Through The Looking Glass

April 04, 2019

The Lok Sabha elections are around the corner and politics has taken over our lives. We decided to publish this short political fiction, one we’re sure you will enjoy, to give you a break from the mundanity of the election period. As a young girl interning in London falls hopelessly in love with a charming but politically-driven activist, she makes choices that surprise even her. Eventually, she returns to India where tensions are running high because of elections, but someone is about to change the game.

Having just finished my M.B.A., I was doing an internship at a U.K.-based company. It was like a mini sweatshop and we were made to work till well after midnight almost every day. But I was 25, angling for a full-time job and, as one often is at that age, quite eager to please, so the work hours did not bother me. I loved the work and the people from different nationalities who I met on a regular basis. We routinely went out for Thursday night drinks and I learnt about the differences between stout and white and got to know the very English Pimms fairly well.

On a rare Saturday afternoon, when I wasn’t in the office, I stepped out of my room to pick up some crumpets (something I thought tasted like the English equivalent of a mini dosa with butter) from the local Tesco. On the way back, I spotted an ice cream parlour called Scoop and decided to go in. I walked in and gazed lovingly at the many, many flavours of the home-made, hand-churned ice creams and they looked back pliantly at me, waiting to be eaten. Having finally decided that I would have a double scoop of black currant and dark chocolate, I looked up at my server. He was tall and lanky, with glasses and curly, curly ringlets of hair that sat perfectly on his head. He was incredibly handsome and I hadn’t realised until then that he had been watching me closely, grinning all this while. I gave him my order and he smiled in a friendly manner. After telling me how much I needed to pay, he added two complimentary Flakes to my serving. There was something very charming about him. He looked Indian to me, so drawing some courage from sharing a common heritage, I introduced myself in my typical Bombay accent and asked him his name. He responded with, “Pleased to meet you Misha. Welcome to London! My name’s Vidyut, but as you may be able to tell, I’ve lived here forever and they find it easier to call me Vid.

After that brief meeting, I began to go to that ice cream parlour more often than I should have because both the ice cream and Vid were delicious. I loved talking to him. He knew so much about history, art, technology and, most of all, about world politics. I learnt that he had studied at Oxford and this was his gap year before he took up a job in a big IT company. The ice cream parlour belonged to his family and he was helping them out in his free time.

One weekend, Vid asked me if I’d be interested in joining him for a protest march against the bombing of Syria by the U.S. and the U.K.

Of course. This is the least I could do while I’m here.

So at 2 p.m. that day, I walked to Scoop, where Vid handed me a T-shirt that said “We’re striking against striking! Syria says no!” We hopped onto the Tube and reached Trafalgar square. There were already hundreds of people on the road. Soon, the crowds began to swell and the rage in the air was evident. People began chanting. And then it all devolved very quickly. The police came in. They began using force. I saw some young men and women being shoved into police cars. But most people wouldn’t stop chanting.

Vid had climbed atop one of the famous bronze lions. He was waving a flag that said, “Stop the war. You’re killing six-year-old kids!” He was screaming and the crowds around him were repeating what he was saying. That was the thing about Vid. He was a natural born leader and his face inspired trust and confidence. The crowd wouldn’t let the sergeants get to him and, before we knew it, this had become a mini protest within a larger protest. Soon, more and more people began to gather around him, as if he were a Mecca of sorts.

I suddenly realised that while I believed in the cause, I needed to think about my visa and decided to hide in a nearby coffee shop and watch it all happen. I felt like a coward. I watched as reporters gathered and I knew then that Vid was unwittingly (or perhaps deliberately, who knew) going to become the face of the protest in the newspapers the next day (and he did). He was eventually arrested, but not before flashing his winning smile at the media while being taken into a police vehicle. That smile of his, his face that day, is forever etched in my memory. I felt ashamed for not helping out.

A few days later when I returned to Scoop, there he was, with that mop of curly hair, bent over a book- Ryzyard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus (I picked up the book soon after but did not enjoy it). I watched him for a few minutes but he was too engrossed in it to notice me, so I cleared my throat. He smiled broadly when he saw me.

How are you, Mish? Been a few days. Where did you run away that evening? It all got a bit out of hand. Made it to the papers, though! Sullied the reputation of the government. Just what I wanted! Hey, we have a new flavour out for the summer, strawberry crush, do you want to try it?

He handed me a cup and I blushed. I don’t know if it was because I was embarrassed by the name of the ice cream (was it subliminally revealing my true feelings?) or because I had run away from the protest.

I got a bit frightened,” I told him honestly. “The crowd swelled unexpectedly and I didn’t know what to do. I’m only allowed in the country because of my visa and I can’t risk it. I have to think about my future. I was mostly just watching you. What was that all about? Was it planned?

No!” he said a little too quickly. “I just went with it. Basically, I just wanted to take the mickey out of the cops. Make them feel as helpless as ordinary, powerless citizens feel every day.

It was starting to get dark and I asked him if he wanted to come sit at the nearby water pipes where we often went to smoke and talk about the world, but he refused, saying that he had a prior appointment. I wondered what this appointment was and if it was a date. I said goodbye and walked back home, feeling slight pangs of irrational jealousy.

However, I soon forgot about it and resumed spending time with Vids, discussing everything going on in the world. The Brexit referendum had happened earlier and Vid just didn’t believe it. The percentage in favour of exiting was so small that he was convinced it had somehow been manipulated. Vid was certain that a number of political movements around the world, whether in the U.S., India, U.K., or Russia, were all controlled by a select few people. I found his beliefs a bit hysterical as I found it difficult to believe that so many people were capable of being controlled or manipulated.

Both Vid and I followed a Twitter handle called @futuretense, which had accurately predicted political outcomes over the past year. The Indian general elections were going to be underway soon. A right-wing party had ruled for the previous five years and was turning India into a totalitarian state. If it won again, India would be in danger of being run by a dictator. Vid would often ask me detailed questions about politics in India. For someone who was raised in Britain, he seemed to know a lot, a lot more than even me.

I’m planning to apply for a Ph.D. in political science with Indian general elections over the past 50 years as my subject area. I’m just gathering data to write the abstract for my applications“, he’d say.

But I knew that Vid lived and breathed ideas of freedom and accountability. He would have known as much about the political system of the Dominican Republic.

@futuretense had predicted Brexit correctly and had begun to hint at likely data manipulation and rigging of the upcoming Indian elections. “The future, indeed, looks tense“, Vid had said somberly and we had both laughed. One night, at the pipes, he told me he wanted to change the status quo. He looked very disturbed. I asked him what he meant but he wouldn’t tell me. We then spoke about various things as we always did. I told him that I had read that in India there was a threat to the opposition leader’s life. The leader of the opposition was a young woman named Sabina Mitra, who had become the face of her anti-corruption, anti-fascist party. Her party had become extremely popular in recent years and the ruling party hated her. They had planted all sorts of stories about her and had tried to debar her from contesting elections but had failed. When I told him about the death threat, he just shook his head and said, “As long as @futuretense hasn’t predicted it, you shouldn’t worry“.

You have too much faith in the Twitterati“, I retorted.

No, I have too little in the mainstream media“, he quipped.

That night, just before he dropped me home, Vid took my hand and said “You’ve become one of my closest friends over the past months. No matter what happens in the future, remember that I feel very fondly about you. I’ve really enjoyed every minute of our time together. We may not have changed the world, but I feel like we’ve changed each other’s worlds.” He then gave me a hug and disappeared into the night. I found his gushing a bit dramatic and out of character.

Later in the week, late one night as I was taking a smoke break outside my office building in Hyde Park, I saw Vid hurrying down the street. I wondered what he was doing in the area that late at night and instantly felt jealous that he may have been meeting a date. He had been so secretive about his life all this while. He could speak for hours about books or politics or poetry but I didn’t know anything that went on in his private life.

The next Saturday when we met at the pipes I told him, “You know, I think I saw you around my office last week around midnight! I wanted to call out to you but you walked by so briskly that I didn’t get a chance.

He looked stunned for a moment but composed himself very quickly. “Oh, I was meeting a friend for a late night movie. Did you read what @futuretense predicted today? He says that if the rigging is caught in time Sabina Mitra may even have a real chance of winning this election in India!

I found his deflection odd but the news was much too exciting and I soon forgot about Vid’s odd behaviour. It wasn’t clear what methods of rigging were being employed but, soon enough, there were articles across the world that claimed that if the source of election rigging could be stemmed, with suggestions on how to do so, there would be a real chance of saving the world’s largest democracy.

Oddly, that week, I saw Vid twice more on my street. But he denied ever being there. I could have sworn it was him. I convinced myself that in the last few weeks I had obsessed over him so much that he was pretty much the only thing on my mind and seeing him was just wishful thinking.

The months that followed were a whirlwind and I did things I had never imagined I was capable of. Vid and I picketed outside the house of a corrupt M.P. one night, left rude signs on another’s front yard, and leaked embarrassing stories of a third to the papers. We also taught basic algebra and Hindi songs to eight-year-olds at a refugee camp.  I was still just as busy at work but somehow, I made time to fit all this in.

Soon, everyone we knew referred to me as Vid’s girl (except Vid, but he didn’t object). I could see how other girls looked at them. He was friendly with and kind to everyone, but he was never close to anyone.

One night, he showed me some basics of hacking. I was surprised to learn that he was good with computers. It seemed there was nothing this man couldn’t do, and I have to admit, I felt a teeny bit jealous. But, as was his nature, he made light of it. He didn’t care about personal aggrandisement; he only cared about his causes. I knew he wasn’t gay, but it didn’t seem like he cared about women much either. When I had told him that I’d seen Christine look at him longingly more than once, he said, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta ring Christine. She’s working on some posters for us for the next rally.

His universe was his political ideology, but he was slowly becoming my universe.

Once, Vid and I had gone swimming in a lake near our neighbourhood. What began as fun soon became competitive. If there was something I was good at outside of work, it was swimming. We took about ten laps and I was ready to drop dead but I couldn’t let him win! We continued swimming, till I, quite literally, passed out. I woke up the next morning in a hospital bed with an IV line. When I came to, I saw Vid from the corner of my eye, grinning at me. “You won, mate. You wouldn’t even let yourself pass out before winning. You’re fierce, Misha. You’re a tigress!

A tigress. I was a tigress. With him, I felt like I could do anything. I could take on anyone. I didn’t know where that strength came from, but he brought out the best in me.

Soon, it was my last week in London. My return tickets were booked for the following Monday. I went to Scoop that Friday night as Vid was closing up. I’d had a farewell party earlier that night with the other interns and I’d had a few drinks already. We walked to the pipes and sat on the dewy grass. We shared a cigarette. We had brought a couple of bottles of Prosecco and some sandwiches. It began to rain a little bit but we didn’t get up. Vid was unusually quiet that night. I didn’t feel like talking a whole lot either. We kept looking up at the sky and drinking.

Do you ever feel like you’re doing very little for the world around you? That you’re much too selfish and, in fact, much too scared to understand real sacrifice? For all my bravado, what have I done, Mish? I’ve chosen safety, security and cowardice. When it comes to making real decisions, I always thought I’d do the right thing. But I’m not able to Mish, I’m just not. I like living this life too much. Sometimes, I feel like what I stand for is all too idealistic. That maybe those who own it all, those who control everything are just too powerful. There’s just no point!

I’m not sure what you mean, but you’re one of the most committed people I know. You teach school kids, you organise protest marches, you know more than most people our age. And most of all, you care!

My mother was a journalist. When I was eight years old, my mother had written a scathing political piece on the then government in India. She was charged with criminal defamation and imprisoned during the trial. She wasn’t treated right in prison. Even before she could get bail, she died in custody. I don’t quite know the details of all that happened. Just that my father always called it a state-sponsored murder. We moved to the U.K. soon after.”  This was the first personal thing he had told me about himself in all these months. And as was his nature, he told me this out of the blue, completely unprompted.

You have nothing to be scared of. Once you decide your path, you will follow it. You just need to swim to the shore, and I’ll have your back,” I said, holding his hand.

He came to drop me to the airport on Monday. He wore dark glasses and didn’t say much. When it was time for me to go, I hugged him. Fighting back tears, I said, “We will meet again!

He winked and said, “why are you speaking in the future tense?

Because speaking in the past tense is much too painful.

I moved back to India and started a full-time job with the same company that I had been working for in London. India was in turmoil. The elections were now just weeks away. There were political flags everywhere, rallies all around. Sabina was being given Z level security. Many opposition leaders were being arrested.

Soon it was the day before the elections were to begin. It was a Sunday and I woke up late. My parents were watching the news, looking tense. It was unbelievable. A whistleblower in an IT firm had leaked that all the Indian electronic voting machines had been rigged by his company and that the one where Sabina was to vote was timed to trigger a small bomb, thus ensuring her death on election day. The news sent everyone in a frenzy. The Prime Minister declared an emergency. But when I read the whistleblower’s Twitter handle, a chill ran down my spine, it was @futuretense. In a few minutes, he was going to post a video on YouTube in which he would reveal everything but his true identity.

In the video, he confessed that for the past few months he had been working every night with a data analysis company that had been hired by the Indian government to not just rig elections but also to plan the murder of the opposition leader. He had unearthed this mission very late and had spent the last few months trying to understand Indian elections to see if he could stymie the mission but it was too big for him to do alone.  He would reveal more in the coming days. For now, it was important to stop the elections. He ended his conference by saying he had mustered the courage to come forward because “the night before, I dreamt of a tigress and she said to me that I had to swim to the shore- it was the only way to end the race.

Shalaka Patil

Shalaka Patil

Shalaka is a lawyer based in Bombay. She's frequently written on law and policy matters in various publications such as The Wire.

Read her articles, here.