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In Hamlet’s Question – Ritwick Bhattacharjee

Apr 23, 2021 | Fiction, Front And Center | 0 comments

Start Recording. Subject: Anomaly R, designation 1919, first appeared falling from the stratosphere on September 1, 2119. Quantum level has been stabilized. Threat level D5. Safe to speak.
Mr. R. Do you know where you are?
Mr. R. Do you understand what I am saying?
Hmm. Yes.
Would you, as agreed before, cooperate and tell me how you got here?
Yes. Provided…
Yes, Mr. R. We will keep our part of the bargain.
All right. Ask, then.
Mr. R. Do you know where you are?
A de-quantamized room. That’s what you call it, don’t you?
Very good, Mr. R. Yes. The realized anti-matter walls disrupt the way our consciousness entangles with space-time. Do you know why you have been kept in this room? And why I have to speak you through this mechanical bot?
Yes. I believe I do not, what did you say, entangle with space-time in a normal way. I am an anomaly. And if left alone, I will collapse the quantum division between worlds. I believe I almost did.
That’s correct. You nearly caused the extinction of existence. Had you been successful, all realities would have ended.
It’s not as if I meant to do it. Anyway, ask what you mean to.
Just begin. At the beginning.
It’s a strange thing. Beginnings. And endings. It belies that time is a stream. But, it’s not. It’s more like an infinitely big quagmire. Like a…
Mr. R. We are not here to debate the metaphysics of time. Please tell us how you got here. However you see fit.
All right. All right. Here goes. The story begins in a reality far, far away, and who knows in what time…
Even as night’s dark gown veiled the sun in its cold embrace, there was no sign of the police. I kept waiting for the flashing blue and red; the mechanical howl of the siren cutting through the rather unnatural silence around; the distorted, almost incomprehensible voice of the person-in-charge over a white and red parabolic microphone ordering me to come out with my hands behind my head; the charge of cheap government boots rushing up the concrete stairs; gunfire. But there was nothing. I kept waiting: sitting on the white-with-yellow-floral patterned sofa for something to happen. Nothing did. There was just this damned silence that kept booming around me and the body of the masked man sprawled across the floor: his blood still oozing out from the nineteen stabs from my (his) meat knife even five hours after the act (now I know who he is, but that comes later). The stench of his blood stuck to my body making me want to vomit my brains out. Again and again. A thousand, a million perfumes from Arabia cannot get that fowl reek off my hands anymore. Plus, as a rather bitter icing on the cake, infused with the metallic red blood, there was terror. It is a strange sensation: of fear settling in. Like a never ending nightmare. The conscious mind, with all its conditionings and control, does not have hold anymore. The most primal part of the brain radiates nothing but horror. You can feel it in your heart. You can feel it in your soul. In moments like these, terror becomes a tangible force to reckon with-throbbing inside, shaking whatever passes for existence these days, slowing down time. And in that infinite time, space becomes something fluid. Drunk like water. Flowing like wind.
My incessant wait had inevitably allowed me to take in unconsciously everything that the masked man’s tiny apartment had to offer. The four-bladed brown ceiling fan with what looked like a golden mango tree etched on it; the bare yellow walls with water seeping through; the lone desk with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses on top; the single electric outlet with a pencil stuck in the grounding port and a white mobile charger hanging; the single bed neatly covered by a plain blue sheet; the faded blue, red and green rug on the floor, even more red with blood; the air screaming of loneliness. Compared to my four-bedroom apartment, the masked man’s home looked, well, sad. It was just him, so calmly dead on the floor. With that mask on his face. Mocking me. Torturing me. Every time I wanted to get up and see the face behind the mask, it was as if invisible hands from the sofa held me down. I simply could not.
You asked for a beginning? I believe it started after my interview. I never really wanted to do it anyway. My publisher had forced me into it. It was a big one, in his words, finally printed in the local daily (I could see that page crumpled besides the bed). It’s not as if I had a lot to say anyway. I teach, well taught, English literature at the University. As a pastime, I took to writing fantasy fiction. One of them sold and suddenly, one early morning, I was told that I am a best-selling author. The next day I found myself sitting opposite a reporter in “absolute love” with my book. I told her that my life’s quite mundane, really. My mother lives with my elder brother in Australia. When she would come to meet me, every six months or so, we would have a good time together: go out, meet other relatives, have meals together and so on. I love my mother as much as necessary. There is no point in pulling my heart to my mouth. Then there is a girl. We were to be married in the coming winter. Preparations were underway. Still are, I guess. Cards distributed, halls booked, dresses and jewellery bought, honeymoon planned. The whole package. That’s it; I… Nothing inherently interesting. The reporter left with a lot of giggles and promised to catch up later. This was about a fortnight back and the print came out the next day. Two days after that my publisher called for a party. He insisted on a masquerade. I went wearing a glow in the dark phantom mask – the only one I could manage to procure. After some rather long and boorish speeches, I retired to the bar to drown myself in alcohol when he stepped up and ordered a Black Label on the rocks. He was wearing the same white Guy Fawkes mask that he eventually died in.
Hello Mr R. Nice party you have here.
Hey. Thank you. It was all the publisher’s doing. Hope you are enjoying yourself.
Yes, yes. Thank you very much. Quite a big fan, I must say.
Thank you. I didn’t get your name.
Didn’t give it. Well, you can call me R as well.
Ah. Isn’t this a nice coincidence? So what do you do, R.
I write as well. Small time. Here and there.
That’s nice. What do you write?
What’s kept in that? That’s not what I am here for anyway.
So? What are you here for?
To tell you that I know you are a fraud. That you have stolen my life.
I am sorry? What? I assure you that the novel –
I am not talking about the novel, Mr. R. I am talking about your very existence. My existence. You have stolen it from me: ripped it out from my Self and taken unto yours. And I will take it back. However necessary.
I have done no such thing, sir. My life is mine own. Everything I have done, I have done by myself without anyone’s help.
It’s not what you have done Mr R. It’s who you are. It’s the primal essence of existence that you have wrenched from me and I want it back.
You know that you are being absurd, don’t you. What you say cannot possibly be real.
Do not be naïve. The real is a construct. A fabrication that is compounded by temporal narratives. You yourself are not any more real than the dragons that you have written about. Neither are you any more fantastical. Your existence hinges upon the choices that you have made and then internalization of those choices and the results of those choices as yours: as fractions and fantasizations constituting your Self, your Being. Funny thing is, choices are myths. Any choice you make is inevitable. We are but puppets of causality. And since what and who we are is inevitable, we cannot be any more or any less than exactly what or who we are. It is this inevitability that you have taken from me.
You do not make sense. And I want you to leave. Please, or I shall be forced to call the manager.
No need. I have said what I wanted to. Remember what I have told you. Give me back my existence or I will show you, as they say, fear in a handful of dust.
With that he left. I had no idea what he was on about. I was sure that what he was saying was impossible. There is no way I could have stolen someone else’s work, let alone his life. I ordered a couple more drinks, wanting to put the entire encounter away, got drunk, and finally, saying my farewell, left. Then the phone calls started. Every day the masked man (I refused to believe then that his name was R as well) called me at least nineteen times demanding his life back. He was adamant that I had done him real harm. After three or four days of the initial run-in with him I blocked all the numbers that he had been calling from. Realizing that I had done so, he started sending me letters. Nineteen each day. I would find his scribbled notes-“RETURN MY LIFE, OR ELSE” – on my porch, on my work desk, through my students (who would tell me that they were given to them by another student), with my newspapers, with my food receipts, everywhere. Harrowed, I finally called my publisher who, having scolded me for not telling him about this on the day of the masquerade itself, rushed me to the police. The DCP in charge of the station assured me that he would personally look into the matter and find the masked man within a week. Yet nothing happened. The letters kept on coming and they seemed incessant. The day before yesterday, I finally decided to take matters into my own hands. I called back one of the phone numbers he used to call me. After nineteen tries, I managed to reach him.
Hello, Mr. R. Have you finally decided to give me what I want?
I haven’t decided on anything. But let’s get this over with. I want to meet you. Face to face.
All right. Come to 47 V – at noon, the day after tomorrow.
Yes. I will see you then.
I could not sleep that night, partly out of the anxiety of finally confronting him and partly out of fear. Usually I sleep effortlessly. Not that night, though, the more I tried to force myself into sleep, the more it eluded me. Finally, around 2 in the morning, I gave up, poured myself a glass of beer and sat down to watch cartoons. Well, when I say watch, I mean sit in front of the television while it played one cartoon after another. I don’t even remember which ones. I kept checking the time after every five minutes, wondering why the clock had suddenly decided to slow down, and kept pouring myself beer after beer. After what must have been my ninth glass, I eventually passed out, only to wake up with a terrible headache and the realization that I was already running late. Time’s funny in this world of ours. When you want it to pass, it doesn’t. When you want it to slow down, it just disappears. Life’s both too short and too long that way. In any case, bumbling about my daily morning routine, I managed to rush out of my flat only to find that it was raining cats and dogs. Feeling too tired and anxious to go back and get my umbrella, I decided to brave the watery onslaught, telling myself that the cold water might help with my headache. By the time I reached the masked man’s house, I was drenched from head to toe, inside and out, even though the rain had finally subsided.
Crossing a rather dilapidated mango tree in front of his building and climbing up nineteen steps, I found his door slightly open. It was as if it knew what was about to happen and it was very happy about it. Though every instinct I had was telling me to walk away, I knocked slightly on the door and stepped in. There he was, standing in the far side of the room, his hands folded behind his back and the bloody mask still on his face. Looking at that mask, all my anger, frustration and helplessness at his constant pestering just came back. I wasn’t anxious or afraid anymore. Looking at him, standing so calmly, I lost my composure. I started walking towards him, beginning to shout out every curse that I had learnt in my thirty odd years of existence. Before I could say anything, however, he too lunged at me. For a fraction of a second, I saw a tiny glint off the sharp metal of the knife in his hand before it came swooshing down missing my face by a few inches and cutting through the back of my left arm which had, as if automatically reacting to the glint, begun to come up as a shield. Fueled by pure adrenaline, I used my other fist to land a punch on his face and hit the hard plastic of his mask instead. The blow, though misplaced, caused him to stagger and gave me enough time to shove him down with my shoulders. Both of us fell on the floor on the top of each other. Getting another chance at me at close quarters, he tried to stab me on my left rib cage once again. Before the knife reached its mark, I slapped his deadly arm, rolled off of him, and lying down gave a hard kick to his crotch. As shooting pain coursed through his body, the masked man dropped the knife, cupped his crotch and lay writhing in a fetal position. I could have just gotten up and out then. He was temporarily indisposed and the door still open. But I didn’t. Instead, I climbed on top of him and began punching him in the stomach with my broken right fist and cut left. Then I saw the knife. Without a second thought I picked it up and started stabbing him. Blood flew all around, splashing on the walls, on his bed, on the fan, on my face, my clothes, inside my screaming mouth, everywhere. I stabbed him and I stabbed him and I stabbed him some more. After the nineteenth time, it finally dawned on me that he could not be any more dead. Having had this rather grim epiphany, I lay down shivering with exhaustion, adrenaline and terror. As the reality of the moment stuck me and the blood churned my stomach, I rushed out into the balcony and threw up.
Eventually, I did decide that enough was enough. I had to see the face behind the mask. However, even though I had managed to get up from the sofa, something was still holding me back, warning me not to go ahead, worrying me inside my stomach. Like a premonition. I was still hoping for the police to come and take me in. Someone had to. It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped onto the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back to see the main door still ajar. Nobody had passed by. Nobody had noticed the horror. Nobody had seen the red room (redrum, that’s right) or heard either his screams or mine. It was this void, this emptiness that was worrying and I could not take it anymore. Mustering up courage, I slowly walked up to the body, bent down and removed the mask.
There are no words in the world to describe what I felt seeing his face. Well, it wasn’t his face that stared back. It was mine. Dead. It was exactly what my mirror had been showing day in and day out. Before I could properly process it, however, two hands shot out of the dead eyes and pulled me in, literally. And in there I saw everything. I saw myself being born and my elder brother’s face smiling through a crib; I saw my mother nursing me; I saw my brother teaching me how to play hide and seek; I felt betrayed as my mother sent me to my first school; I saw my first crush and felt the butterflies in my stomach; I saw my college friends coaxing me to have my first beer; I saw my fiancé naked, making love to me and felt the ecstasy; I saw my interview and felt rage at it, at reading my life unmistakably stolen; I saw myself sitting at the bar wearing the glow in the dark phantom and feeling the rage inside me; I saw my hands writing the letters; I saw myself walking in the door as I prepared to lunge with the knife; I saw myself sitting on my chest stabbing my torso again and again and again; I saw everything fading into darkness. I saw the void. Suddenly I was pushed out into the light again, and, as my eyes adjusted, I realized that I was back in my own flat. It wasn’t a tiny apartment, but the four-bedroom that I had lived in. No fan, no bed, no desk, no white and yellow sofa, no crumpled up newspaper, no mask. And no dead body. There was just blood. Blood that was flowing out of the nineteen stab wounds from my own body. As the pain from those stabs welled up, I blacked out.
I woke up somewhere. There was fire all around. A few damned men and women were strewn all over the fire, screaming in agony. There was a huge monster with a dragon’s tail, the body of a lion and the head of a raven to my far right. It was calling people I don’t seem to know one by one and either chewing their heads off or tossing them into the fire. To my left was a huge number 19, also on fire. I remember noticing that though I was standing on…in fire I did not feel any pain. I don’t feel anything now. That fire spewed in my cage: infinitely long bars made of molten lava that burn your hands if you even think of touching them. Once in a while two or three men wearing white would come and hand me a small cup with two or three pills in it. There seemed to be a similar room on both of my sides, but a wall of fire blocked any and all view into them. But I know that there were other people there as well. They whispered into my ears of teacups and devils. The men and women in white handed me the pills and, sprouting wings, flew away. I was stuck inside. Knowing and not knowing. Wondering of choices and causality. And when I get up to look at my face in the smiling mirror behind me, I saw the Guy Fawkes mask, smiling to all glory…


…That’s it. I was in that cage for a millennia, I believe. Then, one day, I woke up here. In this room. You might think the sudden change from the brightness of the fire to the darkness of, what I later learned, the de-quantamized room would surprise me. It didn’t.
Hmm. Are you sure that this is it Mr. R. There’s no more?
No. Does it tell you a lot?
Not as much as I had hoped it would. But, it does throw some light on, let’s say, our situation, yes. I’ll have to look at our other readings meanwhile.
Hmm. Happy to help.
Thank you, Mr. R. I will get back to you…
I am sorry?
No. I kept my end of the deal. It’s time you keep yours.
What? Do not tell me that you’re backing out.
No, Mr. R. I…I am not backing out. It’s just that. I can’t send you home.
What the fuck do you mean? You promised. You promised.
You misunderstand Mr. R. It’s not that I don’t want to send you home. I can’t. There is absolutely no technology that will enable me to make you whole again. Send you back.
You’re lying. You have built this…this room. You can control my quantum fluctuations. You can make me multi-linear again.
That’s not entirely true. You see, when you collapsed realities, or your realities collapsed unto themselves, your spatio-temporal differentiation was singularised. You are not fluctuating across realities. You are, outside of this room, literally in all realities.
I don’t understand.
Hmm. See, we exist as separate entities across the multi-verse. But, unlike in comic books, there is no link between the universes. Until you and, I believe I am at the liberty to tell you, eighteen other anomalies like you have realized, the multi-verse has been simply theoretical. Since you exist in all universes as a singular entity, the multiplicity itself got experientially proven. Not just to you but to literally every single existence. In other words, it is only with the nineteen of you that knowledge about the multi-verse has existed outside of a vague theoretical position. But, there’s a reason we haven’t known about the multi-verse in absolute terms. A knowledge of multiple universes threatens that multiplicity because it subjects the universes to the singularity of knowledge. All universes, then, get strung along this existence of knowing of consciousness. This enforces an erasure of the multi-verse and creates a singular continuum. But that is against the natural order and the universes resist such knowledge. They start to destroy themselves.
So when realities of the multi-verse collapsed in on you, existence itself was threatened. It was necessary to contain the nineteen of you. So, these de-quantamised rooms were created. This room, it doesn’t control your quantum fluctuation. It, in fact, does the opposite. It puts your existence into question. In this room, you both exist and don’t exist. Outside this room you’re the Schrodinger’s cat.
I DON’T understand!
When the nineteen of you were realized, and knowledge of the multi-verse, well, got known, nature fought back. You see, we know in sets. The knowledge of A comes with the knowledge of the attendants of A. So, the moment we got to know about the multi-verse, some of us, primarily the ones who were working with string theory, also got to know how to make this room. Think of it as nature defending itself. It saw a problem and started preparing a solution.
It doesn’t make sense. You’re here. Speaking to me. How would that be possible if I exist and don’t at the same time?
Well, yes and no. I am speaking to you here because, like you, I too am in a similar room. I too am a questionable being. I was chosen to step outside existence. This bot, through which I speak, is made from the same technology as this room. It is, in fact, a part of this room. It is transmitting you to me and vice versa through the panels of the room without breaking the walls. Truth is, I was chosen both as your guardian and to figure out a way to stop the collapse of realities and get your nineteen back into multiplicities. And I am afraid, I have no answers to the problem yet.
What does that mean?
Realities will end if you, and the eighteen other like you, exist. That hell you were in, I believe that was the nano-second when you realized. We couldn’t kill you. So we did the next best thing.
Stop shouting Mr. R. It does not help our position. The hell that you talk about, at the end, is similar to the one that seven of the eighteen others I have spoken to also speak about. I figure that it is the moment of the collapse. That is also the moment we knew how to make these rooms. But since the construction of these rooms would take time, we created a stopgap. We put you in rudimentary cages made out of lead and controlled your reality through a cocktail of antipsychotic meds. They work. I do not know why. This combination stopped the collapse by pushing your eighteen what is now called an existential prison. I was put alongside nineteen of you, inside the cage, while people worked to build these rooms. Imagine the immensity. They knew they had to build the rooms but did not know why because they did not know about your existence. So they built. And they finished in time, because you, along with the others, had started to bleed out of your cages.
I am…did you?
Yes, Mr. R. I carried you and the others into these boxes. Alone. Without another human’s help. I carried you across reality, across knowledge, across being. I did and I won’t be able to again. I did, because it had to be done. I did, because realities wanted me to. Now I am like you. A Hamletian question. Being and not being.
You are monsters. You should have killed me. If I was a threat to existence, you should have killed me.
That would not have helped, Mr. R. You see, killing you is after the fact. It would not have changed your existential status. You had to stop existing. But now I realize how complicated that is. To stop you from existing would have resulted in a paradox. Since you wouldn’t exist, realities would not collapse, your existence would thus be ensured, thus collapsing realities. Do you see the problem? So these rooms keep you…us fluctuating. A Hamletian question. Being and not being.
What does this mean?
We drift, Mr. R. Till I find a way out. We have some time. Eternity, in fact. Alone.
What does this mean?
I am sorry.
What does this mean?
Goodbye, Mr. R.
What does this mean? Please I beg you. Please. Please.

Ritwick Bhattacharjee

Ritwick Bhattacharjee

Ritwick Bhattacharjee is an Assistant Professor of English, at SGTB Khalsa College, Delhi University. He is the author of Humanity’s Strings: Being, Pessimism, and Fantasy published by Bloomsbury. He is also the co-editor of Horror Fiction in the Global South: Cultures, Narratives and Representations published by Bloomsbury and What Makes it Pop?: Introduction to Studies in Popular Fiction published by Worldview. His upcoming works are books on Indian Science Fiction and Translations of disability centric short stories from across India. He has been awarded with the Prof. Meenakshi Mukherjee Memorial Award.


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