A short story by Harsh Bhasin
The summons that M. received early that morning while at his office read: “Whereas your attendance is necessary to answer to a charge of Unpatriotic and Seditious behavior on your part, you are hereby required to appear in person before the First Class Magistrate on the 10th of this month. Attached to these summons, is proof of your guilt.”
The attached proof, which M. was now examining, was a photograph. There he was, holding up his index and middle fingers, raised and parted, the palm facing towards him: the obscene ‘up-yours’ salute; and the recipient of the salute? None other than the Great Leader himself. His plotting subordinate Sharma, he was sure, took the photograph, on the day of the ribbon cutting ceremony of Swami Sri Sri Baba Satgurudev Maharaj’s new toothpaste factory where he worked as a manager. The Great Leader, dressed in a khaki kurta pajama, had stepped down from his car. Swami-ji had greeted him with the national greeting: “Glory to the Motherland!” the manager had rushed forward with his garland, the flirtatious Meena from marketing had pushed past him to greet the Great Leader, squeezing M.’s arm as she went past. This had so distracted M. that when they all saluted and chanted, “Glory to our Motherland!” he, instead of making the nationalistic V for Victory salute, with his palm facing outward, unwittingly saluted with his palm turned towards himself, thus making the obscene “up-yours” salute.
The charge was serious and the consequences even more terrifying: un-patriots were caged at the national zoo for their re-education where after a period of tutoring, they were examined. And, if they failed to earn their certificate of Patriotism, they were fed to the lions.
With growing perturbation, M. decided to visit the zoo that same day and witness the fate of the un-patriots, a fate that could very much be his.
Not wanting to go alone, he went to the desk of his friend Sati, keeping the corner of his eyes free to watch out for Meena who was pretending to type on her keyboard, but was flashing glances at him.
M. recited the summons to Sati.
“If I were you, I would not go around reciting my summons to everyone, notwithstanding the poetic beauty and the meter of the composition: you do a grave injustice to the holy text, a sacrilege even,” said Sati.
“My voice breaks only because I have been unjustly accused,” said M., “it is a plot by Sharma to usurp my position. You know me well. Can a person of my faith be unpatriotic?”
“The summons already prove your guilt,” said Sati, “and as for Sharma, why, he’s just looking after the interests of his four daughters. Think of how much dowry he has to accumulate to marry his four daughters off, and there you are, with no children, yet drawing double his salary. You must agree that he was just doing his scriptural dharma as a householder in trying to oust you.”
“A dharma that sacrifices another for one’s gain?” M. said sarcastically.
“You are at the receiving end, hence you do not see the propriety of following one’s dharma, “ said Sati, “Sharma has the justification of scripture on his side–”
Meena must have picked up on the word “scripture,” for at that moment she bust out into a lilting devotional song.
Sati continued, “for example, did not Arjuna kill Bhishma while hiding behind the eunuch Sikhandi knowing that Bhishma would not fight a woman? Did not Bhima kill Drona while he was distraught by the false report of his son’s death; did not Arjuna kill Karna while he was unarmed; did not Bhima kill Duryodhana by a false blow to his thigh, contrary to the rules of combat? You will find countless such examples of noble deceptions in the scriptures.”
Sharma sauntered up at that moment. “Glory to the Motherland, Gentlemen! I could not help overhearing you talking about visiting the zoo. I would be happy to be your guide. You must certainly be aware that I have connections there, having supplied many un-patriots to the zoo, “he said, glancing guiltily at M..”
“Yes, your connections will be useful,” Sati said, “and your astute observations about the un-patriots would surely be useful to M. in the future.”
“If it would not inconvenience you gentlemen, I would like to take my nephew along to the zoo. I have taken up the insurmountable task of training him on patriotic matters on my humble shoulders and a visit to the zoo will no doubt inculcate a strong feeling of patriotism in him,” Sharma said.
“So be it,” Sati said, “these youngsters are our future leaders and we must encourage them, forcibly if need be.”
Sharma dialed his nephew’s number on his cell phone, and when he picked up, said, “Boy, would you like to join me and my colleagues for an excursion to the zoo? I know you have been pestering me to take you there and here is your chance. You would like to go? Good. Then meet me outside the entrance to my office in five minutes. We will leave without you if you are not there at the allocated time–” Before ending the call, Sharma also wished the omnipresent yet invisible spy who listened in on every phone call, “Glory to the Motherland! Spy-ji, thank you for your service. It’s because of patriots like you that our nation is so great. A thousand blessings on you and your family.”
M. looked at Sharma with respect. How considerate Sharma is, he thought, showing curtsy to an unknown spy, one who he has never met before in his life, showering blessings on his family even, and how patriotic were his words; he had so much to learn from Sharma. M. decided that he would observe Sharma more closely from now on and learn the proper patriotic etiquettes and values from him.
“Gentlemen,” said Sharma, breaking M.’s silent contemplation, “I will summon a taxi, and meet you on the street downstairs.” Then, before walking to the door, gave a perfect patriotic salute, V for victory, thump on the chest, followed by a stretch of his right arm, palm down, and a shout of: “Glory to the Motherland!” which startled Meena who saw that M. was also about to leave so stretched out her leg from under her desk to trip him.
As soon as M. stepped out on the street, a small boy, dark as coal, ran towards him, leapt onto him, wrapped his legs around M.’s waist, scratched his face, and pulled his hair. Sharma ran behind the boy, huffing like a steam engine, shouting, “Boy…Boy…get down …get down boy or I’ll pulverize you!” Reaching up to M., he dragged down the boy, apologizing to M., “I am sorry sir, my nephew thinks you are a English man, no doubt due to the handsome suit you wear, we don’t see too much of those nowadays. He’s been learning about famous patriots at school and he probably thinks you are an English imperialist.” The boy was now pulling on M.’s briefcase. M. gave him a deft kick. Sharma said approvingly, “You have the right approach Sir. I salute your parents for teaching you sterling values. Discipline Sir, discipline, as our Great Leader does not tire of telling us. A good whipping sure as death builds character.” The boy hid behind Sati’s legs, wrapping his arms around them so tight that Sati almost fell. Sati moved towards the taxi, dragging the boy, still wrapped around his leg. The taxi driver helped disentangle the boy from Sati’s legs and he was deposited between Sati and M. on the back seat, while Sharma hopped on besides the taxi driver in the front. When the taxi started moving, the boy took out a pack of cards and using M.’s briefcase as a table, dealt out cards to M. who gamely reached out to pick up the cards, but before he could do that, the boy swiped the cards away, and before he could protest, dealt him a new hand. This repeated a number of times: each time the boy was too quick for M., and M. who was growing more irritated each time this happened exploded shouting, “Stop it!” This scared the boy and he slunk off to his side of the taxi. Sharma turned around to swat the boy’s head with a rolled newspaper. The boy sulked, rolled down the window and amused himself by counting the passing trees. There was peace in the taxi and M. dosed off.
The taxi stopped a mile before the city gates and M. was roused by the boy’s shouting. He saw that the boy had opened the taxi door and was struggling to get out. Sati had reached over M. and was holding the struggling boy by his belt. Sharma turned around and thumped the boys head a number of times with a rolled newspaper. When the boy was subdued, Sharma apologized to M., “I am extremely sorry sir that the boy woke you up. He wants to meet the untouchables over there. Ever since his father died, he thinks anyone with a dark complexion is his kin.”
M. saw the long procession of untouchables, the brooms strung from their waists sweeping away the dust they trod on, moving towards the city gates. It was 3 pm and the untouchables were only allowed to be present within the city limits between 9 am and 3 pm, when their shadow was the smallest.
“Supposing that I agree to let you meet them, just to let you assuage your curiosity, where are you going to find water to bathe in order to counteract the polluting effect of their shadows falling over you?” Sharma said to the boy.
“I will not be polluted,” the boy stubbornly maintained.
Sharma sighed, “What am I to do with you when you insist on challenging the scriptures?” and addressing M., said, “Do you see why I want him to visit the zoo? He should see how the un-patriots are punished. Maybe that will put the fear of God into his heart and sense into his mind.”
“Dear boy,” M. said, “please listen to your uncle. I understand that with your complexion you feel empathy towards them but you have to keep your distance– the divine words of scriptures cannot be easily ignored.”
“Yes,” Sharma said, “look what happened before the Great Liberation when everyone was made equal; what a mess it was, with the untouchables wanting to eat with us, drink from our taps, worship at our temples, do everything that we did. Did that not lead to the water crisis, what with their shadows falling on everyone and everyone wanting to bathe all the time? We had no one to clean our toilets; there was filth, flies and excreta everywhere. Do you remember those times? Moreover, are not the untouchables happy now to be finally doing their God sanctioned dharma? As our Great Leader has said, ‘it is their duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and for the Gods; that they must do this job bestowed upon them by Gods, which should continue as their internal spiritual activity for centuries.’”
Outside the Zoo, Chinese hawkers in makeshift shops were cooking noodles over oil stoves. They were stirring the noodles in their cauldrons with wooden ladles, swiping flies with their free hand, while vociferously shouting, “Get your offering here… get your offering here.”
“Here boy, get ten rupee worth of offerings for the un-patriots. Be sure it is unhygienic — get it from that shop swarming with flies with the stray dogs sniffing at the garbage can outside it,” Sharma said, handing the boy a ten-rupee note.
“Is there a scriptural reason for offering noodles to the un-patriots?” M. asked, “I am puzzled as noodles are not a food of this land and could not have existed in the golden days of yore.”
Sharma smiled indulgently and said, “Who says it is not a food of our land? Is China not a part of our Glorious Land?”
“China is a part of our land? When did we capture China?” M. asked in some confusion.
“We still have to actually capture it,” Sharma admitted, “but the Great Leader has already released the new maps showing China as part of our great nation. It was all over the news; I wonder how you missed it.”
“But why noodles? Our scriptures have no mention of noodles being used as an offering. Why not flowers or fruits as recommended?” M. insisted.
“Let me tell you a story from our Great Leader’s autobiography that will shed light on this,” Sharma said, “Once, on his official visit to China, this being the time before he virtually conquered China, his cook fell ill. As you know, our Great Leader is vegetarian and he saw with his own eyes, while hunting for food, incognito mark you, in the markets of Beijing, which was called Peking then, but will be called Bajrang once we fully integrate China with our nation, the animal meats used in their cooking. Then, the only vegetarian food he could eat was noodles; and eating noodles, (pay attention to his power of observation now,) he observed that he would feel hungry soon after he ate. At that time, having just started the zoo for the un-patriots, he had been thinking of an appropriate form of punishment for them. All of a sudden, it struck him that keeping the un-patriots on a perpetual cycle of titillation of the palate and subsequent hunger would be a wonderful way to torture them.”
“You do feel hungry soon after eating Chinese food,” M. observed.
“Yes, isn’t it? And not only that,” Sharma said, “noodles look like snakes and the un-patriots are snakes: notice the symbolism? See how our Great Leader brings disparate concepts together to create new strains of thoughts?”
“The Un-Patriot’s Zoo,” the heading on the signboard outside the zoo said.
M. stopped to read the contents of the board. “Before the Great Liberation,” it read, “this zoo was called the Secular Zoo and it was the abode of bears, lions, monkeys, parrots, goats, zebras, giraffes, hippos, and reptiles, among others. The sounds of their roars, growls, calls and clamor filled this park. After the Great Liberation, when our great nation became a vegetarian nation, our Great Leader was confronted with a dilemma: with the banning of all chicken, beef and fish meat products, how were the carnivorous animals of the zoo to be fed? Considering the comparative dharma of the animals, that it was the fate of the herbivores animals to be eaten and that of the carnivorous animals to eat, all the herbivorous animals, except of course the cow, over a period, were fed to the lions. Once the stock of the herbivores was depleted, an alternative source of food had to be found for the carnivores, and the screams that you hear at noon, the feeding time of the animals, are the screams of the un-patriots being fed to the lions. However, as you walk around the zoo and see the un-patriots in their cages, dear visitor, please do not despise them: they are human beings just like you and me. They are objects of your compassions and not your hatred. You can help us re-program them. Unlike the olden days, when the punishment for seditious acts was death by hanging, under the new Un-Patriot Act, our leader has given them a path to redemption. The un-patriots in this zoo are given three chances to prove their patriotism. If they can prove their patriotism, the National Patriotism Board issues them a certificate of patriotism, and they are free men. If not, they are fed to the lions. Through the kindness of your heart, dear visitor, you can help them prepare for these tests. When you see them in their cages today, teach them stories of our national heroes, read to them from our holy books, motivate them to chant ‘Glory to our Motherland.’ You can pick up patriotic books to read to them from the Visitors Bureau located next to the lions cages but be advised that during the morning they are slow to learn as they undergo electric shock treatment at that time which fogs their mind. In order to keep these un-patriots hungry and therefore motivated please do not feed any un-patriot more than four strings of noodles, and that too only when he chants, ‘Glory to the Motherland.’ Your cooperation in keeping the animals and the un-patriots safe is much appreciated by the management.”
It was just the perfect day for a visit to the zoo. The sun was warm but not hot, plenty of shade due to the massive trees that lined the walkways, hawkers selling ice cream and cold drinks, children running about, excitedly looking at the exhibits, an open train that they boarded and which took them leisurely around the zoo. From their seats on the planks of the rattling train, they saw lions lazing in the sun, some crocodiles on the bank of a lake, panthers, wolves, jaguars, cheetahs, and even leopards.
The train stropped and they walked to the un-patriots attraction, following a bunch of school students out on a field trip, with Sharma running excitedly in the front, pulling the boy by his arm, urging them to be quick, “Hurry! Hurry! This is where the doggies are. Remember; do not feed them with your hand. Throw the noodle in the air and watch them catch. These doggies are newly arrived to the zoo and have not started receiving the shock treatment yet, so you’ll find them eager to engage in a conversation.”
It became apparent to M. that these doggies had been kept starving and were thus willing to do all kinds of antics for a noodle. They vied for M.’s attention as he passed by their cages, begging to be fed. Some did the national salute, shouting: “Glory to the Motherland,” some recited sayings of patriots, some quoted from scriptures, and one even did a head stand for him. This so amused M. that he threw a noodle at him. It fell in the muddy floor of the cage and the doggy, a boy about twenty years old, long ragged hair, bright eyes, wearing just a loincloth, leapt to the ground, and thrust the noodle in his mouth, along with some mud.
Sharma shook M.’s hand and whispered in an agitated tone, “Sir, be careful, you can only feed them after they chants, ‘Glory to the Motherland,’” and he pointed to a sign outside the cage which said. “It is an offense, punishable by 50 strokes of the whip, to feed the un-patriots if they do not chant, ‘Glory to the Motherland’”. “Let’s quickly move out of here,” Sharma said, “it’s good that the guard is looking the other way.”
At the ‘ghosts’ section, M. noticed that these un-patriots were famished, their rib cases sticking out, on account of not being fed for days together, their wild disheveled hair, burnt at the temples where they received electric shocks, unkempt and sticking up like ragged weed . They just lay on the ground, flies and mosquitoes buzzing around them, which they had no energy to brush away. Strangely, the ghosts were a great attraction for kids. You could see virtuous kids standing outside the cages, reading them stories about patriots, or passages from the scriptures. “It is truly a noble thing these kids are doing,” Sharma explained, “preparing the ghosts for the certification exams. You know, they only get three chances to pass the Patriotism Certificate exam and they have just one last attempt remaining.”
M. noticed that Sati had been quiet all the while. “Are you not enjoying yourself?” M. asked, “You have not spoken a word since we came here.”
“Let me put things in perspective,” Sati said, “this could be you behind the cage.”
The realization suddenly hit M.: why, that could be him lying on the ground, flies and mosquitoes buzzing around him, famished, too weak to move. He felt faint and sat down on a bench.
“Are you alright?” Sati asked. “It’s nothing,” M. said, wiping a tear, “I feel sorry for the un-patriots, that’s all.”
“You feel compassion for them?” Sati asked, “You who have been so busy enjoying their antics that you did not realize that you are looking at your own future, feel compassionate now? Why did you not feel compassionate earlier when you saw their emaciated photographs on TV and read about them in news? Is it not funny that compassion only arises in your heart when you are to join their ranks?”
Sharma who had walked ahead turned around and saw M. sitting on the bench. “No time to sit down, we still have to see the goats,” he cried out to them, “You don’t want to miss such a spiritual activity.”
“Why are they called goats?” M. asked, catching up with Sharma.
“Goats, like in sacrificial goats,” Sharma explained, “these un-patriots have failed all three attempts to get a Patriotism Certificate and now must be fed to the lions. They have now attained the status of gods because with their sacrifice, it is believed, they will take the sins of the devotees on their own heads. You will see that devout citizens bring to them all kinds of sumptuous food and sweets as offerings. The authorities actually encourage this practice because it fattens up the un-patriots for the lions and it is a great spiritual exercise for the devotees.
The goat area was festive. Flags, banners and balloons fluttered from poles, devotional songs blared from the loudspeakers. Devotees carried plates of rice pudding, ladoos and jalabees which they gave to the priests sitting outside the cages, who in turn infused the offering with holy incantation, throwing part of the offering to the goat inside the cage, and returning the remaining portion to the devotee as blessed food. There were many devotees lying face down before the cages, praying intensely for the transference of their sins to the goats, and M. saw that the priests actually had a rate chart for various prayers offered by them for such transference: the more heinous the crime, the higher the prayer rate, as was to be expected. However, the goats themselves did not seem too interested in eating the delicacies offered to them, which lay scattered on the floor of the cages and served as food for the ants, flies and rats. M. learnt that after months of food deprivation, sustaining on a diet of noodles, these goats could not tolerate this rich food and often had to be force-fed.
When the day of the court appearance came, Meena drove M. to the Magistrate’s court.
Outside the court gates were the reporters and photographers from the news channels, and inside were the lawyers wearing their ceremonial black robes and white bows, waiting patiently in line all the way up to the judge’s chamber for their turn to give the ritualistic slap to M.’s face. Meena walked besides him, soothingly caressing his arm after he received each slap.
The judge was short, “I will not waste my time asking you pointless questions to which you will only lie. The preponderance of evidence is against you and it is evident from your photograph that the news channels have already circulated that you are guilty of defiling our national salute and mocking our Great Leader. The law finds you guilty of sedition, but in its magnanimity, gives you three chances to prove your patriotism. If you fail to pass the patriotism test and obtain the requisite Patriotism Certificate, you will be fed to the lions,” and banging his hammer on his desk, said, “justice is served. Glory to the Motherland!”