A Thirteen Digit Number

    By Shalim M Hussain

    A little after ten in the morning Chellim opened the bedroom door. The man who stood outside had his face, his height and the exact same mole on his right cheek right where sideburns ended and face began.

    ‘Who are you?’ Chellim asked.

    ‘Cholim’.

    ‘And what are you doing here?’

    ‘This is my house. My brother and sister live here. So does my mother.’

    ‘Since when?’

    ‘Since when I want them to, but let’s say 10 o’ clock this morning.’

    ‘What happened at 10 o’ clock?’

    ‘I did. At 9:59:59 I was a line in the data log of a government computer. Then someone pressed a button and at exactly 10:00 AM, I appeared here.’

    ‘Right outside my door?’

    ‘Yes sir, right outside your door.’

    ‘How long have you been waiting?’

    ‘Doesn’t matter.’

    Chellim remembered going to bed at three in the morning. He didn’t work on Mondays, so he usually woke up late, drank some water, went back to sleep or thought really hard. Then he cooked, after which he ate, and while cooking and eating he thought of doing a number of things- writing a recommendation letter for a student, writing a story, editing an essay; mostly writing. He thought so hard that by the time he was done thinking it was late and he had to cook, eat, think and sleep again. This Monday was going to be more eventful.

    ‘But how can two of us live in the same house?’ he asked Cholim though he knew the answer.

    ‘You should leave.’

    ‘In that case let me pack a few things.’

    Chellim was lying. There was never much to pack, not in this house, not anywhere he had lived before. Most of his clothes were in a tin trunk under the bed. There was another toothbrush somewhere, some terracotta toys, bills collected over the years (and never submitted for remuneration), a bicycle pump, an expensive helmet and aah, there was the toothbrush!

    ‘You have no things anymore.’ Cholim took the brush from Chellim’s hand and put it in his mouth.

    ‘I know that Abdul owes you three hundred rupees. When the time comes he will be paid.’

    ‘Please remember to do that. I don’t want to depart in debt.’

    ‘Don’t worry. Wait, stop undressing. You can have your clothes. Yes, your handkerchief too, and anything else in your pocket. Let’s see… you asked the butcher to save half a kilo of liver … time to replace the table clock battery… is it an A or an AA… you don’t know… I will figure it out…’

    ‘That’s not the only…’

    ‘Yes, yes. You are not sure if the battery has run out or if the flap on the back of the clock is not holding it in place. I will figure it out.’

    No point walking the imposter through his life, Chellim thought. He was an exact copy. Chellim straightened his hair, walked out of the door, took the right from the gate and with just fifty rupees in his pocket headed towards the market.

    Now that he was being replaced, Chellim realized that not many people would miss him. There was the stationary shop owner who had been their family stationer ever since he was in school, the baker Mohor who had once been a clock mechanic. There was polio uncle. When the road was kachcha and a lot dustier, there was a ghungti by the public pond- a raised bamboo platform with a heavily perforated roof. His, now Cholim’s, uncle ran that shop. Sometime in the 2000s the shop shut down. One, it was not doing good business. How could it? Chellim and his cousins stole from the shop and since the uncle had polio, he couldn’t run after them. When he complained to their parents, polio uncle could never give a correct estimate of how much stuff had been stolen.

    Then the road came and soon after came a government scheme which gave polio uncle a handicapped cycle. Uncle traded business for mobility. He shut the shop late in the afternoon and went dhoom machale on his new handcycle. Chellim and his cousins stood on the side of the road and cheered him on. His races grew longer and more frequent. The young boys inspected his hands. They were thick and very strongly veined and when they shook hands with him after a race, he pressed their fingers so hard they seemed to combine into one megabone. I wonder what he does to his dick with that, the boys whispered amongst themselves and rolled on the dusty street.

    The sudden fame got into uncle’s head. The races got longer and more frequent. Finally he shut the shop altogether and when an errant stone got into the wheel, he fell face first, the handcycle jumped, fell and crumbled into its constituent parts and his racing career ended. Polio uncle now begged at the Tuesday market. Since he was no longer responsible for what he did, Chellim felt like seeking out Polio uncle and yelling the Dhoom theme music at him.

    On the edge of the public pond was a hardware store whose owner who was a cousin being as he had married Chellim’s father’s distant neice. Moreover, he had been their cement and rod provider for five years. Would cousin miss him? Probably not. Not that he was in need of sympathy, but the shop was open and there was shade in the verandah, so Chellim went to talk to cousin.

    Chellim sat under the awning of cousin’s shop and thought about his predicament. He couldn’t take up the matter with his siblings or his mother because two of him standing in front of them would unnecessarily complicate the matter. His uncles and other relatives were not an option. A civil dispute over the paternal property was currently in the court and if the uncles presented both of him in court… well, god knows what would happen. He decided to talk to this relative instead given that he had nothing to do with the ancestral land.

    ‘Say cousin, did anything happen this morning?’

    ‘A number of things cousin.’

    ‘Like?’

    ‘Well, the list got published.’

    ‘I know. At ten, right?’ He mumbled the second sentence. ‘Is everything alright back home?’ By home he meant their ancestral home. This cousin was their neighbor when Chellim’s family lived there.

    ‘No. I was taking a bath in the morning when my sister-in-law started screaming. I realized that this had something to do with the list, so I left my bucket, grabbed a towel and ran to her room. She was rolling on the floor crying.’

    ‘Why?’

    ‘Her ten-month old son had disappeared.’

    ‘As in run away?’

    ‘No.’

    ‘Did he fall in the pond?’

    ‘Goodness, no! See, according to sister-in-law he disappeared right before her eyes. One moment she was rubbing oil on his back and the next moment she felt an emptiness on her lap. Poof, the baby was gone.’

    ‘No!’

    ‘Yes! People came running from their houses- men, women, children. Even the chicken came clucking. I was caught pants down in the mess, only in my towel. They laid sister-in-law on the bed and I ran to get my bucket. Then we poured some water on her head, wet her lips and asked her to think harder. What happened to your son, we said.

    She repeated the same thing over and over again, now in sing-song- ‘He was in my lap goe! Then he was gone goe! O my son is gone goe!’ We waited until she was tired of crying. Then one of the women tucked half a paan leaf and a bit of aged betel nut in her mouth so that her jaws could relax from so much crying. She lay on the bed and choked to sleep. Big brother stayed back to take care of her. Someone had to be at the shop, so I came.’

    ‘You have no heart brother.’

    ‘I am not concerned. Brother should not be concerned either. We prepared for this, didn’t we? In about a week’s time the wind will come calling. We will turn our faces to the wind and say we are here, we are not gone and the child is ours. The wind will understand and open a hole in the air and the child will come back to us. If no one attends to the shop, when the wind calls and the child returns, what will he eat?

    ‘You have a point.’

    ‘What about you? Any disappearances in your family?’

    ‘No brother. But tell me, did you notice anything else?’

    ‘I am sending the boy to the tea stall. Do you want some tea? No? Okay. Yes, other things are also happening. I could tell you about the copies.’

    ‘Copies?’

    ‘Copies.

    Two people same to same. And they are all quarelling. I am so-and-so, one of them says. The other says the same thing. There was a lot of noise, but it was ten and someone had to be at the shop, so I came.’

    ‘What did they do to the copies?’

    ‘Not that I saw it but from what I understand, both of them were made to stand in front of a phone and 13 digits were entered. Poof! One went into the phone and the other remained standing.’

    The ones sucked into the phones were the originals, Chellim felt like saying. The imposters left standing were a few minutes old. He felt as if someone was running the metallic edge of a blunt knife against the inside of his stomach. His tongue went numb and bile rose to his mouth. He waved at his cousin, spat in the pond and walked deeper into the market.

    Who could he talk to? Lutfar’s house was on the other side of the pond. But was it still Lutfar or his double? He went to Shohi’s barbershop instead. Ever since his hair had started thinning, Chellim never knew when the right time to get a haircut was. He let his hair grow and after a month when the sides grew long and the patches became more pronounced, he took the walk of shame to the barbershop. ‘I am getting bald’, he told every new barber, ‘there was a time when it was so thick that my comb got caught in it. It was so thick that scissors slipped on it. And how fast it grew! I went to the barber’s every two weeks’. Every time he told them his sad story the new barber held his hair between pointer and middle finger and said, ‘Nothing to worry about, sir. There’s still a lot of time before you go bald, if you do go bald that is.’ Shohi, however, had cut his hair since he was a child. Their interaction usually was ‘Good morning’ ‘Haircut?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Short?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Sit’.

    The television was on and the news reports were coming in. 4 million people had vanished at ten in the morning, the news reader said. The redundant scroll at the bottom of the screen highlighted the number as did a correspondent with his microphone so close to his mouth that he could have been speaking from his tonsils. 4 million gone! And how many copies? Since the number of people missing was so high, no one seemed to care about the copies. What were the copies doing? How many of them had been returned to mobile phones? Had any of them taken to the streets or taken national monuments hostage and demanded to be left alone? What was the status?

    Shohi’s eyes were on the screen but his scissors continued to move. Chellim eyes were on Shohi because a very peculiar thing was happening. The barber held a clump of hair on a comb and while looking at the screen, ran the scissors through it. The clump fell on the apron, stood up, climbed up the customer’s head and took its position on the comb.

    On the television screen five eminent personalities sat at a desk. One of the eminent personalities asked a less eminent personality if everything was right in her district. Yes, she said. Another eminent personality asked another less eminent personality if everything was right in his district. Yes, he said. Then the chief eminent personality stood up, declared the list open and pressed a button. The list came online, sweets were distributed and people fall into each other’s arms.

    .Shohi’s eyes were still on the television screen. He didn’t realize that the person under his hand was sweating and beginning to shake. Then the customer rose and said ‘That should be enough.’

    Chellim walked out too. He followed the customer down the betelnut alley and at the bend in front of the mosque caught his hand and said, ‘Madhu, can we talk?’

    Madhu looked at him with fear and said, ‘Has it happened to you too?’

    ‘Yes. Let’s talk somewhere else.’

    ‘I know the right place.’

    The last bus to Guwahati was leaving the station. Come what may, disappearances or not, copies or not, the bus to Guwahati left on time. The two men got in and sat on the last seat. The bus moved slowly through the dusty road, picking passengers at the public pond and the police station crossroads. Chellim and Madhu kept their heads down as the bus moved over the new bridge at the embankment and took a turn at Asadullah’s nook. This was a good place. There would be no more traffic on the road until next morning.Chellim motioned to Madhu and they got down.

    It was almost noon. The only people on the road would be workers and shopkeepers going home for lunch. The two men climbed down the slope at Asadullah’s nook and sat under the banyan tree by the stream. This was good and safe place for a secret discussion.

    ‘What’s your story?’ Chellim asked.

    ‘I reached the market a little after ten. I was opening the shutters when I realized that I had left my phone at home. I went to Shohi’s shop and asked if I could use his phone. Imagine my surprise when it was not my wife who answered but me! ‘who are you’, I said and the voice at the other end said ‘who are you?’. I thought there was some congestion on the line and my voice was echoing, so I called again. It was me! This is when I realized that the list must have been published. Why were we not careful, Chellim?’

    ‘Oh, but we were. Give this document, they said and we did. Bring your grandfather’s document, they said and we did though it was as difficult as digging up grandfather and going through his bones. If they had asked us to bring the document of the ape that started our line what do you think we would have done?’

    ‘Hired an archaeologist.’

    ‘That’s right. And after all that, do you know the difference between me and my copy? An ‘o’ instead of an ‘e’. Did I make the mistake of writing ‘o’ instead of ‘e’? God knows I didn’t. But here we are! A clerical error and now there are two of us!’

    ‘It was a fullstop in my case.’

    ‘What?’

    ‘A fullstop. Period. I put a period after my first name. The clerk thought it alright to not put a period in his records. Boom, I am now one of two! Never had I thought that this would happen to me, a graduate, someone who saves every scrap of paper because God knows when it will be a binding document.’

    They sat on the sand and looked stared at the stream.

    ‘Did anyone in your family disappear?’ Madhu asked.

    ‘No, thank God no.’

    ‘They are saying in the news that it was mostly children who disappeared, especially the very young who don’t have any papers yet. And the old people, orphans, the mad, beggars, and riff raff. Any more copies?’

    ‘I don’t think so. My copy turned up at my door and asked me to leave.’

    ‘Do you believe they are rationing these things?’, said Madhu without listening to the rest of Chellim’s story.

    ‘Rationing? What do you mean?’

    ‘There’s this story going around that the authorities are rationing out copies and disappearances so that there are a certain number in a village block but not too many in one family.’

    ‘And what end would that serve?’

    ‘Keep public anger in check?’

    ‘I don’t know, man.’

    ‘So what do we do now?’Madhu asked. Chellim had no answer. He dug his fingers in the sand and stared into the stream.

    ‘I am going to pee’ said Chellim and walked towards the bushes. Madhu felt a shell under his fingers.

    He picked it up and flung it into the water.

    ‘Here you are’, came a voice from the slope.

    ‘Who are you?’ Chellim asked.

    He looked up. It was Madhu without a period.

    ‘Who are you?’ Chellim asked.

    Madhu jumped up as if the copy had pointed a gun at them. But the impostor was smiling.

    ‘I was looking for you.’

    ‘How did you find me?’

    ‘I am you too? We think the same way. We go to the same places when we are scared.’

    ‘Why were you looking for me?’ said Madhu.

    ‘I wanted you to hear my story before you went’, said the copy.

    ‘It’s not fair’, said Madhu, ‘a moderately good life, a wife, and then you come and all of a sudden I am nothing. It’s not fair, don’t you think?’

    ‘And it’s not my fault’, said the copy.

    ‘We should call the village committee and set this straight’ said Madhu.

    ‘No’, said the copy, ‘in times like these its everyone for himself. And if you do call a village committee meeting and they bring in the administration and the police, you are the one at risk. Just think of it. The two of us stand in front of a crowd and each claim that we are the real one. What happens? Someone whips out a mobile phone and punches in the 13 digit number. You go, brother and I remain right here.’

    ‘How are we going to resolve this issue?’

    ‘I don’t know. But are you not interested in knowing where I come from?’

    ‘Look at me. Do I look interested in listening to stories or do I look like someone hollowed out from the inside?’

    ‘I wasn’t born this morning, Madhu. For months I lived on a computer database. The day they collected your documents and entered them in the database, I was born. First there were one and a half million of us. Then came another round of document collection and we were joined by one more million. Megabyte real estate got expensive pretty fast. We were all jostling for space within the database, you know. We knew that someday our time in the world would come, maybe not for all of us but for some. Some of us would be information given flesh.

    ‘And then there were some in the database who were hollow, empty shells. Figures with dotted lines around them, raspy voices as if their vocal cords were incomplete. We pitied them. These were figures who were just being built but were erased because the supporting documents were not enough.

    ‘There was another category, those who matched exactly with their corresponding person outside. One day they were with us, talking to us and suddenly the data operator would click a button saying that they had passed and they would be gone. They would fly out and merge with their person and the person wouldn’t even know. It was like running an invisible glove over your hand. We all thought that this would happen to us too, that we would one day leave the database and merge with our person and the person would be whole in the eyes of the authorities and the world.

    ‘But for you and me, Madhu, there was a mismatch. Had there been no mismatch, I would have been on you and you wouldn’t have noticed. For a few days you would have felt relief and relaxation at being free from something you couldn’t completely apprehend. In time, even the slight confusion would leave you and things would be as they always were. Tell me, do you have a nagging thought at the back of your head?’

    ‘What nagging thought? Apart from this mountain that has fallen on my head?’ said Madhu.

    ‘Yes, apart from this.’

    ‘No.’

    ‘Think carefully.’

    ‘No, noth…’

    ‘Its coming back, isn’t it?’

    ‘Nothing’s coming back.’

    ‘But it is. There was one before you, wasn’t there?’

    ‘Like what?’

    ‘Like someone who looked exactly like you? Like me being here in front of you, you are a copy too, aren’t you my friend?’

    ‘What are you saying?’

    ‘I have lived on your databoard, my friend, and I know everything about you. He was here before. Then there was a mismatch on a record. A voter identity card, wasn’t it?’

    A very very vague shadow flitted across Madhu’s mind. There was something about a voter identity card.

    ‘He was here. He was us, so he did exactly what you are doing now. He came here to Asadullah’s nook. And you met him here. How long did it take for him to disappear‘A day.’

    ‘And then?’

    ‘And then I went to the office and submitted a form…’

    ‘Telling them that there was a mismatch. That your name was not Madhu.’

    ‘Yes.’

    ‘What was the real name of your original?’

    ‘I don’t remember.’

    ‘And why don’t you remember.’

    ‘Because it has been so long and I have not thought about it for so long…’

    ‘That you have become him. It’s not your fault.’

    ‘But why do I remember everything now?’

    ‘Because I have reminded you. In time, after you are gone, I will forget all about you because no one will remind me. But it’s not your fault. You fought for him.’

    ‘I did. I submitted application after application and there was no response. Then I stopped writing applications. How long has it been since the original left?’

    ‘More than a year.’

    Madhu was crying now. He looked around but Chellim was nowhere near. He desperately needed someone to hold his hands because he knew what was coming.

    ‘How long do I have? Do I have a day?’

    ‘No. You are a copy, so your disintegration will happen fast. When my time comes and there’s a new copy, I hope it is instant.’

    ‘I want to see my wife.’

    ‘I am sorry that won’t be possible. You can hold my hand.’

    ‘Where is Chellim?’ said Madhu and held the copy’s hands close to his chest. The copy sat down on the sand and pulled Madhu down.

    ‘I think he is gone’ said the copy.

    ‘Where will I go? Will I go back to the database?’

    ‘I don’t know.’

    ‘Will you fight for me?’

    ‘I will. But you know how it is. I will do everything to bring you back even if it means that I have to disappear. Can you take relief in the knowledge that eventually we will all go?’

    ‘No. It’s one thing to die as a person and quite another to cease to exist. I don’t want to go. I want my wife. I want children. I want my children to be around me when I go.’

    ‘You can’t know if that’s what will happen to you. In the end we will all be alone. Here you have me. I will be with you as long as you are here.’

    Madhu felt the edges of body fading.

    The copy held his hand and said, ‘We will have our day of reckoning. Some day in the future, and that day will come, the great authority will make all of us stand next to each other- you, me and the real one and give us his permission to merge into one. We will have to file applications, submit declarations to newspapers and with the declaration and the application we will go to the judge who will say everything’s in order and we will be one. We will forget how at different times we were scared and looked to each other for comfort. All our feelings will be merged.’

    As he said this, the copy felt a sadness within him and Madhu faded into the daylight.

    Shalim M Hussain is a writer, translator and academic based in Assam. His books include Betel Nut City (2019), a poetry collection that won the R L Poetry Award 2017, Post-Colonial Poems (2019), a translation of Kamal Kumar Tanti’s Sahitya Akademic winning poetry anthology and Asimot Jar Heral Sima (2020). His poetry, short stories, essays and translations have been anthologized in The Penguin Book of Indian Poets (2022), Sahitya Akademi Modern English Poetry By Younger Indians (2019), and Penguin Complete Short Stories of Premchand (2018) among others. He has held the Charles Wallace India Trust Creative Writing and Translation Fellowship (2020-21) and been awarded the Pen Translates Award (2021) by English PEN.

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