“Should we follow him in the car?” Emil asked as he walked up to Inora.
“We will get nowhere in that direction with a car. It’s just wilderness beyond the premise.” Inora said, beginning to lose sight of the horse and the rider between the trees.
“Maybe we should contact this uncle Man? He may know where your grandfather is headed.”
I doubt it.”
“Does he live nearby? Maybe he can tell us about the apocalypse.”
“There is no apocalypse, Emil. And there is no uncle Man either. They are both ramblings of a confused mind.” Inora said, still looking at the quickly disappearing form of her grandfather and his horse.
“Come, sit down.” Emil took Inora by the hand and headed back towards the cottage. They sat down outside, on the portico. “We can inform the village police. They can help track him down. Or call uncle Man and…”
“Uncle Man was my imaginary friend, Emil. Nana and I used to play make believe, and one summer when I was feeling down, he introduced me to this friend of his. The big man, he called him. Just another game that we played.”
“Your nana knows The Big Man?”
“Emil, did you hear me? He was imaginary.”
“I am sorry. Yes, he was imaginary. Of course. Tell me what happened.”
“Nothing. What ever happens to imaginary friends? They fade. I was young and having a hard time at school. I used to come here every summer vacation and I think I was depressed that year. Not getting along with anyone, not getting up to the usual shenanigans nana and I usually did.
“And so nana took me aside one day and ‘introduced’ me to his friends. Meet my oldest friend, Inora, he is very keen to meet you, he said. Or something like that. That was uncle Man. We talked all summer, both while nana was around and at other times. But never when my parents or nanu was around. I mean, it makes sense, that. Previous summer, nanu saw me talking to thin air, she was convinced I was being possessed by a fire-demon that had to be cast out.
“So nana was careful to avoid a situation such as that. I’m not sure how he figured that an imaginary friend would help me. I think he wanted me to work out whatever was bothering me on my own. So he gave me a friend to talk to.”
“Every summer vacation, you and The Big Man would…”
“Call him uncle Man. He was old.”
“Sorry. Every summer vacation, you would come here and talk to uncle Man?”
“No, just that one summer. For about a two-week period. And then nana said uncle Man had to leave and I believed him and never saw him again. And you know what, nana’s ploy helped. I think, all those hours I spent alone in my head, talking with uncle Man as I thought I was, helped me a lot. I was quite perceptive, now that I think about it. Some of the things my mind made him say…really helped.
“Amazing. You knew him all along.”
“Why your grandfather? Why do you think uncle Man was visiting him that summer?”
“If this is your way of asking why nana is talking about some tales he made up for me twenty years ago, I don’t know. That summer was only a few months before nanu passed away and he has lived here mostly alone since then. Maybe that has something to do with it. Maybe, in his solitude here, he has lost himself to the last few months of his life when he wasn’t completely alone. I don’t know Emil. But I think I have to stop resisting now and have him committed to an institution.”
“Intriguing, most intriguing.” Emil muttered, beginning to put together the puzzle in his head, “And the apocalypse?”
“Towards the end of that summer, he told me a story about the apocalypse. It was an odd tale and we never really got to the end of it. But before my parents and I headed back to Dhaka, he told me that I would see uncle Man again when it was time for the apocalypse.”
“And since it is time for the apocalypse now…”
“He believes that uncle Man should be dropping by soon. Yes, believing in one is strictly tied to believing in the other thing. So, I suppose the next question is, why does he believe it is time for the apocalypse?”
“Does you and your grandfather talk about uncle Man often?”
“Not for many years. Why are you fixating on uncle Man?”
“Because I knew an uncle Man myself. I mean, we called him the big man as well. His real name is O’Gawd. Will you like to hear about Mr. O’Gawd?”
“How is this relevant?”
“You will see. Just listen. It is a lengthy tale. I will try to explain as much as possible. So, Mr. O’Gawd. You see, I have reasons to believe that your grandfather knew Mr. O’Gawd.” Emil thought it best not to tell Inora that uncle Man and Mr. O’Gawd were one and the same. At least not at this juncture. He took a pause to let Inora absorb what had already said. It was almost noon, he noticed, and the heat was increasing. Emil was not yet sweating but not comfortable either. He looked back at Inora who was waiting for him impatiently, “What are you waiting for?”
“This is the wrong time for a rhetorical pause. Keep talking.”
“Fine, I will give you the entire story. It might take a while. So, let’s see…I do not even know where to begin…” Emil started, “This is all so…you know I work in an ad agency right?”
“Yes. Proverbial Advertising. You write all the shitty ads I see on TV.”
“Yes, well, I am also associated with a different agency…no, no that clearly will not do. I will have to go further back or I will just confuse you more…well, you see, the funny thing is, the apocalypse is real and very imminent. Your grandfather was not wrong about that.”
“Tell me more and tell me quickly because you are starting to make me angry again.”
“It is not as easy as it seems. Listen, back home, where I am originally from…”
“And where is that?”
“That is precisely what is so difficult to explain. For our purpose right now, let’s just say that I am not from around here, ok?”
“You are not. You are a city boy.”
“Yes, so back home, there is an asylum[i].”
“You were going to talk about an agency you worked for.”
“We have to build up to that. Let’s begin with an insane asylum. It was called the Asylum.”
“That is unfortunate.”
“Just listen. Now this asylum, the Asylum, it is a big deal back home…”
“You are from Pabna!”
“Shush! Damn’t. The Asylum got too big for its own good. That was a long time ago. Now, if I had to guess, I will say it has continued to grow bigger since. But that’s not important to the story. Let’s say that at some point, the Asylum got so uncontrollably big, that it became a nightmare maintaining order. The problem, as most experts seem to agree on nowadays, was that somewhere down the line, someone had made a serious lapse in judgment and failed to impress upon the patients that the doctors, the orderlies, and the guards were supposed to be the ones in charge of them and not the other way around. You know, too much autonomy and individuality. You can see why that would lead to troubles sooner or later.
“The orderlies were up against a well-oiled machine of unpredictability and insanity and they had no answer to the onslaught. Without getting into too much details, let’s just say the patients were over-running the institution. There was chaos everywhere. No order and no control. An absolute bedlam.
“Even before anyone knew what was going on, the Asylum was a battleground. Large chunks of the Asylum had to be cordoned off, overrun by the crazies; lost forever to the orderlies. No one could tell how the crazies survived beyond these lines of demarcation without food or water or medicine but you know…crazy people. They found a way.”
“That is too bad. But how is this relevant?”
“I am getting to that. Listen. All these, and much more, went on for ages and the warden observed grimly. The negative publicity was beginning to put the future of the institution in serious jeopardy. The book, ’The Day I Caught Crazy’, a heart-breaking first-person narrative of a person’s stint at the Asylum, had caused severe damage to the public’s opinion of the institution. Its sequel, ’The Day II Caught Crazy: The Day Crazy Caught up 2 Me’, promised to be no less harmful.”
“I’ve never heard of these books.”
“No, you would not have.”
“Come to think of it, I have never heard of this Asylum you speak of. And I specialize in news such as this.”
“I can give you my copies of the books. They are not all that. And let me finish. There is a reason you have never heard of the books or the Asylum. All will be made clear once I finish.”
“Go on then.”
“Now, the warden. He wanted to win back control of his institution, obviously. But not a tenuous grasp, he wanted complete and absolute control. In short, he was tired of having to put down the law. He wanted the patients to want to, or at least strive to, obey the rules on their own. So he did the logical thing to do in these situations. He contacted all the ad firms…”
“What in the hell for?”
“…to help him bring back order.”
“He needed more orderlies, is what he needed. Maybe better trained orderlies. What does this have to do with nana and this Mr. O’Gawd and the apocalypse anyway?”
“The warden was Mr. O’Gawd. He called for a meeting with the ad makers. Do you know what ad makers do?”
“They tell stories. You are not pleasing to look at but if you use this product girls will want to have brunch with you. You are not smart enough but if you use this product companies will want to hire you. You are not popular enough but if you use this product you will get invited to parties where girls will want to have sex with you. It all boils down to the same thing. Aspirations.”
“And what did O’Gawd want?”
“Stories. He wanted the ad makers to give him stories that made his patients be docile and compliant. And if they did, girls would have sex with them.”
“None of these make sense.”
“It was a meeting that has gone down in folklore of my people. In this meeting, Mr. O’Gawd, standing tall and proud above everyone else, on account of him standing up and everyone else sitting down, outlined his vision for the Asylum.
“Obviously, what he wanted was absolute and total control of the asylum…”
“What a prick.”
“If I remember correctly, his exact words were…”
“You were at this meeting?”
“No. I should have clarified that part. My bad. This happened many years ago. Years before you and I were born.”
“Uff! Why did you have to go that far back?”
“Just let me finish!”
“Make it snappy, will you?” Inora snapped.
“I do not remember clearly, but I suppose his words were…”
“He said that a good story was likeable and relatable. A story was not just a list of things to do or not to do that you hang from the notice board that no one ever read. What he wanted from the ad makers was a campaign, designed around a story, or a core message, about fulfilling all their aspirations through obedience.
“Don’t get me wrong if I am being vague here, Mr. O’Gawd cared deeply about his patients and he wanted nothing but the best for them. But he was also a little vain and more than a little egotistical. He was willing to do anything for the betterment of his patients but in return, he wanted absolute devotion from them.”
“Sounds like a real piece of work, your Mr. O’Gawd.”
“He just wanted the agencies to put the fear of O’Gawd into his patients’ hearts.”
“Now let me tell you something, whether you believe me or not, the Asylum was a big deal; still is. Anyone could see the prestige in winning the Asylum account. It could make or break an agency. Everyone, absolutely everyone, went for it all guns blazing. And each agency came up with unique solutions to the problem at hand.
“Aesop Advertising Network, for example, thought that the best way to tackle this problem was through simple, easy-to-understand fables and parables that encouraged certain actions and discouraged others. They did well for a while, but such simple tales are easily corrupted, or worse, co-opted by others.
“Other agencies created entire pantheons of both benevolent and malicious associates of O’Gawd. Some sat on the top floor with him, others sat in the basement, so they are never seen by the patients except occasionally. But they all kept close eyes on all the patients through other invisible close-circuit cameras. They saw it all. You clearly did not want to displease any of these overlords. So, when one of them deemed, invisibly and irrevocably, that break time would be ten minutes short for the day, you had best not throw a tantrum. It also helped if, from time to time, you offered up your desserts to taken to one of these overlords who you wanted to please. And in return, you may get a second blanket or a fork to have your meals with, instead of the standard-issue spoon.
“And then there are guys from International Collective Network who developed an entire system of communalism and self-sufficiency. When the warden said he wanted the patients to want to comply, without orderlies needing to enforce them, the Collectivists took it too literally and went and developed a story that pretty much called for the orderlies to be overthrown. What a shitshow that turned out to be. That was one of the first campaigns to crash and burn. The patients revolted, gave up their personal crazy ways, united together, broke off their chains, as the saying goes, and did the crazy together. Oh god, it was a mess.
“Anyway, most of the campaigns had some similarities. Most of the stories went on to state that there are certain things you do and others that you do not do. If you do the good deeds, you will be rewarded. If you do the bad deeds, you will be punished. Some stories said that there will be one future date, unknown to everyone but the warden, when everyone will be judged, their deeds analyzed and weighted, and appropriate punishment, or reward, meted out. After which, the good patients will be allowed to leave the Asylum and never be forced to come back again. Other stories talked about an eternal first-come-first-serve process of judgment. Some went so far as to argue that there is a constant creation and destruction of everyone and everything just to hammer in the idea that even if you are not punished the first time, there is no need to get cocky. You will get caught out with your cock out sooner or later.”
Inora was shaking her head vigorously, “So he wanted to terrify his patients into loving him?”
“No, the terrifying parts were just for the people who did not love him enough.”
“That is exactly what I said. These campaigns sound barbarous!”
“Hey, the campaigns were created by the agencies; not Mr. O’Gawd.”
“Did he approve of any of them?”
“I am getting to that, hold your horses.”
“I wonder how far nana has managed to get by now.”
“Not very. That horse has most probably collapsed by now. On with the story. Let us move forward a few months. The agencies did their work, developed their campaigns, and made their pitches to Mr. O’Gawd. Maybe because all the pitches were equally good, or equally bad, we do not know, but Mr. O’Gawd did not want to pick just one. He instead decided to create a focus group to test out each pitch. You know what a focus group is?”
“I think I do.”
“You know, we at Proverbial almost created a focus group few years ago. A fragrant soap was about to hit the market and none of us were sure if it would do well. So Shaheen bhai suggested we invite a few young girls to our office, have them shower with the soap, while we stand on the other side of the shower-curtain, asking them various questions pertaining to how the soap felt on their wet skin.”
“What is wrong with you people?”
“We voted it down, of course. Almost unanimously. A proper focus group experiment would have meant giving samples of the soap to a group of the target consumer, young women, have them use the soap for a period of time, and then have a sit down with them and ask if they had any complaints about the product.”
“Why did you not do that?”
“We had already taken the samples home and used them up ourselves. And Rashed bhai did not want to ask for more from the client.”
“What did you want to use fragrant soap for?”
“We. I said we used it up. Not just me. On with the story. Mr. O’Gawd wanted to form a focus group to test out not just one, but all the different stories to see which one gathered most compliant followers.”
“What did he do? Gather up some patients from the ward, threw them in a room, and read them each of the stories to see which one they liked most?”
“He did a bit more than that. But effectively, yes. He gathered up some patients from the ward…”
“I knew it.”
“Stuck them all in a big room.”
“And called that room the Earth.”
“Odd of him to do that.”
“Yes, that is what everybody thought. What, after all, everyone thought, is this made up word, Earth? Is it an acronym? Is it the word for Asylum from some obscure language? Is it a word from a made-up language altogether? Is it an acronym from a made-up language? No one knew. But the name stuck.”
“I’m sorry, what’s happening now?”
“As Mr. O’Gawd could not find a room big enough for his experiment since all the hall rooms were booked through to the end of next year’s wedding season, he created a satellite, called it the Earth, and populated it with the craziest patients of his asylum.”
“You just sit there and wait. I will go find something to bash your head in with.”
“Constructing Earth was no tough task; it is merely a model replica of what my actual home planet is like. The most hopeless patients of the asylum were hand-picked to inhabit Earth, a massive flick set the earth in its motion, and since then the agencies have spent a fortune trying to increase the appeal and popularity of their campaigns. There have been wars, of course. There have also been bankruptcies, with certain agencies leaving earth, their stories forgotten eventually. Some agencies have broken up and accordingly, so have their stories split and morphed. The agencies that survived intact have had to make extensive modifications to their stories over time as they learned more about their clients. That is precisely what a focus group is for. And of course, over time, plenty of stories have merged together to form their own hybrid stories that the agencies have litigated over for ownership.
“And all these while, Mr. O’Gawd and the Asylum has kept a close eye on this little blue planet, but from a distance and without interfering.”
“Bullshit! You are making this all up.”
“The idea was to drop the patients, or the focus group, here, introduce them to the campaigns and then wait and see which one they reacted to best. It was supposed to be a matter of days; maybe weeks. But the crazies turned out to be more enterprising than they were given credits for. They went about building roads and houses. They established law and order and built societies. All the while, continuing to flip-flop between what their favorite story is.
“I came to Earth as a field researcher. I joined one of the smaller agencies many years after earth was formed. Zara Advertising, it is called. It was owned by a friend’s father and the work was easy. When they offered me a raise if I agreed to move to earth, I said yes. All I had to do was keep an eye out on the proceedings and every now and then send a report back to my home planet. It is an easy job.
“I do not think we ever had a serious chance of winning. Zara Conglomeration has kept me back here just to keep up the image of still being in contention. But we have never had a real shot at this. I just make my reports sound as optimistic as possible to keep up that image. I do not think they care either way. Otherwise, they would not want me dividing my time with Proverbial Advertising. They are a fully Earth-based agency, in case you are curious. No links to my planet.
“I quite enjoy my life here on earth.
“But, tragically, and tragedy is probably not a strong enough word to convey how I feel about what is about to happen, two days ago, I got a call from my friend Zara. He said that Mr. O’Gawd has finally made up his mind. It took much longer than anyone had expected. This experiment was not supposed to be such a long drawn out endeavor. But Mr. O’Gawd is finally sure which campaign he wants for his asylum and that means that the focus group is no longer needed and will be dismantled soon, in accordance with the Apocalypse Initiative. You know all about that. The coming of the antichrist, the four horsemen, Ragnarok, whatever rocks your boat.”
“You are just wasting our time with this foolish story.”
“I think uncle Man and Mr. O’Gawd are the same person. Your grandfather, I think, is one of the original patients of the Asylum, picked to be a part of the focus group. I told you Mr. O’Gawd is a caring person. He kept in touch with his favorite patients even after they were transferred here. He is a great man, that O’Gawd. That is also how you cured your depression by talking to an imaginary friend. You were actually talking to the most celebrated and decorated psychiatrist from back home.”
[i] What is an asylum?
An asylum is a place where you might send one of your crazy relatives to live with other people’s crazy relatives in the hope that the concentrated doses of craziness all around the said relative would somehow run the craziness out of him. By that line of reasoning, that being around a large number of crazy people actually cures craziness, it is in the interest of the asylum authorities to maintain a high number of crazies within their walls. Ergo, in order to reduce the number of crazy people, one would paradoxically be compelled to maintain a high number of crazy people within its walls. Of course, any line of reasoning, when dealing with crazy people, is always slanted and often not a line altogether but an arc; or a bunch of squiggly lines superimposed on a yellow wallpaper.
Concerned parties from various asylums have spent many hours trying to fashion an equation that would give the optimum number of patients in an asylum, but have failed conclusively thus far. Of course, no one entertained the idea of a laissez-faire approach partly because the classical model breaks down without the premise of rational man, but mainly because seriously, who would ever want an invisible hand zooming around in a nut-house?
As such, asylums are generally known to lie in a perpetual state of chaos and bedlam.