Issue 197 – February 2023

4780 words, short story

Going Time


It’s six weeks ’til Going Time. I never really got used to that naming convention. The phrase has “Going” and “Time” in it, the latter carrying the entire weight of the definition. The former is vague. Going where? Beneath the crusty morass of our dead-lead roads. Beyond the white veil of the digital everforest. Inside His Benevolence’s Sanctum-Sanctorum? The answers to these questions have always been elusive. They’ve been kept from people like me, those who’re scheduled for Going Time.

We only know when it’s “Time.”

“What do you think His Benevolence eats?” I ask my daughter, who unwraps the six-fifty-two calorie bran bar, her third of the day. My arthritic fingers drum over the wood, impatiently, waiting for her answer. They say old age brings patience. The ends of my numb fingers would disagree. They’re chaffed, scabbed, and blue. They’ve seen things. I drum them, scratch at things, pick at things, eat the skin off them when I’m not getting answers I want. Bandages come and go, go and come. Maybe this is part of the reason my neighbors have stopped speaking to me. I can remember at least six occasions when my impatience would have rubbed them the wrong way.

His Benevolence admires patience. It behooves me to be better.

“They’re taking the entire Sixth Floor Department to grace his Vision,” she says. “I’ll get some gossip for you.”

“He probably eats those shining red bars, doesn’t he? The ones we don’t get.”

“Or . . . ” says my daughter, finishing off the remnants of the bran bar, crumbs falling off her chin like snowflakes. “ . . . he pops those MegaSol capsules. One of them provides unlimited energy to the body for like . . . I don’t know . . . three days.”

“I’m sure His Benevolence needs a sustained energy burst for at least a month, the amount of work he does for us,” I say and then lean closer to my daughter. “To be frank, I could also use one of those. I hate the taste of that stupid mud-colored bran bar.”

“Those bran bars have magnesium in them,” she says. “Otherwise you won’t sleep at night.”

I hate when she’s right. And she’s right often, and at my age, I am wrong often. When I say these stubborn words to her, I know how I sound. Old. Creaky. Cranky. Crooked. Like a door falling on its hinges. A stooped tree.

I hope when Going Time arrives, I get to see the Everglades. They say it’s a vision of a better future. Beyond the digitized greenery at the edge of our city, there’s a town of hope. They say the town was created by His Benevolence by a wave of his hands. They say that the haven is preserved for old hags like me, with half-yearly visits from His Benevolence himself.

It’s six weeks ’til Going Time. I can work on my patience.

Sulekha from Fourth Block tells me her aunt is gone. The block celebrated her Going Time by ordering fourteen bars of Azure Bar-12, the most premium, calorie dense, nutrient dense cracker in the market. I say cracker because you get a great crunch when you bite into it. The entire evening went crunch, crackle, crunch. The relatives, who couldn’t even afford the mud-brown, fifty-calorie sugar-squares, the LifeOne bars (they don’t even deserve to be called bars), suddenly conjured enough money for the top-shelf brand. And to what end? To celebrate Going Time? Something doesn’t quite add up.

Still, I cross my hall and knock on Sulekha’s door every second day. She must know where they took her aunt. I figure if I could get something out of her, it would bring me a modicum of peace.

The first day I tried to glean information out of her, Sulekha was very curt to me. The second day, she simply shut the door on my face. But today, I employ my charm offensive.

“Those earrings look good on you, Sulekha dear,” I say. “Korrina-Gold?”

“Mensa,” she says the brand name proudly, her face beaming.

“My daughter doesn’t wear any makeup, much less earrings,” I say. “Sometimes, I worry about her, you know.”

“I envy your daughter,” she says, leaning in the doorframe. Perhaps that was the reason behind the neighbors’ coldness toward me. My daughter’s job. It was high paying, for sure. And being a Sixth Floor employee in the Department of Nutrients came with its own perks. Her supervisor came directly under His Magnificence, who reported to His Temerity, who was one of the sixteen staff members working inside the sanctorum of His Benevolence. From anyone else’s vantage point, my daughter’s job was within sniffing distance of the highest echelon. And I can’t blame Sulekha. She’s almost my daughter’s age, almost as ambitious, and yet her job is near the Branches. My daughter says Sulekha improves glitches. I don’t know what that means. I never bothered to find out.

“I wish she reminded me of myself,” I say. “But then nothing around us reminds me of my time anymore.”

“My aunt used to say the same thing,” she says in a somber tone.

“She must have tasted apples, figs, spinach,” I say. “By the time I came around . . . only rice was left.”

“You have tasted rice? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Her eyes peel. My charm is working.

“I’m telling you. It tasted divine, especially with some dal to go with it.”

“I heard you got your scheduling letter too,” she says after a brief pause.

“I did,” I say. “I hope Veena’s Going Time was smooth.”

“Oh, I couldn’t have asked for a better settlement,” she says. “I have a direct feed of the ’glades, in fact. She seems to be enjoying herself, along with others of her age.”

“May I . . . ” I stop my onslaught of charm. I hesitate a bit. She straightens herself, no more the slouching frame. “I am sorry, I’m being too pushy.”

“You want to see? I would have shown you if I could. But I’ve signed an NDA. Only the next of kin are allowed to see where the elders are and how they’re doing. Trust me, I’ll unplug the feed in a few days myself. As long as Chachi is happy, I’m happy. His Benevolence is benevolent, and the elders’ needs are taken care of.”

Oh, how that brings me relief. The Everglades it was then. My hypothesis was correct. The rest of my days will be spent in peace. My fingers will rest, and my jittery knees will thank me.

I am sixteen. My mother is flattening chapati-dough with a belan. Beside her, there’s a gas stove, the naked flames licking the air, casting her face in an eerie glow. An aloo-gobhi sabzi rests inside a kadhai, a red sheen of oil resting atop it, along with snowflake sprinkles of coriander. My mother scratches her chin, then wipes sweat off her brow, leaving a streak of flour on her face.

I wipe her face with a dry cloth. Then, I lay out plates for us to eat our dinner.

This is before the Plummet. Now, my tongue remembers the salt in the air before-Plummet, the taste of the spicy aloo-gobhi, wrapped in roti, mashed in some rice. Even after the post-Plummet acceptance of bran bars, even after seventy years, those tastes linger. Sometimes I have pity on my daughter, on people like Sulekha, who are children of post-Plummet times, having only had the taste of bran bars on their tongues.

I realize I shouldn’t be having these thoughts. I realize I shouldn’t even have told Sulekha about the rice. How could I forget His Benevolence’s fifth doctrine? How could I forget the words of the one who had saved us from disaster post-Plummet?

Satisfaction in the means one is presented is one step toward the light of His Benevolence.

How could Sulekha be satisfied with the means she has now that she knows there was once roti, rice, and dal? Especially now that she knows she lives in the vicinity of someone who’d once tasted roti, rice, and dal.

I know Sulekha is too young for a penance-fast. And so, it falls on me. It is my mistake for being too pushy. I open the jittery cupboard in the kitchen, the one by my knees, and bring out the faded saffron carpet. Age has made it heavy, and as I spread it out over the marble floor dust motes fly off. They remain in stasis for a moment, waiting for their own Going Time, before they settle on other surfaces, the mantelpiece, the bookshelf, the floor. I practice patience. I wait for them to settle.

Then, I sit down on the carpet, cross-legged, and face His Benevolence. His face fills the flat-screen. Neon glares dazzle around his lithe frame, casting him in a godly light. It’s the fifteenth episode of His Benevolence’s HeartTalk, where he makes a gesture of embracing the world. I watch him, swaying, cradling myself, skipping my lunch, whispering under my breath his fifteen doctrines, completing my penance.

It’s four weeks ’til Going Time. I am looking over the sprawl of the dust-choked city. My daughter’s hard work and dedication has allowed us to live fifteen floors above the desolation of the chawls and the shanties and the matchbox houses down below. They look like ants from this distance.

A truck shudders to a stop. It opens and spills out the mud crackers for the ones living down below. There’s a mad scramble to hoard as many of the crackers as they can. His Benevolence makes this possible, and he has said that more means would be provided for the ones who have no means. I believe in his words.

“Maa, why are we left with two extra bars?” my daughter asks me.

I tell her about my penance-fast. She works hard for us, and she ought to know. She looks at me, flatly, not a breath expelled at my revelation. It’s not that I haven’t done penance-fasts before, but something about this one, so close to Going Time, surprises her. We stay like this, mother-daughter, without a word exchanged, the dust-filtered sunlight washing her face. Then, she shrugs and walks away. I don’t stop her. Today is the day of the Vision. It’s important for her department and her career. She might meet His Benevolence for the first time.

And vicariously, through her, I’ll get to meet Him too.

When she returns, she doesn’t tell what happened at the Vision meet. Instead, she goes straight to her room. My impatience returns. My legs become jittery jellies, shuddering, flailing, and I pick and scratch at the sofa with my nails. To a casual observer, the scratch marks might look like a cat’s doing. But inside this cold, gray block (bless His Benevolence, for he has provided us with this), the only observer to my actions is my daughter. Her annoyance, her disappointment in me is bitter, like kale and artichokes. And so, I must be better.

By the time she opens the door and comes out into the living room, the chawl-dwellers had begun their daily evening-screams. Like clockwork, as soon as the sun set, the colonies below would erupt in pocket-sized riots to let their voices reach the ones who ran things, especially the Haulers who came and distributed them their mud-bars. And like clockwork, half an hour after the riots began, they’d be culled. Then, silence would prevail, until the next day, the same cycle started again.

“You ate your night-bar?” she asks me. I nod, stopping my relentless picking of the sofa fiber.

“Your face looks swollen, beta,” I say. “What happened?”

She’s been crying, I can tell that much. She comes over, kneels in front of me, takes my palm in hers.

“Ma, I have to show you something,” she says. Her eyes look like pools of misery, like she’d seen a ghost. “Promise me, you won’t overreact.”

“I won’t, beta,” I say, not believing my own words.

“Come,” she says, getting up. I follow her to the dining table where we normally sit during dinner time, silently unwrapping our stipulated ArBran-350 series bars. Sometimes, if we were lucky, there would be pills. They said those pills were made to mimic desserts—sugar rush, one might say.

She sits down. I sit down. Then, she places an apple in front of me. I can both feel and hear a cold pit inside my stomach. The tips of my fingers go numb, and my vision swims. My tongue revolts, immediately, giving me all kinds of mixed signals.

I am witnessing a miracle, yet, I am against its existence.

An apple. How?

“What’s this, Apeksha?”

“The thing I had the most trouble pronouncing when I was growing up. You told me tales about it, drew images of it. App . . . appel?”

“Just . . . Just call it . . . ” I struggle to form words, forgetting what it was called in Hindi. I pick the fruit up, feeling its texture. So real. I bring it to my nose and smell it. The roselike, slightly sickly-sweet smell.

“Seb,” I say. “Call it seb.”

“Taste it,” she says.

I drop the apple. It thud-thuds across the table and rolls over to Apeksha.

“No,” I say. I get up violently, pushing my chair back. “His Benevolence has given us our means. We must not stray from those means. You know it. You work for him! You must report this immediately.”

“I wanted you to taste it, mother. It’s real.”

“Why? Why would you do this? Why would you go against him? His Benevolence—”

“—can suck it.” she completes my sentence, and for a split, horrifying second, it feels like those were my words. Coming out of my mouth, not hers. “You know what else I found? Oh, I would have been in the dark had it not been for the unlikely detour I had to take before the meeting. It was an accident, really. I was . . . I was . . . I was just . . . oh god . . . Maa, there were mountains of f . . . fuuhh . . . Fruits . . . and veg . . . vegehhh . . . shit how do you pronounce them . . . ?


“Veggies, yes. And atta and dal and chawal and whatnot! It’s all there. It’s not gone. It’s there!!”


Silence bridges the gap between us. Apeksha picks up the apple and brings it back.

“If you have chosen not to see with open eyes, it’s fine,” she says. “But don’t expect me to remain blindfolded.”

“Apeksha, beta . . . don’t you see, this could all be a lie. Made up by enemies of His Benevolence? For all we know, this could be poisoned!”

“We can check that,” says Apeksha. Before I can retort, she takes a bite of the apple. Her chin is smeared with red-and-white spittle as she continues to munch on the fruit. I can only stare at my child, aghast at what she has done.

“This is delicious, and I am still alive,” she says. “I . . . I will make sure more people know about this.”

“What do you hope to achieve, Apeksha? Maybe His Benevolence is waiting for the perfect time to show us that he cares for us!”

“If he cared, we would all be getting the best and not the gruel-flavored, shit-colored bran bar that we eat. If he cared, there wouldn’t be riots on the streets!”

“No, no, I will not listen to this!”

I storm away like a stubborn child. But she is the child, not I. And what’s this behavior I am portraying? Would this behavior be accepted in the Everglades? I reflect as I shut myself inside my own room. But would my own daughter reflect on what she’d done today? She has spoken against the ways and the doctrines of His Benevolence. Today, it’s only words. Tomorrow, she might take action. I can’t ask her to do a penance-fast. It must be her choice. I can only hope that she understands the error of her ways. She must know that the Light of His Benevolence will eventually shine on her too. He thinks of us, constantly.

Inside my room, I silently do another penance-fast.

Two weeks ’til Going Time. Apeksha has been awfully quiet. I have been working on my patience and mental fortitude. I also have been silently hoping she is arranging a celebratory send-off for me, like Sulekha and the Fourth Block did for that other woman.

In Apeksha’s absence, I sneak out and chat with Sulekha. I have gotten to really know her, all these days. Her job allows her to work from home every now and then. She has a boyfriend who works in the Far Fallows as an engineer. He brings flowers for her and sings songs for her. When she told me about their Mira-One Capsule date night, I started missing Anubhav, Apeksha’s father. He passed away before he could experience Going Time. I have heard of old couples being awarded a special Togetherness Allowance and a combined Going Time.

“My Chachi is doing really well in the Everglades,” she says as we enjoy lunch together. She offers me a leftover Azure Bar-12 from the Going Time party of her aunt. It tastes of richness and prosperity most of all. I can’t tell about the nutrients. I guess my body will know.

“I’m glad to know,” I say, taking a bite of the Azure Bar.

“I’m sorry for my earlier behavior . . . shutting the door on you like that. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. With Chachi’s Going Time . . . and all those things happening too suddenly. I wasn’t at my best.”

“We’ve all been there, dear,” I say, as warmly and in as motherly a voice as I can manage.

“You know Aatish might finally propose to me,” she says, having a sip of water.

“You’ll be really happy with him. I hope he makes you laugh.”

“He does,” she says. “Chachi liked him too. I wish she’d have seen us getting married.”

A stabbing in my heart, pincers on my skin. I want the same for my Apeksha. And I know asking this question would only invite scorn from her.

“You know what, fuck it,” she says, suddenly, after a pause. “I’ll show you what the Everglades look like.”

My heart lurches. Impatience seizes me once again. A part of my brain wants to see the haven in advance, so I can be better prepared. But then there’s also the element of surprise. I’m sure His Benevolence has provided for everyone in the Everglades.

“It’s not needed,” I say. “I’ll see it with my own eyes.”

“It’s no bother,” she says.

Who am I to deny?

She shows me the live footage from the Everglades. Her Chachi is swaying in bliss, holding hands with two other women. There’s a discipline to their dance, a purpose. Around them, a divine light. Beyond, beyond the room they’re in, I can see a jade orchard through a window.

Another person joins their dance, and their motion takes a rhythmic, hallucinatory quality. After a few minutes, the person leaves, and the three women keep dancing. Then, the person comes again for the dance. This time, there’s a vigor to their motions. The person leaves, once again, and this cycle goes on for a few more times.

A yearning takes root inside me. I want to be with them.

Then, something happens to the footage, like it’s a manifestation of my own impatience. A brief flicker, and her Chachi is gone. Instead, I see something moving, a large metallic body, like a train, across a dull gray expanse. The jade orchard is no more. Instead, there’s the face of His Benevolence, spreading out his arms as the train approaches him.

Immediately, Sulekha’s Chachi comes back and resumes her dance.

“This happens,” says Sulekha. “I have been told this glitch has permeated through all footage. They’re taking care of it.”

“I’m sure they are,” I say, instantly forgetting about the glitch.

One week ’til Going Time and Apeksha starts bringing bananas and potatoes and dal and, to my utter shock, rice. I yell at her. She yells back, and mocks me by taking a bite of a banana in front of me. She enjoys the taste, as she should. Bananas were good too, like apples. My tongue immediately salivates, forgetting the taste of Azure Bars and our own stipulated ration bars. My fingers itch, yearn to grab the fruit from her. But I persist. I must be the better person here. Besides, if I sway now, my Going Time might get delayed, or worse, canceled.

“They call me names. No one believes me, even when I have proof right here,” says Apeksha, her eyes distant, full of anguish. “Even you don’t believe me.”

“My belief doesn’t have anything to do with it,” I say, trying to sound as reasonable as possible. “It’s you who has taken it upon herself to bring it all down. ‘The system,’ as you call it. It doesn’t need to be brought down, because ‘the system’ works!”

I mustn’t raise my voice, even if what she was doing was wrong. I am glad that she hasn’t gone that far and created a ruckus. Maybe I am selfish, thinking about my Going Time. But I am thinking of her too. It’s good that no one believes her, and she’s branded as crazy. I can live with crazy, and so can she. I fear the alternative—if everyone believes in her hollow rebellion, then she’ll be branded as a traitor. And I have seen what His Benevolence does to traitors.

I am a mother, after all.

We fight and make up. Then fight again, over the items she keeps stealing from His Benevolence. Patiently, I try to explain to her about the futility of it all. But she doesn’t understand. It pains me to see her like this. One day she’ll get caught, and that will be the end of it all. I don’t want her to witness His Benevolence’s malevolence.

“Please . . . please, ma, I beg you,” she says. “Show me how it was.”

She is holding the potato helplessly. There’s flour on her fingers, and she’s eyeing the rice she has hoarded. I pity her.

“Apeksha, my poor child . . . your ways are hollow. Look at yourself.”

She’s trying to eat the potato without peeling it. She’s trying to eat the dal without boiling it in water. She’s trying to do so many things without knowing their meaning. Even her rebellion is without meaning. Rebellions without meaning are snuffed out like candles.

I stay quiet.

“What do you hope to accomplish? These items of the past are his way of reminding us of better times. It’s all in his doctrines. I’m sure they’re tasteless, without the superior nutrients of the Azure Bars.”

“How will we know if we don’t try,” she says, plunging her hands in the rice, then taking a fistful of it. She tries to eat it too, raw. She bites into the grain, and white rice flour-chunks smear her chin. She spits it out. She looks defeated.

I’m sure Sulekha never had such a struggle with her Chachi.

Over the next few days, Apeksha solemnly accepts her facile endeavors. But she also stops talking to me entirely.

I wait for Going Time.

It’s Going Time.

I wake up normally. I eat my stipulated bran bar. I haven’t done a penance-fast for two weeks, and my body is nutrient rich. I am sixty-five, and I feel healthier than my younger years. I am sixty-five, and I am ready for another life in the Everglades.

I skip looking at His Benevolence and listening to his doctrines on the flat-screen. Instead, I listen to an old song, the ones that are allowed. I try not to think too much about my upcoming life.

Apeksha has finally seen reason. She has quit her obstinacy and has returned to stoicity. That suits her. Obstinacy, she gets from me, and I don’t want that for her. Her father was stoic, intelligent, wise. In Apeksha, I would want those qualities to last ’til it’s her Going Time.

There’s no celebratory send-off for me. I had expected too much from Apeksha—a bitter irony, because her name means “expectation.” I waited for her to elicit an emotion, ’til the last moment, ’til the women from the Reconstitution Department arrived to herald me. Instead, she just locked the doors of our apartment and went to work.

The taste of her indifference was worse than the taste of our stipulated bran bars.

But as I walk through the cold corridor of Fourth Block one last time, Sulekha steps out of her apartment and gives me a box. “I’ll miss you,” she says. “Give my regards to Chachiji if you meet her.”

The box is examined by the personnel. It contains a small glass globe, inside which flowers a tulip. A self-contained ecosystem.

“Thank you,” I say. “I will.”

Inside the car, they give me something. A slight pinch on my arm. My nerves jangle first, then soothe.

“This is to make the transition smoother.” The woman from the Reconstitution Department speaks in a calm, measured voice. She reminds me of an actress.

My vision swims, and I can’t make out the wasteland that’s our world outside the window. The car speeds by, as if it’s too eager. As if it doesn’t want to allow me to see what’s outside. But that’s fine. I have seen the state of the world from my building. I have lived it.

“Your blood work is top-notch,” says the woman, again. “Your Everglades grade is Azure.”

“Azure . . . Like the bar?”

“Keen observation,” she says, flatly. “Like the bar.”

After an uncertain amount of time the car stops. I am alert, now, too aware of my surroundings. And this awareness manifests in my limbs. I don’t know why, but a sudden impatience rankles me. I’m here, the place I’ve always wanted to be. I’m no longer waiting for Going Time. I am here. I am gone. But the jitter is inexplicable.

The compound is white, like ivory. A flattened pyramid. I step out of the car, and I’m greeted with sounds. Discussions. Whispers. Around me, there are more like me; men, women, those whose Going Time coincided with mine. I spot an elderly songwriter from Nineteenth Block. His skin is mottled and pale, and he looks lonely. I hope I don’t have to spend my time with him inside. I hope to meet Sulekha’s Chachiji.

We’re divided into queues. Mine is Azure. The songwriter is pushed into a queue named Turquoise. The Azures start moving first.

Inside, a cool air hits me. I hear murmurs. My surroundings are unlike what I saw on Sulekha’s screen. The walls are blank and gray, speckled with green spots. There are no windows. There’s no orchard. There’s a moving structure, like a conveyor belt. Flat, metallic trolleys are kept atop it. The Azures sit inside the trolley, one by one. I climb too, and sit huddled with another woman, who seems chirpy, eager. I must also portray a calm eagerness.

Then, I see it. Oh, I see it. The wall right ahead lights up, and the calming figure of His Benevolence appears on it. His arms are spread wide, welcoming us. Near his heart, there’s an opening, beyond which there’s a reddish tinge, then darkness.

A voice booms in the compound. It’s the woman who’d taken me here, the one like the actress. Her announcement voice is different from her conversational voice. This time, it has a honey-cinnamon quality, lulling us into believing.

“Azures, you are selected for a great service! As you move toward the next stage of your life, in the heart of His Benevolence, please repeat His Fifteenth Doctrine. Like he, as a parent to us all, has provided for us, it’s now your turn to provide for yours. Skin to skin, breath to breath, blood to blood, the Elders must provide.”

“The Elders must provide,” I chant under my breath as a smile flickers on my face. I am infinitely patient. I am better than what I’ve been in the past, I remind myself as I move incessantly toward the heart of His Benevolence. The door looms over me. I can see his heart, pulsating, ever-beating. I don’t know what’s beyond the door.

But I trust him, and I close my eyes, clutching to my chest the globe Sulekha gifted me. All voices fade. I imagine the tulip in full bloom. I imagine my Apeksha living her best life, all provided for. Inside my mind’s eye, I see the Everglades, and I see the jade orchard.

Author profile

Amal Singh is an author and a screenwriter from Mumbai, India. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in multiple venues such as Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, among others. He also co-edits Tasavvur, a short fiction magazine aimed to amplify South Asian Speculative Fiction.

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