Posted in Fiction

Pandora’s Box

It was barely a quarter to nine, and yet the streets of Mumbai were almost deserted. The last few shops were closing their doors. There would be no customers at this hour anyway, and the employees and the shopkeepers needed to reach home before the curfew started.

A young woman walked along these lanes. In a black fleece jacket with a hood covering her head down to her eyes, straight black jeans, and black combat boots with heels, she seemed to have tried to dress to be inconspicuous. It might have worked, if not for the fact that she was the only woman on the road at these hours. Still, with everyone hurrying to avoid the curfew, nobody spared more than a couple of quizzical glances at her.

The woman, in turn, did not pay much attention to the men around her. Her steps were firm, yet swift and light. Occasionally, she would look at the overcast sky as she walked. She could smell the coming rain in the air. It was going to be one of those nights.

The city was falling silent fast. As the woman approached the famous Marine Drive of Mumbai, the roar of the sea became quite prominent. A decade or so ago, the whole area would be bustling with crowd around this hour. But now it was empty and silent as a graveyard.

Though she was adamant to not be distracted, something caught the woman’s eye as she passed one of the vacant buildings in the area. You could see such buildings everywhere in the country- half-burnt or half-demolished, with the other half kept as a warning to the people. It must have once been a business or a house owned by a Muslim, or a homosexual, or any of the other minorities that were now branded undesirable by the High Council.

What the woman noticed, though, seemed to be a graffiti at the corner of the wall. It looked fresh, as if someone had just drawn it- a bleach white buffalo skull, with the word “RESIST” written underneath it in red. She looked at it for a moment, her expression unreadable. Then she started walking again, and as she did, it began to drizzle. The rain was already here.

Pandora 02

A loud gunshot rang across the night. Then another one. The woman flinched a bit and stood still in her tracks, as did the few men she could see around her. They looked panicked, but nobody ran or yelled. They knew better than to do that. Gunshots were a common daily occurrence now. It just meant that the watchmen had taken care of another undesirable. Maybe it was the graffiti artist? After a few seconds of silence, everyone started walking again, noticeably faster.

“The curfew begins in 5 minutes.” A female voice sounded across the wet night over the nearest loudspeaker. Then the same message repeated in Hindi. The announcement seemed to jostle the woman into walking faster. Her destination, the five star hotel called the Oberoi, was just in sight.

The woman removed her hood as she approached the hotel. Her jet black hair  was shoulder length and seemed unusually straight. The security was stricter than usual. Many of the junior members of the High Council were reported to be staying here for their monthly conference next morning. The woman was asked to hand in her papers. When her name and registration checked out, she was asked to hand in her phone and other metal objects she might have, and then she had to walk through a metal detector and a state of the art X-ray security scanner.

At the end of the security checks, her phone, coins, and keys were returned to her. A clean shaved young man dressed in a white suit stood there to greet her. He flashed a toothy smile, which seemed fake at best. His eyes seemed to be judging her attire and her manners. He said, “Welcome to the Oberoi. How may I help you?”

“I have an appointment,” said the woman quietly as she fished out a card from the pocket of her jacket, and handed it to the man. He courteously accepted it. As he read the name, his eyebrows seemed to rise a bit higher.

“Of course,” he said, with a polite nod and a noticeable change in his tone, “Mr. Kapoor is waiting for you at the bar. I’ll show you the way.”

The bar was dimly lit and moderately crowded. Unlike the road outside, there were women here as well. The woman was guided to a table at the corner. The man sitting there seemed middle aged, and was good looking and well groomed. He wore a tuxedo and had an expensive watch on his left hand. There was a glass with brown liquid held in his right hand. The ice cubes were still melting. He did not get up when he saw the woman, and merely smiled.

“Please, take a seat,” said the man named Mr. Kapoor.

“Thank you,” said the woman, with half a smile and a nod, and sat down opposite him.

Kapoor stared at her face for what seemed like a long time, before remembering to talk. He cleared his throat softly and asked, “Can I get you anything…?”

“No, thanks,” said the woman at once, “I don’t drink.”

“That’s good,” nodded Kapoor, “Alcohol isn’t a good thing for women to indulge in.” He stared at her face for a few more moments and then said, “So… Priya, it’s been a long time, huh?”

Pandora 03

“Actually,” said the woman, looking downward, not meeting his eyes, “I go by Pandora now.”

The man chuckled. “Seriously?”

“I had to give up my past life when… I joined the Underground,” she said, finally looking up.

The man stopped smiling. He looked solemn for a moment, but he seemed to relax as he looked in her eyes. “So it’s true then?” he said.

The woman nodded. In the dim light she seemed to be emotionally exhausted.

“But… why?” the man asked, his brows furrowing a bit, “We were best friends, remember? Before you started to get involved with that ridiculous boyfriend of yours. How did you end up joining the Underground? What happened?”

“I don’t know,” she sighed. Her eyes looked sad and full of regret. “You remember how I was? Always feeling guilty about not doing anything, or not having strong enough political views. They kept saying that standing by and doing nothing was as big a crime as doing wrong things yourself. So I joined up when my friends did.”

The man seemed to understand. He couldn’t remain angry with her, not when there is such sadness in her eyes, not when she had asked for his help. “And now?” he asked.

“I… I don’t know.” Her voice threatened to break. “I just can’t take it anymore. I’m too tired and too scared.”

When he sensed that she was about to cry, he put down the glass and extended his arms to hold her hands. “Hey… Shh… it’s going to be okay.”

“I’m ready to tell you everything,” she said, letting him console her, “Everything I know. Just please get me out of this mess?”

“You don’t have to worry,” he said, the smile creeping back to his face, “I can guarantee your safety. You just come with me to the meeting tomorrow.”

She looked into his eyes and even though her eyes glittered with tears, she seemed to gain some composure. “Thank you,” she said, with an attempted smile, “I knew that if anyone could help me, it would be you.”

Hearing that, he smiled and sat up a bit straighter, smiling contently. He left her hands and drank the last of his drink. “Of course, I will help you,” he said, looking at her face, “You’re my old friend. I’ll protect you.”

The woman smiled a little more clearly this time.

“Anyway…” said the man, clearing his throat, “We will meet tomorrow in the morning and sort everything out, okay? But now…” His seemed to be weighing his words, trying to be careful what to say next, “Well… I mean, I guess I can drop you off, since it’s past the curfew, but it may be better if you preferred to… you know… stay here? I mean…”

He was about to jump into a bunch of poorly constructed explanations trying to justify why it would be best for her to stay in his suite for the night, but she cut him off, “Oh, I’d love to!”

“You… you would?” he failed to mask his surprise.

“Yeah… I mean,” she said, “We have so much to catch up! A decade and half. We could stay up and… talk.” She seemed to smile coyly at the last word.

“Alright, then,” he grinned broadly, “Let’s go. We can order dinner from the room.” He offered her his hand as he stood up.

They walked together, hand in hand, to the elevator and took it up to the twentieth floor. His happiness and excitement was apparent. He made small talk as he walked. She just smiled and nodded.

As they entered the suite, lights automatically turned on. It was massive and beautifully decorated.

“Wow!” she exclaimed.

“Make yourself home,” he said with a smug smile, letting go of her hand, “I’ll just…”

Pandora 04

But he never got to finish his words. As soon as he had turned, she slammed into him, throwing his body against the wall. Being caught off his guard, he was dazed. Before he could regain his senses, she grabbed at her right boot and jerked the heel free. What she held in her hand now, was a sharp blade. She held him up against the wall and brought the blade to his throat.

His eyes rounded as he saw the blade. “How…” he stammered.

“How did I get it past the security?” she said, with a very prominent smile now, “How sweet of your to ask! It’s not metal. It’s made of cow bone. I thought you might appreciate the irony.”

“I… what…” he looked more confused and scared.

Without one more word, she slashed at his throat. It took more effort than an actual knife would have needed, but it got the job done. Blood gushed out from the wound. He desperately tried to grab at something, but she head butted him, breaking his nose and disorienting him completely on impact. He fell on the floor, helpless, and bled out.

The woman went to the bathroom. She cleaned the blood off herself. Then she cleaned the weapon and sheathed it back in her boot. She casually walked to the body lying in the pool of blood, completely lifeless. She took his phone from his tux and dropped it in her left pocket. From the other pocket, she took out her own phone. Taking a last look at the body, she smiled once more and dialed a number.

“Hey boys,” she said in the phone, “Pandora here. The box is open.”

Earlier this year, I initiated a project on Facebook that I would create something for each of my online friends who wanted me to. This story is a part of that project. All the characters involved are fictional, except the protagonist, who is based on my friend.

Posted in Fiction

Mr. Ice-Cream

A long time ago, in the enchanting little town of Candyland, there lived a certain Mr. Ice-Cream.

The people of the town were not very fond of Mr. Ice-Cream. They were too polite to say anything to his face, of course, but when he was not around, they would often talk about what a strange man he was.

“I mean,” Ms. Biscuit would say when they gathered at the pub in the evenings, “We don’t know much about him, do we? He wasn’t born ‘ere, like the rest of us. He’s from… where was it again?”

“North,” Old Man Cider would say, nodding knowingly.

“North!” Ms. Biscuit would continue, “They’re just not like us.” She would look around, screwing up her face in an expression of displeasure, making sure her audience was indeed hanging on to her every word, and then she would go on. “Why did he suddenly move here? Where is his family? And why is he so damn cold all the time?”

Mr. Ice-Cream indeed had no family. He did not even have a cat. He lived alone in a small but cozy house near the town center. But he smiled at everyone, bade everyone good morning, and at the end of the day asked everyone if they had a good day. At first, it seemed he would fit right in, but then there was that incident with Mr. Muffin at the market.

Ice Cream 4

Mr. Muffin was browsing the old bookshop for a book that he had not already read to his grandchildren, when he saw Mr. Ice-Cream enter the shop. Eager to welcome the newest member of their town, Mr. Muffin went ahead, with his usual flurry of questions regarding the town, the mayor, and the weather, and he grasped Mr. Ice-Cream’s hand for a shake. Immediately he let go and stepped back. It was colder than the snows of December.

Mr. Ice-Cream apologized and left the shop promptly, but then everyone else eventually started to feel it too. Mr. Ice-Cream was not just cold to the touch, but he seemed to radiate an aura of cold. His house seemed to be always cold too. You could feel the chilly air if you just walked past an open window, even though it was late spring.

Very soon, the townspeople began being less subtle in their behavior towards Mr. Ice-Cream. They would avert their eyes and move away whenever Mr. Ice-Cream was out for a walk. Most would not even talk to him directly. Those who did, would usually keep a distance.

It was hard to say what Mr. Ice-Cream felt about this attitude of his fellow inhabitants of Candyland. He always wore a scarf, so you could not see his expressions, but he soon stopped going out for walks unless he absolutely needed to. It went on like this for a month or two.

Ice Cream 2

Meanwhile, the summer that year was the worst in decades. Nature was not kind. Rivers dried, crops did not grow, and many families started running out of food or money.

It was on one afternoon around this time, a couple of months after the market incident, that Mr. Ice-Cream saw Little Lollipop sitting on the sidewalk opposite his home. The little boy looked quite weak. Mr. Ice-Cream went out and asked him, in his kindest voice, what the trouble was.

“We haven’t had anything to eat all week, Mr. Ice-Cream,” said Little Lollipop, almost crying, “The whole family is starving.”

“I see,” said Mr. Ice-Cream in a grave voice. He looked thoughtful for a long while, and then said, “Well, I have something that might help.” From inside the house, he fetched a tub and handed it to the little boy.

The tub was cold. Little Lollipop, surprised, asked, “What is this?”

“Why, it is ice-cream, of course!” said Mr. Ice-Cream as if it was the most obvious answer in the world, “My name is Mr. Ice-Cream, is it not? What else would I have? Now take this home. Go on. Share this with your family.”

Little Lollipop was somewhat confused, but he was too hungry so he took it home. It was indeed ice-cream. Vanilla flavored, sweet scented, and delicious. Their whole family ate that night.

The news of Mr. Ice-Cream’s generosity spread quite fast. It seemed he always had ice-cream. The house that was usually avoided by everyone, now was visited by many strangers who looked weak and hungry but always left with a tub of ice-cream and a smile on their faces.

Sometimes people came even from neighboring localities. You could see hungry children from Snacktown or Dessertville lining up at Mr. Ice-Cream’s house. Even Ms. Biscuit had to grudgingly admit that Mr. Ice-Cream was doing something noble. Very soon, their town was once again full of happy faces, and every one of them praised Mr. Ice-Cream.

Ice Cream 3

The first winds of autumn reached eventually, and it brought rain. People were ecstatic. Mr. Ice-Cream did not go out much these days, even though he was welcome everywhere. The children who still went to his house, sometimes to get ice-cream, and sometimes just to talk to him, said that he was not doing so well. Perhaps he had a fever because he was not as cold as he used to be anymore.

Little Lollipop’s mother Ms. Lollipop could not help but worry. She called for the best doctor from Breakfastburge. The doctor arrived three days later. When they went to the house, there was no response. They made their way in and found that Mr. Ice-Cream had passed away.

“Well, he was made of ice-cream, of course!” chided Doctor Toast, “His name was Mr. Ice-Cream, for crying out loud! He gave parts of himself away so people here could eat, live, and be happy! Didn’t anyone realize? It was so obvious!”

As he left the house, the doctor seemed to be muttering something about stupid villagers wasting his time. After he left, the townspeople looked at each other, utterly confused. After a minute or two, most of them shrugged and went on their way. Little Lollipop and his mother stood still in front of the empty house for a while. Then they left as well.

Posted in Life

The (Unexpected) Trick to Happiness

It’s been quite a mixed bag of a week since I started writing here in my blog (okay, more than a week, but that’s not the point). Some people actually came to read it and encouraged me to go on! That made me feel so positive that I surprised my editor by submitting an article on time for once, started working on the draft of a short story which I had written back in high school (but lost the manuscript), went through a number of Photoshop tutorials and started practicing, and I even started (and finished) watching Westworld. After years, I once again felt a creative energy. I felt happy. But I’m still at the edge of the black hole, aren’t I?

As a few days passed, I didn’t even realize when that energy had started to seep through. I began to lose the enthusiasm as the gloom set in. Once again, everything started to seem futile, meaningless, and claustrophobic, as if someone had constantly been urging me to doubt myself, surrender, and give in to self-pity. But I guess there was a small part of me that endured, because I found myself once again asking some familiar questions: How can someone stop feeling like this? How can one feel that positiveness again? What is the secret to being happy?

Westworld was… interesting. Maybe I should write about it.

I have asked myself these questions for many years. I have asked others as well. From what I have gathered over the years, there is no universal answer, sorry. What inspires you to be happy and gives you strength and motivation, might not mean anything to me. That’s a pretty important disclaimer which is never in a self-help book. If you’re particularly unfortunate, like me, it may even take you years or decades to find out what makes you happy. I myself am still not sure.

I took my therapist’s advice, and decided to reflect on my more recent experiences (because apparently they are easier to analyze when they are fresh). What I discovered, was unexpected. Sure, books make me happy, as do video games, good movies, or TV shows, and I have relied solely on them for years, but they are more of a brief reprieve from the crushing hopelessness than anything else. They do not make me feel as warm as I did after starting my blog. It took me a while, but I eventually realized- it was people.

I’ve never been a social person. When you live in the country with the highest population density and there are people everywhere, you tend to get tired of them. And then there was the fact that as a teen I had nothing in common with people around me. So I isolated myself from everyone else. I built a proverbial shell and filled it with the geeky stuff I liked. It wasn’t comfortable, but it made it easier to survive. But the thing is, there is a lot more to life than merely surviving.

If this scene from Avatar frightens you, don’t come to India.

Even couple of years ago, I wasn’t that much active on social media. Sure, I logged in everyday, but it was more to observe than to interact, and most of my friends list was there just for the sake of being there. After I started working at Haogamers, though, things began to change. I met a lot of like-minded people from all over the world. I found myself posting and commenting more. The weirdest thing was that they didn’t seem to hate me. Some even seemed to enjoy my company. It was only then that I had started to think about starting my blog.

I’ve always felt that human beings, especially writers and other artists, tend to have an inexplicable penchant for sharing emotions and ideas. Maybe that’s why we create and tell stories. What we don’t always realize is that it often works both ways. Sure, we have climbed a long way up the ladder of evolution, but we still exchange emotions and ideas as if through osmosis.

Contrary to popular belief, ‘echo chambers’ are not exclusive to social media. They exist in real world too. Example- me. When I kept to my own and surrounded myself with my own kind of negativity, that was the only thing I felt. Over the last couple of years, though, I have made many great friends on social media, whom I love and care about, and I think their positiveness might have been affecting me more than I realized.

Shells are nice and comfy, but remember that you’re not a cute and cuddly snail.

In my experience, people are usually more honest and outspoken on social media. When I focus too much on the negative side of things, I have friends on Facebook who tell me to cut it out- sometimes gently, sometimes harshly when needed. When they seem genuinely happy over small things like animal pictures or funny comic strips, I can’t help but feel a little brighter. Every time someone texts me or pings me on messenger, for whatever reason, it makes me happy. It reminds me that I have a place, however small, in their life. When someone comments on my posts or tell me they like my writing, it doesn’t feel that my existence is a waste. Sure, ideally I wouldn’t need validation of someone else to be happy, but let’s take one step at a time, shall we?

All the successful, genius, and happy people you see in TV shows seem to have everything figured out by their early twenties. I used to think that it was too late for me. My friend Ren reminded me that “life is never as short as young people think it is”. So maybe I should get started on life after all.

The only reason I’m writing now is because I wanted to get these thoughts out, to let my friends on social media know how important they are to me, even if they don’t realize it. After my last blog post, one of them (you know who you are) messaged me to tell me that it inspired them to confront their own demons. Another friend reminded me that I helped them just by talking to them and not giving up on them. One of my students told me that I have inspired them to be a better person. I owe it to them to not give in.

I have a lot of stories to tell them, after all.

Posted in Life

Acknowledging the Black Hole

Coming out with depression is tricky. You never know how someone is going to react. Some might blow you off, because psychological illnesses are obviously an imaginary concept popularized by capitalist millennials; some might start to avoid you, because you surely belong in an asylum; and some might start pitying you, because you’re certainly no way fit to be a functional adult in society. The worst, though, are those who try to empathize without having any clue about what depression is.

“So what if you’re depressed? That’s a good thing. Every sane and responsible person should be depressed. Even I am depressed from time to time when I see all the poverty and injustice in the world. It only proves you’re a good person at heart. Don’t try to cure depression by seeing doctors or taking meds. Instead, nurture it and keep it alive.”

Yeah, someone actually told me that.

When you have been living with chronic depression for more than a decade, you eventually stop being enraged by these remarks. Correcting everyone or convincing them that depression is not really like that, can be tiring. So you learn to smile and nod while someone sagely lectures you on your own condition, while imagining what would be like if Darth Vader suddenly came in and started choking them with the Force (with the Imperial March playing in the background, of course).

Dammit Vader, I said Force choke, not flowers!

Living with depression is different for everyone, but it is never pleasant. To me, it feels like existing at the edge of a black hole. You always see the pitch dark nothingness of the singularity at the center, always feel the crushing gravity that threatens to suck in all the light, and it takes every last bit of your energy to maintain your orbit all the time, because if you’re careless for one moment, you’d fall into the pit of despair and pain beyond the event horizon, and collapse into the nothingness forever.

Sounds exhausting, right? It is.

I’ve been living with chronic depression for a long time- since high school, when I didn’t even have any idea of what depression was. I was officially diagnosed when I was in university, and by that time, it had started to affect my life quite adversely. The initial treatment didn’t go very well, so I gave up trying. Things got worse. One day I woke up and realized that I had given up on my dreams, hopes, aspirations, and life in general. I couldn’t see any reason to keep surviving, and the effort it took to not kill myself, drained me every waking moment. I had arrived at the edge of the black hole.

A lot of days like this, yeah.

2016 was a pretty bad year for me personally. My illness reached a new low. I almost gave in to it a few times. As a last effort, I decided to visit another therapist. What did I have to lose? Then things started to change.

I’d love to tell you that I was inspired and found a new zest for life and became a whole new man overnight, but as you might have guessed, psychotherapy doesn’t work like that. The change is slow, difficult, and often painful. The first four months were the hardest. The burden of guilt increased as I was paying quite a lot of money on my sessions and wasn’t getting any results in return (I guess a part of me was pissed that I wasn’t spending the money on games and books), and also because I felt that I was letting down some very patient and understanding colleagues and friends who, for some unfathomable reason, refused to give up on me. So I started to try harder. And now here I am.

So… hi.

Am I completely free of the disease now? Heh, not even close. I’m still seeing my therapist, I’m still taking meds, and I still have bad days. But, I am finally beginning to understand my place at the edge of the black hole, and I’m finally trying to break free. And this blog is a part of that effort.

I promised myself that I’d try harder in 2017 and that’s what I plan to do. For me, the best way to do that, to counter the gravitational pull of the black hole, is to create. So I will write, I will draw, I will take more photos (including selfies), I will learn how to create beautiful artwork in Photoshop, I will make funny memes and share them, and I will write some more. And I will come out of my shell and talk to people through my blog. If I chronicle my efforts and my journey, maybe it will help someone; maybe it will help me.

I’m eager to find out.