Marasa, or a Withdrawal of Pure Joy for Mr. Antar
It was past midnight when Antar realized he’d run out of Pure Joy. The vial lying on the bedside table was empty. When he opened the stopper, the fading aroma of that once thick-blue liquid wafted up his nose. He dropped the vial, leaned against the pillow, and closed his eyes.
The effect was less than momentary.
He surveyed the room—the immaculate bedding, the polished cupboard, the walls cleaned for the crayon scribbles, the portrait of a water-pastel Ganesha, a toy rocking horse in one corner whose basket was now a newspaper holder (a bit of a genius idea, really), carpet dusted and vacuumed, and the old magenta curtains replaced with a lighter teal. A swell erupted in his chest, and he smiled to himself. A room to be proud of. Simple Indian middle-class aspirations. Nothing fancy, nothing intricate. A part of the house he’d be inclined to display if someone visited.
A smudge on the wall caught his eye. A frown appeared, deepening as he traced the brown scar to a spattering of chai.
He got up, walked over to the wall and punched the smudge. Hoped it’d shrivel like an earthworm. Pain seared through his knuckles. Rushed to his head.
He squatted beside the wall, grabbed his hair, and knocked his head once, twice, thrice against the wall.
Perhaps another sniff? He crawled across the floor, hunting for the dropped vial. Found it beneath the table. He’d forgotten to cork it back. Great, the aroma was probably all over the place now, depositing chunks and fragrances of Pure Joy on underside.
He inhaled sharply. Nothing. Just air. And the silence of an empty house. He returned to bed and flipped to a new page in his diary. Scribbled an appointment with the Marasa Repository for the morning.
The Repositories recommended a light breakfast before withdrawal, injection, and assimilation. The advertisements pointed to evidence of how it helped avoid clutter in the system. Antar doubted the relationship between the intestines and the mind, but he was loath to experiment on a day he felt desperate.
Cornflakes, then. And cold milk. He rode the bicycle to Marasa. The streets were largely empty. Traffic signals incessantly blinked yellow. Sunday, he guessed.
His usual parking spot behind the Repository was vacant. What did that amount to? A few minutes of Satisfaction? Indeterminate Relief? He paused to look around at half a dozen other bicycles, at the color and shape of the helmets locked to the handlebar, at the greased chains and horns mutilated from autorickshaws.
Perhaps a hiss of Inferiority or Envy? Just a little bit? He glanced at the mirror on the right handle. It was a Sunday, he told himself. People withdrew early. No big deal.
The shadow of the building fell on him. The façade was all glass. He passed the statue of an iron brain erected on a pedestal. Its insides looked like twisted plumbing. Like noodles made of basalt. The first time Antar had seen it, he’d wanted to puke his guts out. The statue reminded him of entrails in horror movies. Now, he only saw his reflection in the pool running around the statue like a moat.
Inside, Antar made a beeline for the service desk manned by Anagha. She was one of the saner ones. The others were a lot less considerate. Untrustworthy, even. It was important to establish a personal connect with the customer service executive. That was what the Repository was all about. Building relationships.
That and those vials.
Four others stood in line ahead of him. He’d seen a couple of them before. Drooping shoulders, a quirky scratch, a pattern to their shirts and tops depending on what day of the week it was. Like, if the weather could be personified and allowed to wrinkle and sneeze. Regulars. He ought to be inviting them home sometime. Once he got rid of the smudge on the wall.
When his turn came, he took a step ahead and coughed. Anagha perked up. Her smile was genuine. “Morning, Mr. Antar. A withdrawal, I presume?”
Antar smiled in return. Wasn’t she nice?
“Uh-huh,” he mumbled. He rummaged in his pockets for five spare vials and spread them out over the desk like a poker reveal. It was good practice to retain personal vials. Helped the company monitor their supply. Made them efficient.
That, and the lingering aroma of juices long-drunk. Empty vials were like abandoned childhood homes. Nothing there but the occasional sniff of a floorboard or the sofa leather that brought a rush of memories and helped him to sleep.
Anagha regarded him with mild curiosity before entering his identification in the system.
“State your withdrawal, please?”
He tapped his fingers on the desk. “Pure Joy, if available. Else, I can make do with some Satisfaction and Prolonged Calm.”
She adjusted the rim of her glasses and squinted at the screen. A delicate scroll of the mouse made him suspicious of what she found. It worsened when she looked up as though she were announcing the death of a family member.
“No Satisfaction, Mr. Antar. As for Prolonged Calm, there’s a tenth of a vial. A few minutes, perhaps. But I would recommend you hold on to it. If you have any Anxiety to deposit, we can concoct a vial of Positive Apathy in about two weeks’ time.”
“I don’t think I have any Anxiety,” said Antar, and swallowed the words not any more before they could rush out of his mouth. Flimsy consolation. Like a bubble wrap with all the bubbles already burst, but which still compromised as a decent seat warmer.
“Are you certain there’s no Satisfaction? I remember leaving some behind.”
Anagha shook her head. “You made a full withdrawal two Fridays ago. However, as we emphasize, the memory of a withdrawal can be hazy a few days after injection.”
Why did she have to speak like a bot? So punctuated, so…so rigid. As though her face was a pamphlet or a newspaper obituary ground to pulp and molded—poked to form eyes and nostrils and then scratched violently with a ballpoint pen to create the mouth. Ah, Rage, my old friend.
“…which is why we encourage you to maintain a diary and regularly connect with our in-house therapists to ensure doses are not taken in excess.”
The rim of her glasses suddenly attracted him. His gaze lowered until he spotted a pendant on her neck, inlaid in silver filigree. It reminded him of Nandini. A lot of things reminded him of Nandini these days.
“Can you check my vitals for Longing?” he asked, before she could confirm the depth of his storage. It felt a little embarrassing, to be honest. Longing was the only one of the seven odorous sins that could be instantly converted, however disproportionate in quantum to the withdrawn emotion. That deflated, punctured part of his mind wanted something more reliable, and he would comply.
Anagha paused typing and looked up. Beneath those glasses, her curiosity deepened. “Longing, Mr. Antar?”
“Please come a little closer,” she said. “I’d have to strap you up to the system to check for deposits.”
Antar obeyed. He had avoided glancing at the machine sitting behind her until now. It reminded him of a magnified chess rook. Like a great steel safe with curved edges—a crown and a face and a mouth and lights that blinked, and chrome that gleamed. A metal head the size of a boulder, which could easily be suspected of emitting something radioactive. He’d read those articles. Warnings. And then anti-articles that covered entire pages of the newspaper that dismantled the machine in words, and proved its innocence.
Tubes popped out of its sides like wobbly, boneless limbs, one of which Anagha dragged and strapped around Antar’s extended arm.
“Helps to close your eyes and take a deep breath,” she said softly. She pressed a few buttons, and the machine vibrated to life. Antar felt a tinge of that vibration in his arm, as though someone had gripped his wrist in fear while they crossed the street. His mind was circling. Racing. Leaping out like an out-of-body experience, soaring to the highest levels of the Marasa Repository, and then falling and falling and falling until he couldn’t feel his legs anymore.
The hammering in his head gradually abated before he realized he was quivering violently in front of the customer service desk. A quivering customer is always king. Where had he heard that?
Anagha bit her lip and scrolled through the results. Antar continued tapping the desk.
“There’s…quite a bit of Longing, Mr. Antar.” Her lips barely moved while she spoke. “You also possess Rage and Envy, a few vials full. Some sediments of Denial.”
Antar wanted to get a look at the pent-up Rage. If it crossed the Repository’s regulated threshold, then Anagha was duty-bound to summon an officer and lead him to his therapist. Not an option. He took a deep breath, let out a whistle, and tapped the desk again.
“I…I need something good right now, madam,” he said, a wavering smile on his lips. As honest as he’d ever been.
Anagha was trained to be polite, rule-bound, but ultimately inclined towards taking deposits. While the withdrawals were the glamorous aspect of the Repository, the deposits were what got the cogs turning for the machine to ejaculate those sterile emotions that spiraled down and down the availability spectrum with each passing day.
When she asked for his Longing, Antar hesitated.
It was his only tether to Nandini. He shook his head and offered the rest. The Rage, the Denial, the Envy. Sucked out through the tubes, replaced by an ephemeral substitute to trick the brain of a false emotion in the amygdala, which would slowly decompose and leave him blank until the next interpretation of feeling. He had read the research; he had consumed it. When convinced, he had submitted himself to the machinations of the Repository.
She printed a receipt and handed it to Antar. “Converting Rage or Envy into Pure Joy, Pleasure, or Prolonged Calm is a lengthy process, Mr. Antar. We will send you a notification when the conversion is completed, and the vial is ready. As for Denial, given such little amounts, any conversion would be pointless. We recommend we hold it for you until it can be complemented with another fluid.” She extended a digital pad. “Sign here and here, please.” Antar checked his nails before scratching his name upon it.
The transaction was completed. He wanted to leave then. Return home without a withdrawal. Bury himself with the Longing. Create palaces of the past and lose himself in its myriad towers and corridors, wander the crypts and feast alone in the kitchens.
Something held him back there, one finger still tapping the desk. The Repository melted in his vision. From its masonry of vast glass and metalwork, it shrunk to the size of an antique phone booth.
“Listen,” he said, and he assumed his brain was now generating unprecedented levels of Courage. Anagha blinked behind her glasses. “Yes?”
“Do you think maybe you can join me for lunch sometime?”
They met at a restaurant in a quieter part of town. The Punjabi food had a rustic feel to it, especially the mud-pot lassi and the pickles. Antar wanted to hold her hand, but he decided against it. The scowl and scorn of his fifty-year old neighbor aunty with a ladle in her hand flashed in his mind. Neighbors often got personal about other people’s failed relationships. They took it as an affront to the glue that bound society together.
He’d be okay.
The deposited Rage, Envy, and Denial had completely dissipated from his brain. One of those rare absences he could feel, like a void that craved to be filled. The past was a black morass. He had hoped a modicum of happiness would have generated in the vacant space; that, without the anger and envy, he could close his eyes and fall asleep. Without the denial, he could have the courage to start with a clean slate, walk up to his neighbors and not be ashamed of what he had done. Clean up the room again. Change the sheets. Go for a walk.
Instead, it was empty. A vortex of nothingness. The will to simply “do” had been sucked dry of life. His fingers twitched.
When the check came, Anagha insisted on splitting the bill. Antar offered only a weak resistance that was shot down in two turns. He pulled out his card and hoped he still had enough balance to save face.
“Now where’s this stupid card of mine?” Anagha furiously rummaged in her purse. At one point, she emitted a grating sound before removing items from the purse and casting them out on the table. An old watch, a sanitizer, a few napkins, earphones, rubber bands and clips, a strip of paracetamol and then…a vial of Pure Joy.
Oyster blue. Like the ocean in paintings. His mind darted to the feeling of exaltation that coursed through his veins seconds after he had injected the contents. A tempest now swirled within the Pure Joy vial that struck a gong in Antar’s mind, stealing his gaze towards it. He took a deep breath and looked away.
Anagha’s hand reappeared clutching the credit card. She called the waiter, who swiped them poor and stood an extra few seconds, hoping for a tip. She had already replaced the items back in her purse by then. “Shall we?”
When Anagha offered him a ride home, panic set in. The summer heat was oppressive. He wished it would melt him right there in the parking lot, and she’d have no choice but to drive over his wet remains. He imagined the aroma of a finished vial. Like fields of lavender bristling beneath a low breeze.
The vacancy beckoned, but Antar loathed to be a servile companion to its needs. When Anagha insisted they at least go for a drive, he curled his fingers into a fist and nodded.
He held her at knife-point a few miles away from the restaurant. The car came to a skidding halt on a desolate road beside an abandoned factory complex. A mirage shimmered ahead. Everything appeared dull and sepia, glossed in mud.
It should have been over once she handed him the vial. Her own heart was racing, and her beauty behind the spectacles now dimmed to a cornered animal in Antar’s eyes. He spent a few seconds contemplating the range of emotions generated in her brain.
“Thank you,” he said.
It was past midnight when Antar returned home and dragged himself to bed. The lucky syringe lay beneath the pillow. He dipped the needle into the vial of an hour’s worth of Pure Joy, flicked the surface, and took a deep breath before puncturing his neck.
The syringe slipped and fell off his hand. He twisted and stretched himself on the bed, then gazed at the ceiling.
Perhaps it was a good time to wake the neighbors up. Those regressive assholes who had nothing better to do than to gallivant their way to his house with fake smiles and paunches. Offer kitchen window gossips and marry him into their conventions. Demand that his wife adjust to his murkiness, his cock-about way of life. Did they stop there? No. The nerve to then suggest he deposit his Ecstasy and Delight for later use, like it was some fixed-deposit bank account. Worse? His parents agreed with them. Traitors. To Antar’s face they incessantly demanded grandparenthood of a fleshy, slithering beast that eventually crawled out of Nandini. Brayed all night on her crib. Until Antar learned to put her to sleep with ghost stories. Until he became the ghost himself for her and her mother.
Really, fuck them all, he thought. The alimony covered his guilt. He hopped out of bed, opened the balcony window, splayed his hands wide, and laughed from the apartment’s top floor.
He laughed until the night refused to return anything but its cold, silent stare. He sauntered back inside. Fetched a wet piece of cloth and a pinch of vinegar, and assaulted the chai stain on the wall. Scrubbed it with gritted teeth until he could no longer distinguish the wall from the blot. His own bloody sleeves he ignored.
The evening called for music. Antar fished his tape-recorder out of the old almirah and inserted an Ilayaraaja album cassette. The tape began to roll. Yesudas’ voice filled the room, flowing out of the recorder like sap from a maple sugar bark. Antar tapped his thighs in rhythm, moving his head, closing his eyes, smiling.
The songs stretched and contorted, and in Antar’s mind, the deified Longing slept with the manufactured Pure Joy. He was where he wanted to be, wrapped in music and room, walking the corridors of the palace he had built in his head, the torn pieces of his memories stitched by the Marasa Repository.
When the album ended, the hour had passed. Antar opened his eyes. The silence in the house made itself aware to him. Like the cold did when the blanket would slip off his feet in the middle of the night.
When the cops announced themselves and demanded he open the door, he clapped his hands, emitted a low, satisfying whistle, and inspected his room—the curtains, the carpet, the now-clean wall, the Ganesha portrait, and the re-made bed.
It was all ready for display.
© 2020, Prashanth Srivatsa