Thursday, July 26, 2012

Virus

Virus

A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi

“There are two kinds of people in this world…..” The scientist in charge of the large research facility carefully mixed two chemical compounds while talking to his apprentice.

“People who agree with me and people who do not.” The blue and yellow compounds silently reacted together to make a viscous green element.

“The catalyst seems ready.” The young apprentice wasn’t fond of the amount of hours she had to put in. The sooner the catalyst was ready, the sooner they could finish the experiment and she could leave.

“It looks good,” the comment from the scientist was as much a declaration as it was a compliment. “Thanks,” although the gas mask almost covered most of her face, the scientist could tell the young apprentice was smiling.

“What is this experiment anyway?” seeing that Dr. Smith wasn’t his usual grumpy self, Annette dared ask the question.

Her role in the lab was simple; she was to assist Dr. Smith in all of his research and experiments. When she signed up for the job, which paid much better than anything else out there, she was excited beyond measure. She would assist this old scientist conduct his experiments, gain knowledge and a fat paycheck every month. Not too bad for a college drop out.

Dr. Smith was also happy with the arrangement. Annette was smart enough to facilitate him and not ask too many questions. She wasn’t curious or nosy, and for the most part was just interested in getting the job done and going home. That is why her question came as a surprise.

“Are you interested in the experiment? Don’t you have to go home?” After storing the catalyst away, Dr. Smith removed his mask and gloves. Annette had already removed hers.

“I have a few minutes,” Annette smiled lightly.

“Okay, if I start explaining the experiment, we will need months, maybe years.” Annette was sure that the old scientist was exaggerating. She was also slightly insulted, but maintained her usual pleasant demeanor.

“As you were saying, two kinds of people, those who agree with you and those who do not,” Annette politely reminded him.

“Ah, yes. I want you to know this.” Today was one hell of an extraordinary day, Dr. Smith wanted his apprentice to learn something. Those who knew him could testify that the old man wasn’t into the habit of sharing knowledge.

“All my life, I have had to argue with ignorant people who believe they know it all. In college, at the university, at those seminars and get-togethers and weddings and funerals. Everywhere I go, everywhere I meet people, every time I try to participate in a discussion. There are always people who disagree with me. I hate that.”

Annette really couldn’t see where the scientist was going with this rant, but she wasn’t about to stop him.

“So one day it just hit me,” Dr. Smith continued, “the chemistry of the human brain, that is what’s responsible for likes and dislikes, preferences and priorities.” That too was one of the many theories he had presented to the scientific community, and not many agreed with him, but to him it was as authentic and reliable as the law of gravitation.

“So I started studying patterns in my own brain.” This was the weird part; Annette did not remember ever assisting in an experiment where the Doctor himself was the test subject, but she let him continue anyway.

“I found that the chemical reactions happening in my brain can be induced in others. I just need to stimulate certain areas of their brains and VoilĂ , they will see the light.”

“But how exactly will you do that? And who exactly will you do that to?” Annette was confused.

“That is a very intelligent question” it was the second compliment the doctor gave that day, but this time Annette was more scared than thankful. “There are legal complications to it, but now that the catalyst is ready, I can simply create an air borne virus.” Annette stepped back. Sensing her fear, and not knowing what to do, Dr. Smith stepped towards her, raising both hands as if to declare his peaceful intentions.

“It is not as bad as it sounds; think of it as a lifesaving drug. There is no pain involved, it’s perfectly safe.” The doctor was speaking with an uncharacteristic haste “let me show you”. He rushed at the cold storage and picked up the catalyst. Annette rushed towards the door.

The lab was large, and she had to climb a whole flight of stairs before she could reach the door. The doctor had more than enough time to introduce the catalyst in the system and turn on the reactor. Before Annette could reach the door, the virus was airborne.

“Before you leave” the doctor was very calm now, “could you please tell me your favorite color?”
“Blue” Annette was surprised by her own answer. She most definitely knew it was pink, but somehow, pink didn’t appeal to her anymore.

“Favorite drink?”
“Coffee” it was orange juice, but coffee sounded so much better now. She wondered why she ever hated coffee.

“Favorite kind of music?”
“Classical” she had always been into heavy metal, but just like the color pink, metal had lost its charm to her. Dr. Smith was now observing her somewhat subservient behavior and taking notes.

“Last question. What do you think is the…” the question was cut short by a loud thud of a body hitting the floor. Tiny droplets of blood started dripping on the floor. Annette tried to rush back to the collapsed doctor, but by the time she reached him, he had already died. The blood coming out of his eyes, nose, ears and mouth would have sickened anyone on any given day, but Annette found herself indifferent to it.

She reluctantly picked up the clipboard and saw the list of questions the doctor had prepared. “They must see the light” it said at the top of the sheet, “they must see the light” she whispered in agreement.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Collar

Collar

A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi

As soon as Abdul entered the market they surrounded him. Men and women of different colors, speaking different languages, wearing different attires, some offering success, fame and glory in this world, some in the afterlife and some offering both.

He was confused, he was lost, and he didn’t know who to trust. He reached for the skin under his collar and scratched a little, this collar was too tight and his neck was itchy and sweaty because of it.

‘Believe in God, those who believe will go to heaven and those who do not will go to hell’ the man of god reached for Abdul’s collar and attached his leash to. He started pulling him to the right, ‘let me show you the path to heaven’.

‘He misleads you’ another voice halted him in his tracks. ‘Belief alone does not guarantee heaven. You have to do good unto the society’. Encouraged by the reluctance in Abdul’s eyes, this new man of god (wearing a slightly different garb and sporting a slightly different beard) stepped forward and attached his own leash to Abdul’s collar. ‘Let’s talk about good deeds and how they please God’ he started pulling him in the opposite direction.

Seeing that the two priests had their leashes attached to Abdul’s collar, most of the religious merchants left in search of new customers. The crowd around him thinned a little, but the spectacle was far from over. ‘These religious zealots will lead you nowhere’, this new voice came from a beardless man. His clothes, his demeanor and his accent indicated that the man was highly educated. ‘Organized religion has caused nothing but pain and suffering in this world. Do not follow them, they promise heaven and make you do things that even Satan couldn't dream of’, the beardless man stepped forward and attached his own leash to Abdul’s collar. ‘Serve humanity and God will be pleased’ the beardless man started pulling Abdul in an entirely new direction.

‘What a bunch of troglodytes!’ this new voice made fun of all. The first person to attach his leash to Abdul’s collar was pulling him to the right, the second to the left and the third was pulling him forward. None of them were letting go, and Abdul was moving left, right, forward then left again like a drunkard trying hard to gain his footing. The new voice, which called everyone a troglodyte, came from behind. Abdul struggled hard to twist his neck just enough to see who it was, it was yet another man, sporting a small mustache. ‘Why should your life be aimed at pleasing God? Do you really wish to mold your actions, your hopes and your dreams to please an entity whose existence cannot be proved?’ This new guy also didn’t take long to attach his own leash to Abdul’s collar. ‘I say you only get to live once, you should do what pleases you, not what others tell you to do’ with that he started pulling Abdul in his direction ‘let me tell you what to do’. With that all hell broke loose, although many traders and merchants had cleared out, the remaining all swarmed Abdul like bees to honey. In a matter of few seconds, he had more leashes attached to his collar than he could count.


‘God. Liberty. Righteousness. Progress’. They were all speaking many different languages about many different concepts, but more importantly, they were all pulling him to their respective directions. ‘No more’ he wanted to shout, but there was no way his voice could have left his throat. Come to think of it, there was no way any air could have entered his lungs either. He clawed at his collar, desperate for one breath of air. His eyes were about to burst out of their sockets and he was sure he could taste his own blood in his mouth. The voices around him started to mellow, as if someone was turning the volume down. The picture became blurry and dark. In his final desperate attempt for survival, he grabbed his collar by both hands and pulled at it as hard as he could. The sound of the collar being broken was the sweetest sound he had ever heard. The crowd that had gathered around to watch the spectacle left in disappointment. The traders and merchants pulling at him gathered their leashes and left in search of new prospects. He lied on the ground, breathing heavily, trying to gather his wits. The broken collar shimmered in the scorching sun, and he could clearly see a hint of blood on it. ‘I will have to get that fixed’ his weak murmur drowned in the loud noise which suddenly erupted near the market entrance, another Abdul had just entered.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Camera


Camera

A Not So Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi

Finally he had enough money to buy a camera, he was not a miser but for the last year he had been clutching onto every rupee as if his life depended on it. He hadn’t eaten out for what seemed like ages, he skipped his lunch to save money, and he didn’t buy new clothes. He did all of that because he needed a state of the art digital camera.

Xeshan had always been a loner, he was blessed to be among the few educated people of the third world country he lived in. Just like many of his peers, he worked day and night at a job he was overqualified for, for money that wasn’t nearly good enough, and in a capacity which did not allow him to utilize his talents. His only dream, his only goal in life was to be the best photographer in the world. He did have an eye for beauty, some of those, and there were few, who knew his work even suggested that he found beauty in the most lifeless and ordinary scenes. He made the viewer stop and think, and he did all that with the 5 mega-pixel Camera of his cell phone. Some of the people who had seen his work online had suggested that he get a better camera, for even the best of gladiators could not survive for long with a blunt, rusty old sword. “A better camera means better quality of pictures, and will help you reach more viewers” one of his online ‘friends’ had commented on a picture he had taken. The picture was his magnum opus so far, it was of an old man with a wrinkled face, sitting near the grave of his dead son. There were no tears in his eyes, not even a frown on his face, just emptiness, infinite emptiness. Xeshan had captured the withdrawal and the exhaustion of the old man with such finesse, that as soon as he uploaded it on his Flickr account, it started trending on different social media websites. The picture made one stop, the picture made one think, the picture crept into the very soul of the viewer and made him/her want to shake the old man out of his oblivious state, it made one wish he/she could deliver justice, it made one wish one could drag that man out of his hopelessness, and it made one realize that Xeshan’s people, and his country, were already dead inside, they just didn’t know it yet.

The picture titled ‘Cleanistan’ was picked up by several local newspapers, and it was with the help of some of those papers that Xeshan finally had the money to buy his dream camera. He was on his way to the ‘President’s Electronic Market’, the largest such market in the city, and the money was carefully rolled up in his shoes. He wasn’t going to lose 50,000 rupees to a mugger, and he didn’t care if it made him look like a fool in front of the shop keeper. Money out of a shoe is still money, and no shopkeeper would reject 50,000 rupees just because they smelled like his socks. He got off the bus at the stop, and started towards the market, he knew what he wanted, he knew how much it cost, and he had the money, what could possibly go wrong? As he made his way through the crowd of people walking in different directions, he bumped into someone. His first instinct was to check his pockets, bumping into people in crowded place often meant that you would end up without a wallet and/or your cell phone, but to his surprise, his wallet and phone were still there. He looked at the man he had bumped into, and received the shock of his life, it was the old man from the picture, the picture he had taken when he was visiting his grandfather’s grave, the picture which had made him enough money to buy a decent camera, the picture that had earned him the most important thing a photographer in Cleanistan could earn, a name. The man was staring directly into his eyes, but there was no emptiness in his eyes, there was a sense of recognition, “you have a gift” he said to Xeshan, “you shook them from their slumber, yet they are not awake. My son was not the first victim, and he wouldn’t definitely be the last. If you can show them the ugliness of what they have become, if you could show them the truth, maybe, just maybe they could change” with that the man reached into the deep pockets of his traditional Cleanistani shirt, and when his hand came out it had a camera in it, a large black camera with a strange scope and a stranger flashlight on top. Xeshan did not recognize the brand, and at first glance, it did not even appear to be a digital camera, but he could not refuse the man’s extended hand, he took the camera and tried to look at it from all angles, weighing it, looking for a brand name, trying to judge the quality, when he looked up to thank the man, he was not there anymore. He took a picture of the shop in front of him, and the quality he saw on screen was much more than any camera he could buy for 50,000. He smiled and started to cross the road to catch the next bus home, “what a trip” he thought “saved 50,000 and got a free camera”.

The next few weeks were magical to say the least, every picture he took scored a ton of hits on different websites, and many local and some foreign magazines and newspapers bought his pictures. He could finally quit his day job and dedicate himself to photography. His pictures exposed the bitter and sad realities of life, unlike his previous pictures taken through his cell phone, which were all about finding beauty in the otherwise invisible elements of the society. These pictures grabbed the people by the collar and shook them, slapped them, cussed at them. Through his pictures, he tried to awaken his comatose nation, but his efforts seemed in vain. Surely he was appreciated as a photographer, and surely he was doing what he loved and was making more money than he could ever hope to, but he felt an emptiness and a void, he felt that old man’s eyes upon him, questioning him, asking him if he had saved some other father from losing his son to sectarian killings. With every picture he took, with every day that passed, with every “good job Xeshan, I am a big fan of your work” comment he received on social media, his frustration grew. He could feel his guilt overcoming him, days went by when he didn’t take a picture, every time he picked up the camera, he felt as if the camera was asking him the same questions as the old man, and that wasn’t all. He could feel that somehow, the camera was connected to his mind, if he found himself concentrating on something within a picture, the camera would automatically focus on it, and blur out the rest. Looking through the lens and looking at things without it, were now the same thing. Xeshan was puzzled by his situation, he had taken a picture of his camera with his old cell phone, and had posted it online, but no one was yet to come up with a manufacturer’s name.

It was a slow, depressing summer afternoon, with hot wind and dust ruling the city streets, and Xeshan was out there looking for inspiration. After wandering the streets aimlessly for an hour, he entered the nearby posh coffee shop, he remembered the time when he couldn’t afford to eat there, when he desperately wanted to but the prices were too high for a salaried man like him. It had always been his fantasy to run into his favorite TV actress Mahnur there, she had mentioned in an interview that she frequented the place, and running into her in that coffee shop was a dream he had seen with open eyes on more than one occasion. As he entered the shop, camera in hand, he could not believe his eyes, there she was, sitting right in front of him, much more beautiful in person than on screen. His hands gained a life of their own, and forgetting all gentlemanly manners and ethics of photography, he simply took a picture of her, all the while thinking how good his life would be if she were his wife. The camera flashed, and the picture was taken, when he put the camera down, he was in for the shock of his life, he was not in the coffee shop anymore, he was in some strange house and there she was in front of him. He noticed the ring on her finger, and then memories started flashing before his eyes. He could remember asking her out, he could remember the time he popped the question and he could even remember the wedding. What he couldn’t understand was the existence of those memories, he did not live that life, but he could see himself living it in those memories. He could try to forget those memories like a pleasant dream, but he could not ignore the reality, standing right in front of him, with a loving smile. “Ready?” she asked, and he suddenly remembered that they had to go to a dinner party.

After a few weeks, when he was finally settling into his new life as a married man, he again decided to take a stroll and think about his situation. He knew that somehow, the camera was involved, he wished for her, and the camera made his wish come true. He knew that the thought was silly and if he shared it with someone they would call him crazy, but in his heart he was convinced that the camera could do things, extraordinary things. To test his theory, or to validate his belief, he stopped in front of a large mansion, he had always hated people who lived in big houses, it’s not that he had something personal against them, he just didn’t understand why some people had to show off their wealth with their big houses and bigger cars. However, this house he liked, this house he wanted “this house would be the perfect gift for Mahnur” he thought and looked at it through the lens of the camera. His throat was a little dry and his heart was thumping in his chest, his hands were cold and sweaty, but he put his feelings aside, focused on the house and pushed the button. The camera flashed and the picture was taken, when he removed the camera from his eye, he found himself in the mansion, with Mahnur thanking him for the extravagant gift. He smiled, and memories of him selling the mansion’s picture to a foreign customer flashed before his eyes, the money was enough to make the down payment on the mansion, and he could remember himself and Mahnur signing the contract. He knew that the memories were false, but he was happy with the results.

His life changed forever once he figured out how the camera worked, all he had to do was wish for something and capture its image through the camera. The camera would fill his mind with memories of how he acquired the object and the object would come into his possession. He now owned several houses and cars, and frequently cheated on his wife. The goal of changing his society for the better, one picture at a time, had far been forgotten. He was now extremely rich, and Cleanistan was a society where rich people could do as they pleased, no questions asked. He had started using recreational drugs to numb his conscience. Looking at the camera did not remind him of the old man anymore, he loved the way people treated him, and he loved that he could break any law and get away with it by simply spending pocket change. The society needed no change, the society worked for him, everything was at it should be. But sometimes he could still feel the void, no matter how many pills he took or how much powder he snorted; he could feel the burden of his guilt increasing. He could feel as if he was letting someone down, as if he was letting himself down.

He tried seeking help, at first he went to the nearest priest; he skipped the part about the magic camera, but told him that despite having everything he felt emptiness. The priest advised him to pray regularly, and to donate money generously. After trying that for a while, he became convinced it wasn’t working and went to a shrink, the shrink advised him to exercise, to get in touch with his parents, to take up a hobby and to meditate, but none of that worked either. His drug and alcohol abuse increased rapidly, and his womanizing reached new heights of degeneracy. Mahnur tried to leave him on multiple occasions, but every time she did, he captured her image with his camera and wished her to stay; she became his prisoner without chains, not knowing that she was being forced to stay against her will.

“I was given a chance, I was given power and I was chosen to change my society, but instead, I allowed my greed and my lust to overcome me, I allowed the society to change me, I became what I despised. Look at me and be warned, I had everything a man could possibly have, but I didn’t earn it, I abused the gift given to me, and I strayed from my path. Pray for my forgiveness, if you believe in prayers” the very last entry in his journal was very similar to a suicide note. “Looks like a simple case of suicide to me” said the inspector visiting the scene, “the guy overdosed on drugs and alcohol, a good way to go in my opinion” the inspector loved to crack wise.

“Rich guy, wife sure inherited a large sum, could be murder” the sub inspector took his job way too seriously, at least that's what the inspector thought, “look if you wish to investigate murder, it means more work for me, so why don’t you just fill the paperwork and let’s get out of here” the inspector was in a hurry to finish his twelve hour shift. The men from the ambulance service took the dead body away. The camera just sat there in the corner of the room on a table, looking at the bed where he once laid, one more soul corrupted by his own greed, one more soul adding to the camera’s magic.  

I would like to thank my dear friend Zeeshan Haider for the central idea of the story.