by Hareendran Kallinkeel
Vinod sat, gazing at his laptop’s monitor. He ran a hand along his soft beard of a week’s growth, waiting for the system to boot. In his eagerness to access his chat-box, and to know what task the curator would assign for the day, he hadn’t even bothered to brush his teeth, a ritual he’d otherwise perform first thing in the morning, thanks to his dad’s strict upbringing.
An accountant in a government office, Dad expected his son to behave like the cashbook in which he entered the daily transactions. Stay where I keep you, dusted and covered, to open up only when necessary to serve my purpose.
Yesterday, his laptop had shut down when power went out; a routine event that people in Delhi had to bear with. The rich had inverters or generators, but the poor had candlelight or ate their dinners in the darkness. He cursed his laptop’s battery and went to sleep, without the ceiling fan’s hum to lull him.
“Aren’t you awake yet?” Dad’s hollering sounded like the fury of tidal waves lashing on a bed of rocks. “Nalayak!”
Nalayak, a word dad often used to describe a good-for-nothing offspring, kept rolling inside his head. Vinod’s inability to find a job after ten months of finishing college had become his dad’s excuse to deny him his needs and mom’s cause of anguish, worrying whether an only son could withstand the turbulence of unemployment and poverty.
A few days from now, Dad would neither have to use the word anymore nor to deny him anything…And mom could begin to take care of her own vulnerability of poor health due to the never-ending toil for an insensitive husband and a useless son.
A faint aroma of masala dosa, mom’s coolest of South Indian breakfasts, wafted in and blended with the stale odor that marked his small, shabby room. Dad would be in the bath, in his haste to reach office on his fifteen-year-old Honda bike, which often sputtered to a stop on crowded Delhi streets. To avoid the embarrassment of being late for work, he’d always start ninety minutes earlier for a five miles ride. He didn’t mind putting an extra burden on his insomniac wife by making her wakeup early.
“Damn.” Vinod struck the tabletop with a curled hand. Five minutes since he’d pressed the ‘on’ button and the system didn’t complete its booting process that should take less than a minute.
He prayed the power wouldn’t go off again. When he’d asked for battery replacement, dad had thrown at him the usual excuse of budgetary deficit. When his rich friend, Anil, had offered to buy a new laptop for him he’d declined because he already owed his friend too much for the treats in bars and restaurants. Also, father would’ve questioned the propriety of accepting gifts from friends who were still dependent on their parents.
He hated dad’s lower middle-class attitude. Mom was no different either. Both were the types who’d never exploit the best things this world offered. By remaining content with their lot in life, they didn’t know they failed their only son…one who chased ambitions, stopped when the traits of his parents’ genes slowly corroded the grit of his resolve.
Life belonged to young men like Anil, who introduced him to the alluring world of tequila, marijuana, and the White Shark. His parents worked in London and, according to him, had already absorbed the taints of white colonist culture into their dark skin. His grandfather owned hundreds of millions of rupees worth commercial and residential properties in Delhi and Kerala.
His grandfather, Anil often said, had peculiar tastes, though he never revealed to him what those tastes were. Despite Vinod being his confidant, Anil withheld some secrets from him. But whenever he mentioned it, his mouth would stretch in the hint of a grimace and his lips would twitch.
When Vinod asked him why his parents wouldn’t take him to London, where the education was much better, Anil said that his grandfather demanded that he grow up in India so that he’d not be corrupted by western culture.
“Corrupted… my foot,” Anil had said.
Solving mathematical problems in college at least served one purpose. Sometimes, it helped one find answers to puzzles in real life. Anil didn’t have to tell him what grandfather’s peculiar tastes were. It was good Anil didn’t inherit anything other than his wealth…
Finally, Vinod’s desktop presented him with the White Shark’s image, his short cut to a Promised Land. He double-clicked the icon and waited. It’d take another eternity before his five-year-old system opened the program.
A month ago, Anil, who was afraid of heights, sat on the parapet of a high-rise Marriott’s terrace where he’d taken Vinod. “You know,” Anil said, “The White Shark is a fantastic game. It helped me overcome my fear of heights.” He paused for a while. “And of peculiar tastes…”
Waning sunrays reflected in the watery films in his eyes. Vinod couldn’t decide whether to take the glint in Anil’s eyes as a sign of excitement or the trickery of sunlight to blind a friend to his sorrow.
The chat box appeared. Vinod felt a twitch at the tip of his fingers, as if a rush of adrenalin, the gush of excitement, made him click the mouse-button repeatedly. His eyes eagerly roved over the message, ingraining each syllable, absorbing meanings of words they formed, and ingesting the grains of truth that would grant him deliverance.
“Curator: Burn your forearms, each in ten places, with cigarettes.”
Vinod reached for the drawer where he had hid a pack of Dunhill Anil gave him.
“Hello, are you there?”
Vinod looked at the blinking text and it almost rang in his ears like his father’s chants when he recited the hymns from the Vedas. “Yes,” he typed.
“Upload a video clip of it to the link below.”
Vinod’s fingers shook as his hand groped among the drawer’s contents, looking intently at the message.
Vinod got hold of the packet. Using his index finger, he pressed each syllable. “Yes… tell me.”
“You’re making tremendous progress, Vinod.” The curator’s message read. “At this pace, we’re sure you gonna join Anil soon.”
The view of Anil’s name sent another wave of excitement course through Vinod’s veins and his fingers quivered when he typed, “Thanks. I…”
“Okay, see you tomorrow,” The curator’s text blinked.
Sputtering of the bike’s engine startled Vinod. He went to the window and saw his father’s foot furiously slamming down the kicker. Coils of coal-black smoke issued from the exhaust as if it were a vent to release the fumes of his anger. Finally, the engine started with a noisy rumble.
With father gone, mother wouldn’t bother him until her chores in the kitchen were finished. That left him almost an hour before she’d pester him to eating breakfast.
In response to the chat, he typed “Sure,” and hit the ‘send’ button. The curator always said he appreciated Vinod’s brevity. Maybe, more than his father appreciated his silence, he thought.
Vinod walked up to the door and closed it. Returning, he tucked the ragged curtains into the fraying windowsills, and got back to his seat.
Sweltering sunrays scorched his skin. Perspiration broke on his forehead as he looked at the monitor, thinking about the task at hand.
The image of the White Shark, superimposed with the word ‘Thanks’ kept blinking on the screen. The curator also appreciated his compliant nature and speedy action. Vinod could feel his chest swell as he looked at the fish. Was pride a deadly sin? My foot, Anil would’ve said.
Vinod adored the great white, whose dorsal fin stuck out to the sky from a massive back, its dominant figure terrorizing the ocean’s depths. Its jagged, serrated teeth trapped sea lions and seals in a ferocious clutch, tearing flesh and crushing bones. Its elegant poise, as it glided through water, inspired awe.
It was not until he retrieved the packet of cigarettes and lighter from the drawer that he noticed the minimized window of his Gmail inbox blinking, showing eleven messages. He knew that nothing worth a glance would be there. He no more had any friends to send mails, not after Anil was gone. Opening the mailbox was nothing more than a ritual to erase spam that kept accumulating. He restored the window.
The first message was an ad saying, ‘Indian Navy Calling Mechanical Engineers.’ It had come every day, for a week. A few months ago he’d tried and failed to measure up to their requirements of physical competence. His father made a great fuss about it.
“Just an hour…” he’d said. “All it takes is just an hour’s workout in the gym, instead of wasting time surfing the net!”
The other emails were all crap. He deleted them.
The one that remained was from Albina, Anil’s chat buddy from Russia. Vinod had no idea why she’d write to him.
“Ani always kept telling me about you during our chat sessions. I knew you were the only one he really cared for.” The message went on.
Beads of sweat began to flow down his forehead and drop onto his lashes, burning his eyes. “The Promised Land was a myth… a handiwork of sadistic cyber bullies. Steer away before it’s too late…”
Vinod envisioned the warm, blue seawater gleaming as sunlight frolicked on the ripples created by a seal cub, swimming towards a nearby rock. Suddenly, the water exploded into a silvery splash as the predator grabbed its prey. Flesh tore, bones crushed, and scarlet spewed from the bubbles bursting on the surface…
Vinod shuddered. He closed his eyes for a moment, as if to shut away the ghastly image, and looked back at the screen.
Albina went on to say that she realized her folly only after she lost Anil, and somehow she felt responsible. She couldn’t contact Vinod earlier as she’d to hack into Anil’s computer, which took a while, to get his email ID. “We were all chasing illusions,” she wrote, “closing our eyes against what really counted.”
Mother banged on the door. “Have your breakfast, Vinod…” She called out. “It’s already ten.”
Her voice rang with a concern for the empty stomach of an only son that he recognized for the first time. Vinod felt a pang of hunger he hadn’t experienced in a while.
He closed Albina’s message, unfinished. “Just a moment mama,” he said. “Please keep it ready.”
He opened ‘Trash’, looking for the deleted message from the Indian Navy.