16th February, 2115
They run along the length of the corridor. Meera’s breath is slackening. It seems so much like the time she used to race with her older brother when she was a little child. But things have changed, her brother is lost in memory and Meera races against imprisonment.
Her daughter, Aisha runs along. ‘Thank goodness she’s got her child’s energy and strength,’ Meera thinks as she glances at the small figure to her right. Aisha’s ponytail dangles along her back.
They turn a right and Meera’s husband, Tanmay looks at her. She nods. The plan. Now they are running along a glass corridor. Meera can see people riding on the Hover Stations to get to the top floors of the sprawling clusters of skyscrapers of the city. They ride, safe…and hypnotised. Rather, customised. Customised from birth. Tamed.
‘Stop it. (Controlled) Stop it I said! (Disciplined, constrained, programmed). STOP IT!’ she chides herself in her mind.
Just ahead, Meera can see a fork approaching. Tanmay glances at her once more before darting to the left, the dot drive with him. The guards behind chase Tanmay to the left, panting but still alarming in their blue uniforms (the colour of ice, cold and evil). ‘Enough!’, Meera chides herself again.
She finds her chance, grabs Aisha’s wrist and yanks Aisha and herself to the right. The guards stagger in brief confusion, long enough to give Meera a head-start. The door is near. Meera can see the smooth knob, winking at her in the sunlight. Meera reaches for the knob before stopping entirely, turns it and rushes within, closing it on the guards’ angry and sweaty faces.
The thing is, Tanmay was the head architect of the HEADQUARTERS, the expansive stretch of concrete they are in. Until recently, Tanmay didn’t know that his boss who dictated India, had done a heinous crime. The dictator’s truth made him act.
Using his knowledge of the building, Tanmay carved a plan for this escapade. He told Meera to go within this particular door and wait for about two hours (there was a digital clock in the room). It was a high-security cell with a very strong door that opened only once a day and locked on its own accord thereafter. That room had a secret entrance only Tanmay knew about. He would try and enter through it within those hours and rescue them. If not, then Meera was to follow plan B. “What about you?” Meera asked. Tanmay didn’t answer.
But Tanmay forgot to tell Meera (or kept back from her on purpose) about a high-security convict locked in this room.
Meera can smell him before she turns her back towards the door to look at him. Calling him a convict would be an understatement. This man seems to have been tortured till the brink of death. Aisha instantly recoils from the man’s presence, clutching Meera’s waist.
Meera whispers to her, “It’s okay. Don’t be afraid.” Meera finds she is saying it to herself as much as to her daughter.
There are no chairs within this box-like room. So, Aisha sits down beside her mother on the floor, her excitement ebbing away. Her parents had asked her to obey them without question. She didn’t know it included deserting her father to come in this metallic building.
Aisha misses her father and their house which is located, besides a few others, far away from here, in a gaping stretch of barren land. She is friends with the children there. She is friends with the trees and animals. Above all, she is friends with the vast space and airiness between everything.
Here, sitting huddled in a corner of this cramped place within cramped place and in the smelly aura of this scary man, Aisha is dismal. The clock shows 8:15 a.m. in glowing pink. She waits for 8:30. She can understand only quarters of an hour.
‘That’s a short period of time. It will pass like a rocket, like papa says. Whooshhh…’, Aisha thinks and giggles at the thought. Her mother looks at her and gives her a puzzled smile, then looks about. Aisha observes the man.
He is disgusting and funny, not scary, Aisha realises. His smile is the funniest, stretched from end-to-end. The smell makes her gag and wrinkle her nose. She is so disgusted by the green dirt caked in the man’s nails that she flinches away. Ugh!
He has little hair left on his head, greying and unkempt. His stomach wobbles, just like his head. His clothes, comparatively newer than the rest of him, are ragged still. They have holes through which Aisha can see the sallow skin and in two or three places near the chest, small, curly hairs peeping out of them. The man has scars, smoky red and milky purple, in all shapes and sizes. ‘It must hurt’, and Aisha feels a rush of childish sympathy for him.
On extra-focusing her eyes, she can see flakes of dried skin on his face and hands, looking like an animal’s scales. ‘Does that hurt?’, she wonders. The man is nodding his head in the corner, as if talking to someone. Aisha looks at her mother, as if to compare the man’s ancientness. Her mother appears tired after the run, but still young. Her straight, black hair hang like curtains. Her face, lined a bit, is still smooth. She smells of sweat but that’s it.
Aisha asks her mother how many minutes have passed. “Only THREE!” Aisha cries when her mother replies.
The man in the room looks at them, as if noticing them for the first time (which might be true). His stare rests a bit longer on Aisha’s mother. Aisha thinks he is thinking which a minute ago, he didn’t seem capable of. Then, the vacant look is back again.
Her mother is distracted too. She tells Aisha, “Sleep in my lap, Aish. Time will fly past just like your father says”. She is observing the man. “It will whoosh past”, Aisha puts in and giggles. Her mother smiles but she doesn’t take her gaze off the man.
Aisha settles into her mother’s lap, not at all affected by her mother’s disinterest. She drifts into a peaceful, dreamless sleep only a child can take. The time flits from 8:18 to 8:55 while Aisha sleeps. At 8:55 though, she is jerked awake. She looks at her mother. Her mother is crying! “Ma? Ma!”
“It’s nothing, Aish”, Meera replies, getting up in a hurry, first hesitant, then confident. She walks up to the man and embraces him. Aisha’s young mind is not able to comprehend this scene. ‘Why is mum going near the smelly man and hugging him?’
The man is as confused as Aisha but a seed is germinating within his mind. Recognition dawns on his face as Meera cries, “Oh bhaiya, where were you?”. It extinguishes just as quick. But Aisha’s mother doesn’t care. She is rambling. Aisha is fresh out of sleep so that she only catches phrases, “Not remember…siblings…running together…riding on back…lost…”
But by 9:15, Aisha is drifting off to sleep again, her mother’s ramble far away.
It is good that he planned the building or the guards would have caught him. ‘I’m coming Meera. I’m coming Aish’.
For years since his childhood, Tanmay believed his boss, Mr. DD, was one of the kindest men in the world…until last week, when one of the men who resided with them on the barren land, one of the few individuals who were above 50, had spilled the secret. He drawled for long that Sunday, telling a story that disagreed with Tanmay’s truth.
It was common knowledge that Mr. DD had taken all the orphans (children months old to 11 years of age) after the Great Epidemic of 2082 in India and made this city in the heart of the country, called DD Kindship. The orphans were supposedly indebted greatly to Mr. DD.
Turned out, the old man told, it was DD who had unleashed this disease, targeting everyone above teenage. It was air borne. Most of the population that comprised India died in that horrifying, blood-curdling epidemic. Foreign countries, meanwhile, were too busy warring to interfere.
Some lakhs of people of the targeted age-groups survived and were either asked to surrender and quieten or bleed. Most people chose the former option. They were outnumbered. DD had his own army of followers, either criminals or brainwashed harmless civilians.
When Tanmay didn’t believe the old man, the old man brought out an old, yellowing newspaper clipping that shouted the truth in bold letters. Alonside was a picture of a couple. The caption said, “The Mayor and his wife is dead, leaving behind an orphan Tanmay“. He also told Tanmay about a dot drive that contained DD’s plan, the truth.
“But why tell me now, so late? And how do you know about this drive?”, Tanmay asked.
“The knowledge of the drive…it’s a secret. I am late but I couldn’t find the guts.” And the old man started crying. This old man had witnessed slaughter and was now risking his life to fight against DD. A fire of vengeance, fueled by the his parents’ picture and the old man’s remorse, burnt within Tanmay.
At present, the guards have finally given up the chase. Tanmay reaches the wall of that cell, finds a small brick that looks broken and presses it. The entrance opens.
“Papa! Ma was so worried. It’s 10:20. You’re just in time”, Aisha cries and flings herself over him before he can look within the room. Tanmay feels glad to be back with his girl. He runs his hand through her soft hair. In the background, Meera looks a little weary.
“Come on”, he tells her. “Freedom awaits…and a revolution.”
“What about him?” she asks, pointing at the tortured fugitive. Tanmay looks at Meera, puzzled. She struggles, then says, “He’s Dev, my older brother.”
Tanmay, shocked as he is, knows they are time-bound. “Okay, take him if possible”, Tanmay answers. Meera looks grateful, unaware that a couple of her brother’s scars exist because of Tanmay. He gulps. Once outside, they run. Dev staggers a bit to the left, steps on a bog, then comes back on track. They are just within the forest when Aisha speaks up, “Papa! Ma! Dev uncle has stopped.”
Tanmay spots Dev standing near the forest. He appears to be blinking out of oblivion. Tanmay can guess what’s happening. The seed of doubt that germinated within Dev’s mind has grown, giving fruits of memory.
He remembers. He was 11 when the Great Epidemic started. He saw his folks die. Only his six-year-old sister and his friends remained. Samyak and Tiyansh, his two best friends both lost their parents as well.
There was shattering pain, pain that had no name, that made voids within, that sucked happiness from life, that twisted his guts every day. Dev now doted on his little sister who was his only companion. He could only pronounce “Meer”. But she was taken away. Young Dev fought but couldn’t save her from the clutches of the “bad men”.
Under Tiyansh’s leadership, the trio ran away into hiding. They learned to live without new clothes, without enough food, without electricity, without homes. They learned to survive. It was easy to hide as kids. They weren’t suspected. But as they grew up, they were eyed, told off, even beaten. And one day, an officer, younger than them, caught them making one of their naïve plans to overthrow DD.
Tiyansh was taken to some depths that Dev would never want to know. Samyak and himself were taken to a cell and starved. They were tortured to insanity, beaten, boiled, and everything felt like hell until sanity and freedom became illusions. In the end, it was just him. He dangled between consciousness and unconsciousness, then period.
Period, followed by an ellipsis, followed by Meera’s talk in that cell that almost brought Dev’s memory back before fresh air did. “Meer”, Dev says.
“Bhaiya!” Dev is aware of a man (‘her husband, probably’) and a little girl (‘my niece’) looking at them while they hug and cry together.
Then, Dev remembers. He jerks away, worry lining his face. He says, “There is a small microphone that DD attached to the corner of that cell. Even when insane, I could take and obey orders. He ordered just before you saw me, Meer (‘Old habits don’t go easy, do they?’) to follow you. He must have had an inkling of your plan. Remember I stepped in that bog?”
“No way!” the man with Meera exclaims. He is looking at the trail of heavy, muddy boots that Dev unknowingly made. Meera follows the man’s stare and is also struck by the disaster. “And my smell”, Dev adds as an afterthought. “That’s the worst part.”
“We don’t have time. We’ve to do something about this”, Meera says.
“Ma, papa, why have we stopped?”, the little girl speaks up.
“Don’t worry, Aisha”, Meera says. “We’ll start again soon.”
So, they are married and they have a girl. When did little Meer grow so old? ‘When I was away’. He shakes off that thought and says, “I know this place well. I will lead the men away from your route. Run away before they can get to you. Only, you have GPS tucked to your shirt”, he completes, looking at Tanmay. “I remember that every employee had one. Give that to me and run”.
“What about you?” Meera asks. Dev has no answer. This short reunion isn’t fun but he will have to go. He couldn’t save his sister earlier. He will save her now. Tanmay’s GPS with him, Dev embraces a teary-eyed Meera one last time in a tight hug before leaving her behind with her family to defeat him who wounded him beyond repair.
He runs away, away from them, towards the river where he was caught. By now, he can see small figures coming after the boot trails. He doesn’t want them to discover the scheme yet. He wants to give Meer, Tanmay and his little niece a better head-start.
He dips within the river. He is now nestled within the blue waves, now his head is above water again. He feels clean after so long. Clean. BAM! The river turns red…
16th February, 2127
Turned out, they were not alone. Many families remembered and sheltered within the forest. Tanmay, armed with the dot drive, motivated these escapees and led the revolution against DD. The dot drive convinced the brainwashed. Those who still sided with DD were detained. Hidden for so long (he had communicated only through calls), the old crook was finally overthrown. Now, Tanmay is to be Mayor of the city that’s waiting to be renamed. Meera is happy. There’s only one bleeding drop of sadness poisoning her joy. The drop of sacrifice, that started the long struggle before freedom knocked. Dev bhaiya.
Hoverail: A fictional means of transport that works similar to vactrains, but vertically with spiral tracks around a skyscraper, to transport people who live there. Read more about vactrains: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vactrain
Hover stations: Stations that host the Vactrains
Dot drive: An even compressed version of a pen drive, resembling a small ball
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