The Year of the Apocalypse

A Short Story by Murzban F. Shroff

2012: the doomsday astrologers were proving to be correct. Everything that could go wrong, or seem wrong potentially, was happening. The Middle East was in flames. Dictatorships and fundamentalist regimes were collapsing, and casualties from the civil wars of these countries were being recruited by terror groups.

By the first quarter of the year, it was said that as many as eighty terror groups had surfaced and that each group was fighting for recognition, by trying to build a global reputation. Economically, too, a silent war was being played out. More than 50% of the world’s production was taking place in China.

In the second quarter of the year, China confessed to a stake in Pakistan’s nuclear program, which made the U.S. and India cry foul! But being democracies, no one took them seriously.

Around the same time, China also declared its presence in several Asian countries, in core sectors like infrastructure, education, and healthcare. Which just about had Indian politicians in a tizzy. Hurriedly they left on a junket for these countries, accompanied by wives, kids, and flunkies. Of course, the official reason was that they were on a field trip. They had to know what made the Chinese grin like schoolboys.

In the U.S., politicians attributed the economic meltdown to global warming, and global warming to the heat emanating from Iran’s nuclear program. It was all related, they said, asking other countries to freeze ties with Iran.

In India, civil society and the ruling classes were still locked in a face-off over the people-empowered Lokpal bill. Each time civil society would agree to a version, the politicians would scuttle it. After some time it became a game of musical chairs and no one took the other seriously.

The politicians were glad for the suspension of the Lokpal bill, for that gave them time to move their unaccounted wealth out of Switzerland. And by the time things came to light, it turned out that Switzerland was only a decoy destination. The real money had been invested elsewhere: in votebanks, in real estate, in new luxury townships.

In India, political leaders once again announced their intention to cleanse the system of its rot. “Enough is enough,” they said. “We can understand the mood of the common man, because we are pretty much from the same background.” No one believed them, though, because the state assembly elections were just around the corner and lies like these were old-fashioned propaganda.

As the elections approached, Tihar Jail – that grand old fortress that housed political prisoners and corporate scamsters – suddenly announced its plans to open up state-wise franchises. It seemed – for a while at least – that the corruption would be checked. Quietly, and without much fuss, Tihar Jail advertised for private bids, with the promise of timeshare cells to future inmates. Slab bookings open! When do you expect to be busted? If you are going to be in a high-risk career like politics, it makes sense to get your retirement plans in place. And there’s no time like today, while you are still in power. The cells would be built according to the tastes of the inmates: Spartan cell; Premium cell; Ashram cell, for quiet reflection and study, a home away from home, your private safe, included!

When word of this leaked out, a hot debate followed on the Times Now channel, in which it was argued whether Prisons could be accorded Industry status in India and whether privatization of the sector was a good idea after all.

The Minister of Industries thought it to be a very bright idea. Where there was crime there’d always be growth, he said, and crime in India was certainly a sunrise sector, booming. Meanwhile, clairvoyants warned that all was not well with the cosmos. A killer planet was headed toward Earth, traveling at the speed of light. Approaching, it would explode into flood of larva and we would all be reduced to ashes. Not a bone would remain for archeological scrutiny, nor a trace of DNA would survive; history itself would be history.

But three-fourth of the year went by and there was no sign of the planet. But one thing did happen. On 6 October 2012, Salman Rushdie won the Nobel Prize for literature, a decision that was to split the world in two.

Frankly, no one expected reactions to be the way they were. The media went into overdrive. “The Maestro’s Last Bow,” they said. The Guardian pronounced him “The Prince of Nobels.” The Queen drew herself up and said proudly, “England has reclaimed its lost heritage in the English language. Let us not forget we were the first to have recognized Sir Rushdie’s genius.”

And “Sir Rushdie” it was thereafter. Or “Sir Salman.” And in India it was, of course, “Salman Bhai,” with Salman Khan the actor quickly adding another “a” to his name, just to make the distinction clear. The only one miffed in all this was Naipaul. “Not only is the novel dead,” he said, “so also the Nobel.” But no one took him seriously. “Yes, dead!” repeated an Afghan overlord who heard Naipaul on the radio. “Very dead. Very soon!”

On one level, there was celebration, euphoria, an upsurge in literary fiction that had publishers rejoicing. No one spoke of the world coming to an end anymore, and unpublished writers, who had locked away their manuscripts, drew them out for another look, another chance. The author himself appeared on television, looking dapper in a black Nehru jacket and steel-rimmed glasses. All the eyes of the world were on him, while he declared with humility, “To me, the Nobel Prize is not a personal achievement, an admission into a select constellation of souls; rather it is an answer to those forces that might arise against literature, the triumph of man over his detractors,” and quickly and cleverly he announced his next book, The Final Fatwa.

And even while he spoke, the forces that rose against him many years ago once again barred their teeth. Only this time the faces were younger, voices calmer, ways more modern. They met, not in caves but in bars, not in underground cellars but in gilded hotel rooms, not in mountains but in penthouses and air-conditioned offices that presided over the city.

Emails flew. Funds and rewards were announced. The Kaffir must fall. He must be punished. This Nobel – whatever it was – cannot be allowed to felicitate a traitor.

The task was delegated to Al-Kaput, a new terror group that prided itself on recruiting youth with an IQ of 125 and above. Many of them were scholars; they had built their lives around books. And some of them were writers, who knew there was nothing more violent than thought itself. Thought could divide, it could decimate; it could create more violence than violence itself.

So they came up with a plan, which they shared with their funding masters. There was no point targeting the writer, they said. He would only become a superhero, a martyr. Look what had happened at Jaipur. He had grown bigger than the festival, bigger than its events. No, they would go for the reader, instead, using the book as a missile. Final Fatwa, hah! It would be the death of anyone who reached for it. By God, it would!

To progress their plan they bought up huge quantities of Triple X Anthrax, a powdery fine and deadlier version of the original, and this they arranged to have packed in small vials. Each vial was tiny enough to fit into the palm of your hand. You could take it to bookstores, reach for the book, pretend to browse through it and, snapping off the top, pour the noxious powder in between the pages. Then all you need to do is walk away - to the next bookstore, and to the next, where you’d repeat the action. This way several of the big bookstores could be targeted. Readers would drop like flies. The scholars knew that nothing killed a writer like books unsold, like books rejected and returned, and this way they’d finish off the Kaffir. They would bury him for good.

So millions and millions of tons of Triple X Anthrax were ordered, and these found their way into countries where the book would be published. And many of the new terror groups collaborated on this, thinking this was their chance to ramp up, make it to the big league of terror.

Meanwhile, physical demonstrations against the Nobel Prize continued. In more tolerant countries, the fundamentalists kicked and stomped, and they burned the books of Rushdie and lit effigies of him, and they protested before the American embassy, because all things evil were, of course, American.

Some of the more oil-impoverished countries were quick to ban the book in advance. Fundamentalist-nations added a clause to the visa application: Have you ever read a Rushdie?

Rushdie himself said that he was disappointed. He did not expect this kind of a backlash. The divisive forces were still at large, corrupting his concept of a divine unity. He maintained that democracy was dying, or there was not enough of it, and the only places it existed were in people’s minds, in their thoughts, and on the internet, where identities could be protected.

In the months that followed, the world split itself into two factions: one that would support the book and the other that would oppose it. Either you are for the Fatwa, or against it, screamed newspaper headlines, confusing young and old, man and woman.

Governments had to take stances. Liberal or conservative, progressive or pragmatic: it was important they leaned one way or another. And everyone was curious, but no one knew what the book was about. And Rushdie was not telling either. He was tranquil, tight-lipped, smiling.

The day of the launch arrived. “Judgment Day!” shrieked the tabloids. “Will this decide Rushdie’s fate? Will the author live to survive this? Is Rushdie in for another spell of exile?” Rushdie himself was unfazed. He would occasionally be spotted at a night club, creasing up the tiles with a fluid bit of eye candy.

On the morning of the launch the paparazzi was in a state. They were trying to find out where the main launch was. It was rumored it would be somewhere in India, in the fastest growing print market in the world, the fastest growing middle-class, too, with aspirations as big as their idols.

In every major city of India, contingents of special police were positioned outside bookstores. Every policeman had been armed with a gun and a shield. There was no telling where the magician would appear and where he’d have his launch. And what kind of violence would erupt. And yet, readers and writers were content to wait outside bookstores, wait patiently for the man who had transformed literature into a weapon, he who had split the world in two.

And then slowly and steadily it leaked out. No brick and mortar. No papyrus. No trees felled this time. No fragrance of a freshly-minted book, pages inked out in artistic fonts, words that flew at you from thick, crisp pages with knife-like edges. The final fatwa had been delivered. And it told the truth as it was. The day of the paperback was over. Amazon had bought the rights. All you had to do was download the Fatwa. And decide in what font-size you wanted to read it.

Murzban F. Shroff has published his fiction with over thirty-five premier journals in the U.S. and UK. He has won three Pushcart Prize nominations and is the recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award for the Best Submission of the Year. His debut fiction collection, BREATHLESS IN BOMBAY, published by St. Martin’s Press and Picador India, was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the best debut category from Europe and South Asia. Recently, it featured fourth in the Guardian listing of Top Ten Mumbai books. Shroff has two projects forthcoming: his larger-than-life India collection and a post-modernist novel.

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