Ars Poetica
Neel hit the shutdown button on his computer as soon as he heard the footsteps outside his room and turned up the volume of the stereo. Soothing music filled the room as tiny bells chimed in tune with the rich notes of a piano and a violin. Neel quickly shoved a few CDs under his workbook. Better be safe than sorry, he told himself, although most probably it was only his sister Neha coming in to say goodnight. Neel quickly looked around the room – everything seemed in place. The rich pastel colored curtains perfectly matched the walls. The designer bed stood primly in one corner, bathed by the light of the reading lamp. His bookshelves were perfectly organized, the little rug at the foot of his bed was dead straight, his bedroom slippers perfectly aligned on the mat. Neel grimaced. This perfect room, like always, grated on his nerves.

His twin sister Neha entered after a soft knock on the door, a finger on lips. Neel raised his eyebrows. - ‘Mum’s on the prowl’, whispered Neha, ‘on her way up here. Where are the books and the disks, Neel?’
- ‘I have hidden the books in my cupboard. The disks are here’ said Neel, moving the workbook.
Neha frowned. ‘No, we have to hide them somewhere else’ she said. ‘Beeb’s been at it again. He has complained to Mum about both of us – you know, about the last music session’.
- ‘Well, let’s stuff them with the books then’ said Neel. ‘She won’t look in the cupboard, I’m sure’. Brother and sister hurriedly scooped up the few CDs and stuffed it deep under the clothes. Neha tucked in a belt that was sticking out, and no sooner had they settled down in front of the game console that their mother walked in, smelling faintly of violets as always, gliding across the thick carpet.

-‘Hello children’ she sang. ‘How was your day, then? I am sorry I was not here for supper – as you both know, we had the group meeting in your school today’. She looked at them serenely, a beautiful woman, perfectly groomed, every hair in place and stiff as a mannequin. ‘I have never seen her any different’ Neel suddenly thought ‘even when Granny died so suddenly last year. She had been sad, yes, infinitely sad, but totally impeccable at all times, even during the last rites’. Neel felt the familiar shiver down his spine again. He had real difficulty in putting up with so much perfection at all times. He knew that Neha shared his feelings to a certain extent, but not completely.

- ‘Neel, Neha – I was sorry to hear that once again your behavior was not perfect today’ said their mother. ‘I really can’t understand you. Why do you disappoint me so? I have not seen your dad as yet. He won’t be very happy either when I do’. She sighed as she sat down on a pouf gracefully. Neel gritted his teeth and waited for his sister to answer, wishing that for once his mother would change the tone of her voice or her attitude – the cool detached demeanor angered him more and more these days, though he was not sure why. Neha seemed to deal better with their parents.

- ‘Why Mama, what is the matter? What have we done this time? And who has been complaining?’ asked Neha, with just the right amount of humility and irritation. There were never any raised voices in this family, as in all the families that Neel knew, in their neighborhood and elsewhere, all across the country. Maybe across the world too, thought Neel, but he was not sure. Lately he has been seeing strange messages on his personal wall – they only stayed for a few seconds and disappeared permanently, like being sucked into a black hole. They were about far off places where men and women were chanting slogans in the streets or in the universities. Neel thought of one of the books hiding in his cupboard – a book written in a strange way, certainly, describing a world where once angry men and women lived, loving, but also fighting, killing each other with or without valid reasons. Some would do it, it seemed, to defend a cause, some to amass vast wealth, or yet others fighting tyrants or dictators. Neel was still confused, and could not wait to get back to his books. He dragged himself back to the conversation in his room.

‘…. And so he said that your music was all wrong’ his mother was saying while Neha stared at her fixedly. ‘Did he say why?’ asked Neha.
- ‘Of course. Both you and Neel deliberately changed the music, especially towards the end. And it seems that the sounds you produced with the violin and the drum were quite inappropriate – loud and harsh and not in harmony. According to Mr.Beeb, you apparently have some followers in your group, and they clapped and whooped when you had finished. Is that true, children?’

They nodded and chanted ‘sorry Mama’ in unison too. ‘It won’t happen again’ they promised. Their mother did not look totally mollified – for a moment it seemed to Neel that she might say something else, but the moment came and went. ‘Well, I won’t disturb you any more’, she said formally. ‘Good night children. I shall see you tomorrow morning’. And with that she was gone, the door softly clicking behind her. There would be no more intrusions, they knew. They hardly saw their father during the week – a well-known Professor of a famous university, he was eternally busy with his work and had very little time for his children except on rare weekends.

Neel got up and locked the door, though it was strictly against rules & whipped out the CDs from the cupboard. In a flash they had their headphones on, completely immersed in the music, totally different from what they had heard in their young lives. ‘Almost violent’ thought Neel, listening to the angry rumbling of the drums and the wailing voice of the singer. The sounds were sometimes mellow, sometimes harsh, but totally harmonious. The words in the song did not rhyme, and Neel had trouble understanding the meaning – ‘I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag / I was schooled with a strap right across my back / But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!’ sang the amazing voice. Neel glanced at his sister, and she seemed to be in a trance…

Once Neha had left, Neel could not go to sleep. He knew he had his skating practice early in the morning, and then it would be straight to school. He would have no respite throughout the day crowded with lessons and gym and relaxation and therapy. He would hardly have time to see the group tomorrow, and that annoyed him. He was getting more and more fed up with his regimented life. He wanted to run and shout and jump and scream – not in the organized group therapy sessions but outside, under the open sky, under the stars. Like now. But when he lifted up the curtain, his urges died down. The manicured lawns and the beautiful tree lined streets were not fit for such things. He sighed impatiently and drew out the book he was reading. But the words floated and danced before his eyes and he could not concentrate. It was a difficult book to read, in any case, full of strange concepts and convoluted sentences. Like the one he was reading right now - “Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? If I open and am for ever in the black adiaphane. Basta! I will see if I can see. See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.” The sentence fascinated him though he was not totally sure of what it meant. Adiaphane? Still, the word had a nice ring to it. ‘It is this book that is bothering me’, thought Neel, ‘all these words thrown in pell-mell, totally discordant and grating and sometimes meaningless. I should read what is on my reading list instead’. Yet the thought of picking up those sterile books put him off. He switched off the overhead light and was just getting into bed when his cellphone beeped.

Neel was surprised. Nobody should be calling him this late at night. It was considered the ultimate breach of conduct. Evenings were for studying and relaxing and being with the family. Outsiders had no access to other people’s lives at this time of the day. Neel grabbed the phone and flipped the receive button. Trisha’s face smiled at him.
- ‘Hey Neel. No, don’t tell me that you’re glad to see me! I can see it in your face’ she laughed.
- ‘Trish! I am surprised, yes’ mumbled Neel ‘why are you calling me now? Is there anything wrong at home? Shall I call Mum?’
- ‘No dummy. It’s you I want to talk to’ she said. ‘Oh I know that I am not supposed to call now. But I had to tell you about this important decision we have taken at today’s group meeting, since you couldn’t make it’
- ‘What is it?’ asked Neel, excited. ‘Are we going, then? When?
- ‘No, we did not get around to discussing that. Several had to leave because of the choir practice. And we saw the Jujus behind that greenhouse, you know?’
- ‘Oh no’, wailed Neel ‘have they discovered the grotto?’
- ‘No, but they soon might. We have not been very careful lately’ said Trisha. ‘So we decided not to meet for some time. We shall meet on the Mirror instead, around this time every night’.
- ‘At this time, Trish? Isn’t that a bit risky? You know that we are really not allowed to do it’ said Neel doubtfully. ‘We are still in school. And even if that was not the case….’
- ‘Neel, what we are planning to do far exceeds meeting on the Mirror, wouldn’t you agree?’ said his friend. ‘We shall soon break out of this horrible prison altogether, you’ll see. Or are you getting cold feet now?’ mocked Trisha.
- ‘No. But we still haven’t made contact, and we mustn’t jeopardize the whole thing by being hasty. Also, I haven’t told Neha yet. She is my twin, you know. She will certainly sense it and then make my life hell. But I’m not sure that I want her to get into this either’.
- ‘That is your decision, Neel. I can’t help you here. But I think it might be a good idea to tell her. If she doesn’t want to join, no problem. But at least she’ll know’.
- ‘OK Trish. Let me think about it. Do we have classes in common tomorrow? So what is the plan for tomorrow night?’
- ‘You’ll get the message, Neel. Goodnight for now’.
Neha was almost asleep when she felt, rather than heard Neel getting into her room. It was so unusual that she sat bolt upright in her bed. No one entered a room without knocking, not even your twin brother or your parents. All interactions were strictly codified to ensure total privacy for each person. That was what children learnt. That was how they behaved. But before she could get a word out, Neel was beside her, whispering her to be quiet. He had something to tell Neha, and it couldn’t wait till next day, he said.
- ‘Neha, you need to know what I have been doing in my spare time all these days’ began Neel. ‘I know that you’ve asked me several times, and I told you about those books & music that I had discovered by chance. It wasn’t by chance, sis. I have joined this group, some from our school who you know, and some others that you don’t, and we have been contacted’.
A shiver ran down Neha’s spine. Her eyes were almost popping out.
- ‘That is not possible, Neel. You are not even eighteen, just like the others from school. You have been nowhere near the edge – you couldn’t have. Even Mum & Dad says that they’ve never been that far. How can there be a contact? And don’t you know how dangerous it is?’
- ‘Actually, Neha, no, I don’t know how dangerous it is. Neither do you, or anyone we know, for that matter. We have just heard stories of this dangerous people who live beyond the edge and are always trying to infiltrate our lands. But honestly, when has there been a real incident?’
- ‘Well, Neel, you have to admit that quite a few people have gone missing lately. Not from this neighborhood, not from our community either, but you do remember hearing about that, don’t you? That beautiful model, for instance, or that bold journalist who was on screen all the time. And we heard about them because they were famous. Maybe there are lots more’.
Neel thought for a minute. Neha may have a point there. But he pushed the thought to the back of his mind.
- ‘Well, whatever it is, listen to the story now. You know that abandoned tennis court that the council has been meaning to landscape for the last few years? We went there the other day, after dusk’. He preempted her sister’s reaction ‘I know, I know, we don’t have the right to go there. But honestly, don’t you get bored going to the same places every day? And seeing the same people? And doing the same boring things? Ru, Trish and Axel did, and so we hid in the gym and once it was dark, quickly ran to the field. There is nothing there other than the perfectly mowed lawn, and we were coming back more or less disappointed when Trish stumbled on a piece of loose turf. We got curious and pulled at it, and the whole chunk slid off the ground. It was covering this hole in the ground, quite a big one. We peered down and there was this rusting ladder. We decided to explore, and went down the ladder. Someone must have built that place, Neha, because the walls and the floors are cemented. It is more like a tunnel, and after a while we had to give up exploring because it was very dark. We have been back there quite a few times since, with torches, and it is a tunnel that stretches on and on. We have not reached the end yet. And that is where our group meets now, whenever we get a chance’.

Neel stopped for breath and his sister jumped straight in. ‘Is that why you are back late from your gym every time? And that strange smell in your clothes and hair – that must come from that stupid tunnel? And I guess that they came to the tunnel to meet you?’

- ‘Whoa, Neha, calm down. Do you want to wake up Mum? No, they didn’t come to the tunnel. But we kept finding little things – you know – like a picture, or a small doll carved out of wood, a poster of a rally in a place I have never heard of. And then the books and the CDs started coming. With small neatly typed notes: ‘listen to this music. Have you ever heard sounds like this before?’ or ‘read this book. Not everybody in this world talks in the same way as you do’. We read the books and listened to the music, as you have too. But we did not dare responding to their notes. Now a couple of days back came this message. Read it yourself’ said Neel, whipping out the cell. ‘I copied it’.

“Though you have not replied to our messages, we think you are now ready to learn the truth and choose your own way. We know that your outlook about your own lives has already changed. You have started asking questions. They never taught you that. They have conditioned your life to rule out any independent thinking. So there will never be any discord, any protest in your sterile country. Once you grow up, they will send you out over the edge so that you can bring more and more people into your doctrine – the harmony of the robots. No independent thought, no creation, no literature, no music, no innovation. So come to the playing field. Let us tell you the truth so that you may choose your camp.”
- ‘What playing field? ‘ asked Neha.
- ‘We don’t know yet, Neha. We have to get in touch with them. That is why we’re meeting on the Mirror. Tomorrow night. Now do you want to join the group? I had to tell you all this, but you can easily stay out.’
- ‘I think you’re being stupid, Neel. It is most probably a hoax – maybe the Jujus are behind it, or some other group. They just want to trap you.’
- ‘Then how do you explain the books & the CDs? No one here could have got hold of those’.
- ‘But why would they choose you? Just because you discovered that tunnel accidentally?’
- ‘Maybe. Because we ventured out, don’t you see? We broke a few rules in going out there. We took the books, tried reading and discussing them. Maybe they somehow know that too. Maybe they know that we really want to meet them…’
- ‘Neel, honestly, they are not mind readers, certainly. How can they know?’
- ‘I have no idea. But you know what, mind readers did exist before. Sometimes they were worshipped, and sometimes burnt to death. I read that in one of the books.’
It was getting dangerously late. They both had to get up the next morning and attend school.
- ‘Well Neha, think about it & tell me tomorrow. Go to sleep now’.
The Mirror was very crowded that night, with almost all the members in attendance. Neel had carefully checked on his mother – she was safely ensconced in the solarium, listening to music. The Mirror was a virtual clubhouse that the kids had created themselves. Layers of encryption made the Mirror inaccessible to all except members. In fact, it wasn’t even traceable on the vast tracking system that the Council had put in place to prevent any infiltration from the world beyond the edge. Though the Elders often doubted the technological prowess of the ‘outsiders’, they were not willing to take the risk.

The discussion was very heated that night while the group tried to come to a consensus about the next step. Most of them wanted to make contact immediately and find out about the Playing Field. A few others, including Neha, advised caution, fearing a trap somewhere. They were missing the presence of Ry, their natural leader. He had given no explanation of his absence, and was not answering his cell phone. Trisha kept worrying, saying that it was not normal. Neel was a bit worried too, but kept getting distracted by the discussion…
The door of his room flew open suddenly and before either of them could move they were upon them. Men clad in the dreaded white suits that they had never expected to see in their house. Neel could see his mother behind, looking scared and disheveled, maybe for the first time in her life. In a jiffy they were before the computer screen, staring at the crowd of faces. They were still debating furiously and didn’t seem to notice anything till Trisha screamed loudly. All at once the faces started disappearing, and within seconds the screen was blank. The man standing next to Neel calmly took out a device and connected it to the computer. Neel knew that within seconds they would have the details of all those who had been there. Another one walked to the door and asked his mother to leave them alone.

- ‘They are only kids, they aren’t even eighteen’ she said. ‘I must stay with them. You can’t harm them in my house’.
- ‘We are not going to harm them, Ma’am. We just need to ask some questions. You know you can trust the Protectors, don’t you?’
She did not look totally convinced but didn’t protest any more. Neel and Neha were alone with the three men in ghostly white suits that shimmered faintly. They felt the fear in each other like it was a tangible object. Neel squeezed his sister’s hand. They didn’t know what was going to happen but they were very scared.
Neel woke up in a bright white unfamiliar room. Sunlight filtered through a round window set high in the wall. There was no furniture in the room other than a small square table with a jug of water and a glass. He did not remember travelling anywhere but he obviously had. He sat up on the bed & looked around. He could feel a slight pain on his wrists, and when he looked at them closely, he could see the faint outline like that of a sticking plaster. He felt strangely lightheaded. He wondered where Neha was. He tried to remember what had happened last night, but try as he might, could not remember anything beyond the arrival of the Protectors in their ghastly white suits.

The door opened silently and a woman stood smiling at him. She wore a white flowing robe and had flowers in her hair. Neel was amazed. He had never seen anyone dressed like that. There was something very soothing about her, and when she asked Neel to follow her, he did so without any trepidation. ‘My name is Mia’, she said and led him into a big bright room where a meeting seemed to be in progress. He was not surprised to find his friends from the Group sitting round the table. Neha was not there, and he did not know whether he should be worried or pleased. A tall man stood at the head of the table, and welcomed Neel with a pleasant smile. Neel caught Trisha’s eye, and she smiled serenely. Axel was staring out of the window at a lovely sun drenched garden and seemed lost in his own thoughts. Neel looked at the others and they all seemed to be normal. Neel started to feel a bit disturbed. How come they were all in this strange place but no one seemed to find it strange?

The man started speaking now in a melodious voice. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Hospice. My name is Brian, and I am here to help you. Your parents sent you here – they reckon that you have some slight adjustment problems in your respective schools. Short attention span. Propensity for breaking rules. Challenging authority. Don’t worry – I deal with these minor problems every day. All you need is a bit of individual and group therapy. Mia here will hand you your schedules for today. You shall all go back home once we have finished treating you.’
Neel was flabbergasted. He remembered what happened the night before quite clearly, till the arrival of the Protectors. He knew that he had no ‘adjustment problems’ in school. Neither did his friends. But no one protested, so he kept quiet too. He worried about Neha, and suddenly remembered Ry. What had happened to him? Why did he suddenly disappear last night? After all, he was the undisputed leader of the Group. He started feeling extremely confused. Now Mia smilingly handed them single sheets of paper with a map. He was to start his day at the gym. He found the locker room and was just about to change into gym clothes when a hand pulled him back behind a row of lockers. Turning angrily, he looked straight into the face of Ry, who had a finger on his lips.

- ‘Listen to me carefully, Neel, I don’t have a lot of time. They raided my home yesterday, the Protectors, before you started your meeting on the Mirror. I saw them first, because I was out in the garden and left the house before they could come looking for me. I don’t know how they found us out, but they did. That is how they got all of you. Now you have to get out of here before they do you any more harm’.
- ‘What harm, Ry? What have they done to us?’ asked Neel, though he thought he knew the answer. The blank looks on the faces of his friends were pointers enough.
- ‘They have erased a part of your memory. They will do more today’ said Ry.
- ‘But how do you know all this? Or are you guessing?’
- ‘I did not go back home last night after the Protectors left. I went to the Grotto instead. They were waiting for me there – a man and a woman. They knew that we had been discovered – don’t ask me how. And they knew what the Protectors would do.’
Now Neel was badly scared. ‘But what can we do, Ry? What do you want me to do? They seem to have a big structure here. There must be a lot of people around. Have you talked to the others?’
- ‘No Neel, they are too far gone. They don’t remember anything. That is what the Contacts told me. Again, I don’t know how they know. They told me to find you. You are not to touch any food or drink here, and at the end of the day, they shall get us out. They can’t do anything for the others’.
- ‘What about Neha, Ry? Do you know? How come she was not brought here?’
- ‘They didn’t judge Neha to be a threat, and so left her at home. You were, so they picked you up. But you have resisted the erasing. Again, I don’t know how, but I have a feeling that the Contacts know’.
- ‘What are you going to do, Ry?’
- ‘I shall stay in the gym till we get out. They don’t know that I’m here. Our friends said that they made sure of that. Now get busy, Neel. We have to get out come what may.’
Neel quickly changed and started walking towards the machines. He knew that a very long day had just started.
Neel was still in the gym when Mia came in. ‘Your gym session is over, Neel’ she said ‘you have to join the group now’ she said, offering him a flask. ‘I’ll wait for you here’, she said ‘you may not be able to find the lecture theatre on your own. This is a big place’, she smiled. By now, Neel has started suspecting everything about this place, and he somehow felt that Mia was spying on him. He got off the machine and went towards the locker. ‘Don’t forget your drink, Neel’ Mia said sweetly ‘it is going to be a hot day’.

Neel took the flask with a word of thanks & walked towards the locker room. He was very thirsty but Ry had asked him not to drink anything. So he carefully emptied out some of the liquid in the sink, splashed some water on his face, and came out to join Mia. They walked down a long corridor and into a spacious lecture theatre. Most of Neel’s friends were already there, a few others were just coming in. They sat in comfortable desks, each one fitted with a console and numerous wires. Trisha walked in and sat down next to Neel.

-‘How are you doing, Trish?’ Neel whispered.
- ‘This is boring as hell. What did we do wrong, do you know?’ grumbled Trisha. But before Neel could think of an answer, a disembodied voice asked them to settle down and concentrate. They were instructed to put on the headphones as well as a kind of metallic bracelet that was connected to the consoles. Neel put on the headphones and managed to position the bracelet just over his wrist without actually putting it on. No one bothered to check if the instructions were followed. ‘They know that everybody will obey without asking any questions’ thought Neel, feeling quite edgy now, but he forced himself to relax. Soft and soothing music was now being played through the headphones, and Neel could discern a faint rhythmic chant in the background. He glanced at Trisha. She was practically sprawling in her chair and her eyes had a glazed look. Her lips were moving silently, in sync with something that Neel could not hear. Neel sat up and looked around. All the others in the room were behaving like Trisha. And that was when Neel spotted the cameras – the starry lights that decorated the ceiling blinked from time to time, and Neel was convinced that they were lenses and not just tiny sources of light. He started imitating the others, singing a song in his head. He did not want to get detected, not now.
Pangs of hunger kept Neel awake, while everyone around him seemed to be in a contented trance. The music in the headphones was becoming fainter.

A soft seductive voice started speaking into the head phones:
- ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you are now all set to become the perfect citizens of our nation. We do not believe in conflict, in aggression, in discord, in disobedience. We love and obey our parents and our teachers. We love our friends and our neighbors. We give our best for the collective good of our society as envisioned by the members of the Council, the supremely wise men who serve us selflessly to make a better and more harmonious world. Don’t ever forget that outsiders are waiting just over the edge to destroy everything that we have built with so much love and patience. They are your enemies. You must fight them, not with weapons but with the calm assurance of superiority and your determination. Because you are superior, you are infinitely better in every way.
You shall wake up slowly, and we shall finish the day celebrating your return into our fold. The Supremo will be here to congratulate you. You shall sing the canticle that you have learnt today. You will be accompanied to your homes and neither your parents nor your teachers will ever have to worry about you again. You shall be the perfect warriors of our faith’.

Neel panicked while the lights started coming up in the auditorium. What on earth was a canticle? Some sort of song, he guessed, but he had heard no songs on his headphones. But now he remembered the chanting he had heard earlier. It had been a distant sound, but only for him, it seemed. Probably because he did not put on that bracelet attached to the console, thought Neel. All around him people were getting up, pushing back the chairs and heading for the door. Nobody appeared to be in command, yet everybody seemed to know where to go. Neel tried to find his friends and saw Trisha going out of the door. He hurried after her, but decided not to speak. He was lightheaded with hunger, thirst and apprehension. He felt like being in enemy territory. What surprised him most was that nobody was talking, although there were a fair number of adolescents in the hallway. The silence seemed completely bizarre – these people were not even looking at each other. Neel decided that Ry was right – something had been done to these kids – they were not acting normally. He did not know where Ry was or how he was going to find him again. By now Neel was completely disorientated – he could not remember which way the locker room was. Ry had said he’d find him, but would he be able to? Who was going to rescue them in any case?
As he rounded a corner in the corridor Mia fell in step with him. She didn’t speak either and handed Neel another sheet of paper. It looked like another timetable and Neel was about to thrust it in his pocket when he noticed something written by hand in one corner. ‘Stand in the last row. Come with me when I ask you’ it said. Neel was not reassured. Is Mia trying to trap him into doing something? Mia belonged here, didn’t she? Or did she? He was too tired and confused, and decided to go with the flow. What else could he do, in any case?

They all walked into another large hall decorated with a thousand flags. The colors of the national flag was reproduced everywhere – in the carpets, in the big bouquets of flower that lined the walls, on the big stage that dominated the room. There were no chairs – men and women stood in perfectly formed lines facing the dais. Neel hung back, waiting for everyone to walk in so that he could stand in the last row. Everybody in the room seemed oblivious to everything else other than the stage, so Neel had no problem finding a space right next to the door.

A tall man in an impeccable white uniform now walked to the stage, flanked by four Protectors on each side. Neel felt a shiver running down his spine. There was something strangely disturbing about the tableau. His discomfort reached a new level when the singing started. Voices soared in unison praising the land, pledging eternal devotion and fealty to the nation, to the people, to the Protectors. They would happily go to war, they sang, to keep the land pure and safe from invaders. Neel had never heard this before – the national anthem they were required to learn in school was quite different. Though no one seemed to be paying any attention to him, he kept moving his lips while a clear sense of danger washed over him. Weak from hunger and thirst and the fatigue of the last two days, he started feeling ill. A wave of nausea washed over him, and he was about to rush out of the room when suddenly a shrill whistle sounded somewhere, followed almost immediately by sirens wailing all over the place. The eight protectors quickly drew out what looked like laser guns. The Supremo disappeared in a flash, almost by magic, it seemed, and now the white clad men fanned out, shoving children out of the way. There was little reaction from them, other than faint signs of surprise. But the scene outside the room was quite different. People were rushing all over the place and Neel heard broken phrases talking about ‘outsiders’ and a ‘full scale attack’. A few people clad in boiler suits were turning off the alarms and locking all the exits. Neel was paralyzed – he did not know what to do.

A man now suddenly appeared on the stage. ‘People’, he boomed, ‘this is a bad day for us. We have been infiltrated. The emote-sensors have detected the presence of Others here. We are in grave danger. One or several people in this room are from their side – that is why the alarm bells went off here. We have to isolate them. There is no need to be afraid – we shall find them in no time. And once we do, they shall lead us straight to the enemy. Our system is faultless. Follow me, please – each one of you will have to go through the Detector’.
By now, Neel was too exhausted to worry about anything, though he could feel the clear and imminent danger. He followed the others out of the room, into a brightly lit corridor. A round porthole like door loomed at the far end, flanked by two Protectors. Several men and women stood near the door, ushering in the children. The corridor was dead straight and there was no place to hide. It was impossible to turn back since a lot of people were following him. There was nothing to do but go forward…

Suddenly there was a small commotion near the door. Some sort of argument seemed to be going on inside the room – Neel could hear raised voices. The queue in front of the door was not moving anymore but people from behind kept pushing. Now Neel could hear voices protesting behind him as well as a posse of men in white suits tried to push past the people blocking the narrow corridor. Later, Neel would not remember when the fight actually broke out or how – he just remembered Mia appearing by his side and asking him to run in the opposite direction. Now alarms were screaming all over the building and people milling around all around. Neel followed Mia down twisted corridors and burst through a small metal door just before it closed behind them. Mia did not stop running full tilt till she rounded a corner and dived into a small garden shed. She banged the door shut and literally collapsed on the floor. Neel was out of breath too, in spite of his rigorous training. Mia rolled like a ball to one corner and started pulling at a shelf laden with gardening stuff. ‘Come on, Neel, help me pull this shelf. We must hurry’ she said. Neel ran forward to help and soon the shelf was dragged forward by a couple of inches, revealing a red button. Mia pushed it and a part of the shed slid back, revealing a dark opening.

‘Jump, Neel. Don’t worry, you won’t hurt yourself. Just keep going forward and you’ll soon be safe’ she said.
‘What about you, Mia? Won’t you come?’ asked Neel
‘I have to bring Ry here too, Neel. He will soon join you. But hurry up now. I don’t have much time’.
Neel had a thousand more questions for her, but he jumped down the hole and landed on something soft. It was black dark and he couldn’t see a thing. He spread his arms and felt the walls. Soon his eyes adjusted to the gloom and he started following the wall, dragging his fingers on its rough surface. The underground passage twisted and turned as Neel struggled on, now almost at the end of his strength. Only the fear of dying in this dark tunnel kept him moving though his progress became slower and slower. ‘I’ll sit down for a couple of minutes’ Neel told himself and slid down in a sitting position, his back to the wall…

Neel jerked back to full consciousness in a split second. There were other people in the tunnel. He could hear footsteps which seemed to echo all around him. And then he saw the blue points of light. Several people were coming down the tunnel. Neel could no longer tell which way he had come. He stood with his back to the wall, petrified. He could now see them coming towards him. Neel balled his fists, determined not to give up without a fight, when he heard his name being called in a soft voice. It was almost like a whisper in his head. He kept absolutely still, hardly daring to breathe. The voice came again ‘you don’t have to answer. We know where you are. Don’t be afraid – we’re your friends’. Neel calmed down but did not lower his guard. Soon two people were standing in front of him – Neel could not make out their faces in the dark. The voice in his head asked him to follow them – this time Neel was absolutely sure that it was indeed in his head. Neither of the two figures had spoken. Beyond caring now, Neel started following them. All he wanted was to get out of the dark tunnel – he didn’t care about the rest…

After what seemed a long time, the tunnel began to lighten up. Neel could make out the outlines of an arched gate. He found himself in a small covered garden that was drenched in milky light. Neel flopped down on the ground, exhausted and dizzy. He could make out some other figures towards the back of the garden. Someone knelt down beside him. Neel looked up into a pair of bluest eyes he had seen so far. ‘I shall get you some food, Neel. You must be dying from hunger’ a woman’s voice said – it was a real voice this time that reassured Neel. ‘And then we shall talk. I am sorry about what you went through, child. But you are safe here. We shall look after you and then take you home afterwards’. Neel could not make out the face of the woman – a long droopy hood covered most of her face. He could now see the other figures more clearly. Some sat on the benches that lined the back of the garden, some were moving about. There was no sound, and the figures looked weird to Neel, like mannequins in a pantomime. It was so quiet and peaceful there that Neel slowly started nodding off, a strange sense of calm taking hold of his spirit. So when the blue-eyed woman came back with a small tray, Neel actually smiled at her. Neel finished the tray in record time, wishing there was more, and within a few moments the kindly woman was back with another tray full of small cakes and other sweets. She gave him a tall glass of what seemed like a fruit juice, though Neel could not identify what it was. ‘It is now time to join the group, Neel’ said the woman. ‘Will you come with me?’
As Neel walked into the room, the first face he saw was that of Ry. Neel rushed towards him, overcome with relief. Ry beamed at him and the two friends hugged silently, not daring to talk, because like the garden, this room was totally silent too. A lot of people were gathered there, either sitting on benches that lined the walls or sitting on the floor. Ry & Neel found a corner & sat down close to each other, as if they didn’t want to lose each other again. Neel looked around but couldn’t see a lot. The room was dimply lit and most faces were in the shadow. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something – Neel could make that out from their postures. But he was not worried or scared and his physical exhaustion was almost gone. In fact, he felt that he could happily stay in this room forever, whatever happened…

They had silently entered the room while Neel was thinking all this. As Neel looked up, he saw a few figures dressed in long robes standing in the front of the room. In one fluid movement they took off their hoods. Neel saw the blue-eyed woman among them and then spotted Mia standing on one side. He felt happy that Mia had escaped from the chaos.
‘Who are these people, Ry? Do you know?’ he whispered.
‘No, not really. But I guess they’ll tell us soon’ his friend whispered back.

A man now started speaking in a pleasant rumbling voice and the silence seemed to become even more complete, if that was possible.
- ‘Friends, we welcome you to our sanctuary. I am glad that all of you arrived here safely, and we are deeply sorry for the trauma many of you had to endure, especially our young friends. But it was necessary, and though we took a huge risk, it has paid off. We have been able to get all of you together today; otherwise it would have been too late. Today all of you have seen the real face of our rulers who do not hesitate to exploit even youngsters to achieve their ends. They want total control on everything, but their most important target is our mind – individually and collectively. They have put in place a system that took a long time to set up but now works wonderfully. They control what we think through a series of laws, rules & regulations that have carefully been woven into our society, perpetuated by people who are committed to the causes of the Elders, those who have been brainwashed directly by the powers that be. But do not forget, their basic motivation is power. Total & absolute power’.

As he paused for breath, Neel jumped up. ‘The Elders protect us, Sir; they are there for our good. Their canons are for the greater good of our society. What power? They don’t even rule us. We have the Council for that. My father always said that the Elders are neutral. They just want us to progress’. Though Ry was trying to make him sit down again, Neel stood his ground. He was confused and angry and really wanted an explanation. The stress and strain of the last 24 hours was at last becoming too hard to bear.

The man looked at him directly – bright blue eyes turned on like a searchlight. Even in his confusion Neel couldn’t help noticing the blue eyes – just like the kind woman who brought him food some time back.
- ‘Hello Neel’, he said calmly while Neel almost jumped. How on earth did the man know his name? ‘I shall definitely answer your question, child. But for that I have to go far back into the history of our civilization. You have to be patient’.
‘How do you know my name? I’ve never seen you before’ Neel blurted out, still feeling angry for some reason he could not understand himself.
 ‘Calm down, Neel, I and my friends know each and every person in this room, though a lot of you may not know us. We have worked long and hard for today, and we have won a major victory over the Council & the Elders. We have managed to get all of you in one place. Today we shall explain our plan of action to all of you, and you shall do our bidding, if and only if you believe what we say & agree to work with us. Otherwise we shall let you go back to your own lives, only you shall have no memory of anything that happened over the last 24 hours. Sit down, Neel, and listen to what I have to say, and then take your decision’.
Neel sat down. There was total silence in the room. All eyes were turned on the man standing at his ease while each person seemed to lean forward a little bit.
- ‘Long time ago’, the man began, ‘the world was very different from what you see today. It was a turbulent place, full of wars and struggles and injustice and unhappiness. There was wide disparity among people - some were filthy rich while the majority of the world population suffered from malnutrition, lack of health care, torture by victorious armies. Pain and suffering were constant in the society. Yet, except in some special cases, people were by and large free to do what they wanted with their lives. Their society moved at a furious speed, crushing those who could not keep up. No, it was not a happy place, but probably a happening one.

Now there was one category of people who were systematically downtrodden in all societies – they were the artists. They lived for their creations and cared little for anything else. A few were successful, but the majority lived in relative poverty. Now the problem was that nobody could define what art really was all about and so there could be no value judgment of their creations. Their numbers grew every day. They became one of the most powerful communities in the world. United in their belief about their own talents they were a formidable group’.
Neel sat open mouthed listening to this amazing story. What this man was saying seemed totally unbelievable, yet deep down he could not doubt the words. The man continued speaking.

-‘A group of very astute politicians understood the enormous potential of this community and in different countries the powerful governments started wooing them seriously. Or buying them out when necessary. The artists started working for their mentors, propagating specific ideas for consolidating power in the hands of the rulers. Since the artists were by and large considered as independent thinkers, a lot of people started subscribing to certain thoughts and ideologies. Whatever the outside packaging, all of these ideologies had one final goal – total control. The big world powers did not want to contend with rebels any more – whereas it was relatively easy to crush enemies, it was difficult to destroy amorphous groups that formed and unformed in no given order. So the rulers did whatever was required and eventually, over a period of time, managed to gain control of the human society on a global level. The values of the rulers became universal; the diversities in the different societies were ironed out with great precision and patience. They started calling the world their ‘global village’ where people led identical lives’.

Sweeping the absorbed listeners in one blue glance, the man continued. ‘However, I think you know that it is impossible to make robots out of all human beings and as time went on, a few people started to grow discontented with the totalitarian nature of the society. They asked questions, they challenged the overall order of things. And they were swiftly stamped out. Some disappeared without any trace, some ate humble pie and went back into the fold. That was when secret societies started forming in different places. They were determined to conserve what was being systematically erased by the rulers. They collected books, pictures, records, films – everything that recorded the diversity and creativity of humans. Over time, these small groups started merging and slowly started drifting to a specific place, bringing with them the treasures of a past civilization. They were discreet and the rulers, in spite of their omnipresence, did not quite detect the slow migration of people from different parts of the world. This is the place that was chosen, my friends’.

There was a collective release of breath as the man paused. He drank some water and looked at his audience.
- ‘My story is coming to an end’ he said. ‘You can ask your questions once I have finished. As time went by, the information network of the rulers, who now called themselves by different names in different places ‘Fathers’, ‘Elders’, ‘Pioneers’, ‘Seniors’, kept getting more & more powerful. And eventually they got wise to our existence, and though they searched high & low, they failed to discover our community. They started building walls & fences wherever they could, and invented the story of the ‘edge’. They created the society that you know today’.
Neel had a thousand questions buzzing in his head, and he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He stood up once more though he did not know if the man had finished his story.

‘But who are you, actually?’ he asked ‘and what do you want with us?’
‘I told you, Neel, we are the rebels. We want this dictatorial society to change. You need to know a last couple of things about us and them. You see, the Masters managed to attain enormous technological progress. They have access to everything, including the most intimate details of each person. They can use or abuse this information whenever they want. You witnessed it too, when they arrested your group. You saw how they brainwashed your own friends. Now in order to fight them, we too designed a weapon – that of detecting people who ask questions. Those who do not accept everything they see around them. Not openly, perhaps, but they have this trait. And we try water that tiny seed of rebellion in them – like we did with you, with Ry, and all the people you see here. This is how our community has grown over the years. It was easier before, but now it is becoming more and more difficult because they have become much more vigilant. We had to get you all together before they destroyed what we have built up over years by destroying your brains. We managed to do it.’

Neel shivered. He had difficulty believing that these people had monitored him all this time. But he did remember his occasional outbursts and disobedience to his parents, his mother asking him to stop asking silly questions, his sister aghast at the rules he broke in school from a very early age. He thought about Ry and realized that all this was true for him as well. Which is why they were best friends, and have been since they were kids. He looked around as a young girl stood up in front of him.

-‘I want to ask the same question. What do you want us to do? We can’t go back to our homes and start a rebellion! I don’t know what the Council will do, but they will definitely not let us do what we want. I have seen what they can do today. I don’t want to be in that kind of situation ever again…’ There were murmurs of agreement all over the room. Another woman got up & started speaking in a frightened voice, wondering how she was supposed to go back to her normal life again after all this. The silence of the room was now broken by whispered conversations and restless movements. Only the man standing in front of them was totally calm. He waited till the hushed conversations abated & everybody’s attention was once again focused on him.

- ‘Friends, there is one question I have to ask before I go any further. As you must have understood by now, we are the enemies of the current regime, and we intend to bring it down. Now, I do not expect all of you to support our cause. Please feel free to walk out if you don’t. As I had told you before, you won’t remember anything that happened over the last two days’. There was a flurry of movement as quite a few people got up to move out of the room. Neel watched them leave, rooted to the spot. He was not totally sure if he wanted any part of this, but he did not want to leave either. Above all, he wanted to know what was going to happen next…

By this time, I tall woman had joined the man. She waited till the remaining people in the room settled down & then started to speak.
‘I am Zena’ she said ‘and I have been asked to explain what is going to happen once you get out of this place & go back home to your everyday life. Except that it won’t be like before because you shall have to carry out specific acts as & when we tell you. Our objective is to expose the current rulers for what they are under their benign masks. People have to understand how they are being manipulated every moment of the day for perpetuating a system that is evil. A system that would not allow freedom of thought & expression, because that is dangerous for their purpose. A tyranny so cleverly disguised that the tyrants are revered as saints by the masses.

So we shall organize these ‘incidents’, friends, and will start sowing seeds of doubt in the average minds. They shall start asking questions. They shall try to analyze & understand. They shall start seeing the cracks on the masks of our rulers. We shall make sure that their doubts are fed constantly. And you, my friends, will help them get the answers. In a small way to start with, in your own spheres- at home, at school, at your workplaces, as unobtrusively as possible. And soon, your peers shall look upon you differently, listen to you, and consult you for new thoughts and ideas. That is how the seeds of the revolution will be sown.’

A man sitting in the front row raised his hand. ‘How are you going to let us know what to do? You know that all communication is closely monitored by the Council. Won’t you put us in danger? Won’t the Protectors hunt us down’? he asked.

‘There shall be no communication’ Zena replied calmly. ‘But you will know what you have to do. I cannot tell you more at this point of time – you shall have to trust us on this. And we promise you – none of you will ever be in danger. We shall take care of that. Can you trust us? All of you?’
Neel felt a strange calm descending over him. He felt strong, and all he wanted to do was to help these men and women who had welcomed them here. He felt that he was doing the right thing, he was going to do what he had been meant to do the day he was born. He slowly stood up and put his hand on his hand in what would have been a dramatic gesture at any other time. Right then, it looked completely normal.
‘I trust you and I believe in you. I take the pledge of working with you’ he said and looked around in total amazement while everyone in the room rose as a body and repeated what he had said. A new era was beginning….


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