M- Memory Bank

One could taste the New Year in the air. Smells of freshly baked sweet buns and vanilla cakes filled the dingy streets of the Old City.

Ahmed walked on it’s stone paved roads, freshly washed by the vendors this morning. This was his regular route for the last fifty years, and the friendly scents of the season brought a sweet smile on his face.

It was 9 am and the morning light was finally reaching this corner of the Old City. He stopped at an intersection and looked up. Above him, the New City extended way up beyond the clouds. Today he could count the first six levels of the city above him, till his eyesight could follow them, and then a hazy fog engulfed the floors above. The monorails connected them like criss-cross beams connecting tall towers, one level to another, far up till the clouds. Ahmed could hear sounds of more monorails being installed on the upper levels of the city. The constant banging indicated that the New City had woken up already.

Ahmed lived and worked on the ground floor — the Old City. As the years passed by, in spite of the renovations and the new bridges and walkways, the Old City only looked older, like it was aging quietly. Very few shops stayed back, mostly small eateries and grocery stores for the residents who traveled up to work in the main city.

Ahmed was thankful that his Bank was still one of the last operating workplaces down here. He would have to otherwise travel with thousands of those workers to the upper levels. Every morning, hoards of these workers poured themselves in giant tin boxes of the monorails, to go up, and every evening they would trickle back down to their small houses or “rooms”.

Ahmed was turning seventy and only recently had moved to a “room”, after selling his one bedroom flat. The money he made was enough to make sure he could retire today and still spend the remaining years of his life peacefully with enough insurance to last him till he died.

He could have taken other jobs, maybe a few decades earlier when people from higher cities would routinely come down to recruit the workers. In those days, there was a job for everyone down here, not just in the construction, but also in the new offices, homes, restaurants and malls, but Ahmed had decided to stay back. Mainly because he had to nurse his wife, whom the doctors had said would not survive the new year.

And after she died, three years later, he didn’t feel like leaving the house. His wife’s memories still lived in it’s corners, inside it’s old drawers, kitchen nooks or in the big steel trunks she brought in after her marriage. He held onto them for the past 20 years, he would drink tea from the same tea cups, would sleep on the same soft bedsheets, and follow the same morning routine. Then, one day, the government directive came that he would be thrown out or mowed down if he did not sell his flat to the construction company. So he then decided to move into a nearby Room.

As he walked today, he found some freshly pasted pamphlets to apply for work in above levels. “New year blessings!” — he thought. Electronic Rays of light projecting out of them promised good wages and better health insurance. He found many young men huddled around them, jotting the code, giving virtual interviews, eager to apply. Ahmed, unlike these young boys, liked the Old City more. He wanted to live here forever and he was ready to walk down this stone-paved road for the next hundred years if his age permitted. Maybe he was reliving the same day over and over again and found comfort in it’s familiarity. Like his argonauts.

His walk was interrupted by a young newly married couple who were posing and taking pictures. The couple looked happy, fresh, the world outside their private world was blurred and beautiful, glowing, with love radiating from inside out. Probably they were tourists from one of the higher levels, the lady seemed like an artist, touching textures of some wooden shops. “I wish we could afford a wooden cabinet in our new house”, Ahmed heard her say. “It would cost us a fortune” — said her husband. Ahmed had sold his wooden furniture a few years ago. He had kept just one souvenir, a wooden photo frame of him and his wife, of their marriage, where his wife’s hands were tattooed with deep heena and she was playfully showing them to the camera. He looked at the couple, the female had those henna tattoos on her palms too. He felt a strange warmth towards her- a happy, young bride. Today will be a beautiful memory for this couple, he thought. He was good at this — identifying precious memories of people.

He took a turn into a narrow gully. The city he knew and loved was becoming smaller. The parks, the malls, his bank, his house — they all shrunk and became a shade darker every passing year. Ahmed passed next to Melita’s bun shop. Melita was now as old as Ahmed and Ahmed remembered her as a young woman selling hot buns to the workers, and men queuing up to see her. As decades passed, the young men went elsewhere; the shop too had shrunk and was just the size of an old telephone booth now. He stopped to pick a few savoury buns for lunch.

He finally reached his workplace — now one of the oldest buildings there, he climbed up the stairs, the lower floor had many eateries, a Chinese hole in the wall, the cook still asleep in the morning, the higher floors were these obsolete offices, some selling weight-loss pills, others were low cost doctors with dubious claims. As Ahmed walked up, the infinite spiral of the staircase stretched above him, cobwebs across the railings of staircases looked like monorails connecting them, the building felt like a microcosm of the city outside. Ahmed was one of the few people to still use the stairs, the rest used the talkative, creeky elevator.

As Ahmed reached his second floor he saw the owner of the beauty parlor decorating her entrance with washed plastic flowers. She had curlers in her hair — and she looked at Ahmed and smiled. Ahmed nodded back. The beauty parlor was recently taken over by a young girl who changed the branding by using just one simple claim: “Look 15 years younger” — and that attracted so many customers that Ahmed regretted sharing the Waiting Room with them. His own Bank’s customers had dwindled, many didn’t believe that their “deposits” would survive 50 years as claimed, and then there was another problem. Ahmed picked up an envelope near the doorway from an Animal Rights Group. He opened it and it had the usual appeal for “Freeing the Argonauts’’. He tore it and threw it in the hallway dustbin. Legally he was clear, atleast for the ones he already had in his bank. And he didn’t believe the animal rights activist. “The memories are beautiful. The real world is harsh. We are giving them a gift”- He had said once.

Ahmed walked in, he opened the locks of his bank with his shaky hands. Nikhil, his newly appointed assistant still hadn’t come. “If the Bank opens at 9 am and you arrive at 9 am then you are already late.” — Ahmed had told him on the first day. It was 9:05 today.

Ahmed walked up and switched on his receptionist.

Good morning Ahmed — Happy New Year to you.” — said Shiny.

Shiny has been working for 20 years now. She was now old, her color faded at places and her corners already rounded, but she did her job well. She was one of the old models that were designed to just stay seated. (“The secretary is never off her duty” — was the advertisement on her box).

You tasks for today are:

View Expired Memories. Contact Customers for renewal. Free Argonauts of Expired Memories. Manage New Year Appointments”.

She projected colorful rays of lights that formed the above words in the air. And then her mouth spit out a paper slip with some names.

Ahmed walked in and hung his bag on a black metal hook. Next to it was an old picture of Chinese Argonaut Headquarters where a group of young recruits stood together for a commemorative photograph. Standing somewhere in the back was a young happy Ahmed. Tall. Smiling. Proud.

Ahmed walked through a thin corridor lined by wooden shelves and reached the Bank Storage. A room 15 by 15 feet — lined by more rows of wooden shelves and each shelf contained many jars. And in each jar was an Argonaut- a dreamy white Octopus, submerged in pale yellow water. The Argonauts sat still in their jars, like in a trance. Each of them was reliving a human memory- called The Deposit- repeatedly, in an infinite loop.

This was Ahmed’s Bank. The Memory Bank. Over the years, Ahmed could tell good memories from bad ones depending on how the Argonauts had aged.

These Argonauts were a rare species and were discovered towards the end of the 2070s. They had a lifespan of 200 years. Many years ago Yinzhe Yu, a Chinese scientist had figured how to transfer human experiences to and fro an argonaut. All the Five Senses could be stored in an Argonaut and on retrieval a human could experience it wholly, and relive the moment in a way that they felt they were exactly in the same place and the same point in time again. This discovery was touted as the most immersive form of experiencing a memory. The civilization was already bored of (and overwhelmed with) photographs and videos, the AR was too kitsch, artificial and everywhere. But using organic beings like Argonauts to see, touch, smell, feel, taste a memory was never seen or heard before. It was a revolution at that time and people started saving their most precious memories in these Memory Banks. Each Argonaut could at most save 5 memories and would live through them, in their mind till they would be freed from their nodes (metallic incisions that prevented them from forming new memories over the human memory written on them).

During early days, Argonauts were used to recreate a crime scene as well — a victim would relive a rape or attempted murder scene and the police could relive these and see the faces of the criminals but then the protests started — first there were small posts on social forums, then demonstrations on roads and letters and then they began attacking. The Animal Rights activists said that Argonauts were prisoners- prisoners of memories and it is the worst kind of human torture. The least we can do is not subject them to bad, traumatic visions. Ahmed remembered one protest installation outside his old Bank where a man had put a VR video around his head, chained himself in a cage and shouted non stop. The man said if he feels like that in 1 hour, imagine the argonauts feeling the same memory for 50 years- over and over. After a while new laws started getting passed — and the old customers started demanding their money back. Only a few banks remained to be phased out gradually. And in that legal detail Ahmed’s bank, which was the oldest bank in the city, stayed back, to be phased out in 50 years of which 48 years had already passed.

Nikhil came in worried. “Sorry Sir. I was at the new year party and woke up really late” — he apologized.

Ahmed looked at Nikhil’s half-slept face and decided to let it pass. Nikhil anyways didn’t wait for Ahmed and was looking at the list of expired entries on his phone.

Then he took a ladder and started taking out jars from the top.

There were 5 expired memories. The count of Argonauts on shelves had reduced to twenty now.

“Maybe next year, you can free all of them, just as a bonus for their service” — said Nikhil. Nikhil was only working part time, biding time till he got a job in the upper level and he mostly held the belief that it was time for argonauts to be discontinued.

“Let’s check them.” — said Ahmed.

They moved to another room marked as the Memory Retrieval Room. Nikhil carefully docked one jar on a circular station. The octopus in it was old, in reverie of the memory she was seeing. Nikhil stared at her. “Is she smiling?”. There were small circular nodes on two of her tentacles. That’s where she kept the memory. (These Argonauts stored memories in their tentacles, not their heads.) Nikhil placed what looked like a strong magnet and “phatt” — one arm swung and got stuck on the glass wall of the jar.

Another magnet and another arm got stuck on the jar. Ahmed waited for an old bulb to power up. He was sitting on a large white reclining chair, that looked like a dentist chair, and it had an adjustable helmet on top. Ahmed carefully strapped himself to the chair, adjusted the helmet to his head, secured it strongly.

After a while, the bulb started glowing, a small circular spindle started rotating, starting a chain of events and Ahmed’s chair started moving, going round and round, first gently but then faster and faster and faster and …

Ahmed in Argonaut Memory…

Ahmed suddenly felt young, bouncy, and lighter. He looked up. The sky was clear, beautiful, there were a few seagulls and the breeze was soft. He was on a beach, he could see the orange, setting sun… Around him there were people, kids, balloons, bustles, street vendors, circular spinning wheels made up of colorful papers…

The grounds far and wide were not weighed down by the New City.. The horizon was visible, clear…

Ahmed realized that he is in the memory of a young girl, he could see her dress fluttering. And he felt an intense love and elation that she was feeling. Ahmed had never felt this alive in a long long time.

The girl ran towards the shore — Ahmed looked down, her legs felt a gentle tingle as the cold waves touched them. The open sky felt priceless, pristine- oh how he wished they never built the New City — but then he forgot about the New City, about his wife, bank, about everything…he was becoming the girl in the memory again.. she smiled — he smiled — she was in love and he felt the rush of love on his cheeks. She looked at someone — a young boy standing far away — with red balloons — 16 years old.

Ahmed looked at the boy — the boy was tall, smiling……the boy was …the boy was …. him. Yes he was looking at his own young self when he was 16 years old, in tight t-shirts, shorts and slippers. He was holding a bunch of red balloons that were fluttering in the wind. Who was this girl? She was not his wife..she was…

Ahmed’s thumb searched for a red button, he pressed it and the chair came to a halt. Startled, he unstrapped himself and rushed to the RestRoom.

Ahmed washed his face, staring at himself in the mirror. Nikhil knocked.

“All ok, is it a trauma memory?” — Nikhil enquired.

“No” — said Ahmed. “Can you check the other memories and reach out to their owners?”

“Ok. Are you sure?” — Nikhil asked.

“Yes” — Ahmed said. After Nikhil left, he waited for a moment. His face was still red. His heartbeats still fast.

Mehr. He remembered now. She used to live down the street.They were in the same school and would share bus rides and assignments. He remembered one bus ride when he was standing next to her. Her captivating smile. He remembered flashes of them going to the classroom together.

Ahmed stepped out and sat on his desk, and tried to remember more.

Those were the early days, when someone had proposed the idea of building another level over the city . They used to call it Level 1 City. Early constructions were happening in the outskirts and most of the people ignored it.

Mehr’s father worked in a construction company and their family had decided to move to Level 1.

Ahmed remembered when his bus rides became empty. That familiar lonely feeling. It was the first sacrifice the New City asked of him. As the levels of the city grew, Mehr’s family started moving upwards, till at some point the distance between ground and where she lived was so huge that she became a distant dream for him. Or a faded memory. Ahmed remembered when he stopped speaking to her. He had met his wife by then.

Maybe one day Mehr might have decided to deposit her memories in a Memory Bank ? Ahmed checked the records on his computer. She had deposited it on Level 2’s Memory Bank. And had paid for 50 years. But in those 50 years, this memory was never retrieved or experienced by anyone even once.

Why did she deposit it, if she never wanted to experience it? Maybe she just wanted it to be safe somewhere outside of her, in case she herself forgets it…

Ahmed had learnt over the years that significant moments lose their shine over time, and the insignificant moments are like uncut diamonds that we polish over time. Like his memory of drinking morning tea with his wife as she read out the top news of the day. As a young man he would have discouraged people from saving such moments. But as an old man he knew better. Why would Mehr store this day at the beach?

Customers!” — Ahmed is interrupted by Shiny.

He stuttered towards the entrance. The customers were in the Waiting Room that was shared by many offices. Many women with facials or silver foils on their head had occupied the seats there but Ahmed instantly recognized his customers.

“Mr and Mrs Batra”.

The touristy newly weds raised their hands.

“Your memory will only be saved for two years.” — Ahmed said.

“We know. We want to do it for the experience.”- said the young man.

“And today is a very special day for us.” — said his bright eyed wife.

Ahmed smiled and showed them the card- for different types of Memory Storage — Memories of Ecstasy, of Love, of Childhood. They all had to be stored differently with the Argonauts.

“Priortize feelings over visuals when you record them.” — he said. “There are devices for every senses now, but only argonauts can save feelings and help you relive them”.

The newlyweds spoke about what all they will save and remember, but Ahmed’s mind drifted back to memories of Mehr.

“Does she still remember me ?”

Nikhil walked in. He had checked with all the clients. Many were dead. He had run a check on Mehr too. He said all were ok with deleting it.

“Is the owner of the first one alive?” — Ahmed asked.

Nikhil nodded.

He then asked Nikhil to take the newlyweds to the Memory Deposit Room. He then walked to the five Argonauts in the other room. All of them were ready to be freed today.

When Ahmed walked in, all the argonauts were still in the trance oblivious to the fact that their life will change forever today. Ahmed tapped the glass of one of them. Her name was Saraswati as scribbled on the jar. It was just an easy human label. Her real name was 5–6-gx which was used by the computer (Shiny).

To free them, Ahmed would take his yearly trip to the outskirts, to the shore, then take one of the Ferries to the middle of the ocean and release them near the giant Buddha statue where their colonies were found. It had become his yearly ritual and the site had become sacred for folks over the years.

“All the lost human memories are found swimming here.” — once he overheard a tourist guide speak and Ahmed had laughed out loud. That was one of his last outings with his wife. They were seeing the city from afar, and his wife said that it feels to her she is looking at her entire life from afar. Like her life is not a span in time but a place, a physical space in the city.

Ahmed opened pouches of food and emptied them in the jars. It was ok for these guys to eat a lot today. They will have to find their way in the deep sea and will need energy for taking in the sudden burst of experiences.

Ahmed logged into the database. Mehr Rizwan, 75. UID Number — BIXDGKGF. He checked her UID in the government database and just when her images and data started loading Ahmed shut the computer.

He realized that he didn’t want any new memories of her. Maybe that day on the beach, or the bus ride or her youthful smile are the last memories of her, only memories of her. And then an idea came to his mind.

What if —

What if he saves this memory under his name. Maybe then for atleast next 2 years, till the bank was operational he could relive it again and again.

By the time Nikhil was done with the couple and all checks were over, it was evening and it was time to close the back.

“Do you need any help to free the Argonauts?” — Nikhil asked.

“Don’t worry, I am fine, I have been doing it for many years.”.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. You can leave now.” — said Ahmed.

“Ok. Shiny has done the booking of the cab and the ferry — your name will be there”.

“Thanks.”.

Nikhil nodded, fed the other Argonauts and left in the next 45 minutes. Ahmed thought he would put Saraswati back in the stack and cite an excuse. He could just say there is something in the memory he wanted to investigate. Or that he would say the client had called and paid for longer and put his own money in the accounts. Or he could say anything. He was the boss afterall, he didn’t have to explain anything to Nikhil.

“The cab is here!” — shouted Shiny from the reception.

Ahmed put the remaining four Argonauts in a bucket. The bucket had a net on the top for them to breathe. He would remove their nodes, their memories near the ocean — so that they can still be in a trance during the travel. He then looked at Saraswati as he was about to leave.

She looked calm, happy. “The memory is a good one” — he thought.

And then, just at the last minute, he decided to put her in the bucket too.

The cab drove through the city, now filled with returning workers. All the eateries were alive with smokes coming out of the chimneys. Through plastic curtains Ahmed could see people huddled together eating their early dinner. He picked one of the buns he had packed and started eating it.

Finally the taxi dropped him exactly where a Ferry was waiting. It was the last ferry before it turned dark and the ferryman knew where to take the boat.

“The ocean is moving” — said the ferryman as he started his boat.

“Huh?”

“The fishes — they are going deeper and deeper. The higher floors cast shadow and the fishes want to move away. Ahmed looked up — at the multi-tiered city, from a distance weighing down the land but still vibrant and alive with so many people.

After a thirty minutes ride, the boat stopped near the giant Buddha statue.

“The Argonauts still live here.” — asked Ahmed.

“Yes a very big colony”.

Ahmed opened his bucket and one by one, he removed the nodes and gradually they slipped from his hand to the ocean. He picked Saraswati. He removed her nodes. Her trance broke. She looked confused but she looked in his eyes. She seems to have recognised his eyes? Was it from a distant, faint, unrecognizable memory ?

Ahmed slipped her into the water and saw her take a dip. She lost balance briefly but then started swimming away — Ahmed’s eyes followed her till she disappeared in the depths of the foggy water.

Far away on the 5th Level of the New City, an old lady sat in an Art Gallery overlooking the ocean with binoculars in her hand. She knew the place they dropped Argonauts and saw a boat reaching there. And there she saw a shadow of a man, letting them go one by one.

One of them would be her memory, Mehr thought. Behind her was a painting of a boy with red balloons — standing on a clean white beach.

Saraswati, the argonaut, took a dip into the ocean taking in the beauty of the wondrous underwater world. It was a new day for her after a long long time. She saw some red corals, that reminded her of red balloons, of a sheepish smile of a boy. She saw many fishes and other Argonauts around her. Everything was new here but she felt a surge of happiness. Real happiness. There was a memory, a memory from a lifetime ago. A foggy memory that comforted her. And that memory will be there with her, swimming in the free ocean, staring at the beautiful night sky, for next 100 odd years, long after Ahmed and Mehr would be forgotten by the city.

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