2100: THE LONG COMMUTE
The year 2100. Another morning, another commute, I groaned. I parked my mini electric car at CBD Belapur station and saw my friend Shashi N emerging from the thick yellow-tinged morning fog, wearing a heavy jacket made of bullet- and bomb-proof material. He is a technical writer and so am I, and, moreover, he is the only friend, and relation I have in this world. We are close.
We work in Bangalore, only a two-hour ride on the 500 kmph train from Beloved Leader Sharad P. Railway Station, the erstwhile Vashi Station, Bombay, named after the last of the great Marathha politicians. The former island of Bombay was totally destroyed in the great flood of 2047, and the then New Bombay, nearby, had assumed the identity of Bombay, for commercial and historical reasons. All that is left of Bombay is a few islands where the hills were, inhabited by the die-hard hill tribes who once used to boast that they were a superior race as they lived on Malabar and Pali hills. The CBD Belapur station hasn’t been cleaned, Teflon coffee cups and dazed sleepers lie around in careless disarray.
“Hi Shashi N.,” I greeted him. Surnames weren’t to be mentioned as religious fascism had peaked and religious mercenaries were everywhere planting bombs, shooting through small, light-weight, rapid action Mauser pistols. One could get killed if one’s surname was known.
“Hi,” he acknowledges morosely.
“Late again?” I ask.
“Yes,” he said mournfully, “I reached home at 2 a.m. this morning, and slept for hardly three hours. I had bought a thousand units of electricity and didn’t know I had let my computer on through the day, and when I reached home there isn’t even a single unit to light a bulb, or even heat some water for a bath.”
He looked shabby and unwashed, his hair matted with dust and dirt, as if he had slept at the station like the P.O.O.R. people lying around us with their impact-proof blankets. Electricity was strictly rationed and had to be paid in advance. No electricity meant nothing would run in the house, everything depended on electricity, and there was such a big scarcity. Gas and petrol was the privilege of the super-rich who owned cars run on fossil fuel, a scarce commodity.
“What’s that you are licking?” I ask.
He was licking the last slobs of a gooey liquid from a tube, shaped like a toothpaste tube.
“My breakfast. It contains enough nutrition to last me till I reach the Goohoo canteen.”
Goohoo was formed when Google and Yahoo decided to merge in 2085 when the Lin-Baden-run Vironi Corporation operating from Babylon unleashed deadly viruses on the networks that almost destroyed all World Wide Web servers.
I was wearing my bullet- and bomb-proof jacket and an old-fashioned helmet with a radiation-proof visor. Violence was common after members of the parliament fought with automatic weapons inside the law-making body and the Consortium of Corporations (called CC, in short, dominated by Goohoo) had taken over the legislative functions of the country. The transition was overseen by Beloved Leader Sharad P. who maintained that instead of corporations funding the government it was better if the corporations took over and gave politicians a percentage of the profits. There would be less wastage. Politicians drew a handsome salary sitting at home. The executive authority stayed in the hands of the policing machinery, now controlled by the Consortium, or, CC. They are the ones who introduced high-speed trains between Bombay and Bangalore. It was a big success.
“Nice Jacket,” I say.
“Five million rupees,” he says, “even after a special discount to Goohoo employees.”
Around us are a milling crowd all wearing hooded jackets and helmets. A small mean-looking person pushes us apart and scurries toward the platform. He is skinny; his walk is jerky, but fast. He is wearing a computer screen on one sleeve of his jacket and on the other has a keyboard. He is typing something on the keyboard even as he is cutting a neat swathe through the hundreds of morning commuters.
“Did you see him?” I ask.
“Yes, he is a Code Devil who works in Goohoo. I know him.”
Code Devils are the elite programmers trained by corporations like Goohoo. In a world totally dependent upon programming they are the new stars and idols, as movie actors used to be at one time, in another century.
The train arrives with a great sonic boom. It is bulging with commuters, all going to Bangalore, the technology capital. There are people clinging to it everywhere, even some mysterious hooded forms sitting on the roof. Life would be hell for them, what with the cold and chilly slipstream.
I close the visor of my helmet and Shashi zips up his jacket. Entering the train would be like squeezing through a fruit juicer.
A posse of women surrounded by heavily armed women police arrive and the jackets of all the desire sensors worn by the men on the platform light up and shimmer with desire. The rare creatures were escorted inside the train even before there is the possibility of Cupid aiming an arrow or two.
“Hey, to think that once they used to mingle with us!” I say.
“Blame skewed sex ratios. If they mingle they would be raped and killed. The CC did the right thing. At least, they have security now,” he says wistfully.
He knows. He has a girlfriend and is in love, a feeling the CC has patented and copyright controlled. Due to a variety of reasons including the population growth the CC legislated that all love should be a copyrighted commodity, like a program, and any use should attract a heavy Love Tax.
Therefore these desire sensors were mandatory. Anyone not wearing it could be sentenced to the Love Dungeons and anyone found coveting the opposite sex would immediately be arrested and confined for breaking the copyright code, unless Love Tax was paid.
For procreation the CC’s Ministry of Love had arranged for exclusive hospitals where a woman could walk in and have a sponsored baby and donate it to the care of the Consortium which would train them to be Code Devils. The consortium needed only programmers and the risk of casual flings upsetting the genetic engineering code was terrifying.
“How is Sangita?” I ask.
Shashi’s girlfriend’s name is Sangita. He had written and posted a love poem to her on the online forum Neterati. The Ministry of Love’s detection department had sensed this in their latest Love Audit. They also found that Shashi hadn’t paid Love Tax which should have been deposited in advance before a man and woman can fall in love.
“I feel so hopelessly torn apart. I haven’t met her in a week though we work for the same corporation. She is in a glass bubble across the lawns but I, I am so helpless, I can’t meet her. I fear for my life and hers, they are monitoring my thoughts, I can feel it, and I am broke, I can’t afford to pay Love Tax,” he says as we find a convenient corner inside the door of the train.
“Then give her up. Break up and tell her you can’t afford her.”
“It’s easy for you to say that, yaar. We are way too much involved.”
“But the most they could do is ask Goohoo to pay on your behalf, since they have the controlling interest in CC, and are represented on the governing board.”
“No, stupid, that won’t work. I get these fainting fits. When they monitor you they fill you with fatal love thoughts that almost kill, just testing us. Of late, it is happening frequently. I am afraid for my life. Even you are at risk if you are found with me.”
The CC had embarked on a Total Asexualization Drive to curb the sexual instinct that they hoped, rather vainly, would boost productivity in the workplace. This was fully supported by Narayana Premji and Azim Moorthy (grand children of the two pioneers, the second generation having inter-married) who had all along maintained that corporate goals should be above personal goals.
“Then what about all the books, novels, films on love and longings and the love poems that existed and still exist in libraries on this mysterious feeling called love. I don’t understand; I am lost,” I say. I haven’t felt any love for a woman since I haven’t been near one in years. I don’t even know who my mother is, or, rather, was. May be Shashi could explain what it was all about.
“Ah, that was the twenty-first century you are talking about. That was the time when Neterati was still an online forum of free expression for writers. I remember, a lot of love poems were posted there, a few of them were really atrocious, some were even spelt, ‘Pomes.’ Now they are underground. I still attend their meetings, though, surreptitiously.”
Shashi and I are wedged closely, inside the door, almost out of the train. The wind is howling around our ears and the sound is deafening as the train levitates within the field created by two powerful magnetic rails above and below it. I think of the hooded men I had seen sitting above the train. They would be shivering and their hands would be almost frozen by the cold.
We pass the Project of Outcasteing Religion (P.O.O.R.) areas between Poona and Bombay. These are the areas where the religious zealots live. Areas are marked by communal flags and their extreme poverty is obvious from the shabby hovels in which they live. They are all uniformly greyish, probably, the soot emissions from Alliance’s giant petroleum refineries in the area.
This is the dark space I had heard about, I mean, the P.O.O.R area. There is no electricity and life is as it was in pre-1879, the year the electric bulb was invented. They can’t afford electricity. The police ignore the denizens of these slums, they are afraid for themselves. Killings and riots are quite common and the CC is quite content with letting them decimate each other. After all, the Consortium assumes, it is their mistake that they didn’t learn to write programming code, or even understand computing algorithms, preferring to sow the seeds of religious hatred.
“So how are things at Goohoo?” I ask.
“Bad,” Shashi says, “at least for technical writers,” he has opened his jacket hood a little so that I can see his sleep-deprived eyes.
Poor man, I think, squeezed from all sides, not able to meet his girl friend, and, somehow, to add to all that the insecurity with his job.
A series of staccato explosions shake the train as it speeds across the vast arid land, still under a thick fog. The heavy rains had cut fissures through the landscape and the recent heat waves had all but burnt the earth to a greyish-black.
“Cluster bombs,” Shashi mumbles. The sounds grow distant. CC has instructed the train driver to disengage the compartment if there are any explosions in it. “Production should not be affected,” was the sole mantra. The rest of the train hurtled forward.
“Why is it bad?”
“It is bad, bad, bad, so bad I can’t tell you. My very existence in their mammoth air-conditioned bubble is at risk.”
“Why? Tell me no, why?”
“You know what those Code Devils have gone and done?”
“They have written a program to author help manuals. They don’t need technical writers any more in Goohoo.”
“What?” I am so astounded I knock my helmet against Shashi’s head. He curses me in choice Malayalam invectives I won’t mention here.
“Yes, a bloody program writes help manuals. It writes stuff like “For p=p+1, next p” for something as simple as ‘turn to the next page’,” imagine, and the managers are happy with it. ‘After all, who reads help manuals,’ they say.”
That’s a holler. It is real bad news, without writing jobs both Shashi and I wouldn’t have anywhere to go, I think, as I look at the cold morning transforms suddenly into a hot mid-morning with temperatures hovering around 95 degree Fahrenheit. Presently we all are sweating.
“Global warming,” Shashi says, loosening his jacket, “they don’t seem to care. They have their climate controlled apartments in the Goohoo campus, and their minders and managers to assure them nothing is wrong. Why, even their television news channels are doctored by the Consortium. They only see the news CC wants them to see. They never travel in trains, and if they venture out, it is from their roof-top helipads to their private jets. What do they know about the long commute?”
“So if a program writes help manuals we writers would be out of jobs, what would we do?” I ask.
“Good question, dumbo! Even I don’t know,” Shashi shakes his hooded head, “What do they care? They say product life cycles are short. Before they can finish reading the help manual, the product is obsolete; the next model is in the market. So why write product help manuals?”
I shake my head, too. My career as a creative writer hasn’t taken off. Most of my manuscripts come back with form letters wishing me “all success in finding a suitable publisher.”
One publisher even said, “If you want to be published, become famous first.” That means if you are a woman, get laid by a famous man and write about the number of moles on his private parts, or if you are a man, well, the only alternative is tell all about the idiosyncrasies of corporations like Goohoo. But that could put my life in danger.
This could be the end of me. I would end up in a call center, after all, something I dreaded all along. I would be measured each day by the number of calls I make. I hate call centers. I hate them for being so uncreative, unoriginal, and so mechanical. There is software that senses and blocks all calls but they still persist.
Zap, zap, zap! Everything seems to spin around me. I am feeling a lot of love, er, feeling of being loved excessively. Though I have never been loved, I have sometimes fantasized about a queer feeling that came over me sometimes, and had given in to its frenzied rhythms.
Suddenly epiphany strikes. Am I also being monitored by the Love Auditors as I am with Shashi? Shashi is reeling, he holds on to me. His face seems a blur, so also the faces of all the hooded forms around us. The train, or what is left of it after the cluster bombs have struck, is hurtling along a vast desert that once used to be the Deccan Plateau, now laid waste by periodic meteor hits, as the outer atmospheric shield around the earth has mitigated to a very thin layer around the earth. The wind howls, the hooded forms, unzip their hoods, and I can see their eyes bulging, as they stare at us.
“You are Love Offenders. Get away from us,” their eyes accuse us.
I recover. Consciousness comes back at once. It was one of those Love Audits, and they seemed to have exonerated me. But what about Shashi? Shashi is slumped against me, his hood askew, drool at the corners of his mouth. I shake him, slap his face. No response.
“Is he dead?” I ask the man standing next to me. He has a red cross sign on his jackets and “Goohoo” written below it, apparently, a doctor working for the world’s biggest corporation. He is familiar with such situations as he has ministered to many employees who have died on their computer workstations.
“Yes, your friend is dead, you must throw him out now,” the doctor says.
“Should you be so cruel?”
“CC policy 11.13287.9840 on corpse disposal states that dead organisms could disturb the creativity index of the Code Devils who are travelling to Bangalore, and further, that dead bodies of Love Offenders should be dispensed of immediately.”
“But can’t I give him a funeral or something?”
“No, the body could putrefy by the time we reach Bangalore in this heat.”
I knew it was no use arguing.
Slowly he and other Goohoo employees, there seem to be quite a lot of them in this train, say a company prayer written in C--, nudge Shashi N, my only friend and acquaintance in the world, towards the door and push him out. Helmets, bullet- and bomb-proof jackets watch as the body disappears from sight into the fast-receding landscape outside the speeding train. The blazing afternoon is a blur. I close the helmet visor and say a prayer for Shashi. I must phone Sangita and tell her, if at all she is alive.