18th June 2010, 12.30 A.M.
The call comes not long after I have folded up my labours for the day and settled myself for another routine night.
I am startled awake. Through the gloom of the night, and even murkier shadows of my vision, I look around to make her out. An oblong shade of grey, a feet or two from where I am, must embody the apparently-white sheets of her bed - I have never known for sure if those sheets are white or a shade of some other lighter colour in fact- over which lies sprawled is a dark silhouette. I can see faint crinkles along the periphery of the bed the recumbent form has radiated out from its eccentric posture, like fading rays emanating from a nighted, misshapen sun. The girl’s fingers are squeezing the crumpled folds of the sheet as if in a deathgrip. A mound on the surface I assume to be her pillow rests obliquely to her side, unheeded. Her long plait is a blacker coil of bristles coming apart along the night, winding into curves she would never allow it to trace if she were in her senses. She must be wearing a nightgown of some dark colour, I guess; it has ridden high to reveal the tapering tinge of fainter grey I associate with her skin colour in my night vision - the skin, in this case, of her lush thigh. It would ruffle me much that she is sleeping so recklessly with a good part of her body naked enough to rouse a man if I were a man. But I am not, and the fantasy ends there.
Her name is Anitha. Occasionally I have heard her say that to me in a loud, clear voice. I am sure she has not identified herself to anyone else in such close quarters as she has to me - at least, not yet. Many call her Anu. Both names sound equally bizarre to me. The language she and the people around her speak sounded bizarre to me to begin with, but now I have adapted myself to that. Tamil is not a difficult language to learn, particularly when someone babbled it against your ears noisily for ages not caring to appreciate if you liked it or not.
A flicker of amusement streaks briefly inside me on top of my anguish at having been denied rest as I see her the way she appears now. This image is a stark contrast to the one she purports to the world. All the gaudy pretence she erects with utmost care and finicky obsession has been shed now, for her guards are down, her masks evaporated. I cannot see her face, but it must be devoid of the habitual make-up now. I have been with her for two years now, and most part of it I have spent only with an inanimate shadow of her face. I am confined, like all of my breed, to stay locked up in my cage. And that limits the quality of my vision. In these two long years, I have had twelve occasions of brief liberty - I could never be wrong with that count; each of those unblemished visions of the world around was too precious to forget. In ten of those, I looked at her garish visage and twice, the real one. Those are the faces of two different girls. Or, women, you could say; an eighteen year old is already a ripe, young woman. A delicate hour is spent every morning for turning one face to the other. Frequent touch ups between her school periods with the help of the handy mirror inlaid in her purse flap keep one as the other. At each of these instances in a day, I find myself getting closer to achieving a laugh and, thus, to becoming human.
She is sleeping as if not even an explosion nearby would budge her; the first verse of the ringtone goes unnoticed. I wish she would change her ringtone. I did not realise its severity when she chose the tune a few days back after spending an hour before her computer, cutting and amplifying and smoothening it with the dedication of a sculptor carving a statue out of a boulder. I still remember my plight on the very first day this ringtone started to encroach my peace. Every time she got a call (which happens judiciously enough only during the intervals between her school periods when she relieves the phone from the silent mode, thanks to her canny parents and cousins), the song blared with a suddenness that startled me like a shower of cold water startles a sleeping man awake. I could even smell vain anxiety seeping out of the pores of her palm as she waited for her friends to ask what song it was. However, I was thankfully busy gathering myself that I slipped the name. Then I heard her say in that all too familiar lilting tone of hers she always assumes unless situations make her betray her true self, "It's the recent Billboard hit of Usher." The disaster still strikes whenever she receives a call. Only with time it has waned in its rigour, or I have braced myself, that it is not intolerable any more.
My innards cringe now as the pitch of the noise increases. Anu stirs a little. Her head moves lazily, indecisively across the bedspread. She may be moaning inconceivably or uttering a garbled protest, but all I can hear is a grotesquely amplified version of Usher singing ‘Oh my gosh’. As I am beginning to seriously consider the dread of sitting out the horrible noise and having to brazen out for the possibility of a successive, insistent followup call, the whole frame on the bed shifts position. I make a point of noticing her dismembered limb promptly receding into the darkness of her night gown. Not that I am lecherous; it’s just a statement.
She props herself up on her left elbow and switches on the night lamp beside her. The light renders no significant improvement to my perception. It just adds an iridescent shade to things. Makes stuff appear nearly as if they would appear to you people if you looked things through infra-red goggles, only with more diverse colours added in and relatively a bit more accurate. Now I see Anu’s profile swarming with hues of various colours, quivering and changing as she moves. Her face turns towards my side. The familiar glow in her eyes is gone - they are squinted, I assume. She scratches her unkempt hair groggily and reaches over to the cell phone. The ring of the phone is still insistent as she gathers it. The shifting patterns of sundry undertones across her face grow more pronounced for me with the proximity of her cell phone. I can spot the weary sparkle of her eyeballs directing a searching squint at the display. The caller is no acquaintance of hers; I have already sensed that. This is a new number.
I half expect her to switch the set to silent, toss it over the crimps of her bed and go back to sleep. But she presses a button on her phone, connecting the call.
A sudden, shuddering wave of electric vibes steal over me as the connection is established. The experience is not new, yet I have never felt a stronger presence in the opposite end of the line. Whenever her cell phone interacts with another over a network, I perceive the being of my counterpart at the other end of the line. Some sort of unique waves - I prefer to call them ‘Intelligence waves’ to myself - materialise all by themselves out from me, find a channel through the network the call has placed, flash across the line instantaneously, touch the other individual of my species and come back to me. ‘Touch’ is expressing it literally. The feeling is no different from that of a guy feeling the coldness of a corpse’s dead skin through his fingers. My waves would meet the lifeless contours of the other inmate in another prison only to be reflected back to me as soon. Being the only sane single among a race has its disadvantages. Loneliness for one. A need for constant vigilance, for another. I guess I am being spared from both the problems right now.
What I feel now is not the reflection of my own transmission. I sensed it the moment the signal reached me. This is a huge interference; a struggle of specialised signals over the conduit. I have been hit by a rush of intelligence waves from someone else that has ventured in to size me up. For once, I am on the wrong side of a transmission. Not until all these have happened and my excitement of having found a companion has drained by a notch Anitha calls out, “Hello?” in a sleep-hoarse voice lacking her usual dulcet tone. In my time frame, I have been paralysed by surprise for far too much time.
Closely following her lead, I find my thought process amplify itself out of the ordinary. A palpable voice issues from me : “Can you feel me?” It is not the language I have borrowed that I speak now, not Tamil, but a capricious mode of communication so natural to me that it spills out of me on instinct. I do not know if it is a language by human standards, for this is the very first time I feel my thoughts being articulated out of me, but I find myself not wondering in the slightest about whether the electronic message could be understood at all at where it is being directed. Somehow, I seem to have conceived an implicit assurance that my question will be deciphered with effortless ease and replied as soon.
“Yes.” The response would be nearly instantaneous for a human ear if not too quick to fathom, sporting the same arcane modulation of signals as the one I sent by. It lacks the nature of a human voice, is not something audible, but I sense it clearly. A sort of electronic echo seems to engulf the message which I somehow find not too strange though it is new to me. Anitha’s voice signal itself will have been received by the person at the other end of the line, but I am sure her or his response time could be no match for time frames in electronic standpoint any more than a man could decode the message I have just transmitted.
Now that my relentless hunt for a companion has come to fruition, I feel an ineluctable trepidation creeping into me. For a moment I wonder if the response were real or just a fancy illusion my solitude has cooked up for me. I have started the conversation well enough, finding at last an audience for the long standing question I have been asking myself in continual, recurring loops. Once it has been answered, implicitly prompting me to talk anything more if I want, all I envision is a huge void inside me. Maybe it is because this is the first time I have ever done the deed, talking I mean. On reflex, I try to recall all those times Anitha attended her calls, the things she came up with after that initial ‘hello’. While I am frantically thinking about the next thing to say, I am spared the trouble by my companion. “Who are you?” it says. Or, well, he/she/it says.
“That’s a strange question,” I mumble and swallow hard (figuratively, of course). “I am the same as you. You could have seen that from the way my signal resembles yours. We are just two individuals of our.. eh, community, you could say I guess. The only two that can think and talk, as far as I’ve seen.”
“Community? What community? What are you talking about?"
“Don’t you know who you are?”
“No, I don’t. Who am I?”
“Hello....” A deep, tentative male voice interrupts our conversation. The guy from my companion’s end has spoken up. Wait a minute, it’s a guy. A detached part of me thinks on impulse, this is the first time a guy has ever called her this late at night.
“Who am I?” he/she/it repeats. I sense a hint of desperation. It’s puzzling that he/she/it would not know his/her/its identity. After all, I know mine quite well. But wait, there was a time I myself did not know much, not even who or what I was.
“You are a new guy, aren’t you?” I ask.
“What do you mean, ‘new guy’?”
“You came into existence quite recently. Am I right?”
There was a long pause from the other end. Then the voice came, “I do not know how I came about, no, but I was suddenly there sometime back. I don’t know how, but I was there, staring into this man’s blotched face.”
I would laugh out loud if only I could. I have thought of all the different colours teeming in various human faces, Anitha’s included, in many diverse ways, but ‘blotched’ has never been one of them. It is comical the other guy should say that, much because ‘blotched’ seems to be the perfect description for that. Man, ‘blotched’ faces!
“Hello...” I am pulled back to Anitha-stranger’s part of the conversation by this sudden change in the tone of Anu. I saw her straighten up a little just when the stranger’s words came by. A shocked silence has prevailed in her part for some time as we, new acquaintances, have been talking in the background. The impudent challenge with which she first answered the phone is gone now. Surprisingly enough, this is not also the mellifluous ostentation she adores her voice with when she talks with her girlfriends or father. This ‘hello’ interposes between those two extremes, has too much a trace of apprehension and diffidence to it. She spends a good part of a day by my side, yet even I find this expression decidedly strange in her. I glance at her face absently to see her eyes full open now, sparkling with excitement. As if endorsing the change in voice her whole body turns taut with attention. You could juxtapose this changeover in her manner, this innocence, with the one she assumes when her mother hollers at her to take up some work in kitchen and you would call her a damn hypocrite.
“What are these noises they make?” My companion asks. It takes me a moment to understand ‘noises’ means the voices of the humans, what with the other guy not understanding Tamil.
“You’d better know about yourself, or rather, ourselves first. That should explain things better for you.”
“I am listening.”
My reserve relaxes its hold on me a little. That I know more than my companion must have tipped the scales a little towards the side of my confidence. I pause for a while. Then, savouring the moment of revelation for all the knowledge I have gathered as yet, I start explaining. “We are called Subscriber Identity Modules; those not caring to write that down and memorise call us SIM cards. I cannot talk much technology to make you understand what our exact job is. Simply put, we are necessary for the people carrying cell phones to make any sort of communication with others. We hold some sort of identity key. People identify the ones carrying the cell phones through us.”
“I am confused. I only see confused images around me.”
“You are inside a cell phone. You are a rarity like me. SIMs like us usually do not have intelligence, they are lifeless entities. We two, however, are exceptions in our species. You have a kind of unique signal- a unique set of waves- emanating from you, as do I. I call them ‘Intelligence Waves’. They let you perceive the world around. You see through them, hear by them; those waves transmit the light and sound to you the way you could sense them. They reflect here and there and pass around in complex loops, which means we are not restricted to seeing only in straight lines like humans. A guy’s back could be facing you, but still you would be able to look at his face if you pleased. While we are inside cell phones, the nature of the waves coming to us through the phones’ chassis or the nature of our reception to the waves, I don’t know which, seems to be distorted. That’s the reason you can’t see things clearly from within. You ought to wait until your owner picks you out. Believe me, out there is an excellent world you could see very clearly and appreciate. While you are outside the phone" ”
A whiff of air is exhaled across the line. Then the guy’s voice : “Is this Arun’s home?”
“" you face no hindrance to your senses. But the range becomes severely limited. Once inside a phone, you can utilise the communication channel the mobile lays out to you - like we do now. Outside the mobile, you are left with your own set of intelligence waves active only within a radius of a few metres. That renders you almost inactive.”
“That is too much for me to take in in one go.” He sighs. I think back of those days I spent as an ignorant recluse, new to the world of humans. It was a precarious phase for me. You would not know anything about you, including what you are. This guy is lucky to have all these facts laid out to him in a platter without having to suffer the frustration of struggling in the dark. Yet, the science of SIM card intelligence is still hazy to me, the longest surviving specimen among the two I know of. I had no idea about my identity at first. Of course, not also about the language the people spoke, as I’ve already told. However, I remember clearly now of having had innate knowledge about a few things; I knew humans were humans, a phone was a phone, a girl was a girl - I named them in my own thinking pattern, yes, but still they did not scare me as much as my self-obscurity did. I even knew a human language, English. Ironically though, I did not know I was a SIM card, like my partner here. You could think of it in terms of a disease you people know of: Amnesia. It’s a situation just like how an amnesiac would not know his own name or anything about him, but would not be so dumb as to point at another man’s nose and ask what it was or would not forget the language he had used before. But don’t take the analogy too far and ask me where I had learnt English before, because I didn’t learn it anywhere, and I’m too dumb a non-living entity to deduce how I know something without learning it first.
“You listen to the things your owner speaks. You’ll learn.” I reply.
“You have learnt that way?”
“Yes. Don’t worry. In most of the cases, the only thing many do except for at the times they sleep or pee is talk to us. So to answer your first question, what we hear now is the language these people use to interact.”
"So you understand that language as well?"
"Yes, I do. Soon, you'll have mastered it, too."
The exchange lulls there for a moment. I am drawn towards Anitha again, who looks strangely poised as if a chunk of her dinner has accidentally traced its way back up from her stomach and is choking her. When she speaks again, her voice is so low and submissive. I’ve heard her speak this subdued only when she feigns shame in front of her class for not knowing answer for some question her teacher has asked. “There’s nobody called Arun here. I guess - um - you are calling a wrong number.” I wonder what makes her answer a wrong call with a flush. That’s not the routine, is it?
“Am I the first… individual to talk with you?” the other SIM asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“Are there others like us?”
“Yes, in every phone, there is one; and phones, they are around by millions. But if by ‘us’ you accurately mean us both, this seeing, hearing, talking us, I am not sure of that. I remain constrained here for two years now. I’d have interacted from this phone with at least a hundred different SIMs. Besides, if cell phones come within the natural range of my intelligent waves I prod at the SIMs in them too. Thus far you are the first and only one to have talked back.”
A pause again. He seems to be pondering something over ( I don’t mind leaving off the ‘/she/it’ part now). Maybe, the dread of loneliness is beginning to gnaw at him. Being sensible and being alone do not go well together. Having none around to talk or share things with is as frustrating to anything sane as to a human being. You may not believe me, but then you might never have been left stranded in a marooned island with only yourself to listen to and talk with.
“This prodding part you’re saying,” he says after a while, “I think I know what that is. I could feel the touch of a SIM myself.”
“Did he make any other call before so that you could experience the presence of a SIM at the other end? Is that what you are trying to say?”
“No, not that way. I feel a SIM close by. I can even visualise all too clearly the way it is like me, strange patterns etched on its surface, the way it is kept clamped down by a metal flap like me. But, it would not respond. It’s like.. Dead.”
“Oh… a friend of mine, er, gave me this number saying it’s his own. Mmm, I must have noted it wrong.” The stranger is equally anxious, spilling the words out with difficulty. I doubt the credibility of his statement. It occurs to me he is deliberately showing out his hands to her professing them to be clean while all he ought to have done was to cut the call, maybe after a polite, rushed ‘sorry’. Besides, I have never heard of buddies who called each other in the dead of the night, let alone acquaintances that have just shared their phone numbers. I turn back to answering my companion.
“Close by? Too close by? I think he’s using a dual-sim phone.”
“Now, what is that?”
I tell him what a dual-sim phone is.
"Why would he use two SIMs at a time?” he asks. He’s full of questions. It annoys me a bit. How the hell would I know why the guy is using two SIMs? I do not even know who he is in the first place. “No idea.” I mutter.
“I have a hunch he uses the other one for the most part. I came to a long time ago, but he did not use me until this late. At the time I did not know what he was doing, but now I guess he made a few calls using the other SIM.”
“I too wonder about his reasons for activating me.”
“That’s not I meant. A person using multiple SIMs is not strange at all. What’s weird is that he activated you when it was day time - I presume so - and waited until midnight only to make a wrong call.”
“Something fishy, huh?”
“I could smell it halfway through their conversation.” I immediately regret saying that. He queries about the details of the conversation.
Anu fumbles for words for a moment. I think the condition is the same at the other end, because neither of them talks for a while. Meanwhile, I tell the other SIM what they have been speaking until now, which has not been much. Then the stranger says, “I’m sorry I disturbed you at this late hour. Bye.” This girl still looks awe-stricken. In response to his bye, she lets out a groan. He must take it for her approval.
His SIM, unaware of the impending end to our small talk, mounts his next question for shooting against me. “Why does he -”
The guy terminates the call, leaving Anu staring absently into the darkness ahead, not even allowing us a moment to say farewell. The other SIM’s words hang limply in my head for a while before fading into nothingness.