The man from the Genex Corporation came by again. He skimmed over the cesspool our street has become, nose wrinkled like it wanted to be elsewhere. I leaned over the balcony of our third-floor kholi and watched him, wishing his scooter’s antigrav would fail and throw him into the floating trash.
The man looked up and caught sight of me staring at him. I ducked behind the sheets I’d been hanging out to dry but it was too late. Ma would kill me if she knew. She always forked her fingers when she saw him. Every time he came, some kid from our street disappeared.
When I raised my head from behind the sheets, the man was gone. Too bad he hadn’t fallen into the muck. I finished hanging up the rest of the clothes. It wasn’t raining today, for a change. But I’d have to take them down tonight or they’d be soaked by tomorrow. The monsoon in Mumbai and the drought in Punjab – both got worse every year, Ma said.
The sun came out and sweat trickled down my forehead. I caught sight of the government school float and ran inside, stopping to grab my bag and my sister before heading downstairs. Ma had already left for the garment workshop, my little brother Anshuman slung on her back.
“Quit pulling me, I’m coming!” Bela yanked herself out of my grasp and trotted to the raised platform outside the building. Water lapped at the edges. Old Uncle waved goodbye from his window. The other kids were already waiting, clustered near the edge.
“Did you do your homework?” I said. “Did you study? You have a chem test today.”
Bela rolled her eyes. “Don’t get all ‘big sister’ on me, Anjali. I’ll be first again, just you see.”
The school float neared the platform and everybody jumped in. Seven in the morning and it was already almost full. One more street and eight more kids to pick up, and then we’d start lessons. As we pushed away from the building, I caught sight of the man from Genex again. He hovered behind the float, watching. I forked my fingers like I’d seen Ma do.
That night, Ma made Bombil fry. We could hardly believe our luck. It wasn’t a wedding or a birthday or anything special. We stuffed ourselves with the spicy deep-fried fish, licking our fingers when it was gone.
Ma put Anshuman to sleep in the main room while we cleaned up the kitchen. When we were done, Ma came to the door and said, “I’ve lost my job.”
We stared at her, shocked.
“So why the celebration?” said Bela, her voice brittle.
Ma ignored her. Her face had gone all hard and closed, like the day our father left, taking our savings with him. “They gave us notice a month ago,” she continued. “I’ve been trying to look for something else but there’s nothing. All the workshops are closing. No one wants hand-made clothes any more. Why should they, when the printed stuff is so much cheaper and better?”
Bela and I exchanged a glance. Ma had worked twelve-hour days in that workshop for three years, ever since our father walked out on us. Without that income, what would we eat? How would we pay the bills?
“Maybe we can take a loan?” said Bela. “Perhaps Old Uncle…”
“He doesn’t have a rupee to spare,” interrupted Ma. “You know that. His pension is barely enough to survive on. No one here can afford to help us. And I already did take a loan.”
“From whom?” said Bela.
“A moneylender,” said Ma. “Last year when I fell sick and couldn’t work for six weeks. I’ve been paying the interest out of my wage ever since.”
So that’s why we hadn’t been able to afford new clothes this year. Usually when school started, Ma made us new clothes out of bits she’d scavenged from the workshop. This year, she must have sold everything she could lay her hands on.
“What are we going to do?” I said. I didn’t want to leave school. Two more years and I could get my high school certificate, perhaps find a better job than Ma’s.
Ma looked at me. Still that hardness on her face, as if she had removed herself from us, gone elsewhere. “He picked you because you’re thirteen, just the right age.”
I looked at her, confused. Bela began to cry.
“You’ll be able to study,” said Ma. “You’ll get good food, new clothes. You’ll stay in one of those places where rich people live, all dry and nice. He promised me that.”
“Who? What are you talking about, Ma?” I couldn’t stop the panic creeping into my voice.
Ma finally looked down at her hands. Worn, lined hands that had held me, soothed me, slapped me, fed me. “The Genex man. He’ll come for you tomorrow.”
A roaring filled my ears. She continued to talk but I didn’t hear anything else she said. I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling cold. After a while I realized that Bela had run out to the balcony, into the rain. Ma stood still as a statue, her eyes empty.
I got up and walked past her, my limbs feeling stiff and unnatural, like they weren’t mine. I pushed open the door and went down the stairs. Women stood at the doorways, laughing and gossiping, babies on their hips. Bits of plaster flaked off the damp ceiling and I brushed them off my face.
This was my home. This was where I was born, where I grew up. I wondered how much Ma had sold me for, what I was worth to her.
By the time I walked out on the platform, the rain had slowed to a drizzle. I remembered, too late, the clothes I had left hanging to dry on the balcony.
The man from Genex arrived at dawn, before anyone else was up. He didn’t come in, just beeped Ma on her cell. I dressed in the only salwar kurta I had that wasn’t falling apart. Ma tried to embrace me, but I pushed her away. Bela had vanished. She must have been scared the man would pick her instead. She looked as old as me, even though she was a year younger.
Ma and I went downstairs, not speaking. The man was waiting outside on the platform. Up close, he wasn’t frightening at all. Just a small, slight man with a thin mustache, dressed in a white shirt and dhoti.
At the last moment Ma hung on to me, clutching my arm so that I almost felt sorry for her. She slipped something small and hard into my palm. I sneaked a quick glance at it. It was just the black stone idol of Mumba Devi – the patron Goddess of Mumbai – that adorned the temple in our kitchen. I slipped it into the jute bag in which I had packed my few things: notebook, pencils, underclothes. Then I disengaged myself from her and walked toward the man, waiting with his scooter at the water’s edge.
“Take care, Anjali,” said Ma, her voice thin and uncertain. I didn’t trust myself to look at her or respond. I looked at the man instead.
“Nameste,” I said, pleased that my voice came out all strong and confident even though I was shivering inside. “Ma said I’m to go with you.”
The man smiled, showing a row of perfect teeth. “Good. You can call me Uncle Sunil.”
He stepped onto his scooter and I climbed up behind him. He jabbed a green switch and the scooter revved up and sped down the street. I clutched the handrail and tried to slow my galloping pulse.
I could feel the eyes watching us; I could imagine the forked fingers, the whispered conversations. Ma would never live this down. Other families had sold children to the Corporations, but never in our chawl.
Down another street, and then another. We climbed and the water receded. Overhead the SkyTrain roared on its way from Colaba in the south to Borivali in the north.
“How much did you pay my mother?” I blurted out at last.
“Enough,” he said. “She can return her loan and pay the rent for the next three years – if the chawl doesn’t collapse before that, of course. I don’t know why you people refuse to move.”
Because it was close to the beach. Because we could play cricket on the platform in dry weather. Because, apart from the occasional Environment Ministry official, we were left alone. Because, even though there were over three hundred people squeezed into forty kholis, we knew each other by name.
But none of this would have made any sense to him, so I kept quiet.
The traffic thinned. We passed the first corporation dome, a huge white structure that blotted out half the hazy sky. It began to rain again, sheets that pelted the scooter’s transparent hood. I didn’t realize we’d arrived at our destination until the scooter flew into a broad, light-filled tunnel.
It was eerie, so much empty space. All three hundred people from my chawl could easily have fit in there, and played cricket.
At the end of the tunnel was a platform, a row of scooters docked to one side. An elegant woman clad in a sari stood on the platform, waiting. As we glided to a stop beside her, she folded her palms and bowed.
“Welcome back, sir.” She glanced at me. “And this must be…?”
“Arya 14,” said Uncle Sunil, getting off the scooter. “She’s here for the procedure.” He turned to me. “This is my assistant Revati. She’ll help you get settled.”
He walked toward the wall and pressed his palm on it. A section of it slid open and I caught a glimpse of gleaming corridors. He turned and gave me a small wave before disappearing inside. I made to follow him but Revati stopped me.
“Not there. That’s the lab. You’ll go to the shower first. We have to get you clean.”
She walked to another section of the wall and pressed her palm on it like Uncle Sunil had. A door opened into an elevator. She turned around. “What are you waiting for? Come on.”
I followed her in. “What procedure was he talking about?” I said as the door closed and the elevator vibrated.
“Sunil Sir will explain it to you,” said Revati.
The door opened and we walked out into the biggest room I’d ever seen, all white walls and marble floors. A woman sat at a curving wooden desk to our left.
“Decontam?” she called, looking up from her screen.
“The usual,” replied Revati. She pointed to a row of doors. “Second stall from the right. Drop your clothes into the bin. That bag too.”
I remembered the statue of Mumba Devi and clutched my bag. “Please, can I keep it?”
“No,” said Revati. “Leave the bag in the bin. If you need something from it, I’ll give it to you later.”
I was sure I wouldn’t see it again. I stepped into the stall and removed my clothes. I took the idol out before dropping my bag in the bin. Next thing I knew, I was pelted with spray on all sides. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe.
After several minutes, the spray stopped. Revati pushed open the door and thrust a hospital gown at me. “Can’t I wear normal clothes?” I asked, but she shook her head.
I stepped out, trying to keep the flap of the gown closed with one hand and holding my Mumba Devi in the other.
“This way.” Revati led me down a corridor and propped open a door. I entered a bright room with a big bed and a table with a tray of food on it: a cheese and chutney sandwich surrounded by ripe yellow slices of mango. My stomach rumbled; I hadn’t eaten since the night before.
“Enjoy.” The door shut behind me with a click. I perched on the bed and wolfed the food down. Perhaps they mixed something in the chutney, because my head grew all heavy and stupid. I barely had time to slip the idol under my pillow before oblivion hit.
I woke to voices and people bending over me. Something sharp pricked my arm and I yelped.
Someone made a shushing noise. I looked up to see Uncle Sunil sitting by my bed. A couple of women I hadn’t seen before bustled about. I tried to move but my limbs wouldn’t listen to me.
“Time for the procedure,” said Uncle Sunil. “Aren’t you excited?”
I didn’t speak; I couldn’t.
“So many problems.” He waved his hands, encompassing the city, the country, the whole planet. “War, disease, hunger. Some think it’s Kaliyuga, the dark age that will bring an end to humanity.” He paused. “I think that’s superstition. Science can solve every problem our planet faces. You, Number 14, will be proof of that.” He got up. “Good luck.”
Number 14? What happened to the first thirteen? I tried to swallow but something stuck in my throat. My last thought before I went under was that whatever he’d given Ma, it wasn’t enough.
Darkness and pain. My throat raw from screaming. My body on fire. Scorpions bite my flesh. My mother stands in one corner, watching me writhe, a cold expression on her face. Help me, I cry, but she turns away, and the flames engulf me.
When I woke up I thought I’d died and gone to hell. I was in a dark, warm room. Shapes and shadows danced on the wall.
One of the shadows detached itself from the wall and came toward me. “Ah, you are awake. Took you three days to recover. How do you feel?”
The voice was familiar. From somewhere, I dredged up a name: Uncle Sunil.
“Shall I put her back under?” said a female voice.
“No. Take the tubes out and leave us.”
Lights blinked on. The bed moved up and my head was raised. I found a cup at my lips and drank, grateful.
After a while the cup was removed. I sank back, exhausted with the effort. I could remember being in pain, so much pain that I wanted to die.
“What did you do to me?” My voice sounded weak and distant.
He smiled, cat-like. “I have modified you. No, I have transformed you. You, Arya 14, are the world’s first posthuman reservoir.”
I must have looked bewildered, because a look of impatience crossed Uncle Sunil’s face. “You can go days without food or sleep. Repair yourself if you get hurt. You’re strong, self-healing and self-replicating.”
“The injections we used take months to create and billions of rupees to produce. Once you’ve recovered from the effects of the injection, the viruses will finish replicating inside of you. After that, we won’t need the injections any more. We’ll just need your blood. Don’t worry – the process will not hurt you. Nothing can hurt you, super Arya. You are an unmitigated success. You can fully expect to live at least twelve years.”
Twelve years? Some of the horror I felt must have shown on my face because Uncle Sunil frowned. “My first subject lived only for ten days. Do you not realize how privileged you are? You will never fall sick, feel hungry or grow old. Death, when it comes, will be quick and painless. What more could someone from a chawl ask for?”
I struggled up on the bed. My hands were locked into metal handcuffs on either side. “Let me go.”
Uncle Sunil leaned toward me, his face aglow with passion. “Think of what we can accomplish. Imagine a factory worker who never needs a break. Imagine a soldier on the frontline who can heal his own wounds. Imagine every poor child in Mumbai growing up healthy and productive!”
“And dead at twenty-five?” I spat at him.
Uncle Sunil spread his hands. “That figure might change as my research progresses. But what do you want – an uncertain, poverty-ridden life, or twelve glorious years free of sickness, pain and hunger?”
“I want to go home,” I said.
“What home? Your father abandoned you and your mother sold you. You mean nothing to them.”
The truth of his words ate through me like acid. Tears stung my eyes.
“Don’t cry, Arya,” said Uncle Sunil. “You may not mean anything to them, but you mean a lot to me. Everything that I have worked for, hoped for, has borne fruit in you.” He patted me on the head and got up. “Time to rest. Tomorrow, when you’re stronger, we’ll move you to our secure facility in Madh Island. We don’t want the media to get a whiff of this, or some petty politician with an eye on chawl votes will find a way to shut us down.”
I didn’t say anything and he left. I sank back on the pillow, tightness in my chest. I didn’t want to go anywhere with him. I didn’t want him to use me to do this to other kids.
But what choice did I have? He was right – I had no home, not any more. I cried then, for Ma and Bela and Anshuman, for the school certificate I’d never get, for the years I wouldn’t live.
When I was all cried out and empty, something else came to take the place of the hurt: something hard and dark and angry. I strained against the handcuffs and the metal bit into my skin, but I didn’t stop, not even when I felt my flesh tear and blood trickle down my wrist. The metal snapped and my ravaged hands were free. I kept them down, out of sight. If they were watching me, now would be when they came.
No one came. Perhaps they wanted to lull me, see what I would do next. I sat up and looked around. Dim recessed light, enough to show me that I was alone in a dorm-like space with empty beds on either side. Narrow tables with glass tubing, shelves stuffed with books and instruments, most of which I’d never seen before. A lab of some sort, rather better-equipped than the one in our school float.
I spied an open door at one end. An escape route? I got up and hobbled toward it, pretending to be in much more pain that I actually was. Slow and weak, face contorted, just in case someone was looking at me.
But the door just led to a bathroom. I leaned against the door and tried to think. I had to escape. But how? I caught sight of my hands and my heart jumped. The blood was dry, the skin sealed. He hadn’t lied. I looked back at the rows of shelves, the glass equipment, and a small ray of hope cut through the despair I felt.
I entered the bathroom and closed the door, like I needed to use it. Tiles and porcelain gleamed in the blue light. I peered into the cupboard below the sink. Cleaners, scrubs, rinses – normal stuff that you find in most bathrooms. I read the labels and picked the one that was closest to what I wanted. I slipped it in a flap of my robe and pushed open the door.
Back in bed, I hid the bottle under the blanket. I waited at least half an hour before making my second trip to the bathroom. On the way back, between the rows of tables, I stumbled like I was too weak to go on, one hand clutching a table top and sweeping several things off it. I groaned and crouched on the floor, grabbing the item I needed. Shards of glass slashed my newly-healed hands, but I didn’t care. I staggered back to bed, hiding my hands in my gown.
It was quite a crowd that came for me in the morning. Uncle Sunil, Revati carrying a glass of orange juice, a robot cleaner to sweep up the mess I’d made the previous night, and four uniformed men, dart guns strapped to their chests. I kept my hands out where they could be seen. Uncle Sunil glanced at them and grinned.
“See how strong you are?” he said, while I gulped the juice down. “Really, the best result we could have hoped for. Ready to go?”
I put the glass back on Revati’s tray. “Sure. Can I take my statue of Mumba Devi with me? It’s under my pillow.”
“Of course,” said Uncle Sunil. “We left it there especially for you. Something to remember your old home by, when you go to your new home.”
Perhaps it was the word ‘home’ and the prospect that such a place might yet exist for me, or perhaps it was the way he smiled at me so proudly, but I almost couldn’t go through with it. Then I remembered what he wanted to use me for, and movement returned to my limbs.
I slipped my hand under the pillow and grabbed the pipette gun. I whirled around and sprayed them with the drain cleaner I’d found in the bathroom. Revati screamed and stumbled back. Uncle Sunil sprang toward me and got a full blast on his face.
I leaped out of bed and ran for the open door through which they’d come. One of the uniformed men grabbed hold of me from behind, but I elbowed his face hard and he let go, grunting. A dart whizzed past my ear and another buried itself in my neck, but I was out of the door by then, ducking the darts with a speed I wouldn’t have believed possible. I threw the empty glass pipette at one of the men before I slammed the door in his face, bolting it from outside.
I turned and found myself in a long, empty corridor. My head swam. I reached behind my neck and pulled the dart out. I lurched forward, willing myself to stay conscious, clutching the stone idol I’d tied to my gown. Stay awake. Get out of here first.
An alarm began to sound, a wailing scream that cut through the fog in my head. I ran down the corridor to the fire exit. Stairs. Up or down? I raced up, guessing that we were underground. Adrenaline pumped through my body.
When I reached the exit door at the next level up, I hesitated. They’d be waiting for me. Perhaps they knew where I was. Maybe the entire facility was rigged with cameras. But I hadn’t seen any in the stairwell.
I just kept going, up and up. They would expect me to come out in or near the platform in the tunnel, and that’s what I wasn’t going to do.
By the time I reached the last flight up, my legs felt like rubber. But I still hadn’t seen any of my pursuers. I thought that was strange, until I pushed open the door and walked out on the roof of that dome, into the warm drizzle of a Mumbai monsoon.
There was nothing. No helipad, no convenient scooters, no elevator. Just the vast, curving glass and metal roof, edges blurred in the rain. Uncle Sunil must be laughing – if the acid hadn’t eaten his face, of course.
I walked as far to the edge as I could without slipping and peered down.
My stomach lurched. It was at least five or six stories. No way I could survive a jump that high, modified posthuman or not. No wonder they hadn’t bothered searching the upper floors. They knew I had to come down to escape.
But what if I slid down? The sides of the dome were convex – not enough to come down safely, but better than a vertical drop.
The door clattered open and I didn’t stop to think. I launched myself off the edge, the glass slick underneath my legs. Rain stung my face and my heart near leaped out of my mouth. I screamed – as much from fear as exhilaration.
I fell feet first on wet grass. The pain was so intense I blacked out. It must have been only for a few moments, because when I came to, they still hadn’t caught up with me. I struggled to my feet and bit back a cry. I’d broken something. Perhaps several somethings.
I hobbled away as fast as I could, though every step was agony. My only hope was to get on the road, into the traffic. They wouldn’t chase me in broad daylight, not with media helicopters always on the prowl, looking for a story.
But then I heard scooters, revving up on the other side of the dome. They were coming to get me. No. Not now. Not after everything.
I turned to face my pursuers. When they appeared around the sides of the dome, I held my hands up in the air, smiled and prayed they wouldn’t shoot any more of those darts.
They didn’t. They just hovered, waiting.
Then I realized who they were waiting for. The rain had stopped and I saw his half-burned face through the transparent hood of the scooter. One eye was bandaged, the other glazed with pain.
He stepped out of the scooter, followed by a couple of guards.
“I’m really sorry, Uncle Sunil,” I said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
He didn’t move what was left of his mouth, but I had no trouble hearing the words which came from the vocoder strapped to his forehead: “Arya, I hand you the world on a platter and this is how you repay me?”
I had expected him to shout, to abuse me, but he just sounded sad. I swallowed and said, “My name’s Anjali.”
“Is it?” He stepped closer, shaking his head. “Such an ordinary name for such a special girl. Arya means great, a noble and valuable person. That is how I think of you. Unlike the mother, who grudged you two meals a day and a pallet to sleep on. Which name do you prefer, chawl-girl?”
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. My torment must have shown on my face, because Uncle Sunil gave a small smile, one side of his ruined mouth moving up. I know you, that smile said; I know what you will choose. And in that moment, I chose.
Uncle Sunil’s shoulders relaxed and he turned to the man behind him. That was when I leaped. I punched him on the side of his head, sending him sprawling against the nearest guard. The others raised their guns but I was too close, too fast. I jumped into the scooter and jabbed the green switch like I’d seen Uncle Sunil do. The scooter revved up. I kicked one guard off the side before I shot through the air, my heart racing faster than a hummingbird’s wings.
Darts bounced off the hood. They mustn’t want to kill me, or I’d already be dead. I risked a glance back. I was being followed, but if I could just get away from the dome, I had a chance to make it.
A helicopter whirred in the sky overhead like the answer to my prayers. I looked up and relief flooded me. Thank you, Goddess. I never thought I’d be so happy to see the logo of the Marathi Times.
The scooters behind me fell back one by one. They’d hunt for me later, but meanwhile I would put as many miles as I could between myself and that dome.
I pulled on a raincoat I found in the storage compartment just below the controls. Then I headed southwest, leaving the corporation domes way behind, letting the scooter weave through the traffic on autopilot.
I abandoned the scooter in one of the artificial market beaches of Bandra, and stole the clothes of a firang woman in a bikini who was arguing with a boy about the price of coconut water. She didn’t notice me sneaking off with the pile of clothes behind her deck chair.
I changed in a filthy public toilet at one end of the beach. The clothes were a little too big for me, but there was no help for it. I hitched up the skirt and walked away from there fast, head down. I threw the hospital gown and raincoat into a beach trash can and then I was free.
Free. I tasted the word. It had a bittersweet flavour. What next? There was no going back home. I couldn’t face Ma and I was no longer the Anjali everyone knew. Who was I?
I tried out various names in my head. Mumbai Girl? No, too plain. Miss India? Sounded like a beauty queen, which I definitely wasn’t. Super Anjali? Too silly. Arya? No, that one I had rejected already.
Perhaps I’d just stick with plain old Anjali. Anjali, which meant ‘divine offering’. My mother named me and then she sold me, so I should have hated her. But I didn’t, not any more. In giving me the statue of Mumba Devi, Ma had told me what she couldn’t say in words: she was offering me up to the Goddess, into her protection.
But the Goddess helps those who help themselves. I would have to be brave and cunning to stay alive in the city and out of Uncle Sunil’s grasp. I had twelve years left in the slowly ticking time bomb of my life. It would have to be enough. Enough to destroy Uncle Sunil, Genex, and everything their polluted ideology stood for.
My fingers closed over the over the idol I had slipped into the pocket of my skirt, and I smiled.