The Summer of 2022

The Summer of 2022. That’s the last thing I remember of the before days. Before seasons stopped to be distinctive periods, before winter disappeared forever, before the start of The Great Burning. 

I remember it so well, this time. I remember small things about it, like how it was the first year the rosy starlings didn’t visit the city and I remember the big things, like how countries around the world were collapsing in real time. These days I spend most of my time in the bunker, remembering. My sister tells me there’s no point living in the past, it will only cause you heart break. But she misunderstands. I’m not living in the past because I’m nostalgic, or because I want to remember the days when the city would be overtaken by beautiful pink bougainvilleas, and trees would light up with the fertility of spring. That’s not what I am doing. I live in the past because I’m looking for signs, looking for clues that would have told us of what was to come. Looking for evidence that should have warned us, that could have allowed us to fight this future. I look up the skylight and see the now permanent orange-grey sky. 

In the Summer of 2022, we were coming out of a two-year long pandemic. Everyone around me was determined to re-create the roaring 20’s. I cannot count the number of Gatsby themed parties I went for, but I do remember never stopping to recall what they had meant to Gatsby. I went to each one, with a new shimmering outfit and a new feathered headdress. Those days everyone I met was somehow involved in the online world— marketing, modelling, advertising, influencing, all fancy words for selling things people didn’t need. But boy did they look good doing it. And that’s what mattered. Aesthetics was everything. Not how much blood, sweat, tears it took behind the camera, only how good you looked in front of it. I remember watching these videos for hours, where they’d take tattered old decrepit houses and – within seconds – aestheticize it with beautiful pastel colors and clean marble tops and dim lighting. It was called a glow up and we did it to everything, to ourselves, our clothes, our food, until it became difficult to differentiate reality from the perfectly curated imagery of the internet. Before the sky became the vicious orange-gray it is today, it had taken on a lovely pinkish hue. I remember reading that it was a sign of an increasingly warming earth and still taking a photo, filtering it to cull out the smokiness, and posting it online. Aesthics was everything. 

These days in the bunker, it’s common to hear things like no one saw this coming. “Who could have known” muttered solemnly. Nobody asks why there was a network of underground bunkers spread all around the city, ready for use. It happened almost overnight. One day, there we were doing our jobs, hungover from the weekend, saturating ourselves with content and the next, everyone we knew, everyone with any money, was buying slots to the bunkers and making plans to move indoors. They had kept it a secret, so they could make a killing when the madness finally hit us. Now they say that in a few decades, the surface could get cool enough that we could once again begin to build above ground. They say that one days we can look outside our windows, and it won’t just be endless darkness. But what the fuck do they know? 

Back then, we often pondered our own mortality. We laughed about the doomsday clock that was close to striking 12, we recounted each climate disaster with a horrified comment about how the end is near. Maybe we all believed that it wouldn’t really affect us, that somehow it was in the abstract; yes it was happening to humanity, but not to us. The most powerful had assured us that we could fix the climate crisis, that it was possible, that human ingenuity alone driven with the rational incentive of profit could solve this problem. They were sure of it. And maybe we believed them. Maybe we had gotten so addicted to a particular type of story where no matter how bad things got, things always resolved itself in the end, that we forgot that this was real life. As a society when you get too big, when you produce enough cars and clothes and monuments and art and money, you begin to think you are invincible. That you are too big to fail. Nothing could be further away from the truth.

There’s a running joke in the bunker. Someone will get a frantic look on their face and say, “I think I left the geyser/stove on”, or “oh no, I didn’t lock my door”. It’s funny because it’s so ludicrous. But it’s also funny because that’s what it was like. Like leaving your home in a rush, except it was the last time we left it. 

One day I was on my way to office. It was peak noon during the peak of the deadliest summer we had seen in over a hundred years.  Traffic loomed like a great, big serpent before me, spitting and slithering. The AC of the taxi was alternating hot cold air and no amount of technological advancement could do anything about it. In the view afforded by the windshield, I saw a man get off his scooter, his helmet still on, drops of sweat pooling around his eyes, walk up to the driver of a tempo, pull out his thin flailing body and beat the living daylights out of him. Unprovoked, he took the man and smashed his head on the bonnet of my taxi, again and again, while I had the front seat view. I remember people coming and trying to save him, I remember the blood dripping from the windshield.  When the police came, I remember telling them, he did this because of the heat. It was because the heat got to him. They had laughed at me then, but now I can’t stop wondering if that was it. If that was the beginning of this end. 


Short Story: Jokes and Genocide

[Note to Reader: First, Content Warning: Religious Slurs / Abusive Language ; Second, I wrote this as part of a writing workshop where we were supposed to take two intersectional identities and bring them in conflict with each other, so that’s what I’ve tried to do.]

Saad: Hey I need to talk to you about something? 

Dhruv: Yeah?

Saad is typing… 

Dhruv: Are you writing an essay bro? 

Saad: We’ve known each other for so many years, literally our whole lives, we’ve grown up together, all through school and college we’ve been best friends. From day one you’ve stuck by me, and I treasure our relationship more than anything in the world. And so with that of course I have also given you a certain level of comfort, a certain leeway, not just to you- to Shobhit, Bunty, Matthew. Because I know at the end of the day you all have my back. But things are changing now and some stuff that was acceptable no longer is, and I need you all to understand that.  

Dhruv:Huh? What do you mean, what leeway? 

Saad: I mean,  Muslim, Biryani, Terrorist …should I go on? 

Dhruv: What?? Where is this even coming from? You know it’s always been a joke. You’ve made these jokes yourself and laughed with us all the time. Haven’t you yourself called Matthew – Jesus lover, missionary? 

Saad:  Yes, I have. And  I may have laughed and made jokes before, but I don’t want to be part of this anymore, isn’t that my right?

Dhruv: Why are you talking about your rights? Come on Saad, dark humor is our thing. You have always hated how offended people get about jokes as if joking about dead babies makes us baby killers. 

Saad: I’m not sure about that anymore. Have you seen what’s going on in our country? Have you seen what they are doing to us, how they are coming after us, dehumanizing us? Do you even know? 

Dhruv: Are you saying that we are the same as these hooligans who go around vandalizing and killing people? 

Saad: They aren’t just hooligans; they are Hindus who have been radicalized by the leading Hindutva party to hate me and people like me because we are muslims. 

Dhruv: So what’s that got to do with the five of us? 

Saad:  Because the ‘jokes’ you are making, that’s part of the same narrative they have out against us. 

Dhruv: It has always been a joke, and you cannot just read it a certain way because of the political situation. 

Saad:  But don’t you understand, it is no longer the something small, something happening in the fringes, something that will go away. They are literally making plans to come kill us all. 

Dhruv: Why are you being so dramatic? You know it’s just media frenzy and pre-election schemes, nothing like that will happen. 

Saad:  Are you for serious right now? 



Dhruv: Why are you screaming??? I know things are bad but don’t act like doomsday  is at our doorstep. 

Saad:  Okay tell me something. What do your parents think about muslims? 

Dhruv: What does that mean, how is that related? 

Saad:  Tell me that they don’t think that muslims are terrorists, we are dirty, we mistreat women, that we are the cause of our own poverty, that we should have all gone to Pakistan. 

Dhruv: Why are you saying we, you know it’s not like that between us. My parents love you; you know that. 

Saad: It doesn’t matter if they love me. It’s not about me, it’s about my religion and people who are like me.

Dhruv: When did religion become so important to you? And why are you talking about people like you. Do you not think you and I have more in common than someone who you share a religion with? 

Saad:  Do you think the mob cares about that? What do you think they see when they hear that my name is Saad Ansari? 

Dhruv: Yes, we all know assholes exist in the world. We were the ones that got that ABVP member who abused you in college, suspended. Because we know there’s a difference between jokes we make, and what assholes say and do. We – the five of us- we are a safe space. Why are you not seeing that? 

Saad:  I cannot believe you are using that to justify your bigotry. 

Dhruv: Excuse me??? Is that what you really think?? That I am a bigot? 

Saad:  You are certainly acting like one. What, am I supposed to feel grateful that you don’t let others call me names but of course your right to dark humor is sacrosanct? I DO NOT FEEL SAFE IN YOUR FUCKING SAFE SPACE ANYMORE. 

Saad:  You know what, I had expected this from Shobhit or Bunty but not from you. 

Dhruv: What does that mean, why not from me?

Saad: You know why?

Dhruv: No I don’t know why – please enlighten me. 

Saad:  Because I thought you’d know what it felt like to have your identity reduced to a few insults and names. 

Dhruv: Are you really throwing what I told you in PRIVATE on my face to win your fucking agenda. 

Saad: I’m not throwing it on your face. Maybe that’s your problem. You are so fucking obsessed with fitting in, with never being different, never disagreeing with anyone or anything which isn’t the norm that you think something specific about your identity, just because it is a deviation from the group, is an insult.  

Dhruv: oh my god. Stop it. Just fucking stop it. It’s not your place to tell me what I should and should not be comfortable with. 

Saad:  Oh but I’m supposed to listen when you tell me that I should be okay with your stupid and bigoted sense of humor.

Dhruv: Those are NOT the same things. 

Saad:  And who gets to decide that YOU the all-knowing arbiter of humor. 

Dhruv: You know what if you want to turn around one day and decide that you no longer want to be the person you have been YOUR WHOLE LIFE. Please go ahead and do that but don’t expect us to change. We are happy with the way we are.

Saad: I’m not expecting them to change, am I? I am expecting you. Why don’t you think with your own god-damn mind for once in your life? And my whole life- I lived with the fear that I couldn’t think or want things that were different because if I did, I wouldn’t have the friends I do now. I don’t think dark humor is always appropriate. I don’t think we did the right thing squeezing out Priya because she wasn’t on board with the way we talked about women.  I don’t think jokes exist in a vacuum and that it isn’t somehow related to all of the fucked-up stuff that goes on in our world. 

Saad:  The world is changing Dhruv. We cannot go about our lives pretending being apolitical isn’t just a way for us to not be bothered by the things that don’t personally affect us. Sometimes I fear Shobhit, and Bunty are beyond redemption. But I know you, I have been right there with you laughing at things we don’t find particularly funny, abiding by stuff, we aren’t always comfortable with. 

Saad:  We don’t have to be okay with things we aren’t? And if they don’t accept that, then fuck them. 

Dhruv is typing…

Saad:  Dhruv??

Saad:  ????

Saad:  I cannot believe you told them. I cannot believe I thought you were different. 


Short Story: Pink Toenails

The other day, I was taking a shower when I was startled to discover pink toenails. A flamingo pink that stood in sharp contrast with the dull marble that made up my bathroom floor. I was even more surprised when I saw that they were attached to a pair of brown feet that alarmingly seemed to my own.  

“When did I do that” And then somewhere out of the fog, a hazy memory of a pedicure that was forced upon me by my mother. “Who chose this colour? Was it me? That’s not possible, is it? I mean I would have never picked something so… so…” Words failed me. 

The colour was bright and girly and so goddamn joyful. A colour that belonged on Instagram reels under shiny ring lights and filtered reality. Not me I decided. 

I mentally added it to the list I had recently started building. Me or not me. My therapist had been urging me to understand and discover who I was. She’d repeat again and again, “Who is Vanya?” Every time she said my name so loud and clear, I felt my body clench, worried that somebody else would hear her and notice that I existed. Even the thought of that made the skin under my arms prickle with sweat. Another unwelcome reminder of my humanness. 

That night I wrote in my journal. 

Not me: Familiarity with bodily functions (Note to self: Do not have children)

Me: Using TV shows as an anthropological study into the social behaviours of human beings. 

Also Me: Pretentious as fuck. 

Since then, it had become something I did whenever I found the time. Which is not to say I didn’t have time. I had time in abundance, but somehow, I was always losing it. Time disappeared into the invisible cracks of the day. Morning when I woke up and night when I got out of bed type of thing. Whatever happened in between remained hidden in the thick foggy bits of my mind that sometimes made itself  known. Other time it floated above my head, just out of my reach. 

Well, that’s what my mediation podcast says I should do with my thoughts. Observe them as they float. “Let them come and go” the self-actualized man gingerly whispers in my ears every night. “Let it flow, like bits and pieces of garbage in the ocean.” 

Instead, my thoughts enter me and never leave. They are trapped in there like laser beams bouncing of every organ, artery and vein,  every cell, eviscerating whatever they find in their way. That’s how I live, with permanent heart burn.  

The best I can do is ignore it and hope it fades just a little. I leave my reality and tune into another, one that emanates from the hypnotic lights of my screen. A pre-recorded laugh track plays. Some people think it’s creepy, but I like it. I like being relieved of the obligation to laugh. I like that the actors have someone laughing at their jokes and I don’t have to be responsible for their disappointment. That way I can just be there. Effortlessly floating. Like a tiny piece of garbage in the endless boundless ocean. 


Short Story: Sundered

It had been hours since I had been cycling around. Occasionally I recognized a particular tree or a rock that I was sure I had seen before but when I followed its path, I came right back to where I started. Finally, I stopped to look up at the sun as it peeked out of the thicket above me. It was still glistening, but it had lost the power of its zenith. I realized the day would end soon and my knees wobbled at the thought. But I continued to cycle. 

It’s been three days since I last saw another breathing, living thing. That’s not true, I remind myself, I am surrounded by plants and bushes and trees that are alive and thriving. If this place has taught me anything it’s that trees have their own secret lives. I have been observing them closely, tracking their movements. I have learnt that they twinkle in the mornings, and flutter during the day, yawn under the afternoon sun and shiver before the evening. At night I lie under a big banyan tree and trace the long-knotted roots as they are silhouetted against the gray night sky. My thighs feel sore from another full day of cycling, and I say good night just to hear the sound of my voice, for I have no other reason to speak.

We were a group of eleven cacophonous cousins. We descended to this bustling town for our annual trip to our grandparents. This year too we made our way to the city zoo, a sprawling forested area of 50 acres, smack in the middle of everything else. It was the place for many a childhood wonders. Where I saw my first green-eyed black panther and where I craned my neck to see the giraffes as they ate the leaves out of the tallest tree I had ever seen. It wasn’t like the other zoos, there were no big black cages that separated us from the animals. Instead, each animal got its own little island that was separated by a big moat that went up to ten feet. On their little island, the animals were free. Free to roam and sleep and eat. But that’s all they were free to do. Maybe that was the problem.  

A few years ago, my mother’s younger brother, Sharan uncle, who accompanied us on our yearly trips, told me a story. It was another hot sunny day, and we were eating our ice-creams while standing before the tiger enclosure. 

He asked me “Do you know why Whisker is so sad all the time?” Whisker was what I had named the in-house tiger. Sharan uncle was the only other person who called him that. Whisker did look sadder and weaker every year we came. Right then, he looked like his body was a balloon that had been deflated. 

“Many years ago, his tigress went missing.” 

“Do you mean she jumped out of the moat?” I had been secretly entertaining that possibility, even though my sister thought I was stupid for thinking that. 

“That’s the thing—nobody knows. One night, the night keepers heard loud tortured howlings from here. When they came to investigate, they saw that only Whisker was left. You can imagine the panic that created. The whole zoo was put on lockdown for months, they searched every nook and cranny, every little cavern, looking for her. For a while there were even talks for shutting down the zoo forever because the risk was too great. But then after six months of complete lockdown, one day they opened the zoo. Just like that. No one spoke of the missing tiger again and no one to this day ever discovered where she went.” 

We continued to silently lick our ice-creams, quick and methodical, before the sun got to it. 

“Do you know why I am telling you this story?”

He never told me why.  

This was the first year where no adult accompanied us to the zoo. The oldest amongst was seventeen and so we were allowed to go out, adultless. Everyone except me was in high spirits. They tended to pick on me less when there were adults around. But there was one benefit. Whenever Sharan uncle accompanied us, he’d always ride in the back, making sure that everyone, especially me, was going the same way. Lest I go missing like the tigress. 

But the truth is, I wasn’t trying to get lost. My cousins had the habit of riding their cycles really fast and only stopping for the big-ticket animals. They’d all congregate before the bears and the giraffes and the big cats, but I liked to see them all. There were over six types of deer and that’s not including the gazelles, there were birds and then there were water birds, there was an entire pathway just dedicated to snakes. And so, I stopped and observed, except with no one to hurry me. When I looked up and saw that I didn’t see any of the distinctive orange cycles. I pedaled down the most obvious route but then I saw a beautiful white butterfly with a deep blue border on its wings and turned my cycle onto a grassy pathway, chasing and cycling, until I looked around and realized that I was here and all alone. That was days ago. 

It’s been two weeks since I followed a butterfly and entered this world. I still cycle all the time, but I am not looking to find my way back. I know why the trees and rocks all look familiar. It’s because we are in the same place but in a different dimension, one without my cousins and the little island zoos. Last night Sharan uncle came to me and asked me how I was doing. I told him that I was mostly okay, but I missed him a lot. He asked me if I knew why I was here. Now I know I am not alone. I will find her. I will cycle through this forest until I do.