The friendly voice that had woken him from his transit-sleep belonged to a machine, which looked like a well-endowed human female, wearing nothing at all. "Hello!" it said, when he was ready to tear his attention away from the splendid scene in front of him, "My name is Tina! I am your personal assistant!" Then it continued with no pause for breath: "Please do not attempt to turn your head, Sir! That function is not presently available to you." There was a tiny click. "If you have understood this message please blink your eyelids once. If you have any questions, please blink your eyelids twice-thank you, Sir! Please wait a moment..." it said, followed by another tiny click and "...your query will be attended to very shortly by a live attendant!"
As it sped away, the man wondered idly how such beings were referred to in this future era. Were they accorded the dignity of gender? Or were they treated like animatronic cell-phones? He felt no urgency to find out. For the time being he was content to remain as he was, floating in a transparent, lightweight capsule filled with an odourless, friction-free gel. He had been told that it would be a while before his body would function normally, after a century of inactivity.
He had been the editor of a prestigious newsmagazine at the time of signing up for the perma-sleep program, known then as psp. He burned with curiosity. How had the astounding turn-around in the country’s profile taken place? The citizens he could see from his vantage point looked physically Indian, but they seemed more relaxed and leisurely than the people he had left behind in his time. There was none of that frenzied jostling, that reckless energy born of desperation that had characterised the country he remembered. It was strange, he realised, to see an India which actually looked clean and orderly. There were no crowds on the broad avenues, no snarling traffic jams. It might almost be a different culture altogether. He wondered suddenly whether its name had changed.
He was just learning to flex the corners of his mouth up and down in what might have been the beginnings of a smile, when he heard a warning tone of the sort that would, in his era, have been used to signal an airport departure. Sure enough, he found himself being whisked away from his viewing window by another female attendant just as unclothed and mechanical as Tina. She did not speak to him, however, so he had no option but to shut his eyes and wait as he was whirled about to a new location.
In this way he found himself being transported across the whole length and breadth of the country. In quick succession he saw Konarak, Kanyakumari, the Elephanta Caves, Mahabalipuram, the Dal Lake, Jaisalmer, Hampi, the Sunderbans... Each time he opened his eyes, he found that his body was a little more flexible. By the time he was looking at the Udaipur Lake Palace, he was almost ready to take his first few steps. Better still, he was no longer alone. The long-promised "live attendants" had finally caught up with him.
They introduced themselves. "I’m Rosh, Sir," said the young man bending deferentially towards him. "This is Vinny and that’s Hozanna-your very own welcome-back team, Sir, and very happy to make your acquaintance. The month is what was called December in your era and the time is approximately twenty o’clock and fifty minutes." The young man stammered slightly over the unfamiliar words, adding, "We call this month Ten and the time, in decimal units, is 8.87."
It turned out that they were doctors who specialised in PSP revivals. "Please, Sir, it will be another few days before you can speak," they said, when he struggled to move his vocal cords. But they allowed him to watch documentaries.
From these he learnt that the country was prosperous beyond the wildest dreams of the nationalists of his era. It was still called India, though he sometimes heard some newscasters referring to the country as the "I-O-I". He wondered what the letters stood for. He was not at liberty to choose what he saw, so he could not be sure to what extent he was being fed propaganda. But by whom and with what slant? he wondered. The language he heard was not English or Hindi, though he understood it easily. He guessed that there was a translation device implanted in his ears.
Food was plentiful. From the documentaries he learnt that it was mass-processed from natural materials, then reformed into shapes and flavours to suit the individual tastes of its consumers. Zero-gravitation platforms made it possible to cause heavy objects to float so that, for instance, others could transport him from place to place without any effort on his part. Air, water, power and money-everything that in 1999 had been scarce was now available in such abundance it was obviously not considered newsworthy. Instead, broadcasters focused on the fearsome calamities taking place among the teeming communities of Extra-Terrestrial Indians.
It was the existence of these colonies that explained the country’s prosperity, the editor gradually realised. India had apparently been at the forefront of the space-colonisation campaign. Countless documentaries named the fearless explorers who had soared up into the starry wastes of space in the late 2030s. Millions had lost their lives in these migrations, but hundreds of millions had clearly survived too. The planet they had gone to was what the editor would have called Mars. It had been renamed several times depending on which community had the upper hand in the inter-planetary broadcasting service. Currently it went under the name of "Kalki".
The community known collectively as the Ordinaries occupied a little over half the planet. They were divided into Hindus, Muslims and Minorities. They fought vicious battles for space, food, water and political advantage. As there was no local source of protein, cannibalism was the universally accepted social norm. It was referred to delicately as "recycling" and every citizen was exhorted to make his or her meat available to the community by choosing early, voluntary death.
The other half of the planet was occupied by a community called the Mutants. They had no official broadcasting channels. The editor could gain few insights into their culture or origin. When he indicated to his welcome-back team that he would like information about his mysterious group, he was told politely that controversial subjects were to be avoided till he could talk. On the morning of his speech-day, a special outing was planned to the Taj Mahal. When he was finally in front of it, tears flooded his eyes and his first words were thick with emotion as he said, "It’s ...still ...so ...beautiful." His team was smiling, telling him that this was what most Revivers said.
It wasn’t until he began to ask more probing questions that they told him about the bombs. Two devastating blasts had occurred one after the other, they said, in the first quarter of the new century. Vast tracts in the north of the country had been rendered uninhabitable on account of radiation. "Within 10 years, the Mutants began to appear," said Rosh. They were the genetically deformed children spawned by the fallout of the bombs. Most were barely nine or 10 years old, but possessed highly radioactive metabolisms. As a result, their very presence in the same room as an Ordinary constituted as assault with a deadly weapon. The Great Migrations had begun just as these diminutive warriors were taking over as the violent underclass. They survived the transport arrangements to Kalki better than most Ordinaries. Having established their strongholds on the red planet, their aim was to annihilate the Ordinaries there, come back to the Home Planet and annihilate all Ordinaries, everywhere.
"The international community on Earth considers the threat of Mutant invasions the most serious that our world has ever faced," said Vinny. The editor was naturally surprised that the Mutants had ever been given the opportunity to gain a foothold on Kalki. "It was meant to be a prison colony," said Rosh. The expression in his eyes was sad. "It’ll be hard for you to understand, Sir..."
At the time of the blasts, the international community had insisted that the subcontinent be made to pay dearly for the catastrophic damage caused. "So," said Rosh, "all countries involved in the conflict were rendered to the charge of the international community."
The editor gaped. Vinny nodded. "Yes, Sir," he confirmed, "the country you knew as India is not today, in a continuous sense, a sovereign state any more."
It had been split up into sectors, they told him, radiation-free zones. Collectively, these zones were known as "India" or, more actually, the I-O-I which stood for the "Idea of India" based on a popular turn-of-the-millennium book. The sectors were physically far apart, but modern transportation techniques made it entirely feasible to translocate across the different bits of the nation to create a "virtual continuity". When shown a true-contour map, the editor saw unrecognisable strips representing the land of his birth. Some were broad, some thin, some sideways, some twisted.
The welcome team went on to describe the many advantages of this system, the ways in which the prosperity brought on by colonialism had softened the blow to national prestige, the generous manner in which the international community had assisted with reconstruction.
The editor listened in silence, recalling the sense of foreboding with which he had entered the transit chamber all those many years ago, in the final days of 1999. He’d signed up for the programme because he’d wanted to put his hope in the future rather than succumb to the sense of doom that had gripped the nation at the close of the last century. But the future, it seemed, was only what he and his colleagues had guessed it might be, given the developments.
The so-called Great Migrations had been the mandatory price imposed by the international community, upon the nations of the subcontinent. Sending millions of subcontinentals to Kalki had been one of the solutions to the problems caused by endemic over-population, disease and illiteracy. Ensuring that all Mutants were also transported out to Kalki was another of the solutions to the crisis created by their presence on Earth. "It’s not been a very effective solution, though," said Hozanna. "Even now the Earth Council is demanding that unless the nations of the subcontinent can guarantee the security of the planet before the end of this century, we will have to give up even the illusion of being sovereign states. War will be declared on Kalki. All citizens of that planet will be considered enemies of Earth. The countries that once defined the region of the subcontinent will be struck from the record of reality, and all our cultural artefacts destroyed. "
The old editor’s heart shrank to imagine this fate. For himself though, the course was clear. "Onward," he said, gruffly. "To the end of the next century!"
Writer-cartoonist Manjula Padmanabhan is the author of the award-winning play Harvest.