Posted in Article, Life

The Apparent Absurdity of Safe Spaces

It was not very long ago that I thrived on debating on social media, whether it was about the existence or non-existence of a deity, politics, video games, or even about which was better- Marvel or DC (It’s always Marvel). But there comes a time, when you must recognize that toxic interactions do not help your depression, and you need to limit your exposure to them. Eventually you stop getting the compulsion to prove you are right or to have the last word, you learn to swallow your ego, you stop worrying that if you left an onlooker might think you lost the discussion, you become more liberal with blocking people.

With that, inevitably, there would be a handful of very helpful people, even your friends, scoffing at you and calling you an escapist. They’d patiently explain that blocking or ignoring people isn’t a solution. You can’t just run away from difficulties all the time and take shelter among whom you feel comfortable. There are no ‘safe places’ in the real world.

Ah, yes. There are no safe places in the real world. It’s true… well, except… hasn’t the entire history of the human civilization has been about that?

Safe Space 02
Wait a minute… this isn’t cave art!

Just imagine for a moment. It’s the Paleolithic Age. Our ancestors are coming together and combining simple groups to form tribes and villages. They’re learning the use of more and more complex tools. Someone suggests that maybe they should try to build a structure- something called a ‘fence’ around their village, so that wild animals or enemy tribes can’t attack as much during the night. The prehistoric men and women look at each other. It seems like a great idea. Then a particularly grim looking individual stands up.

“Excuse me, but ‘fences’? What a ridiculous notion! There are no fences in the real world. We’re always ready for defending ourselves. That’s how we remain strong. Don’t infantilize our warriors by giving them security or time to rest and relax! As Darwin said, it’s the survival of the fittest.”

“Who the hell is Darwin?”

“My distant cousin, twice removed, it doesn’t matter. The point still stands. We need to remain fierce and alert all the time!”

I like to think that when the fence was finally built, he was thrown outside.

Safe Space 03
A prime example of pointless bravado that masks sadism and cruelty

Human beings have a very unhealthy obsession with bravado. While it does serve our purpose at times, it doesn’t do us much good to rely solely on bravery and boldness, and foregoing caution entirely. Seeking safety and comfort is part of human nature, and for good reason. This instinct has been responsible for our survival through the ages.

The most basic of human structures, our homes, are the simplest forms of safe spaces. We don’t leave the doors unlocked all night because there are no walls or doors in the real world. When our immune system is compromised, we are taken to a clean room. The doctors don’t tell us that there are no clean rooms in the real world and kick us out of the hospital. Throughout history we have striven to make the world safer for us. Instead of adapting to nature, as most organisms do, we have changed nature to suit our needs. We have even modified existing animals and plants to serve us.

What many of us fail to realize, is that safe spaces are sought by the marginalized, oppressed, and distraught- those who are not given a voice in the real world and are attacked for daring to speak, like the LGBT+ community, women, victims of sexual assault, victims of psychologically illnesses, and more. They are not a threat. They are victims. It is not about establishing their ideals on others, but it is about their very survival. The moment a similar safe space is demanded by the un-oppressed majority, that’s a gateway to fascism and dictatorship, and that is what you should be worried about.

Safe Space 04
No, a gay wedding is not a place for you to debate LGBT+ rights.

Safe spaces for minorities might seem absurd to you. If it does, good for you, because that means you’re not the one who needs them. You’re privileged enough that you don’t have to worry about your existence in the everyday world just because of who you are. Not all of us have that luxury. It doesn’t mean we are not open to criticism. It means we are not open to criticism 24/7, especially when the criticism is whether we should exist or not.

The world is huge, and in spite of our continued efforts over the millennia, it is not completely a safe place. And that is totally fine. It leaves a lot of room for us to engage in logical (or illogical, whichever you prefer) debates, duels, challenges, and Pokémon battles to establish our intellectual and egotistical superiority. But also try to understand why the less privileged of us might need places to feel safe and secure, to breathe freely. I promise you the result would be a much more tolerant and peaceful world.

Posted in Fiction

North Wind

The snow fell harder every year. And it never stopped. In spite of the thick coat of fur, the old elk shivered.

In all the twelve years of his life, the elk had never seen anything else but snow. He had heard the same stories from his mother as she had heard from hers. For generations, there have been tales that somewhere to the south, there were still lands free of frost and cold, where the sun shone over open fields of green grass. Nobody had actually seen it with their own eyes, of course. To the old bull, those were just stories- legends to keep them believing, migrating, surviving.

There was a chill in the air. Winter was creeping up, which meant it would get even worse. He sighed as he looked up and stared at the horizon. As far as eyes could see, the ground was covered with loose snow. There were tufts of yellow prairie grass here and there, but not nearly enough. The scarcity of food was just as dangerous as the cold. Who knows how many of them would die this year from starvation alone?

The rest of the herd was grazing at a distance. The female group had headed further south. They were maybe a day’s ride away, led by capable matriarchs. The elk lowered his head again, tugged on a shrub with his teeth, and resumed chewing. His old ears failed to register the approaching danger.

The snow muffled the steps of the wolves. They kept their heads low as they advanced. When they reached the top of the nearby hill, the leader signaled the group to stop. About a dozen wolves froze, waiting for the order to engage their prey.

“Adamant,” called the wolf nearest to the leader. He had dark brown fur covering his upper body. He continued in a low growl, “Are you sure about this? Look at the elk. It hasn’t shed its antlers yet. We’re not exactly in our best form either. It may be too risky.”

Adamant, the alpha of the pack, turned to the wolf and bared his teeth in an unmistakable sign of anger. “We have no choice, Furor. We cannot starve anymore. The fate of the whole pack rests upon us.”

NW 02

A female wolf with burnt sienna coat stepped forward from the other side of the alpha. Her name was Ether. She was his mate. She touched her snout gingerly to Adamant’s shoulder, and he lowered his gaze back to the prey, foregoing his anger and frustration. “We have children back at the camp, Furor,” Ether said in a gentle tone, “And the pregnant females. They cannot go hungry anymore, even if we can.”

“Of course, Ether,” Furor looked down guiltily, “I meant no disrespect. I was just being… cautious.”

“Gray Cloud,” Adamant spoke over Furor’s last word, tilting his head towards a strong gray coated wolf to his further right, “You know what to do.” Gray Cloud nodded, and as Adamant looked at Ether, so did she.

The vanguard sprinted forward, led by Ether to the left and Gray Cloud to the right, with the lighter and faster wolves of the pack on their heels. Adamant, Furor, and the rest tensed the muscles of their front legs, ready for the perfect moment to jump in.

The snow muffled the sound of approaching death so well that the elk did not register the wolves until he saw them rushing in from both sides, trying to surround him. He immediately cried out, as loud as he could, alerting the rest of the herd. As they started running, so did he, but even then he knew that it was too late.

“Now!” cried Adamant as Gray Cloud circled around in front of the elk, making him stumble. Adamant and the rest of the pack darted forwards, trying to flank the elk.

The elk lowered his head and jerked the antlers aimlessly. Gray Cloud was expecting it. He rolled back just in time. The wolf behind him, a younger female named Faith, was not so lucky. The sharp point of the antlers slashed at her neck, spraying the snow with warm blood. She staggered back, wounded but alive.

To the left of the elk, Ether seized the chance. She jumped at the elk and bit into his neck, making it scream louder. The wolves rushing in from behind scrambled as the elk started to throw his legs out randomly, shaking his whole body in a desperate attempt to get free from Ether’s hold. It worked. The final jerk of the neck threw Ether off at a distance. She landed safely on the snow and started to get back up.

Adamant knew this was the opening they needed. He growled and jumped at the elk’s hind legs and Furor followed their leader. Furor’s jaw clasped tight on the left hind leg of the elk, but Adamant missed as the elk once again threw out his legs. The hooves clashed against Adamant’s chest, making a loud cracking sound. Adamant fell on the ground with a faint whimper.

By this time, Gray Cloud had regained his footing. He jumped at the elk, biting at the shoulder, right above where Ether had already attacked. With Furor already gnawing at his hind leg, the elk felt dizzy in pain and fear. When the rest of the wolves closed in on him, he knew it was over. In a matter of minutes, the elk was on the ground, finally defeated. His eyes slowly dimmed as he bled out while the wolves snarled and circled.

NW 03

As most of the pack made sure the elk was dead, the rest went back to help the wounded. Ether rushed to Adamant’s side. He looked badly hurt, but alive. Adamant decided not to tell her what he feared- that he had broken a couple of ribs. It strained him to walk, but tried his best to put up an appearance that the wound was not serious. Faith had also survived. There was a gash at her neck and she had lost a lot of blood, but when Gray Cloud helped her up, he knew she’d be fine with some rest.

“This kill should be enough for a couple of days,” Adamant addressed the hunting party as they gathered around him, “Now we just need to…” He stopped abruptly. His ears perked up. There was a faint howl in the wind. “Is that…?” he asked.

“Swift Paws,” Gray Cloud answered the unfinished question. He ran up to a nearby hill and looked at the distance. A younger wolf was running across the snow towards them. “Yes, definitely,” he said, “It’s Swift Paws.”

The brief joy of the pack at the kill seemed to evaporate. Swift Paws was their scout. He was stationed at the camp. He would not come unless it was urgent. Everyone looked at each other, their expressions worrisome. Adamant stepped ahead to greet the scout, walking slowly because of his wounds.

Swift Paws came to a halt before Adamant. He was panting. “Adamant… the camp… it’s… not good.”

“Easy, young one,” Adamant said in his characteristic deep growl, “Take a breath and tell me what the trouble is.” At his words, Swift Paws seemed to calm down a bit. He took a couple of deep breaths and then moved closer to Adamant. The rest of the pack watched tensely as he whispered something in Adamant’s ears.

When Swift Paws was finished, Adamant stared at him. The alpha tried his best not to look shocked or surprised, but Ether knew her mate too well. “What is it, dear?” she asked.

Adamant didn’t answer at once. He looked at Ether, and then at Gray Cloud. Then he spoke, “Ether, come with me. There seems to have been some… trouble at the camp. Gray Cloud and Furor, I task you with the responsibility of bringing the carcass to the camp. Everyone else here will help you.”

“Of course, sire,” Furor said, bowing his head courteously, but Gray Cloud did not speak. He kept looking at their leader. His wife, Summer, was at camp. She was one of the pregnant females. Did something happen to her? Did another pack attack their camp? But Adamant did not utter a single word more. He left, followed by Ether and Swift Paws.

The journey back to the camp was uneventful, but tiresome. It wasn’t easy, even for a pack of wolves, to drag an entire elk carcass back all the way to the camp. Worried about his wife at the camp, Gray Cloud could barely focus. He helped as much as he could, but it was Furor who instructed the rest of the wolves. He didn’t seem to mind being in charge for a change. Faith walked by Gray Cloud. Nobody expected her to help in her weakened state. She sensed Gray Cloud’s mood and kept quiet.

NW 04b

When they arrived at the camp, it was almost dusk. Gray Cloud looked around quickly, but could not see any explicit signs of violence. The pregnant females had been inside a cave. The entrance to it was still guarded by two older but strong and fierce female wolves. The rest of the pack- the old, the sick, and the children, were spread around in the clearing in front of the mouth of the cave. At the center, sat Adamant, Ether, and Grim, the oldest male of the pack, in his dark coat streaked with gray fur.

The pack moved the carcass to a side and then the wolves surrounded their leader. Gray Cloud could tell that Ether looked worried and Grim looked angry and perhaps scared. It was hard to read Adamant’s mood.

“My friends,” started Adamant when they had settled down, “Something has happened.” There was absolute silence. Not a single breath could be heard. Adamant continued, “We need to make a decision. You know that I have never imposed my own will on you. It is a harsh world and we are only as strong as we are united. In the past, whenever we decided the fate of the pack, the decision was made by all of us. Together. This is another such day.”

Adamant stopped. He looked at Grim beside him. The old wolf stood up. “It is a matter…,” he said slowly, carefully pronouncing every word, “…regarding the Prophecy.”

Gray Cloud’s heart stopped. This could not be happening. Not today. Not now. Not here. His fur stood on its end, as did several others’. They have known about the Prophecy since they were cubs. But some new cubs and a few of the pairs that had joined the pack earlier that year, looked confused. They had not been told about it yet.

Even though most of the pack seemed mortified with fear, Grim seemed to acknowledge the puzzled expression of the few. So he said, “For those of you who do not know, the Prophecy has been in our pack for generations- decades, maybe centuries. Some say it was uttered when the world was green and yellow, when snow fell only once a year and melted away again. We do not remember. But we remember the words.”

Grim paused and looked at his audience. He seemed to relish the attention he was getting. Then he recited the words of the Prophecy:

“The hunt grows barren
When evil winds blow,
Brings forth a child
As white as snow,
And greets an end
To the world we know.”

The whole pack remained silent. Some had closed their eyes. Some looked at the ground. Most had their tails tucked away between their hind legs. Gray Cloud felt the same. The Prophecy was their most feared legend- a warning of the end times. As the years became colder and prey became more and more scarce, many feared the day of the prophecy was nearing. But was this really it?

“I have been afraid of this day since three moons ago the coldest of winds from the north started to blow.” Grim was still speaking, “And now… I’m afraid…” His words faltered and faded away.

NW 04

“Gray Cloud,” called Adamant, and Gray Cloud jumped. His mind was blank from fear and confusion. He felt dizzy. “Your mate, Summer, has given birth to four healthy cubs today,” Adamant went on, his voice slow but steady, “And one of them… is white.”

Gray Cloud could feel the eyes of the whole pack on him. He dared not look at them. He dared not speak. A heavy silence hung in the air. Finally Adamant spoke, “I’m afraid we must reach a conclusion regarding this matter. All of us.”

“As I have said before,” Grim spoke, “We must kill the child. It’s the merciful thing to do.”

A murmur of agreement rose from the pack. Gray Cloud could recognize Furor and a few other voices. “Yes, yes!” They seemed to be saying, “Kill it before it brings an end to all of us, to the world!” The murmur was becoming louder. Gray Cloud himself had no idea what to think or do or say. Then another voice spoke.

This voice was faint and weak, but firm. A female. Gray Cloud looked up and saw it was Faith. She was looking at Ether and saying, “But… my lady, does it not also say in our creed that murder of an innocent and helpless wolf is the worst of the crimes against the gods? That doing such a thing would surely doom us forever?”

“Innocent!” Grim cried before Ether could say anything, “Did you not just hear the Prophecy, child? This cub would bring an end of the world!” Other voices, angry and frightened, echoed the same concern.

“But,” Faith said, “Isn’t the cub innocent until then? Until he does something…?”

“And then it would be too late!” It was Furor who cried this time. “Are you willing to bet the whole world on one cub, girl?”

“What if…” Ether finally spoke up. Her voice demanded much more authority than Faith’s, so everyone stopped talking. She continued, “What if that’s what the Prophecy refers to? That we shall break one of the most sacred tenets of our creed to subvert the Prophecy and bring us our own ruin?”

Nobody answered.

“Then we shall have a vote,” said Adamant, “As is our custom. How many of you would risk the death of the cub?” Many wolves stood up, including Grim. Gray Cloud did not look up to see who else did. He himself kept sitting, looking at the ground.

“And how many of you would like to spare him?” Adamant asked when the wolves had sat down again. Gray Cloud could sense that others stood up, including Ether. He himself could not find the strength to stand up. Once again, he kept sitting.

“I see.” Adamant said after a while, “Then we are at an impasse. The cub is wanted equally dead and alive by the pack.” He paused and said, “Gray Cloud, you have not told us what you want yet. It is your child after all.”

“That is why… I cannot…” Gray Cloud muttered.

“Very well,” said Adamant, “Then the decision falls to me.” Gray Cloud looked at their leader. Adamant looked at Ether for a few moments and then said, “The cub lives… for now.”

NW 05

Many looked uneasy, but none dared to speak against the alpha. They just looked at each other.

“We shall honor our creed until there is a clear reason not to,” Adamant said, “The cub shall be a member of our pack until that time.” He looked at Gray Cloud and said, “We shall call him North Wind, named after the harsh and cold wind that heralded his birth. Do you object?”

Gray Cloud shook his head.

“Very well. That’s settled then.” Adamant said with a tone of finality.

Adamant gave the command to bring forth the carcass and the gathering began to disperse. Ether came up to Gray Cloud and said, “Summer is weak. Go to her. I’ll bring you your meal.” Gray Cloud nodded and started walking slowly, his head hung low.

Inside the cave, the other pregnant females seemed to have moved further away. Summer laid near the mouth of the cave. He cubs squeaking near her. The white cub, North Wind, was there. It looked just as innocent as the rest to Gray Cloud, but what did he know? He feared the Prophecy as most of them did.

“What did they decide?” Summer asked weakly as Gray Cloud approached her.

“He lives,” Gray Cloud said. He licked her face in affection.

Summer did not say anything for a while. Then she spoke with a low snarl, “I do not want him.” She pushed the white cub away a little with her paw and dragged the rest of her children closer to her chest.

Gray Cloud did not know what to say or do. He did not know what to feel for his fourth child. His head hurt to think. He just laid down beside Summer.

The white cub felt confused and puzzled at being pushed away from the only other wolves he had known in his short life. But he was a newborn. He did not understand the complexities of things such as emotions. He whimpered and shivered a bit as the north wind started to blow again. He went to the nearest corner of the cave and curled up, trying his best to protect himself from the cold.

I had written a draft of this story back when I was in high school. Wanted to re-visit it. And I may re-write it again in future.

Disclaimer: Wolves usually don’t have packs that are this large, and they don’t usually have an alpha. When I had written the draft, I had little to no knowledge about behavior of wolves. If I re-write it again in the future, I’ll try to address that.

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.