There are days when the gaps in my memory register very clearly, days when I can’t fill these gaps with the forgotten events and years that no one can remember, and those days are particularly bad.
I start worrying like an old dog; I can’t eat. So I take my pills, and drag a mat to the terrace. I lie there, on my back, the entire day. I smoke a pack of ten.
From the terrace I have a clear view of the changing landscape: large housing blocks to fields of paddy dotted by smaller settlements to hills that look like hovels abandoned for years. Bats emerge from these hovels as dusk falls. They wander in the city sky and retreat to the parks nearby, where they rest for the night on branches of eucalyptus.
There is a dead bat on the terrace today. I don’t know for how long it has been there. But above me, I can see a small group of bats has separated from the larger one. They are hovering above my terrace, it seems, in mourning. I’m reeling from the confusion and exhaustion of trying to remember.
So I choose to ignore the dead bat. Some of his friends, I hope, will descend to the terrace once I leave, and carry him home.
* * *
I’m in the kitchen eating an early dinner, when I hear something crash on the terrace. A loud clang, a metallic reverb. I groan and nearly drop my plate. If a drone has crashed up there, I’m looking at hours of paperwork.
In the corner where the bat had fallen are two rickety drones that hardly seem fit for flying; certainly not the sturdily built delivery or surveillance drones. I pick one up and see a small wooden box mounted to the bottom; the lid on the box yields easily. There is a note inside the box: “are u listening? the drone we sent last week wasn’t checked.”
And then I realize that what I thought was a bat last week is a drone.
* * *
Most people in this city are anxious and fretful. The anxiety is especially contagious when a sudden event, of a type they have never heard of or seen in their lives, happens. I was walking in the neighbourhood sometime this year when I overheard a discussion concerning a group of people, all in black clothes, who had gathered outside the Governor’s house:
“Never heard of anything like it.”
“Why would they do something like this?”
“I know? Inexplicable.”
“I hope they didn’t close the market because of that.”
“No, they took them away, things should be okay now.”
“That’s for the best then.”
There was a word to explain what they were discussing. A word all of us should have had some time ago, or the fleeting thought—of lost ways of talking about something like this—would not have come to me.
* * *
I don’t know what to do about the drones. I have a feeling whoever sent them deliberately chose to do it around dusk. But why the need to hide? I use drones for everything: anxiety medication, groceries, electronics. I have never sent or received messages through drones. Why would anyone do that? And who the fuck hides a drone in a flock of bats?
* * *
The third one crashes on my terrace some days after. Another note:
"remember 1992, 1976; remember that time we were angry; remember that we once knew wrong from right”
Gibberish. The days when there were no drones were the better days.
* * *
My house is on a lane—this entire neighbourhood is a tangle of similar lanes—somewhat wide only at its mouth; the farther one gets in the narrower it gets, and towards the end of the lane there is barely enough space for two people to stand. And so I have a clear view of the house opposite mine.
I also have a clear view of the house’s occupant whenever he is at the window. A middle-aged man, strange, always anxious and suspicious. He stays at the window only for a couple minutes; draws the curtains, inspects the lane and goes away. This happens three or four times a day.
It is dusk and I’m on my terrace, waiting for the bats to appear, hoping to receive a drone, just to see it fall from a height. The bats make their crossing, but no one has sent a drone tonight.
I’m about to leave when I hear a noise outside, the sound of someone kicking down a door, followed by incoherent noise and orders to freeze. I drop flat on the ground; and try to get a view of the lane through the balusters. They drag someone outside, put them in a van, leaving behind them only the abrasive sound of rubber screeching.
I can’t sleep after I have seen it all happen. So I spend the entire night on the terrace, smoking and worrying.
* * *
A man in boxer shorts is on the balcony, smoking a cigarette. I can see him from my kitchen window, so I gather the courage to take the stairs, and once I’m on the terrace I suddenly feel brave and shout, “Oye! What happened to the man who lived here?”
“What man? This house has been unoccupied for years,” he shouts back.
* * *
It takes them a fortnight to send another drone. By then the messages have receded somewhere in my memory, and so when I hear the drone crash I feel my stomach sink with dread. The message on this drone:
“do u know who we are? the ones who remember and managed to escape. do you ever wonder what it is that we have forgotten?”
I know, I fucking well know there are things that I, that we all have forgotten. The degree of knowing, of how much of a collective memory has been erased, varies, but everyone knows that entire decades from our past are gone. We can all feel that something is missing and most of us have made our peace with it. And the ones who are the least aware of an empty space in their memories—a void where there could have been a month, a year, a few hours—are the least anxious.
There are entire years from my life that have somehow been erased. There are days when I spend the entire day curled on the bed, thinking about all the years I have been alive. 1999, 2000, 2001 . . . and there my memories jump to 2004. People I might have known appear in my dreams, faces I can’t associate with any names or memories.
* * *
Soon after they took that man away, my anxiety started to worsen. I am the only person in the lane who remembers this incident; and I don’t understand why—what happened that day was so loud, so violent.
And because I have nothing else to remember him by, no name, no family, I can only think of him in terms of the actions of the men who took him: the violent knocking, the door being kicked in, the door of a van sliding open, the ignition, the hurried screech of the tires. And I feel a strange, impotent anger. I don’t understand why.
And a memory of another day—unexpected, like all bad memories that you keep in a corner of your brain, recognise that this corner is all trauma, and make your best efforts to forget, comes to me—and I feel drained; I need to lie down.
Someone is shouting orders and threats at my door but no one knocks it down because I comply; open the door immediately. Meekly.
Four men in green and black uniforms followed by a woman in neatly pressed shirt and trousers get in. They describe a woman I don’t know and inquire about some papers. I retreat to a safe corner in the hall, far from any objects. I want to show I’m not a threat, I have surrendered; there is no need to force me to a corner when I’m already there.
“I have always been alone in this house. This criminal you mention, I don’t even know her,” I tell them.
“She’s wiped him clean before leaving, boss.”
“Or a mistake, perhaps,” the woman in charge says, kindly almost, “sometimes we are sent to the wrong homes. Our informants, they double cross.”
She appears gentle, apologetic even, and so I ask her, “This woman...what is her crime? Is she dangerous?”
“Yes, somewhat. But we will find her soon enough,” she says, and extends an apology for the mess her men have made. Then she leads them out and waves goodbye as they get into a van.
* * *
Now, suddenly but not inexplicably, I have started feeling the need for more. This has happened before; the state prescribed medication sometimes stops working as my anxiety gets worse. But the only way to get extra medication is through the black market. And the black market drones need to be paid in cash; all online transactions are surveilled. So I can’t expect them to drop the medication on the terrace; I need to go up there, hand the cash over.
And I have stopped going to the terrace for anything—and so I can’t collect medication from the state drones too—after they took that man. That incident, the messages and the sudden emergence of that memory, the combined thought of these will leave me crippled. And I have a feeling that the woman they had come looking for to my house, and the man I saw them take away that evening, were both wanted for the same reasons.
But I need to stop thinking about all of this.
And so every evening I see the bats crossing from my kitchen window, and on some evenings I hear a drone crash on the terrace, but I try to forget that corner where the number of metal carcasses is slowly growing.
The last message I checked before I stopped going to the terrace:
“those of us in hiding, our names and faces forgotten by our loved ones, we remember. we remember what no one does. we can explain things that no one can. and i will tell each bit of it. but slowly. i am sorry, but this is the only way. and i am sorry about what happened to you and with us.”
What happened? Who was us?
* * *
The pharmacy licensed to sell state prescribed medication is outside the borders of my neighbourhood, a thirty minute walk that takes you through this mess of lanes to a wider road lined with ashoka trees; seething with vehicular traffic, occupied by few pedestrians.
I rarely visit the pharmacy when I have access to the black market. I am cautious, exercise restraint bordering on paranoia when it comes to crossing the border of my neighbourhood. I have maintained a degree of anonymity from the drones and I will be noticed once I start crossing the border frequently. Even now, when I need to visit the pharmacy, I hesitate.
So I tell myself a small lie. Maybe the sunlight and the fresh air and a long walk will be good for my anxiety. And I try to believe this lie, swallow it like a bitter pill.
I have seen the old man at the counter before, he has been there for as long as I can remember. He is gruff, austere; he rarely speaks with his customers. His features are nondescript, and in that he is similar to most gruff and austere men. If not for the manner in which he sits at the counter—chin resting on his hands, face contorted in disdain at customers—and the manner in which he hands me the medication—slapping the bottle of pills in my hand with reproach—I would have never noticed that he is always at the counter, day and night.
Today, he nods; a nod of familiarity used to greet someone you often cross paths with, but never make small talk, or even say hello to. I awkwardly look around. The pharmacy is nearly empty but for one customer, who is reading a notice taped to the door.
The old man makes a show of reading my prescription, checking it for forgery, looks impatiently at the customer reading the notice, and brings my medication only when the pharmacy is empty.
The bottle is wrapped in a sheet of paper, an unnecessary attempt at concealing it. He asks me to unwrap the sheet, and then I see a message scribbled on it.
I furrow my brows and wave the sheet at him. “Outside”, he says, so I pocket the bottle of pills and the sheet and step out of the pharmacy. There is a bench, unoccupied, under a building in front of the pharmacy; I cross the street and sit.
There are two messages:
“we can help you remember, but you have to let us help you. it was tough convincing the others that you can be trusted, but now you must listen. we have an archive. we can send detailed notes. but the work is slow and you need to check the drones, it has been v risky sending drones and you haven’t even checked one.”
“ps: i’m sorry i left the way i did”
I want to tear the note to pieces, then tear my hair out and then tear the shrubs around the bench.
But I can’t. It is dusk, the drones with their mounted guns and cameras have dropped lower, close enough to mark the smallest, insignificant infractions. I could get a dart on my neck, possibly invite the cops to my house and the terrace with its litter of drones.
So I sit there for hours, till late night, watch the traffic thin out, the road slowly filling up with joggers and shoppers. The joggers, I can tell, are the ones least aware of the void in their memories. It is only when you have erased every trace of memory, when even the faintest sense of an inability to recall is absent, that you gain the liberty for the exertion physical exercise demands of your body and mind. If I pay close attention I can distinguish the shoppers who don’t feel a loss of memory from the ones who do; they are anxious walkers, urgent walkers who hold their bags close to their chests; chins tucked in, brows furrowed.
The man from the pharmacy steps out, arms crossed, signalling me to leave. He didn’t need to. The drones are now so low one can almost touch them and the night patrol is out on the streets.
I pocket the sheet but leave the medication on the bench.
* * *
I am never going to the pharmacy again. Not the one close to the neighbourhood, nor any other. I need to get away from this conspiracy of bats and letters and drones; every pharmacy, in every neighbourhood, will have someone involved in this.
And because there are no ways left to buy medication, I try to find other ways of coping. I devise a plan. I order mittens, a large crucible, charcoal briquettes; I spend time obsessing over the details of a furnace, and I bring the drones on the terrace to the courtyard, where I have dug a pit to store them. Then I wait for the material to arrive. I imagine melting the drones in my furnace; pointless defiance against I don’t even know who.
And I hope for some catharsis.
* * *
I start walking, long walks that take me around the neighbourhood and sometimes outside it. If I walk far enough I reach a ring road that divides the city into commercial and residential areas. From where I stand I have a view of lifeless buildings with glass fronts, drones humming above and around them, standing against a constant flow of SUVs and eight wheelers. I imagine thousands of drone operators inside those buildings, seated in cubicles with no legroom, and I count my blessings that I was able to quit that dreary job.
And I feel that the walking, the air and the sunlight are doing me some good. I am trying to erase all hints of things forgotten, and I am trying to function better; maybe, in a few days, I can join the joggers in the neighbourhood.
* * *
I have finished building the furnace, and I have a dozen drones in the pit. But I don’t feel like getting to the task immediately, so I take a walk. I buy a small pack of honey roasted peanuts and head to the park.
I settle on a bench, munching through the pack of peanuts, watching the joggers and middle aged evening walkers pass by. An hour passes and an old woman—maybe the same age as the man at the pharmacy, maybe slightly older—takes a seat next to me. I have never seen someone so anxious, so fretful, forehead marked with years of worrying; she rubs her palms and twists her fingers, then breaks to take deep breaths. Every action she takes reminds me of my own neuroses, and I wonder if this is what I will look like in old age.
I flinch and leave the park.
When I reach home I move six drones from the pit to the furnace. I watch the drones slowly break down in the red heat, but I don’t find any contentment.
* * *
I force myself to step out and take walks, always avoiding the route that would make me pass the old man’s pharmacy. Some days I keep going till I’m so tired I need to stop and rest by the roadside. But on most days I head to the park to watch the joggers. The old woman comes by on some evenings, and I think of speaking to her; I want to ask her if she is worried because she has memories clearer than all of us. I sit there till the drones tell me it is time to leave.
Bats start arriving in the park as the drones descend. They appear, at first, as blotches of black against the red sky, slowly settling on the eucalyptus trees. I think with some anxiety of a drone on the terrace, but it passes quickly.
The bats are on my mind when I head home; the ease with which they fly through the city, never bothered by the drones, and the easy repose they settle into after their flight. I take quick steps, hoping to wear myself out, and to rid myself of all thoughts of what we’ve forgotten.
Aditya Singh is a researcher and writer, currently based out of Hyderabad, India. His writing has previously appeared in Strange Horizons and Mithila Review.