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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 35 August 18, 2018

Gazabganj

Thursday 16 August 2018

Short Story

by Satyabaani

‘Jazbaat kehte hein, khamoshi mein basar ho jaye,
 
Dard ki zid hein, ki duniya ko khabar ho jaye’
 
(poet unknown)

He got up wondering why he was feeling so lousy. He examined his face in the mirror, closely. He had made every attempt to get rid of his beard and exterminate any signs of it cropping up, but despite having shaved carefully he had nicked his left cheek again. He carefully dabbed some eau-de-cologne on it. Then he wet his towel and wiped himself; although he was craving to have a proper bath he knew he would have to wash when he returned and the water was rationed. As he zipped up his pants, he was grateful that his mother had not done it to him.

 â€˜Done what?’ she had once asked.

‘Slit my foreskin.’

‘It’s a ritual your forefathers did,’ she explained, gently.

‘Who wants to be caught with ones pants down and lynched by a mob?’

She had remained silent. Then she asked him, ‘Should we leave?’

‘Where to?’ he had responded, silently.

One day he saw her taking out all the savings and going out. She had stood in serpentine lines as the new currency had been changed to a digital presence—all notes were banned—then she just died in her sleep that night, from sheer exhaustion. Before he could mourn her, he worried about where he could possibly bury her. The traditional burial grounds had been razed and converted into shopping malls, so he just buried her in his room, with a great deal of love. That night his pillow case had been soaked with tears and his white sheet turned into a letter. He wrote to his mother that he remembered that it had not always been like this.

 She had once told him his grand-uncle, Habib-ur Rahman, had journeyed with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in a submarine to fight for azaadi. Ours is a family of freedom fighters she had said with pride. But if we fought for freedom, why is our freedom being taken away, he had asked? But she did not reply and her image receded. He remembered her Iftar parties when everyone came and embraced each other and the rozas were broken with dates that melted in each other’s mouths, like wet kisses. And with the rains came the jamuns; once he kissed Radha—his true love—while she was eating them and their kisses were purple. He remembered those kisses long after the rains stopped, love-jihad and the long drought began and everything and everyone turned dry. Was it when someone did something horrific, calling software engineers—who were distributing sweets to children—‘child-lifters’ and lynching them? Or was it when they entered that man’s kitchen screaming he was eating beef and killing him, for after that the attacks started and didn’t stop. Reports of students being blinded by pellet guns came from Lashmir and the television debates turned into a Con-versation with everyone proclaiming the Great Leader. If anyone expressed dissent he was branded a ‘press-titute’. No one quite remembers when things changed but then the struggle of memory over forgetting was all about the struggle of power.

This morning he left to perform his national self-service duty. How he loathed cleaning the animal, assuming faked pleasure; he had to stroke her teats, draw milk, then feed her fodder, all the while chanting a prayer:

‘Blessed be the cow, our holy mother.’ 

He was squirming, but then his insides were not feeling too good. It was his recurring irritable bowel syndrome and his intestines were aching. He desperately needed to use the toilet.

The cow had a shower dedicated to her and an uppala bhavan where dung-cakes were collected and used for prayer. However, he had to use an out-house—at a considerable distance away—and it always stank to high heavens. The smell used to fill his nostrils and enter his entire body, making him convulsively sick. Manual scavenging was a thing of the past as the Dalits had refused to lift the cows’ carcasses and been flogged. The automatic sewage removing systems didn’t work either, due to the over-consumption of electricity.

Suddenly he just had to go. He moved quickly, holding his stomach, when she charged at him—perhaps his cologne had irritated her—but her horns ripped his pants, his thighs and private parts. In an attempt to save himself he had thrashed out, screaming, ‘Shoo! You bloody cow!’ and flung a pail to create an armour between them. But he had seen it all; the man with the orange bandana and the pale brown under-pants. He spoke to the supervisor in hushed whispers, who immediately suspended him from the national social service.

Relieved, he returned home and slept. There was no point in showing the injury to a doctor, no one would believe that a cow could horn anyone without any provocation. But the area swelled and it became painful to sit or even to stand. He went to the doctor—an old man who possessed a medical degree—a real doctor was difficult to locate as now just about everyone: physiotherapists, homeopaths, naturopaths along with the psychopaths, were called doctors.

The doctor scrutinised the wound, ‘How did you get this?’ he asked, his tone was shocked.

‘A cow butted me’, he replied.

‘This is serious. I will have to treat it before it turns septic.’ So with a local anaesthetic and a scalpel, he cut the foreskin and when it was all done he wrapped his wound in a bandage. It felt odd, but in a few days he was fine.

Then one day he got an electronic slip in his mail:

Court summons UID number 0000000045678941 to report to Court 2 of the Civil Magistrate on 30 January 2047.

There was no cause mentioned. Although he had changed his name, his Unique Identification Number remained the same; his permanent and unalterable electronic tag. And where was the office of the civil magistrate? He looked at the fine print—next to the National Temple—but there was no street mentioned; only this was outside the precincts of the smart city.

Since the collapse of agriculture and handloom, all land and labour had been taken over by the merger of the global corporations and the Special Economic Zones. The CORPSEZ employed the youth on a contract basis; once the contract was over, only the willing and the enthusiastic were recruited by the Branch to spread ideology, convert vacant mosques and churches into temples and lynch anyone moving a cow. Rattan figured he was going to be near the temple and would be safe.

On the appointed day, he dressed and shaved with solicitous care and put on his bracelet with his UID number. This was compulsory as it tracked all movement and everyone had to wear it, except members of the ruling political party. As he drove in his tiny electric car, electronic signs of a series of tanks flashed onto his screen; these he knew symbolised educational institutions, as by official decree all schools and colleges had to have tanks placed inside their campuses to instil nationalism. He drove carefully, and passed what he once remembered was Mughal Sarai—was he amnesic—but then he saw the sign for the temple and knew he should park right there. The land for the parking was now with the temples and the fee paid for the upkeep of the priests and the gaushalas. 

He parked and did the mandatory obeisance to the national temple of God-se upon which a triangular orange flag flew. This flag was now mounted on every playground, onto every child’s slide, for when the kids were high up they should feel the corresponding colour of victory. This enabled them to automatically punch the right button when they came of age to vote. He did obeisance before the temple and the flag and looked up towards the camera; he knew his salute had been duly recorded.

As he walked into the narrow alley, there were rows of children who were defecating in sewers and then taking turns at playing. He noticed that the balls were discarded plastic bottles and the bats were of a soft-drink that had been banned because of excessive pesticide. Washing of old linen and underwear had been hung to dry. He held the court summons in his hand and wandered around.

A group of women were sorting the wheat from the chaff, eyed him suspiciously but went on with their work. They were seated on a low stool, their fingers nimble but their eyes were darting this way and that.

Rattan felt they were looking through his pants into his injured parts, but they looked at him disinterestedly when he stopped. ‘Excuse me’, he said with excessive politeness, ‘I am looking for Court Two.’ One of the women asked the other but she shrugged and her shawl slipped off, revealing a large bosom. This reminded him of his national duty, but he had been taken off the work.

He went upstairs and passed squabbling children playing hide and seek behind the laundry that was drying. He saw many men asleep in the landing and this confused him as it was office time and certainly not time for a siesta. Just then a woman opened a door and shouted, ‘Find a job, or don’t come back!’ and a man slipped out sheepishly. He realised the homes were full of women cooking and bustling children; the men were obviously not wanted inside.

He climbed two floors and then two more. Each landing had its own special smell and an air of melancholia and neglect; as if only the vagrant and derelict could sleep here. Time had stopped. He was just about to give up when a man came up. He was dressed in a suit and had an officious air about him. He reprimanded him, ‘You have been recorded wandering aimlessly.’ It wasn’t a question, but a statement which got Rattan irritated, after all he had on his electronic bracelet; was he now required to give an explanation to this non-entity? Just then he noticed a glint in his eye; this man had power. He quickly showed him the slip and asked almost obsequiously, ‘Do you know the way to Court Two, please?’ The man laughed with scorn and said derisively, ‘Go on, upstairs.’

He walked up another flight when he heard clinking sounds, but they did not rise to a crescendo, they were random. He headed towards the room from where the metallic noise emanated. He entered a large room where everyone was lying in bed; both men and women. Only they were not in each other’s arms; some were delirious and kept screaming, ‘I didn’t do it!’ all the while their UID bracelets banged their heads and their beds, alternately.

Rattan was horrified as he walked past them, but then he heard the sound of trickling water and he headed towards it, to assuage his parched throat. He saw a huge slab of ice above a doorway; the ice was strapped by thick iron bars and a wire mesh, but it was clearly melting and there were large puddles beneath. On the ice was a huge neon sign that flashed on and off:

JUST

Rattan observed electric wires were enmeshed within the ice and was mortified; what if the ice melted and fell on his head or if the wires embedded within, had a short circuit and started a fire? He had no choice but to cover his head with his hands in self—protection and to carefully step across the puddles, then he swiftly ran through the door, hoping he would be able to exit safely.

He walked into a room that was brightly lit and full of people who were talking all at once. It was easy to spot the judge; he had on an artificial wig that judges had in the past and was seated on a high table, over-laden with electronic paraphernalia. It was loaded with computers that stored over five billion pending cases and video recorders that recorded evidence that people were giving; simultaneously. No one could understand anything, but the cameras kept rolling.

He waited with respect. After several hours, the judge called out his number, but it took him a few minutes to understand that it was his turn.

He said, ‘Yes, Sir!’ much like a school-boy with alacrity. The judge glared at him angrily.

‘What is the charge you are here for?’

‘Sir, I don’t know.’

‘What do you mean you don’t know?’ the judge spoke sharply.

‘No one told me.’

‘But you must have done something,’ he said accusingly. Then he peered at his computer and shouted, ‘Matricide!’

The buzzing court hummed in horror. Everyone looked at him, askance.

‘Matricide! You killed your mother? You understand the seriousness of this crime?’

‘My mother died some years ago, Sir!’ said Rattan, bewildered.

‘Here it says clearly. Charge: ‘Matricide’,’ the judge spoke severely into the microphone.

Everyone looked at Rattan, aghast.

‘But Sir,’ he pleaded, ‘my mother died of natural causes. There must be some mistake.’

The judge was even-toned, ‘Do you plead guilty or not guilty?’

‘Not guilty, Sir.’

‘He pleads not guilty,’ the judge said into the electronic recorder. He continued, ‘In the evidence recorded by an eye-witness, the accused was seen using an upturned weapon to attack his mother, resulting in grievous injuries to her upper-half.’

‘Upper-half?’ queried Rattan, ‘What Sir, do you presume of my mother’s upper half am I deemed to have injured?’ Just the thought of hurting his beloved mother’s image had offended him and he was deeply affected. He felt his irritable bowel syndrome returning and clutched his stomach in an attempt to control it.

The judge looked at the computer briefly and said contemptuously, ‘Skin, mouth, nose and ...’

‘And?’

He peered at the computer and adjusted his spectacles, ‘Horns’ he said, briefly.

‘My mother had no horns, Sir. She was a kind...’

‘Your mother, our mother, the holy cow,’ interrupted the judge.

‘I plead not guilty!’ Rattan raised his voice in anger.

‘Unzip his pants!’ called out someone whom he recognised as the man with the bandana, but today he was dressed in black and looked like a lawyer.

Someone in the melee pulled down his pants.

‘Cutoo!’ hissed a voice in horror.

‘He’s circumcised!’ shrieked the crowd.

‘Do you have anything to say in your defence?’ roared the judge.

Rattan tried to speak, but the words would not come out; he felt his tongue had been slit and the gap was wide open. His jaw went into a spasm; had his tongue too been circumcised, he wondered.

‘Guilty!’ pronounced the judge and banged the table.

Rattan shut his eyes; he expected to be lynched as was the order of the day. He found himself turning into a lamb bleating, ‘Behead me with one jhatka, but do not do the halal on me; only do not dismember my body!’ He felt a warm liquid trickle down between his thighs and a smell which they as children used to call bu and run away from. But he was past caring; he was a lamb pleading for one blow, trembling with his neck bent forward, when his beloved mother’s image floated before him. She was speaking as she always did, sweetly and softly, but her words were clearly audible, ‘This too will pass, son.’ Then her image receded.

He opened his eyes after what seemed an eternity and saw that the judge had moved to the next case. The crowd too was acting as if nothing had happened. He dressed swiftly and eased himself out of the courtroom; a slinking dog that has been injured, but lives.

He drove back carefully and as he got home he took a sleeping pill and crashed on his bed; it had been a nightmarish day and he wanted to erase it from his memory.

After a few days he went on to his computer and logged on his unique identification number; it had been deleted.

 He didn’t exist.

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