Story 40: The Chill of Hemlock

EVERY INSTINCT IN Govind Natarajan’s body screamed fear.

The white and blue machine with the soft red light next to his bed said, ‘Govind, you have nothing to fear.’

It spoke in the voice of his mother. Years ago, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, he had been asked the question. Whom would you like to meet from the other side on Renunciation Day? The night before he had made light of the matter with his friends, and a bunch of them had decided to put in Donald Duck. But when the moment came, all of them had realized the seriousness of the question. It even said in small print on the form that they would not be able to change their answers once given.

Govind had done the sensible thing, therefore, and chosen his mother.

It took a few moments for his conscious mind to register that it was not really his mother who was speaking to him from the machine. On the other side of it sat a skilled mimicry artist, perhaps, or maybe a robot who was fed with the precise modulations and intonations of Amma’s voice. Who knew?

But for an instant the fear that had tensed his muscles eased, and he found himself thinking of the smooth round face of his mother as a young woman, and the wrinkled, shrunken form it had assumed years later, on the day of her renunciation.

‘You are coming to me, Govind,’ said the voice. ‘I have made some curried mutton for you. Slow-roasted, just the way you like it.’

‘Do they allow you to eat curried mutton in heaven?’ Govind had heard rumours that everyone in the afterlife was vegetarian. Indeed, did they have to eat in the afterlife? Once the body – and the need to sustain it – was left behind, of what use was food?

His renunciation chamber was furnished in the manner of his childhood bedroom. They got most of the details right; the squeak of the teak bed, the phosphorescent constellation of the crab embedded into the roof, scrawls of gibberish on the wall, his collection of toy trucks – in bright red and green and blue – lining the shelf, without a speck of dust on them.

But they did not – how could they? – capture everything. Where was the smell of Amma’s spices in the carpet? Where was the sound of Appa calling out to him to wake up, that it was time for the convent? Where was the touch of warmth to the walls? He felt that if he were to pick up one of those toys and examine them, he would find that none of them were truly his. Did the yellow ambulance model over there, for instance, carry the crack on its right hind wheel that it had received when he had dropped it on the day it was bought?

He must check, he thought, and half-rose from his reclining position. But then he stopped himself. Why must he check? What did he expect? Say if the ambulance does not have a crack in its hind wheel, what will you do?

Nothing, that was what. It made more sense to absorb the details of his room that were there, and furnish with his mind those that weren’t. So yes, he could convince himself that the wheel of the ambulance that was hidden from sight right now was cracked. No need to make sure.

From what men think in their minds, they create the world around them, daily new.

‘You are not talking to me, Govind,’ said his mother. He no longer thought of her as the voice. ‘Have I angered you in any way?’

‘No, Amma,’ he said, turning to face the machine, wondering why – if they had gone to so much effort to recreate his childhood – they had not bothered to erect a dummy in Amma’s likeness. Not a moving, speaking robot, that would have been too weird, but at least a still figure that looked human.

But they must have reasons. They always had reasons.

‘I see that you are relaxing a little,’ she said, and Govind was suddenly conscious of all the sensors that his bed must have been equipped with, which were pumping shards of information into the machine every second. Blood pressure. Heartbeat. Pulse rate. Perspiration. Breathing.

‘You are tensing up again, my boy,’ she said, and managed to smile, just with her voice. ‘It is quite normal for a person to feel fear here in the renunciation chamber, but really, that is just your hindbrain lying to you. I am on the other side of you, am I not? I am as alive as you are.’

‘Are you?’ he said, half sitting up. ‘So the heathens are wrong? There is an afterlife?’

A ripple of shame washed through her words now, and Govind could picture her hanging her head, wringing her hands. She had been a sceptic all her life, had Amma; she had never forsaken the world to become a heathen all out, but he had heard her make sympathetic noises toward them now and then.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘they were wrong. I am so glad that I listened to your father and came here to renounce myself.’

‘Why? Do you not see any heathens around there?’

‘None, Govind,’ she replied. ‘Heathens are put to death by punishment, as you know, and they never make it to the afterlife. They tell me that their souls have been winkled out of existence. That is true death, my son. This – this is just a way of transference.’

Govind nodded, leaned back and looked at the ceiling. He placed his hands on his stomach. Stout, lined fingers entwined.

‘What is it like over there, Amma?’ he asked, after a short period of silence. ‘Is Appa there with you?’

‘There is a reason why the philosophers don’t tell us what it is like in the afterlife,’ said Amma, her voice now returning to normal. ‘It is not composed of the same dimensions of the physical world. For instance, I speak to you now but I have no vocal chords. No mouth. No tongue, no teeth. How, then, am I making sounds?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Neither do I,’ said Amma. ‘But the truth remains that I am speaking to you. The truth remains that I remember all that I have done with you, Govind. I have memories of my life in your realm, and I continue to make more in this one. How do I do it, when I no longer have the physical brain?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Neither do I,’ said Amma. ‘But does it matter?’

Govind looked at the claws of the crab painted on the ceiling. He wished that the lights would go out, so that he could see it in its full green-and-yellow splendour. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than the air darkened around him, and the stars that outlined the shape of the crustacean sprang to life.

Some of the old smells tickled his nose, then, and he smiled to himself; he was beginning to fill in some details with his imagination.

‘No,’ he said dreamily, ‘I guess it does not.’

‘I get the sense that I am composed of energy,’ said Amma, ‘and it is no longer contained within a shell that is the human body. I can speak – or rather, I can communicate. Perhaps once you come here we will no longer have need for actual words. You can read my thoughts, and I yours.’

‘And you have lived in this form for the last twenty years?’

‘Time has no meaning here, Govind,’ said Amma, and the force of the smile behind her words was so strong that he turned to look at the light on the machine. He felt a sudden, deep love for it. Extending his hand, he allowed his fingers to caress its plastic side, and considered giving it a hug.

‘Not the way you measure time anyway.’ Amma’s voice made him draw back his hand. ‘I cannot tell you how long I have been here. I feel like it has ben forever, and yet I feel like it was only a moment ago that I passed through the portal. This is what it means, perhaps, to experience eternity every single moment. If you remember, our philosopher had referred to it.’

Govind did remember. Renunciation is man’s only ticket to eternal bliss. If you wish to free yourself of the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, then you must renounce your possessions, your body, your life, everything. All that must remain is your soul, the indestructible force inside you that will fuse with the higher consciousness of all there is and all there will be.

‘Is it blissful, this existence?’ he asked.

A slow laugh came from the other side. ‘It is blissful only in the way human beings understand the word, Govind. Here I feel no need for joy for there is no sorrow. No need for pleasure for there is no pain. No need for peace for there is no war. No need for calm for there is no anger.’

‘There is just nothingness,’ said Govind, in the voice of their philosopher. ‘There is just nothingness, and in that nothingness you will exist, without desire or temptation.’

‘That is true,’ said Amma.

‘But Amma,’ said Govind, turning his head to face her, ‘you just told me that there is curried mutton waiting on the other side. Is that not desire?’

‘I said it only because I know that you still want it. Once you pass on to where I am, curried mutton – or anything – will hold no meaning for you. You could have it, of course, or you could have the sensation of having it just by wishing it so, but you won’t.’

‘Is it the same with everything else?’ Govind thought that a pair of claws on the crab clacked together, but when he looked again they were very still. ‘Is it the same with sex? With other sensual pleasures?’

‘You can have any sensual experience you want – painful or pleasurable – just by wishing it so,’ said Amma, in the same patient tone in which she had told him, when he was three, that touching a live nuclear plate would burn his hand to ashes. ‘But the key word here is “want”. You are still driven by want, whereas here, after you cross over, you won’t.’

‘Then why would you do anything, Amma?’ said Govind. ‘Why are you talking to me? If you want nothing, why are you doing anything?’

‘I am not doing anything. I am just an atom of conscious energy, floating around in the cosmic dust clouds. I do not wish to speak with you, though if you speak with me I shall return the favour.’

Govind found himself growing tired of the conversation. His mother had had the same occasional effect on him when she was alive. Some things did not change, not even across two different universes.

A square cavity in the machine opened, and from within emerged a tray bearing a shiny brass chalice. It was half-filled with a reddish liquid. It did not intrude into his space; it stopped, respectfully, an arm’s length away.

The fear returned to his bones. Govind looked at the exit door, grey and unmarked, blending into the wall. He was only forty-eight, two years from compulsory renunciation. He could walk out of here and none of them would stop him. He could still live this life of desire and want and flesh for two more years, if he wished.

But did he?

‘Do you think you will fear it any less in two years?’ asked Amma, and he was once again glad to hear her.

‘I might,’ he said, eyeing the chalice.

‘May I know what it is that you fear?’

Govind thought about that question, as he had thought about it all the time during the previous year. Renunciation seemed to be a desirable state; indeed, official statistics state that eighty percent of feeders volunteer to undergo it before their time had come. Of the other twenty percent, you had the heathens, who refused to give in and died in various ways – punishment, accident, suicide – and then you had the queer feeders who entered their renunciation chambers with peaceful uncertainty.

He was not a heathen, no. Like his mother he had been sympathetic to heathens, had even offered shelter to one of them for a night at his house, but he was also not a happy renouncer. Something deep inside him – if his mother had not been sitting here next to him, he would have called it his ‘soul’ – rebelled at the idea of gulping down red stuff from a chalice and laying down to sleep.

It was not fear of pain. The hemlock did not hurt.

It was not fear of losing his identity. His mother assured him from the other side that the essence of him would remain untouched.

It was not fear of losing desire. He had spent decades trying to master his wants.

It was not fear of leaving behind the world. He would not; just like his mother could see and talk to him, he would be able to see and talk to Rakesh and Mithila, when their time arrived. (He hoped, here, that at least one of them had chosen to speak with him on their renunciation days.)

What, then, did he fear?

‘Whatever your body fears about death,’ said Amma, ‘it is based on nothing more than instinct. But human beings are much more than bundles of nerves, Govind. We have a functioning forebrain, conscious thought, logic, powers of persuasion – and most of all, the ability to go against our innate natures. How otherwise would we have arrived here from the forests of Africa?’

Govind thought he heard a note of desperation in Amma’s voice, which sometimes made itself felt when she was losing an argument. But it was true, what she said; whether the heathens were right or she was right, he did not know; but the death of a heathen was a dishonourable one. Here they put you in an air-conditioned room, spoke to you kindly, respected you. They gave your family money after the deed was done.

Even if the heathens spoke of true things, even if this was all there was, if death was the permanent end of consciousness, one would like to die a feeder, ensconced in a renunciation chamber, surrounded by loving memories.

This was what Amma meant, he thought at once, shaking himself out of his inner monologue. Human beings were able to talk to themselves, choose between different kinds of death, prefer one over the other, even though the difference was just in the details, the manner of dying, so to speak.

The philosophers claimed the heathens did not make it to the afterlife, but who could tell? Perhaps they inhabited a different part of the energy cosmos that Amma referred to before; perhaps they formed their own little heathen group over there as well. None of the philosophers went to the afterlife, even they admitted it, and the voice that came out of this machine was not truly his mother’s voice from the other side; no, at best the sensors in the bed translated his own thoughts and put them into that familiar voice, to give him an illusion that he was speaking with someone.

‘No, Govind,’ she said. ‘This is me. I am speaking to you from the other side. You have to trust me, son.’

Again that note of desperation. That tinge of anxiety underpinning the voice.

‘What have you left to achieve in life?’ she asked now, and Govind found himself shaking his head at the question. He had had two children. His wife had chosen to renounce herself two years ago, at the age of forty eight, at the first time of asking. The credits they had given him for Rakesh and Mithila were almost down to zero; now his renunciation would leave them with a further windfall. He had raised two literate children, banked all the credits he had received at their various milestones, and had made it to renunciation without becoming a burden on his kids. He had contributed to the sculpture and poetics library, and his pieces had earned him a few scattered credits here and there. What else could one ask of life?

‘If you choose not to renounce yourself now,’ said Amma, ‘then you go back home, and you become a drain on your children’s allowances. Do you really want that?’

‘No,’ he said. He had heard too many stories of feeder families breaking up because an elder hung on for too long after his credits ran out. The bible had enough cautionary commandments: thou shalt not remain on Earth past thy time. Thou shalt embrace the reality of death with welcoming arms, for if thou faces thy final moments with a smile, the very gates of heaven shall become thine.

The Gita: Of all the most pitiful of men is he who thinks he can cheat Yama, the lord of death. The cycle of birth and rebirth is endless, and the only way to escape the eternal rush is to renounce yourself, give all that you have to the chalice and the hemlock. By this simple deed will you join me, Brahman, in the plane of consciousness, where desire and want shall worry you no more, and the truth of the universe shall be revealed to you.

The Quran: And the slaves of the Most Beneficent are those who walk on the earth with humility and sedateness, and when the heathens address them with harsh words, they reply back with mild words of gentleness. Those that are humble know when their time has come on this Earth, and when it is right to prepare for their onward journey. Those who cling to the flimsy thread that this earthly life represents will find themselves rejected by the Most Beneficent.

And so on. Every religion of the world said the same thing, and the philosophers too, right from Socrates, who managed to find the inner strength to impart wisdom to the young men of Athens while his veins were being frozen blue with poison, to the modern philosophers of today, some clad in saffron, some in white, others in green.

‘You have done all that you have been sent here to do, Govind,’ said Amma. ‘I know, I am your mother. I created you.’

‘You did,’ said Govind. He felt the same gush of love toward the machine once again, and once again he ran his hand down its side. He looked at the brass chalice and the red liquid within it.

‘Eternal bliss, eternal freedom, the eternal universe awaits you, Govind,’ said Amma, ‘and it does not have to lie along the path of pain. You can choose to renounce your life here, in the name of the Centurions that guard us all and inflict upon themselves the pain of an endless earthly life. In the name of Rakesh and Mithila, who will live beyond your time, but will come and meet you in the afterlife in due course. We shall all be together, Govind, you and I and they, and all the feeders you have known and loved.’

Govind felt the pull of his mother’s voice now, and his arm shot out toward the vessel of poison. Sweet poison, he had heard. Not like the one they had given Socrates all those centuries ago. This one dulled your senses one by one, put you to sleep, and drained life out of your body, drop after drop.

‘It will be just like going to bed after a tiring day, Govind.’ Amma lowered her voice to a croon, like she used to while telling him a story. ‘One little sip is all it takes, my boy, and you can leave the miseries of the world to the living.’

Govind sat up, brought the vessel to his nose, sniffed at the fragrant juice. His head swam in faint pleasure, and he took a longer, deeper breath. The grip of his fingers on the chalice tightened. His lips touched the surface of the liquid, and as it entered his mouth and descended down his throat, cooling his insides, a great lethargy overtook his muscles, and it required all his conscious effort of will to keep the chalice back on the tray without dropping it.

‘As you descend into sleep,’ Amma was saying, ‘remember that even Socrates was not spared the chill of hemlock.’

Govind closed his eyes, and his mind drifted off to a faraway place. He had visions of walking along a long, dark tunnel, the earth crunching under his feet, a cold wind blowing upon his face and stinging his eyes. Far into the distance he saw the light, and with each step he took it swelled in size. A female figure stood silhouetted in the middle of the bright circle, and she had her arms spread out wide, as if in welcome.

It was his mother, he knew.

So it had all been true, what she said. The afterlife did exist. The heathens were wrong. Gathering the feeble strength in his legs he broke into a stumbling trot, then into a run. The figure of his mother grew taller and taller in his vision, until it was all he saw, and he ran into her headlong, and found himself flung into a blinding sea of silver-white light.

And there he lay, suspended, free of gravity, feeling, passion. Curried mutton, he thought, and almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of the notion. He did not want it. Of course he did not. He did not want anything, not here. He did not even want his mother.

The last thing that Govind Natarajan heard (or thought he heard) with his physical ears were the words of his mother, coming out of the machine: ‘He is gone. Tell the harvesting team to move in.’

And then, with a quite audible click, everything went black.