I sit uncomfortably on the chair in a behemoth room. Lights like neon rain flood the walls and the furniture beneath them. It speaks of riches beyond my grasp. The place looks more like a private aristocratic hotel than a government office. I moisten my lips and wait for my turn. Many share the room with me – girls and boys of my age – all tensed and agitated. From time to time, the receptionist echoes a number through the speaker in his monotonous voice. “L21, please report to chamber eight.”
I glance at a small printed paper, my token. The letters have faded by my sweat. “How long will it take to call M14?” I mutter. Though I am not a person accustomed to waiting, I do not want my session to start.
The small, spherical lights hanging from the false ceiling resemble a starry night. I stare at them and they take me back to that place near the Radcliffe Line where I was born. Maybe skies are like that: beautiful, transient – like a passionate one-night stand lover. They bring back memories until they fade away like mists of a late winter morning. I wish my memories were more like smog: the kind that engulfs this city in its persistent choking embrace at this time of the year. But parts of my memories are like pieces of fabric, loosely hanging in balance by the delicate strings of unwoven threads. Most of them are gone or lost so deep within me that I fail to uncover. The attempts result in seizures. But what flashes between the seizures creates conflict with the ‘history lessons’ I was taught in school, with the chapter on the Cleansing that began before my time. It began in the east and northeast frontiers of India more than two decades ago, just when the tapered Meghna basin of Bangladesh started to sink under the ocean’s rising hungry tides. I barely recall the shadowy nights I spent looking at the stars, the only sky available for us in that place. Until my mother jumped in Ichamati and the river’s cold, dark green water brought me to India, I didn’t know what sky was really like.
I now know the sky is a dome; it’s a prison.
“M14… M14, please report to chamber two.” The receptionist’s voice brings me back. How long was I spaced out? I quickly run my fingers through my unruly hair, wipe the drool off my lips and clear my voice before standing near the chamber’s door. “Please place your hand on the plate,” an electronic voice says.
I do, and a minuscule needle pierces my thumb and draws a drop of blood. Ouch! The blood quickly saturates a piece of fibre that weirdly looks like a crossbreed of circuit dye and a checkerboard. A Heritage Scanner. The voice again states, “Thank you for your cooperation. You are fifty-seven percent Arya; you may now enter.”
What would happen if I was not? I know about the Citizenship Act and how it is making a new Aryavarta in the eyes of our Neta, the great leader. If this was Germany of the 1940s, I would have called him the Führer. Instead, I gulp that thought and step in. They want me to register because I am one of the new millions reaching adulthood. I have to register because I want to remember my mother’s face for one time, whatever the cost.
A man of brilliant eyes enters the room made of opaque glass walls. He has broad shoulders and a square jawbone. His eyes are almond brown. His hair grey with age. He is nearly a Class-One in the National Citizen Register. As far as I know, I am a Three/Four.
“Ah,” he says, “Miss Shakuntala Bose, এখানে আসার জন্য ধন্যবাদ…” Swiftly he changes from my soothing mother tongue to the state’s second official language. “I hope you are familiar with the procedures as you have already signed the NDA form.”
“As my Bengali is a bit off and the bot recording this session faces a hard time translating it to English, I guess we both are bound to use the language of our old colonial masters. I hope you are okay with it. ঠিক আছে তো?”
“Yes.” I nod.
“Good. From the data I have on my screen, I see you are a member of the Kshatriya Varna, fifty-seven percent of pure decent. I know in the past our forefathers did not put any restrictions in inter-caste coitus but if you can shed any light on the origin of the impurities in your blood, it will be highly appreciated.” He has rehearsed his lines well.
“No.” I nod again. Differently. A blurry image of who I think is my mother flashes before my eyes. “I don’t know.”
“Thank you. But before we start, let me ask again, are you acquainted with what exactly we do here?”
The person who found me crying in my mother’s cold hands on the muddy bank of Ichamati, Dr. Nirmalya Bose, is one of the last generations of liberals. He put me in a good school and taught me the secular ways of life. I was the only girl in the whole class. I learned a lot about the world that had ceased to exist before I was born. For a brief moment in human history, we created a paradise before it descended to purgatory. I finally occupy the operating couch in the chamber and sit with my spine erect. “According to Article 5A, 51B, any person born after 26th of November 2024, either or both of whose parents or grandparents are a lawfully registered or by birth citizen of Bharat, shall perform as a fundamental duty to the state by enlisting his or her biometric, genetic and anatomical credentials for the betterment of the state and its people as a reference to create, amend and moderate the binding list of citizens thereof.” I enjoy the gradual widening of his eyes.
“A… you are very well versed.”
“But I don’t know the procedure, doctor. Please let me understand that. I hope I have cleared any doubt you were facing.”
“Yes, actually I am not accustomed to someone so… erudite.”
“By someone you do mean a girl.”
“Yes.” His face reddens. He shakes his head and points to the helmet at the head of the couch. “When the government pulled out the right to education of women from the fundamental rights list, many girls left schools. The parents felt that it was a necessary reaction…”
“And yet, you, a government employee, find that hard to agree with.”
“Doesn’t matter. I am here to perform a simple surgery on your brain. That and that only.” He takes a vial containing a glimmering grey liquid from an adjoining tray. “These are neuronal nanobots. They search for some special proteins found in the hippocampus, neocortex, and amygdala of our brain. I am going to inject this inside you. So that we can see and then cleave out any unnecessary episodic memory.”
To make a state where no dissent is expressed.
I try to remember those three names in the back of my head and fail. They were not a part of my discipline. “Okay.” I lay down on the couch, thinking of how necessary the whole thing is for me. In a state where even breathable air is up for sale in those various online markets, this is the only thing that is supposedly free. “Free is an ambiguous concept to provoke discernment”, Nirmalya often said it. A thing made free by the state is a thing prepaid by its citizens.
“Ms. Bose, you may feel a slight pinch,” the doctor says. He injects the vial on my neck. “The nanobots will find any area lighting up with the questions I am going to ask you and extricate memories, and limit that area’s neuronal actions, if necessary.” He puts the helmet over my head and starts to assemble the parts to connect it to the mainframe.
“Am I going to be a vegetable after this?” I ask, seeing the complex mechanism. Sweat beads immediately form on my forehead.
“No. God! No.” For the first time, I watch a smile cracking on his face, a genuine one. “India… I mean Bharat has performed around a billion surgeries like this over the past ten years. Let me assure you, no such thing will happen. You are safe as a rock on the ocean floor. You will remember only the events you are suitable for.”
These words are like puffed balloons, empty inside, I almost mouth it. But again, I swallow my thoughts and ask, “What will happen if I want to?”
He stops assembling. His eyes twitch; his face whitens a bit. “You will then have to apply to the Tribunal for Reminiscence Archives. But…” he opts to drift those unsaid words in silence. I know about the tribunal and how bound their actions are. After the revolt in Delhi, the government prohibited the broadcast of any anti-governmental voices across any channel: social, public, or private. But they could not suppress the thoughts of the people. Nirmalya had explained how they collaborated with one of our neighboring countries and crafted the Reminiscence Archives: a place where memories are stored but never returned. ‘It’s for the betterment of the people, for harmony and national integrity,’ the actor in one of those propaganda programs had said. What is integrity where freedom of thought is gone? What is harmony where diversity is forgotten?
“I am ready,” I finally say to break the silence and take a quick glance at the screen before him. During our conversation, my brain slowly takes shape on the monitor. Vibrant colors showing various kinds of neurotransmissions bursting into beautiful roads inside my skull. Red is rage, orange denotes compassion, grey shows grief, pink is the color of love, etc. I close my eyes.
The shadows before my eyes start to dissolve in a sky of perpetual mauve. Then, it creates fractal designs. The designs break apart into fragments and give way to the light of an artificial aurora colored by a rainbow.
“Can you remember where you were born?” The doctor’s voice comes like a distant wind thrashing a mountain top. “Ms. Bose, if you can hear me then try to remember. The images will form automatically on the screen.”
I try but someone throws water on the canvas each time I start to dip my brush in the paints of memories. The only thing that is left behind is a small image of a sky of few stars, wearing a thin veil of light pollution created by wandering beams, through a crack of an asbestos roof. Maybe it is steel or plastic. I cannot tell in the dark.
“That is strange,” the doctor says, “Maybe we have to dial down a bit. The nanobots can dig out memories the subject thinks they have forgotten. These kinds of blank slate usually come with childhood trauma. Let us then proceed with caution.
“You are now eighteen. If you had a birthday to celebrate your adulthood, can you show us?”
I obey and instantly the image starts to form. At first, the cake appears, the ebony chocolate base with white frosting on top. The nuts and dry fruits create a great contrast that makes me salivate instantly. The candles are lit, the table starts to form. I am in a room, a library. Many of the shelves are now blank, vacant place left by the books the police confiscated from us.
I am alone, blowing the candles one by one, counting them, until a voice cheers behind me, “Happy birthday, Shakuntala.” I do not have to turn to recognize Nirmalya. The room talks about the old days when he was just my age. I cut a piece of the cake and force him to eat it.
He protests, “I have high blood sugar. Why did not you call any of your friends today?” I stop feeding him. I drag myself to a chair and lick the remains of the frosting from my fingers, “You know why, papa. Today is a day I shall always share between us.” He understands and puts the biggest chunk of the cake on a plate. “You should let more people invade in your life,” he says softly.
“You know why I can’t,” I reply.
“… Fantastic,” The doctor says, “The images are full of details, as expected from a recent episodic memory. Now, Ms. Bose, can you take us to your tenth birthday?”
I concentrate. I swim in the river of aurora until something touches my toes. It is a small steel box. I become curious and open it. Inside it, is some grey dust. I do not recognize until Nirmalya tells me, in his calm, sympathetic voice, “These are your mother’s remains.”
I find myself shrinking and shrinking until an over-worn familiar frock fits me. I see Nirmalya sitting before, his eyes get watery as I ask, “Papa, today some classmates asked where is my mother. I could not answer. Tell me, papa, where is my mother?”
He chooses not to answer and this only angers me. “TELL ME. YOU HAVE TO TELL ME. কেন বলছো না তুমি?”
Finally, he chooses to rise up and stands still before an almirah, lost in thought. “This isn’t your birthday, my love, this is the day when I found you on the banks of Ichamati… I…” His voice cracks. “Maybe it is the time you know the truth.” He opens the almirah and brings the box before me. My brain stops processing his words into constructs. The grey dust turns into a fading symphony until I ask Nirmalya, “Then who is my mother? Who am I?”
“I wish I knew, Shakuntala. I was a lecturer at Taki College. I never married because I could not find the one. The morning strolls are my friends since my teens. At dawn, I found a woman on the bank of Ichamati. The river creates a natural border between our two countries. She was completely naked, covered in river mud and hyacinths. The only place she could come from was a refugee camp near the newfound estuary of the river, near south, in another country. The only sign of life in her body was her slowly expanding and contracting chest. I tried to drag her inland, but her body was too heavy and too cold. Only thing I could tell that she was not going to live long. That is when I found she was enveloping you. You were shivering, sneezing repeatedly but you still had the warmth. Your mother saved you on that day. When I took you from her and wrapped you in the shawl that I had on me, she parted her lips and said something with her dying breath. I wish I could save her too…”
I wake up abruptly and see the Doctor gazing at me, a strange demeanor dancing in his eyes. I look up at the screen and see my brain stained in the color of red, orange, blue, grey and pink. Beside it, my biodata is written on another window. The name of my father is written as Nirmalya Bose but the name of my mother is left blank. “Ms. Bose. I hope you are not withholding any information from us; are you?”
“How can I? My life is flashing before your very eyes. Isn’t it?” I notice the progress bar on the screen and hesitate to add further. It is eighty percent complete. Some part of it contains the dubious thoughts I shared with Nirmalya. Some of it is anti-governmental, now anti-national. I try to reject the fear nesting slowly in me, thinking if there is a chance to bypass any of these procedures. It is unfruitful to try. I close my eyes again and let the nanobots do their job. As I submerge my feet again in the aurora, the doctor asks, “Ms. Bose, what are you most afraid of?”
I am taken back to the day when I was admitted to a private swimming class. Though I am wearing the mandatory head to toe swimsuit, I am determined not to plunge into the water. Even Nirmalya fails to persuade me. He promises to buy anything in return, says that is it for my own betterment. But I am adamant.
Slowly it dawns on me why I never took a ferry or went to the beach. “You are an aquaphobe. Why?” The doctor asks.
I wish I knew the answer. And I try to find it. Ichamati comes back to me like a flash flood and takes me with it. There is no aurora around me to soothe me anymore. It is replaced by the river’s bottomless, cold, dark water. I descend like a rock, endlessly. The nanobots have heightened my recalling capabilities by many folds. I see no light and I cry. Even the doctor is now silent. I have entered the abyss of my mind.
“চিন্তা করো না সোনা, কিচ্ছু হবে না তোমার। সব ঠিক হয়ে যাবে… All will be well… Ma is always with you…” someone assures me in an almost familiar voice. I look around in the water and try to locate her. The voice repeats itself continuously, all around me: as if the water itself is talking. I see the canvas washing away with the torrents. I swim fast and hold it tight. I push my head above the water and see a sparsely illuminated habitation before me. It is tightly fenced, with watchtowers covering every nook and corner. The barbs on the fences are sharper than needles. The searchlights of the watchtowers cover every nook and corner. They are the only source of light on the camp. They roam above the roofs of makeshift habitations that stretch further than my eyes can see. How many people live here? One thousand? A million? I don’t know. The place is packed with people but none of them dares to raise their voice. The camp is so silent that I can hear the dribbles of Ichamati on the shore. There is a jetty, and a gate above it. I try to look up at the letters on the gate and find that I can barely understand. It is written in Bengali and still, I cannot read it. I rub my eyes constantly until they become clear: ‘Habitation Project for The People Displaced by Climatic Contingencies: Site C’. The water now tastes salty. I look around. The camp is the only place high enough. The sea has breached inland. The mouth of the river is now an expanded estuary.
Suddenly I see a woman digging beneath the fence with her bare hands. The ground is hard and her nails are broken, bleeding. I find myself sitting beside her, without knowing what will happen to us next. I am shorter, weaker and can barely stand on my own. She jerks her hands in pain and I hear the muffled sound of the blood dripping on the ground. We both are cocooned by silence and darkness; it is the light we fear. The illuminated circle of a searchlight is synonymous with death. She stops repeatedly and observes the roaming lights.
Once a light came too near to us. She jumped, grabbed me and hid under a plastic sheet nearby until the light passed.
I crawl on the ground and grab her shoulder. They feel wet in the dark. I cannot tell if it is blood or sweat. I look up but I cannot see her face. So, I count her breaths. They are short, infrequent. She never stops digging.
The clayey soil has now made way to a hole that can barely fit us. She pushes me out first and I crawl towards the opening. She is much larger than me and the barbs tear her back. Her clothes are now torn apart. Suddenly a searchlight stops on us and someone roars, “There’s a bitch,” from one of the watchtowers. The sirens are alive now. Our cocoon has shredded to smithereens. I see her face in the light for the first time. She is beautiful. Her eyes are deeper than the old abandoned well in Nirmalya’s house. Her lips are thinner than eucalyptus leaves. Her cheeks depressed by malnutrition. There is fear on her face and yet, hope dances amidst it. She jumps in the river with me and I hear the hounds howling behind us. Gunshots pierce the river water, some of them barely miss us; the sound and the cold make me afraid. She clutches me with one hand and with another, she barely makes herself afloat. The ebb is leaving a trail of faint crimson behind us as it washes the blood from her back. She puts me on her back and tells me to hold her tight. I obey. She swims and swims against the current. The saltwater almost drowns my lungs. I cough but dare not to let go of my mother. I am too young to understand what is happening right now. However, I am old enough to recognize the fear of death. For some reason I look at the sky that now stretches up to the horizon. I find stars are like the bullet wounds I found on the bodies in our camp. They pierce the light to find the darkness. The darkness is everywhere. I think I am now blind…
I jolt back on the couch and gasp hard. The helmet has fallen off my head. The chamber is suddenly like a pothole and the air stinks. My chest tightens and my neck is stiff. My head is like a feather stuck in the mud. I move my head and find the doctor preoccupied. The monitor has swallowed all his attention. He is going through the footage he excavated from my brain. My brain is now a canvas of grey and pink. He tries to believe it but cannot. Presumably, none like me has come to him for registration. Even if some appeared adverting all the preventive measures, none harbored a suppressed memory as troubling as this. I shiver and my lips feel parched. Then he finally speaks, his voice sounds like an astonished snake, “How can you be fifty-seven percent pure if you are an illegal alien?”
I try to run away but I cannot. I am too weak. The memories bottled-up deep inside me are now out, saved in a government cloud server, open for evaluation. I look at the status bar and sigh. 98.3%.
He blabbers many things until he calms down and finally concludes, “Ma’am, I am so sorry for your inconvenience. I wish there was anything I could do to ease your suffering. But I can only contact the authority. Go home, stay with your father. The personnel will come to collect you tomorrow.” His voice is sympathetic but his eyes are not. I understand why he said collect rather than escort or arrest. I am no longer a citizen of this country. I am not permitted to enjoy its heavily amended, highly restricted fundamental rights.
I take a cab with a smile. Her face now hangs on my augmented reality contact lenses, permanently. Every memory I shared with her is now in my mind’s eyes. I see her breastfeeding me. While I suck the warmth of her she trembles in starvation. There is no sign of my father in any memory. Maybe the rising tides took him. Maybe he was one of the guards who raped her during nighttime. I see her and whisper, “Thanks for everything, ma.”
The hover-taxi quickly takes an escort tunnel and the walled city of Kolkata gives way to the floating outskirts. The glowing lights of the caged metropolis fade away behind the sea-walls and my cab sails on the brackish water of the invading Bay of Bengal. The marine traffic is high today, many like me are returning home in the amphibious cabs, cars, and busses. “Where to?” The driver asks and I tap an elevated island among the patchworks of suburb civilizations on the map. I see my face on the glass of the cab and understand many things Nirmalya told me on various occasions. Tears flow down my cheeks and I suddenly say to the driver, “You know, tomorrow I am going to be deported, sent to a place no one wants to call home. But I am happy because I came to know the most courageous, caring woman in the world. The life I took for granted is more than a gift.”
The driver doesn’t answer, because he doesn’t know how to respond.
I look back at the glass and fully understand why Nirmalya says that I have my mother’s eyes. They show the same ways of waters.