Priyamvada struggled to keep a straight face. Her struggle had started as soon as her Gynaecologist, Dr. Silvia Robertson had broken the news to her. She remembered the conversation in her clinic.
I should control myself, she thought to herself. She owed it to Aabhas. After all, they had become poorer just last month due to her mother’s visit, which had made her visibly excited and happy. And just like that, an immediate debit from their joint account bludgeoned their savings. But thoughts are like water, they always find a way to slip through.
“Congratulations! You are going to be a mother of a bonny baby. Let’s call Aabhas and give him this good news”, droned the Gynaec as she activated the N_Touch on her desk.
Priyamvada leaned forward and gestured her to stop. “No, no, please. I will give him this news myself.” She longed to go out of the clinic soon. The outdoors was relatively free of the OBS-MATE’s.
OBS-MATE. She stifled a smile. Quite a mate, she thought. It had all started with an election and a party leader’s soaring ambition. A leader whose sole aim was to win elections by hook or by crook. However, his party had lost the last two elections. The forthcoming elections were his last chance for a comeback. His dictatorial streak was now more prominently apparent to his party colleagues. He pressurized them to come up with populist ideas. Populism and freebies had paid him handsome dividends in past elections before the citizens saw through his subterfuge as it resulted in one of the highest tax structures in the world.
“There’s this new technology where the hormonal changes in a human body can be tracked by non-invasive laser detectors placed in any room. I have an excellent idea to make use of this technology to win these elections”, Prakhar Keerto, the poll strategist appointed by the party, suggested firmly.
A room-full of sceptics fixed their gaze on Prakhar. Some of them looked at him in derision and smirked. It was apparent that many of them were opposed to this outsider foisted on them by the Supreme leader.
“What is your proposal this time, Prakhar? Your ideas were no help last time, were they?”, asked someone sardonically.
“Hear him out, will you”, thundered the leader. As the buzz around the room fell silent, he continued, “Prakhar, I hope you won’t disappoint us this time.”
Prakhar did not miss the menacing undertone in the leader’s voice.
He took a deep breath and said, “We will reimburse voters who are very sad or in a state of depression, monetarily. And how can we do this? As you know, anyone can act sad or depressed if he gets money in his account. That’s where the new technology will help us.”
The room was all ears now.
“The four hormones, Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins and Oxytocin, fluctuate in the human body. Their levels drop if one is sad or depressed and rise when happy. So, lower the level of these hormones in any voter, the higher will be the compensation. Our slogan for this election, “Bye-bye depression, So high remuneration” or “Avsad hatao, Avsar badhao” and all its regional versions.
The room was stunned into silence.
Finally, the leader asked, “All that is alright Prakhar. But implementation…that a different ball game.”
“No, it would be a breeze. We will install these laser detectors in every railway station, bus-stop, airport, in fact, in every public space. We will install these in every home. All citizens would thus be tracked, a central agency would have access to every emotion of our citizens across all spaces.”
“But wouldn’t they protest? Or resist? Isn’t this further trespass into someone’s privacy?”, a sceptic asked in a low voice.
“Privacy! My foot! There is no longer any privacy in this world anymore. A plethora of social media, credit cards, debit cards, identity cards, have ensured that the general populace is numb to the importance of privacy. Everything is in public domain. And once they know that it will pay, all resistance would disappear. They are ready for anything as long as it pays them. This is just another form of freebie”.
The leader’s eyes twinkled. He made a mental note to make Prakhar his Information Minister, he was sure of a landslide now.
Priyamvada came back to the present. She was walking on the street, returning back from the Gynaec visit. She glanced furtively around her. Making sure that the OBS-MATE’s were not around, she finally allowed a smile to herself. She didn’t want another debit from their dwindling finances due to her happiness. A motherly happiness which results in increased levels of those very hormones which were supposed to pay.
She slipped back into the past.
After the election victory, OBS-MATE’s were installed everywhere. A network tracked all citizens. The initial months were the happiest for the populace, as any sad event or depression brought monetary rewards galore. It was an exhilarating experience for the citizens who kept voting for the party making the Supreme leader unbeatable. Prakhar Keerto became de-facto Number 2 in the government.
Upon the unfortunate demise of the leader, Prakhar became Supreme leader of Daulatstand. But the economy went haywire. Loan offtake from international financial institutions increased. That’s when Prakhar got his next brainwave. He appealed to the people directly.
“Brothers and sisters of the Fatherland! If we have to protect our sovereignty and economic freedom, we will have to withdraw “Avsad hatao, Avsar badhao”. Taking a pause to allow his message to sink in, he continued, “But…I promise you, this will never happen in my lifetime. AHAB will continue. However, now we will also start taxing those happy people who are responsible for putting you into misery, into depression. Higher the happiness, higher will be the taxes. So, don’t you worry, the benefits to depressed and sad people are protected.”
Priyamvada remembered that the announcement had been welcomed by all citizens happily. That month, the first HAPPINESS DEBITS were made from the accounts of almost all citizens. The Government called them ‘PARADISO TAX’, a tax for giving a paradise-like governance to them. The People had forgotten the cyclical nature of human experience; an individual cannot be perpetually sad or happy; if one is sad today, he/she can be happy tomorrow. But it was too late.
Their wholehearted support to the government resulted in Prakhar Keerto declaring cessation of all elections since he was the only one capable of strong governance. By a special ordinance in the same year, he was made Ruler for life. A police state was born. A police state which taxed the people even for experiencing happiness or euphoria.
Aabhas returned home from his place of work. Once he had freshened up and settled down, Priyamvada decided to break the good news to him. But in trying to be poker faced and struggling to control her emotions, she broke down. A concerned Aabhas got up and approached her. With one hand patting her back and concern in his voice, he asked, “Priyam…don’t cry. Why are you crying? What is wrong with you, Priyam? Look at me.”
The glint in her eyes told him to be defensive and poker faced himself. For this was their secret signal to put up an act before OBS-MATE.
Maintaining a straight face, Priyamvada broke the news about the new life taking form inside her. Aabhas remained unmoved. They had to protect their remaining savings. Her breaking down a few moments back, had already resulted in some income which would be welcome at the month end.
Aabhas was worried. He knew that for a healthy baby to be born, Priyamvada had to be kept in the best of spirits. She needed a healthy hormonal setup in order to give birth to a hale and hearty child. But the constant struggle to maintain a sad face and demeanour in front of the OBS-MATE was starting to take its toll on her. If this continued, her health would soon start going downhill. More worrisome, they could lose their baby. Her struggle had to stop.
He made up his mind. He would speak to her regarding this. It couldn’t be put away for much longer.
But what would happen if the baby is born but all our savings are gone. For, wasn’t it, higher the happiness, higher the tax. Go to Hell, Prakhar. We won’t let you control our life, dammit!, cursed Aabas.
“Priyam. Listen to me carefully. It’s very important for you to remain natural and not put on any act for the OBS-MATE. Experience these moments as any normal mother would, without bending to the pressure of OBS-MATE. It is very important to deliver a normal child. We won’t get this chance again”, said a concerned Aabhas as he sat near Priyamvada.
Tear drops welled up in her eyes and she replied, “Aabhas, we need the finances to raise the child. It won’t be justified if we bring the child into this world and are not even able to give him/her a decent education.”
“Don’t worry, Priyam. Starting an education is still some years away. By that time, we will think of something”, he comforted her. Then in a determined tone he said, “I have a plan. But I will share it later. For now, you just concentrate on a normal, happy delivery.” Bending down, he planted a kiss on her belly, as Priyamvada curled her fingers through his hair.
Gynaecologist Silvia Robertson sat at her clinic. She took a syringe, reached for the injection ampoule and injected herself in the arm. This was her weekly routine. The drug worked for a week. It induced Alexithymia, which made her unable to identify normal, basic emotions of happiness, euphoria and sadness. There were huge rumours that their current Supreme leader, Prakhar Keerto took it and agents like her followed their leader surreptitiously. She hated the word, agent. She was no agent.
She loved her designation as HAPPINESS AMBASSADOR, one of the many appointed by the Government to ensure that the masses remained happy, nay euphoric, and perpetually add to government kitty through taxes. It was a well-paying job. But while doing that, the HAPPINESS AMBASSADOR had to keep his/her own emotions in check, or else he too could be taxed for being happy and that’s where the drug came into play.
Once the deed was done, she got up to go on the rounds through the wards. Today, she expected 10-12 mothers to deliver babies. Which only meant happiness, which in turn meant good contributions to the government coffers. She didn’t feel like smiling; nay she couldn’t smile.
Suddenly a sister called. An expectant mother’s time had come. She had been rushed to the delivery room.
“Hello Priyamvada. How are you, my child?”, she asked in a gentle tone upon entering the room.
Priyamvada forced a smile on her face, though she was going through uncomfortable pain. “I am good, Doctor”, she replied. Aabhas, who was holding Priyamvada’s hand, smiled too.
“Don’t worry. Everything would be alright soon. Take a deep breath and just relax.”
That very evening Aabhas met Dr. Silvia.
The euphoria, which the arrival of a baby brings, was short-lived. Their savings were almost gone. And Aabhas had suddenly started suffering extreme stomach cramps. One night, they were unbearable and Priyamvada rushed him to the hospital. Lots of tests followed and the verdict came. It was abdominal cancer and it was irreversible now. Priyamvada’s world came crashing down. However, the general depressing atmosphere in the house started a trickle of monetary aids from the government, which soon turned into a flood.
Aabhas was on the death bed.
“Priyam…I have a confession to make. If I don’t confide in you, I won’t die a peaceful death. Come near me.”
With tears flowing down her eyes, Priyamvada bent forward and gently placed her palm on his mouth. “Shh…don’t exert yourself Aabhas.”
“No, let me speak today. Do you remember, once I had told you, I have a plan for the future? A plan to give a good education, a healthy life for our child.” As Priyamvada looked at him quizzically, he divulged, “This was my plan, Priyam. My death will give you and our child a life. See, how our kind government has helped us since the beginning of my illness. I was sure about this.” Aabhas reached out to Priyamvada with a trembling hand.
She held it in a tight grip. She was shaking with grief and anger.
“But, how? Why? Why did you have to take this drastic step? How did you get cancer?”, then looking at him directly in the eyes, she demanded, “how the hell did you get cancer?”.
Tears were flowing from the corner of his eyes too.
“Same evening our child was born, I met Dr. Silvia Robertson…”
“Doctor, I wish to talk to you for some time. Can I come in?”, Aabhas asked through a half-open door.
“Yes Aabhas. Do come in. Priyamvada and the child are in the best of health. There were no complications.”, Dr. Silvia answered mechanically.
“Doctor, I know who you are, whom you work for. But I also know your secret. A secret which would destroy the comfortable life you have created for yourself.” Aabhas came straight to the point.
The Doctor shuffled in her seat uncomfortably. “What secret? I don’t hold any secrets. What are you talking about?”
“Okay Doctor. You have forced my hand. You…”, but he was interrupted by the Doctor.
“Wait…let’s meet somewhere outside. Let’s meet at…”
“Priyamvada, the doctor is a double agent. By making people happy, she helps to keep government coffers in good shape. At the same time, she has tied up with the underworld to make people sad and depressed which results in steady cash inflow from the government. Though these double agents charge their commission, the inflow of cash for the citizens is still good enough to turn their lives around. She introduced me to her contact who put me in touch with another Doctor. A Doctor who injected a fast-developing cancer into me.” Aabhas was spent with exhaustion and he collapsed into his bed.
Tears flowing down her fiery eyes, Priyamvada addressed him sternly, “Turn the life around, you say? Is this how it’s done? By destroying a family! How did you dare to destroy our family! Is this our fate? It’s better to live in poverty as a family than to break a happy family and live in comfort. Oh Aabhas, why did you do it?”. She collapsed on his chest crying her heart out.
Today Priyamvada and Prabhas, her son, live a comfortable life. Just like others who faced great sorrows to reach better material comforts.
A parallel society also exists which lives happily in the sprawling slums across the country Daulatstand, ruled by the unsmiling Supreme leader, Prakhar Keerto.
Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin – hormones which fluctuate depending upon the moods of humans
N_Touch – a phone technology coming shortly
OBS-MATE – similar to cams but which can detect hormone levels in humans
Avsad – depression
Hatao – remove
Avsar – opportunity
Badhao – increase
AHAB – Avsad hatao, Avsar Badhao
Daulatstand – an imaginary country in which this story takes place
Photo credit – unplash.com and @usgs