Neeraj comes back from work hungry and irritated, kicks off his shoes and slumps down in front of the computer, ignoring his wife’s questions, ignoring her tales of what happened during the day and what the children did at school.
“Is something wrong?” She fusses around him, like a buzzing dragonfly, brightly coloured and vapid as the insect, and he doesn’t even look at her.
“The usual,” he snarls eventually. “I’m supposed to do everything at work. If it goes all right, then it’s all their credit. If something goes wrong, then I’m to blame.”
“Yes,” Brinda, his wife, says. “You work too hard and they don’t give you the appreciation.” She’s said it so many times over the years that it’s become a soothing incantation. She brings him tea, sweet and very milky, the way he likes it. “Isn’t your game on tonight?” she asks as he sips at the pale brown fluid.
He perks up at the mention of the game. He’d been looking forward to it all week, but the day at the office had driven it from his mind. “Right. You were saying about the boys?”
“No, it’s fine, they’re at their tuitions.” She and the boys know well enough to stay out of his way on a game night. “They asked if they can watch the game on television.”
“Yes, why not.” Neeraj suddenly feels good, even without the neuroweb stimulation. “We’re going to win big. We’ll slaughter them. Why shouldn’t the boys watch.” He walks over to the cupboard inset into the wall and gets the neuroweb headset. “Next year, hopefully I’ll get the promotion and then we can web all of you.”
He’d been saying this for years as well, and had already got two promotions, but the money was always used for something else, holidays and a larger television, and of course the payments for the flat. Even so, Brinda never failed to go slightly white at the thought of being webbed. He knew she was terrified at the thought, and grinned with pleasure.
“Well?” he demanded, holding up the black hooded helmet of the neuroweb headset, with its dangling wires, its opaque visor and the two rolls of material like doughnuts over the ears. “Wouldn’t you like that?”
“Yes, yes,” she says, her head bobbing like a doll’s. “But do the boys first, they’ve been asking for it for ever so long.”
“Hmm.” He grins again. “All right, we’ll see. Shouldn’t you be getting dinner? I want to eat before the game starts.”
With a sigh of relief, she disappears towards the kitchen. Neeraj turns to the computer, attaching the neuroweb headset to the grey and white plastic cube that fits on the CPU. It’s Chinese, and it’s unpatriotic to buy Chinese, but everyone does that because the Chinese ones are the best, fastest and cheapest on the market. Only nobody admits it.
The headset lights up, green and red dots coming on over the temples, and he slips it on to check the connections, the little metal tabs in the inner lining connecting to the micro-electrodes implanted in his skull. Unconsciously, he begins to hum.
There’s still some time to wait, so he goes online and trolls liberals, threatening them with rape and death and telling them they’d all better go to Pakistan. Sitting back with a happy sigh, he hums some more.
He feels great. He feels alive. It’s the best feeling in the world.
Satwant Singh runs in to bowl, his boots pounding the grass, the floodlights hot on his face. The ball is sweat-slick in his hand, seated between his fingers gripping the seam. The batsman, in the South African green and yellow, is peripheral to his attention. His attention is fixed on where he intends to pitch it, on line with the leg stump, the ball intended to swing towards the off. With luck he can induce a snick to the wicket keeper.
His left arm goes up, he comes down on his right boot, his right arm swinging, and the ball streaks away over the pitch towards the batsman. He pitches it where he wanted, and the ball swings, but not enough. The batsman doesn’t go for the shot, just blocks it, and the ball drops to the pitch. Satwant bends to pick it up on his follow-through. Dot ball, no runs scored, a little victory in itself. The crowd roars.
Neeraj sighs happily, feeling the sweat trickle down Satwant’s back as he goes back to the start of his run up. Satwant flexes his shoulders, and Neeraj feels the muscles bulging under his skin, feels the hot night air in his lungs, the knowledge that he’s a hero. Neeraj drinks it all down like wine.
The over ends, and Neeraj waits to see if the bowler will be changed. Sekhar has already bowled five overs on the trot without a single wicket, and Neeraj wants to be sure before switching to his neuroweb channel. Briefly, he becomes the wicket keeper instead, and his hands suddenly become heavy with the two pairs of gloves, and his legs with the wicket keeping pads. He feels himself walk up to the stumps, take up his stance. It’s Sekhar again, and Neeraj knows the commentary will criticise persisting with him. Still, he changes over once more.
An advert floats up in the corner of his vision, a fish with rippling fins, painted in all the colours of the rainbow and then some. A fabric company? Who cares, it’s just an irritant. and people who have paid for neuroweb implants shouldn’t have to be subject to this kind of thing. Neeraj blinks, shakes his head, and the fish is gone.
Sekhar is very tall, with a loose-swinging gait, much taller than Neeraj, and the great height is a little disorienting. When he follows through his head twists round in a way that makes his long hair flap in his face, and that is why Neeraj even misses the moment at which his first ball sneaks between the batsman’s bat and right pad and clips the leg-side bail.
Pandemonium. Teammates piled on Sekhar, someone’s throat – Sekhar’s or Neeraj’s own? – hoarse with screaming. There will be fortunes made in the bookies’ illegal rackets at this moment, but right now there’s the grass under Sekhar’s knees, the hugs of his teammates, and the joy of knowing that the same commentators who were condemning him a moment ago will be praising him now. What is a bet with a bookie worth, compared to this?
Later. Neeraj does not know how much later. India is batting now, and the match is headed for the kind of tense finish that make people scream with tension and clench their fists over their mouths. Neeraj has shifted many times by now, back and forth, between Indian players of course. The entire Indian team is neurowebbed, that is a condition of their contract with the cricket control board, so he can choose whoever he wants to be. Once or twice he has had a vague impulse to switch to a South African player’s web, just for a moment, but he can’t. The South African team has refused neurowebbing, and threatened to cancel all cricket ties if the Indian cricket control board insists. Neeraj can’t understand this. Don’t the South Africans – and the Australians, and the English, the New Zealanders, and the remnants of the West Indies – want their players to connect to their fans directly? Don’t they understand how popular they would be?
But now, right now, it’s the last over, three balls to go, seven runs to get, two wickets left. Not impossible, not at all, but two balls earlier there had been seven runs to get, also, and three wickets left. He’s Satwant again, along with twenty million others, with the wicket keeper, Jahangir, at the other end. The bat is heavy and solid in his hands as the South African fast bowler, a tiny figure in the distance, starts on his bowling run.
And here comes the ball. It’s just short, rising to mid-chest level, and he swings at it, pivoting on his leg, feels the satisfying crack of the wood of the bat striking the ball, and the white orb streaks away as Jahangir races down the pitch towards him, screaming for a run. Satwant runs, Neeraj runs with him, the far crease coming up, he slides his bat forward enough to touch the crease, and the ball is still rolling away, two fielders after it as Jahangir is running back for another. They cross, they’re across, and the fielders are just cutting off the ball short of the boundary. The crowd is on its feet shrieking, and Satwant feels their exultation, and he turns and goes back for the third run, yelling at Jahangir to move, move, go for it now.
He doesn’t see what happens, but the sudden silence of the crowd tells him what he needs to know. Jahangir is on his face by the far crease, picking himself up, and the South African wicket keeper isn’t even bothering to celebrate.
One ball to go, five runs to get, and he’s at the far end while Sekhar, the worst batsman on the team and hence tail end Charlie, will just lose the match for everyone. Neeraj doesn’t even bother to switch. The bitter anger in his mouth might be either Satwant’s or his own.
The next day in the office he’s furious. “It was that bloody Muslim,” he rages. “That Jahangir. He deliberately got run out so that we’d lose. Never trust a Muslim. We should never have taken one on the team.”
“That’s not fair,” Dhruv says mildly. He’s short, young, fair, and the newest one in the office. Neeraj has heard the women refer to him as “cute”. He hates Dhruv. “He took three catches,” Dhruv says. “And it wasn’t he who called for that last run, it was Satwant. It was a suicidal run anyway. And Jahangir did dive as hard as he could for the crease.”
Neeraj has seen the television replays, so he can’t deny this. But it’s still intolerable to be countered by this arrant pipsqueak. “I’ll bet he was being Jahangir on the neuroweb,” he mutters, after Dhruv has gone. “He’s a closet Muslim-lover, mark my words.”
Amitava, the nearest thing to a friend he has in the office, slaps his back. “Cheer up. Didn’t you get the latest bit of news?”
“They’re neurowebbing soldiers. It’s still experimental, but it’s supposed to be made available to the general public from today. It’ll increase patriotism.”
It’s impossible to tell if Amitava is being ironic, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Neeraj is seized by the idea. “Is that so? Really? Which channel?”
“All you have to do is go on the web, and you’ll be told,” Amitava says. He glances pointedly at his watch. Amitava is notionally Neeraj’s supervisor, and is supposed to make sure the team’s work gets done. “Why don’t you check it out this evening? We have work to do.”
Before evening, Neeraj has already got confirmation from at least three other people. All of them are excited. “See,” Girish says over lunch. Girish is fat and greasy and smells of sweat, but he’s supposed to be a marketing genius. “See, I always wanted to join up, but my parents wouldn’t even let me enlist in the NCC. And the libtards jeer when I support the army and want to know how many years I served. We need to show them.”
“It should be compulsory for everyone to watch,” Satish puts in. “Anyone who’s on the neuroweb who doesn’t watch is a traitor.”
There’s a general consensus on this. “At least in this office,” Neeraj says. “Every single damned person had better watch, or else.”
“Right. We’re all neurowebbed, aren’t we? Is there anyone who isn’t webbed?”
“These days,” Neeraj says, “anyone who doesn’t get webbed the moment he can afford it can only be a traitor, or something worse.” He glances at Dhruv, who’s on the other side of the room – not too much, just enough to make the point.
“You know my cousin is a major in the army?” Satish says. He leans forward conspiratorially, and whispers, though who he’s trying to keep his words from is a mystery. “He says the army intelligence is investigating a lot of lefties. You’d be amazed, he says, how many are in the pay of China. No evidence, of course, but the signs are all there.”
“Well, we’ll know now,” Neeraj replies. “We don’t need evidence, when the facts are clear in front of our eyes.”
Neeraj crouches with the soldier behind a tree, listening to the crack of bullets smacking into the trunk. The sound of firing ahead rises, and he tenses as something flutters in his peripheral vision. But it’s only a twig, severed by a bullet, falling.
The soldier’s name is Prashant, and he’s a lieutenant. He’s the only one of the unit who’s webbed, so Neeraj can’t switch to another view, though he’d have liked to. He’s been stuck behind this tree for several minutes now.
Prashant is young, not long since he was commissioned, and excited. This is his first operation. If he can eliminate the militants in the village, he’ll get noticed, and he badly wants to get noticed. After all, the nation is watching on neuroweb, is with him at this moment, and what he does will be felt by them all. He turns, checking over his shoulder at the troops of the platoon, and Neeraj turns with him. The soldiers are spreading out, as ordered, to surround the building ahead to ensure that nobody inside gets away.
Up ahead there’s the house, built on a steep slope, thick stone walls surmounted by wood. It’s not going to be easy for the soldiers to surround the place without being fired on from the upper windows and the roof, and Prashant hesitates a moment, wondering whether to call for backup and reinforcement, before he decides that this would take too much time and let the terrorists escape. Neeraj cheers aloud as the young officer signals the troops on his right flank forward. This is better than a movie. This is life, instead of sitting in an office.
Then there is heavy firing from the right, so quick and heavy that individual shots merge into a continuous burst of noise, and there are suddenly no longer any bullets striking the trees in front of Prashant. He acts on the impulse of the moment, throwing himself forward as he screams out an order for a frontal charge.
Neeraj sees out of Prashant’s eyes the house, jerking and bouncing as he runs towards it, the AK in his hands shuddering as he squeezes off a burst, the blood roaring in his veins as he runs. Neeraj cheers, screaming full-voiced, and he’s at the wall, Prashant is right under the wall, fumbling in his pouch for a grenade. And suddenly there’s someone jumping out from behind the corner. The glimpse of a pale Kashmiri face, a hooked nose and black beard, a raised gun, and something strikes Prashant, like a hard punch in the chest. He falls over backward, the sky and trees reeling over him. There’s a metallic taste in his mouth, and every
The men are crouched on a cracked concrete floor, heads together. One of them hands out crudely made pistols. “Don’t use these unless you have to,” he whispers. “Those are our real weapons.”
Everyone glances at the petrol bombs lined up against the wall. It’s a narrow room, and the bombs are almost within reach. They’re simply Molotov cocktails, beer bottles with rags stuffed into the necks.
“Got it?” the leader whispers. His name is Rajesh. “We go in, hit the bastards, throw bombs on their houses. If they come out, use the iron rods and swords. Guns only if any of them have anything to shoot at us with.”
“Right,” the others whisper. The iron rods and swords are piled against the far wall. “What about the police?” one says.
“The police? The police won’t bother us. The Muslims have to be taught a lesson they won’t forget, and the police are on our side.”
They nod, rise and pick up their weapons. Neeraj, at his neuroweb headset, rises with them. His throat and chest are filled with the exultation of vengeance. For the death of Prashant, for the loss of the cricket match, for the daily troubles in the office. For his stupid wife and for the money he can never save.
Neeraj has never felt so alive before.
Tonight, someone will pay.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2018