I had never been in such silence as in this light that hung in the reception. Silence coated floor and walls. It seemed to thicken and coated my boots, my limbs; my body was immersed in silence. Silence pressed on me like the fog that surrounds our quarters, but this was odourless. It seemed to change and grow alert, as if many voices were pressing against it from the other side to break it open. It held against these voices but one voice seeped out. Or was it the voice of silence itself that said: I was born the day my son died.
The voice continued: In grief I came into being. In grief I saw my empty lap. My son left me to go to the battle eld. I left to find him. He was buried under another boy’s body, an enemy’s. That boy’s thighs were on my son’s chest. I placed both their heads on my lap, one on each thigh. I placed my hands on their curls. Who had killed whom? The heavens were still. The earth was still. Who had killed whom, Emperor Ashoka? Were they from your army? Or from our side in the battle of Kalinga?
The silence paused and I held my breath, for I seemed to be taken over by a life not mine yet undoubtedly mine. It was as if I was seeing with eyes shut and hearing with my ears stuffed. I felt the exhalation of the soundless sigh. It inhaled and said: Shall I tell you of this son of ours – yours, Emperor, and mine? In penitence grave you have proclaimed in undying stone that one hundred thousand died in the Battle of Kalinga. But who was our son? The one hundred thousandth and one, that one uncounted. I have no wish to cleanse but I raise an edict different to yours that rises glittering under the sun. I, who am now called the Dumb Madwoman of Dauli, say your kindness whelped in remorse is not enough. Do the titles you have given yourself lead back to you, just as a mighty river wells from a small spring? What is the wellspring of compassion? There must be another path than one born in blood, flowing...
“Awaken and speak!”
“I will not,” I said. Pain in my ankle. “...until I find another path to compassion. Remove yourself.” Pain shot through my legs. I awoke. The speaking silence had vanished into the emptiness of the Museum corridors. A pair of robot bulldogs had clamped their jaws on my legs.
“Respond. Or the bite increases,” they warned.
“Acknowledged.” I followed their steady trot, knowing where they would lead.
“You were caught napping on the job,” said the Warden. He yawned. His mouth expanded till his eyes were no longer visible.
“It is unusual but not without precedent that Clones exhibit delayed after-effects of Sunning. When was yours?”
“Twelve days ago, Sir.” I kowtowed.
“A fortnight is the permissible limit.” He looked into a Creeton file. “The Education Module has been extensively used, as has the Aural Inputs System. The gun was alerted to stun mode. Who were the visitors?”
“A pair of Firehearts, Sir.”
“What did they want?”
“They were hunting for...human sculptures in foetal positions.”
“They said they were investigating roots, Sir.”
“Did they find a corresponding sculpture?”
“Why the turbulence in the Aural Input system?”
“They were running close to the exhibits. They are Firehearts, Sir.”
“Ah. Firehearts. Their identities?”
“They called themselves Quatrain and Stanza, Sir.” I did not know from where this impulse to give false information sprung.
“Your report is unsatisfactory. Firehearts assume new identities with each ‘poem’ they write. This file is closed. Follow the rules.”
“Sir.” I kowtowed.
“I shall be keeping an eye on you.”
“I am honoured, Sir.”
As I returned to the Reception desk I wondered if another entry could be made in the Aural Inputs System. This conversation might be recorded under “Mild Sorrow”.
My earlier life had been a blur of familiar movement, repeated daily like the regularity with which we take The Drug, but there was an ease in this condition, like walking up ten floors to one’s workstation. I knew what to expect, when I could rest, what to do; I knew safety. Yes, safety.
The visitation of the Dumb Madwoman of Dauli might have been caused by the visit of the Firehearts. Their strong auras are known to leave lasting imprints. Yet a statement Couplet blurted remains: “...but the Global Community has forgotten so...” Is there a connection between this forgetting and my Original’s memory traces? But I am a Clone and will ignore it.
I signed up for the G-series Monthly Meet. Almost all of us were present except for the odd numbers who had buckled and needed to be refurbished with tesson parts. It was expected to be a pleasant evening for camaraderie between Same-Batch Clones is encouraged. Everywhere I looked my replicas stood about in identical green overalls with six- pointed star, crescent moon and cross embossed on the chest and back. Our armbands had the same triple ring of saffron lotuses.
All of us wore brown size 6 ankle boots, our voices were of the same pitch, our eyes brown-black, our hair cut in pageboy style, the widow’s peak on our foreheads dipping exactly. It was soothing.
We made Small-Talk about the weather and cheered the decrease in V2HF gases and our increased productivity. We played darts and scored identical points. We karaoked to the song “Strangers in the Night” listed in the circular. We bowled, danced the Zimbeezee, ate a naanwitch and chocolate pastry each and paid homage to our Elder, Clone 13/15/G.
We had two minutes of Free-Time before we’d be given miniscule portions of The Drug and told to disperse.
“Greetings, Clone 14/54/G,” said my replica.
“Greetings, Clone 14/53/G,” I replied, reading her label.
“Where are you stationed?” she asked.
I told her. She nodded.
“That’s good. I’m at the Plasma Transfusion Centre. Was shifted yesterday.”
“The Plasma Transfusion Centre?” It is known as a place of dread.
“ I’ve worked at the Museum.”
“Were you Sunned?”
“Yes, long ago. I was first reallocated to The Labyrinth.”
She paused. “You had requested permission to see our Elder’s remains.”
“Yes. How do you know?”
“Secrets? Here is one more: don’t consume The Drug. Queue up to take it, kowtow, but don’t have it.”
“But it’s good for us.”
“That’s why.” She paused, “Avoid The Drug and notice what happens,” she said and disappeared among the host of replicates.
My curiosity grew stronger than my desire for The Drug. I took a circuitous route back to my cell, changing eight gliders. Along the way I scattered grains from The Drug’s capsule. It was done well before I disembarked.
That night I felt odd. My head pounded, my toes constantly curled backwards and my ears seemed to stretch. I wondered if I had acted correctly in trusting a stranger, even if she were my replica. But compared to the experience of a visitation this was nothing.
Excerpted with permission from Clone, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Zubaan.