UPON OPENING THE DOOR, the first thing that came to Lakshmi’s mind was the question: when are you going to shave?
Gyan stood looking at her with his crooked grin, and the mother in Lakshmi melted. ‘Have you eaten?’ she said, and looked up and down the shadowed hallway almost by instinct. Gyan was hugging something close to his chest; something wrapped in bright pink-and-white patterns. A red ribbon was tied around it.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Is Appa home?’
‘Not yet. But he will come any moment now.’
‘I will try to leave before he does,’ said Gyan, and her heart ached. She suddenly realized how absurd this scene was; her son, her firstborn, had come home after a year’s absence, and she had to think twice – no, a hundred times – before she could invite him in. Gyan rested his chin on the edge of the package for a moment, then held it out to her. ‘I came by to give Anjali this.’
‘Her birthday was last month.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I remember. But things at the camp –’
Lakshmi nodded with savageness that surprised her. It surprised Gyan too, because he stopped mid-sentence and gave her one of his grins from deep within that week-old stubble. The boy needed a shave, a haircut, a shower, a new set of clothes, a scrub, and god knew what else.
‘Come inside,’ she said.
He broke eye contact with her, seemed to hesitate. Lakshmi wondered how he had managed to get past the complex’s security system. Bribe? Disguise? Lies? Or some other sophisticated means of trickery that he had learned at his ‘camp’ over the last year?
‘Come,’ she said. ‘Before anyone sees you.’
He stepped through the threshold, and Lakshmi closed the contact on the wall panel to her right, causing the door to solidify into deep brown wood. That simple action changed everything in her; while Gyan stood outside the house and looked in, he was a fugitive, a law-breaker, an ‘antisocial element’ as the news called them, but now, within the confines of the four walls which birthed and reared him from crawling infant to strapping youth, he was her son first. Everything else could wait.
He did not hug her, nor did he ask how she had been. They had never been big on displays of affection, the four of them. One of the few traditions that had stayed alive through the years – Lakshmi did not know why – was Gyan gifting Anjali something on her birthday.
Last year he had given her a bookfilm-viewer. Lakshmi remembered that Shlok had not been happy with the stuff that Gyan had loaded into the machine. What is the boy viewing these days, he had asked her in bed that night, and she had been all to naive to know that it would be the first inkling of what was to come.
‘Who is it, mama?’ Anjali’s voice came from inside the room. She was towelling her hair as she entered the living room, and froze when she saw her brother. ‘You let him come in?’ she said.
‘I have turned off the internal surveillance,’ said Lakshmi.
‘People will come asking questions.’
‘Not until the morning.’
Gyan stood by the dining table and rested the package on its edge. He tapped it twice and said, as brightly as he could, ‘Belated happy birthday, Anju.’
‘So this is your thing now?’ said Anjali, her voice cutting, ‘you appear once a year and bring me a gift? That’s it?’
‘I would like to visit more often,’ said Gyan, ‘but you know how Appa is.’
‘It is not Appa’s fault.’ Anjali looked at Lakshmi, and softened at once. She said to her brother, ‘Have you eaten?’
‘No.’ Gyan smiled at her; it was not quite the goofy grin that he had given Lakshmi a short while back. This was more intimate, protective. One that said I got your back, no matter what. ‘What’s for dinner?’
‘No no,’ said Anjali, ‘You will not get anything to eat as long as you look like that. It’s as if a bear has walked into the house.’
‘But Amma said –’
‘Amma said nothing.’ Anjali turned a stern eye toward Lakshmi. ‘If you don’t go straight into the shower and get rid of all that hair on your face, I swear I am not going to let you anywhere near anything edible.’
Gyan looked at Lakshmi, and after ascertaining that he was not getting any support from her, shrugged good-naturedly. He made for his room and asked over his shoulder, ‘Does my closet have any clothes?’
‘As you left them.’
From inside his room he muttered loud enough for them to hear: ‘They say some things never change. Well, some other things become worse.’
‘What?’ called out Anjali.
* * *
Lakshmi finished arranging Gyan’s dal fry (slow-cooked, sprinkled with black lentils) on the table just as he emerged from the bathroom, looking much more presentable than a bear. Anjali came out of the kitchen with a steaming bowl of curried brinjal in her mittened hands. Their chefmaster was an old model, bought with the credit bonus they had received at Anjali’s birth; though it was clunky by today’s standards, at least it knew just how each member of the family liked their dishes.
When they sat together at the table, and after Gyan had wolfishly downed three ladlefuls of the dal, Lakshmi said, ‘Anjali is going into law enforcement.’
Gyan paused, and the smile he wore on his face acquired a wooden look. ‘Hmm,’ he said, and turned to his sister. ‘Law enforcement. As in a lawyer?’
‘As in a cop,’ said Anjali.
Gyan said to Lakshmi, waving his spoon at her, ‘Did you tell her that this might mean we will meet more often than once a year?’
‘What do you mean?’ said Anjali, her black eyes turning the merest shade of green in the mercury light.
‘Shh,’ said Lakshmi. ‘I should not have brought it up. I was just making conversation!’
Gyan kept smiling, but Lakshmi did not like this smile of his, drained of all warmth and life, his face just making the tight motions of stretching his lips wide and baring his teeth. ‘Why, we are a family, are we not? We should tell Anjali what I do for a living.’
‘You don’t do anything for a living,’ said Anjali, glancing at Lakshmi for confirmation. ‘You are a lout. You live on handouts from the Centurions. Is that not what Appa had always been angry with you about?’
‘Oh,’ said Gyan, his smile widening at his mother, ‘is that what you told her?’
‘Mama?’ said Anjali, ‘What’s going on?’
‘Yes, mama,’ said Gyan, and Lakshmi found herself wishing already that she had not let him in. ‘What is going on?’
‘You want some more dal?’ she said frigidly, making a show of stirring the pulses, the turmeric, the oil, the ghee, the spices…
‘Don’t yell at her,’ said Gyan. ‘Let her stir the dal. You want to know what I do for a living? Well, I will tell you. Wait, perhaps I could encourage you to guess it. Let me give you the first hint: Amma and Appa are ashamed of me.’
‘That much I know,’ said Anjali. ‘They have made it quite clear.’
‘They have to me as well.’ Gyan mellowed down a little, Lakshmi noticed, and her hand stopped stirring the dal. From inside, the chefmaster made a rather strange sound, a half-whirr, a half-smash, and a low whistle drawled out.
‘Perhaps you should open your gift,’ Lakshmi said to the polished table top, to the yellow blotches Gyan had made while serving himself.
‘Now if I were a lout, as you thought,’ said Gyan, ‘if I were just living on charity from the Centurions, would they be as ashamed of me as this? Would they fear being seen around with me? Would it matter so much that Amma has to turn off the surveillance of the house?’ He twirled the spoon in his hand while pointing it at Anjali, as if urging her to think harder. ‘Does this not seem like there is something more at work here? I don’t know, something a policewoman might find worth her while?’
‘Are you – crazy?’
‘If I were crazy, Anjali, then you would have to be a psychiatrist to take an interest in me.’
‘No.’ She turned to look at Lakshmi, and Lakshmi could see that her daughter had divined the answer. Crime as the old people knew it had long disappeared in the modern world. The primary motivation of all crime was envy, and where was the need for envy when every feeder lived the same kind of life for the same number of years, earned the same amount of credits no matter what job they did, had the same number of kids?
Crimes of passion still happened, every now and then, but with philosophy becoming a way of life, people received early training in detaching themselves from their emotions, in observing them, managing them, and taking the most sensible step forward.
That was the world was today, Lakshmi thought. Sensible.
Who still committed crimes, then? The sub-section of feeders that refused to acknowledge the logic of philosophy and lived in underground ghettos, off wild conspiracy theories that sowed violence and passion back into the feeder young, veering them off the path of peace.
‘You are a heathen,’ said Anjali, not quite believing it herself as she said those words.
‘I am,’ said Gyan, with something resembling pride. ‘Would you like to be one too?’
Anjali’s voice turned cold and hard all of a sudden, as if she were speaking to an intruder. ‘The head philosopher who died last week – Maitreya Biswas – they say a heathen killed him.’
‘You would say that, though, wouldn’t you?’
Gyan shrugged. ‘I suppose. To be honest, I wish it were one of us who killed the priest – but it wasn’t.’
‘You said priest. He wasn’t a priest.’
Gyan shrugged again. ‘It’s the same thing. But to answer your question, we did not kill him. It caught us off guard too, the incident.’
‘The police are looking for heathens everywhere now,’ said Anjali. ‘Arrest on sight.’
The ugly smile returned to Gyan’s face. He was otherwise a handsome boy, thought Lakshmi, and if all had gone well, who knew? He would have taken a woman by now, they would have applied for union, and with any luck they would have had a baby too. The chefmaster would have received an upgrade, then, with the bonus credits, and it would not have made such horrendous sounds every time they turned it on. Why, the newer models turned out perfectly fresh food – even slow-cooked food – in less than a minute, her friends said.
They all had sons after she had had Gyan. Now they were all grandmothers.
‘Convenient, isn’t it?’ Gyan was saying. ‘A head philosopher gets bumped off in the middle of a speech and they say it’s the heathens.’
‘Well, who else could it be?’ said Lakshmi, suddenly furious at her son for everything – the noise in the chefmaster, the spilt dal on the table, and Anjali choosing to go into law enforcement before taking a mate and having children, which meant that all their upgrades would have to wait for a few years yet.
‘Yes, it has to be the heathens,’ said Anjali. ‘No feeder would kill a philosopher.’
Gyan played with his spoon. ‘That’s what we thought, too, at first, that one of us might have killed the old fellow in a fit of rage or something. But no. This had a lot of planning go into it. Nothing a rogue heathen could do by himself.’
‘I repeat,’ said Anjali, in that same cold voice. The sister who had told off her brother for being a bear had vanished. ‘No feeder would kill a philosopher.’
‘We think this might be an inside job,’ said Gyan.
‘Inside job by whom?’
‘Well, who else? The Centurions.’
‘Why would they kill one of their own?’
Gyan threw her one of his enigmatic smiles. ‘You see the result, don’t you? There is distrust now between feeders and heathens. For a long time nothing like this had happened. We were beginning to grow friendly, after a fashion. But now, all’s back to normal. What’s the death of one philosopher when you can grow all this hate out of nothing, eh?’
Anjali broke into a short chuckle and shook her head.
‘You really believe that crap?’ she said. ‘I’ve heard that you guys liked your conspiracy theories, but this is really too much.’
‘Do you have an argument against it?’
‘Yes,’ said Anjali, ‘as a matter of fact I do. The heathens killed him as a show of power, and now they are trying to pin it on the Centurions. But you know what, the people won’t buy it.’
‘They won’t, I agree,’ said Gyan, and at once Lakshmi saw a shattering sadness in his small, oily eyes. ‘They will only buy things that the Centurions sell. Do you not see it, Anju? Is all of this not a bit too easy? A dead philosopher is always, always going to be pinned on us, so why would we do something so stupid? And you’re right, a feeder would not kill a philosopher, so there is only one explanation for it. The Centurions.’
Anjali shook her head. ‘The Centurions are a noble people.’
Gyan stared at his little sister in incredulity for a moment, then broke into a laugh. ‘You are joking, surely? You used to be able to think for yourself, Anju. What has happened to you in a year?’
‘Yeah? You used to be able to talk without smirking in that sly way. What has happened to you?’
Lakshmi said, ‘Don’t quarrel,’ while listening out for the chefmaster. It had descended into silence, thankfully, but a low rumble seemed to still come at her from its corner. Was she imagining it?
‘I guess they have gotten to you,’ said Gyan. ‘I guess I was too late.’
‘Too late for what?’
‘Too late to ask you to join us. If you think the Centurions are noble – oh, lord, where do I start?’
‘You can start somewhere,’ said Anjali. ‘Let me hear you tell me why they are not noble.’
Gyan began to speak, but Anjali cut him off.
‘Do you mean to say that taking all the responsibility of producing energy for the human race is a simple thing? Do you mean that inflicting upon themselves the punishment of a long life in order to serve humanity is somehow a sin? We owe our comfortable lives to the Centurions, you know that – and we have reached a stage in human development where there is no crime, no war, no unhappiness – except for you heathens, dear brother – and you refuse to accept that they are noble?’
‘Let me ask you a simple question,’ said Gyan. ‘How do they live such long lives?’
‘Everyone knows that,’ said Anjali, scornfully. ‘They partake of nectar from a mountain flower that slows down aging.’
‘Nectar from a mountain flower,’ said Gyan, sniffing at the air. ‘I wonder if this mountain is called the Meru, and they have to take permission from Indra, the king of Gods, to pluck flowers from his garden.’
‘See, this is the problem with you,’ said Anjali. ‘You make everything a joke.’
‘When you believe something as outlandish as this, Anju, then one has to make a joke about it. All right, let’s play it your way. Say you are right. Say that there is a mountain flower that slows down human aging. What is stopping them from giving it out to every one of us? Why just them?’
‘There is not enough to go around,’ said Anjali. ‘And who would like to live for as long as that, anyway?’
‘Yes,’ said Lakshmi, now assured that the chefmaster was quiet. ‘It would be horrible. Working for all those hours doing such a thankless job. And to know that one would never renounce one’s life.’ A shudder passed through her spine, and she murmured a silent prayer. ‘That is pure hell.’
‘Yes,’ said Anjali, ‘you seem to think that there is something desirable about immortality. Do you not know that this time here on Earth is just a test, that the true purpose of life is to unite with the higher consciousness?’
Gyan’s leg had begun to shake, and Lakshmi knew that to be a sign that he was getting flustered. By reflex she said again, vacantly, ‘Don’t quarrel.’
‘How do you know?’ said Gyan.
‘How do I know what?’
‘How do you know that the purpose of life is to unite with the higher consciousness?’
‘Uh. Science tells us? Thousands of near renunciation experiences? Literature that is thousands of years old that has been written by our ancients?’
‘All of it has been fabricated,’ said Gyan.
‘How do you know?’
He faltered, and a stammer took hold of his tongue. With a grunt of irritation he flung the spoon at the wall. It bounced off without leaving a mark and clattered to the floor.
‘I just know it,’ said Gyan. ‘In my bones.’ He looked at Lakshmi, and then at Anjali. ‘I wonder how you do not see it. No other living form yearns to die but ours. Do you not see that something is wrong about that?’
‘No other living form can think of death in a conscious manner, like we do,’ said Anjali, and Lakshmi found herself mouthing those words. They had been reading this all their lives, of course; she had no idea where Gyan got his radical thoughts. Maybe they were right; maybe this whole heathen thing was genetic. In spite of all the evidence, if a man chose to believe in something based on what he felt in his bones, well – he was not much of a man.
‘No other living form can comprehend consciousness like we can,’ Anjali was saying. ‘The purpose of life is to procreate, and then surrender ourselves to the higher plane. What could one achieve by living on Earth after we have bred?’
‘Why do you think the Centurions are choosing not to surrender themselves?’ asked Gyan, exasperated, and for a moment Lakshmi thought both her children were on the verge of pulling out their hair.
‘You know what?’ said Anjali. ‘We are running around in circles. Maybe we ought to drop it.’
‘Okay, let’s drop it,’ said Gyan.
‘I will say this, though.’ Anjali put up a hand. ‘The majority of human beings – the vast majority of them across the world, not just here in India – they agree with me. There must be something wrong with you, then? Do you at least agree with that?’
‘Men,’ said Gyan in his preaching voice, one that Lakshmi had hated all her life, ‘it has been said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.’
Anjali laughed cruelly. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘the entire world is mad. You’re the sane one.’
‘In the land of the blind,’ continued Gyan, ‘the sighted are burned alive as infidels.’
‘Can you believe him?’ Anjali said to Lakshmi.
‘Revolution,’ said Gyan, leaning toward his sister, ‘is a spectator sport. The majority will sit and watch the factions fight, and at the end they will side with the victor.’
‘And I know who the victor will be, in this case,’ Anjali proclaimed.
‘Perhaps you do, dear sister,’ said Gyan, ‘and perhaps you don’t.’
* * *
The rest of the meal took place in merciful silence. As he was cleaning off his plate, Lakshmi said to Gyan, ‘You can stay the night.’
Both Gyan and Anjali looked up at her. The surveillance was one thing, but there was a bigger threat looming, and that was Shlok. Anjali widened her eyes at Lakshmi as if to say, what are you doing?
Lakshmi tried to send across I was just being polite, but did not know if she managed it.
The green strip that ran across the breadth of the front door turned blue, and at once the wood dissolved into nothingness. Lakshmi tensed as Shlok strode in and took off his shoes, resting his hand on the wall for support. His eyes were immersed in his phone, so it was not until after he came all the way to the dining table that he saw Gyan.
‘Hi,’ said Gyan.
‘Why did you come?’ Shlok had just switched to a thick-set black frame on his glasses. They made him look like an owl. Now he cast a quick glance at the surveillance screen, and let out a sigh of relief that it was off. He turned to Lakshmi. ‘Why did he come?’
‘It’s so nice to be asked this question among your own people,’ said Gyan, looking up at Anjali. ‘Isn’t it?’
‘Shlok,’ said Lakshmi. ‘Come sit. We were having dinner, the three of us. Just like old times, remember?’ She got up to unzip his suit, and brushed off some imaginary dust from the collars. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that her husband still stood stiffly by the table, unsure of what to do. ‘Just sit down and I will get you some dinner. Gyan will just stay the night. He will be gone by dawn.’
‘Gone by dawn,’ said Gyan. ‘Sounds like the title of a story you’d be reading, Anju.’
‘Shut up.’ The tiniest of smirks dented Anjali’s mouth.
‘Well,’ said Shlok, ‘he must. Otherwise they will come after us.’ He adjusted his glasses though he didn’t need to. ‘How – how have you been?’
Lakshmi got up and went into the kitchen. She touched the red contact on the chefmaster’s face and watched it work itself into motion. First it buzzed. Then it burred. Then it shook. The raw materials disappeared into its belly, and then began the churning.
She pursed her lips. An upgraded chefmaster would beep politely and serve whatever they wanted in half the time. A slow anger began to build inside her now, toward each of the three people seated in the dining table in turn – first at Shlok, for paying no attention to how they might bring in a few extra credits each month, then at Gyan, for letting go of the union and children bonuses, and then at Anjali – for grinning at her brother’s inane jokes.
Voices at the dining table had begun to rise as Shlok’s meal turned and twisted inside the chefmaster. By the time Lakshmi went outside bearing her husband’s plate, Gyan had already stormed into his room and slammed the door.
‘What happened?’ asked Lakshmi.
‘I tried to make him see reason,’ said Shlok. ‘What else? Why can’t he learn from what Anjali is doing? She is younger than him, she is a girl –’
Anjali’s eyes shot up at Lakshmi. She tried to communicate in the best way she could that his father meant that as a compliment.
Shlok rolled up his sleeves and patted the outside of the plate, feeling its warmth. Then he picked up a spoon and dug it in. ‘Sometimes I wonder where we had gone wrong as parents. Hopeless. Just hopeless!’
Lakshmi sighed and nodded, though her mind drifted off into the kitchen to her chefmaster, which had again begun to groan mournfully.
* * *
Later in bed, after the sounds of the house had died down, Lakshmi rested her leg against Shlok’s side and said, ‘Are you awake?’
‘I want to talk.’
‘I am awake.’
‘You know, you said what did we do wrong as parents in bringing up Gyan?’
‘Do you think we are making a further mistake now, by not turning him in?’
There was silence from Shlok. A long minute’s worth.
Lakshmi let it linger, then said, ‘They will give us some credits for turning in a heathen, won’t they?’
‘They will,’ said Shlok.
‘And we are still ten years from renunciation,’ said Lakshmi. ‘It will be at least two years before Anjali gets her union bonus.’
‘Assuming that she will get one.’
‘Well.’ Lakshmi laid a hand on Shlok’s arm. ‘I heard them argue at dinner today. She is definitely not a heathen.’
‘That’s a relief.’
‘That means she will file for union at some point. And then her child allowance. But that is all some years yet.’
‘And our chefmaster – did you hear the noise it makes?’
‘We have to get it upgraded,’ said Lakshmi. ‘The supermaid is falling apart too. I have been running it on red for a month now.’
‘Wow, a month, really?’
‘Yes. Lots of other things.’
Shlok turned on his back, blew out a mouthful of air at the ceiling, scratched himself.
‘They will give us a bonus for turning in a heathen, will they not?’ said Lakshmi.
‘I am certain of it.’
‘Then perhaps this is a sign – that we can undo past wrongs. Maybe they will put him in a correction facility –’
Shlok nodded. ‘That’s what they do with the young ones. Under twenty five.’
‘And who knows? He might be out in a year or two.’
‘Nah,’ said Shlok. ‘Four years minimum.’
‘Even then,’ persisted Lakshmi. ‘In four years we will have a regular son. A regular feeder son. Imagine, Shlok! No slinking around with friends. No turning away of face when someone asks what Gyan is doing. No shame. And all the upgrades we will need.’
‘And then Gyan will get his bonuses too,’ Shlok pointed out.
‘Exactly,’ replied Lakshmi. ‘Just in time to tide us over for the last few years.’
‘We will be doing him a favour.’
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘We will be doing Anjali a favour too. And ourselves – let’s not forget ourselves.’
‘We will be doing all of us a favour,’ said Shlok.
‘All of us, yes.’
Another silence. They held each other’s hand, and stared at opposite walls of the room. They had gotten it painted a restful shade of lavender, on the occasion of Anjali’s first birthday. Now it was peeling off everywhere.
Shlok pulled out his phone, held it in front so that they could both see the screen.
He punched in the code for the police hotline. Option one was ‘report a heathen’. Shlok touched it. The line on the other end began to ring.
He looked at Lakshmi in the darkness, and she looked back at him. ‘For all of us,’ he said.
She felt as though her tongue had swollen up inside her mouth. No words came out. Her eyes filled with tears. Tears of happiness, she told herself, because I will finally be getting rid of that damned chefmaster.
Contact was made. An impassive male voice asked Shlok for his identification number and location.
As her husband spoke the details into the phone, Lakshmi reached under their bed to touch the button that would turn the home’s surveillance system back on.