A moment of choice
Avijit Mitra/Phone Memory
It was a cold and dark morning. An unconvincing winter was breaking in a tropical city.
Ruby jumped as the alarm rang. For a moment she could not recall what time or day it was. But she was sure that it was a weekday and that she needed to get a child ready for school, and she groped for her phone to turn off the alarm.
Soon, another thought came to her. She was sure that the child had flown the nest some years ago. She willed herself to wake up as memories of rushed farewells, packed bags and the smell of airport food played on her mental screen. In the next moment, she was walking down a dark street watching the lit grid-like windows of apartment blocks. For some reason, this sight comforted her.
Ruby was a single woman, living alone in a city where she had moved for employment. Her irregular income was drying up and she did not have a child. A line occurred to her. Time always flows in a single direction, forwards. Perhaps she was dreaming.
It was a recurrent nightmare. She was trying to wake her mother up. “Wake up, wake up, mother! We are going to miss the school bus again. I am late. Never mind the lunch box, canteen food won’t kill me.”
In the next instance, Ruby was the mother. A teenager’s voice reverberated through her small flat, followed by a loud sound of a door closing, “Bye ma, I’ll text you. I’ll email you. We can chat on zoom. Hi, are you still asleep? You must stop trawling the web till past midnight!!!”
Ruby shook her head and sat up. She was alone. As she stood up to look outside the single window that lit her one-room rented flat, she felt a stab of ever-present guilt. She should call her mother. Fully awake now Ruby reached for the bottle of water and drank deeply. A glance at the phone showed it was 8:30. The sun shone brightly. Dogs and crows were making a din because it was garbage collection time.
She had overslept. But it didn’t matter because she did not have anywhere to go. Government had declared a lockdown. It would be nice to drift back to sleep and relive good memories, perhaps about the many tests in which she had performed exceptionally well. Ruby felt a sense of relief, which was quickly replaced by fear. What if she did not have her job anymore? There was the rent, bills, money to send home.
Her train of thought was interrupted by a busy murmur coming through the thin walls.
Her super-upright dedicated neighbours were at work already. It was both comforting and irritating.
The glow of the blue-green screen in the far corner of the long room caught her attention. She glimpsed the earnest face of a man. His deep voice resounded through the speakers, “time is a very interesting phenomenon in quantum physics – take for instance the arrow of time…why do you suppose it could go only forwards?” The man was the exact likeness of her physics teacher from years ago. But back then they did not have the Internet, or at least web 2.0.
Ruby sat in a perfect lotus position and inhaled and exhaled twenty times as instructed in online yoga. The screen went dark instantly. She was young. Life was good, golden, pastel, possible and malleable. She felt a surge of hope as she walked to her tiny kitchen. It exuded comfort.
Fetch eggs, onions, butter, fire and the old pan – perfect. Everything is where it should be. Grounding is important these days when you hardly see anybody or go anywhere. As Ruby searched drawers, shelves for the sharpest knife, she felt frustration mounting. Where is the stupid knife? Just then the doorbell trilled. It was shocking. She dropped the phone. Doorbells never ring these days.
She opens the door carelessly. A polite young man stands there. Even through his mask, he looks vaguely familiar and his extended hand holds a gleaming knife. Before Ruby can gather her thoughts, the man speaks. “That will be 500 rupees. You can make the payment on Google Pay. When you need me again, just WhatsApp on the number I am sending now.” He whips out a battered phone and turns to go downstairs. Brother, wait. Who are you and when did I give you the knife? She checks herself. He must think I am losing it. She takes the knife and shuts the door.
While she stood gathering her thoughts, the doorbell rang. Who could it be this time? She opened the door.
A child walks in, hot and grimy, lugging a large schoolbag.
“What a day I had, ma!” grumbles the child.
Am I a mother now? What is going on? Ruby gulps in shock.
“It was an exam day today but you don’t remember, do you? They let us go early.”
“Did you eat your tiffin?” Ruby asks a memorised question.
“Nope, didn’t have time. The stupid physics paper was too long. I am starving.” The child moves to get past her.
“Physics is not stupid.” Ruby reprimands the stranger-child. It was my favourite subject in school.
“What time is your school tomorrow? Do you have a test tomorrow as well?” she asks, just being polite, really.
The child whips out a large phone, starts scrolling expertly.
“Tomorrow is English. I sent you the timetable on WhatsApp! You could check your messages, once in a while. And why are you not at work today?”
The child looks at her suspiciously.
“Why did you ring the bell if you thought I was at work?” Ruby retorts. Let’s show this stranger-child who is the adult here.
“The guard door was locked, that meant someone was at home.” The child rolls their eyes. “I am hungry, sleepy, homework.” The child fades.
Ruby wondered whether she should pursue the story or let it resolve itself. These random glitches usually did. Logically, I must be asleep. Have I been asleep for a decade?
Her phone screen lit up. It lay right next to the shiny, almost new knife on the countertop. She ignored the knife and reached for the phone. It was her lifeline. It may have some clues about her current moment.
There was a message on WhatsApp from someone called the Unicorn. The profile showed an anime one-horned deer wearing a mask. Who is this? Please let me remember! Ruby thought frantically.
“Hey lazy! You missed another work meeting. It just got over.” The Unicorn has messaged and is online.
“Hi! What meeting was this?” Ruby types.
“Seriously?” The Unicorn sends a rolling eyes emoji.
“Tell me.” Ruby counters with a hands folded emoji.
“Why should I? Everyone attended. You responded yes to the meeting.” The duel continues.
Ruby, still fishing, types, “Fine. What time was the meeting?”
“Never mind. Coming for the event?” The Unicorn changes the subject.
“Sure. What event?” Ruby refuses to give up.
“The memory auction, remember?” The Unicorn is confident.
“Are you going?” Ruby starts another duel.
“Are you joking? I have a super memory to offer.” The Unicorn boasts.
“I want to know.” Ruby feels delirious with hope.
“Okay. But don’t steal it.” The Unicorn teases.
“Why should I? I have my own. They are coming crazier than ever.” Ruby boasts.
“You are not great in the memory department. But whatever!! Read mine.”
Her hopes rising Ruby reads rapidly as the Unicorn types.
“My great-great-great grandmother had this fab recipe for jujube pickle. Anyway. It is still in our family but the memory is about how we nearly lost this treasure. It was the time of the great wars. Enemy soldiers came to our ancestral house looking for traitors. My grandmother had to leave through the secret door with the recipe hidden in a silver box concealed in her hair. She had gorgeous hair (which I have inherited). Imagine how magnificent she was. Like Wonder Woman, flying through the night in a carriage with the recipe, while soldiers on horseback gave chase. That is my memory.”
“Who were these soldiers? When did this happen?” Ruby types.
“Mughal, British, winged demons, does that matter?” The Unicorn is exasperated.
“Okay. Peace. Do you still have the silver box or recipe on parchment? Is that going for the auction?” Ruby seeks more clarity.
“Ahhh!! You don’t get it. My memory is on auction. It is infinitely more precious than mouldy art or paper. Promise, you will come? I am forwarding the link again. It will be livestreamed at 00:00 hours.” The Unicorn wants to end the conversation.
Ruby gives up. “Sure thing. I’ll come.”
“Lovely. Hearts. Kisses.” The Unicorn is offline.
The phone screen is dark again.
Outside the day was still, noiseless and brilliant with sunshine.
Who am I? Where am I? Who was the child? What did the Unicorn mean?
Ruby turned to look at the time, when the doorbell rang.
Who can it be now? This is fun, like having a weird Alice adventure.
Ruby rushed to open the door. It was the knife man again.
Ruby sighs. “You are here, again?”
“But you sent me a message,” says the knife-man.
“What rubbish. I did no such thing.”
“Here, you can see your missed call,” he says, holding out his battered phone.
“I don’t want to. I know that I didn’t call you. In fact, I don’t know you at all,” Ruby decides to tell the truth.
The knife-man is upset now. “That is not true. You see us everyday, when you come home from work every evening. In street corners – sharpening knives, on our cycles.”
“Yes. I have seen you. But we have never spoken to you. And I haven’t been out for more than two years now.” Ruby speaks slowly and clearly.
“Well. Maybe you don’t remember.” The knife-man decides to make peace.
“What day is it?” Ruby asks to change the subject.
The knife-man takes up the challenge. “See, you don’t even remember that.”
“Since you know so much about me, tell me who I am?” Ruby asks.
“Now, you are joking. How can I know that, if you don’t?” The knife-man appears surprised.
Ruby speaks softly. “Okay. Let me try again. Where am I? Where are we? Time, date, place, in that order.”
The knife-man is pleased now. “That, I can tell. You are in the moment.”
“Gosh. Crazy doesn’t end. Do I have a child?” Ruby perseveres.
“You may have had in the past, or going to in the future. That’s all I know.” The knife-man speaks patiently.
“In this moment, do I have a child in this moment?” Ruby asks urgently.
“That is an impossible question. The moment is already past, if you are able to recall it. As for the future, who can tell?” The knife-man speaks in riddles.
“Let me get this straight. Am I dead? Are you a soul courier, come to take me to wherever you take souls these days? To the ‘cloud’ perhaps?” Ruby feels she was gaining ground.
The knife-man is laughing now. “What a ridiculous idea. People don’t die any more. Everything of value is being curated and preserved. I have told you. You are in a moment of your own choosing.”
Ruby grinds her teeth in frustration. My choosing – bullshit. “I want to know more about this idiotic moment.”
“Well. Fine, if you insist! The knife-man is very business-like now. “Just check your WhatsApp. I have sent you a registration link. To enter, you need an OTP, already sent to your registered mobile number.”
Let’s play this dumb game. Ruby types and taps on her screen. “Okay, I am doing it. Stay here. There, done it.”
“Do you see the three main options? All you have to do is choose.”
Ruby asks. “It says, REWIND, FORWARD and TOP-UP. What does it mean?”
“That is for you to decide. If you are interested, I can share the price plan for each option. You can take the one that fits your budget.”
“But what are the consequences for each of these decisions?”
“That is entirely in your own hands. This is a free world. Only you decide your moment.”
“The last time I felt so empowered was when I scored a 90 in high-school physics,” Ruby smirks.
The knife-man is not amused. “Irrelevant sarcasm won’t give you the life you seek.”
“If it is my choice, then what about adding a fourth option – END?”
“We cannot alter the design of the game,” the knife-man says patiently.
“Will you go away with your knives and price plans if I smashed my phone?” Ruby is breathing hard as she speaks.
“Sure. But what if you disappear with me?” There is steel in the knife-man’s voice.
“Let us see, shall we?” Ruby throws her phone on the floor and stamps on it.
The sun was setting now. She heard different birdcalls. The moment had passed. Ruby was alone and felt a spasm of relief. Then, the doorbell rang again.
Sohini Sengupta has a PhD in Anthropology from SOAS, University of London. She joined the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) as an assistant professor in 2012. Her research areas include anthropological approaches on poverty with specific focus on gender and indigenous people and land history and the cultures of new social and digital media. She lives in Mumbai and is currently engaged in a research study on Gender, Culture and Care work during the pandemic, (Online and Offline) supported by TISS Research Council.