The story so far: Arjun, a sensitive young man, feels he has been given a raw deal in life. A certain incident from his past haunts him, to the extent that he wishes to erase it completely from his memory. It is something he simply cannot come to terms with. A software professional, he tries to do this in the manner of one reformatting the hard disc of a computer. He, however, ends up wiping out far more than he had intended to. A couple of days pass before he is missed and rescued from the coma-like condition he has fallen into. After a period of convalescence, during which he undergoes psychiatric treatment, he returns to work, only to find that he is no longer welcome there.
Chapter Two: A Matter of Genetics
Call it prejudice or the complete lack of a sufficiently liberal education but there are people who are averse to interacting with those whom they consider to be in some way mentally abnormal. Once a person is suspected of having lost his or her marbles, he or she is not likely to receive many invitations to society get-togethers leave alone candlelight dinners or romantic rendezvous in the park. It is not as if a person who has had a momentary loss of reason or broken down due to the stress of day-to-day life is likely to grab a knife and start emulating the infamous Jack the Ripper. But that's the way it is. Like it or not, psychological aberrations of any kind are frowned upon by society at large. Regrettably, this kind of uncharitable behavior is even more pronounced at the person's place of work.
So it was not very surprising that on Arjun's reporting back after his first nervous breakdown, he was handed the proverbial "pink slip" and politely requested to take a walk. The head of human resources, an oily-mannered, slimy, smooth-talking sycophant who always gave the glad eye to other handsome men ("hunks"), personally handed him a cheque containing a month's pay in lieu of notice along with a release letter, so worded that even the keenest-eyed of lawyers would be hard pressed to use it as an instrument of labour litigation. These are hard times and people in power were willing to take harsh decisions so long as they are not directly affected by them.
On the other hand, one cannot really blame Arjun's employers for sacking him. Sane people do not go around messing with their minds, at least not without qualified psychiatric supervision. This, at least, was the stand taken by the medical insurance company. They went to the extent of refusing to cover Arjun on the grounds that he was suicidal or mentally deranged at best. Besides, there was the ongoing recession. Software firms, such as the one Arjun with, were taking a severe beating. Their human resources departments were searching high and low for excuses to retrench staff. The more people they managed to remove from the company payrolls, the better their own chances of survival. As they say in corporate circles: "Each man for himself and may the devil take the hindmost!"
So there he was, pink slip in hand and no work in the offing. News of his mishap had got around. Such news gets more than its fair share of airplay during the lunch hour. Soon there wasn't a software firm in the city that would have employed Arjun, unless of course Steve Jobs or Bill Gates were to personally vouch for him. This, of course, was not likely to happen, since the former had already passed away (deeply mourned by all), while the latter probably wouldn't even have heard of an obscure programmer with a faulty personal operating system. For his part, Arjun would have given anything to catch a glimpse, let alone meet, either of these illustrious programmers. But as matters stood, he would first have to seek fresh employment. Mind you, he would not have had much of a problem if it hadn't been for the ongoing recession.
Arjun was resilient if nothing else. He applied for a position in another city, one which had not been so badly affected by the recession. Fortunately, his technical skills had not yet deserted him. He still knew his onions, so to speak. After an extensive interview, he was duly selected. With mixed feelings, he concluded his transactions with his landlady, sold off his bike and paid his pending dues at the shops he patronized. He then spent the rest of the day saying goodbye to the few friends he had, packed his bags and left the city aboard a state transport bus.
A new place, a fresh beginning. Hope springs eternal, as they say, even in the minds of simple-minded computer programmers.
The journey was long and he had to switch to a train and back to a bus again. It was late in the evening by the time he finally arrived at his destination. He disembarked from the bus and got into a decrepit riskshaw that was waiting close by. A friend, who had studied in this city, had recommended an inexpensive boarding house in the suburbs. Arjun showed the address to the driver, who nodded and promptly reversed his vehicle and shot off down the road. He drove in the manner of one possessed and the three-wheeled vehicle whizzed past cars and trucks with a fine disregard for road etiquette, as if to say, "Rules are meant to be broken." Arjun found these Formula One antics to be in rather poor taste, possibly because he hadn't eaten a thing during the course of the day. He always tended to miss meals in times of emotional or physical stress.
They soon arrived at nondescript locality, serviced by dark and gloomy criss-crossing lanes. The street lamps had still not come on and so everything was clothed in darkness. It was certainly not the kind of place a person with a sensitive disposition would like to visit, leave alone live in. But at the moment, Arjun had no other options. He looked around and soon spotted what he was looking for. A huge signboard before him read:
It was written in rope and had a rough-hewn look more appropriate to a saloon in the American Wild West. Arjun hesitated for a moment before he walked in and found himself in a cavernous room with a number of pool tables and bar in the corner opposite the entrance. It was all very run down, almost ramshackle. A morose-looking bartender was busy drying glasses and getting ready for the customers, who had just begun to trickle in. Two boys, possibly brothers from their close resemblance, were buying drinks at the bar. They then walked over to one of the pool tables, cues in hand. The bartender switched on the light poised above their table and the boys began to arrange the coloured balls.
Arjun walked up to the bartender and asked him for a room.
"The manager is not in yet," answered the man as he wiped a beer mug. He will be here in half an hour."
Though he was really hungry, Arjun felt it would be better to first book a room and then find a good restaurant to dine at. A drink would suffice for the moment. So he bought a coke and walked over to an empty table, close to where the two brothers were playing. It was not long before he fell asleep.
Arjun awoke suddenly to the sound of galloping hooves. It was just in the nick of time. He had barely managed to dive into the bushes before a posse of dark-hooded riders, swords gleaming dully in the starlight, arrived on the scene. They stopped and the leader barked out orders, exhorting his men to seek out someone. One of the horsemen pointed in a direction away from where Arjun lay hidden. The leader gave the signal and the troop rushed away in mad pursuit.
Arjun cautiously raised his head and looked around him. It was ominous to say the least. There was a three-quarter moon but the sky was mainly overcast. Stars, however, were visible wherever there was a break in cloud cover. As the moon emerged for a moment, he was able to see where he was. He was on the slope of a large mountain. Below him, lay a lush valley with a dense forest and primeval vegetation, huge trees with creepers almost as thick as the legs of a fully grown man. Menacing silhouettes of all kinds of ferocious beasts appeared now and then before they were swallowed up by the darkness. Not too far away, a group of Tyrannosaurus could be seen stalking their prey.
Flying above were strange creatures. He recognized giant pterodactyls (a winged lizard dinosaur), archaeopteryx (a species considered as a link between dinosaurs and birds), what he imagined to be the legendary phoenix, and witches in pointed hats screaming in hideous voices. They, too, seemed to be searching for someone.
"Hello! What's this?" asked a voice from behind and Arjun found himself being lifted up by the scruff of the neck. He turned around and the blood froze in his veins as he found himself face to face with a hideous troll.
"Looks human to me," said his companion as he peered closely at Arjun.
"Is he edible?" enquired the first.
"Hardly! Doesn't seem to have much meat on him," remarked the other.
Arjun nodded in agreement. For some reason, he had taken a liking to this creature, hideous though he may be. For how does personal appearance matter, if the heart is in the right place?
"Let's roast him right here," remarked yet another member of the group who had just joined them.
"All right," agreed Arjun's captor. "You guys collect firewood while I hold on to our main dish."
Being trolls, his companions found this observation very amusing and they guffawed in what Arjun, understandably perceived, as very poor taste.
"Why should we collect firewood while you laze around?" asked one of the trolls belligerently. He was obviously of the kind that doesn't like being pushed around or given orders to.
"I'm holding on to our dinner, aren't I?" queried the first troll somewhat petulantly. "Besides, I'm the leader of our group."
"I'll hold him. You go and fetch the firewood."
"Says who?" No self-respecting troll was going to take such insubordination lying down.
"You have a big mouth and it needs shutting."
Arjun's captor tossed him aside and jumped into the fray. Needing no prodding, Arjun took to his heels and ran as fast as his feet could take him. He stumbled downhill and into the valley.
All of a sudden, he found himself airborne again. He was in the clutches of a huge pterodactyl that had swooped down on him. As the winged dinosaur flew over the forest, Arjun saw below them an army, illuminated by flaming torches, crossing a wide river. They sang war songs as they marched, determined faces gleaming with sweat. The slow rhythm of their chants, set to the beat of drums, sent a chill down Arjun's spine. The dinosaur was flying close enough for him to make out that the army was comprised of a motley collection of beings, most of whom were lizard like. Some rode on what appeared to be dragons. The enormous beasts lumbered on and lent their raucous cries to the surrounding cacophony.
One of the advance party looked up and saw the pterodactyl and immediately shot an arrow in its direction. His mark was true and the creature was wounded. It cried out in pain and began to descend to the ground, where he carelessly tossed Arjun aside and began to tend to its wounds.
Arjun did not wait to see what would happen next. He had no wish to learn why the archer had shot at his captor or where the army was marching to. He felt it was none of his business and scampered off. He ran through the jungle, tripping over roots and having his face cut by overhanging branches and creepers. All the while, he expected someone to grab hold of him again. He was congratulating himself on his escape when he ran into an obstruction. It was firm but not as hard as a tree or rock and it uttered a cry of reproof:
Arjun's heart missed a beat for he thought it was the trolls again. However, when he looked up, he saw that the creatures were not trolls. They were much smaller, had long beards on their wicked faces and grinned in a most malicious manner. Much to his horror, he realized that they were goblins.
From the frying pan into the fire!
"Look who we have here," said the goblin he had bumped into.
With that all the others came up to Arjun and began to examine him. One of them stretched out his hand to help him up but Arjun refused it. He scrambled up and tried to run away, only to trip over something and fall flat on his face.
When he looked up he found that he was back in the saloon and was lying on the floor.
"What's the matter?" asked a goblin, who had apparently followed him there.
This was too much! He had not complained when he had been transported into the nightmare world of Tolkien and Spielberg. But he certainly resented having the denizens of that macabre milieu following him around. Goblins and gnomes in a surreal setting were bad enough; but to have them intrude into the real world was enough to render the most broad-minded of people paranoid.
"This is downright persecution!" exclaimed Arjun as he picked himself up from the floor and escaped through the door.
As he ran, he thought about what was happening to him. He most certainly could not be in two places at the same time. Either he was in a magical land or he was in the everyday world of prosaic reality. Which one was real? This is actually a very deep philosophical question, one that has puzzled seekers of truth from the dawn of time. What indeed is reality? What is being or existence? Do they refer to the same thing?
Arjun, however, was in no condition to get into questions of ontology or epistemology. For one thing, he was famished, having only imbibed a cup of tea at breakfast and nothing thereafter. Besides, there were the residual effects of his nervous breakdown. That is why he had initially not questioned the sudden change in surroundings. He felt it would be far more prudent to first get to safety and to postpone his reflections to a more opportune time and place, where mythical beings were not planning to dismember or devour him.
Once again, he was on the run. But now as he moved along, he noticed that things were getting better, very much better. He was now back in the city and was running on a regular asphalt road. The street lamps were flickering on and there were comforting lights in the quiet, respectable houses that lined the street. A motorcyclist sped past dangerously close. But Arjun didn't mind for this was something he felt he could deal with. Nobody stared at him as he ran. They probably presumed he was a health freak out for a brisk jog.
He slowed down once he realized he was not being pursued by anyone on anything. It was mid-December and getting cold. He needed to eat and rest for a while. Up ahead, he noticed a fast food joint, from which emerged the unmistakable sounds of a song he knew and loved:
"Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home."
There were tears in Arjun's eyes as he heard these admirable sentiments. He walked into the restaurant and found himself in a different world all together. There were real people here, ordinary, harmless people, the kind you see every day in offices and schools. Watching all the delicious food being consumed reminded Arjun just how hungry he was. He was absolutely famished. Walking up to the service counter, he boldly ordered a vegetarian burger and a milk shake. This was not a time for half measures, so he also asked for french fries. What couldn't he do with a little food in him! Bring on the trolls and goblins, bring on dragons even. He didn't care.
As he was eating, he saw a notice board on the wall opposite, just next to the juke box which was playing Eric Clapton's rendition of the immortal hymn, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". He walked up to the board and read what was there.
"Music lessons: piano, guitar, drums, trombone …"
No, this was not what he was looking for.
"Sparingly used 350 cc bike for sale ….."
Well, this was useful but not right now.
"Complete notes for the medical entrance exam ……"
No… But, hey! What's this?
"Room partner wanted. Only nerds need apply. Contact:9878234521."
This was more like it. He definitely needed a place to stay. Was he a "nerd"? Now that the nourishment of the burger was in him, he began to return to his old habit of questioning everything, of trying to look at every facet of a situation, studying it in the manner of a cubist viewing an object through multiple perspectives. He was no longer the man of action who had the gumption to run from anything and everything alarming. Had any goblins or trolls dropped in at the moment, he would have questioned their very existence and their irrational desire to make a meal of him.
"When there is such an abundance of food, why should anyone wish to eat a human being?"
This was the kind of impertinent question he was capable of asking a man-eating ogre. Not that he was likely to meet one in a fast food joint, though you never can tell.
Yes, this was his problem. The "Hamlet" syndrome had resurfaced and he was back to his old habit of agonizing over trivial and not so trivial details, which led to his thoughts running off at a tangent or branching out in such a convoluted manner that the original objective was lost. His mind simply refused to stick to the task at hand. With a visible effort, he brought himself back to the present and began to debate as to whether he was a nerd or not.
What indeed is a "nerd"?
He keyed "nerd" into the text box of his cell phone's internet search engine. The reply was prompt as it generally is to such queries:
'Nerd: a person who is overly intellectual.'
He pondered over this for a while as he pensively sipped his milk shake and doodled on his plate with the help of ketchup and a sliver of french fry. He could be a nerd, he thought. Not could be, he most definitely was a nerd. Yes, if there if there ever was a nerd, it was him. At this point, in the earlier days, he would gone off at a tangent and debated whether it was more correct to say, "It was he." And this, too, for something he was only thinking about, not voicing out aloud to the world in general. Or he might have spent hours conjuring up all the connotations of the word "intellectual" and worried himself absolutely sick with endless digressions. But his encounter with the trolls and pterodactyls had taught him a lesson. He did not fly off at a tangent but stuck to the main point. Was he a nerd or not? And if he was, would the advertiser accept him as one? There is no point in claiming to be something if no one is going to acknowledge your claim. He was going to delve further into the etymology of the word "nerd", when a voice rang out:
"Why not ring and find out?"
Good idea and he did just that before he realized that someone had spoken out aloud. It was not part of his eternal soliloquy. He turned around slowly and came face to face with an elf. Now, as a rule, elves and pixies are not creatures one should be afraid of, nor for that matter, are leprechauns. But there is a time and a place for magical creatures, even if they are not harmful. While he was figuring out his response, the angelic-looking being replied:
"Yes, you are a nerd. Most definitely a nerd."
"How did you know what I was thinking about?'
"It's written all over your face. Nobody but a nerd would agonize over anything so much."
"Nauzer. I too am a nerd. I am doing my masters in Bio-tech at the university. I am what you might call a 'genetic scientist'."
"Nice to meet you. I've just arrived in the city and was looking for a place to stay."
"You've got it. Boy, are you an agonizer. I thought I was bad. Imagine using a search engine to get the precise meaning 'nerd'."
Two kindred spirits! They left arm in arm from the restaurant.
rjun crashed on to the bed the moment they reached Nauzer's apartment and was soon asleep.
For the rest of the week, Arjun was busy at work, settling down. It was fun getting to know new people and to have everyone being so nice and polite. Even so, it was tiring and he worked late into the night. But that is the way they are in software firms. 'Burn the midnight oil to the last drop,' is their motto. By the time he used to get home, Nauzer was generally asleep or just preparing to do so.
On Friday, he got a call from his roommate. He had spent the entire day debugging programs and was grateful for an interruption.
"Hey, buddy, what're you doing in the evening?" asked Nauzer.
Arjun hadn't considered it as yet and admitted as much.
"Then let's go play pool. You play pool, don't you?"
"Well, I prefer billiards but . . ."
"See you in the evening, then."
When Arjun got home, he found Nauzer poring over a book. He had some drawings on a clipboard next to him and he touched them up once in a while. They were of fantastic creatures: winged tigers, reptiles with fish-like tails, a four-winged bird, fish that resembled stealth aircraft, et al.
"What are you reading?"
"Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche."
He handed over the book. Arjun took it and thoughtfully flipped through the pages. True, he had dabbled in all kinds of stuff, including a bit of philosophy, but Nietzsche was something else.
"I thought you were studying bio-technology …"
"I am. You see, Nietzsche exhorts us to search for the 'Ubermensch,' variously translated as 'overman' or 'superman'. "
"I am designing a super being."
Nauzer then went on to explain how he had been impressed by Nietzsche's concept of the "superman", a genetically superior being who would be the next step in evolution.
"I plan to develop a new being through genetic engineering, someone or something that will be capable of pushing life to new frontiers. He will have the intelligence of a supercomputer and the capacity to think beyond good and evil."
This just goes to show just how influential Nietzsche's philosophical thought still is. A student of genetics -- a mere babe in arms, so to speak -- was considering the possibilities of manipulating the genome of an organism to produce a "super being". Variations of this theory had been dreamt of before, leading to a disastrous war and heart-rending annihilation. Still, no one can deny the fascination the idea of a genetically-engineerd superior being can have. Comic book super heroes like Superman were probably inspired by this theory. Where Nauzer felt he differed was in his disregard for concepts of racial superiority and eugenics. He dreamt of the creation of a being that would not even appear human. But it is bound to happen after a while. It is not possible to dwell on desirable characteristics in a particular species without admiring those who already have them. This is, of course, an endless debate.
"Who says humans are or deserve to be at the pinnacle of evolution?" queried Nauzer, his pixie-like eyes flashing with fanatical fire for he was now astride his favourite hobby horse. "We merely had luck. Events occurred in such a way that we rose to the top. Had environmental conditions been otherwise, we could well have had an entirely different species at the apex."
This is the kind of conversation one finds when a couple of nerds meet. Very often, their talk leads nowhere and they end up doing very respectable research, funded by mammoth commercial foundations. At times, however, the spark produced by an idea ignites a fire which lights up the imagination of the person who conceived it, leading to marvelous inventions and discoveries.
By now, both of them had beers cans in their hands and were vehemently arguing about everything, from genetics to unsolvable mathematical problems such as the Riemanm Hypothesis. Quite naturally, the debate became heated, until Nauzer brought them back to earth by saying:
"It's Friday night. I don't want to spend Friday night at home. Let's go out!"
So they left for the pool parlour.
As they walked along the street, Arjun realized that his roommate was taking him to the same place where he had only a week ago encountered trolls and goblins. But he couldn't voice his fears, lest his new found companion found him odd. After all, nobody likes being considered crazy. They walked past the criss-crossing lanes and towards the pool parlour.
"Do you believe in trolls and goblins?" asked Arjun, trying to mask his nervousness by adopting a jaunty stride.
"You know, creatures from fairy tales.''
"You mean fairies?"
"Well, kind of ..."
"What's there to believe in? But I most certainly am not one." Nauzer made a move to fend off any amorous overtures from Arjun and they both rolled with laughter in the manner only young people with no ambiguity about their sexuality can. This was the kind of innuendo Nauzer was accustomed to on the campus: rough, ribald humour. Arjun, however, was not at ease. He shuddered as they approached the parlour in the manner of an escaped convict being led back to his jail. He was sweating visibly, almost hyperventilating. Should he run? He looked around wildly for avenues of escape.
Nauzer, meanwhile, prattled on, oblivious to the effect he was having on his companion:
"We will create a computer program which will simulate the process of evolution and then work on the various creatures that might have come into being but didn't."
Normally, this would have roused Arjun to speak out on the need to look beyond conventional means of computing, for example, by using living cells so as to escape the binary logic of the silicon chip. But right now, he had other things to think about. Like, for instance, what if he were transported back to the other world and ended up with malicious magical creatures in a prehistoric forest? He wanted to make an excuse for not going on. But there was no stopping the inevitable and they kept getting closer and closer to the dreaded pool parlour.
At last, they arrived at its entrance. Arjun shuddered noticeably as he saw the name written in rope:
He walked in with much trepidation and looked around anxiously. It was noisy and full of smoke. Wild laughter rang out each time a ball was potted. Someone shouted out that he was raising the odds:
"Ten to one if you pot the blue."
Seated near the bar was the same goblin from whom Arjun had escaped a week ago. He knew it! He just knew it! Nauzer was an evil elf! Who says elves can't be evil? Or maybe he was a mischievous leprechaun and had led him back like a lamb to the slaughter. He ought not to have fallen for his "hi buddy" ways. Before he could rush out, the goblin came up to him, placed a hand on his shoulder and exclaimed:
"Hey! Where have you been? Was it something we said? You just upped and rushed out as if coven of witches was after you. You even left your luggage behind."
Arjun made a gesture to indicate that he could keep the luggage and that he would catch up with him later on. All the while, he kept sidling up to the door.
"Hey, you guys know each other? " asked the ever-ebullient Nauzer as he did a 'Hi-five' with the goblin.
"No," answered Arjun who was eyeing the exit, which at the moment was blocked by the presence of a pleasant-faced boy with enormous biceps and a slim waist.
"This is "Eddy" D'Costa. He runs the best and most inexpensive boarding house in town. I was with him for two years before I got my scholarship," explained Nauzer as he looked around the room for people he knew.
"Come on, let's find a game," he said as he spotted a couple of pool-room acquaintances.
It turned out that the "goblin" was as harmless and jovial as they come. He was a most gracious host and went around inviting everybody to the Scorpio Christmas party. Everyone called him "Eddy". Whoever heard of a goblin named "Eddy"? Arjun smiled as he thought of this. He realized that he had only dreamt of his adventure in the surreal valley, where prehistoric beasts rubbed shoulders with magical creatures. Dream or reality, reality or dream: it was so difficult to tell the difference between them, especially when one's own sanity is suspect.
Nauzer, on the other hand, was an entirely different kettle of fish. He had no compunctions about enjoying himself. With his infectious enthusiasm, he soon had Arjun playing pool with gusto, cueing away with vigour. Snacks were munched and beer was guzzled in large quantities. The two friends drank to health of the Queen of Hearts, the Queen of Spades, Steven Spielberg, Bob Marley, J.R.R Tolkien, Homer, Beethoven, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. They even raised a toast to the science of paleontology.
It was almost a half past eleven by the time the two friends emerged from the parlour, arm-in-arm, singing:
"I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Coming for to carry me home,
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home."
Let us not read too much into their rendering of this popular American negro spiritual for both of them believed it was a Clapton original. The lyrics possibly appealed to them at a subliminal level.
So far as Arjun was concerned, he had never felt better. Things were going well for him. The private "genome project" Nauzer had spoken about now seemed even more exciting than before. Therewas really so much to ponder over. For instance, what did Nietzsche mean by eternal recurrence, the death of God, perspectivism, et al? Do these ideas connect with his concept of the superman? Unfortunately, Arjun was not the kind of person to leave well alone. He was bound to explore these aspects of Nietzsche's philosophy. Yes, he was back at it again. Instead of thinking about writing a program that would help them to understand the process of evolution, he was going into details which didn't concern him. No doubt he was an eclectic reader and read copiously. He had only recently finished reading about the travails of a young lovelorn German artist. From The Sorrows of Young Werther to Thus Spake Zaruthastra, from Goethe to Nietzsche, the leap was immense, bothaesthetically and intellectually.Would he be able to bridge the gap?A level-headed, rational–minded scholar may be in a position to delve into this kind of philosophy without causing any harm to himself, mental, emotional or otherwise. However, for someone who had just had his first nervous breakdown and had disordered his mind to such an extent that he hallucinated in pool parlours, this was a tough call. But all that was way ahead in the future. For the moment, Arjun was content to wander through the streets in the dead of night singing songs to celebrate the beginning of the weekend.