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APARAJITA SEN

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 3/15/2017 |



(TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL STORY IN BENGALI ‘APARTHIBO’ BY SUDIP NATH)
Homi and Alya sat across from each other in the Coffee shop. Alya continued typing on her laptop, unmindfully sipping her coffee from time to time. Homi’s eyes were fixed at Alya like a laser beam. She was used to that. She hardly ever glances at Homi, gently replies to his occasional questions. These days Alya has started feeling that Homi understands her even if she does not reply or even speak. ‘Is he studying me?’ she thinks sometimes. ‘Have I really become so predictable? Is he finding a repetitive pattern in everything I do?’ 
‘I love you, Homi’ she says suddenly, hoping to startle him. 
Homi smiles gently and says ‘Now you’ll start taking my hand and stop as soon as you realize your mistake. You are very lonely, Alya. You are trying to reach out to someone. Not me, someone else.’
A shiver runs through Alya and she actually takes Homi’s hand. ‘What nonsense! See, I am holding your hand. Homi, if only….’ And this time Alya actually trembles. Homi knows that it’s coming from the vibration of the phone chip on her neck, hidden by her lush hair. He knows who the message is from, as well. The message glowed on the almost invisible screen on Alya’s hand. Seb’s message ‘Missing you. Let’s meet. My place. 6.30.’

Alya frowns. Homi knows she would go. She has got used to Seb – she won’t be able to refuse him. ‘Does she love him still?’ Homi thinks, unable to put the thought to the back of his mind. Is love like the coffee creamer? He wonders. Some wouldn’t dream adding it, afraid of spoiling the coffee. Some adds it liberally. Alya always leaves two centimeters in her small cup for the creamer. Every time. Doesn’t she ever feel like doing something different? In Seb’s place, Homi would have come rushing to the coffee shop, swept Alya off her feet and maybe taken her for a long drive. May be they would have stopped by a lake ignoring the orange sun, would have rushed into the water chasing the migratory ducks. Homi thinks of all this while looking unblinkingly at Alya. How could he even think of all this? Has he learnt it from Seb? When Seb took Alya for a date exactly seven hundred and nineteen days back, he was wildly in love with her. Seb has changed a lot, but Alya is still the same. Totally absorbed in her research, though she would become listless all of a sudden. She seemed very lonely at those times. But as soon as Seb came to her, she would become as soft and playful as a kitten. Homi knows that Alya wanted love. But would Seb give it to her?

Homi drives Alya to Seb’s apartment. Alya and Seb are research scholars at the University of Michigan. They spend a lot of time together at work in the university and outside. Seb has a lot of friends other than Alya.  Alya has only her research and Seb. She listens to music when Seb is not there. Or writes poetry. Sometimes Homi joins her, but Alya does not consider him to be real company. As if she was on her own. Homi never disturbs her, only looks at her, intently, without ever wasting a blink of time. In the beginning this somewhat discomfited Alya. She got used to it.
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Seb pours wine into her glass, talking all the time. Alya twirls the pasta around her fork and suddenly thinks of Homi, who returned alone after dropping her. What is he doing now, she wonders. Every time he drops her in front of Seb’s apartment, Homi waits for a few minutes. Does he expect Alya to come back to him and tell him ‘I don’t feel like going in today, Homi. Let’s go for a loooong drive instead. Seb’s become somewhat boring.’ But Alya knows that neither Seb nor she would be able to get out of the pattern they have set for themselves. Homi somehow has figured that complex pattern. Maybe Homi wants them to break off and out. ‘Can love be a simple motif? Does Seb love me? Will he ever want to get married?’
Seb had brought Alya back to her apartment very late last night. Today Alya feels like a different person. She doesn’t think of Seb. Today is another day, a new morning. The cloudless sky promises a glittering day. Alya sits in front of the window. The Maple leaves opposite to her house sway gently in the wind. The leaves seem to have changed color. ‘Already?’ thinks Alya. ‘Is summer coming to an end then?’ Alya is thirty now. She is reminded of the fact every time she calls home. Her mother still expects her to get married. Marriage is still a reality in her own country, unlike in the US. Who could Alya get married to? Seb? Alya doesn’t want to think about marriage. She still doesn’t understand Seb. She just wants to know where she actually stands with respect to him. Inside or outside the circle of a relationship? If Seb lets her go, she would spend some time with Homi. Discover the world like a little girl. If Seb declares his love, she would dream of a life together. Maybe a small house with climbing ivy on the walls. A Maple tree in front bathed in the morning sunlight. Their room will be visible through a sheer curtain; indistinct. The clouds will float inside as if in a dream through the open windows. She feels the soft vibration on her neck. Message from Seb. He is coming to pick her up. Today is Monday; they have a busy day ahead…

Seb and Alya are working on ethical robots in the University of Michigan. Homi is helping them. Alya dreams of building a robot that would be more human than humans. The code name of the project is Empyrean. An empyrean robot is capable of self-defense but would never harm a human. It would never take revenge. If a human tries to destroy it, it will simply immobilize the human for self-defense. It will obey humans in everything other than the order for destroying another human. Their software is working perfectly but they have hit a road block. It’s a logical problem. What would happen if a robot has several masters who issue contradictory orders? Who would the empyrean robot obey? If its masters attack each other, which one would it save? Which one would he immobilize? The robot will have to make a choice, based on who was right at that specific moment. Empyrean has not become a reality as yet. Seb and Alya are feeding it with all the knowledge and experience acquired by humans. Homi is helping them with experimentation and observation. If Empyrean manages to pass all the tests, Seb and Alya will become world famous instantly. A new horizon would open up for robotic automation. A humanoid robot, more human than humans themselves would then be produced – a robot that would completely ignore race, creed or religion, be immune to greed and corruption…. A brave new beautiful world – even beyond the wildest dreams of Alya…
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It was another weekend soon. Homi and Alya went to the coffee shop as usual on Friday afternoon. Seb’s routine message came in at five, bringing the usual frown on Alya’s face. Homi was looking at her with the same expression. He smiles softly. Alya stands up. Homi takes her hand gently and walks to the car. Not a word is spoken between them. The trip to the library delays them further. It is almost 8 pm now. Homi generally sits with his arms crossed in their driverless car. Not today. He takes Alya’s hand gently. Alya looks surprised but doesn’t say anything. There are pastel shades in the sky and on the Maple trees. A wan moon hangs in the sky though the sun has not completely set yet. Homi puts on an old song – ‘Oh, I'm bein' followed by a moon shadow, moon shadow, moon shadow…’

Seb’s car is parked in front of his apartment. He may have returned long time back. Alya gets out and starts walking towards the door. She turns her head and finds Homi’s steadfast eyes on her. For the very first time she feels a twinge of anxiety. She feels Seb’s anger as soon as she steps indoor. ‘Did you again go for a long drive with the idiot?’ he asks. Alya laughs.
‘No. I had to go to the library. And you’re calling Homi an idiot? He is much more knowledgeable and clever than either of us!’
‘Whatever! I have picked up the dinner. The wine’s ready as well, honey.’
‘Why, are we celebrating something?’ asks Alya, surprised. 
‘No no. Just like that’ Seb says airily. 
It was not so true, actually, as it transpires later. Their project has received some big funding. A business magnet was apparently prepared to invest substantial funds in the Empyrean project, and wanted to open a new company with Seb as a partner. Alya jumps up in joy but calms down almost instantly. ‘You’ll sell the university’s research results?’ she asks doubtfully. 
‘It’s cool, baby’ Seb says. ‘He will create a similar product. We’ll do more research under him.’
Seb’s eyes glitters with greed. Alya feels a bit lost. However, happy about Seb’s happiness, she gets up with the wine glass in one hand and kisses Seb. Seb draws her into his arms and then onto the sofa. The kiss was long and deep, leaving Alya almost breathless. 
‘You must meet Mr.Greedman once, Alya. At his penthouse in New York.’
‘Of course, Seb. We’ll both go.’
Seb’s voice is like steel. ‘Not both of us, Alya. Only you. Women are better at some deals.’
Alya is stunned. She pulls out of Seb’s embrace. She notices that Seb is already drunk. He serves wine to Alya and drinks whiskey himself. Alya can’t speak. She touches her neck and sends a message to Homi. She feels sick. She never got drunk but today her stomach heaved, wanting to throw up everything, like this relationship with Seb. She stands up. 
‘Where are you going?’ Seb snaps at her. ‘I need you, right now!’
While Alya debates whether she should lock herself in the bathroom or leave the apartment, Seb grabs Alya and roughly throws her on the bed. 
Alya has slept with Seb lots of times before. But that was a different man. She didn’t know this man standing over her. Is he going to force her tonight? Alya wants to hit Seb with something. She grabs the flower vase on the night stand. Should she hurl it at Seb? It would hurt terribly. Seb would probably call 911. What would she tell the police? But where was Homi? She says his name and tries to message him again.
Seb is on top of her. She can’t breathe. Suddenly the apartment door clangs open. Homi has come. 
‘Save me from this animal, Homi. He is going to rape me and kill me.’
‘Stop right now, Homi’ screams Seb. ‘FOLLOW MY ORDERS!’
Homi doesn’t seem to hear. He is walking towards Seb calmly. Seb pulls out a handgun from the drawer and shoots. Homi advances slowly, unperturbed. Seb continues shooting, unable to stop Homi. Now he points the gun at Alya’s head. Alya only sees the Maple tree in front of her window, her mother’s face peeping through its faintly colored leaves and the setting sun turning the water of the lakes reflecting her past blood red. Seb is light years away now. She would have lovingly taken his bullet in her chest today, if she loved him truly. Her empty heart would have accepted the bullet gladly to fill in the void. But she doesn’t want to die, not yet. She wants to touch Homi’s steely arms one last time. She watches Homi move like a streak of lightning and hurl Seb against the wall. And then the long silence.

Alya must have fainted then. She finds herself in the car when she wakes up. Homi is driving. Seb lies curled up on the back seat. ‘We’re almost at the hospital’ Homi says quietly. Seb is whisked off to the Emergency Room. ‘What if he has concussion?’ Alya thinks to herself. Homi probably reads her thoughts. 
‘I have already performed a scan, Alya’ he says taking her hand. ‘It’s only a slight injury. He’ll get over it soon.’
By this time the news had spread all the campus. A lot of people know both Seb and Alya. Some of their friends and professors arrive at the hospital, asking questions. Alya is silent. What could she say to these people? Homi comes forward. ‘I was fighting with Seb. I pushed him and he hit the wall.’ Their research guide Professor Li Huang seems angry and upset. He wants to speak to Alya. Alya excuses herself. ‘I’ll talk to you tomorrow morning, Professor’ she says. ‘Please excuse me tonight.’ Seb is in no danger. They leave the hospital. Homi takes Alya home.
*********************************************************************************

Alya sits in front of her window after coming back from the university. Once again the setting sun had painted the sky blood red, coloring the leaves of the Maple tree too. Alya wants to go away, walk into a calm lake with Homi. She sends him a message, and Homi arrives within minutes. Was he waiting in the parking lot then? Did he somehow know that Alya would want to go away?

They drive along the highway without any specific destination. They would stop by some lake when the setting sun painted the waters red and wade into the calm waters. Then they would go away somewhere very far. Homi has violated the first principle of ethical robots. He tried to kill a human. ‘A human like Seb!’ thinks Alya ruefully. They would undoubtedly reprogram and then deactivate Homi. Homi was the first robot of the Empyrean project. He has studied humans for a very long time now, and learnt from their behavior. Alya is just a pattern for Homi. But now Homi has learnt to tell lies, he has learnt to love. Alya wants to save Homi – he was built with infinite patience for over three years now. Homi was a multi-disciplinary project. She updates his software every week even now. She would never let them deactivate Homi. He is Alya’s creation, the only one, who knows everything about her, is her perfect partner. Where would Alya go with humanoid Homi? Where would they hide? Maybe in a small forest by a quiet lake where no one would ever find them, hidden by the big Maple trees. Alya wants to lose herself in an empyrean world for the rest of her life…
APARAJITA SEN

(TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL STORY IN BENGALI ‘APARTHIBO’ BY SUDIP NATH)


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