Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Metro: "I Arrive Without Departing"

The crowds spilling out of the metro are successful people with jobs, the men wearing ironed clothes, the women in synthetics. The young people are rushing to some exam or the other, they feel that if they pass this exam, then the world will open out in it’s myriad hues. They don’t look up because they don’t imagine that the scenery will change,  for outside the sky is always red, and the winds hot. The moon turned black many decades ago, and the sunlight dimmed just yesterday. Today, they are in the underworld, and the sky seems far away, the neon lights are also dim. There is no tomorrow, the sirens wail. There has been another incident, another life lost. The stations are dense, the tunnels will take them out into radial roads, and all life is lived underground.
The storm begins to rise, the dust particles falling into the eyes, the clean ironed lines of trousers, the shine of nylon disappearing as the fine dust flies about. I live in a small house in one of the outer streets, where a single cactus still survives. Birds have died, and the caterpillars have become so outsize, that all remaining foliage becomes shredded even before they sprout. It was the year that we had acid rain. It fell on all of us, creating a specific pattern on our skins as it fell. We knew that if we opened our eyes, we would be blinded, and we knew that our tongues would be serrated, as if we had consumed hot pepper corns fried in oil. The world seemed no longer home, so we covered our faces and limped home, applying balm on our skins where ever they had been burnt. In the mines the old lords still extracted every ounce of metal, and the slaves lived on saliva and the wandering microbes that still inhabited the earth. We knew that our days were numbered, but no one counted them anywhere. Children were born scarred in the womb, and mothers died as they gave birth to disfigured beings. Dragon seeds of war had been planted everywhere, and the perfect ones, born with out blemish, ran in and out of the ghoulish metro trains, which dispelled the crowds with a clang of its doors.
In my own house, ofcourse, the moon still visited, quite dreary, an image of someone who had once lived, and was now extinct. I knew it’s coming was a sign of my own madness, my nostalgia, my foreknowledge of things which had once existed and now had died. Why did I look out for the moon? Why, for no reason. All humans remembered the moon, because their mother’s bodies had catapulted to it’s call, along with the cries of the gulls as the sea waves receded. None of us had seen the silver sea for decades, it had gone under a billion volts of dead rivers, it’s own saltiness now defined only with the brackishness of radioactive river water.
I got  out, off the metro at just the right moment, where the tunnels had become like a capillary of veins. I jumped into the crowd, and was wafted by them leaving my fears, I allowed myself to be sifted by the armed guards into the right avenues. I didn’t anymore need to show my card, because the wiring on my wrist activated the routes I had to take, and the scanners immediately swung into action, creating the right kind of leverage. I no longer felt that I was a prisoner of the system. I had even begun to enjoy the rush of electricity that charged into my veins. It was the right amount. A little more, and I could be electrocuted. I knew that, the interrogators knew it. Should I be marked by some casual officer, who did not share my physiognomy, racism it was called in the old days, there was every chance that I would be catapulted into the beyond.
I thought of the beyond almost every day, the still heart, the flat line of brain on machines, where picture book nurses would then call the family doctor, who would sign on the dotted line, saying that I could be sent into auto mode. That meant flying off without a body, and hoping that the bright light would encompass one into the petals of new flowers. Those bright lights were indeed hard to face, one went off into the first gloom and then the next.
Goodbye, world, family, humans, machines, red dust, black and empty moon. Where could one go without a body? It was too hard a question to ask. I would leave it for another day. The small yellow flowers in the red sky were actually stars. I looked at them everyday. When my twisted mind looked at the red sky, I actually saw blue. I lived in the past, it was not permitted. I had to be moving forward like everyone else.
Sometimes in the crevices of the tracks small plants grew, not dependent on the light of the sun, but able to grow, synthesise, sprout leaves without buds in the harsh electric lights which sprung up every few metres. They attracted no insects, not even the large caterpillars which were the most commonly known relic of the past. We were shattered by every jolt of the passing trains in our tiny flats, which like the plants that grew anonymously were in the trusteeship of the electric lights, which took on a strobe like quality whenever there were electricity fluctuations. Quite often, I found myself living in swathes of time, which were unknown to my neighbours for most of them were decades younger than me. Old age is that ephemeral thing, allowed to persist like a common disease if the state permitted it. The real truth was that none of us were able to live in the tempo of the present. We rocked back into the colourful days of our own youth, and that was seen to be an immensely destructive emotion. The vigilantes knew by the glazed look of the old, that they were not keeping time with the galaxies of the present, and that we were again captives of clear blue skies and opaque water in rushing streams. They would jostle us whenever we reached that state, because surely, surely, with our head in the air, we would miss our stations and reach avenues of time and space beyond our comprehension. Everything faltered in us, every time we made a mistake, our watches become disoriented, our tags failed us. If we went into a time zone too distant from our own, we could become electrocuted by our own emotions. It is not that we had nannies, it is just that people followed us all the time, wishing us to return to our rightful places.
Move on, Move on!
I am not sure, am I at the right station? Please can you look at my identity card?
Move on!
Sir, is there an enquiry booth?

Somewhere in the babble of similar disjointed speech and aching limbs, a hand would suddenly reach over the milling heads, and someone I knew, would point me to the returning train, and yes, I had got off at the wrong stop and would be lost for ever if I did not move fast.
The lights always blinded, the dark was always corrosive, the air was hot, since the air conditioners were pitched not to cool and calm us down but to actually relive the heat outside, so that we could acclimatise to the environment. Everything was done to make us accept our world. We were not expected to control nature, we were not expected to make our lives comfortable or even liveable. We were here to prove that we could inhabit that dusty planet with the veneer of water, a thin fragile coating on which one day we would be inhabitants returned to our original home.
My house was always dark, with the vague roseate glow which came from the streetlight as it strew the cobbled streets with pretty scraps of yellow light. I looked out, and dreamed of the slice of moon that was our due, but no longer shone on us. As night came on, the dusty air would part, and the motes would circle like planets in ether in the streaming electric light. Strangers passed by my window, wearing their gas masks or their visors. Curiosity had died a tired death many decades previously, and we no longer cared what the other thought. My companion was a young woman who had been deputised by the state. She had her own thoughts, and did not intervene unless there was a crisis. She called me Mom, and lived as if she was an independent tenant. Her silence pleased me, for nothing was expected of me. I was grateful for her kindness, a technician of time, who tied my tags just so, wired me up for travel, took off my boots when I came in from the cold. Her name was unpronounceable, so I called her Angel. She did not mind, her smile was effervescent. She was just thrilled with life, with the cold comfort of our cerebral days on planet earth. I found her yearningly looking toward the sky just as I did, but all we got was cement hanging over our heads. She did not feel lost, stranded, hopeless as I did. She had no longings other than to leave the metro station - housing that we were all forced into, by the eye-ball signatures we entered as we left the transport stand. But where could she go, the officials had placed her with me, saying that our charts showed that she would be a compatible care giver. She smiled brightly at me and asked if she knew the man who had shown some interest in marrying her, and would I have place for both of them?
“Show me his picture, and I will tell you immediately. My memory is good, I can tell with one glance, if I know your suitor or not. “
He was a small man, rather sweet looking, with a saturnine gaze. “Of course, I knew him,” I said, smiling. We had been colleagues at  an art gallery. He looked after the guests, and I kept accounts for the owners of the place. We also ran a café together, which we managed with our other duties. He is a nice man, I said. 
“So can he live with us?
“If you have no objection to sharing a room, certainly, he can live here.”
“We would have no objections, at all, Ma’am!”
 I looked at her with amusement. The delight was so huge, it wrapped itself around her like a warm glow. “And what will you live on?” was my unspoken thought. The girl was like ebony, her skin so dark, it gleamed in the shadowed light of the ever luminescent tubelights that lit the narrow circular pathways of our hooded city. She was tall, thin, and completely at ease. I enjoyed her company, though  I often felt that she was looking at me carefully, a little too carefully. When I asked her the reason for her protracted stare, she would laugh and deny it completely. I knew that she lied easily, because there were times, that her eyes became catatonic, glazed, empty of expression. That was the way, she blocked off her thoughts and became impenetrable. I was keen to meet her boy friend, but she said, she would bring him home closer to the day of their union. Was she thinking of my place as her home? I was startled by that. But ofcourse home is where we live, where we keep our things, where our footsteps lead us.
When she was around, this companion, social worker, nurse, official…. I could no longer remember her true status, the atmosphere was always bright,  even chatty, one might call it. It was never forced, except ofcourse when she disappeared into her lonely tunnel of thoughts. I would sometimes shake her gently when it happened, and she would reappear from her trance, looking as if her view was fragmented. There was nothing cruel about her, ever, she was absent for a moment or two, that was all.
I will put up bright curtains, and buy some flowers. Let me tidy your book case today!
Not a bad idea at all. What would you like to eat? We have some roots, sweet potatoes I think they called them in the old days. And ofcourse mushrooms.
I like potatoes. Is there any fruit?
Yes, we have some dates and figs, which I bought when the sun still shone on the planet. They have kept well. It’s hard to imagine that once they are over, we will have forgotten what fruit was.
I am sure they will be able to have orchards on electric light in another couple of decades, then we will be able to eat again. These are only the transition years.
We stared at each other for a moment, then I went back to putting photographs in chronological order. There were thousands of them, all collected in  shoe boxes.   The state had given me the extraordinary privilege of working with these when I was most in need of money, and had written many letters  to the powers that be, asking for work.
Each of them was of post card size, and had been taken by different people.
The idea was to provide a certain classification by country, where the colour coding would provide an idea of the time of day when it was taken. It was of archival interest only, since the general public would not have access to them, but after filling many forms, and waiting in many queues it would be possible for an occasional researcher to find an answer for something he or she was looking for. Suppose for instance, they wanted to know how many times the colour red was found in the old world, and in what objects, or why the colour yellow was associated with cheerfulness, and summer sunshine, whether in flowers, clothes, or shoes, the photographs would provide the answer. The question had to be specific, the answer general.
Once I had come across a couple, the man was gentle looking, and the woman equally so, both lived in the tropics, and they kept reappearing in photograph after photograph. Who was their vigilante? It was very clear that they were being followed. It seemed as if the one who wished to impress their image on carbon was someone who was near and dear. It was not clear whom he desired more, the photos had a clarity and  an intimacy about them. I was interrupted in my thoughts by my young companion who asked me if I would like to go out for a while.
I had no desire to see the artificial moon that the authorities hung out with its painted smile. It shocked me that people actually thought that it made up for destruction by bombing which took away everything that made us human. Why would they want us to go out at all? The girl however looked happy. She went by the simple name of Anjali, which was easy to pronounce, though sometimes I forgot and called her Angel, and suited her good looks and charming manner.
You go, I am busy today.
But it is compulsory for us to be seen enjoying the evening.
Oh, that’s for young people like you. We don’t have those pressures.
Come, Auntie! It’s something which we need to do together. I only get paid every month if I tow you out, willingly or unwillingly. I can get the wheel chair if you like, we only need to pay a small amount by token.
The wheel chair!
Yes, it is comfortable. If only you would try it out. I think we should today.
There was something menacing about her. I thought it’s so hard for young people to keep their jobs, and something which looks like charity, or state endorsed social work, is actually a “job”. I smiled at her, and she was suddenly comforted, and it was as if she was the dependent. The care giver had become the dependent. Elation coursed through me. I was the reason she got food to eat, had a home to live in, had the possibility to marry. My immense powerfulness was as if it was the reason that the earth still careened around a non-existent sun. She began to escort me outside, and I knew that her sense of assurance came from being registered once more in the official log book of duties daily carried out by young adults pursuing a career in Life Insurance.
Everytime Stella (I often thought of myself in the third person,allowing for a certain detachment in telling my story) went out with Anjali, she was startled by the beauty of their world. Though they lived in fear, yet, in the underground caverns of the earth, there was still a memory of galactic time, the sonorous nature of the dark, punctuated by the eerie whistle of the metro trains, as they shunted hour after hour, without break. They were with out drivers, decades ago the administrators had taken away the soulless concentration of driving the underground trains, and replaced humans with automation, which worked well. No one thought much about it, even when Stella was young, she remembered that a woman had pointed it out to her, and she had shrugged, merely shrugged. Man or Machine, it was emotions that made us human, she had thought, and those without machines, they belong to the world of the damned and the becalmed. They, the humans, would be pounded out, left to die, no one would have anything in common with them.  It was in essence, the oligarchy of the meek and the composite, those who spoke one language, and lived one dream which was bleakly posed. “How to make the Habitable  Inhabitable, and the Inhabitable Habitable”. The Greeks had a word for it, Midas, but here we just lived as we did, by the monosyllable of time, where nothing existed but our need for thought.
We walked silently back, or rather Anjali did, her heels clicking with a simple staccato beat rather like a heart. I was contented imagining the stars, the planets, the whirr of moths by the old street lights. We never allowed the State to interfere with our thoughts, and though they had digital archives of our feelings, emotions, dreams, they never quite admitted that they could manipulate us with those. We were wired up to the hilt, internally and externally, but other than the name tags, which allowed us to move in and out of determined zones, we were not really visible as automations. Ofcourse, it’s clear, we had emotions, we were not automats, robots as they called them in the old days.  Tactility was one of the last instincts to go, and we watched each other for the flutter of eyelashes, the tensing of muscles or the clinching of fists. When we reached back to the square where I lived, the metro lines curving to accommodate the street lights and the odd bench, I found I was out of breath. It was fear. I thought of the young man who would be making his home with us, an artist by temperament, and very good looking too. I remembered from our companionate working days that he was rather loud in his laugh, a forced laugh. It made  everyone understand that he felt it would be a wall against his introverted self to project what he was not. Laughter is like a veil, it hides our torment, our sense of worthlessness, it can come bellowing out of us, or snicker quietly behind the hand. I dreaded that part of his personality. For the rest, I had no problem that he would be sleeping with my aid, and together, the house would burst with a certain sunny quality that both had. We had no sun, but we remembered sunshine, and still warmed to the digital reconstructions which so often came our way.
Somewhere, there was a silvery light which echoed the moon, returned to us when we least expected it. It was there, when we woke up at night, thirsty, hot, baffled, a bit like a lizard’s tail that slaps the ground as it lies severed. The moonlight was eerie, full of stops and starts, and then one realised, it was the light from the metro windows. The trains were silent, no long drawn out whistling, no sense of going anywhere, for after all, they only went round and round the desolate tracks. There were no buildings, no monuments, no histories. Information was carried in us, when we died, and were electrocuted to ashes, our memories enbloc were fed into another human. There was nothing frightening about it, because we ourselves knew that childbirth had become another fiction, another way of thinking about something that would never regenerate biologically. Decades had passed since in vitrio had become the only way to give birth. It was not test tubes, it was cloning that won the day. I had insisted that I be buried, so trees would grow on me, and everyone looked away shiftily, knowing that the warp lay in my recurring memory codes that placed me in an old weft of time.
I often referred to myself in the third person, Stella, as if that would cover up for my lapses, as if I need not be responsible for them. “That Stella!” I would croon to myself, as I  went to sleep, remembering every event that happened. It was so important to do that, with words, and with images. The memory was replenished by the retelling. My laugh often rang out into the night, and sometimes, I talked. Anjali, with her youth and the huge work load that she carried every day, did not puzzle about this, because she normally had her ear phones on. Even when she tended to me, as she did now, edging the chair carefully over the kerb, she was singing softly to herself. Sometimes the ear plugs fell out, and in the static I could hear the music of the 70s, the 1970s, as they called it so long ago! How pleasurable, the Jimi Hendrix, the Bob Marley, the Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, the Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Englebert Humperdink, Tom Jones, Bruce Springstein, I could go on and on……She would plug them back, and the moment was gone, we were back in 2022.
 Look at it this way, they had told us, when they shifted us down into the metros, that  we were the survivors, and we would live in the stations and basements and yes, even inside  the underground trains. They told us that while the new subterranean city was being built, the plan was to lift the earth what remained of it, on to a giant cable and we would be flung further away from the black hole of the sun, and the diminished, no, the eclipse of the moon. It didn’t happen that way. We all lived underground, and that became our home. Occasionally, we would hear, that Gaiaa had appeared, and flung some stable station half way across the world into the sea. Sizzling and steaming the earth ran into the sea, the people with it.
I was never very worried, since for more than a decade, the question of the world to come had been settled through our continuity by cloning and the mesmerising space of our memories congealed in wiring that matched our nerves, pulsated with them, mimicked them. What was there to fear? Fear was for those who had an imagination, who could think about the future, who had hopes, aspirations, lived in a bubble of time. I presumed that our generation, old, yet full of the memories of a century or more, were bedecked with our sense of laughter, pride, vulnerability. We were indeed human, not yet cloned, still present with our being as God given, rather than Science given. We were the first generation survivors of the world which was reaped, harvested, devastated, reborn, reinvested. We knew the past, not as refurbished by techne, but by our bodies’ experience of it. 
We were inside the cavern of the buildings that housed my two room flat. There was no kitchen, all food appeared through the machine, that was placed in each room, with an incinerator by it’s side. It would be appropriate for the age and status of each person who thumbed their identity into the technology. It would be translated to chefs who believed that it was their destiny to turn the  home fires of their clients into  edible matter, a computer programme, which could be reinstated into the  working routines of the next day.

The fire would burn an electric orange, the dishes would be placed, the food would be piped into the plates, hot, bubbling, nutritious, even colourful. Industrial piping was successful, rust free, and if clients were not pleased with the dreadful regularity of the menu, they had no one to complain to. Anjali pushed my  wheel chair with a little venom over the ridge and it was her ribs which were jolted, mine had been replaced with a viscuous plastic, many decades ago. Unlike the artificial or cadaver replacements, the plastic which was generated from flat broad computers to be found in every house were ever so convenient. Along with limbs, one could print them out according to need. I never even had to strain, I knew the zones by their colour, not by their number, and so had become efficient at replacing those of my body parts which had taken too much strain. The blood swirling was still my own. The plastic anatomical recreations were as eternal as the soul.
Anjali was now weeping with the effort of pushing my wheel chair. I felt sorry for her, after all it was not my idea to go out into the smog, the poisoned air, which was so heady that it made one feel one had smoked forty cigarettes and would soon die. Any normal person would faint with exertion. However, it was one of her duties, and she had to tick a certain portion of the form everyday to receive her due payment. I got up, pulled my turquoise shawl over my head, because the night guard always looked to see who I was, and I thought covering my head, helped disguising my identity. Hair colour was such a great way of believing that one was younger, and I never bothered with it. I walked without a sense of exhaustion, trilling with the excitement of being home. The guard peered at me, for quite a while, following with his gaze right upto the escalator, which was not working. It was a strain for him, but then I coughed, and he recognised my cough, and pushed a button, and we were heading upstairs. The girl was still heaving, sputtering, her face contorted with the effort to breathe. I opened the door, the lights were all on, as the guard had switched those on seeing us falter up the landing. Life was short for the caregivers, they had to remain stationed against their monitors. They really had no way of calling the world their own. The privilege of age was really a form of ancestor worship.