Rip Van Winkle

I  tensed as my space ship Voyager 2060 entered the earth’s atmosphere.  Though I had received training to handle such emergency situations, I was not very familiar with them.  But circumstances had forced me to take charge of the ship even though I was a technical engineer and not the pilot of the aircraft.  The reason was simple – The pilot, and the rest of the  crew of three  people were  all dead.
Our mission of exploring Pluto the furthermost planet from earth was a voyage that had been cut short to about 50 years, thanks to the advances made by technology in the year 2010.  The take off and almost half of the journey (twenty five years) had been fine but then tragedy struck.  The crew contacted a mysterious ailment  that killed four of the five member strong crew.  I escaped miraculously.  Earth station scientist attributed my survival to a strain of immunogens in my blood stream and had ordered me to carry on with my mission.  Then tragedy struck again.  The space ship was hit by cosmic debris and  I lost contact with earth.  I was left with no choice other than to proceed with the mission since I had already covered half of the journey.
I carried out the specified tasks to perfection and took aerial photographs of the planet.  Based on some specific experiments, I was able to locate almost inexhaustible supplies of Uranium on Pluto, a source of nuclear energy that would be useful for earth since its own fuel resources were depleting rapidly.  Scientists on earth were working overtime to find out viable alternatives to petroleum but no other source was as convenient and as effective.  My discovery could change the equation in our favor !  As a bonus I had excavated a huge supply of Uranium and brought it along with me in a special, radiation proof container.  The raw material could become a source of energy and fuel.  Enough to meet the demand till another mission was launched, perhaps more.
Loaded with vital information and the goods, I hoped fervently that nothing untoward would happen to me or the spaceship in my return journey.  And I was lucky.
As of now, I braced as the ship along with its special cargo container headed for a plunge into the sea.  Was the world watching my entry into the sea ?  I didn’t care.  I was scared for all I know.
I shut my eyes as the ship splashed into the sea and kept going down in what appeared to be a journey to doom.  But then it stopped and began to rise upwards, surging towards the surface of the sea.  Then I saw clear, blue sky, one that I had not seen in years !  My planet, my sky and my sunshine ! The people of earth are indeed gifted !
I opened the door of the ship and floated out into the water.
I had my  waterproof briefcase containing the vital reports in my hands.  The pull of the gravity was beginning to make its presence felt and I felt like lead.  But the buoyant force of the water turned to be of great help.
I looked around but there was no one to receive me.  No copter, ship or boat to pick me up.  But then that was expected.  I had arrived fifteen days behind schedule since I had carried out the task of four people.  And without the help of my navigator,  I had made an approximate landing that could be miles off the destined location.  I felt like a man marooned.
I floated for 10 hours and was in a semiconscious state when a cargo ship picked me up.  Was I glad to be out of water !
The captain of the ship, on my orders kept me in isolation (quarantine) as per the standard procedures for visitors from space as  I could be carrying a life-threatening disease of epidemic proportions.  I would show up at the Space  Centre, get a health clearance certificate, only then would I celebrate my arrival to my planet.  I also noted the accurate position where I had landed.  We would have to locate the container, later.  As of now I didn’t make a mention of it.  Fuel could be a precious commodity and I didn’t want it to end up in the enemy nations hands.  Besides there was the danger that it might be diverted to non-peaceful purposes.
In the week it took me to reach the shores, I got used to the gravity and fed on nourishing food made from fresh vegetables, I regained my health.  I exercised to recover some of my lost muscle weight.
“Don’t take it too seriously chap.  But it will take some getting used to, here on this earth.  Its a completely changed scenario….”  The captain winked at me.
“I know,” I said evenly.  “We were prepared at the training centre for what might happen, even the worst, upon our return to earth.  You heard about Rip Van Winkle, the man who slept for many, many years only to wake up and find the world completely changed ?”
“Yes,” the Captain sighed.
“Well, I’m not your Rip Van Winkle.”  I winked back to him and wished him good bye.
“The future, 50 years from today will be a world that wouldn’t be easy to comprehend.  Technology would have made such rapid progress that this earth will look like some other place to you, when you return.  Ultra modern Metropolis, modern transport system, latest computers and what have you.  It wont be easy for you to adapt to the changed surroundings but you would have earned your money and a place in history.  And you would be well looked after by the state……”
The speech of our Chief trainer still reverberated in my ears.  With that, we were shown video clips of what earth could be like, given the present trends of development.  It had been a mind-boggling ride of special effects.
Something disturbed me as I got closer to the city.  The feeling that something was out of place.   It made me uncomfortable and uneasy.  I kept walking as I tried to figure the underlying reason. Then I got it.  It was the peace and tranquility that troubled me.  My memories of Bombay were different.  It was supposed to be noisy, bustling with activity.  But now, from a little distance, the Queen’s Necklace seemed to be devoid of activity or turbulent  content.  From my place instead of seeing sky scrapers, I saw dense foliage.  Bombay was supposed to be a concrete jungle.  It looked odd with its dense green cover !  Had the green revolution caught up with people’s imagination, I wondered.
But then as I reached the shore, I observed that there were no buses, no trams, modernistic cars or other means of transport.  Just a few people walking on the road.  I looked up to the sky.  There was no sign of a solar eclipse.  And couldn’t be a curfew since there were some people walking down the road.  What had happened ?
The  office of the Space Centre was situated at Worli  quite a distance from Marine Drive.  Without a conveyance in sight I was forced to walk.  From space travel to feet travel, the contrast couldn’t be more ironical.
Since I still wore my space-suit as a precautionary measure (to contain any communicable disease which I could be carrying from outer space)  people looked curiously at me.  I looked like a clown in circus but was helpless.  My orders and my code of conduct was law.  I would be in jail if I broke them.
“Are there any buses or taxis around ?”  I asked the first man within sight.
The man looked at me as though I was some freak, stifled his laughter and went on without answering my question.  My dress and my question had probably made him think that I had escaped a mental asylum.
Frustrated and irritated by his behavior I asked the next person.  The response was the same.  After that, it was a long time before I met anyone else, the roads were that deserted.
I resigned to walking upto my office.  Was this the way a man who had spent his life for the service of his country going to be treated everywhere ?
Puzzled and confused, I kept walking.  Perhaps I would get some taxi on the way, I consoled myself.
On the way I saw several buildings being demolished.  And where they had already been demolished, stood farms full of vegetables, flowers and fruits.  Was this indeed Bombay ?  Then I actually saw a man  ploughing one of these farms with a pair of bullocks !
The future developments will shock you…..  The words of my professor echoed in my mind.  Indeed they were shocking me in the proper sense of the word !  I rubbed my eyes thinking that I was hallucinating.  Maybe some disease had affected my brain.  But then what I saw was for real.  With great difficulty I mustered the courage and words to ask a question from the  urban farmer who stood on a piece of land that had once cost crores of rupees and now yielded not faxes or cyber-space information but potatoes and vegetables !
“Hey man, what happened to Bombay….”  Before his face screwed into an all knowing smile, I forked out the rest of my words for him to hear.
“No, don’t dismiss me as a mental wreck.  I’m the only survivor of the Voyager 2060 mission to Pluto.  Remember.  I’m returning to my planet earth after spending some fifty years in space.  And if you still think I’m lying, here’s my identity card….”
The man didn’t look at the identity card.  He merely gazed at me – a penetrating gaze.  “You are speaking the truth.  I know all about the developments connected with the Voyager….”
I blessed him for not taking me as a lunatic.  But his fluency in English stumped me.  It was obvious that he was very well educated.  Then what was he doing behind a pair of bullocks.
The man smiled for no particular reason but I doubt he read my mind.  He took leave from his bullocks and headed towards a  shaded area.
He settled into a charpouy and studied me.  “So you are the Rip Van Winkle of the space…..”
I stood aghast.  That very morning I had thought of the fictional character.
“You are obviously well informed and learned then why this farming…..?”
The man smiled.  “Its an interesting story.”
“What happened ?”
“What was the time you left this planet ?  I mean the year ?”
“2010 A.D.”
“Yes, I remember.  Cyberspace had reached its peak and cellular phones had become household items…..The world had taken a giant step in the dissemination and the assimilation of information.  A great period……”
“And then ?”
“War.  A war broke between America and China.  The fuel situation was deteriorating  rapidly and both the countries were courting and arm twisting the gulf countries for more and more favors.  Then one of them, China got edgy and desperate.  Which meant no favors only arm twisting.  The Gulf states stopped their supplies.  They were threatened with dire consequences but thinking that their interests were protected by the other super power, i.e. the USA they were in no mood to relent.  It was then that China used nuclear bombs and destroyed everything in sight.  A case of a dog in the manger.  The Gulf countries along with their fuel resources were wiped out.  In retaliation, the USA bombed China and a nuclear war broke out that killed millions of people.  Though we were not directly affected we were hit by radiation. Some of the bombs sent from both the countries were intercepted on our skies and exploded mid-air.  They released radiations that killed millions of people instantaneously, like it happened everywhere else..  The death and destruction was  heart-rendering and the suffering of the people was great. Fortunately new means of combating the hazards of radiations were employed and though nothing could be done to revert the death and disaster wreaked by the bombs, the after effects of radiation were contained considerably.”
“What happened to China and the USA…..”
“Practically non existent.  Just a few thousand survivors with nothing left to build or get on with the process of survival……The population of earth has been reduced to just 50 million people.”
I stood dumbfounded.
“Technology, the dark horse that looked firmly in man’s control had run haywire.  It took away everything that it had given to perhaps the two most developed countries in the world and the others and left everyone  reeling in misery.  This was the time when the leaders of the nation met and arrived at a common consensus.  They jointly recognized the three basic needs of mankind –  Food, water and shelter.  Nothing was more important than that.  Even as endeavors to search alternative means of fuel would continue, it was decided to preserve the remaining resource of fuel to protect and serve the three basic needs.  Fuel would now on be used in building the necessary shelter – homes, hospitals that had been damaged.  It would be used to transport food from one country to another.  It would be used to extract and supply fresh water which too had become scarce after the nuclear holocaust.  Everything else – industry, consumer goods electricity for leisure, everything else had been banned.  If fuel resources were not going to last they were going to be preserved for as long as it was possible.  The idea was to simplify life and condition it to a state when it could survive even without fuel.”
“I get the picture….” I said gloomily.  That explained the changed face of Bombay.  Without electricity, without transport – it bore the look of the dead.
“People were encouraged to take up farming for survival.  They were trained in weaving clothes for themselves.  Dead trades like blacksmithy were revived.  It was a return to the old ways and values….”
“You must have resented it, hated it from the core of the heart…” I asked the man.
“Yes.  I felt like fish out of water in the beginning  and complained constantly to my wife.  Then she told me to shut up since nothing could bring back the modern ways of life.  And I too closed the lid over memories….”
“And how….”
“But as time went on,” he continued unmindful of my interruption, “I realized that I was happier than before.  Much, much happier.  I needed just food, water, tools and clothes to survive,  that’s all.  No neighbors to compete, no relations to envy.  The rat race had ended because there was nothing to fuel it anymore. There were no  status symbols to be acquired or coveted.  All this gave me time.  Time for my children and my family.  So far, running in the rat race had made me a Robot.  I was earning money to get more of technology and then more and more.  Needs had become an end to themselves and no longer gave any satisfaction.  They made me into a monster with an insatiable appetite for technology and gadgets.  I forgot who I was, my role as a father, husband, son and a citizen of my country.  But now, I grow trees, think of erasing the scars of devastation heaped on this planet.  The grief of my neighbor is mine too.  I have never been so happy as I am now….”
“Is that the way others too feel about it ?”
“We have discussions and all, every one of this small community of ours feel the same.  There are a few disgruntled technocrats and former industrialists who cannot come to terms with a word capable of running without their behind the scenes manipulations.  But they are a handful.”
“Yet a world without technology is inconceivable.  Even if you are peaceful, we have to grow ?”
“Grow into what ?  People capable of destroying this planet ?  Creating a technology that isn’t needed ?”
“How can you be so sure ?”
“Take the case of a refrigerator.  Do you think it is a must in our lives ?”
“Yes.  I cant imagine a world without it.”
“What does it do ?”
“Store food.  Keep it fresh for 24 hours.”
“We were doing fine without it, before it came.  We were cooking food each time we ate.  When the refrigerator arrived on the scene we started cooking keeping in mind 24 hours.  We saved time and utilized it to earn more so that we could buy some more gadgets.  For whom ? A family that could not even sit together and share a freshly cooked meal ?    And supposing we had developed a new technology that could preserve food for weeks ?  We would have cooked food for a week and then stored it inside the fridge !  Its amazing, ridiculous and stupid.”
“What about medicine ?”
“Fine.  Any research is welcome with folded hands.  I’m not against technology but its judicious use.  Electricity keeping a dying man on artificial respiration is welcome but when used to cool a block of concrete that was made by uprooting several trees is again a misuse.”
“Who and what decides what is good and what is bad for us ?”
“Our conscience….”
I shook my head.  “Its too simple to believe…..”
“Yes, it has to be simple and simpler if you are to remain happy and keep into view the larger interest of this earth……”
Part of what he said was true.  But there were several loopholes which I would find out and fill or leave depending how I lived my own life in this changed set up.  Like this man I too would have to begin life from the scratch and reach my own conclusions.  It was futile arguing from the outside…..
“What about space efforts ?  Do they exist ?” I asked  with a heavy heart.  By now I already knew what his answer would be.  Yet I wanted the confirmation.  Like a man at the gallows doesn’t loose hope until the floor drops beneath his feet.
“So far no,” the man said sympathetically.  “There are so many problems besieging this planet that the last thing on anyone’s mind today is space…”
So much for a place in history and the halls of fame !  The fact that most of my effort seemed to have gone waste was depressing.  But then so was everything here on earth.
“Where’s your office anyway ?”
“I’ll drop you there.  On my bullock cart.  I live near that neighborhood.”
“Please don’t bother.  I’ll manage.”  I got up and dusted my suit.
“It wont be much of a trouble.  Besides it gets absolutely dark after eight and it isn’t advisable to travel alone after that….”
“Why ?”
“Robbers, wild animals.  Anything.”
“What kind of wild animals ?”
“Tigers, lions, snakes.”
“But they were on the verge of extinction.”
“Not anymore.  A scar ridden society  developed a conscience and efforts were made to revive forests and wild life.  Today those efforts have paid off.  Most of Bombay is a thick green cover that protects wild life and rare botanical fauna.  The rest of the land is being used for cultivation.”
I shook my head.  A surprise a minute, that was what I had encountered ever since I landed in Bombay.  How many more to come, I wondered.
We started off on the bullock cart.  The man was deft at driving them.  He goaded them gently and talked to the animals like they were his friends.
“What is your qualification ?”
“M.Tech in computer engineering.”
I had difficulty in keeping my mouth closed.  He was as educated as I was, yet perfectly at ease with the changed circumstances.  In fact he actually seemed to enjoy every bit of it.
As the cart moved through the remains of Bombay, I noticed that the roads had been encroached by the dense growth of trees and foliage.  The wind cooled by these trees was pleasant.  It made the summer bearable.
It was nearing sundown.  The western horizon was pure and clear.  Untainted by the dust and smog from polluting vehicles and factories.  Earlier the sun used to disappear behind the blanket of smog an hour before sunset but now it shone in its azure glory.  It looked brilliant and radiant.  My heart skipped with joy at the sight of the fiery ball ahead of us as our cart seemed to rush towards it.  The silence, broken by the sound of the bells tied to the necks of bullocks seemed to enrich the healing solitude that seemed to descend down the place.  This wasn’t the Bombay I knew.  But strangely this part of it was better than before.  Much better.
“Formerly, I used to run,” the man turned to face me.  “But only now I realize that I had been running at the same place all the while.  The quality of my life hadn’t changed a bit with all those material acquisitions.  But today, despite losing everything I am a truly happy and contended man. Look at the air.  It is so clean and pure.  And so cool.  I didn’t feel this good in my air conditioned office where I worked.  It is as though I have rediscovered myself.
I remained silent.  Some of what he said was true.  The people of this earth seemed to have combated their problems by minimizing their needs. The minimum required to remain happy and contended.  Beyond that needs became an obsessive pursuit for more and more, till the happiness content  was gone. As a result of their conscious efforts they were happier and healthier.  They had broken free from the strings of technology that controlled them and their lives, turning them to zombies.   Was this the Utopia that science had been predicting ?  Who could have ever imagined it in the year 2060 !
When the man started to sing a folk song that I remembered vaguely, he sang it from the depth of his heart.  He had a very good voice and perhaps he was aware of it.  My sadness and my worries about the future were forgotten as I immersed myself in the joyful  tune.  His voice carried far into the depths of that tranquil evening.
It was time to get down and part ways.  A strange bond had developed between the two of us, at least from my side.  I liked the man for his simplicity.
“I have a question to ask,” I said on getting down the cart.  My office was across the road, if it was still functioning.
“My pleasure !”
“What if we rediscovered fuel ?  Would everything come back to normal ?  And if it did what would be your reaction ?”
“You talk like the technocrats,” he smiled.  “They haven’t given up hoping on fuel.  They see it as their saviour, the only thing that will give them the power to rule mankind, yet again.  Fuel is finished and if it is rediscovered and we started walking on the path we quit I’ll be indeed a very sad person.  The rat race will start again then, killing the human being in us.  The day someone rediscovers fuel, I’ll be the saddest person….”
I looked at my bag which contained the key to the equation.
“Thanks for everything.  It was nice meeting you.”
“And you to Mr. Rip Van Winkle….”
With that he cracked into a laughter.   Then he was gone.
His words and his philosophy echoed in my mind as I crossed the road and headed towards the Space Centre.
I pushed at the door half sure it would be locked.  The light was failing and inside there was a candle burning near the stairs.  I began to climb them one by one.  It became clear that despite everything the Space Centre was still alive.  The scientists had not given up hope.  Not yet.  The discovery of fuel in Pluto by our mission would undoubtedly a source of jubilation among scientists and technocrats.  But did the common man feel the same about it ?   From all indications the answer was a vehement no.  It was science, uncontrolled and unbridled that had lead the earth on the brink of disaster.
My heart started to race with excitement when I realized that I could alter the balance yet.  I was torn by a dilemma – duty or a way of life.  The choices were difficult.  Once, just for a brief period in my youth I had the same expectations from life as the young electronic engineer whom I had met on the way here.  I had nurtured the same ideal philosophy.  But it had been trampled in the relentless march of time and I had become a ruthless, calculating man with nothing else but a selfish interest in myself.  Indeed it had been a rat race, one that could begin immediately if the scientists caught hold of the cargo I had brought with me.
I kept climbing the stairs, not knowing what to do…….

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