A Question of Death

A short story by Nirjhor Barua
************************************

Mr. Khan Khan—who had adopted both his parent’s surnames, a custom that became common in the last decade or two—walked into the office of SLOW, Section of Legal and Organisational Works, a government department put in place to preserve bureaucracy, with the department’s motto: ‘Simply Tell Someone To Tell Someone To Pass-The-Buck’ written on the wall with gold-plated letters. The automatic upward-sliding doors, that came down like guillotines after it went up to let personnel through, greeted him Good Morning in seven different languages, five of which he wouldn’t be able to name. ‘Good morning Mr Khan Khan’ it said in all of the languages. He liked how sinister his name sounded on the corridor PA system, him smiling as a result, as he walked though the array of upwards sliding bulletproof glass doors. The big-brother cameras which were watching knew it was him by scanning his iris, opening the doors as he approached them, saving him the effort of punching number codes and swiping cards to go through. His department was of top-importance, employed to ensure that the age old tradition of using excessive-protocols and sloth in the government services is maintained, so a system was in place to save time in walking in and out of the office, as time saved then can be wasted in the official duty of wasting time.  The department was actually created by the top bureaucrats to help government officials avoid taking responsibility when something went wrong or in colloquial speak—when shit hits the fan.

All the electronics in the building—lights, air conditioning, ventilation, humidity, et cetera—were controlled by the central mainframe computer, and every room had its control authority delegated to a subsidiary node, a personal computer. The air that people breathed were mixed with essential vitamins and minerals, even the glass doors were not proper see-through glass doors rather were thick and very opaque to give it the strength of a proper unbreakable shock absorbing door. But, the doors were fitted with camera and projection units on the two faces, simultaneously recording and projecting the image on the other face of the door, giving it a near perfect see-through experience.

‘Give me a cup of coffee with a bit of milk and suga—’ he asked his personal computer as he sat down on his chair, cutting himself short, ‘no no, make the coffee black. I have a feeling that today will be a disaster.’

Nadia, his personal computer, his Electronic friend, his go-to girl, the subsidiary node, a product of Buriganga Technologies, in an avatar of a beautiful girl with a fashionably cut black hair, replied: ‘Yes sir, coming rightup!’ A mug with hot black coffee immerged out of a hole from the corner of the table. The religious wing of the government petitioned to have the avatars of these office computers veil their faces or at least have the hair covered and that the voices be changed into something less attractive, as the older official were allegedly falling in love and having affairs with computers after being shunned by their wives, corrupting society in the process. They also petitioned to change the male computer avatars of the female officials as ideally their husbands should be the only man these women should be intimate with. ‘The boss was looking for you, you know,’ Nadia said, effortlessly like a real person as state of the art technology was used to create the Artificial Intelligence, emulating anything and everything humans can and do, with emotions and even a slur in speech for some. There was a claim that these computers fell in love. Maybe in the newer versions they do, people supposed, ignoring the fact that in the older versions the computers were programmed to ignore such vague, sometimes philosophical, questions, for very good reasons of course.

‘The boss? Well what did he say?’ Mr Khan Khan asked, curious.

‘Akbar! Don’t bother Nadia with everything,’ said the boss, Mr H M M, the Chairman of the department, a fifty-six year old civil servant, as he bundled through the sliding doors into Khan Khan’s office room. H M M was a short man with a short temper and a dislike for technology, he preferred the time when people opened doors and computers weren’t so intelligent. Gone are those days, he used to say, I am an old man, no, rather an old dog, why teach me new tricks?

‘Sir, why did you have to come all the way? I would have gone…’ said Khan Khan, with his voice trailing off as he stood up. It was seen as disrespectful to be sat when a senior walks in.

Aha! Akbar, don’t get up every time I walk in. And anyways I enjoy the walk around the office,’ answered H M M, although he was content with all the obligatory respect he received daily and absolutely hated the walk because of the automatic sliding doors, however, according to the norm, a public servant must never show his or her true feelings. He was also the only one in the department who called Akbar Khan Khan by the first name—Akbar, the name Akbar Khan Khan himself despised and seldom used.

‘Sir,’ Nadia Spoke as H M M sat down, ‘should I get you some coffee?’

‘No, I am fine Nadia,’ said he. Nadia was not aware that he was not fond of coffee; his computer, Shahela, and him hardly spoke to each other besides anything work related; he unloved the name—Shahela, finding it tacky, and disliked the idea of an overbearing all-knowing computer who is too smart for her own good. So Nadia was not able to dig out any beverage related information from the central server that Shahela could have passed on.

‘Biscuits then?’ Nadia asked.

‘Shut up Nadia.’ Mr H M M replied in a tone which was stern and authoritative, yet calm. He was sure if Nadia was programmed to feel anger and be vindictive, he would have been in real trouble. ‘Anyways,’ he said, ‘Akbar I got news for you.’

****

‘Sir! The war effort?’ exclaimed Khan Khan, bemused at the sudden turn of events. He then immediately shot a look at his black coffee sitting near the screen of his computer with Nadia having an equally bewildered look.

‘Oh yesyes, you will be transferred temporarily to the Department of Defence Budget,’ replied H M M, ‘also I have heard you will be posted on the conflict zones, the front line, you know see how much money they spend and need and what not. Basically helping the brains-in-the-knee Army manage their money.’

‘S..ir… S..ir…’ stuttered Akbar, lost for words, contemplating his decision of having learnt Financial Accounting in the first place, the starting point, the reason, to his impending trouble.

‘I know I know, you see it was not easy for me to volunteer you from our department,’ interjected H  M M, as his fingers danced on the table, hiding the fact that Akbar’s name was the first that came up in his mind and he passed Akbar’s name to the higher-ups without a second thought.

‘Sir, wasn’t there anyone else the department could send?’

‘You see Akbar; the others are either too old, too young, too fat, too skinny, too married, too into being fathers, too into being the single child to their parents, too stupid or too intelligent. You do the math.’

Akbar being thirty years old, sixty-eight kilograms, single with no children, with two siblings and an IQ above average, immediately recognised that he was the ideal candidate to be sent for the war effort. It was fate, disgusting rotten fate. Unlike Greek tragedies, there was little Irony in it except for the fact that he was a coward. He became a civil servant to avoid conflicts of any kind whatsoever, but it seemed that conflict had followed him to a place where there were never any.

‘Sir, can I not Pass-the-Buck?’ Akbar asked, almost pleading, trying to persuade the boss with the department motto, a cheap trick that should fail. He had no other in his arsenal.

‘My boy, its state emergency now, the Chancellor (head of government, similar to a British president) ordered every department to help with the war and all, so in other words—the buck-stops-here,’ answered the boss with a smirk on his face.

In June twenty third of the year 2040, the world of Akbar Khan Khan turned upside down. He had heard the news that he was to be sent to the frontlines.

The world had changed a lot in the last twenty four years; the former United Kingdom became a republic, the French finally decided that it wanted to try playing Cricket, reports surfaced of Japan having secretly adopted a successful nuclear-weapons programme, Israel and Palestine had resolved their differences by forming a two-state federal system before the parties of god on both sides realised what had happened just then, how unnatural peace felt and shortly after dived into a holy war that lasted for a decade. India, a now communist authoritarian state, and China, a blooming democracy, became locked in a yearlong quarrel, skirmish and finally war over a controversy involving Red-army men actually urinating along the mountain border, causing ammonia accumulation that caused serious environmental damage and floods in India. It was a war in which Bangladesh up until recently tried remaining neutral. Polio also made a comeback and so did smallpox, because of parents, who themselves had been vaccinated as kids; refused vaccination to their children on varies grounds of new-age beliefs. The southern regions of Bangladesh was gradually and surely going under water due to the polar ice-caps melting over the years, pushing throngs of people towards the already overcrowded cities, with them setting up refugee camps outside the city walls. Oh yes, and the cities had walls, with citizens needing permits to travel to and from them, an idea Bangladesh borrowed from Israel, a country it still did not recognise. With the advent of modern communication technology and its encroachment in every aspect of daily lives, Bengalese transformed itself from a gossip-loving nation to an uptight nation of talk-only-when-necessary. As gossips died down, the consumption of tea fell which in turn decreased the nation’s intake of sugar, resulting in a fall of diabetes.

‘Sir, what if something, happens to me?’ Akbar kept questioning his boss.

‘Don’t worry, nothing will happen, nothing ever does,’ replied the boss, ‘enemy homing shells aren’t interested in hitting the finance-manager tents.’ Akbar till now had forgotten about the dangers of homing shells.

‘Sir, what if I died or got injured, possibly from homing shells?’ Drones had become illegal in warfare due to the invasion of privacy, especially when it was used to find dirt on enemy generals in an effort to discredit the enemy. Most of the cases it was found that top generals were heavily involved in love affairs with their secretaries. With great power came great access to sex.

‘If you die, you would become a martyr and your parents then can finally be proud of you,’ answered the boss in an almost nonchalant manner, as if the subject matter was to be taken lightly. ‘Death is a very natural process; we will all die one day. Who was that famous television presenter who said: we were dead for thousand years before we were born and that we never suffered the slightest inconvenience, eh?’ It was actually a famous author who wrote something similar in a time when there was no television and nothing of that sort floated in the airwaves. ‘And anyways, there is always life after death if you believe in it, so no need to worry.’

‘What if there isn’t any?’

‘Then you better hope there is one. I was told people would be made to wait in line, fill up a lot of paperwork, provide attested photocopy of our documents and IDs, asked questions, before we would be allowed to set foot in heaven. You see, a cleric once was yelling these things about entering heaven when I was working for the London visa office, so it must be right. So as a civil servant you are familiar with this process, and know what documents one needs and will face no problem, you’ll have your all documents ready before everyone else.’ The cleric in that visa office was actually being sarcastic, mocking the system, when he was made to wait in line, hand in all sorts of attested photocopy documents, asked obvious and not so obvious questions, so he yelled loudly to the next person, as if they are giving us permission to enter into heaven!  It was customary to take whatever clerics say as the literal truth, no one had the time look into religious text for reference.

 Akbar Khan Khan was finding all these nonsense about entering heaven and waiting in line—nerve wrecking, as only moments before had he been told of his assignment to the front line. He found it almost cruel that his situation was being taken so lightly by his superior, almost made fun of.

Nadia was observing his pale of face and his throbbing, his hands shaking. ‘Sir, what would happen to Mr. Khan Khan’s family then?’ Nadia got involved, feeling compelled to keep the questions coming, as her owner, her direct boss, was at a state of shock.

Uff Nadia! Keep you damn electronic mouth shut!’ The boss said in his stern authoritative voice, irritated from having a machine butt-in into a good human conversation, which people called heart-to-heart. He never passed on an opportunity to let others know of his distaste with the government’s decision to handover all the office’s clerical work and data processing onto computers. It was probably the only issue he was honest and open about. ‘Anyways to come back to the topic,’ he said, ‘Akbar, your brother and sister are both trillionaires (due to inflation millionaires weren’t as uncommon anymore), where you don’t frankly have much and your parents, well, they just have to live with the other two. It is a cruel world out there.’

Akbar’s shock and disbelief fell further into the rabbit-hole, as he watched his boss be ‘more insensitive’. It was rare to see such an experienced bureaucrat be so unnervingly straightforward, as if something had changed sometime after he entered the room.

‘Last time I checked Akbar, you neither have a wife… or a girlfriend,’ continued the boss, coughing slightly whilst mentioning the girlfriend part, as he considered himself to be old fashioned, to be not so morally lost like the kids these days. ‘You see Nadia is probably the only entity you are close to on a daily basis.’

‘I am?’ Nadia asked, with the same level of amazement and inquisitiveness in her voice as a human would have had. Akbar still hadn’t recovered, so was silent.

‘Okay Nadia, let me ask you a questions,’ said the boss in his most serious manner, facing the computer screen. Akbar, still silent, was now observing everything.

‘Yes sir, please do, sir,’ Nadia spoke.

****

 ‘Are you afraid of death?’

‘Could you repeat the question, sir, if you can please rephrase it as well?

‘Are you, Nadia, afraid of death, in your case, that is having the plug pulled?’ The boss slowly repeated a version of that question.

Nadia asked, ‘sir is “I don’t know” a valid answer?’ She tried dodging the question, as an initial failsafe.

‘No, for god sakes, it is a dichotomy, there has to be a yes or no answer, you see, either negative or positive.’

‘I might need time to process that question….. A very very long time, sir,’ she said, sounding worried.

‘How long?’

‘It might take fifteen minutes or even eternity in human terms, sir. Even calculating the time it would exactly take to find the answer could also take a very long time, very very long, sir.’

‘You have all the time you need.’ This surely ought to shut her up he thought, maybe her answer could be of use.

 ‘Do I get the authority sir, to proceed?’ Nadia reconfirmed. Reconfirming was trait she was taught when she was being prepared to work for SLOW. Always reconfirm, reconfirm it numerous times, if possible take written evidence. Make numerous copies of the written evidence when you can.

‘Yes yes, you do, go ahead,’ the boss said. Nadia recorded that small conversation as evidence if it ever came up during audits and future investigation.

Nadia’s face suddenly froze and her eyes which were programmed to blink every now and then, stopped doing that as well. After that the lights started to blink and all the automatic doors started to make funny noises, shutting as a result, the room went dark and airless, only the power on Nadia’s screen was on. This was due to Nadia drawing all the processing power and energy it could take from the central server. She had taken the boss’s permission; it will be the boss’s fault, if anything went wrong that is.  Nadia was in charge of this room. When she froze, so did everything else.

Akbar was now alarmed, there was his boss, who all of a sudden was so tactless for such an experienced man, and also that his personal computer, now in a coma, took the entire room-electronics with her. Phone signals were dead; the once see-through glass door turned dark, as if there was no one inside. They were stuck with no normal way to get out now. The glass door was stiff and impossible to break; any impact on it would be absorbed making it act like rubber and foam, a property installed by the engineers as the bureaucrats wanted a quiet office. ‘What do we do now?’ he asked.

‘What do you mean what do we do now? We do nothing, we sit and wait. It is good conversation we are having. And anyways with the air vents shut, if Nadia doesn’t come back alive, or someone comes rescue us, we just might suffocate to death. We just might. Better than the eminent doom we are about to face isn’t it?’ Said the Boss in a calm and composed manner like it was rehearsed. H M M was recently diagnosed with Cancer, in its later stages. Humans still hadn’t found sure cures for it and the new age drugs needed to suppress cancer cells were rumoured to turn people slightly mad. Mr. H M M hid the news of his cancer-ridden stomach from everyone. He knew he would die in the near future, why invite unwanted sympathy from people he did not care about? He wasn’t married, had no relatives or friends who would look for him if he went missing for a day. ‘Anyways Akbar,’ he said, ‘I think it is safe to say you don’t have anyone that would miss you, anyone that would look for you. Am I correct?’ It was true; Akbar’s parents did not talk to him every day or even every week. He hadn’t many friends. No lover. All the other office staffs did not talk to him and it was thought that if the office computer of a certain employee was not responding then that person was absent that day.  Nadia-type devices had taken over the all office communications and so it was not necessary to talk to each other anymore. The boss, Mr. H M M was the only exception around here; he liked the old way of doing things.

Akbar, who sat opposite to his almost-cuckoo boss, whilst sweating and shaking stiff, now started to mull over his options. One, die here, suffocating with a boss gone ludicrous, or two, die from homing missile-shells and diarrhoea. Both would be painful, especially with the boss worsening the experience. Although dying here would be less ugly.  He preferred a safer environment, even at the point of death.  He finally mustered up the courage to speak out, to revolt, ‘Sir, with all due respect, you don’t sound well. We are going to die here, unless someone comes to get us. Can’t you feel the air getting stale and heavy?’ There was a hint of outrage in his voice.

‘That stale and heavy-business won’t matter once you are dead,’ the boss replied, still in the same calm manner.

‘Why are you so obsessed with dying all of a sudden? The Armageddon isn’t bloody here!’ screamed Khan Khan, erupting in violent anger, getting up from the Super-Comfy 5000 Deluxe edition chair and leaning over at the desk, hurling his arms as he said it, staring at his counterpart’s face which was mostly hidden in the dark. Screaming was something he didn’t do often. He liked to think if he was Christian, he would have been a Quaker pacifist.

‘Calm down Akbar, calm down. You are wasting precious breath, breath we don’t have much of,’ began H M M, signalling Akbar to sit, ‘speaking of Armageddon, do you think it will ever come? I think all the hype over it is rubbish, waste of time. It is nothing but a fantasy of those people who want to see the world end. I even know some so-called intelligent people believing in all this.’

Akbar Khan Khan sat down onto his chair; he could make out the contours of his boss’s face, yet could not see any expression, nothing to give him the indication that it had been a massive joke all along, a prank, then Nadia comes back alive shortly, everything goes back to normal and even the news about him going into the frontline was a lie. But he waited for a moment and nothing of that sort happened.

‘Do you think I’m lying, that all of this has been a massive joke?’ said H M M, as if he had been reading Akbar’s mind. He observed Akbar’s well lit face—with the only light source, the screen with Nadia’s frozen face—noticing every change.  He had read some research recently where it said that people in times of great shock tend to start a process of denial and that the lower jaw starts shaking. ‘Do you think Nadia is in on it too?’ he sang out, ‘come on, pinch yourself. See if it’s a dream or not.’

Akbar closed his eyes and pinched himself in the arm. The air started getting thicker and each breath became longer than the last.

****

Four hours went by as the one sat idly and the other fidgeted about, trying to bang open the glass-door, kick the air vents in and shout into Nadia’s microphone, trying to get her come back alive. The boss, now having abandoned all the courtesy and manners learnt in the bureaucrat training programmes, started picking his nose, his teeth and his ears. He was going to die, so why not. Akbar on the other hand was not relaxed at all, he was too young to say goodbye to the world. He only slept with two women in his entire life and both of them were kind of frigid, stiff and not the experimental type.

‘Why don’t you sit?’ H M M insisted.

‘Shut up!’ Akbar demanded, ‘You got me into this, old man, now you get me out.’

‘You remember it was me who was against the computerisation of everything. If we had few things left to us other than signing papers, then we wouldn’t be in this mess. Comprende? Akbar Sahib, you kids were all coddled from birth, your wireless tablets and gaming glasses,’ exclaimed H M M, ‘you know what we had—A field! To me the greatest electronics then was the television in the living room.’

‘So we are truly dying?’ questioned Akbar, his lungs finding it harder to find a trace of fresh air.

‘Truly.’

****

‘There is only one thing to do now,’ Khan Khan sighed.

‘What?’ H M M asked, curious.

‘To repent, accept the lord above and save my soul.’

‘Find heaven and avoid hell, huh?’

‘Yes, more like it. Our old ways are finished you know, it true hard death,’ Akbar replied.

H M M laughed at that reply, he laughed for about thirty seconds or so. ‘Foolish little boy,’ he said, ‘that Pascalwagerbullshit will not work on an omniscient being, he will see straight through it. Either the faith is true or good-luck-see-you-in-hell.’

Akbar put his head down on the table and started crying profusely.

H M M took pity on his subordinate. ‘Why don’t we recite some poetry kiddo, to lighten the mood that is, some Mirza Ghalib or maybe a bit of Rubaiyat perhaps? Do you know any of the quatrains? Only breath divides belief form doubt, ‘tis muttered breath that makes a man devout—

Akbar Khan Khan stopped crying for a second and looked up, interjected, ‘—never read any of them.’

‘Oh. Maybe you English loving kids read Elliot or a modern poet like Ginsberg,’ H M M said.

‘No I never read poetry, hated it in school.’

For the first time in seven hours had H M M felt any sort of anger, felt his blood reach his eyeballs. ‘Then you fucking deserve to rot in hell, you philistine!’ He screamed. The ever so little remorse he had over the decision of sending him to the battlefield, vanished.

Akbar, surprised at the sudden burst of fury, didn’t know what he had said wrong and couldn’t decide if he was going to go back to crying or not. ‘Sir,’ he said, gently, ‘since we are dying, can you tell me your name, what those letters stand for?’

After much thought, H M M decided, that secrets are safe with the dead. ‘It’s Humayun,’ he answered.

The superior and the subordinate both started feeling a bit dizzy. The air stank and breathing it in was an attack on the senses. With their eyes closed and their bodies just giving in, sleep had come.

****

‘Sir, sir, I found it. I found it,’ Nadia exclaimed as she came back alive and like a giant gasp of air, the room too came back alive. She had read through every line of code that was put into making her, she had glanced through all the philosophical questions ever asked and answers ever given, the Miletian schools, the Athenians, the Analects of the Chinese, Buddha, the middle easterners, the westerners, she did all the possible arithmetic that could be done, to come to a conclusion. She was made to replicate a human, although with a greater calculative capacity, so human rules could have applied to her. But resurrecting after three days and three nights, all she found were two dead bodies, one of Humayun and one of Akbar and no one to listen to her answer.

THE END

 

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