Shifa’s love of experimental fiction and feminist theory have contributed to the conception of ‘Womb’, a serialized novel to be featured here once every
two weeks week. Here’s chapter one, two, three, four, five and six .
The grounds here have no boundary. I have walked on for miles, it seems, without ever reaching an end. Everywhere I look, I see the same colourless, bland landscape. And the sun, of course, is always missing, though I have never known it to grow dark.
My skin still tingles every time I shower or use the toilet; but it is both less painful and scary now that I know the reason why. The only way I can tell time is by the pallor of my skin—the heavily treated water is not doing it any good, and it is growing paler by the day. Alarmingly, I have started to shed clumps of hair; my arms are almost bare now and so are my legs; the thick, black fuzz covering my cunt is growing sparser by the day; patches of my skull are starting to show through. I smile at it all, wondering how attractive K—would find me now. I’m guessing not very.
My beeper doesn’t ring for what I have decided is a period of four days. I have devised my own notion of time using my body as a point of reference. Every time I have to use the loo or feel the need to shower, I count one day. Four showers, four days of silence. I do nothing but walk the grounds and retire to my room to sit in pools of silence. Food and insulin are brought to me at regular intervals. The food is nothing special, though not so bad I feel the need to complain about it. I don’t eat much of it anyhow. I can feel my bones poking through my skin.
I keep awake much of the time. I am awake when the attendants come to check my sugar. It is always perfect. I don’t know how they know to keep it that way. They don’t talk much, don’t generally answer my questions. I take the pills they hand me without complaint.
On the fifth day, my beeper goes off.
It reads room 404.
But then, I already knew it would.
This time, he is standing over by the window. The blinds are up, which is unusual. I walk in and take a seat. The quality of light outside suggests early afternoon. He doesn’t seem to notice me come in. I clear my throat and he turns around, smiles.
“How’re you doing?”
“I must look awful,” I say, touching my thin hair. I can feel the gaps, feel the skin.
“It must be uncomfortable to think about how your body is changing. That’s why we don’t allow mirrors here. It can come as a shock.”
“Is that why the uniform includes a headscarf? Am I going to go completely bald?”
“Don’t worry, it is reversible. We’re not here to make you do anything you don’t want to.”
I stay quiet, thinking this over.
“But I can’t leave?”
“Not till the programme is over. Then you can choose to leave us. Although, of course, we very much hope you will choose to stay on. Such a waste of time and resources if you don’t.”
“How long is this programme?”
“It’s on an individual basis.”
I stay quiet, wait for him to say something.
“You don’t get along with people,” he says finally.
“That’s what you told me the first session, remember? That you don’t get along with people? That they don’t realize what’s going on.”
“Nothing’s going on.”
“You’re special. You don’t realize that yet, but you are. You could be of immense use to the world. Would you like to be of immense use to the world?”
“I don’t know how you mean.”
He waves his stubby fingers in the air, as if to suggest we drop the issue.
“Today, I have something very special planned,” he continues. “Today, we’re going to talk about time.”
“What kind of time?”
“Personal time. Most specifically, your time.”
“I don’t understand, I thought time wasn’t allowed in here.”
“It isn’t— we control present and future time, but past time is always a problem. The past is individual; the present and future, collective—do you see?”
“Each one of us carries our past around with us like a tiny, precious quantity of liquid never to be spilled, lost. Our aim is to help you spill it.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“You must relieve yourself.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
He frowns, and his voice takes on that edge again.
“We insist. It’s essential for the programme to work.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“All in good time. Now, let’s continue. Let’s start at the beginning.”
“I had this conversation with someone a million years ago.”
“How did you know?”
“We make it our business to know.”
“Alright. Yes, K—.”
“Tell me about what you said.”
“That I was stuck. That everything felt like it had come to an end.”
He nods. “Did it ever start up again?”
“At first I thought it did. K—gave that gift to me. He gave me the gift to see into the future again. The future had stopped existing. I was stuck.”
“At first. At first things started to move again. I could feel the sunlight again, I could taste a cigarette again, I could feel texture again. I thought maybe the arrow of time hadn’t given out yet. But then…”
“But it had given out. It had. The feeling never went away. I never…I never managed to exit the groove. My brain is still on its loop. I am still stuck.”
“That’s why you’re here.”
“I’m here because I’ve tried everything else. Nothing’s worked.”
“Were you aware that they were slipping psychotropic drugs into your food and herbal medicine at the retreat?”
“Not at the time. I found out later. When they were investigated. I followed the media coverage.”
“They were shut down. We never did agree with their methods. We’re a very different kind of place.”
“Yes, they were shut down.”
“What else have you tried?”
“Everything there is to try.”
“Psychiatrists, psychologists, talk therapy, drug therapy, CBT, DBT?”
“Just making sure. Your therapist, Lakshmi, she any good?”
“She’s only a reason to get out of the house. K—makes me go. It helps a little, but only because otherwise I’d be stuck in the house all day long.”
“Does K—know where you are?”
“He knows the location, sure.”
“They dropped me off. K—had to work that day.”
“You do know what he does.”
“That’s the other reason I’m here.”
“Where does he think ‘here’ is?”
“A woman’s retreat. He only saw the ad in the paper that I showed him. He trusts my judgment.”
“But he doesn’t know why you’re really here,” he smiles.
I am disconcerted. My hand comes to rest on my belly. I say nothing.
“Alright,” he concedes. “We don’t have to go there just yet. Let’s talk about this groove of yours. You believe you’re mentally ill?”
“So I’ve been told.”
He laughs. “I would take everything they say with a pinch of salt.”
“Why,” I ask.
He leans closer, conspiratorially whispers close to my face “They work for the same people.”
“You know; the same ones your husband works for.”
“Oh,” I nod. It makes sense. “Those people.”
“The very same. The ones who attend conferences, who publish papers, who write books, and books about books and books about books and books. Who teach.”
“Oh,” I smile, “those people.”
He smiles, taps his nose.
“First thing to remember,” he says, “is that you’re not ill.”
“Not at all—you’re saner than most people, in fact. You know nothing’s going on.”
“That’s true; I do know that.”
“The way they get you is they convince you you’re ill. Then they pump you with any number of mind altering medications. To suit their purposes, not yours, you understand. That’s how they keep the world in line, that’s how they keep people interpellated. That’s a good word, you should learn it.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means making someone a slave, so to speak.”
“To ideology, you understand. Not in literal terms. Though, of course, it can work that way too.”
“Interpellated,” I roll it around my tongue.
“That’s right. You’re very special. You’re here because you realize nothing is going on. We’re here to further this—let’s say—knowledge of yours. Though actually, it’s really meta-knowledge,” he laughs. “People at university were always throwing that word around. Meta. Tickles me to use it now.”
I smile. “So I’m not mentally ill?” I ask.
“No, you’re sane. You realize that it’s all just a big lie.”
“No, that’s very true. I am surrounded by lies, I have always been surrounded by lies.”
“But not here, you understand. Here we’ll always tell you the truth.”
I smile, I nod. “I know. I know.”
“I have a feeling you and I will be great friends.”
“Me too,” I smile. I nod.
“Soon, I’ll introduce you to some other friends. Would you like that?”
I smile. I nod. As eagerly as a child.
“But first, we need to get a couple more sessions out of the way. You’ve only spilled a drop today. We need you to spill everything. Then you’ll be ready to learn more things. More meta-knowledge, so to speak. Does that sound good?”
I smile. I nod. As eagerly as a child.
“Expect your beeper to ring after your next shower.”
“We make it our business to know.”