Amma was chopping onions into paper thin slices and I was grinding the spices in the mortar, a heady aroma of clove, cardamom and coriander spreading in our kitchen, when we first heard the news. It cast a pall on our Sunday biriyani feast. The news that my uncle, amma’s beloved brother had succumbed to the illness.
Amma said nothing. Tears streaming down her face, whether from the onions or from grief, I couldn’t tell, she still chopped the onions into thin, translucent strips that would be fried to a golden brown and mixed with the curd for the chicken marinade. My mouth watered at the thought. I hoped we wouldn’t have to forego our meal because of my uncle. Chicken was so hard to come by in the countryside and who knows how many months would pass before we could have another such meal.
The new illness which had consumed my uncle was sending shock waves throughout the country. It was believed that the virus had been quarantined in the city. We were reassured by our panchayat that we were safe. But what if we met the same fate as the city dwellers? This unspoken fear hung heavily on our tiny hamlet of thirteen households. Our population had dwindled with each passing year. The lure of the glittering city seemed to call out to the youngsters of our village while their hapless parents could do nothing to stop them.
My parents lived in constant fear of my escape. I was the only boy fit enough to father the children of the hamlet’s daughters. The rest were too old or too sickly. They eagerly waited for the day I would come of age.
I didn’t like that, not one bit. Someday, I would make a bid for freedom too, when I was older.
The illness was a mystery. The scientists could not predict its cause. First, they thought it came from the cattle and poultry reared in the countryside. Large batches were incinerated and the sale and consumption of meat was banned. But the epidemic continued to have its victims.
Appa, who had brought us the sad news, watched my mother with concerned eyes. They looked so haggard, my parents, worn down by worry. That is all this generation did, worry about the present, worry about the future. I often read in my textbooks about festivals of hope and happiness,celebrated by our ancestors, but somehow I could never relate to that. How could I, when I had never seen it?
My mother went on slicing the onions, as if that was the only thing that existed for her. My father cleared his throat nervously and continued, “He has left all his estate to you. Worth fiveCrores…” in an awed whisper. The knife slid out of my mother’s hand and dropped to the floor with a clatter.
“Yes. To you, Vimla.”
“What will we do with all that cursed money? I don’t want it!” She picked up the knife and went back to slicing onions with a hand that shook slightly.
When the ban on meat was announced, the city dwellers turned to the black market to get it. The demand skyrocketed. My uncle owned several warehouses in the suburbia where he traded illegal meat to his customers. My mother was heartbroken. She believed that the strange illness came from the infected livestock and blamed her brother for taking advantage of the situation. She had cut off all ties with him since then. Even after the government declared livestocksafe for consumption, my mother distrusted it. Finally after a lot of pestering from appa and me, she had given in today.
I wondered what was going on in her mind. Did she feel Guilt? Sadness? Elation? I, for my part, was happy. This meant we didn’t have to work so hard anymore. I might even get to see the suburbia. I wanted to see the city too but that was out of bounds.
Appa demurred. “But, Vimla…the money …” Appa was never very strong-willed. He seemed to need a little moral support from me and I joined in the fray.
“Amma” I said. “Think of all the good we could do. We could help the hamlet. We could get water, food and provisions from the city.”
“The City? The city is cursed, my son. How can you trust anything from there?”
“But amma!We will starve if we do not get help soon.”
“The government will help!”
“The government doesn’t care for us! Did you see even one official come down to our little village during the drought?”
Amma was silent. “What if we get infected too?” She demanded, her eyes darting from me to appa, from appa to me. “The suburbia was supposed to be safe. Look what happened.”
We didn’t know what to say. She was right. It was unsettling to think that the virus had spread far from the centre of the city to its suburbs.
Appa brought out the government document we had to sign as nearest of kin so that uncle could be incinerated with dignity. “Whatever you may say, Vimla, he was your brother. We need to pay our respects to him. The officials said they would give us hazmat suits. They assured me it is hundred percent safe to make this trip.”
“What about Mina and her family? They used to dote on him when he was alive. Aren’t they going to do the final rites?”
“When the will was read out and they found out he had left all the money to you…”Appa’s voice trailed off meaningfully.
“Poor Anna, what has he not done for Mina and this is how she chooses to repay him. We will go! Let it not be said that both his sisters washed their hands off him. We will do the final rites. When is it?”
I was delighted! Finally, away from the godforsaken countryside, even if it was only for a while. I had never stepped out of our little hamlet and longed to see the world.
Amma had gone back to slicing the onions. I attacked the spices with renewed vigour, filled with fantastic dreams of the city.
That Thursday, we set out to the suburbia – amma in a simple subdued blue saree, appa in his white dhoti and me in my school shorts – some of our more decent clothes that could be worn in a public gathering. Many well wishers would be there. My uncle had been free handed with his wealth and had earned the love and respect of many with his generosity.
We first had to collect our suits from the mandalpanchayat office where they had been dispatched. Amma had woken up early to pack food for the journey – A few dry jowarrotis wrapped around some green chillies and onions. Our meagre rations would have to sustain us for the eight hours it would take to reach the suburbia.
The bullock cart lumbered steadily in the red dust of the dry, parched roads. The dust was dangerous. You risked an inflammation of the lungs if you inhaled it. We wore the masks we had been given during the last drought so it wouldn’t settle in our breath. We resembled human lab rats, being put to the test at our own mercy. The dust swirled in the wind, swaying and dancing in the shimmering heat haze of noon.
To our consternation, the dust had covered us up from head to toe. Our only good clothes, sacrificed at the altar of the malevolent dust gods!Amma had the good sense to wrap a shawl around herself.
We had wilted in the sun by the time we reached the panchayat office – A gray dome building made of glass that reflected the sun’s rays with such intensity, you had to look away or shield your eyes.
I had never seen anything like it! When we stepped inside the first isolation chamber, hot gusts of air blew in from all sides andcleared away the dust that had settled on our clothes and hair. The medicated air was too hot, scorching us, but it felt good on the skin. At the next level, the shafts opened and violently blew cold air upon us, to restore our core temperature. The red dust hadvanished and all you could see was the sterile metal floor. Three men in hazmat suits took us to a capsule where they examined us for symptoms of the lethal virus.
Amma and I had been given the all clear. But, they were not done with appa yet. I wondered what was taking them so long. Amma fidgeted about, worried.
The minutes ticked away. Still no sign of appa.Amma had started pacing the floor, up and down, up and down. Her footsteps echoed a constant ra-ta-tat that increased my anxiety. What if he had contracted the virus?
An official approached us after an interminably long wait. He took amma into another room to speak with her. I strained my ears to hear their conversation, but not a sound escaped from the shiny glass cabin.
I waited on tenterhooks. The door opened quietly and amma came and sat next to me in the waiting room. She looked pale and shaken. I was bursting to ask her what happened, but gave her some time to regain her composure.
“Appa failed the free association test.” She said, her face grave.
They gave us the free association test to see if we showed any symptoms of the virus. They would ask us to say the first word that came to our mind in response totheir pre-chosenspecific words.
“They gave him the word ‘happiness’ many times in the test and he responded with ‘money’ each time!”
We looked at each other, scared. Preoccupation with money.The first symptom of Affluenza.
“What are they going to do?”
“They say that his results were normal in all other spheres. So, they could be mistaken. They will give him another set of tests in an hour.”
She took up a newspaper from the table and began to read, resolutely avoiding my gaze. I was left alone with my worries.
I must have dozed off because amma was wriggling my arm and asking me to get up. Appa was by her side. I felt relief! I cast a questioning glance at my mother.
“Oh they made a mistake. He cleared all tests successfully.” She said and smiled at me. Her smile looked a little rusty; she hadn’t smiled like that in a long time now.
“Hurry up! We’re late.” said Appa, glancing at his watch. He handed us both the Hazmat suits. “The officers said it isn’t safe to go uncovered from here on. Wear this and we shall leave.” The suit was several sizes too big for me and uncomfortable to walk in. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. We looked so comical, a family of two clowns and a midget.
The officers around us looked astonished. Laughter was rare sighting.
We hurried to the bullock cart. Another three hours before we reached the suburbia. It was only as we sat in the cart that we realised how hungry we were. Amma handed us three jowarrotis each and we devoured them. I ripped off my face mask and tore the roti with my teeth like a dog. It was little, but it had to do. Amma measured out the water for us to wash down the food. She gave me an extra roti from her share, for which I was grateful.
I slept in the cart, waking up from time to time to take in the surroundings. I strove to keep awake as far as possible to soak in the sights around me, but the heat made it impossible to keep my eyes open. I would be awake for a few seconds, jolted by some movement of the bullock cart, then I would doze off again. The landscape was unchanging. It looked like nothing survived in the harsh sun except for a few cacti scattered here and there.
In my mind’s eye, I replaced the sordid landscape with visions of the city. I had heard very little of it, for it was a taboo matter to be spoken about. Whatever I did know only increased my curiosity and sense of wonder. I had heard of the glass sky sphere – how it was designed to contain the pollution outside the city with a special mechanism that could paint the hues of sunset and aurora borealis at the touch of a button.
I knew there was no longer day and night because sleeping, by government mandate, was considered unproductive. Sleep was credited to each person based on their worksheet and bank balance.The loan sharks tolerated no defaulters if you took some forty winks on loan. The cityfolk preferred instead to visit the illegal pharmacy for pills that promised to break the 24×7 cycle. I feared and secretly admired their lifestyle – their relentless quest for money, efficiency and productivity. The system had been perfect…until now.
My reverie was broken when Appa pointed to the shimmering disc-shaped objects in the distance.
“Is that the suburbia?” I asked appa.
He shook his head. “The checkpoint. We’re almost there.”
As we neared the checkpoint, I could see several officers waving us towards them for the inspection. Appa rummaged in his bag for the authorization papers but the suit was giving him trouble. Finally, with our collective efforts he was able to find the documents and handed them to the officer.
We had to show the documents again at the toll plaza along with our identification papers and the medical certificates they gave us in the panchayat office. They seemed to scrutinize appa’s documents more closely and questioned him about the results. One officer called me aside to have a word. I was surprised.
He thrust a strip of pills into my hand and said, “If he shows any more symptoms, just put this in a glass of water and make him drink it. The sedative will calm him down and give us enough time to intervene.” He saw my alarmed face and added, “Nothing to worry about. Just a precaution. We can’t take any chances, especially with people from the countryside. Don’t let your parents know.” He patted my shoulder and went away to attend to someone else.
Amma asked me what the officer said. “He was just verifying appa’s results.” I lied.
Amma was vexed. “Do they think we are liars or cheats? How many times will they keep bringing it up?”
My father placated her and we headed back to our bullock cart. One final officer instructed us not to remove the face mask, no matter what happened. The automated gates opened on the other side to reveal a tunnel and we went in. The shade of the cool tunnel was a welcome respite from the blistering heat.
Full of lights, there were large hoardings and LCDs where beautiful ladies exhorted us to buy their products. They were very attractive and seemed to look right at you as though no one else was present.
We gazed at them transfixed. As we went deeper into the tunnel, someone ran up to me. It was a young boy. He looked exactly like me. A well-dressed version of myself in expensive clothes, grinning happily. He had lots of shopping bags in his hands and he opened them to show me what he had got. The cyclone bike water blaster, zombie strike machine guns, the zorber, An orbit plane and falcon kit, levitation 2000 – All those things I had dreamed of possessing. He came towards me and held out his hand. I tried to shake hands but all I met was thin air. That was when I realised that this was a hologram. A hologram of me. The government pamphlet had warned us about them. The advertising agencies used them to perpetuate the virus. The boy spoke to me, “Come to our shopping precinct, we guarantee you’ll be happy.” He kept gazing at me and I laughed in sheer joy. His words made me feel euphoric. I turned around and grabbed appa’s arm in excitement and told him, “Look!”
But Appa was turning in the other direction. In the split second that I turned my head, the hologram was gone. I felt cheerless and depressed.
I turned to see appa and amma.
To my alarm, I noticed that appa had taken off his face mask. He was talking to a hologram that looked like him, but even better. The hologram didn’t have his paunch. It had well-sculpted muscles and two apsara-like beautiful girls were sitting on his lap, throwing their seductive gaze on appa. I was shocked to see appa reach out to stroke the thigh of one of the holograms. It didn’t seem to occur to him that they were not real. One of the apsaras reached out and kissed him. The hologram-appa was saying something to my father in low undertones and appa was nodding his head in agreement. I tried to shake him out of his trance, but to no avail. One of the apsaras laughed at me mockingly.
I turned to Amma. Amma was transfixed with the hologram version of herself. She had long beautiful hair down to her knees and was decked in gold. There were men swarming around her and admiring her. She wore the most luxurious sari I had ever seen, as though it was spun out of pure gold and embroidered with rubies and the rarest of gems. She had an amber-coloured drink in one bejewelled hand and smoked a cigarette with another.
I shook Amma hard and shouted her name. She woke up as though from a deep sleep and looked around with dreamy eyes, unsure where she was. I told her what it was that we had seen and warned her to close her eyes for the rest of the journey through the tunnel.
Appa was lost. No amount of shouting, shaking or shoving from me and amma would wake him up.
I wondered if I should give him the sedative. I hesitated. The government pamphlet had not mentioned this in its list of symptoms. Maybe I should keep a watch once the holograms disappeared. That was the right time to check for the effects of the virus. I didn’t say anything to amma but reassured her as best as I could.
The rest of the journey, I closed my eyes, only to open it from time to time to see if the tunnel had ended. Whenever I opened my eyes, my hologram would be there, trying to hypnotise me into a false sense of happiness.
The next time I opened my eyes, I saw the tunnel branching in three directions. A signboard indicated that if we went straight, it would lead us to the incinerators. I steered the bullocks to the left tunnel, which wasmarked ‘Suburbia’. The right turn would go to the city. As we entered the left tunnel, the holograms vanished. Appa hadfallen asleep. I shook him gently and he woke up with a start.
I asked him if he was alright. He nodded, a strange bemused expression on his face. He looked all around as if searching for something. He grew agitated and without warning turned the cart the other way into the tunnel to the city.
Before I knew what was happening we were sucked into a vortex. The holograms returned, more powerful now. The boy that was me seemed to grab me by the shoulders. I closed my eyes but the boy’s voice whispered tantalisingly close in my ear, “Don’t be sad. Don’t be poor .Come to the city; you’ll be happy forever.” A low thrum of voices resounded in my head. They kept repeating the same thing, over and over again.
I remembered the pills. I put all of them in the water, and made appa drink some of it. He was in a trance, unable to swallow it, and the water dribbled down his mouth all over his white shirt. I pinched his nose to force-feed him. The minute he swallowed it, he fell asleep. Next was amma. I took off her face mask and made her drink the water. She fell over appa as if in a swoon. I drank it too, trusting the officers to come and rescue us. The water had a slight bitter flavour and the LED lights looked blurred. The rich hologram boy was taunting me, showing me scenes from the shopping precinct……Soon after, the darkness swallowed me up.
Officer 21 threw the diary in the incinerator with a heartfelt sigh.He had gone to visit the boy one last time. Terminally ill with no chance of recovery.
On second thoughts, he would keep the diary. It was the last lucid chronicle of the Affluenza epidemic. He could sell it online for a lot of money. It would be the ‘The diary of a young girl” of his times.The whole thing was a potential goldmine.