I ran till my legs ached. Reaching my hole, I plunged headlong. The slides were in position and carried me to my grotto. I had two slices of bread clutched in my emaciated hands. I had four mouths to feed.
The sidewalks of the city have changed character drastically. Taken over by the Bulls, the Union demanded passports be carried by all and sundry to gain access to the sidewalks. There was hardly any space left to set even a toe on. Rickety wooden walkways built over them shuddered and trembled because of the weight. Thundering footsteps. Not everyone had a genuine passport. Some had fakes. Some gave bribes. I was the unfortunate one. Unwilling to comply, I was pushed to CalcuttaX, the new city built by the Resistance. That was underground. Some factions of the Resistance got lucky and kept the most of upper areas for themselves. The First, Second and Third Ring, they were called. I was on the Seventh. It is mustier here and the rats are bigger, smellier and hungrier. Evolution plays a dirty game. The rats have canines that are about two inches long, razor sharp. The Laboratory hasn’t yet been able to invent any defense mechanism against those. So I was left with just a cricket bat and a kitchen knife.
The slides are a faster and surer way to reach your respective ring. Even in CalcuttaX, the hovering two-wheel-drives can create a logjam in seconds.
There are obviously no windows. So the Resistance developed a method to tap into the Surveillance cams to get a preview of the outside world, climate and situation. Not every sight is pretty. In our Morlock-like existence we have to rely on the dim LED screens to plot our latest move. The Bulls are the keeper of the Granary. Every month Supplies are pushed down the slides. But by the time it reaches the lower rings there’s hardly any left. I have resorted to ‘snatch-and-run’.
You must be wondering if the slides bring me down what takes me up. B-Desh – the city is called that now – has designated burrows at designated places. One section of the shaft is a slide. For the Supplies. The other section is the beginning (and the end) of a staircase carved into the soil. It’s a maze really. For to reach the mouth of the burrow from the Seventh Ring takes close to ninety minutes. I have befriended a two-wheel-drive chauffeur. When he’s off duty, I hitch a ride with him. But there’s always the fear of getting caught. There’s no jail here. There’s only the Tenth Ring. They say it’s the core of the earth. It’s fucking hot and weird fumes play havoc over it. The Anti Offence Squad carries out its executions there. I was told it’s a pretty simple process. Offenders are pushed down below and the metal lid is shut tight. That’s it. In CalcuttaX, we don’t hang pictures of the dear departed.
I got off the slide and walked for half a mile to reach my grotto. The elder one, all of seven was playing with the cricket bat. I still had some old cricket videos that I sometimes played on my handheld. He was picking up fast. The younger one, five, was whispering to Lakshmi. We had found her meowing one day underneath the slide. Her white coat still had ticks that were feeding off her. Sanitation is a problem here. I broke the bread and distributed among them. My husband had ‘taken a tenner’ as it’s called. He was a worker in the Lab. We had been plotting a resistance against the Resistance. One of his co-workers had given him away. He never got back from work that evening. I never saw him ever again. Tenner it was.
I tried to make my grotto feel as ‘homely’ as possible. Zizi had known what it was to live in a proper one. Sia was born here. In CalcuttaX. There was a mound that had a relatively clean bedsheet that I managed to bring with me. That was our bed. A curtain separated the loo. Which was basically a pit. Metal pipes supplied us water but there were no faucets down here so we used duct tapes. Red and blue wires gave us optimum electricity for a light bulb to burn all day and all night and give power to the LEDs.
This month we hadn’t benefited from Supply Day. Hence the snatch-and-run.
Suddenly I noticed movement on the screen. I turned up the brightness. Then I saw her. Looking majestic in her tableau, Madam was on a round of B-Desh. We were getting live coverage. Sadly, satellite television doesn’t work here. In front of her tableau was a contingent of old movie stars. It was a thriving industry and a recent bill had been passed where FDI amount was increased to 66%. Unfortunately, no youngster of sane mind wanted to join this industry. So the films were mostly romances where sixty year olds played twenty-somethings. The other genre was Veneration. Of Madam. She didn’t have any designation. They just called her that. Madam. She waved to the crowd who gathered mostly to see the ageing stars. Even heroines who about a decade back would gyrate to raunchy songs with their belly buttons filling up TV screens had sagging jaws and floppy tummies.
I squatted on the soil and watched as the procession headed downtown. Sidewalks lined the entire stretch and were teeming with people on the bridges. A bit about them here. All objects of all size, shape, nature and utility are sold here. From grains to garter belts, condoms, notebooks for schoolkids, flat screens, the latest VR gaming console, mortar and cement, gaudy sarees, lingerie and even funeral pyres (Lasts upto 50 burns, collapsible and portable with fixtures to attach wheels).
I turned to look at the other screen where a close up of Madam came into focus. She was beaming. Of course there wasn’t any sound. Just a scratchy black and white visual. She was saying something. No, wait. She was singing. Because her head bobbed up and down rhythmically. Sometimes her eyes rolled back and only the whites could be seen. But this time, the whites were visible for a much longer duration. Then I saw her eyes closed completely. And the face disappeared from the screen. I looked at the other screen and saw her staggering back. The autorickshaws that formed the pilot convoy stopped. Madam fell. A dark stain spread across her chest. She had been assassinated.
Today. I sit watching Lakshmi play with her kittens. The gentle evening air brought with it a salty smell. The Hooghly that had drowned the embankments a decade ago has recently turned saline. Scientists were still trying to find a plausible explanation for it. My new house is just adjacent to the shoreline. I have a great view of a great river. Zizi and Sia have home tutors because the new Government are still trying to build a new education system. The debate was whether or not to include the recent history of our Morlock-like lives and the assassination of Madam.
I dig up the cartons that had whatever was left of our previous lives. I find a picture of the four of us together. Seems like a century has passed. I run my had through my hair which was close cropped. I am a semi skinhead.
The sun is about to set on the western horizon quickly. I gather Lakshmi and her two fluffy kittens into their cane basket and go indoors. I shut my main door. A button beside the security device made the titanium shutter go down. All doors, all windows, any orifice and opening – are now sealed shut. I turn up the O2 levels, find my favourite vinyl record, run a warm bath and go into my kids’ room to read them a story.
Outside, the carnage has started.