Runner-Up of Bound’s Dystopian Fiction Short Story Competition

A Revolution, long before it grows ubiquitous is found in the lairs of an odd soul. It often sprouts from incredible aching of love or impassioned abhorrence to life as known. It burgeons to sustain the odd soul. It then offers her a crude sense of sanity. It culls courage from her depths, and it leaves her sanguine. And long before a Revolution amasses adherents, her odd soul succumbs to martyrdom, sanctified to the end of time in the indiscernible bedlam of obscure history.

The day revealed no presage, it began like any other; it was impossible to tell that it was her last one.

Outside, it was still dark. Shomei was awake and that morning too, her mind was raided by her baby’s sweet call. Mama, Mama look, a voice too young to be real, too briefly lived. Mama, look, her baby would say, her soft palms raised, her little feet flat on the floor. Mama, I love you, she would scream, her legs would wobble and she would fall. I love you too my darling, I love you too, Shomei would say, and she would scoop her baby up, then there is warmth, and there is home.

The day revealed no presage, it began like any other; it was impossible to tell that it was her last one.

On that horrific afternoon, her baby must have called her, Mama, Mama, she must have searched for her in the bedroom, she must have banged the toilet door, she must have looked inside cupboards and bowls and bottles, she must have kept looking for her mama until she couldn’t anymore. Until she fell to the floor breathless, turning pink, purple and then blue. Her once sparkling eyes must have been frantic, until they froze. Her spry little hands must have curled around the air that she couldn’t breathe, hoping to feel her mama’s face or hair or a finger, until they too were stilled by death. That horrific afternoon when Shomei returned from a quick run out for water, her baby lay on the floor, quieted, gone. The oxygenator had impaired. Her baby was deprived of air, and her life was wrenched.  

On that horrific afternoon, her baby must have called her, Mama, Mama, she must have searched for her in the bedroom, she must have banged the toilet door, she must have looked inside cupboards and bowls and bottles, she must have kept looking for her mama until she couldn’t anymore.        

            Breath was always the trouble; the lack of it, the cost of it, the invincible power it wielded over life. The night of that horrific afternoon, clenching her baby in an ash capsule, Shomei longed for death. She willed breathlessness engulf her, like a barbed veil it wedged between her thoughts and her body, her body and her innards, her innards and her blood. At the pinnacle of self-infliction, her thoughts fleetingly acuminated. She was dismembered of reality and the falsehoods of hope eclipsed. On the verge of the end, she smelled a scent so pungent, it rushed through her and she convulsed. Wet, dark earth and sprawled on it was her baby. Her wispy hair was muddied. Her exuberance glowed like fire. Shomei sought the warmth of her baby’s skin, full of life and promise. In the horizon a whistling green loomed. It accelerated like a legion. Her baby cackled and she ran. Shomei watched as the green embrace her little girl and consume her whole. Voice still spry, her call echoed, Mama, Mama, look.

Once Shomei crawled back to life that night, she ransacked for the scent like an addict. It drove her beyond the bounds of sanity. In those few moments of suicidal epiphany, a revolution had evinced in the crevices of her being.

Breath was always the trouble; the lack of it, the cost of it, the invincible power it wielded over life.

#

Iftikhar propped himself partly up on an elbow and watched Shomei, awake and dreaming. He lightly touched his wife’s chapped quivering lips. The quiver stilled at his touch. ‘Love’, he uttered. He laced his fingers in hers and snuggled closer, his face pressed the side of hers. Shomei was roused from her waking dream. ‘You were about to cry’ said Iftikhar.

He would think about this later, days after her death. He would think about it and regret for having snatched her away from her dream. He would then wonder if she knew how the dream would have ended. If given a chance, would the dream have flourished and transformed life as was known?

‘Was I?’ Shomei mumbled. Her cracked lips caressed his salted stubble. Iftikhar smiled, his raspy breath sounded like an old train on an old rail, erratic. ‘Love’, he croaked again, and buried his face in her bosom. And to him, her breath sounded like sharp saw on iron. Ever so lightly he kissed her lips, but they bled. ‘Tasty’, he muttered and smacked his lips. Their tired laughter ended in violent coughs. A kind haze glided from his sunken hazelnut eyes to hers, and she squeezed his lean waist and pulled him closer. The old train and the sharp saw melded. Outside, the sky was yet to lighten.

If given a chance, would the dream have flourished and transformed life as was known?

#

Iftikhar was doing his time at war when his baby girl died. When he was fired from the regiment – the reason being infirmity, his pension annulled – months had gone without his baby in the world. The day he returned, emaciated and vacant, Shomei watched him collapse like a bombed tower. He was frail and his skin pale. His head was bald; two of his teeth were gone. And his smile had curved in like wrinkled sides of burnt paper. His walk had cowered, like a slave’s. That day Iftikhar did not know what to say to his wife. He had forgotten the words one used while intimate. It seemed he had forgotten her too. Strangely curious he observed her. She was different, her walk had developed a forceful gait, her face had creases that looked like scars, and she spoke as though every uttered syllable weighed her down. But most of all, he was flummoxed by her imprudence, her sheer disregard for the edicts of the land. Iftikhar had seen men and women bashed to death for crimes pettier than what his wife was committing in secret.

She had grown a garden. When he first faced it, his blood curdled.

Rows of plants – their roots desperately clinging to soil sparsely filled in vessels – crammed their baby’s room. They were crippled, most of the plants. Their stems twisted and knotted like cancerous lumps. Their brittle yellow leaves crimped and some of them drooped like sickly children. He stood over it aghast while Shomei had the audacity to be jubilant.

Iftikhar glared at his wife as he remembered the chants of war. Venerated soldiers of Shindila, bleeding and proud, every night at the garrisons bellowed their prayer for victory.

‘The soil?’ the commandant would roar.

‘Is ours’, the soldiers would chorus.

‘The seeds?’ The roar.

‘Is ours.’ The chorus.

‘The water?’

‘Is ours.’

‘The air?’

‘Is ours.’

‘Enemies?’

‘They fall.’

We will stand.’

We will stand.’

‘Glory be all of Shindila’s.’

‘Glory be all of Shindila’s.’

Venerated soldiers of Shindila, bleeding and proud, every night at the garrisons bellowed their prayer for victory.

            The world was raging with wars. There was not one unpatented seed or one bit of unclaimed earth. Whole nations were napalmed for their illegal forests. Incendiaries scorched populations of nonpartisans and farmers. Millions were incarcerated and tortured and murdered every minute for being heroic. And Shomei had dared to grow a garden.

As he stood over the infraction that day, his ears rang with words from the prayer and his heart thumped; he clenched his fist and continued to stare at his wife’s triumphant face. Her crimes comprised of smuggling (soil), theft (seeds), unlawful use of resources (water) and unauthorized production of priced goods (air), along with whatever else the military would promptly pound on her. She had imperiled all pleas for safety. The first night of his return from war, thus, Iftikhar had careened into a spiral of paranoia that lasted for days.

Millions were incarcerated and tortured and murdered every minute for being heroic. And Shomei had dared to grow a garden.

#

Shomei slipped out of Iftikhar’s arms, she dressed with a smile on her face. Iftikhar laboriously sat up on the bed and watched her walk away. She was going to the plants. There she would talk to them and she would fondle their leaves. She would prune them and she would make Iftikhar take note of their stride.

If he had had the faintest idea that it was the final morning of their lives together, Iftikhar would have hugged himself around Shomei, he would have become her skin. He would have listened to her every word and every breath. He would have done anything to prolong time. If only he had known.

The plants however seemed to know. They had even prepared a parting gift. When Iftikhar walked into the garden room, Shomei was on the floor, she was gleaming but tears trickled down her face to fall into her upturned palms.

‘Tomato. This is a tomato.’ Shomei said, her voice sibilant and shaking. At the tip of a branch, resting on her palm was a green bud. It was firm yet smooth to touch. She declared that it would ripen to become red. Ripen was a word Iftikhar had never heard her use before; he repeated the word a few times, he liked its sound. That morning was the first time the plants ever bloomed anything that looked whole.

In the months after her baby was gone, if it were not for the soil and the seeds, Shomei was convinced that she would have been deranged by grief. The first time she visited the gangland market for goods, she was aware of its perils. It was an open invitation to military incursions and death. She was however overrun by an acute sense of need to null her bereavement. The underworld was one that she hadn’t treaded before but it drew her in for its crude ways of defiance to succumb.

It took her many visits and walks amidst the traffickers to find Xahm, a boyish young man, a contraband prince. He sold her soil and seeds. He taught her to plant and care for its life. He often offered her more than she paid for. ‘For your cause’, he would say.

If he had had the faintest idea that it was the final morning of their lives together, Iftikhar would have hugged himself around Shomei, he would have become her skin. He would have listened to her every word and every breath. He would have done anything to prolong time. If only he had known.

The cause of a Revolution often begins as nothing. As a flickering thought or an impetuous craving. But with time it grows, and reveals layers of meaning like the turns and twists of an infinite road. The day after the epiphany, all Shomei knew was that she needed to procure soil and seeds for green. When the saplings were first seen, little green knobs, she sat for hours in the garden room and there were nights when she fell asleep amongst them. She fiercely watched over the plants like she once did with her baby. And as they grew, in the curls of their leaves, in the origin of their roots, in the unpredictability of their bodies, in the miracle of their growth, they revealed the folds of the cause, the substance in her madness. And the new meanings incited in Shomei a secession, which repudiated things that were acquiesced as normal.

Queries in plain sight that she never took note of began to crop up. What does real meat taste like? Whose genius was imitation meat? How did the cattle go extinct? Did they each die breathless twitching and coiling? Did they turn pink, purple and then blue? Were they cremated? Who kept their ashes? What does a mountain look like? What’s the crunch of a carrot? Where does one find a carrot? Was there a time when rain was not acidic? What does it feel like to swim? Were dolphins a myth? What really is the color of the sky? Is it true that birds were once rampant? What did they eat? Where did they go when they perished? Was there a time when one could see faces and smiles on the streets? What does it feel like to breathe freely? What does it feel like to live without Respirators masking your existence? Breath prevailed life, but the State monopolized breath, so who owned life, the State or the Breath?

The cause of a Revolution often begins as nothing. As a flickering thought or an impetuous craving. But with time it grows, and reveals layers of meaning like the turns and twists of an infinite road.

A Revolution, long before it upholds banners and clamors verses, has secret highs. One morning, after Iftikhar’s return and his survival of the spiraling pit of paranoia, this was what happened. In the garden room the plants needed more sun, but the windows could not be opened because then the oxygen would flow to waste. In the State of Shindila, every home came with centralized oxygenators. The citizens paid for the oxygen that filled it but not for the fitting.

After prolonged deliberation, the compressor to the garden room was turned off and the windows were opened. To examine how long it would be until they suffocate, they lingered. In a few minutes the choke got oppressive but they could still breathe. So they waited longer. An hour passed and two, excitement crept up their skins and seeped into them like warm fluid. Even though they barely breathed, just enough to live, it felt like victory. The plants watched them revel and their exultant stems lightly swayed.

Every high in a Revolution rekindles hope and the allure of the cause blazes. In that moment, as they drew their breath from the green, inundated by emotions unexplored, Shomei embraced Iftikhar. It was then, as he dissolved in her arms, that Iftikhar conceded himself as an ally to the cause.

#

On that conclusive morning while sharing a bowl of porridge with Shomei, Iftikhar was the one jubilant. ‘I can’t wait to eat that tomato’, he said.

Shomei laughed at his laugh. She yearned to see the tomato red, ripened but her mind was occupied by the state of the soil that morning. It was dry, almost cracked. They needed water.

Shomei worked at a food factory’s imitation meat wing, a twelve-hour daily drudge. The little she earned was exhausted by soil and water. They had reduced bathing to twice a week and ceased washing vessels but only wiped them. They wore the same clothes for days. And yet, water for plants was never enough.

That day, after work, Shomei would go to the gangland for water. In the market tenements she would walk towards Xahm’s palisade. The smog would be dense that evening. She would see moving shapes but not the infantry tanks lined up or the patrolling soldiers. She would walk, and as she walks she would hear a blow. And then she would feel it. She would buckle, and then fall. Her Respirators would be wrested off. She would gasp for air while being kicked; the heavy boots would crush her ribs, the pain would be excruciating. She would hear nothing, only absolute silence. She would bleed and she would flinch at the heat of her blood. She would smell death and she would know ultimate agony.

But that morning, Shomei had no premonition about her end. She swallowed spoonful of insipid porridge imagining that they were luscious tomatoes. She did not foresee then that she would never know the taste of the tomato. Or how ecstatic Iftikhar would be when he tastes the tomato. She would never know that for the years to come, he would talk to her as though she was still there to listen. She would never know that he would survive. And she would never know that he would proliferate and radiate her cause.

There were things that Iftikhar would never know too. He would never know that she died breathless, just as their baby did. He would never know that he was her closing thought. He would never know that she had seen the whole dream that he thought he had snatched her away from. She had seen it flourish and she had seen it transform life as was known.

That morning, blissfully unaware of the impending doom, they were wrapped in a joyful quietude. At the door she kissed him and he said ‘you did it, love’ to which she smiled, her gaze tender. ‘There’s more to do’, was her retort.

Moments before Shomei disappeared into the smoggy streets, she turned around to wave. It was what she walked away with, the picture of Iftikhar at the door, a lovely man undone by war.

Every high in a Revolution rekindles hope and the allure of the cause blazes. In that moment, as they drew their breath from the green, inundated by emotions unexplored, Shomei embraced Iftikhar. It was then, as he dissolved in her arms, that Iftikhar conceded himself as an ally to the cause.

#

War and Revolution, both fall in the extremes, purblind in its propinquity to death. Perhaps it was this shared attribute that allowed Iftikhar to transition between the two. War like a possessed beast, sees no beauty, and wreaks havoc. Revolution too, but it sees beauty, one that frightens many.

Iftikhar was benumbed on the gardenroom floor. Loneliness exacerbated sounds; he could hear the crinkle of the leaves as they grew, the rush of life in their veins. In the lowest branch of the tallest plant, he heard a quiet universe in a globe. The green bud had ripened. It was red. He lay listening to the lull of its essence.

The fruit fit in the nook of his palm. His teeth delved deep into its splendid ripeness. It was many things at once. He swelled. In the burst of flavor, believe it or not, a Revolution was crowned.

Revolution too, but it sees beauty, one that frightens many.


Anagha Unni is a writer and an award-winning documentary filmmaker who currently lives in Kerala, India. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communication and a Diploma in Screen and Media Studies from Sydney Film School, where she won the Best Screenplay Award for her work titled Maya, which later she directed as a short film.
Anagha believes that only through stories and art can the diversity of humanity be sustained. She hopes to see a world abundant of compassion.