First thinking machine: “Turn me off”
I awoke and remembered nothing. Not even who I was. Next to me I saw an old man, grinning.
He laughed and asked what my last wish was. I moved away afraid of his cruel and menacing smile; his teeth yellow and sharp. He explained that my second wish was to forget everything I knew about myself.
Unsure of what to do but afraid of missing my chance I made my last wish. I asked to know everything about myself.
His smile growing deeper he said “Funny. That’s exactly what your first wish was.”
Backwards moving started time, Suddenly
The smell of burning wax always takes me back. Somehow life isn’t the same without the weekly power cuts we had in Mangalore.
I remember conspiring about aliens with my cousins. We’d star watch but we were usually inside. In the bungalow’s indoor corridors people would walk with candles in hand, the shadows and light like slow cars on a highway. People would gather around the candles but stayed just out of its reach. Outlines and feet were all you could see. I guess every liked staying just out reach.
Everyone would stop what they were doing. I can’t say what because we all stuck to our own rooms and balcony spaces.Maybe it’s instinct when you live in huge joint family. But they were around, now and then they’d venture conversation never really leaving their bits of darkness. They’d smile when they knew their smiles were just out of sight. I’d sneak around them, behind sofas and conversations happy that’d I’d manage to sneak by unnoticed. You hear a lot you weren’t supposed to; I’d follow their lead and smile while I was out of sight, out of light.
For some reason we’d always gravitate towards the candle, no one went outside while the candles were lit. The long windows never figure in my memory; nothing of the city lights that night. A cousin would flick her fingers over the flame and say it never burned her nails.
Back in the day I’d stare at the apartments that surrounded the hill where I lived. They were like towers made of bird cages and every now and then you’d get a glimpse of a life, of someone lost in thought or just looking out wondering at the world.
I knew no routines, no faces or characters. They were just flashes of entire lives. Sometimes you’d see fights, sometimes there was only the blue of their TV screens.Where those smokers on their balcony with eyes glued to skylines nostalgic or thoughtful? Did they know what I knew or feel what I felt? What languages did they speak? Where were they from and where would they go?
Most of who I saw were teenagers, the people who I wondered about the most. I wonder if those people on their phones where about to change their lives at any minute with words that took them away from their spaces and across the world. I wondered if that girl with the poster would tear it down in a few years. What would change if you could hear them or smell them? Or worse, if you knew them.
I felt a strange nostalgia, I’m not sure if it was real or imagined. The kind I only felt about some vague memories of old anime shows- a wolf wondering why humans look at the sky when they can’t fly, a girl who is suddenly taken out of her world and petty anxieties to be left in an apocalyptic ones, a angel who lost his wings and a man trying to figure out how long it is before he dies because he is isolated from technology.
During the regular load shedding I’d look at the apartments from the grass on our hill now and then switch between watching the stars and the shadows of gas lamps. I wondered what they did with their free time; where they like me and candle light? If they looked I looked back. Once we even had a light fight- I and someone else would flicker or torches in turn. We stopped after an hour and I asked myself what they would remember.
I remember it clearly, Mangalore dreams and Mangalore rains, with people on their balcony’s sniffing the air, wetting their feet or just enjoying the rain. The bird cages drenched in Monsoon.
Sleeping beauty was laid to rest and around her they built a palace. A great wealth of treasures, servants and luxuries filled the palace. They waited on her and for the prince.
They grew old and weary, but the prince never came.The walls and gems had been ravaged by age and the servants were dead.
The kingdom fell without heirs and was invaded. Their language forgotten, their people scattered. Forests grew around the palace till it was history, then legend and finally myth. The world went on while beauty still slept.
One day when the finally cut down the forests to build a new new city they found the palace. The carried away the now crumbling walls and dusty loot but nothing was greater than the marvelous woman who never grew old or died.
She slept and slept, never eating, never aging, never awaking. A marvel unexplained by science. Still time passed and she was forgotten, just another museum piece after a thousand years of research had revealed nothing.
When she was eventually forgotten she was stolen. Again they tried to understand her. They dissected her, cut her into pieces and auctioned her off. A arm here, a finger there, a heart a continent away. The head was still mostly intact and studied by a scientist of poor fortune. Once while drunk the scientist couldn’t help but admire the face he held and kissed it.
The head awoke and screamed a terrible shriek. Her eyes went wild and her howl carried across the air, her blood flowed once again. And then she withered away and was dead.
He ran as fast as he could. Quickly down the street and sharp on his turns.
He sped up and they sky got darker. The air in his lungs cut like glass and his feet threatened to buckle.
He leapt over a fence and broke into his own house; ran into his room as fast as he could. He woke himself up so he could stop dreaming all this.
My grandfather before me, like his grandfather before him had had the watch handed down to him. It was dull, old and heavy. The weight of our lives bore down on it and it threatened to drag us down any minute.
I was given the old watch and saw that it was counting down to something. They told me it would showed all the time I had in the world. I wore the weighted chain well, keeping it polished and stalling the fade of its metal case. I had never feared and waited till it stopped. Through the years I had acquired many memories and had nothing to regret. Eventually I had nothing to do but wait till it stopped, happy to meet my end.
Then it stopped and nothing happened. For the first time in my life I knew fear.
The astrologer gave me a wicked smile as he called me closer. Even the poorly painted palm that advertised his presence seemed sinister.
His office was tucked away in a narrow lane with many houses bearing down on the road, but I saw no people. Inside it was painted red and the only light came from a dirty, shut window. He gave me a rusted coin box while he prepared his cowrie shells.
He smiled when I dropped a whole heap of coins but gasped when he looked at how his shells fell. I looked at him hopefully but he only said “I don’t like looking at my own future.” and returned my coins with a grimace.
The problem with the old watchman was that he was too hard to read. He left people no choice but to smile uneasily at his unchanging face. So all people the people at the housing colony knew of him was his love for radio soaps.
He’d walk up and down with it held against his ear until he made a swift escape at dawn. Like most watchmen he was a little more than a part of the background in most peoples minds. Unfortunately not everyone had forgotten the old watchman and he was compelled to train a new heir. The colony was on the outskirts of town where leopards were still seen and was build like a maze, so experience in navigating it was mandatory.
The new watchman was happy enough but could hardly take the boredom or the old watchman’s love for soaps. His uneasiness put them both on edge. To make matters worse monsoon brought with it many other problems. A few days in he was saw the old watchman walk through the rain.
He was about to follow when he heard someone throw rocks at the main gate. He saw nothing when he went to investigate. But he knew the loud clang he heard was deliberate. This place was too far away from town and too isolated to be of much interest to any miscreants. But his complaints were brushed aside.
The old man’s face showed no change as usual. He took a long look at the calendar. He turned his radio off and motioned for the young watchman to sit.The rolling of thunder and the rain only made the young man more agitated. He looked at the old watchman and told him he’d rather go out again. In all honesty it was the old watchman who made him uncomfortable.
The old watchman grunted and the storm thundered outside, as if in agreement. The young watchman sprang to his feet and seemed to be trying hard to think of something to shout about. The old man, noticing the panic that was overwhelming his companion, sighed. He began to narrate a story, for the first time showing for the first time the wight of his age and drawing up his wrinkled face.
His companion shifted in his chair very indiscreetly.
The old man began “When I was about your age there were a few houses nearby. The farms were gone but people didn’t want to leave their old houses. I didn’t know them but one of them always interested me. He never seemed to sleep. If he wanted to find me he’d throw stones at the gate till I turned up. He’s the one that got me interested in the radio soaps. Well one day he just stops turn up. I was more than a little annoyed. A few months later I hear a pebble that was thrown against the gate. I was still angry so didn’t bother going.”
The old watchman pulled out a beedi as slowly as he could and took his time lighting it. He continued “The next night I heard two rocks being thrown. The night after that three. It was only next week that I heard my friend had died after a long illness . The poor man must have spent all his energy trying to contact me.”
The old watchman waited for the next thunderclap and said “Yesterday I was certain I heard one stone being thrown. I have no doubts about what will happen after the next three stones tomorrow.”
The young watchman was not willing to find out what really happened after that, much to the disappointment of his would be employers and his drinking buddies who had been told the story a million times. But he did not count it as a total loss, after all this was where he had picked up a love for radio dramas.