A Tale Of Two Sisters And Their Cosmic Quest – An Excerpt From Mad Sisters of Esi by Tashan Mehta


The first time I realize my sister wants to leave, we are in the White World.


I call it that because it is all you can see when you first fall out of the door—swathes of white. The ground’s pull here is soft, bouncy almost, and we tumble gently into the milky mist. It covers our vision like a thin film, but I am unconcerned. The whale would never hurt us. As we bounce and tumble, I reach for my sister’s hand. Only when we clasp does the white clear a little, and we see what this world is made of.


Below us is a landscape of ochre and purple red. When we touch the ground, we discover it is sometimes watery, sometimes made of brittle ice that easily cracks. But it doesn’t matter; we are nearly weightless here. Myung’s fingers slip from mine. She disappears into the mist and then reappears, thoughtful.


In most chambers, we cannot see the ceiling or the walls—the rooms are too large. Doors themselves do not stick to the walls. They position themselves wherever they like. (The door to enter this world, for instance, was in the sky.) But we have never seen a world as obscured as this one. I can smell its freshness.



I know, then, that we are in a chamber that is still forming. I can tell from the turn of her head that Myung has realized this too. I bounce into the mist, away from her, and stay with my awe. I am watching a world being born. For the first time in my life, I am witness to what Great Wisa, our creator and first friend, must have seen.


I listen for the whale’s song. I hear only a hush, as if it is holding its breath. When I look for Myung, I see her crouched on the purple-red plain, her head bent. I tumble towards her. She is staring at a pool of yellow water. When I peer over her shoulder, I find her reflection gazing at me: the wide eyes, the pointed chin, the small furrow between her eyebrows that means she is thinking. I feel a surge of love. My sister. My other half.


Myung touches our reflections, watching the water ripple out and our likeness disappear.

She asks: Do you think there are more of us?

And I feel an emotion I have never felt before.


It strikes first in my heart, clenching it, and then sinks its fingers into my stomach. I cannot breathe. My skin is clammy. The name for it arrives a few seconds later, flowering in my mind’s eye fully formed, carrying its meaning with it—as if I have always known this emotion and its name, but only forgotten it.



FEAR. One syllable.

I do not know why I am afraid. There are only two keepers of the whale of babel, I whisper. You and I. Great Wisa made it so. Instinctively, I touch the back of her neck for comfort.


Myung contemplates my answer. Still staring at the pool, she searches for my fingers and clasps them. Her reflection smiles—a kind smile, a loving one—and my fear grows.


Choosing Fabrics: Imagining the Whale of Babel

Of all the man-made wonders of the universe, nothing has fascinated academia more than the whale of babel. When we still believed in the dominance of logic, it was assumed this whale was mythical and that its many chambers were fairy tales. But it is now widely accepted that the whale exists, although no one can find it. We are left, then, with more questions than answers. Who is Wisa and why did she make the whale of babel? What is its origin story? And what, indeed, is the whale made of?


Several academics have ventured to answer this last question. Early theories believed the whale was like any other, made of muscle, flesh and bone. But this conclusion is too simplistic: it doesn’t explain the whale’s chambers or how it keeps growing in infinite proportions. Tribes of the arboreal faith say it is made of wood and grows as a tree does: layers of rings accumulated as years pass. Common theory propounds that it is made of stardust, growing from the suns that birth and flake in its belly. This is why it swims so well in the black sea; it is made of the stuff of universes.


Forget those theories for a moment. Remember that the whale is man- made, that Wisa is likely its creator. Don’t think in broad natural strokes but in the tools a person may use.



Imagine the whale is made of fabric.

Agreed, this is not a romantic notion. It is not sleek or aesthetic. If you are imagining it now, you’ll probably see a flaccid creature and not the whale baby-universe of wonder you were hoping for.

But fabrics offer us a unique possibility: they can be woven together. They are plural and singular, complex and simple. And our whale of babel, if nothing else, has been a symbol of this duality: a children’s fairy tale that remains the greatest mystery of our universe.


So, imagine the whale of babel as made of three materials. The first is a more traditional material, close to what we know as ‘matter’. This is a dense fabric that retains the shape it is given and is the essence of the heft in the whale. The second is a more pliable material, capable of changing its form. Professor Uoe calls this fabric ‘wish-giving’ and it is likely responsible for the formation of the chambers within the whale.

The third material, of course, is the fabric of time.


Excerpted with permission from Mad Sisters of Esi by Tashan Mehta

Publishing/ HarperCollins (2023)

You can buy your copy here



Tashan Mehta is a novelist whose interest lies in form and the fantastical, and how a dialogue between these elements may offer us new and collective ways of seeing. Her debut novel, The Liars Weave, was published in 2017 and shortlisted for the Prabha Khaitan Woman’s Voice Award. Her short stories have been anthologised in Magical Women and the Gollancz Anthology of South Asian Science Fiction: Volume II. She was part of the 2021 and 2015 Sangam House International Writers’ Residency (India) and was British Council Writer-in-Residence at Anglia Ruskin University (UK) in 2018.