Sometimes Joey feels like her whole life is a montage of randomly selected, algorithm-controlled surveillance-cam clips, mostly of her looking at screens or sitting glazed-eyed at meetings. As a professional image-builder and storyteller, she finds the lack of structure even more offensive than the banality of the material. She’s always taken pride in her instinct for cuts and angles and rhythms in the wildly successful stories she produces – one day, one perfect day, her life will be just as award-worthy.
As she heads into the park near her parents’ house for her regular Sunday morning run – actually the first in three months, but she’s finally managed to wake up early this time, it’s usually way too hot to be outside the house by the time she reaches Little Bengal for her weekly visit – she finds herself idly building another montage in her mind. A classic training sequence, where she builds an incredible body through first failing and then succeeding at the same task, intercut with determined running, some weights, an optional animal sidekick, rounded off with a motivational hope-hop soundtrack. Even the idea is tiring, and she considers going straight to her parents’ house, it’s already hot enough to make her eyes twitch.
Instead, she goes through her fitness checklist: headphones in place, cooling sportswear hopefully working as much as possible in Delhi, smog mask already making her face sweat, water bottle and pepper spray in the right slots on her smartbelt. A few stretches, and she’s off along the jogging track, keeping a wary eye out for battling stray dogs and monkeys lurking in the trees. The track’s distance markers are all in place: the fascist uncle laughing club shouting religious slogans while leering at her, the neighbourhood wives ambling along in large groups shouting to be heard over the blaring music on their phones, workers attempting their weekly repair of the park’s mysteriously smashed surveillance cams.
She sees the kolam on her third lap, when she slows down for a second to catch her breath. It’s a simple one, a basic floral pattern with embedded hashtags drawn on a cement patch next to a manhole cover in blue chalk. Joey quickly checks to see the nearest park cam is disabled, takes a picture of the kolam, and uploads it to a decoder app which tells her in a second about the protest it’s an invite for: another slum is being evacuated by the police and builder militia.
It’s not far, it’s the neighbourhood where Laxmi, her parents’ domestic helper, used to live before she moved to Kalkaji with her boyfriend, a Cyber-bazaar shop-owner. The app tells her this protest’s potential bloodshed rating is “Extremely High”. There’s a cheerful wiggly blood-drop icon.
On her wrist, her smartatt pulses: a stress alert. The smart tattoo’s a new design, her skin’s still red around it. A cute elephant-butt pattern that amuses Flowstars and makes funders think it’s a Ganesh tribute – Joey has always known how to bridge worlds. She rubs her wrist to stop the alert, but her Narad has woken up on her phone.
– Joey, good morning, are you all right? she messages.
Joey gestures at the phone, I’m fine, go to sleep, but Narad sends her a stream of loving emojis and virtual hugs.
– Should we go through some basic stress-relief exercises and techniques?
– I see you are at the park. Great work on your daily step-count! Should we do some fun yoga?
– I have set up a loveable dog GIF blast every half hour. You are loved.
Joey pockets her phone and takes a few deep breaths. But it’s too late: as her playlist starts up again, the beat is exactly the same as the drums that were playing at the protest she’d been to, and she’s right back there, hearing the students chant, wishing she knew all the words, staring in growing fear at the riot police amassing behind the barricades, at the water cannon behind them.
She’d been fifteen, and her first board exams had been around the corner, so her mother hadn’t wanted to take her along. But her father had insisted: “This is a historic moment, and she needs to be out on the street, she needs to see there are people like us there,” Avik had said.
The protest was at Jantar Mantar, against the first wave of discriminatory citizenship laws, and their privilege had kept them perfectly safe. She’d made a poster, something meme-friendly, she can’t even recall what it was. What she remembers most was the energy: young men and women, not much older than her, rising up with the tricolour to try and save the country, the Constitution, the unity that India was founded with...that the regime was trying so hard to destroy. Her parents had seemed strangely thrilled – that evening, after an epic journey home in the cold, they’d explained they’d thought they were alone, that most people in the country had been swallowed up by a tide of bigotry and hate. They’d never been happier being proved wrong.
She’d gone to a few more protests with her parents, before they’d insisted she stop coming along and focus on her studies, and they’d all pretended this had nothing to do with large-scale attacks on students around the country, that Avik and Romola hadn’t held each other and cried when they watched news of police storming hospitals and libraries, that images of battered and blood-drenched students hadn’t flooded Joey’s private messengers. That things weren’t about to get a lot worse. That a day wouldn’t come, soon after, when Joey wasn’t allowed to leave her house and her parents didn’t know whether to blame the pogrom or the pandemic, because they’d known the end times were coming but hadn’t known they’d be multiple choice.
But a decade later, Joey’s memories of those days are happy and hopeful, full of an energy and a sense of belonging she hasn’t felt in years. It had taken a day for her to become an expert on identifying propaganda and its unlikeliest distributors. She’d quickly learned the words to “Hum Dekhenge” and all the trickiest protest chants – she still remembers them, though she’s smart enough not to say them out loud. She’d held her mother’s hand at a reading of the Preamble to the Constitution at India Gate, while news filtered in of police brutalities and illegal detentions at a less privileged march.
They’d brought in that new year at Shaheen Bagh, with a crowd of people, all ages, all religions, all classes, standing together, singing the national anthem, reclaiming the flag – Joey had wanted to go and sit with the women at the heart of it all, the now-legendary women of Shaheen Bagh, wanted to go sit with her mother and be offered biryani and companionship by strangers, and huddle under a blanket and sing songs of hope and revolution. But there had just been too many people between them and her. They’d stood at a bonfire, watching their breath steam, wrapping their gloved hands around warming cups of tea. There were doctors and volunteers and biscuits and packets of medicine and students with candles, and signs in many languages, and more strength and solidarity and heartbreak in the air than Joey could breathe in.
She’d decided, that night, that she wouldn’t leave. That she would stay in India, in Delhi, and belong as hard as she could.
Many years, many goodbyes and many regrets later, she still cannot accept that she made a huge mistake. But sometimes it feels like everyone she thought she’d grow up around has left – so many of her peers, the generation her parents learned to admire as the children of blood and fire who were paradropped straight out of their adolescence into a citizen’s uprising against totalitarianism, simply got tired and faded away, or changed into something unrecognisable. Like Shaheen Bagh, which now exists only in memory – she knew nothing of it before the protests, and refuses to learn its new name. Was it even real?
She’s tried, over the years, to find out what happened to the student leaders she grew up admiring, those clear-eyed, calm, incredibly brave women and men who stared down thugs with batons and marched in straight lines chanting in perfect unison towards armed police, but there aren’t any clear patterns. Some disappeared into detention centres, or off the map, to other countries or the hinterlands. Some disappeared altogether, and it was dangerous to even look them up online.
Many were still around, struggling through the feudal systems of one political party or another and slowly transforming into the politicians they’d loathed in college, or working regular-person jobs like Joey’s, trying to pretend the light in their eyes hadn’t dimmed, that they hadn’t given up. She’d helped a couple find jobs last year. She hadn’t asked them the one question she’d wanted to, the one everyone in the country had asked at some point: Did we win? I thought we’d won. Didn’t we win?
“Don’t make the same mistakes we did,” her father says to her, even now, years too late. “This country lied to us, told us we’d be a part of the world, told us things were changing. They’re not. We’ll miss you terribly. Get out.” He’d been saying this ever since she told them, after college, that she didn’t really want to escape abroad. Her mother had just held her close, and had said she was delighted not to lose her, and things would turn out well in the end. But each weekend, when Romola asks Joey about work, Joey can see her mother feeling guilty, for absolutely no reason.
It’s mid-morning when Joey finally decides to go indoors and get some fresh air. She enters her parents’ flat and tiptoes past their bedroom towards hers. They’re unnaturally quiet – by this time, they’re normally sitting at breakfast ready to complain about how late she is.
“They’re not home,” Laxmi calls from the kitchen. “They went for a job interview.” Her brother’s home, though, she can hear snores emanating from his room. Laxmi emerges with breakfast on a tray: she insists on cooking everything by hand, ignoring the plaintive beeps of both the food processor and the smart-fridge. She looks at Joey enquiringly and holds out an arm, but Joey hasn’t brought her laundry with her this week.
Joey shows Laxmi the photo of the protest kolam from the park, and raises an eyebrow. Laxmi shakes her head.
“I’m thinking of going,” Joey says.
“Not for you, didi,” Laxmi says. “There will be blood, and no cameras.”
“Are you going?”
‘Then I want to come too.’
But Laxmi shakes her head firmly. “Raja and his boys will look after me. Didi, when it is time for you to come to one of these, I will tell you. Not safe for you now.”
They’ve had this conversation before, and Joey wonders, as she digs into her breakfast, if Laxmi can tell how relieved she is each time, and whether she’ll actually make it out of the door the day Laxmi tells her she’s needed, if any of the courage she’d thought she’d had in her mid-teens still lingered inside her.
By the time her parents return, Joey’s already finished lunch and is fast asleep on the living room sofa, while the TV plays her long-abandoned must-see streaming list. It’s not her parents who wake her up though: it’s her smartatt, which sends a tingle up her wrist, overriding her sleep settings, to warn her that a Favourite Contact is calling for the third time. Her parents wave encouragingly at her as she stomps by them, glaring at her buzzing phone, wiping drool off her chin. Of course it’s bloody Indi, avatar swaying cockily as he smiles, hey girl. Her Narad pops up on the screen, raises an inquisitive eyebrow at her: Indi loves surprise video calls, but she shakes her head, gesturing towards the audio-only option. Narad shrugs, and disappears to argue with Indi’s AI.
“We had a lovely lunch at the mall,” her mother says to her back. “Lebanese.”
“That’s nice,” Joey says. “Did you get the job?”
“Actually I was the one who applied,” Avik says. “But they –”
Narad appears to let Joey know Indi insists on video, but she’s not having it. It takes three rounds, but Indi finally agrees to voice.
“I had an amazing idea,” he says. “So, when we meet the SachVoice guys, we – ”
“It’s Sunday, Indi,” Joey says. “Do you have a medical emergency?”
“Listen. This is how we’re going to play it – ”
She disconnects, wondering as she does every week why he feels compelled to do this, she’s told him so many times it isn’t cute. Indi doesn’t call back. He has plenty of other people to bother, and the idea he’s about to suggest is one she sent him weeks ago.
Excerpted with permission from Chosen Spirits, Samit Basu, Simon & Schuster India.