Monday, October 9, 2017

Hyderbadia: The Conquering Stillness

The fog hung over the city with a damp & smothering presence as Sruti ran through the tight alleys and passageways. The sweat poured freely from her face dripping with the dew as she darted between cover through the warren of the Hind quarter. She smiled as she heard the curses behind her as the hulking officers of Peace and Justice Corp battled through the detritus of poverty that lined these narrow passages. She grinned as she heard a particularly colorful aphorism as she turned into a dark passage and ran, full sprint, up a flight of stairs towards the top of an old prefab. Once she had gained the rooftop she leapt over the gap between where she ran and the adjoining building before the Korpers would have a line of sight between the buildings to the dark lit night sky illuminated through the soup by the gleaming towers of New City beyond. Once across she doubled back home, passing silently above the officers’ heads on the rooftop above. She entered her home as quietly as she could, flushed with excitement and the adrenaline of the race but her efforts were in vain as the click of the flat’s locks rang through the apartment and a stern, “Sruti?” echoed through the hall. Sruti sighed and leaned against the wall as she slipped of her boots and pulled off her rain soaked dupatta & jacket. “Tali?” she said as she entered the small kitchen. “How was your day mama?” “Don’t ‘How was your day’ to me, wilful girl! Where have you been? It is nearly midnight & your placements are tomorrow!” Sruti tried to hide a groan under her troublemaker’s grin but she wasn’t sure if she was entirely successful. Being the 4th child and second daughter there was not nearly as much pressure on her to do well on the placement exam. Even if she did well her family wouldn’t be able to afford the cost of apprenticeship of school that a placement could earn her. She knew she would do well enough on the test to not bring shame on the family without placing the burden of added family expense that comes with a high ranking. But she usually was able to make a show of studying for her concerned mother who stubbornly held on to the notion that enough high marks among her children was all that was needed to secure them a brighter future than they had had. Ignoring all evidence from baba’s life to the contrary. “Shopping.” Replied Sruti as she focused on removing the items from her bag. “Shopping?! I sent you shopping 5 hours ago!" Her mother was not happy. The kind of anger that spouted from a marriage of frustration and concern. “What is his name?” “Jeera.” Sruti replied as she continued to empty the bag of its contents. “Jeera? What kind of name is that? You know how important your studdies are and to waste your day before placement exams with some ganj shooting punk named ‘Jeera’ the night before the biggest day of your life in totally unacceptable, Sruti, you need to take this more seriously.” “Don’t worry mama, I’ll be fine,” said Sruti as she gave her mom a meaningful gaze. “What do you mean you will be fine? Why are you looking at me like that?” And then just as she was drawing breath for the tirade she saw it. There on top of the pile of rice, atta, and onions was a small bag of jeera seeds and a few thin green chillies. “Where did you get that?” said her mother, filled with fear and hope. “It was on sale,” Sruti lied. She hadn’t thought through this part. This is where she had just planned to slip away. “Sale?” her mother questioned, her fear mixing now with rage at being lied to. “For sale only? Jeera is never for sale. What did you agree to do for this? I’m sure if we just returned it without taking any seed then and explain maybe they would take it back. We can ask Sri Rao to help us.” Sruti hardly even remembered what jeera tasted like but that didn’t matter. Three years ago baba had brought home 1 g of jeera for tali’s birthday. He must have been hiding away precious credits for months, maybe even years. Instead of cooking with it Mama would just sit in her chair and suck on one seed after the children had gone to bed. Once each of the children had been given one as well as mama reminisced dreamily about having jars of jeera and other spices and dumping them copiously into every meal. Eating food that was so full of flavor and heat that the Hind restaurants down town had to tone down the flavors for the citizens to even be able to eat it. She spoke of meals Sruti had never even tasted and Mama had last had as a girl: fragrant Dum Biryani, creamy Dal Makhani, spicy chicken Tikka. Jeera become the taste and smell of better times long gone for the family. Invoking Masala lemonade the dream of better things to come. “Mama, I didn’t promise anything. I found it okay.” “Where?” “...on the counter at the spice market…” “The spice market counter? You stole this? My daughter is a thief? Have things become so bad that you would bring dishonor on your father, your whole family, for this...this luxury?” “No one saw me okay? The korpies didn’t even get close to catching me. There’s no chance anyone could ID me.” Sruti knew she may have spoke too much, too soon. “Korpies were chasing you? Peace and Justice Corp knows about this? Beti, what have you done?” “Peace and Justice Corp knows about nothing. All they know was a girl was in the market district and they wanted to know why I was there. I couldn’t well interview with them with a bag of jeera in my pocket and no cred rec to account for it. THAT would have brought dishonor on father.” She was losing her patience, Tali was not nearly so grateful as she had been in Sruti’s mind when she had hatched this now obviously mad plan. “Oh, okay my wise daughter. I see now. Instead of shaming just our family, you decided to bring Peace and Justice Corp onto our whole community. On the elders and our friends. What if Peace and Justice Corp decides to investigate our homes and communications? Do you think these homes all follow regulations if the whole block is turned over? Event the chilies in the window are not licensed. How many such unregulated crops and goods are here in the prefab? We could afford the fines for the infractions. Could the Komanapalis? Could the Reddys? Go to bed, study, but get out of my sight.” And with that Mama began weeping into her dupatta and Sruti slipped into her room she shared with her sisters. Dragging the boulders that filled her stomach the whole way. Sruti didn’t study much that night or the next morning. She quietly got dressed and after quickly snagging 2 vada she headed out the door. She kept her head down and covered as she headed into the main street to head through the crowds on the big day. She expected the students to have the bedraggled look of a nervous child with the weight of their entire future resting upon their shoulders but she did not expect the same fidgety weight on the faces of the adults as well. Her instincts went on high alert that she realized everyone looked like jungle rats when Tenduaji was on the prowl. The people were scared and she had rushed out the door without listening to the news, which is not a good survival strategy for the prey. Outside it became immediately apparent what was causing the concern. The streets were lined with Peace and Justice Corp officers and they did not look like they were given “community building” orders this morning. Of course the Peace and Justice Corp officers didn’t usually have CB orders in the Hind quarter. Sruti started studying the ground she walked on as she made her way to school Weaving through the silent populous was strange on this street. Normally so filled with people calling greetings and hawkers promoting their wares. A young girl of about 4 was walking with her mother just ahead of Sruti and the tangible tension was making this young one jittery. She began to speak loudly and start rushing ahead and her mother quickly hushed her with a grip that Sruti felt on her own wrist several paces behind. The child began to whimper and the mother hurried her steps to get the young girl into the safety of indoors before a full scale meltdown occurred. Moments later a yellow striped Korpie transport came rumbling down the street blaring it’s loud speakers. “Congratulations students on this beautiful placement day. Peace and Justice Corp has increased its presence in this community to ensure the safety of young scholars on this most auspicious day. Good luck! Study is the path to success.” She could hear this looping message fade away in the distance as the the once pristine vehicle rumbled down the dusty street. A block away from the school building Sruti saw a crowd of Korpies gathered staring menacingly out into the street just ahead of her. She quietly crossed the street and began perusing a fruit market stall to try and convince her that she was looking for jack fruit instead of simply crossing the street out of fear. Very quickly she heard a commotion and she turned to see Kiran’s father being lead out of the prefab by several officers. She saw Kiran looking on from the doorway to the prefab, his face filled with worry and terror. “Go ahead on to school Kiran,” his father called over his shoulder, “I’m sure this is a misunderstanding. Do well today Kiran, I’ll be home before you are finished with your placement.” Kiran just stared at his father with wide eyes brimming with uncontrollable tears. Kiran was the top scorer in Sruit’s class and his father an upstanding member of the community. His Chai shop was a center of Hind quarter life and discussion. Out of the gathering crowd Sri Rao pushed through to the front. “Please officers, what are the charges here? I am sure that we can discuss the cause of this disturbance,” stated the ancient elder. His voice, though tremulous with age was still strong and direct. He approached the Peace and Justice Corp Liaison who was overseeing the arrest. “Liaison Williams, so good to see you this morning. What is the meaning of this commotion on this of all days?” Liaison Williams ignored the old man as though a stranger, even though they met almost daily to discuss the happenings of the quarter. “Liaison Williams, please, let us discuss what is happening here. The people are nervous and clearly agitated.” “Please step back citizen, it is a criminal offense to prevent a lawful arrest under the section 277 of the municipal code,” was Liaison Williams’ only response. “Sir, thank you sir for being so dedicated to the preservance of peace in this community but what are the charges that Mr. Bodhu is facing for this arrest?” Again no response as the officers looked past the elder into the gathering throng. As Mr. Bodhu was brought to the front of the crowd to be loaded into an arriving transport Elder Rao placed his aged hand on the officer leading the detainee and turned to him and said, “Please one moment officer, let me discuss this one moment with the Liaison before you continue.” With Robotic efficiency the Liaison pulled out his pistol from its holster and said, “Please step back citizen, it is a criminal offense to prevent a lawful arrest under the section 277 of the municipal code.” “Please Liaison let us discuss this.” Instead of removing his hand the Elder seemingly unconsciously positioned his body in front of the arresting officer while looking at the Liaison with gentle eyes, pleading for some kind of dialogue to prevent the arrest. Mr. Bodhu cried out, with more desperation in his voice now, “Kiran, please hurry to school, we do not want you to be late on placement day, beta.” As Sruity watched Kiran slowly make his way down the sidewalk constantly glancing back towards his father with deliberate and failing steps she heard a loud crack and looked back to see Elder Rao’s body crumbled on the ground. She froze, silence descended on the crowd as her pulse pounded in her ears. She forgot all caution and decorum as she sprinted down the road towards home as a wail erupted from the crowd and the sound of energizing shock clubs erased the momentary silence. The angry sounds of screaming and pain faded behind her as she raced down the road. Sruti burst into her apartment weeping. She paced about the entry way clutching her shirt to herself, wiping her hands on her pant leg, only to discover that she had wet herself at some point in her escape. “Hello?” called her mother’s voice from the kitchen. “It was….It Was….” was all Sruti could make out in a hollow voice before falling to the ground into a pile of tears and anguish. Once Sruti had calmed down enough to the point where she could communicate with her mother she explained in fits and spurts what she had witnessed in the street. Her mother’s face went pale and her eyes began to dart around the room, the room that had felt so safe this morning brought little comfort now. Their community which was their refuge in this giant city no longer a sanctuary but a ghetto. A trap. But placements were too important and now Sruti was already running late. She must go to school and take her test. She must get back to life as usual. She must find her way back to yesterday. But the path to school did not lead to yesterday’s happier memories. It passed by a piece of blood stained dirt that was far too much to have been caused by the dying elder’s body alone. Her path lead her to a future instead of a past. News travels fast in a community like the Hind Quarter. There was not a single individual in that city walking under Peace and Justice Corp’s omnipresent gaze that didn’t feel like a hunted animal. Like a mouse reaching for that piece of cheese because they were starving but knew either the hunger or the trap would kill them eventually. Maybe that eventually was today. Even Sruti, normally so carefree and casual couldn’t help thinking that this year’s placements were simply a way to collect the students for their extermination. This was supposed to be a student’s most important day in their scholastic journey but for Sruti, who had not given much weight to the testing 24 hours ago, now positively did not care about it at all. It was simply an even more unsafe feeling situation than she felt like she would have in the streets and warrens of the prefabs. This once well manicured government building in the middle of the quarter had an even more imposing prison aire today than it did on most days. Sruti made her way to the auditorium where testing would be taking place. She took a seat in the already crowded room, she was one of the last students to trickle in. Usually students who are taking a major, life altering exam have the green faces of nervous and anxiety. Today it was replaced by blanched and wide eyed fear. After logging into her terminal she waited while the "Please Wait" animation danced in the air directly above her terminal station. She cautiously glanced around the room to see who had made it. She saw the girls from her prefab whispering nervously a few rows down from where she sat. She didn’t really get along with that click and didn’t really care for them at all but she couldn’t help feel a bit of pity that their normal high pitch bird-song gossip was replaced by darting glances and harsh whispers. Then, on the other side of the auditorium she saw Kiran. Having grown up with Kiran she had often noticed that while waiting to take a major exam he would sit with his legs shaking with energy as he stared intensely at his station, moving his mouth to memorized facts that he had been studying the night before. Slightly rocking, inaudible mumbling to himself, preparing himself once more to take top honors in every scholastic activity he applied himself to. Today of course was different for everyone but for Sruti, carefully watching Kiran was the most terrifying thing she had seen on this horrible day. He sat at a station halfway up the auditorium instead of his normal seat front and center. There was no nervous energy bouncing his legs under his station. There was only a death-like stillness. His eyes staring into the throng of students across from him but seeing nothing. His mouth hung slightly open and his skin was pale and sallow. His station did not have the animation shaking disembodied pixels in the air in front of him. He had not even logged in. Suddenly a large face hung over the audience as the New City Minister of Education and Thought Ways began a pre-recorded message. “Welcome students. We at City Hall would like to congratulate you on your hard work on reaching such a momentous day. We want to congratulate you on your hard work so far but to also remind you that your future and the future of this quarter relies on your work today in helping to become a valuable, productive, and safe citizen of our great city. We know that you have all overcome such tremendous hardships to reach this point in your lives and we are so proud of everyone of you who has overcome the negative influences in the Hind Quarter and risen above the limitations of Hind culture. We commend you and urge you to continue to grow and bring peace and prosperity to your communities. Study is the path to success.” Sruti had first heard that message 7 years ago when her oldest brother, who had a near perfect memory, came home from his placement exam and proudly recited it to the waiting family. Now the recording, with it’s slightly out of fashion clothing, helped to remind Sruti of what an afterthought the Hind quarter was to the rest of the city. During the message she looked over at Kiran, who continued to stare into the distance. Not even noticing that the animation had begun and still obviously not logged into his station. He would be marked truant if he did not log on and several students were cautiously whispering to him, urging him to log on before it was too late. The buzzer made its shrill cry through the auditorium and the terminals lit up with the first problems of the exam. Still Kiran sat in his seat, still and silent. It was no wonder that he took today hard. Harder than anyone else. The unknown fear of having one’s father arrested and the embarrassing shame that would have caused anyone, especially on such an important day as this, was almost measurable in the community. But for Elder Rao to have died in the process of that arrest. To have died because his father was arrested, that deep pain was totally unknown. Who in the community was directly responsible for the quarter losing one of its most revered and valued leaders. A man who would often spend time in Kiran’s father’s shop. A man Kiran had orbited around most of his life. Like a moon without its planet. Sruti began working through the problems that were displaying on her station. She looked around and although a few students were attacking their stations with the usual zeal of hard trained adolescence, the others seemed to lack their youthful enthusiasm. Many had gazes that wandered off to the corners of the auditorium or, like Sruti, spent a lot of time watching the other students. It was impossible to cheat in the placements and so she could see everyone working on their own individual problems. The testing program was highly intuitive and the test evolved and adapted to each student’s known and measured aptitudes and interests. Kiran would normally be starting off with problems that Sruti couldn’t hope to answer even at the end of her exam if his terminal were on, but it was not and he sat there like a tree in a field. She could see the other student's furtive, darting glances at the renowned scholar wondering if he would ever move again. The testing lasted for hours and Sruti was finally starting to get caught up into the normalizing rhythm of testing, working on some physics problems, when a terrified shriek shook the whole room out of their scholastic meditations. Sruti looked at the source of the scream and it was a girl, 3 rows down and slightly to her left who she did not know very well. It was difficult to understand what had caused the commotion and she sat, pale as a ghost, pointing across the room. Sruti followed her hand to the other side and quickly saw the only source of motion in the whole room. Kiran sat at his desk repeatedly jamming his thumb into his already bloody eye sockets. Even the students sitting next to him had become so enthralled in their exam they had not noticed that this was taking place at first but one by one they followed the horrified fingers of their fellow students across the room and one by one they also began to scream in incomprehending horror. Almost instantly several Peace and Justice Corp officers came down the steps in the auditorium and grabbing Kiran by the arms hauled him back up the stairs and out of the room. His eyeless gaze still fixed on a distant vision. A slightly overweight office worker came down the stairs as soon as the guards had cleared the doorway. She made her way down the stairs nervously but stopped when her high heels started slipping in Kiran’s blood on the steps. She looked down at her feet and blanched, as though she had not realized what it was she must have slipped in. She stopped instantly and dry washing her hands called out in a shaky voice, “Due to unforeseen security events your placement tests have been rescheduled. You will be alerted via SMS as to the new time and location of your placement tests. We...are..sorry..about any inconvenience this may cause.” Her speech began to stumble as her mind began to process what it was exactly that her white high heels were slipping in underneath her and so with a quick and short cry she turned and quickly, although obviously unsteadily, made her way up the stairs and out of the room.

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