Survival — A Short Story by Shabir Ahmad Mir

Feb 18, 2020

Shabir Ahmad Mir brings us a bone-chilling story that is set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world where water and its purity and sustainability are at the core of narration and plot. Author of the upcoming book “The Plague Upon Us” (Hachette India, April 2020), Mir produces here a story that could easily be classified under the genre of science fiction from Kashmir. Even though the story does not have a concrete setting, if read from a Kashmiri frame of mind, it works as hyperbole fused with a metaphor for present-day Kashmir in its path towards impending doom. Readers from all across the world will be able to draw their own parallels and inferences since the story covers many relevant issues such as resource depletion, sustainability and human conflict, all revolving around the theme of survival.

That was a cruel summer; the last one. Too hot to be the souvenir memory of its kind. Of course we did not know it immediately that there would be no more summer, it was only when winter refused to thaw; even months after it normally should have, that newspapers and T.V anchors started to murmur, “The Last summer is past us. We are now in a perpetual winter.”

What? Why? How? We could not know. All we could know, as usual, was what we were let to know through press releases and news and official communiques by various agencies of power and repositories of knowledge. An angry act of God, Global warming, Cloud harvesting gone wrong, Apocalypse, Super cosmic climate cycle, Accidental Ice age, Polluted-Atmosphere-gone-nuts, End of the world, Time-Space anomaly, Aerosol micro plastic, a cold black hole that Earth has been sucked into… Every week we had a new theory in vogue to explain our unending winter. Everybody was busy trying to create ‘causes’ for the ‘effect’ till we faced an existential crisis: quite literally—the water had run out!

Yes, yes, we lived in a perpetual winter and everything around us was frozen. You could hold a frozen lump of earth in your warm hands, you might say, and water would have trickled through your fingers. Water that would not have been quite Aqua fina but it was water still and given the desperation one could have somehow got along with it. And that is precisely what people began to do once the crisis hit us. Lumps of ice were axed and thawed and people tried to boil it before consuming it but the water refused to boil, no matter what you did. No matter how high and angry you build the fire the water just got hotter and hotter, but there would be no tell-tale boiling bubbles. And when people could no long wait any more, they drank it. It was all the same, they told themselves; it is just water after all.

Within a month most of the drinkers suffered from extreme constipation. Every laxative-chemical or natural— was tried but to no avail. Those drinkers who continued to eat, bloated up and eventually their guts burst spilling out a frothy, viscous syrup. And the drinkers who gave up eating, after they had seen what had happened to others, died eventually of starvation.

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink, someone recalled an old prophecy.

The Earth, it seemed, had finally refused to feed us. Enough, it was saying. But who would listen to her?

Who did ever listen to her?

Every one of us tried to survive as long as we could without water and subsequently by turning into drinkers. Sooner or later everyone had to. After that, it was a freewheeling roulette. Some survived a month, some two, some longer. The survival instinct lead everyone to try various permutations and combinations to change the odds in their favor. Drink only from the water harvested in the wee hours. Drink water in small pre-determined quantities at fixed periodic intervals. Say your prayers before you drink. Alternate days of drinking with days of starving. Say the name of the Lord in five different languages every time you drink.  Drink water with sand. Offer half of your drink to devil first. Eat charcoal after meals.  So fore and so on.

Every permutation and combination was vouched to work till its adherents died. Every hope of outliving the winter was freezing.

Then a miracle happened. Or a discovery. Whatever you feel like calling it.

Someone, who had his own reason—or hope—to believe that heating water and then rapidly cooling it for a fixed number of times would favor his odds at survival, had got a bone dropped into his water. Those who believed in miracles say it was a pure divine accident and those who believe in discoveries say he did it on purpose. Nevertheless—whether miracle or discovery—the bone-dissolved water drinkers appeared not to develop constipation or in any case not as severe a constipation as the Drinkers usually were susceptible to develop.  

Those who believed it to be a miracle, built up a church in the name of Bone-Water and through their hours and hours of piety and devotion got their bone water concoction blessed to such a perfection that they could purify any water subsequently. But only devotees could partake of it, it was an act of heresy to offer such holy water to non-believers or to share the holy knowledge with anyone apart from the selected, ordained ones.

Those who believed it to be a discovery began to work tirelessly to refine the whole process of ‘Bonified water’. They spend tiresome hours in determining the correct weight of bone that should be added to a particular volume of water and the most appropriate temperature at which the whole process should be carried out. No longer had they hit upon a formula that promised outstanding results than two beak-nosed brothers came along and took over the whole enterprise. “You have done a great job so far,” the brothers told everyone around, “but you now need us. Only then can we serve the greatest number of humankind.” The Brothers quickly began to set things in order, “The whole set up needs to be institutionalized and the whole process systematized. We need to assure a secure supply of bones and water and we need to run the whole process of bonifying water at a large industrial scale so as to make bonified water economical. Of course the formula has to be kept secret; what if it falls in the wrong hands!” Thus the formulae-bearing page was torn into two and each of the brothers took one piece for safe-keeping.

Between the Church in the north and the Beaked Brothers in the south, we—the ones who had lasted so far—were finally looking ahead for redemption. Oh! We were so excited to be finally able to drink and eat and drink more. What good times we expected! All one had to do was to devote oneself to the Church of Bone-Water. They would give you the holy bone-water three times a day. And if you got too serious in your devotion and had a bit of luck on your side, you could be conscripted into the holy order of Water-Purifiers. If that happened, what life you had! Uninhibited access to the holy knowledge and bone-water! People would kiss the dust off your sandals. But if the Church wasn’t too much to your liking, you could still go to one of the many retail outlets of the Beaked Brothers—or simply BB as they were more commonly called. It cost you a few bones—that was the new currency—but you could drink without any scruples or moral gymnastics.

The good times did not last long—soon enough we had a new crisis at our hands. The bones were becoming scarce. At the beginning, there were too many of them—the bones—that one never thought one would come to such a day. The Big Water Scare had ensured a humungous supply of them.  More than human bones, it was the animal bones that were strewn all around like leaves in a harsh autumn—

animals who could not do anything about the Great Winter or the Big Water Scare. Both the Church and the BB had free access to bones. Once they were done with these, they both turned to the human bones. The Church turned to the new source readily—what greater service than a man being of help to another one; it was BB that was reluctant to switch over to human bones, they needed to recalibrate the whole process. But in the end, they had to—the Church was getting away with everything. Soon the graveyards were running empty as well. What were we supposed to do now?

Both the Church as well as BB came up with their own solutions. The Church initiated a new order, the Order of Supreme Devotees. Anyone could join this order voluntarily. Also, an individual could ‘donate’ his old father, mother, uncle, aunt or an infant son or daughter to this holy Order and earn a reward of perpetual holiness from the Church. Such Supreme Devotees would in a time-bound phased manner devote their bones for the greater good. And once they were done with all their bones, they were deified as Saints.

BB’s solution to the crisis was to open up the Department of Procurement. The Department had its branches opened all over and it scoured neighborhood after neighborhood for men and women that it could procure—men and women that would be paid high handsome salaries till their last bone was utilized.

Soon enough both the Church and the BB began to run out of conscriptees and as a result the Order of Supreme Devotees and The Department of Procurements began to poach on each other. The Church issued a denouncement condemning every person who let themselves be procured to eternal damnation and the only way out for such damned souls was to take vows as Supreme Devotees. While BB quadrupled the salary of the Procureds and announced an additional bonus to every Supreme Devotee who let themselves be procured. Eventually, as was bound to happen, the conflict grew, turned violent and we had a full-fledged war between the Knights of Supreme Faith and BB’s Free Army. The First Bone War, as it began to be called, was fought for a little over a year. It did not end because somebody won; it rather ended because, by then, enough men had fallen from both the sides to flood both the church and BB with bones. The War had lost its purpose. At least for the next five years, the war had lost its purpose indeed. Then we had the Second Bone War. The bones had become scarce again and both the sides realized how war was a solution to this scarcity. Again, nobody was a winner at the end of war. In fact, none of the sides even tried to win, their whole purpose being to maximize casualties to harvest as many bones as they could.

At the end of Fifth Bone War, emissaries from both the Church and BB sat across a table and decided that the recurrent bone wars were not the way out for the survival of humanity in general and for the Church and BB in particular. A pact was forged and duly signed resulting in establishment of the Council of Peace, which comprised of five pontiffs ordained by the Church and five Directors deputed by the BB. The presidentship of the Council was to be held in rotation between these ten councilors. The Council bought together all the brilliant minds of the time and locked them up in a room. They would be let out—the brilliant minds were told—once they came up with a solution about the Perpetual Bone Problem.

It took them a month and a fortnight, but the Brilliant Minds did it—they came up with a solution and were let out of the room. The solution was titled, “The Universal Declaration of the Convention of the Council of Peace on the Sustainable Propagation of Bone-purified Water.” UDCCPSP in short. The declaration took cognizance of the fact that the human body consists of 206 bones but not all the bones were necessary for human survival. Thus, one could do away with many a bone. Such bones could be used for ensuring the survival of the human species. Thus, enunciating the principle of “Sustainable Bone Consumption”—the principle that was to form the core of subsequent human survival. The UDCCPSP identified the thirty-three vertebrae that formed the vertebral column as the set of bones that every human can do without; its sole purpose being the protection of the spinal cord and as long as the spinal cord was taken care of, the vertebrae would be harvested as the exemplary highlight of Sustainable Bone Consumption.

The UDCCPSP’s Sustainable Bone Consumption proved as a turning point in the history of humankind. Benefits both foreseen and unforeseen began to accrue. People without vertebrae were restricted to one place and as a result consumption of bonified water was reduced since a sedentary lifestyle required little water and food. This sedentary lifestyle also meant one could do away with more and more of bones under the Sustainable Bone Consumption; bones of thighs for instance. It also led to an end to all wars and violent conflicts. Men who could not stand, could not fight, and/or would not fight.

Except for a few disgruntled hipsters who rejected Sustainable Bone Consumption and retained their spines claiming audacious prophecies of extinction, the rest of us finally knew peace.

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About the Contributor

Shabir Ahmad Mir is a writer and poet based in Kashmir. His debut novel "The Plague Upon Us" is slated to be released by Hachette India in April 2020.