Unpublished fiction - from March 2017
On the night that the last of the rats died, the company threw us a huge party. Utensils made of solid gold, a ten-foot high mountain of strawberry cheesecake, dancing women and men wearing nothing but orange bandannas around their sweaty foreheads, a buffet of all-you-could-eat beaver biryani, and free glasses of water. The works.
Chairman Domi tapped his glass of water with a small, gold spoon. Ting ting ting! the sound reverberated within the eager pracharaks in his inner circle, and when all of them stopped their murmurings, the second round of tapping – ting ting ting! – silenced the entire hall. Sweaty dancers stopped dancing. Half-chewed biryani came to a static halt within the hungriest of our mouths. Only the music flowing out of the speakers remained, a soothing ancient recording of a rainforest at night, the beautiful static buzz of heavy rain, and the occasional howl of extinct beasts.
For a moment, I imagined I heard the sound of barking, too; not the rough barks of a wild beast, but the gentle yipping welcome of a pet. Like Junglee when he greeted me home, wagging his tail in expectation.
But the sounds of all the different animals in the recording soon fused into the chorus of one, into the desperate growls of one beast in the rainforest that represented them all.
In silence, all our eyes in the party turned towards our Peerless Chairman. He stood on a slightly elevated stage, just a few inches over the ground over the rest of us, in front of a bright background of thick, green curtains. The colour of the greenest grass our forefathers had ever seen. A large banner of the company motto, ‘Humans First’, shone in white and green lettering behind him. The Chairman himself wore an oversized, green suit to this party, the same shade as the curtains, and he looked wider and larger in person than even the statues of him that adorned every block in the Valley. He snorted and stared down at us, scanning his eyes across all one hundred and eight pracharaks in the room, before he finally found me looking back at him. Underneath those wide, snorting nostrils, his bushy moustache grew into a wider smile.
He tapped his transparent glass one more time, with more celebratory violence than ever, so much that, by the third tap, a few drops of water even spilled out in front of our thirsty eyes.
Ting ting ting!
“Welcome, members of the committee. Now give me your attention.”
Chairman Domi raised his glass higher and pointed in my direction. Multiple rows of junior committee members parted to clear his line of sight. They followed his gaze to me.
“This is a triumph for Pracharak Aiyar,” he announced to the room. “The company and the Valley will be forever grateful for the Genetic Defence Department for saving humanity from our latest plague.”
Our Chairman moved away from the centre to reveal a surprise: on the stage behind him, the curtains parted in slow mechanical motion, revealing another group of naked dancers in their orange bandanas, waiting in silence. The DJ flipped the music from rainforest delight to a frenetic, sickening whisper of rodents and dry scratches of claws against metal. Responding to the new sounds, the dancers began to swirl and crawl around the stage, mimicking the movement of rats, mice, and squirrels. They embodied the madness of rodents and attacked each other in faux-violence. Strobe lights flashed on stage in green, white, and red. I held my breath in excited anticipation.
But then, the music changed again. The clawing and scratching gave way to a silence, followed only by the soft dripping of liquid. The light turned blue, the dancing human-rodents slowed down their movements, until eventually, each of them fell down to the stage-floor to their dramatic deaths.
The curtain closed back to green, the music changed back to the rainforest wetness, and a hooray of applause rang out from the crowd.
Chairman Domi took the centre of the stage once more, pointed his thick finger in my direction, and announced out loud. “Pracharak Sebastian Aiyar.”
More applause. I felt joy surge within me like never before in the EverPlague. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead and on the back of my neck. The sound of my heart throbbed out in harmony with a celebratory drum beat.
As a youth, I was always afraid of my pounding heart. I believed that there were only a finite number of heartbeats permitted for living beings. Most of the time, I could operate without being aware of my heart’s continuing functionality, but whenever I felt or heard it beating, I calculated that I was reaching a beat closer to death.
A human heart beats over a hundred fifteen thousand times a day. I knew that. And I feared the constant burden of my heart, always ticking away. I denied myself every sensory notification of my heartbeat: I ignored it when it drummed out loud and rarely allowed my hand over my chest to feel it pump.
In those days when I used to give Junglee a bath, I would minimise contact with the smooth part of his torso, near his brisket. His heart seemed to beat twice as fast as mine, so when my fingers cleaned the fur around his back, his shoulders, his forelegs, I merely splashed some water over where his heart paced, afraid that I would steal away from his curbed dog years.
Vineeta had a heartbeat, too. It pumped when I lay next to her, when the two of us were a snug fit inside a one-person sleeping pod. I felt it blast in joy in our moments of breathless exhilaration. I heard it in the morning when I fell asleep with my head on her breast.
I thought about the War, the pigeons, and about Vineeta. About letting her heartbeat dial down till she didn’t have enough fated to keep breathing any more.
“Congratulations Pracharak Aiyar,” the Chairman said and brought me back to this night. “We shower our blessings on you,” he added.
“We shower our blessings on you,” the rest of the pracaharaks around me echoed.
The Chairman tipped his glass of water over to me, acknowledging my part in the salvation. I ignored the deafening clobber from inside my chest. It banged for attention, cried with joy. I smiled.
The victory of our Department of Genetic Defence has brought me a step closer today, higher up in the structure of the company and closer to the innermost circle of the chairman. “Another victory like this, Bhai,” the company’s interpersonal representative had said this morning, “and you’ll fulfil your dream to leave the units in the lower Valley.”
The inner circle. Where the Plague never reached and the taps were never dry. I knew that.
When the chairman and the other pracharaks drowned down their glasses of water in acts of sloppy festivity, I joined them, too.
“We have defeated the beasts!” The chairman raised the glass even higher, and then brought it down to his lips. With a mouth wide open, he gulped all the water down his throat. When he was done, while a few drops of water dripped down over the grizzled terrain of hair on his chin, he repeated himself.
“Our Valley has, once again, defeated the beasts!”
A thunderous roar followed his proclamation, one hundred and eight voices echoing him until the whole hall boomed, united in wrath.
“Defeated the beasts! The beasts are dead!”
“Humans First,” Chairman Domi announced.
“Humans First,” the rest of the room echoed.
I raised my glass, and with a full throat of hate, screamed out to our leader, our Chairman. too. “The beasts are dead!”
I was well hydrated and feeling a sensation of strength that I hadn’t felt in years, since before the EverPlague, before the culling, before the times of the flus, the wars, and the Dryness. It took just a few sips of the purest company water to take me back to the youth, back when it was all wet and greener even than the Chairman’s suit, back when the beasts roamed in their jungles and we roamed in ours, back at the time of the horses, the pigeons, and the rodents.
I returned to my unit alone that night, feeling pride, too, that I was closer to the Peerless Chairman than ever before, that I carried in my hand a plastic bottle of water – transparent and undefiled, cleaner even than the best of potions at the gene laboratory – handed to me by the Chairman himself. The night was my moment of celebration before the eyes of every pracharak, every committee, every junior and senior leader fighting for salvation in these times of EverPlague.
But as great as the reception had been from our Peerless Chairman, I got an even better welcome at home. As soon as I turned the key over the iron lock, untangled the chains heavily laced over the sliding bolt on the door of my unit, I could hear Junglee howling from inside. The sounds of his paws approached the other side of the door in reckless excitement. With both hands, I untied the thick array of chains, slid open the bolt, and using my shoulder and both my hands, pushed the door in.
It lunged in with a thud, and immediately, Junglee barked with joy.
“Good evening Junglee,” I called out to him. The unit was dark except for the rays of faint neon-blue light that streamed in from the towers outside. Junglee rubbed his dry nose against the back of my thighs, starving for attention. I placed the bottle of company water on the floor, and with all the might in my body, pushed the metal gate shut behind me.
Immediately, the acrid smell of my unit – sour corn and Junglee’s unwashed fur – wafted up towards me. I cringed my eyes shut to the new bitter air, and, with a few smaller preparatory blinks, opened them again to the blue darkness.
“And how was your day, my friend? Did you eat? More loud noises? My apologies about the noises, Junglee. You must ignore them.”
I sat down on the cement floor next to him, allowing him to sniff my overcoat, my hair, and my bare hands. My eyes still stung from the sharp smell of corn in the air. No, not the corn itself but the bitter oils it had been pickled in. After a few more tear-inducing blinks, I eventually adjusted.
“Are you thirsty, Junglee? Hungry? You would have enjoyed the party. The biryani, the meat, the pracharaks. You would have met the Chairman, too. The Peerless.”
I reached up to my company water-bottle, a transparent plastic container filled one litre to the brim, and shook it by the neck. I watched the blue light from outside the window refract through the precious liquid, and behind my own faint reflection on the bottle, I saw Junglee’s eager face.
I unscrewed the bottle top and took a sip – just a small, delightful sip – and smiled. Then I got back on my feet, reached up behind Junglee, behind the hinge of the gateway into my unit, and poured the rest of the water carefully into his ceramic bowl.
“It’s for you,” I announced and motioned him with my head towards the bowl. He stood up with his neck alert. “We got rid of the rats, Junglee. All the rodents. The beasts are dead!”
His brown eyes, peeking droopily from underneath those bushy, yellow eyebrows, lit up. He barked at me again, looking excited and energetic like a dog much younger than his age, like the puppy I had adopted a decade ago.
No, he looked even younger than that. He looked like Jerry, the puppy who my family had raised when they raised me, when I was the young one, when I was excited and energetic. Jerry, the mustard Labrador my parents owned when we lived outside the Valley, who yipped and barked and chewed on empty bottles of plastic water. It was memories of Jerry that had come swarming back to me when I had first seen Junglee, a Labrador with the same coat and the same long tongue that sagged outside his ever-open mouth, and it motivated me to adopt him. It was those same memories that filled me up to the brim today, memories of the days of my youth, of the days when my cousins and I wasted water from spray guns on Holi and ate onions.
Yes, I saw a bit of Jerry in Junglee when he moved towards his bowl, how he revved up in excitement with his heavy hind legs. Junglee’s yellow tail curved up to the ceiling, wagging in disbelief and delight, his tongue extended deep down over his yellow, furry chin, and he ran towards the bowl. He dove his large head straight into the water. With frantic, wet splashes, he drank.
I was lying on my back, all four lengthy limbs of my body shelved tightly inside the sleeping pod and Junglee curled up in the cracks of space between my feet, when the buzzer of my phone woke me out of my half-sleep, of the period somewhere between my dry-throated yawns and the ataraxic, cold cloudland of my dreams.
That sound was familiar, the buzzing, which turned now into the bold trumpets of our company’s anthem, and yet, in this moment of night, it still managed to terrify me. The trumpets blared louder with their urgent call for alert and alarm with each hysterical ring.
I jerked my feet up instinctively to the music and unintentionally kicked Junglee awake, too. His sleepy head hit the top of the pod.
“Careful Junglee,” I yipped after him. “My apologies. Are you okay? Be careful.”
I removed the pod’s roof and let both of us out to the dim blue lights of the rest of the unit. The light was immediately followed by the heavy breath of the world outside the pod, the unfiltered air, the scent of lead, the smoke. Junglee sneezed. I coughed.
The phone kept ringing.
Junglee jumped off of me down to the floor below. I stepped off the pod, too, and, slowly adjusting my eyes awake, found the phone. I sat down on the cold floor with my legs folded one over the other. The maniacal buzzing tune of the trumpets gathered louder into my unit, until finally, I silenced it by answering the phone.
It was a cable from the Department of Informative Defence, coded ‘Red’, a declaration of utmost emergency. There hadn’t been a Code:Red message since the first rogue rodent, the rat that first posed direct violence to the human populace and eventually had beckoned the Chairman to declare war.
We had attacked, cured, and eradicated the species. A new Code:Red surely meant that, either some rats had survived, or a new beast had been found displaying anti-human behaviour.
Department of Genetic Defence – Classified Wire: New case of Anti-Human behaviour reported in Block 87, Unit 64 of The Valley. Citizen (female) discovered deceased to unnatural causes.
Behind me, I heard Junglee trot slowly back towards the gateway of the unit, to his porcelain bowl of fresh new company water. I blinked a few more times in the ever-darkness of the unit and strained in front of the bright screen of my phone. Liquid splashed against the inside of the porcelain as Junglee sipped the water. I heard the sounds of his jaw rattle against the bowl and his exaggerated gulps of satisfaction.
The Department of Population Defence has already exterminated the first infected beast.
Patient Zero: Canine.
Pigeons. I thought of the pigeons.
Population Defence cadres have been dispatched under the blessings of Peerless Chairman Domi to arrest and exterminate all beasts of the potentially-infected species.
I thought of the pigeons whenever the Department of Population Defence stormed into the Upper Valley. I thought of the time the first of the birds was deemed infected and the company declared a war on the skies. “Humans First”, I chanted to myself. Even after the Chairman had eradicated all Intra-Human crime, victory over the EverPleague couldn’t be achieved until the last of those beasts were slaughtered. The pigeons were the worst of the wars, with almost as many human fatalities as the flying fiends, but as always it was the Chairman who had lifted us with his words. “To drink the water, we must suffer the thunderstorm,” he had said.
And I had suffered it, too. I looked over to the corner on the farthest left of my unit, the section unglazed by the blue street light outside the window, in darkness that shrouded all memories, of the time before the wars, of Vineeta. The War on the Skies took everything, left me and Junglee alone in this unit. Junglee and I.
The company demands all pracharaks of the Department of Genetic Defence to return to the laboratories immediately for Phase 2.
“Junglee,” I called him from across the room, “Please come here, Junglee.” In the sound my own voice I heard a heavy, loud breath. No, I heard a gasp. I could feel my heart beating again. Then I could hear it out loud.
I heard Junglee behind me, his snorts of satisfaction, his paws lazily slapping against the cement. He yawned.
I reached down to him and ran my hand over his back, feeling the uneven fur between my fingers, rough over his backbone, softer and smoother on his shoulder and sides.
And then there was silence.
And then there was a knock. A loud, pushing knock, so strong that I felt the entire unit had shifted in reaction. The chains on the bolt outside rustled in warning. A heavy bar of metal thrashed against the gate.
Junglee jumped up, alert, to all four of his limbs, and stared in the direction of the new noise. He looked back at me and then at the gate again, taking one step towards it, and then two steps back, back closer into me.
I sat frozen on the floor next to him. From outside the window, the two rays of faint, blue neon light got thicker, then brighter, so bright that eventually, my entire unit was alit with penetrating blueness like never before. I now saw clearly the collected items of my past around the unit, the dry beakers on the lab table, the corn cobs in the kitchen sink, banners that proclaimed Humans First in green and white pasted on all four walls of the square around me. And in the most cluttered corner, farthest left from where I sat, behind the rubble of wooden furniture I hadn’t used since the War of the Skies, I saw Vineeta’s empty sleeping pod. It was the part of the room that I had allowed myself to forget in umbra, allowed to remain in the shadows and the decaying pain of the past.
I looked back down at Junglee and kept gently massaging him on his back. I wrapped my whole arm around him. My hand reached down to the smooth part of his torso and over his heart. I felt his heartbeat reverberate against my palm, until the pace got faster, louder, and synced together with mine, and then, I heard it out loud, smashing into the unit like the knocks and blows of the Department of Population Defence cadres at my gate.
I put my other arm around him too, and now embraced him tighter, until my arms met around his neck. Junglee moaned and writhed within my grasp, attempting to get up, tapping his hind legs against the cement, wriggling his head side to side to slither free. My heart was beating faster and louder than I had never heard it before. A hundred fifteen thousand times a day. I knew that.
“My apologies, Junglee.”
On the night that the last of the dogs died, the company threw us a huge party. Utensils made of solid gold, a ten-foot tall tower of cherry cheesecake, dancing women and men wearing nothing but orange bandannas around their sweaty foreheads, a buffet of all-you-could-eat fox biryani, and a free glass of water for everyone. The works.
In his oversized green suit, looking larger in life than I ever remembered him, Chairman Domi rose above to the stage and greeted us. He stood in front of the blinding green curtains, the colour of the greenest rainforest frog species in the Museum of Human Conquest. The curtains contained a large banner stretching from one end of the hall to the other. The words ‘Humans First’ – emblazed in white and green – barked back at us.
Chairman Domi tapped his glass of water with a small, gold spoon. Ting ting ting! the sound reverberated within the eager pracharaks in his circle, and when all of them stopped our murmurings, the second round of tapping – ting ting ting! – silenced the entire hall. The dancers stopped dancing, each spoonful of biryani was laid down, and the careful sips of water came to an uneasy pause. Only the music flowing out of the speakers remained, the soothing ancient recording of a rainforest at night, the beautiful static buzz of heavy rain, and the occasional howl of extinct beasts. Soon, the sounds of all the different animals in the recording fused into the chorus of one, the desperate growls of one beast that dominated them all.
The Chairman looked around the room and nodded at each of the senior pracharaks of every department, at those from the Department of Healthcare Defence and the Department of Informational Defence.
I kept my expression fixed, a stern look back at the chairman, vicious with rage like the rest of them. When Chairman Domi’s eyes met mine, I strained to keep myself from blinking, from quivering away.
Finally, his gaze met the Director of Population Defence, a tall, lean pracharak named Bakshi, who stood in complete attention with his backbone straight and his neck swelling up high. The Chairman raised his glass over at him and nodded.
“The beasts are dead,” Chairman Domi announced to all one hundred and eight of us, “We have defeated the beasts.”
“We have defeated the beasts,” the rest of them echoed.