Rana Pratap Saikia
CHAPTER 1: Present Day
“Perhaps civilization is one of many social experiments that went wrong”, I ponder to myself as I look outside my cell window at the desolate picture below. Perched like a lonely eagle in my seventh storey prison cell of despair, the picture in my mind remains foggy. A blinking camera on the ceiling reminds me that ‘The System’ is watching my every move. My throat is parched from thirst, my belly hungers for food and my body still aches from the hours of flogging it has been subjected to, but my mind remains free.
I, Subject 2203, have spent many a night ruminating upon what might have been if I had not been caught. I probably would have found a way to contact the Rebels by now. But then again, maybe I am secretly thankful that I have not, seeing as how common it is to find Rebel militants' corpses lying in the vast stadium-sized garbage dump at the edge of this godforsaken city.
I haven't slept in days as cries of prisoners being subjected to flogging ring out across the empty nights.
So I lie awake, and I think. I think about my life as a child, I think about my parents, but mostly, I think about her. I have heard tales that she is still alive, my beloved Shakthi.
I have heard tell that she is now one of the ‘Women Power United’ militants, a group of outlaws. They probably wiped her memories with the memostik treatment and programmed her through their telly propaganda to fight for their cause. Now a part of me wished that she would be able to evade capture, but they got to you sooner or later. If you were a man, The System would grab you and if you were a woman, you would eventually be recruited to fight for the cause of the WPU (often against your own will). Of course there were the transsexuals, who identified as neither gender and thus were mostly left alone. All public transactions and businesses in the land of Maatha were conducted by transsexuals. Left in the fringes of society, they mostly stuck to their own kind and led a jolly existence.
I gaze outside the windows, and see a couple of children fighting with sticks. A System Guard sees them and tries to break the fight up, only to be viciously attacked by the two little devils who shout with glee in unison with every blow they land on the guard. He eventually decides to take out his machine-rifle and shoots the two children in their tender skulls. He struts off with the air of someone who has just swatted off pesky flies. Their parents will eventually discover the bodies and will either decide to bury them or feed them to their wild-hoggs (a mutated variant of pig and most common source of meat).
These kids, like all residents of Maatha (including me) were birthed in the womb of the AL1 (Advanced Intelligence 1) sexbots, which were primarily being used for breeding purposes. After the invention of the AI2 sexbot, the scientists at SexCorp had to find use for the thousands of AL1 variants which were practically rendered useless after the coming of the AL2 (which could often be confused for real live women). Thus, the head honchos at Sex-corp came up with an idea. With the dwindling of woman population due to most of them running off to join the WPU, and the declining birthrate in the country, they decided to sell these dolls in the black market for reproductive purposes. They formed an alliance with the transsexual businessmen, who were only too glad to have these dolls since they could not reproduce themselves. It basically negated the role of women in producing babies.
When some of the leading party members of 'The System' got wind of these proceedings, they decided to impose a new rule: every baby that was born would be assigned to a family consisting of husband and wife. Of course, marriages were few in Maatha and thus, the few married couples that there were, were entrusted with the keeping of many babies. I had heard tell that a certain couple in the province of Systemstate-Aizawl had been entrusted with the keeping of 281 babies. Naturally, the parents assigned by The System could not properly look after all the children and what it did was produce a country of miscreants and debauched children, many of whom were spies (for The System, the WPU, the rebels, you name it!) and as such, they were to be feared the most for you never knew which side they were on.
Days have turned into weeks, and weeks to months, and I begin to wonder if anybody even remembers that I am rotting away here. I actually miss my initial days in the cell when I would be flogged from dawn till dusk. I have not been outside for months and the stench of mingled blood and shit from the nearby cells nauseates me every waking moment. Between the fear of mut-bugs, the shrieks and cries of fellow prison mates, and the putrid stench of shit and urine, I haven't slept much at all. The only possessions left to me are a blank diary and a pencil which I have coaxed one of the prison guards to smuggle me after convincing him that I would pay him two 'soney' (counterfeit gold coin currency) after my sentence is over. There is no way to determine how long it will be, though, seeing as there is no legal procedure and matters of legal nature are entirely handled by cronies of 'The System'. My future looks bleak, if it can even be called that. So, one fine day, I decide to write about my past (or what I remember of it). I put pencil to paper, and start scribbling:
Oct. 2, 2059: I have heard that a great man was born on this day more than a hundred years ago. They say his image used to be on currency notes when they used to have paper currency. So I find it ironic that I, the most insignificant of men, write about my experiences on this very auspicious of dates. The first memory I have of gaining awareness is looking around me to witness a sea of poverty and chaos. I was entrusted to a couple in the countryside so I was yet to see the worst, but I remember the distress I felt as a child as I saw the people around me devoid of choice or freedom, living with terror in their hearts, struggling to earn a couple of slices of bread every day.
I don't know what it is like now (I haven't been back since I left at the age of 23), but poverty was rife in the countryside during those days. The couple I was entrusted to by the shady people of The System who mainly operated behind the scenes, told me that I was born in the year 2030, almost a decade after the nuclear fallout that ravaged most of our country. I was precocious for my age and could read as well as write by the time I was six years old and I started questioning. “Too much questioning is bad, you have to understand that”, Mama tried to convince me as she put me to bed one day when I was seven years old, but I never listened. The funny thing is, I didn't even know the name of my parents. I simply called them 'Mama' and 'Papa'.
I had been assigned the 'name' Subject 2203 because I was the 2203rd child produced in one of the many birthing facilities scattered across the country. I could sense that my parents, and especially my papa, reminisced about the world that existed before the terrible war changed life as it existed in Maatha. Behind his weary facade, I saw the strength of a man who had once stood up for ideals and principles that he thought to be just. But he was too tired now to keep fighting. The fights of his youths had drained him and left him a shell of the man he once was.
The System didn't allow schooling and books were banned. It was mandatory for the parents to plug their children into the 'System-virtua', a virtual reality box that showed the glories and triumphs of The System for at least two hours every day. But my parents were lenient and ceased to feed me the propaganda when they saw how much it pained me. Unfortunately, it wasn't the world I wanted, but it was the world I found myself in. And despite repeated warnings from representatives of The System on the telly about the consequences of keeping books, my parents found ways to smuggle them in. Papa was especially fond of reading and kept a treasure trove of information locked in the basement. I vividly remember the night he woke me up and stood at the end of my bed, looking me over with his cold and tired eyes. “Hush”, he said “Mama must not know I am here.” He had the look of a rabbit being hunted by mutbugs….
I hear footsteps approaching my cell and hide my diary under my lice-ridden mattress. A guard appears from the shadows and his eyes lock with mine. He raps on my prison cell bars and snarls a warning at me: “serve”. Saying this, he starts grinning ear-to-ear and clapping his two hands together like a child who has found a toy. It is common knowledge that these guards are lobotomized when they sign up for duty with ‘The System’. Their memories are replaced with propagandized information which enables them to serve ‘The System’ without fail or questioning any of their motives. They are known to kill at the slightest of provocation, so I know trying to continue my diary entry would be a great folly with the feral System Guard prowling nearby. I close my eyes and I pretend to sleep. I live to fight another day.
Subject 2203 is my name, and waiting is my game. I have lost track of time, and my memory is hazy, but I know it has been at least a year since my capture. Legend has it that some of the great literature in times past has been written in prison cells, and I always fancied myself a bard, but it pains my traumatized mind to think and it hurts my malnourished joints to scribble. I lost my only friend, a rat I had named Chikhu, a couple of nights back to a mutbug attack. It was night time and I lay talking to my friend with whiskers in the dark, when a long shadow appeared accompanied by the sound of whirring antennae, and before I knew it, my rodent friend had disappeared into the dark, never to be heard from again. The suffocation of this loneliness finally prompts me to sneak out my diary one evening as the last rays of a setting sun are fading. I continue where I had left off:
October 12, 2059: “There is something I must tell you, son”, Papa said to me one day, appearing suddenly at the foot of my bed as I was preparing to sleep. “I know we are not allowed to read, but there is an infinite amount of information stored in my basement. I have procured it through extreme
hardship, this wealth of knowledge. The world I once knew vanished after the war and everything I stood for and fought for lies in ruin”, he said. After a brief pause, he continued, “I know my time is short and they are watching my every move. Which is why, my son, I entrust you with the keys to my basement. Read and find out for yourself what we, as a civilization, stood for before this whole 'System' nonsense. When man had free will, when law and order existed, when people weren't oppressed, silenced and even killed for speaking up against injustice and cruelty imposed by the elites” . He let out
a heavy sigh and looked into my eyes and said “You have to continue the fight. I am too old and feeble now”. And with these words, he left me.
I grew up happy and placated in the countryside farm and I fed my mind with knowledge from the books in the basement and enriched it gradually. I particularly remember reading about a character in old comic books called 'Superman'. He was an alien who grew up on Earth and would fight dangerous creatures and evil men. I sometimes felt like Superman, growing up in a strange world inhabited by strange (mutated) animals and evil men. I could feel his plight and began to visualize myself as a Superman of sorts, someone who would bring truth and justice to a world corrupted by evil, greed and injustice.
But the stronger I became, the feebler Papa got until he could no longer leave his bed and would spend hours looking outside the window at the sky above mumbling the words: “God...take me” over and over again until it began to sound like a chant of sorts.
Poring over the books in the library, I discovered that the land we inhabited had been known by various names: Bharat, India, Hindustan. She had been a mother to both vagabond and prince in her storied past. I learned that in the year 2018, tensions with a neighboring country called China had escalated to
the extent that a war had to be fought to retain sovereignty. This war, unparalleled in magnitude of death and destruction had claimed over a billion lives and one dreadful night, China had decided to unleash its nuclear arsenal upon us. 3000 nuclear warheads deployed overnight ended life and civilization in all parts of the country barring the eastern parts close to the Chinese mainland. Fearing China's might, all allies withdrew support. Most of the country became a nuclear zone with nuclear radiation corrupting the animals that remained to a mutated state.
Nefarious elites, with their paid protestors and agitators, tried to burn everything to the ground. Their dangerous and heavily armed goons took out the police state. Next to go was law and judiciary. Guwahati (now known as System-Guwahati) had the highest ranked judicial office, The High Court, which was bombed by foot soldiers of the United Labor Front or ULF (an early incarnation of 'The System). Every lawyer and policeman they could find was either jailed or killed. Most were butchered in public view.
The foot soldiers, the violent arm of the ULF, were led to believe that they were waging war against the political class and fighting for the common man. But as soon as their purpose was served, the elite class sowed seeds of discord and a civil war ensued which ended with most of the foot soldiers killing each other off. The remnants fled to the countryside and their progenitors formed the earliest incarnation of the 'Rebels'. They existed now to exact revenge for the betrayal by the elite class and their sole reason for existence was to take down 'The System', no matter the cost. They have grown reckless in recent months, sometimes even daring to venture into 'System-Guwahati'. They are consumed with hatred so strong that the hatred of 'The System' pales in comparison. Consequently, elites from both ends of the political spectrum cemented their triumph by renaming what remained of the erstwhile India as 'Maatha'. A council was convened on the 15th of August 2022 and a constitution was framed consisting of the single word: 'Serve'.
Meanwhile, I had met the love of my life. When I was 20, my Papa's ailing health forced Mama to seek for help. A friend offered her the services of Shakthi, one of the twelve children she entrusted to her. She came to live with us. With eyes as delicate as a doe's and feet as nimble as those of a forest sprite's, she brought much joy and laughter into the atmosphere of doom our house had sunk into because of Papa's ailing health and unceasing chants, which he had started reciting like a prayer. What especially drew me close to her was her innocence.
She didn't initially have a name and was simply called 'Subject 1043' by her parents, but I decided to call her 'Shakthi' as commemoration of a Goddess' name I had found in an old book in the basement, because I could sense she had a certain strength of character and power of will. She was confused by the name and would innocently ask me:”'What is this 'Shakthi'? It must be something you have read about in one of those books you keep in your basement.” I would chuckle and say nothing. In those days of bliss, I had no idea of knowing that our lives would be turned upside down very soon.
On 2053, a day after I had turned 23, something horrible happened. It was around 11 PM at night while we were having dinner when we heard loud raps on the door. We looked at each other, scared. For the first time in many months, I had seen alertness in Papa's eyes. His alertness was comingled with dread and in the cold silence of the few moments that we spent looking at each other; his eyes seemed to tell me: “They've come at last”.
Our silence did not help matters and after what seemed like ages (but was realistically closer to five minutes), they broke down the doors. As expected, it was the System Guards who had come. The one in the front who appeared to be a high ranking official, bellowed: “Designation: Farmer, Subject: 21079, you are under arrest for treason and espionage. You must come with us immediately.” For a moment I saw a faint flicker of resistance in Papa’s eyes that quickly filtered out. For a moment, he joined his hands in prayer (the System Guards looked away in digust) and then nodded. They rolled him out along with his wheelchair. Mama followed adroitly behind without a fuss, being the strong woman that she was. I stood rooted to the spot, paralyzed with fear. I hoped that they would be given a fair shot and a trial, but in a society that is lawless and where the elites make the rules, it is too much to hope for. After ten minutes or so, Shakthi and I heard two distant gunshots which seemed to be coming from the forest bordering the farm.
The next day, I decided to leave. I took Shakthi's hands in mine and told her: “I am leaving for the city of System-Guwahati and I know not when I will be back. But know this, the only reason I am leaving you everything that is dear to me is because I trust you and I know you will not let what we have worked
hard for all these years fall to ruin”. And with these words, I left her with a soft peck on her cheeks. That was the last time I saw her.
I arrived in the city a few days later and started working at a shop called 'Silks for Sir&Madame' which sold silk costumes to both men and women. It belonged to a transsexual businessman called Meersahib who was generous and who would never forget to reimburse me for extra working hours. Thus, I spent six years in this fashion, away from the pain of the memories, but I was still haunted at night by the sound of the two gunshots I had heard that fateful night. A couple of years after leaving my house, I had started hearing stories of a powerful new fighter in the ranks of the WPU, a fearless new lieutenant called Goddess, who had been responsible for leading the anarchists to many a victory over the forces of
The System. I think I knew who it was. It was in the year 2058 when my mind started rebelling again and I had started associating with spies and members of the 'Hush Hush Club' in old taverns. I started attending their secret meetings, trying to learn about the activities of the 'Rebels' and the WPU, asking the spies if they were recruiting new members.
You could not trust anyone in this political climate, of course, and I found that out the hard way. I had started becoming reckless and one night in a drunken state, I started spraying graffiti on a wall in an abandoned street. 'DOWN WITH THE SYSTEM', my words read in big, bold yellow letters and I was appreciating my work of art when I heard footsteps approaching behind me and without turning my head to look, I knew it was the System Guards.
Someone had ratted me out and this is how I ended up in this accursed state. They flogged me for a couple of weeks and finally gave up after they realized I had no relevant information to provide regarding the Rebels or WMU. But still I wait, and I observe, with a diary and pencil as my weapons of choice.