‘I don’t need to tell you the exact memory.’
‘Is there any way you can know – after I am gone?’
‘The machine – it doesn’t have a log or something? It doesn’t remember?’
‘It doesn’t remember.’
‘Okay. Okay. So I go in there – and take the chair – and slide my head into the slot – heh, this feels like I am reciting a lesson to a teacher – and then when I am ready – I flick the red switch. Correct?’
‘And if I feel like I cannot –’
‘You touch the green button and I will close the switch from here.’
‘Right. Right. And if I want out of this – if I change my mind – I walk out of the room.’
‘Yes. And the fee will be refunded to you within twenty four hours.’
‘Right. Okay. Anything else that you think I should know? Anything that you think I will regret? I suppose you won’t tell me even if there is anything – heh.’
‘All I will say, Madam, is that you will enjoy the experience. My clients leave with happy faces.’
* * *
Shivam cast a pair of melancholy grey eyes at the light above the closed front door. A tangled web of fine-drawn lines covered his round face, and his bulbous nose was ridden with shallow black pockmarks. He had just finished checking the status on the woman’s payment for the third time; it had come through all right but he was jumpy when it came to money. He didn’t need it. He didn’t want it. But jumpy all the same. Old habit.
An abortion, Shivam guessed. She wanted the baby. Her man didn’t. She gave up the baby in order to keep the man. The man left her soon after. She wanted to forget it all, make a fresh start.
She seemed young. She’d made a mistake. She’d get back on her feet. This visit would make it easier, that was all. A friend of a friend must have told her to find him. Sat outside the corner house on Second Cross Road of Palem West. First Sunday of every month. No appointment required.
Shivam did not expect the light to turn on. The woman was nervous, but she had that steel about her, that firm, ruthless resolve that came upon one when one decided enough was enough, that a new leaf had to be turned. Maybe she had met someone new, someone who she thought would be eager to both put a baby in her and raise it with her.
He blinked up at the light. He sat in a black leather office chair behind a glass-topped rosewood desk tucked away to the side of the porch. When an image of a syringe drawing colourless blood from a tiny arm threatened to crop up in his mind, he swatted it away with malevolent force. Not now, he thought. Not now.
But that thought led to another, and another, and another… before he knew it he was entering a tunnel in his mind, a dark tunnel that was mysterious and familiar at the same time.
The light came on – and with a sigh of relief Shivam got to his feet. Maybe what he thought was steel was merely bluster. Women had a way of faking it – to the world and to themselves. Or maybe it was not even an abortion, maybe it was something far deeper, far more serious. Who could tell?
He placed his finger underneath the switch. He paused for just a second, looking up at the clear light. He didn’t call out to the woman. He didn’t need to. He waited five seconds, then with a smooth motion, flicked the switch on.
* * *
‘So I go in there and think of the thing that I wish to forget. Do I direct my thoughts in any way?’
‘Just focus as closely as you can on the memory.’
‘And you say that the longer the memory is, the less effective your machine becomes.’
‘I will be more likely to forget one-off incidents, then, than to forget entire relationships – or friendships.’
‘You can still forget friendships or relationships.’
‘You know, what I’d really like to forget is my ex-wife. She was such a bitch. Any chance your machine can do that?’
‘Yes. Focus on all the things that remind you of her. Think of her as deeply as you can. The machine will find all the places in your brain that are firing – and it will erase those memories.’
‘But it’s not foolproof.’
‘It is not. Especially with memories that form a large part of your past, there are too many connections in your brain to sever. So it is likely that you will remember her every now and then, when a deeper synapse is triggered.’
‘I see. But I will remember her less than I do now.’
‘Absolutely. I’d say the worst case scenario is a 90% improvement of your mood after the procedure.’
‘That’s not bad.’
‘It’s not. No.’
‘So I press the red button when I’m ready. Right?’
‘And if I’d like you to press it from here, I press the green button.’
* * *
Shivam watched the light with one eye and tracked the man’s payment with another. He tapped refresh on his screen once. Twice. On the third touch of his thumb a green downward arrow appeared, showing the amount that had been credited. He refreshed a couple more times just to be sure. Money did not leave your account on its own once it came in, but Shivam liked to take no chances.
Divorcee, Shivam guessed. He had that self-assured, well-fed look of a man who had been touched by success. That meant money, and friends in high places. Must have meant long hours, plenty of time away from home. Whether the ex-wife was truly a bitch or just a bitch in his eyes, one didn’t know. He wanted to forget her – he wanted to deaden that part of his brain that stored images and sounds of her. The cruelty of her barbs. The sedate anger in her voice. The blue hatred in her eyes. He would also forget, of course, the smell of her hair, the warmth of her bosom, the passionate force of her personality without which he had once thought he couldn’t live.
Another woman, perhaps. A younger one, a more beautiful one, someone who laughs at his jokes and marvels at his worldly wisdom; someone who finds men her own age boring and immature, someone who prefers a man who is older, more settled and comfortable in his own skin.
She’d give him all that he had always wanted. But in order to step unabashedly into the future, one had to amputate oneself from the past.
Choo choo, said a thought, and Shivam began to follow a toy train chugging along on maroon plastic tracks, breathing fake smoke into the air from its engine’s chimney. What happens when we die, Babu, asked a voice that he recognized instantly, and an arm that lay on side of the train’s path – brown, rotting – was emptying pale yellow fluid into a syringe through a thin, gleaming needle.
He stopped to crouch by the arm’s side, and lifted it up so that he could pry open the little fingers, and touch the palm to his cheek. It was warm to the touch, of course, and it spurted thin urine-like blood all over his neck.
Choo choo, said the train, leaving him behind, and he thought he must get up right now and start running – leave the arm behind, the arm is dead. Forget the arm, don’t even worry about burying it. Chase the train down and save the doll – the doll is alive and the doll needs you.
And he hurled the arm with a groan of disgust at the rough earth, and as he began to run the bright sunlight turned a deep cool violet. Without looking back over his shoulder he knew that worms were eating into the arm, that arm that had wrapped itself around his neck and relieved itself, that arm that had once been – alive?
The door opened, and the man came out with an expression that Shivam knew well. To call it happiness would be untruthful, but he had heard clients describe themselves as happy, and like any ethical businessman, he saw no reason to argue with a sentiment as fine as that.
‘I feel rather light-headed,’ said the man, grabbing Shivam’s hand in a bear-grip and shaking it. ‘I should have done this sooner!’
‘You can come back any time you want, sir,’ said Shivam.
‘You know, I think I will.’
* * *
‘The word I am looking for is betrayal. I was badly betrayed when I was fourteen. Can your machine help me forget him?’
‘I am married to a great man now. I have three children. I have everything in the world that a woman can ask for. But I dream of this fellow every day. Every fucking day, do you believe it? Sometimes I think of him when my husband makes love to me. Oh god, that makes me sound like a slut, doesn’t it? Is this conversation confidential?’
‘When we were fourteen, this man – whom I shall not name – promised that we will get married. And then my best friend comes along and steals him from me. She literally steals him from me one rainy evening. After all this, do you know what I did? I wished them all the best. When they told me that they were fucking each other’s brains out behind my back, I swallowed everything like a meek little bitch and said all the best.’
‘I am sorry to hear that.’
‘I am too. I think of this every day and I feel sorry for myself. I want to go back in time and tell these two – they are married now – that what they did affected me. For years I got pushed into a shell. I was a good student. Top of the class. Now I could barely pass anything. I used to be beautiful. Now I was fat. And you know what takes the cake? This best friend of mine – she gives me advice on how to lose weight. Well, guess who looks like a cow now.’
‘I am sorry.’
‘I want to get out of this – this cage that they have built around me. I have a good life. I have a better life than they do. My husband is richer than hers. We have a happier marriage than they do. Just the other day a common friend came visiting – and she told me that she witnessed a really bad fight between the two of them. It made me cackle. Oh, sweet victory. And I am not ashamed of it! Serves them right for the way they treated me all those years ago. You know?’
‘I’ve tried everything to set myself free of them. I’ve done therapy. I’ve done gratitude journaling. I’ve done self-help seminars. I’ve tried forgiving them. But nothing has worked. So I am here. You tell me – will your machine help me forget?’
‘I want to rub them off my mind like they never existed. Like poof! My life would be so much better!’
‘All you have to do is walk in through the door, Madam, think of these people with as much focus as you can muster, and when you’re ready, press the red button. The machine will show you the time it will take to erase your memories. This will depend on the breadth and depth of the synaptic connections in your brain that are associated with the memory –’
‘And if it doesn’t work?’
‘I would not worry about it not working, Madam.’
‘But in case it doesn’t?’
‘I have a thirty-day money-back offer. No questions asked.’
* * *
Shall we read this rhyme, Babu?
Two little dickie birds sitting on a wall, said a thought. One died of leukemia and the other flew into a windshield. Shivam tapped maniacally at the screen of his phone so that the woman’s payment would come through. He kept an eye on the light above the red switch, though he believed that she would have no problem with it. She would of course forget everything about the betrayal and the two friends. She would have newfound confidence in herself, she would indeed escape the cage. But she would also become someone her current husband might not recognize. Or even love.
Buckle up, Chutki, said a thought, and giggled. Why does a doll need to be buckled up?
He had caught up with the train, having left the defecating arm behind, and was now pulling levers in the cabin, occasionally tooting on the horn, making it go choo choo. To his left was his co-driver, a beautiful woman with dark brown ringlets for hair. He recognized her, of course, but he would not allow himself to repeat her name.
Chutki the doll wore a yellow top and a blue skirt, and was nestled in the woman’s protective arms. Why does a doll need to be buckled up, said the voice, and Shivam nodded and said why indeed and so did the beautiful woman with brown ringlets. He could not see her face, which made him angry because he wondered if she were hiding something from him – but when one drove the train at night time one had to remain focused on the tracks. One did not ponder the imponderable moods of one’s co-travellers.
They were not singing or laughing; they had just burned the arm over a pile of wood, and they had spread the ashes over the water and had prayed for the good of his soul. But did a two-year-old body part have a soul? Shivam seemed to remember this arm – hale and hearty now, full of life and colour – falling asleep on his stomach not too long ago, and dripping drool onto his stomach. Drool, not blood. An arm did not have a mouth, so how did it drool onto your chest, old man?
In the light of the moon, on the track he thought he saw a face. He pointed and asked his co-driver if she saw it too, and in response she only shook her head, still hiding her face from him.
He slammed on the brake and stopped just in time, the face was unharmed, the face as he remembered it before it had begun to swell on one side and go cushy and slimy on the other. He sighed and said that it was a close call, that he had been lucky to spot the face when he did – and when he looked to his side he saw that Chutki the doll was no longer in the beautiful woman’s arms. She had crashed into the windshield and was now rumpled up in the corner of the dashboard. The woman with the ringlets was holding her blood-soaked hands to her face now, and she was wailing. Shivam told her that it was okay, all okay, they had stopped in time, and they were going to get Chutki all repaired and stitched up, no worries.
Two little dickie birds – once sat on a wall. One was two, and the other was four.
The light above the red switch went on. Shivam went to help out the betrayed woman. After it was all done, she came out with the same look of happiness on her face. She had a spring to her step, and she wrung his hand and said, ‘You know, this is going to change my life! Thank you.’
Shivam nodded his congratulations. ‘I am glad to have helped you through the pain.’
‘What pain?’ she asked airily. ‘I punch pain and laugh in its face. Pow!’
Shivam laughed agreeably. ‘If you ever need any other memories of betrayal to be erased,’ he said, ‘you know where to find me.’
* * *
The woman who sat in his visitor’s chair was clad head to toe in a black burqa. She wore dark sunglasses over her eyes, latex skin-coloured gloves over her hands. Shivam did not judge; some clients were open about what they wanted to purge, others weren’t.
‘I must ask you to click on Agree on this page, Madam,’ said Shivam. ‘Just a regular terms and conditions document. That you’re doing this of your own free will. That I am not forcing you in any way.’
‘Of course,’ said the woman in a whisper. The voice seemed vaguely familiar to Shivam’s ears, but he did not think much of it. Every woman seemed vaguely similar to all other women, if one thought about it. ‘Does your machine work well for people who have trouble dealing with grief?’
The woman tapped at various places on the screen, and then looked up to nod at him.
‘People or things?’
‘Both?’ she said.
Shivam nodded. He told her how much it would cost, and after she had agreed that it would be no problem, he entered the amount into a box and gave it to her to accept transfer.
As her hands went through the motions, he said, ‘I hope you understand what this means. If you wish to forget these people you have lost, you will forget everything about them. The good and the bad.’
‘There was no bad about the people I have lost,’ she said.
‘I see,’ said Shivam. ‘Then why do you wish to forget?’
‘It is too painful knowing that I will never be with them again.’
‘All separation, they say, is temporary,’ said Shivam.
‘I would like to believe that,’ said the woman, ‘but I don’t.’
‘Not for me to decide whether this is right for you or not,’ said Shivam. ‘You know best. Shall I authorize or shall I hold off?’
‘As long as you’re confident that your machine will work, go ahead.’
She seemed so quiet and composed, nothing like the clients he usually got. A part of him wanted to warn her: this would remove the sense of loss, yes, but it would also remove all memory of ever having possessed. He thought of the urinating, bleeding arm riddled with worms and maggots, wasting away – he wanted to forget it, yes, but he would also forget the healthy arm that drooled sleepily over his chest.
Am I going to die, Babu, asked Chutki the doll. Except Chutki couldn’t have asked that question because for her death came faster than she could blink. It was the arm that had had time to think of dying, experience it, imagine it in different ways, the arm that was once attached to a body, a body that had a head, two jaundiced eyes, a weak, forlorn smile plastered over dried and pasty lips. Mumma says that I will go to sleep, and when I wake up I will be in a happy place with all of you. With you, Mumma and Akka.
Shivam wanted to forget it all, how dearly he wanted to forget it! All of it – the diagnosis, the radiotherapy, the medication, the falling out of the hair, and the conversations – watching a two year old wrestle with the meaning of death, swinging between absurd laughter and helpless weeping, chugging along on the toy train blowing fake smoke along a circular track, over and over and over.
He wanted to forget that fateful moment when he neglected to buckle up Chutki – what had he said? That it was just a ten-minute ride? – he wanted to wrench his foot away from the brake-pedal and hold it aloft so that he would not send his daughter – his baby girl, whom he had held in his arms and rocked to sleep – flying out of her mother’s arms head first into the windshield. He wanted to forget the sickening crack that he heard in that instant, what the doctors told him later – rather helpfully – was her neck breaking.
He wanted to forget the lifeless eyes that stared through him. The blood, which was thick and red, as blood ought to be.
‘Hello?’ said the woman. ‘I said I am ready.’
Shivam cleared his throat. ‘I – can I ask who it is that you have lost?’
The woman seemed to consider his question. If Shivam looked closely, he might have convinced himself that he could see the eyes behind the sunglasses flutter in uncertainty. Perhaps once. Perhaps twice.
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ she said.
‘That’s fair enough,’ said Shivam. ‘But I feel you should know – if you don’t have anything against the people you have lost – if they have not wronged you in any way –’
‘They have not.’
‘And if the only complaint you have is that you have lost them – if it’s just pain that you’re fighting –’
‘It is the pain,’ said the woman. ‘And the pain is too much. Just – too much.’
‘I understand,’ said Shivam. ‘And I don’t want to trivialize your pain in any way. But I want you to know – my wife and I lost our two children four years ago. In the span of ten days. The younger one died first. Slowly. The older one died next. Quickly.’
He watched the woman for a reaction. He saw none. This was the first time he had confided in a client to this extent. This was bad for business, he knew. But sometimes one had to heed a higher calling.
‘I am sorry,’ said the woman at great length, still in a whisper.
‘My wife and I have chosen not to wipe out our memories of the children,’ Shivam told her. ‘We know it will make us happier.’ Then he paused, thinking his next sentence through. After a moment: ‘But it would also make us emptier.’
‘Happier but emptier,’ she said, wonderingly. ‘But you will no longer live in the past. You will look to the future. To the rest of your life.’
‘That is true,’ said Shivam, and he was suddenly clutched by a mad temptation to rush into the room and thrust his head into the machine’s cavity. His voice, however, was still calm. ‘But all we have of our children are our memories of them. If we wiped them out – it would – it would be like killing them.’
‘Aren’t they already dead?’
‘Yes,’ Shivam heard himself say. ‘But we didn’t kill them.’
‘Think of all the things you could do,’ said the woman. ‘You could have more children. You could travel the world, live like one who has never lost!’
‘I see the allure,’ Shivam said, smiling thinly. ‘And if you think you will be happier like that –’
‘I do,’ said the woman. ‘I certainly do.’ Her voice rose above a whisper right then, into something of a deep croak that reminded Shivam of a frog uttering a mating call from deep within a swamp. Then with a clearing of the throat, she regained her composure. ‘I do,’ she said.
Shivam shrugged. ‘Then I must escort you into the room,’ he said. ‘Please don’t take it otherwise. I only told you of our story because I wanted you to have another perspective on things.’
‘I understand,’ she said. ‘You’re like the old cigarette company owners who never smoked themselves.’
Shivam inclined his head. A half-bow.
‘Your wife,’ said the woman. ‘Does she feel the same way or have you argued your point of view into her head without her consent?’
‘My wife has taken it much harder than I have,’ said Shivam. ‘We have been living separately for the last two years or so.’
Again that veil of silence; that utter, unsettling quiet. ‘You could get back together if you chose to forget.’
‘You know,’ said Shivam, ‘I don’t think we would.’
‘Your wife may disagree.’
‘I don’t think she does,’ said Shivam. ‘At least she didn’t when we separated. She said she wanted to live her whole life thinking about the kids.’
‘I am sorry,’ said the woman.
Shivam sighed and smiled. ‘I am too. Shall we?’
* * *
With one eye on the light above the front door, Shivam considered his hazy reflection on the glass top of his desk. When he leaned down so close that his nose touched the cool surface, he could make out some of the grooves on his face. What had caused them? They had begun to appear around a year since the accident, and the one specialist he had visited had been vague about them. Stress or something.
The pockmarks on the nose, his father had had them too. Maybe it ran in the family.
But the eyes – oh, the eyes – the heaviness, the intense, incredible exhaustion that filled them, the swollen, almost half-shut lids that ached every waking moment – those were his own. He had been quite a smiler once; with a reputation as one who laughed at every joke small or big, good or bad.
The light came on. Shivam pushed himself onto his feet and trudged over. He waited the obligatory five seconds with his finger poised over the switch. Then he closed contact with a click.
Why had they separated, he and Shweta? He did not recall them talking about it, or even making oblique references to it. They had not had discussions of divorce, or about the direction in which their marriage had been going. Shweta had said it would be a good idea for her to go stay with her parents for a while. He had agreed. What began as a visit grew into a stay, and after a couple of months she had come to collect her things. He had been too immersed in work to ask why.
The cancer had brought them closer. The accident had wrenched them apart.
She blamed him for braking so suddenly. He blamed her for not holding on tightly enough.
That was on the outside. On the inside she blamed herself, and he himself.
Often he had wondered what was crueller – to die in an instant, to have life snuffed out of you in the course of a single breath, or to die in stages, over months, in slow motion, with plenty of room for pain and suffering, and for the making and breaking, and the making again, of meaning.
Sounds of movement came from inside the room. He had stood there outside the front door, quite like an eavesdropper, for the whole time. A little ashamed, he made his way back to his chair, and sat on it.
Perhaps he would give Shweta a call, he thought. Ask if she’d want to see him, maybe figure out a way to move forward. After all, if there were two people in the world thrown together by circumstance, it was them. They had had their time apart, they had had enough opportunity to deal with their private griefs. Now they could perhaps hold each other’s hand, learn to walk together again.
It was worth trying. Was it not?
The door opened, and out stepped a woman who held a burqa slung over her forearm. He recognized the brown ringlets of hair, the hairless yellow wrists, the blackened knuckles… and when she turned on him he knew that it was the smile of a woman he had fallen in love with nine years ago.
Shivam’s mouth parted as he stood to face her. He said, ‘You – you promised.’
Shweta’s face twisted into a puzzled frown at first, and then into a sympathetic look of understanding. ‘I take it you used to know me,’ she said, taking the last tentative steps toward the table. ‘I am sorry – do I owe you any money? You look familiar.’
For a long while Shivam said nothing. She had chosen to forget – not just the kids and their deaths but also him. Or maybe the machine, in erasing all her memories with the kids, dug out and discarded him as well. It was not important to know how it happened, just that it did.
He shook his head and showed her the screen of his device. ‘Fully paid,’ he said. His voice broke between the two words, and he had to clear his throat.
‘Great!’ said Shweta. She had that look of vacant joy in her face that Shivam had seen on so many of his clients. She was eager now to step into the future, unshackled from all the pain. She was his Shweta, but in many ways she was also not. She never would be. ‘Well then,’ she said. ‘I will see you around?’
‘Yes, Madam,’ said Shivam. ‘If in the future you need any more memories of pain to be erased, you know where to find me.’
And after Shweta had gone singing a tune to herself, in the vacuous and carefree manner of a woman who had had a lobotomy, Shivam surprised himself with the realization that he wanted it too.
He sat in his chair and looked at his reflection. He murmured an apology each to the kids, told them that he loved them. ‘There will be a part of me,’ he said, ‘that will never forget you.’ And he cried as he said those words because he knew they were lies.
He stayed in the chair for as long as he could, until no more tears would come. Then he stood up and made his way toward the room in which the machine sat, waiting.