Trouble In Elysium

7 min


MANOHARAN

I love kids. I care for them deeply with all my heart. 

I am a God-fearing, middle-aged man. Currently, I am looking after some thirty kids. 

I don’t need well-worded, lofty-sounding prayers in obscure languages to pray to Gods. Nor do I want elaborate idols covered with jewelry to feel their presence. I have placed a rough stone in an irregular pyramid shape and that is my God and I talk to it directly. 

Once upon a time, my friends would tease me that I had a direct hotline to Gods. 

Friends! None of them are alive now! 

Two years back, because of a cataclysmic event, more than 2/3rds of the world population got decimated. Economies shattered, Governments collapsed, Law enforcement was non-existent, and Health care went for a toss. There was no trade, no food, no effective money, and absolutely no regulations- Anarchy was in control- allowing ‘survival of the fittest’  in its rawest form. 

There was no international, central, or state exchequer to fund our existence.

After about a year, the IMF got it all together; They regulated the money, or rather, the credit. The newly coined WC, or the World Currency, was the only medium of exchange accepted globally. There was no legal tender. 

An extreme burden fell on us, the survivors. We needed to procure food and water and schedule their distribution. We had to make arrangements to house the sick, the old, and the children who were left, orphans.

Hope For India or HFI was the HQ in India. They received the credit from IMF and doled it out to everyone. Another procurement agency, PA, managed to corral foodstuff, water, clothes, and medicine. We used WC to buy stuff from PA. 

To have an effective distribution chain, we formed small groups headed by a single head who would receive the credit. We had to use our WCs to pay PA, and they provided us with necessities. 

Because I loved children, I chose to look after a group of thirty kids, and I had a team of five people to help me. Some of the kids were physically sick, and almost all of them were emotionally raw. Uniformly they all had dead vacant eyes, spoke minimum words, and hardly interacted with each other.

But there was one kid called Pandi who had a condition called Alexithymia. It was a fancy word that meant emotional detachment. Pandi could feel neither happiness nor sadness. He could not understand or identify with the feelings of other children. He never felt nor understood finer feelings like ‘empathy’ ‘friendship’, ‘love,’ or even ‘peace.’

But violence was something he could understand and would often indulge in. Especially excessive, unjustified brutality. 

We occupied small abandoned school premises, using the assembly hall to live and sleep in. There was a rough kitchen where few of the women would cook some basic food, using whatever we could get from PA, and we could eat sparsely twice a day. Medicines were only for emergency use.

The person in charge of HFA was Ashwin. He had no experience in politics or any kind of leadership role. But he was a kind of mad scientist. He was surrounded by a coterie of half-baked assistants who, I heard, were given a relatively large amount of WCs as their share for their ‘hard work.’ Ashwin, with his penchant for ‘out of the box’ thinking, had made some arbitrary rules for doling out WCs to us. 

According to him, a person who could be happy even in such dire situations needed to be punished, and sad people needed rehabilitation. He and his coterie had devised a head-band for people to effectively measure the secretion of endorphins, oxytocins, and dopamines. The bands were fixed permanently to our heads and would send the happy hormones signals to a device. This data was accessible to HFA.  

Roughly we were all paid a minimum credit. After that, happiness, as measured by the headband, was taxed and subtracted. Sadness, quantified by the lack of hormone signals, increased the credits. 

So the amount I received for my group of forty people, including the management, was inversely proportional to the happy hormones that we all collectively produced. After collating the sum total of happiness and sadness, the payment was made every week. 

Because of the depressing situations, crime too slowly escalated. That’s when HFI gave a policing arm to PA. There were no formal police stations, or arrests are courts. We were too far away from that. But there was a person to whom you could complain about someone, and if it came from a reputed person, they would simply take the culprit away to a prison camp where they existed with bare minimum food. 

Ashwin and his coterie felt they were reducing the food burden on all other ‘good’ people.

Like I already said, I loved kids. It was depressing to see my group of children so gloomy and dismal. Most of them had lost parents, siblings, homes, and friends.  But it was their melancholy that was paying for their daily needs. We still had not begun any activities because that may bring happiness to the forlorn children. 

But Visalam, the matronly lady in charge of looking after the kids, had started a kind of classes for them. After a week of her sessions, our dole had increased significantly. I did not want to get into whys and wherefores because more WCs meant more food, and food was a more fundamental requirement than happiness or sadness.

Suddenly one day, a new kid turned up. Someone must have left her in our doorway. Dolly looked about six. Her hair fell in tight, unruly curls around her pretty but haggard face, a hint of laughter lurking behind the sadness in her eyes, and deep dimples on her unwashed cheeks. She hugged a bedraggled soft toy that must have resembled a puppy sometime back. She called it ‘her babbu.’

PANDI

I realized I was different when I was just a couple of years old. While other kids my age would squeal with pleasure and reach for chocolates someone was offering, I could neither feel the thrill of anticipation of tasting them nor the joy of gratification in eating them. Believe me; I did try. The sweet taste did tingle my tongue. But asking for it, longing for it, and begging for it like other kids? No, thank you!

That’s when I realized I was very different.

From the time I remember, my dad always had red-puffed-up eyes, unclear slurring words, and a harsh growling voice. He would beat me up with a cane kept on the top shelf. Whenever he would reach for it, my heartbeat would go up, tears would well up in my eyes, and my head would throb with great intensity. That was my fugue state, and when I was in its thrall,  I was not aware of what I was doing.

My mom would pull me behind her and shield me from the blows. But when my dad moved away, my mom’s face and body would have ugly red-looking welts covered with blood.

One day when my dad reached for his cane, I pushed my mom aside, stood firm, and kept staring straight into his eyes. I did not let my mouth go slack nor let my body move. My mom stopped in her tracks and looked at us with her eyebrows knitted together. 

My dad froze with the cane in his hands, looked at me for a long time, and slowly backed away. Then my heart stopped hammering; my head paused throbbing and my eyes remained free of tears, and my fugue haze lifted.

But then, my mom went and had another kid.

I can’t understand why everyone goes gaga over babies. They have slobbering mouths, unfocused eyes, and leaky bums. 

The new baby would always be on my mom’s shoulder or her lap. And my fugue states began happening again.

I would go up to the baby, pinch it, and make it cry, and then the fugue would stop.

One day my mom had left the baby with me, repeatedly telling me that Ponni was my sister and I must love it. I did not understand what she meant.

Ponni made an awful gurgling sound and kept looking at me, and her mouth widened and curved up. She drooled, and the spit was all over her face, and it sickened me. Ponni began crawling toward me and did not understand when I asked her to stop.  Finally, she reached me and started touching me with her spit-covered hands and tried to clamber up my legs. 

My fugue returned with unexplainable intensity. 

I pushed her away from me with great force.  When I came back to my senses, Ponni lay on the ground and my hands were holding her head down, crushing it to the floor. My mom was beating me ineffectively and crying loudly. My dad stood far and was looking at me.

My mother told everyone that Ponni fell from the cot and died.

That was many years ago; After all that, now, life has brought me into this setup where I have a group of filthy, crying, sniffling children around me! 

I keep away from them, and they do too. If one of them got anywhere near me, I stared at them and kept my mouth slack and my body rigid, and they avoided me after that.

Visalam, the old hag who runs the kids’ lives with minimum interference from Manoharan, is another person the kids avoid and shuffle away from. She had started some kind of classes to teach them some Tamil rhymes or counting numbers. But the sessions always ended with the kids sobbing and crying into the night.

Visalam would beat the kids up with violence that my dad would use on me. She would need minimum provocation to use filthy language or push them down and kick them on their heads.

I am sure Manoharan knew about it but did not confront her. Visalam would smirk at me and look on with a smile when I avoided the kids. I knew she would not stop me or report me to Manoharan if I beat the kids up or terrorize them.

Suddenly one day, Dolly turned up. I have no idea who brought her in. 

Her eyes were different from those of others. They would shine and sparkle even if she was crying. She would sit among all the other children and sob and sob. After a couple of days, she stopped doing that. Instead, she would keep her Bubba, her dirty looked, ragged doll, on her lap and pretend it was a baby. 

She would chide it for not eating food, pretend to bathe it, play with it, and put it to sleep next to her. While none of the other kids responded to her, directly I could see that they would all watch her silently. 

Visalam suddenly began taking an interest in Dolly. She would stand far away in the darkest corner of the room and stare at her with unfriendly eyes and a puckered mouth.  She would take her out into the compound when Dolly needed to go to the bathroom at night. 

Some nights, I would sit in the darkness of the school courtyard by myself. I did not want to hear their stifled cries of nightmares. 

I sat on a low wall of the compound, feeling the night envelop me from all around. When the door opened, and in the semi-darkness, I could see Visalam nudging Dolly along towards the bathroom. 

She suddenly stopped and I heard some scuffling sounds. Then Dolly began to wail. 

The door to Manoharan’s room opened, and I could see him come out.

Dolly pushed Visalam away and began running toward me. In the half-light, I could see the kid’s glazed, terror-filled eyes and her mouth open and dripping with saliva. Her hands wiped at her face, coming away smeared with snot. 

She rushed towards me and her hands reached out to touch me, filling me with revulsion. My mind flew back to that childhood day when I had pushed away a much younger girl. In the periphery of my vision, I saw Visalam reaching for Dolly, her nostrils flared and the sadistic eyes, glistening. 

Then I went into a fugue.

When I came back to my senses, I saw Manoharan carrying the girl, still crying, back into the school. The other two lady helpers came rushing out and held the raging Visalam tightly by her hands.

It was the next day that I sat in a corner of the hall. My fugue had left me tired and limp. I watched from far that Dolly was still in the bed, crying softly to herself and her Bubba lay next to her. 

I saw two strangers come in to take Visalam away. She protested and tried to beat them and kick at them. But they held her firmly and escorted her out.

***

MANOHARAN

I sit in front of my tiny pyramid and I talk to my god, “I am very sorry that I lied to the police arm of  PA that I had seen Visalam trying to kill Dolly. Maybe she intended to do it. I don’t know, But what I saw was Pandi trying to smother Dolly to death. He was in a catatonic state and repeatedly called out ‘Ponni’. I had to pry Dolly away from his vice-like grip.

Later I realized that Pandi was the lesser evil of the two. He could never feel emotions. Which meant he did not recognize or feel ‘love’ or ‘tenderness’ or ‘pity. But it’s also true that he did not know ‘hatred; or evilness or ‘sadism.’ 

But Visalam was evil incarnate. By falsely accusing her of trying to kill a child, I could get our camp rid of her Malefic presence. 

After Dolly came into our lives, the grant coming in had dwindled to a new low. Which meant her presence was healing the kids, and they were slowly experiencing the normal joys of life. But I could not let that happen. It meant we could not get even one meal per day. 

Now, Dolly would always have an underlying fear of Pandi, which would stop her from being happy or making others happy. At the same time, Pandi would not voluntarily cause harm to the kids to the extent that Visalam did. It’s definitely a win-win, correct?

Are you disapproving of what I did? 

I am trying to keep their hunger at bay. My job is to keep them fed- not make them happy. At least till someone changes this draconian law!


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