I was seated in the waiting-room of the Rations Office, awaiting my turn. I’d filled out all the necessary forms, and pretty soon, I would get what I’d come here for. And then I would finally be happy.
As I looked around the waiting-room, I only young saw people around me. I was 63 and none of the people here in the waiting room looked older than 25. It wasn’t a big surprise though. Most of the people of my generation had been locked up. They hadn’t been able to control themselves. I was one of the very few who’d been allowed to stay on in the outside world.
But there was also another thing that I noticed about the people around me. None of them looked at anyone. Sure, they looked at each other to make sure that they didn’t bump into each other, but nobody really looked. And never at anyone’s face. It’d become a dangerous thing, you know. To look at someone, especially here, in the Rations Office. People were most vulnerable here, because the rations were so tantalizingly close. It had been different back in my time. People used to smile at each other, talk about the weather, inquire about each other. They used to care. But not anymore.
The world had become a funny place.
In the older times, I would have strolled down a sunny, familiar street, met the neighbours and happily, proudly told them that my dear, sweet daughter Naaz was having a baby. Her first. My only child had grown up to be so big that she was going to be a mother and I would have been happy, and proud and teary-eyed and eager. I would have already made plans of all the things I would show and teach my grandchild, decided on all of the stories that I would amaze him with just as my grandmother used to amaze me. I would have already started showering unlimited love on my grandchild. But these are not the older times. These are the new times. New times in a more expensive world. And I can’t afford to feel happiness like I used to. I can’t afford to love like I used to.
Instead I am seated here, in the drab, stuffy waiting-room. Trying not to think about my precious Naaz, lying there in the hospital with her husband. It must be even tougher for her than it is for me, especially now that she was so close. Poor child! I wish I could have done more for her.
My hand started to beep just as I felt the most minuscule of tears forming behind my eyes. That’s not a good sign. I took a deep breath and distracted myself. I thought about my work and the beeping stopped. I used to be a Philosophy professor. I’m retired now, obviously. But, I think it was my studies and philosophical bent of mind that allowed me to stay out in the real world when all of my friends, most of my relatives and almost everyone my age was locked up. Well, not locked up, technically. At least that’s not what they call it. They have a better name for it. Something more politically correct. “Stoical Homes,” they call it. What it means is that everyone who is put in there is drugged and lulled into a coma. And then, they just stay there. In a coma. Till they grow old and die. I’m not one of those people. But the sad part, if there could be such a thing, is that I couldn’t even be grateful for it.
The computer screen in front of me lighted up. Ten minutes before my rations come through, it says. Good, I think to myself. My daughter should be able to wait ten more minutes.
I relax into my armchair in front of the computer. I just have to wait ten more minutes. I flitted my eyes away from the screen, and I saw a man staring right back at me. It’s a young man, with an unshaven face. A harrowed face. And he’s dressed in white. But I could see one more thing that no one else here could or would even be able to notice. These new-age young ones wouldn’t be able to recognize it. But, I would and I did. This man, who was staring at me was trying very, very hard not to cry.
I looked away from him almost instantaneously. It’s none of my business, I repeated to myself. I didn’t need to get involved. I didn’t need to console. If all of the other people in the building could scurry about right around him, ignoring him, so could I. Like I said, it’s dangerous looking at people’s faces. And here was clear proof. And I needn’t do anything except ignore him.
The beeping from the man unfortunately brought my attention back to him. He was looking at his hand with a horrified expression and yet he couldn’t stop sobbing. And even now, nobody paid any attention to him. It was inhumane, ignoring a person who was so clearly in so much pain. And cursing myself and contrary to my better judgment, I got up and walked up to him.
I did not smile at him. I just held out my hand. “I’m Asif,” I said.
The young man in white, he looked at me slowly, shocked by my introduction. Talking to strangers wasn’t the norm anymore. Hardly anybody did it anymore. He mumbled incoherently for a few seconds before he managed to tell me that his name was Ajay.
“Would you like to sit down?” I asked him and he nodded sullenly. I guided him back to where I was sitting. He was still sobbing and his hand was still beeping. And I was starting to lose control. Only very slightly though. Who wouldn’t?
“You have to control yourself, Ajay,” I told him and myself. “There must be people waiting for you at home. Counting on you.”
“Ye … yes … there are,” Ajay managed to say in between his sobbing.
“And I know, it’s an impossible thing to do, but you’re going to have to keep your grief at bay for just a little longer.”
Ajay so far had only looked at the floor. In shame probably. But, when I spoke about grief, he looked me right in the eyes. “So, you know?” he asked me.
“I can guess,” I told him. “And I’m sorry. Genuinely.”
Ajay lost all control as I said this. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But it was too late by then. And Ajay was crying hysterically now. “Why me?” he asked me, looking up at me with big, tear-filled eyes. “Why can’t I grieve, Asif? I want to grieve. Why won’t they let me grieve my own father??” he almost shouted hysterically.
Why? I asked myself trying my damnedest to not be affected by his misery. It was pretty simple, actually.
The world had become a funny place.
And it had all started about thirty years ago. Scientists somewhere had made a startling discovery – that there was only a limited amount of emotions. Think of it as a large tank of happiness and sadness and jealousy and what not, they would say. And all of the people living on the planet are drinking from it. But, the emotions in the tank is limited. Nobody believed them, of course. It seemed too ridiculous an idea.
Well, it wasn’t.
And seven or eight years later, it’d become an undeniable fact of science. All of the governments convened a meeting to decide what needed to be done. The first question asked was if anything needed to be done at all? If they were already not doing anything about the fossil fuel problem, should they really be worrying about the emotions-problem. And so the dilly-dallying had gone on just as it always had. The first few years of the meetings and the semi-annual think-tanks were nothing short of a farce. Then something happened that made everyone wake up to the real danger. Lust ran out, and it wasn’t funny. It was the most overused of human emotions and it’d run out. And that’s when the governments became serious. Within half a year, new rules were enacted. All the human emotions were identified. They were given units of measurement. And then every living person was implanted with a chip in their hands that would measure and keep track of their emotions. And each person got a ration. He could only be this amount of happy and sad and jealous per month. And if you exceeded your ration, you were put into special homes – the Stoical Homes, where you wouldn’t be a drain on the limited emotions of the world anymore. But if you were rich, you wouldn’t go to a Stoical Home. You could just buy some more happiness and the proceeds would go to fund research into creating emotions. But, if you were not rich, like me, you did the best with what you could. Which meant stopping to feel. It meant that I couldn’t be happy at my daughter’s eighteenth birthday. It meant that I couldn’t be happy at her wedding. It meant I couldn’t be sad at my wife’s funeral. And it meant that Ajay couldn’t be sad about his father’s demise. Not until he got an extended license-for-grief from the Rations Office. It was a ridiculous arrangement, but it was the reality of the times.
I looked up at Ajay again. He was still sobbing.
“Ajay, take a deep breath,” I told him. “You just need to be calm for a few more minutes. I’m sure your license will come through, and then you can go home, be with your family and grieve properly.”
“It won’t come through,” Ajay mumbled as he took a deep breath and wiped his eyes.
“It won’t come through. The license. I don’t have any money for it.”
I looked at Ajay, his wet cheeks and tear-stained dress and the melancholy in his eyes. And I tried hard to control any emotions that might be trying to come up inside of me. I needed to save my rations. For my daughter and my grandchild.
“They’re going to take my mother away tonight. To a Home. Only because she misses the person she has loved for more that twenty-five years,” Ajay said as he finally got himself under control. “And that’s not even the worst part. Do you know what the worst part is?” Ajay asked. I shook my head solemnly.
“No one cares. No one can care. Because, in reality, none of us are human anymore. And no one is going to be angry about that either.”
And then Ajay thanked me, got up and left. As I saw him leave, his last words still resounded in my head. Was he right? Had we lost our humanity? And then I thought of my wife. And how much I had loved her. And how much I had missed her. How much I still missed her. Her smile, her scolding me, her holding me. The lazy Sunday mornings that we used to spend in each other arms. And I felt angry that I hadn’t even honoured her memory properly. I had remained calm and unfeeling and robotic all through her funeral. I had been a jerk and the world had forced me to be. And I became angry. At myself and at the world, and at Ajay for being right.
My hand started to beep. The chip showed me that I was angry. And that made me even angrier. It was because of this chip that I hadn’t been able to be a good, loving father to Naaz. I thought of all the moments that I had had with my parents when I was young – frolicking around on a beach, screaming my lungs out on a roller-coaster, being sad at the death of my pet dog, Buzo; and I hadn’t been able to give any of that to my daughter. Because, of the damn chip in my hand. And in hers. It was unfair, it was inhumane and Ajay was right. It should infuriate each and everyone of us. And it did. All I wanted to do now, was rip the chip right out of my hand, incite a revolution, scream my lungs out in frustration, something, anything that would make me feel less of a robot and more of a human. Choked up emotions from the past thirty years descended upon me like a deluge. And I saw in my mind’s eye each and every moment that I should have felt but I didn’t. I saw each and every moment that I had failed my wife, my daughter, my humanity.
But, just before I could do something really stupid, like ripping the chip out of my hand, the computer in front of me beeped and read out for me.
“Your family has been granted a birth-license. It will last for two years. The details have been sent to your daughter. Congratulations on your new family member.”
And below it was a picture of my daughter, my Naaz. And in her hand was the most perfect little baby I had ever seen. She had already given birth and the computer had pulled her files for me. And as I saw my daughter and my granddaughter, all of my anger fled. For a moment, I felt hollow. And then I smiled. And for the first time in many, many years, I allowed myself to be happy. I was a happy, elated, proud grandfather. I was going to hold my grandchild in my arms, I was going to coddle her, I was going to love her, and make up for all of the mistakes that I had made. And at none of those moments would my hand beep. It would not make a single sound as I would love my granddaughter with all my heart.
And for the time being, the world had become a happy place.