In Jogh, a small orthodox village in the abode of Gods, there lived a young couple who, after two years of marriage, had not been blessed with a child. In such a village, families, friends, relatives, and neighbours -the entire village, so to speak, would start policing your life once they hadn’t seen a little ‘mini-you’ two years into marriage. Such was the fate of Mr and Mrs Rawat.
The couple had been discussing their childless life, too, for quite some time. Thrice they had gone to the district hospital, 65 kilometres away from Jogh, to find out the cause of their infertility. All the three visits yielded no answer. Nothing was wrong with them. But the husband was not convinced about the results so he decided that one of them must be sterile and something had to be done about it.
It was then on the third visit to the district hospital that the couple learned about a doctor who specialized in fertility treatment. But to take his service they needed to travel 370 kilometres to the nearest city and endure a back-breaking 12-hour journey by bus. But for them, this was a little sacrifice for a lifetime of bliss. Or so they were told.
Packed for a five-day trip, the Rawats took the 5 o’clock bus to the nearest city. They were filled with hopes that they would come back home with the good news that everyone seemed all too eager to hear.
Settled two seats just behind the driver, Mrs Rawat made herself comfortable next to the window. Her experience from previous trips showed her that motion sickness can be remedied if she sat right next to it. A logic her husband didn’t quite agree with, for his own experience said otherwise. So to make sure that the winding roads would not affect his wife’s journey, he had her take Vertigon two hours before they started in the morning. The only problem was, he had to enjoy the view of the rolling mountain ranges alone, for the pill had the side effect of uncontrollable sleepiness. But a sleeping companion was more preferable than one incessantly puking.
They had been on the road for nearly six hours. The only time Mrs Rawat was up was when the bus stopped for breakfast. With the bus was back on the road, Mr Rawat tried to engage his wife in a lively conversation. Mostly about having ‘mini-mes’ around the house, helping her with the daily chores.
“That would be nice,” Mrs Rawat remarked. “I want her to become a banker, too, ‘cause I always wanted to work in an air-conditioned room, you know. At least she’ll fulfil my dreams.”
“You mean Jogh is not cold enough for you?” Mr Rawat asked, grinning.
She elbowed his side and smiled. “You know what I mean.” Her eyes turned towards the window, a sudden melancholia was drawn on her face.
“Don’t worry, my love. Our juniors will fulfil our dreams. We can have two to make sure, you know. Or triplets!”
“I don’t mind,” Mrs Rawat replied and leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder.
Despite his effort to keep his wife awake, she drifted back to sleep right immediately. The conversation was not stimulating enough to overcome the sedative effects of the pill. He let her be.
He then took out his phone and called his relative in the city and informed him of their whereabouts. He was placing it back in his polo pocket when the bus stopped, for a man was frantically waving a red flag in the middle of the road.
“You can’t drive further. The bend is closed,” the man yelled.
“I just used this road yesterday, man, and nothing was wrong with it. No rain either. What’s going on?” the driver asked.
“The blasting has caused a huge rock-fall blocking 8-10 meters of the highway. You can wait but the earth mover is gonna take an hour to arrive.”
Swearing under his breath, the bus driver scratched his head. Some of the passengers expressed their irritation. One got angry saying, to no one in particular, that he had a wedding to attend. Some mumbled they’d wait.
“We all want to reach our destination on time. But these things are inevitable. If people didn’t demand a wider road and blast everything there is to blast, these things would not have happened, would they?” an elderly man from the back chimed in. “Now, I know another way,” he said approaching the driver. “The road will lead us to Bhola –”
“That’s two towns from here!” the driver cut in.
“Yes. It will take an hour extra but if we’re going to wait for the road to get cleared, we would need to wait for three hours…minimum.” He was now addressing the passengers who had gone silent.
“Yeah. It is not guaranteed that the crane will arrive in an hour. These people are very inefficient!” another passenger butted in.
An indecipherable chatter went on for a while until it was decided that they’d better follow the old man’s suggestion and not waste time. A decision that the Rawats agreed.
Soon, an unfamiliar terrain came into view. The road was paved but in a very poor condition. The seats and windows shook with every small bump, swaying passengers back and forth. They had to hold on to the bar in front of their seats to avoid knocking themselves on it. Passengers started cursing; many times taking the Lord’s name in vain. Some wished they had not listened to the old man. But none of these mattered to the sleepy Mrs Rawat.
The atmosphere in the bus had started to cool down when a loud explosion echoed in the surrounding hills, startling all the passengers. Women shrieked in fear; someone shouted ‘bomb’. Mrs Rawat took the hardest hit.
It emerged the bang had been the sound of the bus’s tyre exploding.
Annoyance and displeasure were, once again, all over the faces of each passenger. But all they could do was mutter and blame their stars…and the old man who only wanted to help.
While the passengers started vacating the bus, Mrs Rawat pleaded to stay.
“My temple is throbbing. My eyes are drooping. It feels like something’s pulling them down. Besides, my weight will not matter that much,” she said.
“Take your bag, we’ll find a shady place and there you can sleep while the bus is repaired. Come on,” the husband urged.
“I know a cabin nearby. I can take you there,” the elderly man suggested.
Mr Rawat glared at him. “You suggested this road, now you’re suggesting a house? How the hell did you know that?”
“I, uh…we have trekked this area,” the elderly man answered turning his head to an elderly lady behind him. “This is my wife. We’ve been to many unknown places around here together.”
The lady smiled and extended her hand. Mr Rawat took it. His indignation towards the man slowly dissipated upon seeing the man’s wife. He then introduced himself and his wife.
“Well, everyone calls us Mr and Mrs Eff, so you may call us that too,” the elderly woman said.
The Rawats chuckled upon hearing the couple’s name.
“Our names always bring smiles to people’s faces, don’t they, dear?” Mr Eff winked at his wife.
The sun was at its highest. They were miles away from the only village in that area and so far no other vehicle had followed their suit. Enraged passengers sought shade wherever they could. Some stayed on the side road; some headed down. They had no choice but to wait while the bus driver and his conductor struggled to remove the broken tyre. A few men lent their hands.
Mrs Eff offered to stay with their luggage while Mr Eff accompanied the Rawats to the hut that he was talking about. While climbing the not-so-steep, narrow rocky path, the two gentlemen got involved in a conversation. He learned that Mr and Mrs Eff were headed to Pantnagar. He also learned that the couple had trekked all the trekking places in Uttarakhand; Roopkund was their recent conquest. Strange couple, he thought. When he learned that Mr Eff was a retired bank manager and that his wife was a retired elementary school principal, he got excited, for he was a teacher himself.
“Then the future is in your hand, son.”
“If only my wife could give me a son…or a daughter, I would be the happiest man in the world.”
“Is that why you’re going to the city? For treatment?”
Mrs Rawat answered a quick yes.
“My. How did you know that?” Mr Rawat blurted out, amazed.
“I deduced. I’m quite good at it,” Mr Eff said.
“Really? Have you got any children yourself?”
“Not that I know of.” Mr Rawat chortled at Mr Eff’s statement. He had never met a couple who had no children. Everyone had one. At least.
Finally, after a 10-minute walk, they reached the cabin -a wooden rectangular camp with a veranda, a room and a kitchen. Though there was nothing in the kitchen, the room had a bed and a bench. Mr Eff motioned them to get some rest.
“It’s safe here,” he assured the couple. “Someone is maintaining this cottage for the trekkers.”
Convinced, Mr and Mrs Rawat settled on the bed.
“I’ll ask the driver to honk three times a few minutes before everything is fixed. You can come down by then. We can exchange phone numbers as well,” Mr Eff continued.
“You’re not staying?” Mrs Rawat inquired.
“My wife and I have already been here before. Now I must join her.”
Setting the alarm for 20 minutes, the couple gave in to the comfort of the bed. When the alarm rang, Mr Rawat opened his eyes to a very dark surrounding. He woke his wife up, shaking her shoulder repeatedly. Using his phone’s flashlight, he dashed to the door. When he opened it, he was greeted with the strongest light he had ever seen in his life. Squinting, he withdrew himself from the door.
“What the…this is not right!” Mr Rawat exclaimed. “Are we dreaming?”
“What’s happening, Din? Why is it so dark in here and so bright outside?”
“I have no idea, Pam.”
Unable to comprehend their situation, Dinesh opened the front door again. This time, the light was no longer painful. The moment his eyes got adjusted to it, they were shocked to see a barren land; its soil dry and cracked, devoid of any form of life. Not even the ever-present hardy resident of the desert, the cactus, was in sight. The air was humid and hot.
Still trying to understand the image before them, Mrs Rawat suddenly remembered Mr Eff.
“It’s Mr Eff! He did this to us!”
“No, no, no. Apart from taking us here, he didn’t do anything else.”
“Then, it must be the bed! We got cursed by lying on it. We should not have come to this place at all. In fact, we should not have taken this road.” Mrs Rawat was now hysterical.
“Sshhh. Let me think.”
But his wife paid no heed to that. “The bus has left. I’m sure of it. That Eff left us here. To be sacrificed. Food for the leopard…or bears.”
Oblivious to his wife’s agitation, Dinesh marched towards the back door. On opening, the sound of a blast caught him unawares and knocked him down. Pami rushed and helped him get up. There was a huge fire, an inferno right in front of them but they couldn’t feel the heat. More confused than ever, both shook their heads and rubbed their eyes expecting the sight to go away but the scene stayed. Before they could even extract a sense of meaning from what they were seeing, the scene changed. A riot replaced the blazing inferno. An immense crowd was shouting inaudible words. Guns were fired at no one or nothing in particular. Everyone had gone berserk. There was chaos everywhere.
As if there was somebody else controlling the remote, the image changed again. Streets were filled with people now. There was hardly any room to move. If one were to walk through the street, pressing on others from both sides was inevitable. It looked like there were just too many people. Then, with a flip of a finger, an image of death was shown - humans and animals alike were skins and bones. Their eyes bulging, their cheeks hollow. Everyone slowly yielding to hopelessness and surrendering to death.
The couple was standing there awe-struck, not able to discern anything. But they acknowledged one thing. Opening the door would display images. How and why they didn’t have any idea yet. To them, the other side of the door appeared to be an enormous TV screen showing them these images that they could hardly understand.
“Shall we try closing the door?” Pami suggested.
Dinesh didn’t answer. Instead, he grabbed the door latch, closed the door and the images disappeared. In his mind, a theory was slowly forming. But he needed to test it before he could tell his wife.
He tried the front door again. The image in front of them was no longer that barren land he had seen a few minutes ago. This time it was a long queue of water containers. The tap was dry and flies were hovering around. Seconds later, people were seen fighting over water and blood wetted the ground. Then the image changed into rolling smaragdine hills where people looked happy and satisfied. A number of families had gathered together in a vast field of green vegetation.
“What is going on, Din? Those families…they’re not just usual families. Look at them!”
“Yes, I seem them. It seems like humans have figured out that colour and race don’t matter.”
“Those kids are not their kids. And they all have all kinds of pets! My God. I can’t figure out why this is happening to us?”
“I will tell you. These are nothing but illu –,”
Before he could finish his sentence, the image changed again into an image of health and abundance, love and peace. People and animals share the produce of the land and all were living harmoniously. Children were playing with piglets, puppies, kids, calves, and ponies. For the first time they could hear laughter; see real happiness and content in people’s faces and gestures.
Dinesh was quite certain about his theory now. He closed the front door, opened it again and saw a different image. He ran towards the back door, opened it one last time and witnessed a beautiful landscape -a landscape full of life. The land was fertile. The rivers and oceans were clean and teeming with life. The number of people was surprisingly less.
“Grandad used to tell us a story about his grandfather’s homeland,” Dinesh said. “It looked exactly like that!”
He then took his wife to the bed and both sat. Pami waited for him to explain those images.
After a deep breath, Dinesh began what, to him, was an extraordinary experience.
“This cabin is an alternate future generator. As far as I can understand, the images we saw, all of them, are images of the future.”
Pami just listened intently.
“What have you noticed about those images?” Dinesh asked.
“Well, uhm. They were images of good and bad things that the future could bring. Chaos, famine, war on water, sickness, death. Then there was this exact opposite of them,” Pami answered.
“Good! Now, can both happen at the same time?”
“I don’t think so. I mean, I am not sure.”
“Okay. I may be wrong but hear me out,” Dinesh said. “A chaotic world is imminent due to overpopulation. That is why those bad images always had too many people. Selfish and uncaring, angry and fighting, sick and dying. But those good images were showing us that there is another possibility of a different future. A future with less people taking care of each other, of what’s already there. A future of health and abundance; a future where humans live in harmony with animals, free from any harm or violence.”
“Hmm. Mr and Mrs Eff said they’d been here twice. I think the first time they were here, they experienced the same thing we had just gone through.”
“And they have no children,” Mrs Rawat exclaimed.
The room remained quiet for a while until Mrs Rawat broke the silence.
“Din, I never wanted to have children.”
“What? We’re on this trip because I thought you wanted one.”
“No. I am just a coward. I wanted to become a banker but my father didn’t let me go to college. I wanted to do different things in life and I was afraid you would leave me if I tell you. I was afraid what people will say to us. I don’t want you to get humiliated, laughed at. You know those people. And those images…I don’t want our children to go through the hardships of being alive in such dangerous times, to suffer the consequences of being born just because we are too focused on pleasing the people around us.”
Hearing his wife talk like that for the first time, Dinesh was flabbergasted. No words came out of his mouth.
Silence filled the room once more.
It was Dinesh who broke it this time.
“We never talked about whether we want children or not. We just…we assumed that…that’s what we want.”
Pami nodded. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“Why are you crying?”
“I just…I don’t know. I mean, I imagined myself living without you and…and it hurts, so –,”
Dinesh hugged his wife. “Nothing like that will happen.”
“You’re not mad?”
“I am mad. I am mad at myself for not thinking. But it’s history now. We’ll face our families and everyone else together. We are strong and we will not let our childless life affect that.”
“We can adopt, you know. Give an orphan a loving home. Take care of what’s already there.”
“We don’t need to go to the city now. We can go back home.”
“I’m with you. But right now, we have to think of a way out of here.”
That’s when they heard footsteps followed by a knock on the door. The couple looked at each other. Dinesh got up. At first he hesitated to open it, expecting another image before him. Instead, an old man, 50 something, was standing right by the door, smiling. Dinesh went out, checked all corners of the hut and found the same landscape before they went inside to rest. He just shook his head and faced the old man. Pami was already at the door.
“I am Suresh. I am here to take you to the city. My jeep is waiting,” the old man informed.
“What? What happened to the bus?” Pami asked?
“I know nothing about a bus!”
“Then how come you’re here?” Dinesh inquired.
“Mrs Eff called my number. She said I have two passengers waiting here.”
“Here?” Dinesh clarified.
“Yes. You’re the –,” Suresh removed a small notebook from the pocket of his polo shirt and skimmed through the entries there. He continued, “You’re my 251st trip.”
“You have been here many times?”
“Yes. 251 times.”
The couple didn’t inquire further details. They were just so glad everything was back to normal. Well, at the least the place where they were in. Their decisions were fixed and they had each other to face the world.