- Gary Beck
Me and OCD - Meygan Cox
The God Thing - Matthew Harrison
Hinge - Robert Beveridge
Half Life - Neera Kashyap
Bonsai - Pooja Sharma Rao
I Don't Think I'm Okay - Nick Manzolillo
Rajani - Kalyani Dutta
Coffee House Feedback - Marc Carver
Shackles - Natalia Suri
Beautiful Stranger - Mrinalini Harchandrai
Looking Glass - Sheila Martin
Anti-depressant - Rana Bitar
Normal - Shubha Menon
In the Jungles of the Night: A Novel about Jim Corbett
-Stephen Alter (Binoy B Agarwal)
Amba: The Question of Red
-Laksmi Pamuntjak (Isha Aggarwal)
The Golden Legend
-Nadeem Aslam (Devalina Kohli)
Loitering with Intent: Diary of a Happy Traveller
-Ritu Menon (Wafa Hamid)
Murder in Mahim
-Jerry Pinto (Mariam Karim)
Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi
-Swapna Liddle (Paulami Biswas)
-Hirsh Sawhney (Sheila Kumar)
The CEO Who lost His Head
-Aditya Sinha (Mohd Farhan)
The Sari of Surya Vilas
-Vayu Naidu (Isha Aggarwal)
These Circuses That Sweep Through the Land
-Tejaswini Apte-Rahm (Mariam Karim)
How I Became a Tree
-Sumana Roy (Wafa Hamid)
The God Thing
- Matthew Harrison
In a moment of calm, Andrew looked around the bus at his fellow passengers. The old man next to him tapping slowly with gnarled fingers; the girl opposite, who reminded him of Katie, studying her messages with pursed lips; the boy behind jerking as he stabbed his game’s firing button. They were all slaves to their devices – how were they different from him?
Then convulsions racked Andrew’s guts, and he reached instinctively to his pocket. The phone was out in his shaking hand, his forefinger already jabbing the first letters of the password, when he caught himself. Gritting his teeth, he swallowed the saliva that rushed to his mouth, tightened his heaving stomach, and rammed the phone back into his pocket. That was the difference – they could take it or leave it; he could not. And that made him a failure in everything, especially with Katie.
The bus lurched into a turn. The momentum carried Andrew’s hand to his pocket, and before he knew it, he was holding the device again. It took a real effort of will to put it back. Every so often his hand would steal over it, caressing the bulge it made in his trousers, sneaking a finger into his pocket. He sat on his hands. But then his nose got a fearful itch, and he found himself rubbing it – with his phone. Disgusted at himself, he made another effort and put it back.
Nausea rose; Andrew bowed his head in misery. When he looked up again, it was to see the phone in his hand as if grown there. The screen opened vast with promise like the sea, each icon a scintillating island of riches. Andrew drew a shuddering breath. It was inevitable, it was destiny, it was fate. He tapped an icon, and a flood of messages spilled out, as revitalizing as life’s blood.
‘You shouldn’t feel too bad about your condition,’ the blonde young woman said. ‘You’re not foaming at the mouth.’ She laughed.
Andrew swallowed, feeling queasy in the brightly-lit room. This was not quite what he had expected from his counsellor. Katie had recommended her, but then his ex-girlfriend knew some odd people.
‘Now, I’m going to give you some exercises,’ the young woman went on. ‘I’m Connie, by the way,’ (a broad smile) ‘pleased to be helping you.’
She got up, nearly as tall as he was, and motioned him over so that they were both sitting side by side at a small table. ‘This is about facing your fears,’ she explained. ‘Now, I want you to get your out phone, just like me..’ She pulled a pink-shelled iPhone from her handbag.
Reluctantly, Andrew followed suit, already feeling goose bumps, the saliva filling his mouth. ‘I thought this was about giving it up,’ he gulped.
‘‘Use it to lose it,.’’ Connie beamed. ‘Just follow me. Enter your password, that’s it, one-two-three, or whatever. Now we’re in, what shall we see…?’ And, sitting beside him, she took him through the routines of his habit – texting, surfing the net, chatting, sharing photos, online games. It was as thorough a session as Andrew would have had by himself. And at each step they opened the same icon together, chatted together, took photos of one another. And once he had got over the strange feeling of being accompanied, the exercise did seem therapeutic. With Connie beside him, he was even able to surf with a certain detachment, pleased when she laughed at his texted jokes.
The good feeling lasted until the session was over. Then, as Andrew was walking towards the door, the nausea hit him and he only just reached the washroom in time.
‘Mm, you are a case.’ Connie greeted him when they met for their next session.
‘Not foaming, though,’ Andrew said, trying to keep up.
Connie laughed; in fact, she seemed to find his condition thoroughly entertaining. ‘Not yet.. And of course we want to keep it that way.’ Merriment seemed to bubble up through her. ‘I’m going to recommend something special for you.’
Andrew left the session wondering what the special treatment would be. Katie, when he met her briefly in the street, was no help either. Huddled appealingly in the mock-fur of her jacket, although it was not cold, she said it was his responsibility to carry the thing through. Her eyes, deep in the fur and the hair, didn’t seem sympathetic. Andrew parted from her not very satisfied. That, he recalled, was why they had split up – they didn’t meet each other’s expectations. Although, he grudgingly admitted, it was good of her to be there for him at all.
Later, he received Connie’s text notification of the time and place. Not very clever of her to text, he thought, as he struggled to resist looking at the other messages. Dragging himself out of the house, for everything was an effort in his condition, he found the meeting place was a hall in a municipal building, with a group of assorted people already there. He took a seat at the back, and waited.
The session leader, a smartly-dressed woman in her thirties, wasted no time. Introducing herself as Lillian, she called out, ‘Rosalind. Please come forward and share.’
A middle-aged woman stepped in front of the group, and began, ‘I’m Rosalind, and I’m an addict.’ There was a round of supportive clapping from the audience, in which Andrew reluctantly joined. Was he even in the right place? Other members of the audience stepped out, and declared themselves addicts as well.
Then Lillian turned a sharp eye to Andrew. ‘I believe we have a new member today. Why don’t you tell us about yourself?’
Reluctantly, for he was not a good speaker, Andrew stepped forward. Other members clapped encouragingly. ‘Er, I’m Andrew, and I suppose…’ he hesitated.
‘Yes, yes,.’ Lillian urged.
‘Well, I suppose I’m a bit addicted too. I mean, sort of.’
‘‘Sort of?’’ Lillian repeated. ‘You can do better than that..’ She turned to the audience. ‘Let’s help him. Repeat: ‘I’m Andrew, and I’m an addict.’’
‘I’m Andrew and I’m an addict,’ cried the audience.
‘I’M ANDREW AND I’M AN ADDICT.’ they hollered.
Lillian turned to Andrew.
Andrew had to repeat it three times before Lillian was satisfied. Shaken, he started back for his seat, but she stopped him. ‘Tell us about your habit..’
‘Your HABIT.’ the audience shouted.
So Andrew had to bring out his phone and describe, haltingly, how he used it for texting, surfing, games. At first he felt embarrassed, but the audience was sympathetic, with supportive shouts of, ‘Me too.’, ‘Lol.’ and, ‘We have messages.’ By the time he got to his most recent all-nighter, Andrew began to feel good about himself. And when the session wound up, he realised that for the first time in months his hands were not shaking.
With Connie’s encouragement, Andrew went to the session the following week. Another new recruit was put through her paces, and Andrew shouted her on as enthusiastically as the others. Humiliation, he now saw, was an essential part of the healing process.
After the session, Lillian came up to him, and said warmly that he was doing well. Andrew nodded modestly.
‘Would you like to take the First Step?’ she asked. Then without waiting for his reply, ‘Malcolm,’ (this to a bearded bear of a man standing nearby) ‘come and join us.’
‘Now,’ Lillian went on, ‘let’s hold hands.’ Before Andrew could respond, she clasped one of his hands firmly, while Malcolm took the other in his great paw. Feeling awkward between the warmth of Malcolm’s hand and the coldness of Lillian’s, Andrew tried to muster his self-respect. Humiliation is part of the cure, he reminded himself.
‘Step One,’ Lillian was saying. ‘Repeat after me.’
Andrew nodded, still uncomfortable.
‘‘I can’t help myself, I am powerless over my addiction,’’ Lillian chanted, Malcom following.
‘‘I can’t help myself’–’’ Andrew began. Then he stopped. ‘Isn’t that… Aren’t I supposed to be helping myself?’
Lillian glared at him, releasing her hand from Malcolm’s in order to shake an admonishing finger. ‘That’s exactly wrong, Andrew. Again, please, Malcolm.’ Together, the two of them intoned, ‘I can’t help myself…’
‘I can’t help myself…,’ Andrew followed, haltingly.
‘…and I am powerless over my addiction,’ the two of them continued.
Andrew repeated it. He had to repeat the whole formula twice more.
His hands were then released, and he turned away, thinking that the session was, mercifully, over.
But no, ‘There are twelve Steps,’ Lillian said, motioning him to sit down. ‘You must make a start today.’ She held out her hand again; Malcolm, grim behind his beard, did the same.
Andrew glumly clasped their hands. It was going to be a long night.
But it paid off. And Katie, when Andrew called her, was genuinely pleased. He had dared to phone, rather than meeting face-to-face as they had been doing each month, and as her congratulations came tumbling out of the device he pictured in her jacket, the mock fur collar mingling with her hair, the softness of it… Dreamily, he told her this.
‘Andrew, it’s twenty degrees today,’ came Katie’s bemused voice. ‘I’m wearing a tee-shirt..’ She asked him how long his course of treatment would be.
Andrew didn’t know; Connie had mentioned the possibility of other approaches.
‘Good,’ Katie said. ‘The cocktail approach – like for HIV. Keep at it..’
Andrew thanked her and rang off.
Sure enough, Connie next sent him to a psychologist – ‘to build upon the progress you’ve made,’ as she put it. This gentleman, named Kaufmann, was bearded, which for an instant reminded Andrew uncomfortably of Malcolm. But with his white coat and severe air, the psychologist quickly made a different impression.
‘I certainly recommend that you continue with your, ah, group,’ he began. ‘In certain cases, we do find that the resignation of individual responsibility, the appeal to a higher power…’ The beard flexed in a grin.
‘But I am sure, being a professional man, you would like to underpin that with a more scientific foundation…’
Andrew supposed that he would, although he also wanted to give the group more time. ‘Anything that works.’
‘Absolutely – the spirit of scientific enquiry. The spirit that launched the Renaissance, voyages to the New World, the moon mission, and of course mobile phones.’
The beard paused. ‘What I vant you to do–. Forgive me.’
‘You’re not lying down. Please, please, over here.’ And the psychologist motioned Andrew to a couch by the wall. ‘One does get carried away. Now, as I vas saying…’
Andrew lay down and listened. With his entire body at ease, he was able to, ‘inscribe new images on his tabla rasa’, as his mentor put it. For each image, Andrew was invited to picture himself at a distance – watching someone playing with a dog or throwing a ball. ‘Distanz ist ze key,’ Kaufmann murmured, ‘ze detachment of ego from id…’
Then came the key step – the Schwerpunkt, as Kaufmann put it. (Things were getting more and more Germanic.) Andrew was invited to imagine his phone, not in his own hands, but in those of someone else – an Eintreter, a Doppelgänger – and that someone absorbed in texting, surfing, calling with the phone.
Andrew tried it. The Eintreter he instinctively chose was Lillian; he imagined her clutching the phone slavishly, drooling over it, sexually engaged with it. He got quite carried away, and had to be reined in by the psychologist.
All in all, the session went well, and Andrew was positively tingling as he left. ‘Ausgezeichnet.’ Kaufmann beamed: ‘Erste Klasse.’
With this momentum, in his next addiction session Andrew had no trouble with Steps Four and Five. And he himself joined hands with Malcolm and Lillian to initiate a new recruit in the mysteries of Steps One, Two and Three.
Lillian herself was pleased with Andrew – ‘the newest member of our flock’ – and gave his hand an extra squeeze as they parted. ‘If you need anything, you can call me,’ she said, pressing her card upon him. ‘Anytime.’ And with a whisk of her skirt, she was away.
Andrew glanced after her, not knowing quite what to make of it.
‘How’s it going?’ Malcolm, huge, gloomy and bearded came up beside him.
Andrew’s memories of his humiliation at the giant’s hands were receding. ‘Not bad,’ he replied.
‘God-thing working out for you?’
‘Yes, thanks,’ Andrew said. It did not seem necessary to tell Malcolm about the psychologist and the distancing.
‘Well, if you ever want to try the real deal, call me,’ Malcolm said. And he thrust a card into Andrew’s hand.
It seemed that each member of the group had their side-line. Andrew pocketed the card.
Outside, he waited at the bus stop. The bus took a while, and Andrew let himself unwind, taking in the downtown scene: the department store opposite, the traffic surging intermittently as the lights turned, the other people waiting. These people were of course working their mobile phones, and with a feeling of satisfaction, Andrew surveyed each – the boy immersed in an online game, the girl tapping in a text, the woman looking at an online map. He was recapitulating his own therapy; he might even call Katie.
Vicariously, he relived the thrill of the boy, the question in the girl’s mind, the map’s appearance to the woman. He flicked up the map image and expanded his finger and thumb to make the image larger. Adverts and icons popped up below the map. He clicked one of them…
It was dark by the time Andrew, now stiff and cold, his eyes aching, looked up from his mobile. Buses had come and gone, the pavement was deserted except for a man hurrying past with his dog. And he was holding his phone.
Sick at heart with the sense of wasted time and effort, Andrew contemplated once again the ruin of his life. He wiped a trembling hand across his face, and stuffed the phone back into his pocket.
Damn, he thought distractedly – the phone wouldn’t even sit properly. He slipped a hand into his pocket to straighten it, and his fingers met a rectangle of stiff card.
The venue of Malcolm’s ‘real deal’ was inauspicious. Andrew passed through an unmarked entrance in a tenement building, then up a flight of steps, and along a corridor that smelt strongly of cooking fat. He knocked on the door, and was greeted by hooded stranger. The room within was dimly lit; two other shadowy male figures were occupied in the corner.
For a moment, Andrew wondered if he was putting himself at risk. But what the heck, his life was in a shambles already. He asked the stranger for Malcolm, and was pleasantly surprised when the larger of the corner figures turned, and gave him a smile.
Andrew looked around as Malcolm explained. The place was the size of a large living room, with a single window of coloured glass that threw a gloomy light. In one corner stood a table over which one of the men was laying a cloth, while the third man stood in apparent contemplation.
‘We are a small group, but getting bigger,’ Malcolm was saying. ‘Soon we may need a larger place. You should see us on Sundays – packed.’
‘Is this Lillian’s group?’ Andrew asked.
‘No, we’re independent. Hers is a good recruiting ground, though.’ Malcolm smiled.
‘And what, exactly…?’
‘Ah, yes – our proposition. Well, that’s best experienced directly. Come over here.’
Malcolm walked over to the corner with the table. At his signal, the hooded man there must have switched on the audio, for the room was filled with choral music, hosannas sounding faintly as if in some vast cathedral.
‘Is this your God-thing?’ Andrew wondered, feeling himself nonetheless stirred by the music. As the music lifted him from one ecstasy to another, the sense came to him, the wonderful languorous sense, that he could surrender himself to a Higher Being Who in a flash of benediction would forgive him, accept him, hold him in His arms forever. He thought of Connie, of Lillian, of the psychiatrist Kaufmann – all those who had helped him on his journey here. The thought prompted gratitude, and itself carried a sense of craving that set saliva rushing to his mouth. He wanted to prostrate himself, to abandon himself utterly to this holy sustaining force.
‘Better than God,’ Malcolm said simply. The hooded figure stepped aside, to reveal what Andrew could now see was a white altar cloth on which stood a slim glass-faced oblong of aluminium. As he stood with bowed head, the oblong vibrated with an incoming message, and the glass lit up. It was the moment of supreme ecstasy, the Word made Flesh.
And yet. Minutes passed, the hosannas came to an end and violins took up the work, the device on the altar trilled once more and was silent. Andrew cautiously raised his head. Malcolm was still deep in his devotions, but the other two men were putting out chairs. A knock on the door, and a couple entered, hands fervently clasped. They gave Andrew a welcoming glance, then lined up behind Malcolm.
Andrew turned with them to face the altar. But somehow, the sense of ecstasy had ebbed, the reverential feeling was gone. He bowed his head, looked up again at the simple device on the white cloth. And then, hardly aware of his own decision, he turned and walked quietly out of the room.
Andrew kept walking until he reached the bus stop. There he paused, and got out his phone. He hefted the device, feeling its weight, its smooth rectangularity, its deadly fascination. And yet. And yet.
He touched an icon, tapped in Katie’s number, asked, heard her surprised assent. ‘And if you could wear your jacket,’ he added.
Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe.