Book House

Set towards the end of 2020s, Samit Basu's book "Chosen Spirits" is a speculative fiction in which the protagonist is a Reality Controller

‘Shit, they’re doing it again. Go stop them,’ Rono says, looking at their parents’ bedroom.
‘Rono, you are not dropping out of school and I’m not—’
‘Forget that. Just listen.’
She can hear raised voices, and they’re talking about… Kashmir? Joey races towards their room. Left together unsupervised, they’ve started again: escalated some possibly unemployment-related argument into a full-scale fight about the State of the Nation. And in the heat of the moment, they’re likely to say things they’ll both regret. She barges in and makes the standard gestures—they stop immediately, and stare back at her with their usual mix of rage and shame.

It’s not really their fault, it’s hard for the middle-aged to change. She’s seen the way they used to live. Before the Years Not To Be Discussed, before every smart person in the country had removed their opinion archives from their first-gen social media accounts, her mother had saved screenshots of her favourite posts—not just hers and Avik’s, but the unwise outpourings of their whole generation, the collected unfiltered rants of a large cross-section of analog dinosaur kids, people who had actually used landline telephones, cassettes, and other relics now immortalised in nostalgic T-shirts. Joey still goes through Romola’s screenshot archive sometimes and shakes her head at their foolishness every time: they gave away so much about themselves, all for free, just shovelled all their personal data into the maws of the open internet.

Joey can’t imagine what that must have been like, the freedom to criticise the powerful and corrupt in your own homes. Nothing that had happened since—not the blasphemy laws in several states, not the mass de-citizenings, the voter-list erasures, the reeducation camps, the internet shutdowns, the news censors, the curfews, not even the scary stories of data-driven home invasions, not the missing person smart-scrolls on every lamp-post—had succeeded in convincing Romola or Avik that the world had really changed, that the present was not merely a passing aberration. She knows they try their best to learn the new world and each week’s new set of New India rules, but then they forget. They still think their privilege keeps them safe.
The last decade has been more or less a lab-rat experience for her parents: the Years Not To Be Discussed have spun Avik and Romola around and presented them hoop after hoop to jump through, treadmill after treadmill to run on, so even in these shiny New Hope years they seem hesitant, afraid. On her fiftieth birthday Romola had told Joey that while the party was great, the cake was unnecessarily passive-aggressive. She simply couldn’t understand how fifty could be the new thirty-five and the new seventy at the same time. Her children, fortunately, have never grown up with this primitive faith in single realities.

Joey diverts her parents down with the easiest available distraction—guys, you have to see this puppy adoption show—and leads them back to the TV, wondering all the while whether there’s an invisible sign on her forehead saying ‘Will Solve Your Crisis For Free’. But it works: soon her parents giggle on the sofa, accidentally mirroring each other as they lose themselves in their smart pacifiers. This counts as a win. They’ve been prevented from ranting about this government, or any of the last few. There will be no van full of murderers pulling up outside their house today.

She’s explained to them a hundred times that she isn’t paranoid, and that there are examples of people disappearing every day for saying the wrong things, if only they’d learn to see. That earlier, before the 20s, they could do the whole ‘free speech’ thing because they weren’t important enough to bother the powerful, or insignificant enough to erase without anyone noticing, and also, most importantly, because surveillance used to be run by humans in the good old days.
It’s your own house spying on you now. The walls really have ears. You could avoid nosy neighbours, or be wary around potential access-caste climbers. She’d tried and failed to make Avik understand that his new toothbrush heard every word he said and had been listening very carefully since he was tricked into buying it, trying to see if what came out of his mouth was as filthy as his teeth: his chief interest seemed to be learning whether his farts were being recorded and sent to data tracker centres via space. Romola’s fascinated by the idea that anything she says or types is travelling around the world, going to places she’ll never manage to physically visit, but can’t process the idea that it isn’t just the government snooping any more, but a peak-traffic cluster of corporations, other governments, religious bodies, cults, gangs, terrorists, hackers, sometimes other algorithms, watching you, measuring you, learning you, marking you down for spam or death. They’d explained to Joey years ago, when successfully persuading her not to go to farmhouse parties with her wilder classmates, that in New New Delhi, the only crime was nonconformity, and conformity was a fast-shifting, ever-angry chimera that must be constantly fed. Joey had learnt that lesson well—too well, she often worries—but her parents hadn’t listened to themselves.
She wonders when their roles reversed, whether her parents were hustling her into running things at least two decades too early, each time she delivers her weekly safety lecture—every stranger who comes to the house might be a secret agent of a data mining company, planting tiny cams and mikes for their employers. They always hear her out patiently, but when the attack happened just last month, it was Laxmi who found the tiny molka cams under the kitchen sink, not her parents. It was Laxmi who’d pushed them into searching the whole house for cams and mikes, Laxmi who’d found them all, except one, because her father had taken charge of inspecting his own bathroom and had continued to send unknown eyes images of his ass descending like a magnificent eclipse on the commode for two whole weeks. They knew who’d planted the molka cams too, a house-cleaning crew they’d hired off an app. But every complaint they’d made had disappeared into the void. Laxmi had muttered a lot about punishment, if any, going only to the cleaners, who weren’t the ones perving on their victims, and that no one knew what young girls in the slums went through with these cams.
They say they’ve seen all this before—the fear of speaking out, the fear of people around you, the fear that you’d wake up one morning to find you’d lost everything—no bank account, no citizenship, no job, no rights. It’s fear they live with, just like the fear, in their twenties, of a terrorist bomb in every market, every empty car, back when terrorists and the government were on different sides. Letting this fear get to you, letting it dictate your actions, isolate you, leech away your life… those were the things they have learnt to overcome.

‘At some point of time there’s so much fear that all of it just disappears. Then you just let go of all fear and do whatever needs doing. Your generation taught us that, Joey,’ her mother had said with extreme firmness once. ‘That’s how the generation that freed India lived their lives. I’m sorry, but that’s how your generation must live yours.’

‘I’m not talking about saving the country, Ma,’ she’d said. ‘I’m talking about not having 1234 as your password. About not saying anything that means any of your IDs gets cancelled and we have to spend years getting it back.’
‘I’m not going to just sit and watch other people because I’m too scared to do anything,’ Romola had said. ‘You shouldn’t either.’

But there was nothing that Romola could actually do. And after a friend’s daughter had disappeared, a few days after attending a protest against the demolition of her school, Romola had given up the idea of taking to the streets.

What frustrates Joey now is that Avik and Romola refuse to follow even the most simple safety protocols—treating every text exchange like a public performance, speaking in metaphors, changing speech patterns, even basic deliberate mispronunciations and typos—it’s all too much work. ‘My language learning ended with emojis when you were still in school,’ her father had said. ‘It’s too late now to learn all these new dances. And you keep forgetting that those bastards in the… fine. Tweedledum and Tweedledee have been defeated. Mogambo is dead. The Nat, no, the Talib, no, the… damn it, the Death Eaters have gone away.’ Though the Death Eaters, they all know, haven’t gone anywhere. Their masters no longer need them for distraction or land grabs, so they’ve just grown smarter, and stopped hogging all cameras, and sent their killer hordes into the shadows, a receding tide of hate and violence leaving broken cultures and blood-feuds in their wake that will haunt every neighbourhood in the country for generations. Now they conduct their savagest acts in parts of the country where no one dares to record them—or even whisper about them.
‘In the towns of Uttar Pradesh’—Romola’s stand-in post-apocalyptic wilderness of choice—‘they never knew privacy or freedom, so they never mourned their loss. We thought we had them, so it’s a little difficult for us, no?’
‘As it is I have had to stop going out because smog reduces brain activity,’ her father says. ‘I have to air-seal the whole house.’ He often complains that his life has turned into some kind of totalitarian reality show: she’s fairly sure he still doesn’t understand that managing one is his daughter’s job.

Her father’s running joke is that she is living proof of the theory of evolution—he spent his life never knowing how to work his contacts in a bubble of endless possibility, but she was pragmatic enough to recognise the worst job market in history and pick a smart job, even if it meant working with her college ex.

‘My daughter is a Reality Controller,’ he always says. ‘Her parents are reality deniers.’
Her actual designation is Associate Reality Controller now: it was Senior Reality Manager a month ago. She still can’t say either without cringing.
She wakes up again in her bedroom, with no memory of when and how she got there. At times like this, she looks forward to getting back to work: the constant adrenaline rush of Flow-running clearly keeps her at least vaguely conscious of where she is and why. One of her pet nightmares is waking up in a lab to find someone had hacked her brain, that the gaps in her memory were because someone was literally stealing her time. Sometimes she wants to play back her fantasy montage of her life, just to see what it was she actually did on Sundays, to make sure she wasn’t possessed by some malignant spirit. She catches herself wondering whether it would be possible to actually produce, procure and view 24/7 surveillance of herself, the ultimate real-time selfie, and realises this is how she actually spends her time: she just wastes it.
When she shuffles out to the living room again, she finds her parents still on the sofa, arguing amicably with Rono about the various negatives of his dropping out of school and embracing a freelance hacker-for-hire life. Even though he doesn’t turn towards her as she draws closer, she can sense him getting a little more dramatic, a little more articulated: these performances are always aimed at Joey. She hates it when Rono does this, though it’s nice to see her parents sit next to each other for once, united by their desire to encourage their eccentric-potential-genius son. Her mother, despite of her lifelong expertise in praising Joey only when absolutely forced to, often shows a suspiciously voluble appreciation for Rono’s ingenuity and cunning, and Joey is convinced it’s all orchestrated: she can feel her parents glancing towards her too, star-parents in waiting at their baby’s audition. She’s seen so many friend-groups try this down the years.

Rono thinks the only thing keeping him from being a top Flowstar is his sister’s stubborn refusal, despite years of evidence, to accept his brilliance and sign him up as a client. He thinks she’s jealous.

He’s been performing for her—subtly, he thinks—every Sunday for months. His thoughts, his gamefeeds, his teen life and feelings. His friends, their on-point banter on topics both incredibly intimate and strikingly global-trending. Their various short-form-video friendly shenanigans, pranks, fails, vox pops with unfriendly passers-by, SoDel metro-rap, a spectacularly botched attempt at neighbourhood parkour.

Excerpted with permission from Chosen Spirits, Samit Basu, Simon & Schuster India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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