The van that had picked us up from the rehabilitation centre stops at a ridge. Dense, dark greenery fills our vision. We are home! finally. To be honest, I never knew much about my ancestral home. In fact, even my mother or father did not grow up here. They too grew up in their adopted country, mingling with others who had arrived from similar backgrounds. They had limited access to the woods, just so that they could retain their instincts. Or so I imagined. I never had a chance to know them well enough. By the time I was weaned away from my mother, she had already disappeared. Father never stayed in the picture for long anyway.
My friends tell me, never in human history kindness was displayed to such an extent. I have my reservations though. I have seen what people are capable of, I am not going to forget it in such a hurry. If I ever meet Old Al again, I will tell him, “We may be special. But we shouldn’t have made them”.
My friends also tell me, all those big facilities where we were put in different departments, made to go through inhuman (what does that word mean actually?) sufferings will be shut down shortly. The governments world over had realised such facilities were a waste of resources and the results were not worth it.
The governments had chosen to spend the resources on building cubicles to house their citizens instead. We saw the changing world on our way here. Every house in the city had at least four isolation pods. The old apartments looked deserted, the newer ones had layers of greenery and separation walls embedded in them. There were very few people on the road, mostly youth. They seemed to be covered in individual air bubbles. It was a strange sight indeed. My friends and I were used to confinement. But now we saw that the tables were turned!
My perception had become dull because of my exposure to drugs. But my instinct was working just fine. I had noticed a gradual decrease in the enthusiasm of my co-workers. But thorough professionals that they were, they had continued with their daily routine.
“You know Charlie, I think we may stop working together very soon. For all I know you may be sent back to your ancestral home. I am going back for sure” Dr. Nair had said. I was not sure whether he was sad or happy at the prospect. For that matter, I was not sure about my feelings either.
The repeated waves of Covid-19 infections even after the vaccination had made governments come up with a radically different way of dealing with things.
Societies were encouraged to embrace rural centred economies. Agriculture and sustainable living were the new buzz words. All transactions and interactions had become virtual. Strict norms for isolation and movement were put in place. Living in rural areas and wilderness gave more access to the outdoors than living in the cities. Cities had become the places to avoid going to. People who could not leave the cities had to live by a new set of rules that were suffocating.
It was only when I boarded the van, I realised what Dr. Nair had said was indeed true. I was happy to meet my friends after a long time. Expectedly, a few of them had not made it. I was among the lucky ones.
Dr. Pradeep Nair was in his usual white coat and gloves. He gave his usual kind smile as he poured a cupful of syrup down my throat with a “Good boy, Charlie!”
“I wish I had stayed back in India, old boy. I miss my family so much. Now, even the flights have been suspended indefinitely. I don’t know whether I will be able to see my father again!” he had tears in his eyes. People can act so strange. They can be so full of compassion for themselves while administering a dose of cruelty to others!
I could sense the change around me. People who worked with me seemed scared and preoccupied with something. At times they discussed how their work may lose relevance if the present conditions continued.
Apparently, there was this new virus that had taken the world by storm. It spread indiscriminately. Countries struggled to keep their people, economy and spirit alive.
The year-end brought a particularly proud moment for me. The hope for a vaccine was within sight, owing to the self-sacrificing hard work put in by my batchmates.
I had landed in the Department of Immunopathology. I was told I was luckier than my friends who went to other departments like Neuroscience or Dermatology.
I worked with a team of bright people. A few of them were talkative and a few were silent but all of them did not like to look me in the eye. A few of my batchmates had ended in places where they were mostly looked in the eyes, usually after putting things in them first.
Dr. Pradeep Nair had grown particularly fond of me. Others liked me too. But Dr. Nair dealt with me with as much kindness as permissible under the conditions. Maybe he knew how it felt to be alienated.
Before I came here, whatever I knew about the outside world was from Old Al who had returned to foster home after serving for 20 years. Now it was from Dr. Nair who liked to talk to me at times.
He called me Charlie.
They gave me different syrups to drink. Some of them made me drowsy and some of them made me nauseous and a few of them made me wince in pain. I was put on various injections at times and left in the light for whole days and nights. Sometimes left in the dark for days and nights. At times I was restrained on a plank and pushed inside a machine that made a strange whirring noise. Blood was drawn from my veins regularly.
Whenever Dr. Nair was in charge of any of these, he always patted me, smiled and said, “Charlie, old boy. This may hurt just a bit. But you are going to be fine”
For a very brief period during my childhood, I remember climbing up a banyan tree gleefully and jumping from one branch to another. My friends did it too. When we started getting a bit more adventurous, we were cajoled to come down quickly by our supervisors and grounded indefinitely. I had no reason to complain about the food though, I was well fed. We had new immigrants joining us regularly and heard them recount the horror stories from elsewhere.
Days and months passed by. Daisy, the girl next door had turned out to be pretty. Truth be told I found Carla, Sarita, Li Na to be pretty as well. Just when I was planning my moves on them, something happened.
My friends Danny, Sudesh, Lee and I were given special grooming. We found ourselves being looked at by a group of visitors in the days that followed. They looked intelligent and seemed to be discussing important things as we could overhear the words ‘studies’, ‘department’, ‘world’. We knew our days to travel the world and be a part of the higher studies had come. We had often watched our seniors being prepared for the same and had envied them.
Old Al, whom I had met only in passing had told me once, “Remember little one. We are special. These supervising humans, they came from us. We made them”.