd gushes into the street. The crowd envelops the sirens, and then a fiery eye weeps black smoke into the air. More barricades fall, more cars are overturned, more fires begin.
On the dais, the freedom fighter raises one hand. A shadow flits over them and only then do they see that the spider's long leg has daggered into the earth beside them. Another moment and it's gone.
Its belly hangs over the city and then it is still.
Buildings are aflame now. At the outskirts of the business district, a high-rise rumbles and falls.
"What? Are they using explosives?" the planner says.
"Do not worry, my friend. It will be taken care of."
The spider's arms shoot outwards in all directions. Buildings are pulled down and entire streets full of rioters are dammed up. Roads are uprooted and parks are delicately rearranged. Material is flying through the air. Mounds of dirt and debris are pushed out of sight, behind the hills, and buildings are nudged sideways. The planner can feel the city shrinking. In throwing away the destroyed buildings and cannibalizing others for material, the spider is preserving the center of the city at the expense of its edges.
And, for a moment, Razabad shimmers, perfect and new, as if newly extruded from the planner's mind.
But then there's another explosion, and the crowd pours through the corner where it had been penned away. As the spider's arms shoot out over them, the crowds fill the streets with fire.
"Turn it off," the planner cries. "If they don't want it, then let them tear it down. Let them tear it all down." Tears fill his eyes.
The freedom fighter slowly shakes his head. And then he sinks down into his chair and folds his hands and watches the spider weave it vision.
"Can't you see it?" the freedom fighter murmurs. "In this whole wonderfully efficient gem of a city, the spider is the only thing that is beautiful."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 13th, 2016


During the partition of India, the capital city of Punjab, one of India's wealthiest states, ended up on the other side of the border, in Pakistan. So the new country invited the Swiss architect Le Corbusier to come over and design a new city to replace the now-lost Lahore. It couldn't have been an easy task. Lahore is a beautiful, ancient, and graceful city--there's nothing else like it in South Asia. It has a cool climate, beautiful old architecture, and although it's crowded, it still feels extremely spacious.

I suppose my bias is obvious here. I grew up in another planned city (Washington, DC), and I've often found planned cities to be a bit sterile and unlivable. It's odd, but cities that grow organically often seem to have a certain logic to them: it's easy to get to where you want to go, because neighborhoods and hot spots grew up along transport corridors. In unplanned cities, streets snake and wind and end up exactly where you need them to go, whereas in planned cities, they're fast and straight and don't go anywhere.

I've never been to Chandigarh (which is why I changed the name of the city in this story), but I'm told that it's beautiful. Someday I'd like to go.

- Rahul Kanakia

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