(This story appeared in ‘Shockwave and other Cyber Stories’ published by Puffin India, last year.)
Mana broke through firewalls that his dad had installed on the family computer, like a samurai warrior slicing through an imperial army. Unlike the samurai though, he quickly restored the dismantled software without leaving any bloody trails. His dad never ever guessed. In fact, he smiled complacently – always giving a reassuring look to Mana’s mother – whenever his son was on the computer.
That is how Mana managed to make full use of those rare weekends, when his parents left him alone in their twentieth-storey flat in Sion, a neighbourhood in Mumbai. They would be off to Pune to look in on his grandmother, while he remained glued to their computer in the study.
The study had two large windows. Through one, you could see a wooded hill, lined with dilapidated fort walls, and a temple perched on its summit. Through the other, you saw sprawling clusters of villages, mangroves, shanties, half-constructed buildings, and an eternally crowded railway station. The scenes in the windows hardly changed from day to day and kept him connected to the real world all through his virtual journeys. He would come up – as if from underwater – take a deep breath, feel reassured by their familiarity, and then dive in again.
This weekend was typical – a weekend of unpredictable cyber explorations. With a few magical moves, he jumped over the clumsy barriers in the computer and crossed over to hidden worlds, stumbled onto unknown sites and got into multiple conversations with virtual strangers.
Much of Saturday flew by at dizzying broadband speeds. When he finally logged off, exhausted, his mind was bursting with a million images, disembodied voices and disconnected tunes.
The fleeting friendships he had developed over the last few hours with seven different virtual personas on a website he had recently discovered — Life 2.0 — had been boring and repetitive. His own virtual self, an eighteen-year-old college student named Anam (Mana spelt backwards), couldn’t answer the breathless, questions posed to him by one ‘FiestyZinta’ – and he had hurriedly logged off. She had wanted to know more about his thoughts on a movie which he had found incredibly boring. About a rich boy in love with a poor girl. Wasn’t there anything more interesting to discuss for god’s sake?
That night, through the maze of confused dreams that intense bouts of surfing inevitably produce, he heard her voice for the first time.
‘Mana?’ the voice queried, a foreign accent lacing even that single word.
He grunted in his sleep.
‘Mana’? it said again.
He woke up and stared into the dark. The room looked back at him innocently. Clearly, it had not heard anything at all, and he returned lovingly to his pillow.
He sat up. Where was the voice coming from? He wrenched himself out of bed. Everything looked normal. He drew back the curtains to reveal the silhouette of the hill, circled by a road glittering with street lamps and moving vehicular lights.
He looked towards the door between his room and the study.
‘Mana?’ the voice repeated, now urgently.
The study. That was where the voice was coming from. He walked slowly to the door and entered the study. The Mac, with its large sleek flat screen, perched on an ornate teakwood desk, was blinking with life. It glowed a bluish-green colour and had a face on it – with slanted, staring eyes.
‘What the…?’ Mana started. ‘I had switched it off!’ he whispered fiercely to himself, as he rushed forward.
The beautiful face smiled. It was made with fluid pencil-strokes — like in a comic book. In fact, it could have slid off a Japanese manga.
‘Don’t worry, Anam – I came through Life. 2.0, the website you were surfing a few hours ago. You had permitted a request to access your computer even when it was switched off, and that’s how I am here.’
‘But…that’s impossible!’ Mana’s voice was thick with fear.
‘That’s what your dad thinks about your breaking through his child-protection programs too, Anam, and he spends so much time downloading all that free software!’ she laughed.
He could see her slender neck as she threw her head back.
‘You were logged on to the site for a few hours now. That’s how I managed to discover you.’
Then without any warning, her face abruptly developed a serious expression, disconcerting the sleepy and confused Mana even further.
‘Anam – I need your help. They are after me. You must help me to fight them off.’
‘What do you mean?’ Mana’s tired eyes widened. Her words exorcised his sleep.
‘I can’t tell you anything more. But I can feel their presence. Help me.’
‘How can I?’ Mana asked in spite of his puzzlement and fear, and even as one part of his mind silently assured him — ‘Don’t worry, this is just one of your stupid dreams, Mana’.
‘There are many firewalls around you. And I don’t mean just in your computer. You need to break them. That’s where you ought to start.’
‘What exactly do you mean?’ Mana’s voice had a sharp, shrill edge. ‘Where are you? You can’t live inside a website, can you? What firewalls are you talking about?’
‘We live in a strange world these days, Anam. I live very far away, yet so close. I have been observing you for weeks now.’
She glanced furtively behind her. ‘They are taking me over right now – even as we speak. Think of this as a computer game if you must. But help!’
Then the screen went blank. It switched off completely, without a beep or a sign-off tune, leaving Mana sitting foolishly, open-mouthed.
‘I have to be dreaming!’ he muttered, though he was certain he was not.
He walked up and down the room agitatedly. Then he sniffed. There was an unfamiliar smell in the room, concentrated most intensely near the computer. He sniffed again. It smelt of fresh rain and heavy, moist air. He inhaled deeply and traced the scent of mangroves, a hint of fish, and something heady and wild he couldn’t recognize. He hadn’t smelt anything like that in his life. Whatever it was, was potent and intoxicating. He wanted to just sit there and soak it up. Where was that smell coming from? Had the virtual girl left it behind? How could she have? The virtual world was supposed to be odourless.
Mana could not sleep and found himself returning repeatedly to inhale the mysterious aroma. Then he squatted on the couch, waiting for the maid, Pratima Tai, to ring the bell. He stared blankly as dawn gradually materialized through the large glass windows. When Tai arrived, she immediately took over the house with her characteristic briskness — cleaning, dusting, and wiping ferociously, after serving him lassi and poha.
She stopped abruptly on reaching the computer. She screwed up her nose, and her eyes, large with suspicion, probed the room. ‘What did you drop here, Mana?’ she asked him sternly. ‘It stinks!’
‘Nothing, Tai! I don’t know where the smell is coming from’.
She fixed her skeptical gaze at him while liberally sprinkling a strong disinfectant to get rid of the smell. The stare indicated that she didn’t believe him for a second. In spite of all her efforts, the smell persisted – much to Mana’s relief – and her dismay.
That afternoon Mana went back to Life 2.0 but found it impossible to trace that haunting face. He waded through thousands of images and chat rooms in vain. She hadn’t left him a name, or any other clue. How was he supposed to save her if he couldn’t even locate her? This was absurd! He should stop surfing and do something old-fashioned, like watch television or – he winced – even read a book.
However, as soon as he had settled on the couch, a commotion outside his door made him and Tai rush out. They were met with an unexpected sight; a group of domestic help from other flats in the building had congregated near the lift.
When they saw Pratima, they beckoned to her urgently, and cleared the way for a small girl to emerge from the crowd. She was of Mana’s age – around thirteen – and had a beaming, pretty face that was thickly and awkwardly layered with make-up.
Tai screamed. Mana recognized the girl as her daughter Reena. She seemed oddly dressed in an embroidered sari studded with fake diamonds, and was laden with shining plastic jewellery. Bright-red lipstick was smeared across her lips. A golden tiara crowned her face. She could have jumped out of the godly paintings that were kept in his family puja room.
Something else shook Mana like an electric shock. The very same smell, the one that lurked around his computer,wafted towards him from the girl. As Tai pulled her daughter into the house, the girl turned to Mana and spoke to him in rapid Marathi: ‘She’s waiting for you… she needs your help… you must save her!’
‘What are you saying, girl?’ Tai looked worriedly at her daughter. ‘And what are you doing here, wearing these fancy clothes? How did the security guard allow you in? Who gave you these clothes? And what is this smell?’
The girl looked at her mother with her large kohl-rimmed eyes and answered in a steady, sweet voice: ‘The security guard is from our village, Aai. He knows us. And it was the goddess herself who dressed me — the one who lives in the temple on the hill. She appeared this morning just after you left for work. Didn’t you tell me that she possesses young girls and makes them tell the truth? The truth is that Mana has to save her!’
‘You are such a liar, Reena, always making up stories!’ Tai looked sternly at her daughter. ‘Who does Mana have to save? Don’t listen to her, baba – I think she’s a little sick today.’
That evening, a deeply troubled Mana decided to do something he had never done in all his thirteen years.
He walked across the road, towards Sion station and into Dharavi – the cluster of huts, chawls, buildings and shanties that lay sprawled across the close-set streets in his neighbourhood. His parents had driven around it quite often, but he had been explicitly forbidden to enter it. His school was in a different direction and most of the shops he went to lined the main street, so he really had had no reason to venture inside.
‘It’s a dangerous place, and full of dodgy people,’ his dad had solemnly told him once. ‘Except,of course, Pratima Tai’ he had responded hurriedly to his son’s indignant query. ‘She is different.’
Mana knew he simply had to talk to Reena. How had she known about the woman in the computer? Even the exact words she had said. And what was her connection with the smell?
He was standing uncertainly below the station bridge. How would he find her in this maze of narrow streets and lanes, crowded with leather boutiques, dhabas, restaurants, bakeries and small workshops that made all kinds of things?
He sniffed the air – hoping for a whiff of that smell again. Instead, petrol fumes blocked his nose. He walked aimlessly for a long time, dodging low-lying roofs, kicking pebbles and peeping into huts in impossibly narrow lanes. The chaotic, colourful scenes of the streets captivated him. It looked like a perfectly normal, busy neighbourhood; why had his dad banned him from coming here?
Then, without any warning, as he walked by a chikki factory, it reached his nose, cutting through the dense, rich fragrance of melting jaggery and cardamom — that faintly fishy odour, with the suggestion of rain, mangroves and that special strain of intoxication mixed in it. It lifted his spirits rightaway and he felt like singing. He figured the smell came from behind a black glass door that had the words ‘Dharavi’s Favourite Cyber Cafe’ painted across in bright red. The café was sandwiched between a shirt shop and the chikki factory. The door was still swinging shut; someone had just walked in, inadvertently allowing a sliver of the smell to escape.
Mana hesitated a moment outside the door, before walking in. His eyes took some time to adjust to the darkness, and his heart skipped a beat in anticipation. The source of the smell was definitely somewhere close.
‘Do you want to surf, brother?’ a voice addressed him in Hindi. Mana’s eyes outlined the shape of a large, bulky man sitting behind a desk.
‘Uh yes,’ he replied.
He was promptly led to a computer at the very end of the cramped room, squeezing himself between two rows of cubicles set tightly next to each other. Intent, focused eyes, glinting in the reflected glow of computer screens, stared into monitors. The surfers looked as if they were far away, in another universe, leaving behind their soulless bodies in the café.
In a few moments, Mana began to make sense of the room more clearly. Mildew had conquered the walls, which must have once been painted a bright blue. They were bare, except for a photo-frame near a door, just behind his cubicle. The image in the frame was of a goddess, in customary celestial finery. He scrutinized it while settling into his plastic chair. There had been too many mentions of goddesses recently for him to ignore it.
The goddess was perched on an ostentatiously caparisoned and decorated elephant. She looked familiar – he remembered seeing a similar portrait in the temple on the hill near his building. That one too had four hands with discs circling each index finger. There they were weapons – sudarshan chakras – but here they looked like computer disks. However, the landscape on which her image was painted looked incongruous: immediately behind her, painted in elegant brushstrokes was a Japanese shrine, set amidst a row of low-roofed wooden houses. An Indian goddess on an elephant in Japan! Must be photoshopped, of course, Mana thought. Somebody, – perhaps a researcher studying the neighbourhood, must have gifted it to the cyber-café owner. Mana settled down on his chair, still sniffing the air like a curious pup. The smell had vanished.
He took some time to get used to the unfamiliar mouse, the worn- out keyboard and the slower speed. Besides, he had never used a PC before. After making many impatient sounds and cursing silently, he finally managed to reach Life 2.0 and keyed his password in. He noticed that the image of the goddess and the door behind him were reflected very clearly on his screen. Then the reflection weakened as the screen became awash with the signature bluish-green of the website.
A face materialized on the screen. She was there! The slant-eyed girl who had pleaded with him last night. Only, this time she looked more terrified than before.
‘I am so glad you came, Anam! Please help me! They are coming to get me. They are all around me, trapping me in!’ Her voice sounded different – deeper and coarser – through the cheap speakers.
Mana was worried that the girl’s urgent whispers would be heard by the entire cyber café. Luckily, no one stirred. He looked on helplessly. A big teardrop shimmered in one luminous eye. It was as skillfully sketched as her face. Her lips were pursed tightly and she looked devastatingly sad.
Mana asked her again in a whisper he feared everyone could hear: ‘How do I help you? I don’t even know where you are!’
Her eyes widened. ‘But you are so close! You just have to walk through the firewall. That’s one thing you are really good at!’
As she spoke, Mana saw something weird; something that truly, completely astounded him.
The reflected image of the goddess on his computer screen moved! As he gasped, it slowly slid off its frame and glided into the website page . The image on the computer screen and the reflected one on its glass surface had merged into each other! And the Japanese girl didn’t look surprised at all. She looked relieved and quickly made way for the goddess and her large vehicle.
Mana immediately whirled around. To his bafflement, he saw that the image in the picture-frame had not moved an inch. The goddess was still there, frozen in the frame. He returned his startled gaze to the screen, just in time to see an unusual drama unfolding.
The Japanese girl was smiling through her tears. He could see her entire body now, slim and elegantly attired in a white silk kimono. Within seconds, the image of a crowded Tokyo street rolled out behind her, as if being sketched furiously, till it looked three-dimensional. Then the goddess started to guide the elephant skillfully though the street. Clearly, the elephant was used to crowds and moved in and out of the heavy, fast traffic with surprising ease. The goddess then beckoned to the Japanese girl, who leapt over a row of cars towards them, and was soon pulled onto the elephant’s back. Pandemonium followed. A strangely attired woman on an elephant in the middle of Tokyo! It was unbelievable. Police sirens started to blare and people ran helter-skelter. The birds perched on electric wires strung across the low rooftops, cocked their heads disbelievingly. Even the faces on posters and billboards – all brilliantly drawn – seemed to look on in shock.
Then the elephant – along with its two remarkable passengers — wound its way slowly through the dense network of the Tokyo neighbourhood, placidly ignoring the stir they had caused.
Amid the panicking crowds and disorderly traffic, Mana spied a group of clouded images –it was more like he felt them before he saw them – ominous shadowy presences determinedly chasing the elephant. Who were they? What were they? He soon realized that he was pressing the keyboard and actually guiding the elephant through the narrow, confusing by-lanes. The elephant would move to the left or right, faster or slower just as he wished. It bypassed the crowds and the obstructing police as well as the threatening shadows effortlessly, with Mana’s help. The formless, dark pursuers did not have the advantage of the aerial view that he had on his screen. Amidst shouts of alarm and raucous whistle-blowing, Mana finally guided the beast to a door in a small building that looked vaguely familiar.
The door was painted over in red Japanese letters, but Mana could actually read it, much to his own surprise. It said, ‘Shimokatazawaa’s Favourite Cyber Café’ and even though the door looked very small, the elephant managed to enter with disconcerting ease. The two women, balanced precariously on its back, ducked elegantly at the door, leaving behind some dazed policemen, a befuddled, restless crowd and some growling shapes that subsequently vanished into thin air.
Just then, back in the Dharavi café, Mana heard the door behind him creak open. He turned. A blast of the intoxicating smell hit him at once. He could feel his heart beating distinctly faster. He felt an uncontrollable urge to walk through the door. He looked around furtively. The café owner was dozing at his desk, chin on his chest. The others still looked as if they were lost in faraway worlds. Mana glanced once more at the still image of the goddess in the photograph, left his Life 2.0 web page open on the screen and yanked open the door.
He was not quite sure what to expect. Maybe the door was a firewall that protected a hidden, unknown, virtual world that he was about to enter. Maybe it was a portal leading him, magically, to a neighbourhood in Tokyo. After what he had just witnessed – he was ready for anything.
It was dark, the air clogged with that intoxicating, now overpowering smell and filtering through were the faded notes of an old Hindi-movie song! Now this was truly unanticipated although, given the circumstances, not astounding.
He soon realized that the room was not quite as dark. A small earthen lamp in one corner gave out an eerie glow. There was an old radio placed on the floor. Numerous incense sticks had been pierced into a banana. Behind its smoky, fragrant emissions sat a small figure, cross-legged, looking very much like the goddess in the photo.
‘Reena?’ Mana’s voice was hoarse with surprise and fear.
She stared at him through the flickering light.
‘Yes — and no,’ replied the girl, in the same Japanese-accented English he had heard on his computer.
Mana went into a tizzy at once. Was he turning mad? He knew there was a hint of insanity in his family even though they were not supposed to refer to it as such. His grandmother – whom his parents kept visiting in Pune – lived in a special institution. Had he inherited something? Or was he simply being punished for his excesses on the Internet, for breaking through protective firewalls? Was this some kind of a moral lesson?
‘No,’ she declared in a language that Mana knew was alien to her and in an accent that was alien to both.
Then, realizing that she had read his mind, he choked.
‘You are not mad’ she said. ‘This is not a moral science lesson. My world has always been inside out and upside down. It’s just that you folks are catching up with us only now – thanks to the Net. It is only now that you can move across the globe, sitting in front of your computer to have conversations with people in places you didn’t even know about. But you know what I find really funny?’
Mana obligingly changed his frightened, sulky expression into an inquiring one.
‘What I find funny is that it takes you so long to break through the firewalls around your own neighbourhood’
Mana was stupefied. This was maddening. He had not understood what she was trying to say.
With some difficulty, he managed to express his confusion. ‘Y…yes. That’s all very well. But what is this all about really? Who are you? Why did you ask me for help? I just don’t understand…’
The song had ended. The fragrance from the incense sticks had enveloped him thoroughly now, sending confused signals to his brain. He felt frightened and elated at the same time. Frightened because he didn’t quite understand what he was feeling and elated because, whatever it was, it felt nice. Gave him a warm sensation all over.
‘No – you are not dreaming! I am a spirit. I live in a shrine in a neighbourhood in far away Tokyo. I have been choked and possessed by unfamiliar smells for years now – toxic fumes of glass and concrete and paint, of rubber and smoke and tar, That’s what I wanted you to save me from. I had forgotten the smell of my own childhood, the one encapsulated in these incense sticks – of fish, the salt, seawater, decaying leaves, the smoky fires of artisans working in their huts and – the most important ingredient, the one that really spurred you on – that enchanted smell. It makes you fall in love.’
She paused, savouring the sight of him squirming at her words and then continued.
I travelled the world searching for these smells – and found them in this neighbourhood, of all the places! Though I must say, I am already suffocating with the stink of glass and concrete that has started to colonize it. Things are changing rapidly. You must do something about it – or we will really suffer!’
If Mana thought that any explanation would help him reduce the confusion in his mind, he was sorely wrong. He felt positively dizzy now.
‘And where do I come in?’ he managed a squeak.
‘Oh I was just playing a game with you! It was fun wasn’t it? That mad chase on the streets of Tokyo?’
She smiled slyly at his gaping mouth and added in a softer voice, ‘I love pushing people to break through firewalls. While you managed quite well with the programs your dad installed in your computer, you fared badly with the ones he had installed in your mind.’
‘What do you mean?’ Mana seemed to find his voice again, squeaky though it was.
‘It took you so long to cross the street and reach this little café. You didn’t even know that it existed.’
As he continued to look as if nothing had sunk in, she said – enunciating every word clearly – ‘You didn’t know that Reena had played in it since she was three years old and had turned out to be more of an otaku – a geek, I mean – than you.’
Mana’s eyes popped at this last sentence. There were too many shifts taking place. Like opening and shutting wildly different websites in rapid succession. Or like having many cyber chats at once and forgetting which sentence ought to go into which window.
‘You never really knew the servant girl who tagged along with her mother for years in your house. You didn’t ever bother to befriend her. You saw her through the blocks in your mind – so many of them that you really never saw her at all.’ Reena’s Japanese accent dropped like an outsized robe to reveal her own voice.
Mana’s eyes continued to bulge.
‘Y.. You are Reena aren’t you?’ he managed to stutter.
The girl smiled. ‘Yes — and no. I am so many people now. Sometimes I am the Japanese spirit in a shrine in Tokyo. I can understand her fears. They seem so familiar. Just like those of the goddess on the hill, the patron goddess of our village. And sometimes I even am …’ and her mischievous smile turned ghostly as she said this – ‘FiestyZinta…’