It was lunch time, which meant Mrs Gourishankaran was at my cabin complaining. She demanded my immediate intervention, as if I was the entire UN peacekeeping corps. I swallowed my rice and put it away in a leisurely fashion; I pinned my badge back on. Then I sat straight and opened the window a little wider. I gave her my full attention, since I wasn’t going to give her anything else.
What could I do, really? Would the Residents Welfare Association provide arms? Armour? One helmet, even?
They would not. They were the stingiest money-grubbers on the planet. Why would I intervene, then, tell me? War is war only. Like the RWA, we can only bend before it.
“Not today, Ma’am,” I said.
More shells shot out of Apartment 15’s windows. Glass shards flew with them. General Siddhaiah refused to put bullet-proof glass. The association had been after her for some ten years now. First, she stopped attending the Annual General Meeting. Then she stopped answering her phone, though we could all hear it ringing and hear the crackle of her walkie talkie. She hadn’t opened her door in years. Not even for food delivery. What sort of mental-case chooses to live on army rationbars alone?
I darted a look at my unfinished rice.
“Work from home, it seems!” Mrs Gourishankaran sneered.
Sathyamma was at the gate just in time to hear this. I pressed the button that swung the gate open for her. She didn’t stop to talk, but she did send me a friendly grimace from behind Mrs G’s back. Garbage collecting and sweeping do not allow for working from home.
I made a hideous face in sympathy.
Mrs Gourishankaran was too enraptured by her speech and the gap in my curtains to notice.
“Simply an excuse for people to stay in bed and loaf!”
I lowered my curtains a bit. Covered my plate. She never walked past without trying to sneak a look into my house. I suspected she was one of the people who totted up the price of every piece of furniture and food in my house, and then refused to up my wages at the annual general meeting.
“In my time duty meant something. We would dress appropriately and go to a workplace and work properly.”
Ah, back in the cave-ape days, I did not say. I wanted her to go.
Mrs Gourishankaran didn’t like to see us servicefolk do people things. Eating, bathroom breaks, personal lives, illness, even just lying down with the work door open to look out on a slow day—everything was bleddy insubordination to her.
Maybe she should have joined the army.
The war got worse. Real food got rarer and even more expensive; the rationbars got duller and sludgier.
Some of the residents lost their jobs—their work-doors were sealed shut and I had to program out their entry-exit permits. 56 Akka was so distraught she moved to a new building. She couldn’t bear the welded door in 56, she said, the constant reminder of not having a job.
General Siddhaiah, of course, had nothing to worry about in the employment department. In Apartment 15, lights and sirens had become permanent residents. Unceasing gunfire kept the pigeonbots away, and a thick pall of smoke often hung around the building.
The complaints made an even thicker cloud, fear and resentment hovering noxiously at my window.
The top-floor was the most persistent. I was never sure if it was one of them repeating himself, or all four of them queueing up. All the top floor gents looked the same—same dead-grape eyes, same trying-to-run-over-you ha-ha-not when you opened the gate, same inability to respect the parameters of other people’s jobs.
“I’m not a trained soldier,” I would tell one top-floor uncle, on the hour, every hour. As if it was news. “Not even NCC. Firearms and all… no experience only, Sir. What to do?”
As if they didn’t know. They would have had to pay much better if they wanted that kind of security.
“Good security is so hard to get these days,” the top-floor uncles would mutter as they drove past the gate, making sure I heard.
A lull fell for a season. The sun moved north and rose higher in the sky. On Earth, it would be the monsoon—we knew this because the mango-yellow rationbars began to peter out and purple, jamun-flavoured ones took over.
The war shifted and flowed, or perhaps everyone was washed away. Low rumbling came out of Apartment 15. Best case scenario: General Siddhaiah was taking some leave. Maybe even retirement. She must have been ancient.
A month, two.
Then, a night attack. Some sort of flamethrower shot out of the balcony of Apartment 15. Behind it, a swoosh of fire like a peacock’s tail. A roar of sound danced out: shooting, strafing, screaming.
The mob arrived at my window minutes later.
They were frothing equally at the general and the enemy. And, inevitably, at me.
“I am feeling insecure, Ramya!” Mrs Gourishankaran stated the obvious.
Even Susan Ma’am, usually the best bet for a chat or a pay hike, was all frenzied.
“Not only Mrs Gourishankaran, we’re all insecure, in danger. That firing must be stopped. And who to approach but you, Ramya? Our Mistress of Security herself!”
“Sirs, Madams, you are forgetting. There are a few workers’ safety regulations for war zones and the buffer zones within a 500 metres radius. Will you buy one asbestos helmet for me?” I enquired. “And armour? And a proper fire extinguisher, not that thirty-rupee pavement one we got for the building safety inspection last year?”
Ah. That was a no, then.
We watched the flames swoosh into the neighbouring apartment and set their lawn ablaze.
“General Siddhaiah is serving humanity,” Susan Ma’am said, finally. She opened a garden hose and sprayed ineffectually at the neighbouring lawn. “She is standing against the might of the Shalavan empire. Who are we to insult her sacrifice?”
Apartment 15 grew louder and louder. Permanent scorch marks trailed down the wall. Always, there was the sound of strife: bells and drills, ambulances and sirens, helicopters and screaming jets. Blasts shook our building, sometimes something large growled and screamed.
General Siddhaiah never opened her door.
The final straw was the Annual General Meeting that year. It happened on the terrace. Sathyamma and I were in attendance—this was our chance to lobby for a raise.
Mr 23 Rao (there were many Mr Raos in this apartment, so we referred to them by flat number) was the convener this year. It was he who set the whole thing off.
“Ladies, gents. We need some funds. We owe the neighbour apartment 4 lakh rupees for the lawn, it seems.”
He produced a bill with a flourish. Everyone grabbed and stared.
“What sort of grass costs lakhs of rupees?” the top-floor uncles shouted.
“Ash will make grass grow better,” Susan Ma’am’s husband said, solemn. “Very organic.”
He should have known. Their balcony was fully green. He grew chillies and jasmine and—according to Sathyamma, who collects their organic waste—marijuana.
“Sir!” one top-floor uncle thundered. “What are you saying, Sir?”
They were all suspicious of Mr Susan, with his long green hair and his long green plants, the fact that he and Susan Ma’am were possibly not married at all, and his habit of wearing half-pants all the time.
“I’ll tell them, if you want,” said Mr Susan. “I’ll put all my degrees at the end of the message.”
“It’s Earth-turf it seems,” Mr 4 Rao said, squinting at the bill. He must have been asleep—his eyes were raw and watery without his glasses.
“Like, native Earth grass?” said Mr Susan. “Grass grass? Poaceae?”
He held the word tenderly in his mouth. He turned to Susan Ma’am and made an excited squeaking sound.
“Did you hear that? Grass! I can’t believe I never spotted it! Do we know what species?”
“This is enough,” Mrs Gourishankaran said. “That woman! She must pay! And she must answer!”
She began to walk down the stairs. Like ducklings, we followed, helplessly drawn. “We will break down that door.”
“But the right to private property laws!” Mr 23 Rao bleated at the back.
On the landing, Mrs Gourishakaran paused to smash the emergency glass and pick up the 30-rupee fire extinguisher. She carried it before her like a flag.
At General Siddhaiah’s door, she set her left shoulder against the bell switch and her right arm to smashing the door in with her extinguisher.
Some uncles—Raos 4 and 11, and the top-floors—were hanging back. They had their finders open. They were looking up property laws, association laws, workers’ safety regulations.
Sathyamma and I hung back further.
Splinters creaked and fled before Mrs Gourishankaran and her fire extinguisher. The General’s door flew in. Smoke and sulphur and heat drifted out.
Only about a quarter of the General was in the apartment. The rest of her was gone—eaten or burnt or disintegrated. By the smell, it had happened a while ago.
The General’s work door was wide open, blasted off its hinges. On the other side lay carnage. Earth mud ran pomegranate red, equal parts humans, machines, and the distinctive spiral shells that covered the Shalavan soldiers.
“I guess we need to put an ad for a new tenant,” one of the top-floor uncles said.
“What are you doing to my apartment? Call the army! Tell them to retreat!” Mrs Gourishankaran yelled through the door.
“You are attracting attention, Madam,” one of the Raos said. “It might not be our side who hears you first.”
Another Rao threw violently up on what was left of the General’s sofa.
“Why were we not informed? Shame on you! Irresponsible! The real estate prices will plummet with this behaviour. What about my property rights?” Mrs Gourishankaran yelled into the General’s dead walkie talkie.
The Susans had knelt beside the General and closed her eyes. They were hugging now, murmuring softly. Their eyes were damp and distressed.
Sathyamma and I exchanged a look. We crept away.
As I put on some tea, there was an enormous crash. A Shalavan shell flew out of the General’s flat. Half the balcony fell with it.
Softly, firmly, I closed the guard window. Then I logged out of work, so it would stay shut.
“Here.” Sathyamma passed me her finder.
She had written us a resignation letter each. Hers was signed and sent.
“Sign yours quickly so we can close that damn door for ever,” she said.