winner-open-road-review-short-story-prize-2016-in-partnership-with-nhp-centreLook at her: head bowed in reverence; eyes glazed over, mesmerised by the glare emanating from the screen; fingers twitching on the virtual keyboard like the antennae of a nervous insect; and her lips parted slightly (enough to reveal the white teeth and moist tongue) as if she will put the smartphone into her mouth and give it a blowjob. Not so long ago, the callisthenics of her lips were reserved for my penis alone; but now, it’s almost as if I don’t exist anymore. And, it’s all actually my fault because I got her the diabolical device.

Earlier, Anita used an android, as did I, and we joked about the idiots — on the roads, in restaurants, in streets — seduced by their smartphones, always fiddling with the machines, checking them every few minutes to conceal their social anxiety, enslaved in erosive relationships with those inanimate little things, the cancer of conversations, buzzing and emanating a thousand sounds, possessing the possessor like a virus, isolating them in an impenetrable quarantine.

On Anita’s birthday in July, I got her the latest model that had invaded our consciousness through a blitzkrieg of advertisements. Why did I do it? Perhaps, because my friend Anthony told me to: “You’ve got no clue man. Don’t get her a dildo; get her a smartphone. It’s kinky!” He was damn right. When Anita saw the little black box in which the device came, she let out an orgasmic little squeal, clutched it to her breasts, and did a few leap-frog jumps around the room, screaming in ecstasy. After a few minutes, she jacked out the SIM from her older phone, immediately consigning it to obscurity, disuse and death, and put it into the new device, which came to life with a low electric orchestra, and a white emanation that startled us.

After 10 years of marriage, birthdays had become something of a set piece: Italian dinner, Mexican wine, Indian music and no-holds-barred fucking on the dining table. On that night, everything changed. Even as Anita blew me, I could hear the phone, charging in the other room, downloading a thousand apps, entering our lives.

That’s the last blowjob I got.

The symptoms should have been obvious to me: Her eyes were growing bigger and bigger, protruding from their sockets, leaving behind a penumbra, as the globular whites slipped out, magnetised by the phone’s LCD. Anita had also completely lost her appetite. At dinner conversations ceased completely — her head would be stuck in the same Narcissusan posture, staring into the mirror of her phone as the food went cold and the wine went flat. Attempts at initiating a verbal intercourse would be reciprocated by a cursory and dismissive shake of the hand, a grunt, or, if you were lucky, two words: “Go away!”

The sex, too, was gone: it had evaporated, sublimated, kaput; as if her body had stopped wanting what she had stopped giving it. Anita’s breasts had started to dry up and harden, her slender wrists became emaciated, her lips were coated with dry skin, and her stomach started to shrivel up. We did not even sleep together anymore: she remained curled up with her phone on our conjugal bed, and I moved out to the divan in the drawing room. Going to the loo at night, I would find her staring at YouTube videos endlessly, her earplugs firmly in place, or simply staring at the screen, unblinking, insomniac.

“Are you sure she’s not having an affair?” said Anthony over beers one Saturday. “She could be chatting with him, sexting him, sending him her naked pictures. Check the phone, man.”

A plausible suggestion, but it was impossible to check her phone because she was always on it, and it was always between her fingers. She didn’t sleep anymore: if Anita ever passed into the shadows of somnolence, it was in short, fitful intervals, and she would wake up startled, like a fish snatched out of water by a hook. She had stopped going out or meeting anyone — her friends called me to find out where she was because she had stopped calling them. There was no way she was having an affair with anyone, unless — and now, this thought started to obsess me — it was with her cellphone.

My suspicions were confirmed when I returned home from work one evening to find the library absolutely empty. The shelves that once held books, LPs, CDs were all hollow, cavernous, and the furniture looked hard and stark in the brilliant white glow of all the lights. In the middle of the room, sat my wife, almost a ghost herself, crosslegged, her knees supporting her elbows, and her hands holding on to her precious, precious phone. Her back was curved in an arch and her head with bowed.

“Where’s all our stuff?” I asked, despair rising in me like an acid.

“Got rid,” Anita replied, nonchalantly, not even looking up.

What was the need for the books, films, music, she said. The memory of our phone was large enough to accommodate everything in our library and more. “Go away!” she barked in conclusion.

When I told Anthony, over beers one Saturday, about the latest development, he said: “Take away the charger. That’ll kill the phone.”

So, I stole the charger when Anita was taking bath. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. The phone usually went with her, but not the charger. It was conveniently plugged into the switchboard near our bed. I took it, stuffed it into a black polythene garbage bag and slipped out of the house. The water from the shower was still running.

Outside, it was raining, and the skies were the colour of cigarette ash. I think I drove for a mile or two before coming upon a garbage dump. There was no one around: rolling down the window, I chucked out the little packed. It defined a parabola before landing with a barely audible plop on the mound of filth, and immediately sank into it.

For almost an entire day, Anita was like a junky deprived of her fix. “Where’s the fucking charger?” was the constant refrain as she went about turning the whole house upside down in her desperate search. The phone was giving off an orange glow, declaring its imminent death. Neither did I assist nor obstruct my wife’s futile search. I just sat there whistling a self-satisfied song to myself, flipping through a magazine. At length, I decided to take a walk and went out. I don’t know how long I walked around; while returning, I bought a bottle of Mexican red.

Perhaps, she would give me a BJ tonight.

But, when I came into the bedroom, I found Anita curled up in bed, the phone in her hands, and — would you believe it? — a charger plugged into the socket near her head.

“Where did you find it?” I demanded.

“Didn’t,” she said. Just before the phone died, the company had called her up to find out why she was not putting it on charge. When Anita, tearfully, explained her predicament, they promised to deliver a new one to her, and also gave her a back-up. “It arrived faster than a pizza.”

“Go away!” she concluded.

I told Anthony about all this the next Saturday, over beers. He replied: “If you couldn’t kill it from the outside, maybe you can destroy it from the inside.”

This was his plan: he would write me a worm and I would email it to Anita. As soon as she opened it, the worm would infect the software of her device, randomly eating and erasing chunks of its memory, corrupting programmes, installing malware, infecting code and rendering it paralysed and incapable of performing any of the functions that made it so seductive. I was a little hesitant, but what option did I have?

Anita had stopped walking or standing up; now, when she moved around, which was anyway very rare, it was on her fours. It was as if she had forgotten the correct use of her hind legs, as if she was retracing in reverse Zallinger’s March of Progress, returning to something primordial, atavistic. With her hands always occupied, she now ate directly with her mouth from a dish on the floor that I refilled periodically, and she performed her ablutions by simply lifting a leg, or squatting. She had stopped bathing completely and her body gave off a strong odour which I found absolutely irresistible. It was the odour of her sweat and her sex and it permeated every corner of the flat, driving me crazy with desire. But, my wife wouldn’t let me near her, grunting and barking as I approached. No, I had no other option: I wanted to stick my dick into her dirty mouth.

“The deed is done,” declared Anthony. At the midnight hour, like a time bomb, the worm would start performing its witchcraft.

It didn’t all go according to plan.

From the divan in the living room, where I lay tortured by acute anticipation, I heard the unmistakable ping of an incoming email on Anita’s phone. Turning over on my side, I tried to doze off, thinking it was all over. Merely a minute later, an email arrived on my phone. I ignored it, thinking it was spam, but the screen of my phone lit up like a radioactive rock. Something was happening to it, so I picked it up, to find the following message displayed, landscape, on my screen:

VENGEANCE

shall be mine*

Your system is being terminated

(*Romans 12:19)

I stared at it in incomprehension as the screen went blank. It has switched itself off and nothing I did would turn it on. The familiar acidic taste of despair made itself evident at the back of my mouth as I got off the divan and tried to switch on the lights. No sooner did I touch the switchboard than all the smart devices in my house — the TV, the fridge, the microwave — turned on together in a bizarre orchestra. All linked to my phone, they were all infected with the worm that had somehow bounced back. For nearly a minute, the electronic devices turned on and off in a coordinated frenzy as I tried to shut everything down unsuccessfully. Then they all went off, one by one, going, going, gone, plunging us into an unfathomable darkness. Silence: I heard a laughter, low, uncanny, almost mechanical. In the bedroom, Anita lay in a foetal position, the phone in her hands. She was not laughing. The sound came from the phone.

The next Saturday, Anthony did not come for beers. He had got a new smartphone and stopped going out of her house. The symptoms should have been obvious to me. Now, everyone has one — it’s like an epidemic. The streets and public spaces have become emptier; even those out there are cocooned in the hypnotic halo of their phones. I’m thinking of getting one myself. Perhaps Anita will give me a blowjob then. Even a virtual one will do. As the advertisement for the new model claims: Virtual is always better.

*

Uttaran Das Gupta was born in Calcutta, India, and read English at Jadavpur University. His poems and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Reading Hour, Magnapoets, Raedleaf, Fulcrum, Open Road Review, The Sunflower Collective, The Dhauli Review and Indian Literature, and have been translated into Bengali and Telugu. Also an amateur actor, he has written the award-nominated play, Murder and Create. He is a journalist with Business Standard, New Delhi, where he frequently reviews books and films. He is also the Assistant Editor for Prose at The Four Quarters Magazine and a member of The Sunflower Collective. At present, he is working on his novel and was at the Sangam House Residency in January.