Hideki geevoed two months later. He looked haggard and was definitely calling from somewhere other than his studio. The major stock indices and gold prices had been steadily rising ever since he started using his algorithm, and Neil had taken that as a good sign. He had no time to talk with Hideki when his algorithm needed to respond to these new fluctuations.

“What’s up, Dekky? You finally decided to get some sunlight?”

“Something bad’s happening here, Neil. The tremors haven’t stopped and they seem to be getting longer and more frequent. They evacuated our street today! Haven’t you been following the news?!”

“Haven’t had the time to scan through the news, but I’m sure my algorithm has been diligently scanning away! Did I tell you I just tripled my earnings in 5 days?”

“You still stuck on that algorithm of yours? Listen, I gotta go, Neil. Another tremor just started. I’m not sure how much more of this we can take”

“Later, Dekky. And stop being so dramatic. California has little shivers all the time”, Neil retorted and signed out.


Two days after the geevo with Dekky, Neil started getting alerts on major deviations in his model. Something big was happening in the markets and his algorithm was slipping! Neil started investigating. The word-markets were reporting a large number of ‘crashes’ and ‘crumbles’, but the stock prices seemed to be climbing ever higher.

Neil finally decided to check the news feeds. And there he found it — from California, from Oregon, from all over the west coast. Something big was going down. There had been widespread earthquakes and damage all along the San Andreas Fault. So that explained the ‘crashes’ and ‘falls’ in his word-markets! The stock exchanges were going through the roof, with investors betting heavily on construction companies, oil and gas corporations, and anything else that may find itself with more work once the reconstruction efforts started. The only sector that really took a dive was the tech sector, especially companies that were based in the Valley. The market already had an answer to that too, shifting its focus on IT companies that were located in the D.C-New York corridor.

Neil’s algorithm was having its own problems. With the massive influx of words that denoted a fall, the algorithm was making the wrong picks. If only he had accounted for natural disasters in his frequency calculations… he needed to respond quickly to make the best of this situation.

Neil sat down at his workstation again. He wondered if Dekky was doing fine. He sent a geevo request – no response. He shot off a text and went back to modifying his algorithm.

The Market is unforgiving to those who wait. There was no time to lose.


Part I | Part II

The stock market is an echo chamber for those who think they’ve figured it out. There were the antiquarians, who invested based on intuition and what they heard by word of mouth or on the news. Operating on a higher level were the wonks, those who put daily price trends into complex models and squeezed them through constraints and parameters of incredible variety. What Neil had realized was that the written word and the mathematical formula actually had a way of responding to each other.

Each word in the English language had a frequency with which it occurred in usage, and Neil’s sophisticated mining of the online dictionaries and Wikipedia had yielded a treasure trove of these word associations. So when CNBC reported that a stock had ‘soared’, Neil could now predict which other stock would also rise. When @wsj declared that a stock had ‘crashed’, he could also tell with certainty which other stock would fall.


Of course, others had tried this algorithm and failed. Neil’s algorithm would not, because Neil had added another wrinkle to it – his algorithm would react differently to a ‘plummet’ from a ‘dip’, and he had done it all for free!

In two weeks, Neil was beginning to see results. His portfolio had been aggressive to start with – the stock market was also a casino, and like a casino, it had its own watchdogs in a decrepit part of the DHS called the SEC. Once he reached his initial goal of a million dollars in profit, Neil dialed down his investments, so as not to rouse the watchdogs. The income kept steadily rising over the next few weeks, and Neil found himself sleeping and waking at his workstation, making minor adjustments and tweaks so he could maximize his profits and minimize the risk of being caught. The algorithm, which had steadily taken over his life, showed no sign of easing up. He had become a shut-in ever since he started work on it, and now even the twitter news alerts had no interest for him anymore.

To be continued…

Part I | Part III

Neil finally had the Answer. After weeks of running through simulations and trying out algorithms, the numbers were adding up. If he played this right, he could be a billionaire in weeks.

Neil decided it was time to let someone else into the secret. He geevoed Hideki. Hideki answered from his San Francisco loft, dressed in rust-streaked and paint-splotched overalls as usual. “I found the algo, Dekky!”, he announced. “You sure it’s flawless this time? Don’t want you losing your shirt again”, Hideki said. “No Dekky, this time it’s accurate within a 3% confidence level, which is pretty damn good. I even increased the sample size this time around, and 987 of the thousand stock picks responded as expected over a period of 10 days. The sigmas were on the dot!”, he replied breathlessly.

“Stop it, I don’t want you to geek out anymore on me. I sure will be the first person surprised if the collective wisdom of the internet brought home anything more than a pointless meme and porn that manages to break rule 34 every day. ”

“This is more than that, Dekky. I’ve found out a way to weed out the false positives from twitter and facebook feeds from actual news now! It’s looking golden, bro! Why is your cam all shaky?”

“There’s that rumble again… third tremor this week – gotta go check on the cats. Well, let me know when your first million rolls in, and fly me to New York to open a cold one”, Hideki said and signed off.

Neil was finally ready to hit paydirt.


Part II | Part III

Read Part I | Part II

A boy, about his height, drifted next to Vik, stared at him and then stared at the closed doors. He had an ill-fitting red shirt on, and a bad haircut. There was something wrong with his eyes, although Vik couldn’t tell what. The boy kept opening and closing his mouth for no reason, as though he were a goldfish.

“Bro-ther, what’s inside… the doors?”, said the boy. Vik was surprised. Did he not even know this!? Vik carefully considered his options. Of course, outright mockery might be out of the question. Mum took a serious exception to frivolity at the temple. A snide remark that would both educate and silence the boy, perhaps? But Vik was too sullen today to bother. And the boy had an earnestness about him that made him curious. He decided to keep it short.

“God. God’s inside”, Vik said. “God”, the boy repeated. A slow smile spread across his lips, and he brought his hands together, but with fingers spread apart, in an improper imitation of how Vik himself held his hands. The boy kept smiling at him. Vik didn’t know what to do. He smiled back.

Mummy heard the exchange, and turned and smiled. She made him give a toffee to the strange boy. The boy smiled even more and broke into a grin. Mum seemed pleased. She patted Vik’s head, and kissed him again.

“Happy Birthday, sweetie.”, Mum said. “You’re a big boy now.”


Read Part I

At the temple, there were mercifully few people today. No handing toffees to strangers and having them pinch your cheeks. All you had to do was stand dutifully until they opened the doors, put your hands together, bend your head when mummy and daddy did, and it would be over soon. Easier said than done, Vik thought. He gazed at interest with a line of big black ants making their way to some dropped sugar.

Soon, he tired of watching the ants trying to maneuver a particularly big chunk of sugar, and started fidgeting and looking around. It was dawning outside, and cool. All kinds of chirpy, complaining birds were probably being woken up by their own mothers, and the low, undecipherable chants of the priests from other parts of the temple reached him.

In the distance, he saw a snaking line of children making their way towards the temple. Each kid held the shoulders of the one in front of him, as the little stumbling brats of second and third grades did at school. The first graders were too dumb to even know they had to walk in a line, Vik thought. But these ones seemed to be much taller, some even as tall as him.

As the line grew closer, he noticed that their gait seemed strange too. Some were waddling, and others were making laughy, braying noises that Seenu sometimes made. Why were the two misses that walked with them not trying to silence them? They climbed up the steps to the temple, and instinctively seemed to quieten. They broke off into groups of two or three, and started wandering to various corners of the temple and staring at the small statues of the demigods at their respective corners.

Read Part III

“Wake up, sweetie”, said his mum, and kissed him on the cheek. “We need to be there by six or we miss it”. Vik squinted against the bright fluorescent light, and looked at the clock. There’s still time. He pulled the covers over his head and closed his eyes. Around him, mummy’s morning-kitchen-noises sounded unnatural with the lights on. Dad’s sleepy voice sounded from the next room. “Wake up, Vik”.

“Why don’t they leave me alone today, of all days!”, Vik thought.

It’s not like he was looking forward to today, anyway. Not this year. To begin with, there was the matter of his gift. Vik had been wanting the ‘GI Joe Alpha HQ Base’ action set ever since he saw Amit gloat over his stupid ‘Gung-Ho Helicopter (with Rotating Blades)’. Yes, he was going to show Amit that the HQ Base was much, much cooler. Of course, Daddy had looked at the size of the box, and balked. “Where are you going to keep it, Vik? Why don’t I buy you two GI Joe toys instead, hmm… Gung-Ho and Snake Eyes?”. “No! Amit has Gung Ho, and Snake Eyes doesn’t even have a face!”, Vik had protested. In the end, he had to settle for Gung Ho and Baroness, whom Daddy seemed pretty content to buy for him, even though Mummy had seemed miffed at Daddy afterwards.

That wasn’t the only thing that had made him dread today. Annoying Anu aunty and uncle had visited last week and as usual, put things into mummy’s head that they needn’t have had to. “Oh my, Vik is going to be 13, he’s a big boy now!Are you having a party for him?Our own Neeru stopped having parties at 11.We got him a new pair of jeans he liked, some candy for school, and sent himonhisway.You’re not going to have a party for himareyou,Didi?Organizing them, whatadrag!”, Anu aunty had said in her breathless way. The next day, Gone. The party he had been planning with Kumar and Seenu and Reetu and Amit was gone. No cake, no opening of presents. No showing Amit how much cooler his HQ Base was… all gone. The new matching jeans and shoes were his only consolation. Mummy had convinced Daddy to get him the wheelie shoes in exchange for no party. Vik had sniveled and then finally agreed.

And now they wanted to wake him early, to go stand for hours at a temple until they opened the doors of the sanctum. “Vik, wake up”, dad sounded cross now. Vik grudgingly pulled the covers off and padded to the bathroom.

Read Part II | Part III

Later in the night, the potholed road took its toll on the bus with a flat tire. He gingerly stepped out of his berth, careful not to wake the woman. Which didn’t work as fumbling in the dark for shoes has never proven to be an easy task, ever. She looked at him with sleepy eyes and asked something in her language. He gestured her to stay put, managed to convey to her everything was ok, and went out to stretch his legs. Their semi-forced cohabitation of the berth for a few hours seemed to have given rise to years of simulated nocturnal comfort and safety in her.

When he re-entered, he found the woman asleep, comfortably and fully stretched on his berth, his backpack and book neatly stowed to the side. True, he had enjoyed her very present presence, but he was determined not to switch places with her. He gently prodded her in the leg, and she woke up startled. Grinning sheepishly, she moved back to her seat and fussily gathered the shawl around her.

When he awoke next morning at the noisy terminus, he found the woman pressed against him as before. Nothing had really changed between him and her, the two strangers. Separated by a thin shawl and cold metal, separated further still by who they were, they had been together for a night, tentatively seeking, and finding from each other something that was either teleologically superior or inferior to the simple act of two physical bodies voluntarily inhabiting a confined space together for an extended period of time; superiority/inferiority being purely subjective.


As she left the bus in a hurry, she forgot her shawl. he called out to her and handed it through the window. She smiled her brilliant, toothy smile. He smiled back. He didn’t know her name or anything about her; he didn’t want to.


Part 3 | Part 2 | Part 1

He embraced the fine yellow dust that now permeated his clothes, his skin, his breath. He had traveled through the dusty landscape of a part of his country that was as foreign to him any other land thousand miles away. He had soaked in the strangeness of the people and the places, but he couldn’t always evade the memories of loss and loneliness during these idle hours of solitary travel.

He was at the far reaches of his country – frontier-lands where people were seemingly honest, hence suspect. Suspect, and curious. The natives didn’t understand why someone who looked so clearly like them could only speak stutteringly in their language, and the itinerant backpackers didn’t understand why a native was trying to make conversation without selling them something. He had begun to enjoy his unique position in the ecosystem of Terra Tourismus. Even when the ecosystem was inverted, as in the one he inhabited elsewhere, where the backpackers were the natives and vice-versa, his position remained the same.

Now the trip was coming to an end. He was content – the nighttime desert (with only a faint whiff of camel dung) and the majesty of the old palaces (best paired with a complimentary bouquet of horse manure) had filled his mind with wonder and peace. One more bus ride through the night, and his journey would end. He would leave this place, perhaps not to visit it in his lifetime again.

He had booked a berth on a ‘sleeper’ bus. The sleeper bus was a recent attempt by the natives to bring the experience of lying horizontal and being jolted all night in a cramped 5-by-2 faux-leather plank while traveling on railway tracks, to the potholed asphalt roads of the land. As he boarded the bus and checked his ticket, his heart sank. His berth was at the very end of the bus. While trains restricted human-brownian motion to two or three directions, the tail-end of a bus meant being granted five degrees of freedom to be thrown around. He settled down and made himself comfortable as much as he could.

The bus was filled with backpackers. Two berths ahead, a German couple on honeymoon had found the sweet spot – the middle of the vehicle, where neither rear-vehicular whiplash nor blinding headlights through the front could disturb their sleep. Across the aisle, a duo of Spanish females had taken up residence. He watched with amusement as a fat, middle-aged tour guide tried in vain to get their email addresses. “Tu es mentirosa”, the girls told the man, and the man offered as proof his whiskey-unstained integrity from the night before.


next… Mixed Company

The cold metal against the lower lip, the exhalation before the first puncture, his eyes darting downward from looking at themselves in the mirror — and then it was through. He had thought the first stitch would be the worst; he was right. It did hurt. After the needle drew blood, he had to look back, to see if it had gone through straight through both lips – anything that was askew would’ve been an embarrassment.


Miss. D’souza was not her usual self. Her decisive tone in dealing with a class of impatient 10-year olds had been replaced by a mocking and questioning one. On the raised stage, he stood, with his heart racing. Miss D’souza had caught him in a tangle of escalating lies that had collapsed on each other. He had forgotten to bring his notebook. Worse, he hadn’t even completed his homework. Miss D’souza had picked through his story methodically, with the experience gained from years of unraveling childish inventiveness. “So where is your book that your friend from the other classroom borrowed, hmm? Why don’t you go get it, then… your friend’s absent today, hmm?”. There was no escape. The class watched him, most with curiosity, the back-benchers with a knowing smirk. He walked back to desk, knuckles smarting, unsure if he would ever be able to lie with a straight face again.


The second and the third stitches had been equally troublesome. He had had to decide how much space would be needed between them. The suture thread was not very long, but Symmetry had to be maintained in this physiological experiment. Symmetry and Order that were otherwise lost in the words that he spoke. Symmetry and Order he found in these upright black sentinels, arrayed with military precision across his mouth, to prevent those mistimed and misfiring words from spilling out.


He backed away from his dad and was finally cornered between the bed and the closet. Looking up in terror, he saw dad slowly lower his raised arm. “You will NEVER call your mother something like that again, you hear me?”. Mom had still not emerged from the other bedroom she had locked herself into. He didn’t know if she was crying. He had knocked the door and said sorry a hundred times, but he hadn’t even heard her sob.He had called her one bad word, just one, and that had made her storm into the room and remain there until dad got home. Later that night, mom served dinner without a word and he ate in silence. He couldn’t think of anything that would make her feel better.


One more through the other side, and pleasantly symmetrical too. He was almost done. They had not bled as much as he thought they would, and he was slightly disappointed. The curiosity and the fear in the eyes that had stared back from the mirror were gone, and there was a calmness in them now. How long before he became hungry again? He began to smile at the thought of forcing a plastic straw through the gaps, and winced. Too early to smile.


“You never know to say the right things”, she said later, with sadness. That’s not what she’d said when they’d first met. “You also don’t know when to stop”, she added. She was right — the Self-searching and Other-probing words he had hesitantly begun with had bubbled and erupted into an accusatory tirade of directed snark and jealousy. He should’ve stopped before the line had been crossed, but he had no idea where the line was or if he would ever know.


The fifth stitch, the last one, was complete. Tie a knot, tie another, snip. The adrenaline has run its course, and he felt weak for a while. After wiping off the trickles of red and patting down his mouth, he was ready to head out. Before leaving, he donned a white surgical mask sold for those who feared the flu season. ‘Protect yourself from harmful oral emissions’, the packaging had said. If it were only that easy, he thought.

On the train, he got a few curious looks, but they were short-lived. From behind the mask, he looked around boldly, and his gaze landed on a hooded man four feet away. It was summer, and he wondered why the man was dressed the way he was. The man looked up, and he knew. The hooded man had a face covered with tattoos in different shades of black. Across his forehead was a snaking line of thorns. A cursive and near-indecipherable script ran from his left temple to his chin and all the way across. Instead of his brows were words written in the same script. He tried hard to read what they said but he was too far away.

The man caught him staring. “You got a problem, asshole? Want me to come over there and give you a black eye?” he shouted, and took a threatening step forward. The others in the train heard the commotion, and looked up at him and the hooded man. And they looked.

He quickly turned away. It was not enough, he realized. The mask, the stitches, the silence — they were not enough. His eyes too, maybe…

As the ferry left _____ harbor, the clouds were beginning to roll in. When the ship finally turned and belched its way out through the tangle of masts, an insubstantial rain had started to fall. The weekenders had scurried to their cabins by then, eager to catch up on sleep that had surely been lost in the last few days.

The upper deck was left to the stragglers and the students. The backpackers were already rolling out their makeshift beds, looking for spaces in between the blue wooden benches that would provide them shelter against the night’s wind. Those who were strolling the deck and peering down the railings looked confused, as if they were not sure if the mist coating their faces was the sea spray or the insubstantial rain. A few others lingered, careful to avoid the spaces the pennywise backpackers had appropriated.

She sat at the edge of one of the blue benches, because she wanted to be as close to the sea wind as possible. She was huddled in a black waterproof jacket with only her head sticking out. Strands of her hair fluttered defiantly against her infrequent attempts to pull them away from her face.

He appeared to have been trying to photograph the harbor as the ferry departed. With darkness rapidly closing in, he sauntered without aim around the deck, looking down and behind at the wake left by the ship’s propellers. When his peripatetic tour landed him near where she was seated, she looked up, flashed a brief smile that didn’t go past her lips. He smiled, looked away and looked back again.

“Did you visit ______ on the island?”

Yes, she said.

“Not a lot of tourists if you went before ten, and you get half price on the bus too”.

She nodded, smiled briefly and looked away.

“How long were you on the island?” Two weeks. “Did you also visit ______?” Yes. “I almost missed the tomb there.”

So had she.

A few minutes passed while he lingered and blinked against the wind. He turned and looked at her twice but she pretended not to notice.

“I just wanted to talk.”

He held her gaze for a few seconds and started watching the wake again.

OK, she said.

He took two steps back from the railing, and sat on the blue bench next to hers. He told her where he was from and how long he had been away. She told him the same. He told her where he was going next and how long he wanted to stay there. She told him about her husband and how he was going to talk to his friend and get her a job just like the one she’d quit before she left.

Just when the sky had turned black and stars had begun to appear, the horizon turned an unnatural yellow. It was the port at another island, and they were going to dock soon. The conversation turned to things they had seen and things they had bought on the island. She told him about a special gift that she’d found for her husband in a village, one that the tourists never went to. He told her the exorbitant price he’d paid for something similar.

When the ship left the dock, the mechanics of the previous island’s departure were repeated, with little variation. A few more sleeping bags sprouted between the blue benches. The night air became colder and she began to shiver. She told him that she was going to get some dinner at the ship’s restaurant and would he care to join. They walked down two levels, took the wrong turn twice, and finally found the restaurant. They ordered club sandwiches. He chose a Japanese beer and she had red wine. It was her last night out on the sea for a long, long time, she told herself, and then she had one more glass.

“Could I take a look at the _______ you got at the village? I’m sure it’s better than the knockoff I got at the port.”

She got up wordlessly and paid both their bills. She remained silent while they went further down a level and took two more wrong turns before reaching her cabin. She rummaged through her backpack and unwrapped the gift. She handed it to him and he turned it around in his hands and tapped it a couple of times. Stepping forward, she took it from his hands, and placed it on the top bunk. Still saying nothing, she put her arms over his shoulders, pushed the back of his head towards her. The kiss, at first tentative, became natural and insistent. While his hands traversed her back and stroked her neck, she closed her eyes and decided to savor the kiss.


She could see the dawn through the porthole when she awoke. Black smoke and seagulls were visible too, which meant that they were almost at their destination. Lifting his hard and encircling arm wrapped around her waist, she rose and went to the miniscule bathroom to get ready. When she got out, he was already dressed. He slipped behind her and reached the door when she went to retrieve her gift from the top bunk. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, opened the door and stepped out.

“I really just wanted to talk.”

She nodded understanding and let the door close.