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Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize
"Utterly captivating: a delicious satirical, humane, and very enjoyable novel." The Washington Post
In Transmission, award-winning writer Hari Kunzru takes an ultra-contemporary turn with the story of an Indian computer programmer whose luxurious fantasies about life in America are shaken when he accepts a California job offer.
Lonely and naÔve, Arjun spends his days as a lowly assistant virus- tester, pining away for his free-spirited colleague Christine. Arjun gets laid off like so many of his Silicon Valley peers, and in an act of desperation to keep his job, he releases a mischievous but destructive virus around the globe that has major unintended consequences. As world order unravels, so does Arjunís sanity, in a rollicking cataclysm that reaches Bollywood and, not so coincidentally, the glamorous star of Arjunís favorite Indian movie.
It was a simple message.
Hi. I saw this and thought of you.
Maybe you got a copy in your in-box, sent from an address you didn’t recognize; an innocuous two-line e-mail with an attachment.
Maybe you obeyed the instruction to
check it out!
and there she was; Leela Zahir, dancing in jerky QuickTime in a pop-up window on your screen. Even at that size you could see she was beautiful, this little pixelated dancer, smiling as the subject line promised, a radiant twenty-one-year-old smile
just for you.
That smile. The start of all your problems.
It was not as if you asked for Leela to come and break your heart. There you were, doing whatever you normally do online: filling in form fields, downloading porn, interacting, when suddenly up she flounced and everything went to pieces. For a moment, even in the midst of your panic, you probably felt special. Which was Leela’s talent. Making you believe it was all just for you.
But there were others. How many did she infect? Thousands? Tens, hundreds of thousands? Impossible to count. Experts have estimated her damage to global business at almost $50 billion, mostly in human and machine downtime, but financial calculation doesn’t capture the chaos of those days. During Leela’s brief period of misrule, normality was completely overturned. Lines of idle brokers chewed their nails in front of frozen screens. Network nodes winked out of existence like so many extinguished stars. For a few weeks she danced her way around the world, and disaster, like an overweight suburbanite in front of a workout video, followed every step.
Of course the whole thing made her famous, beyond even her mother’s wildest imaginings. Leela was already a rising star, India’s new dream girl, shinning up the greasy lingam of the Mumbai film world like the child in the conjurer’s rope trick. But while Leela’s mother had thought through most eventualities, she hadn’t factored the march of technology into her daughter’s career plan. Mrs. Zahir was decidedly not a technical person.
And so Leela found herself bewitched, the girl with the red shoes, cursed to dance on until her feet bled or the screen froze in messy blooms of ASCII text. Yet despite what her mother may have thought, she was a surface effect. The real action was taking place in the guts of the code: a cascade of operations, of iterations and deletions, an invisible contagion of ones and zeroes. Leela played holi, and her clinging sari diverted attention from the machinery at work under her skin.
A chain of cause and effect? Nothing so simple in Leela’s summer. It was a time of topological curiosities, loops and knots, never-ending strips of action and inside-out bottles of reaction so thoroughly confused that identifying a point of origin becomes almost impossible.
Morning through venetian blinds.
A cinema crowd watches a tear roll down a giant face.
The beep of an alarm. Groans and slow disengagement of limbs.
She shuts down her machine and
They sit together in a taxi
A curvature. A stoop.
She swivels her chair toward the window and
Someone in the stalls makes loud kissing noises
between the two of them a five-inch gap
she takes another bite of her sandwich.
the posture of a young man standing outside a New Delhi office tower.
An arbitrary leap into the system.
Round-shouldered, he stands for a moment and pokes a finger inside the collar of his new polycotton shirt. It is too tight.
Around him Connaught Place seethed with life. Office workers, foreign backpackers, messengers and lunching ladies all elbowed past the beggars, dodging traffic and running in and out of Palika Bazaar like contestants in a demented game. For a moment Arjun Mehta, consumed by hesitation, was the only stationary figure in the crowd. He was visible from a distance, a skinny flagpole of a boy, hunching himself up to lose a few conspicuous inches before making his entrance. The face fluttering on top wore an expression of mild confusion, partly obscured by metal-framed glasses whose lenses were blurred with fingerprints. Attempting to assert its authority over his top lip was a downy mustache. As he fiddled with his collar it twitched nervously, a small mammal startled in a clearing.
Finally, feeling himself as small as he would ever get, he clutched his folder of diplomas to his chest, stated his business to the chowkidar, and was waved up the steps into the air-conditioned cool of an office lobby.
Marble under his feet. The traffic noise suddenly muffled.
Behind the front desk sat a receptionist. Above her a row of clocks, relics of the optimistic 1960s, displayed the time in key world cities. New Delhi seemed to be only two hours ahead of New York, and one behind Tokyo. Automatically Arjun found himself calculating the shrinkage in the world implied by this error, but, lacking even a best estimate for certain of the variables, his thoughts trailed away. For a moment or two the image hung around ominously in his brain, the globe contracting like a deflating beach ball.
It was punctured by a cleaner pushing a mop over his toes. He frowned at the man, who stared unapologetically back as he continued his progress across the lobby. At the desk the receptionist directed him to a bank of elevators. Stepping out at the eighth floor he walked up and down a corridor searching, with rising panic, for office suite E. Just as he was beginning to think he had been given an incorrect address, he came to a door with a handwritten sign taped over the nameplate. INTERVIEWS HERE. He knocked, received no reply, knocked again, then shuffled about for a while wondering what to do. The shuffling did not seem to help, so he knelt down and polished his smudged shoes with his handkerchief.
“Excuse me, please?”
He looked up at a prim young woman in a peach-colored salwar kameez.
“Would you mind moving out of the way?”
She brushed past him and unceremoniously pulled the door open to reveal a waiting room filled with nervous young people sitting on orange plastic chairs with the peculiar, self-isolating stiffness interview candidates share with criminal defendants and people in STD-clinic reception areas. The woman swept in and announced herself to a clerk, who checked her name on a list and assigned her a number. Consumed by his own inadequacy, Arjun followed.
The candidates squirmed. They coughed and played with their hands. They pretended to flick through magazines and made elaborate attempts to avoid eye contact with one another. All the seats were occupied, so Arjun picked a spot near a window and stood there, shifting his weight from foot to foot and trying to reboot himself in positive mode. Listen, Mehta. You don’t know how many positions Databodies has open. Perhaps there are several. The Americans have a skills shortage. They want as many programmers as they can get. But such a number of applicants? There were at least fifty people in the room.
The air-conditioning system grumbled, failing to counter the heat gain of the mass of sweating, job-hungry flesh. Candidates fanned themselves with filled-out forms. Chairs squeaked under moist buttocks. There were three interview rooms in simultaneous operation; and as people were called in and others arrived, the scene around Arjun changed like a time-lapse photograph of some uncertain natural process, neither generation or decay. Whenever a seat became free he willed someone else to take it, the illogical hope growing inside his chest that by staying very still and quiet he could preserve himself, would not have to pass through any of the three frosted-glass doors.
He stared hard out of the window.
It was no use. The woman with the list was speaking to him. Weakly he put up his hand, and allowed her to show him into an office, where she indicated a seat in front of a pine-veneer desk. On the far side, legs ostentatiously crossed, lounged a man who appeared to be less a human being than a communications medium, a channel for the transmission of consumer lifestyle messages. From his gelled hair to his lightly burnished penny loafers, every particular of his appearance carried a set of aspirational associations, some explicit (the branding on his tennis shirt, his belt buckle, the side arms of the UV sun goggles perched on his head), some implicit (the heft of his Swiss watch, the Swissness of that watch), and some no more than hints, wafts of mediated yearning written in the scent of his scruffing lotion, the warp and weft of his khaki slacks. Arjun tugged at his collar.
“Sunny Srinivasan,” said the channel, leaning over the desk and shaking hands. “So how are you today?”
Sunny Srinivasan’s features were regular and well defined. He had the polite yet aggressive air of a man who enjoys competitive racquet sports. When he spoke, his words rang out with decisiveness and verve, his dragged vowels and rolling consonants returning the listener to the source of all his other signs of affluence: Amrika. Residence of the Non-Resident Indian.
“Arjun Mehta,” said Arjun, immediately kicking himself for forgetting the transatlantic mode of address. “I mean, nice day. I’m having a nice day.”
Sunny Srinivasan opened his mouth, unhooding a smile like a dentally powered searchlight. “I’m glad to hear that, Arjun. Everyone should have a nice day—every day.”
Arjun nodded gravely, shrinking a little further in his chair. The careers counselor at NOIT had more than once told him he lacked positivity. Sunny Srinivasan, by contrast, exuded the stuff. Here was a fellow who had patently experienced an unbroken progression of nice days, stretching back into the mists of what had probably been a very nice childhood. As Sunny reached out his hand to relieve him of his documents, Arjun marveled at Sunny’s skin. Every section of the man not covered with luxury cotton casual wear seemed to glow with ostentatious life, as if some kind of optical membrane had been inserted under the epidermis. He glanced down at his own arms and hands, ordinary and unremarkable. They looked like the “before” illustration in a cosmetics advertisement.
As Arjun considered skin care, Sunny flicked through his certificates, holding one or two up to the light. “So,” he concluded. “It all looks most excellent. What I need to know from you now is how much you’re bullshitting.”
“Bull ...? What do you mean?”
“Well, Arjun K. Mehta, educated to BSc standard at North Okhla Institute of Technology, on paper your qualifications look good. Not great, but good. The question is, are they real?”
“Entirely. One hundred percent.”
“Glad to hear it. Half the losers out there in the waiting room bought their diplomas in the bazaar. Another quarter have completed some two-bit night-school computer course and faked it up to look like a college education. But you, Arjun, you’re telling me you’re the real deal. Right?”
“Absolutely. Real deal. Thumbs up. As I said on my application, I can provide references. I am skilled in all major areas—networking, database ...”
“Let me stop you there.” Sunny held up his smooth, lipid-nourished hands. “You don’t need to wow me with all that. I’ll tell you a secret, Arjun—I don’t know the difference between SQL and HTML. And I don’t care. To me it’s all letters. What I care about is butts—good, properly qualified desi butts sitting on good American office chairs, earning good consultancy dollars for Databodies and for me. Understand?”
“Absolutely,” murmured Arjun. Sunny Srinivasan was appearing more impressive by the minute.
Sunny leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. “So what I’m going to do is this,” he announced, as if the thought were the product of long rumination. “I’m going to take your application, get you checked out by my people, and if you’re telling the truth, I’m going to send you to America and start making you rich.”
Arjun could not believe it. “Just like that?”
“Just like that, Arjun. When you’re a Databodies IT consultant, things happen. Your life starts moving forward. You start to become who you always dreamed of becoming. That’s our mission, Arjun. To help people become their dreams. That’s what we stand for.”
“And you can guarantee me a job in America?”
“Boy, good programmers like you are gold dust over there. Everyone knows American college students are only interested in cannabis and skateboarding, right? You leave it with me. If you’re telling the truth, you’re going to be raking in the dollars just as soon as we can get you on a flight.”
Arjun could barely contain his gratitude. He reached across the desk and clasped Srinivasan’s hand. “Thank you, sir! Thank you! Have a nice day!”
“No, thank you, Arjun. Good to have you aboard.”
Several thousand miles away, in a picturesque yet accessible area of the Masai Mara game reserve, India’s dream girl clutched the rim of the basket as she felt the balloon break contact with the earth. The propane burner roared and, as instructed by the director, the pilot crouched down by her feet to keep out of shot. There was a sickening lurch, the wind blew her hair across her face and she tried to keep smiling at the glass disk of the camera lens as it receded fifty, eighty, a hundred feet below her. Soon the crew and all their mess of lights and cables were lost, one more dark patch mottling the savannah. When she felt it was safe to stop smiling, she relaxed her face muscles and asked for a drink of water.
Arjun Mehta walked back out onto Janpath, grinning at the drivers leaning against their cars at the taxi stand. Amrika! Becoming his dreams! More than any other memory of the meeting, even that of Sunny’s sunglasses, this phrase stuck in his mind. His current favorite daydream was set in a mall, a cavern of bright glass through which a near-future version of himself was traveling at speed up a broad, black escalator. Dressed in a button-down shirt and a baseball cap with the logo of a major software corporation embroidered on the peak, Future-Arjun was holding hands with a young woman who looked not unlike Kajol, his current filmi crush. As Kajol smiled at him, the compact headphones in his ears transmitted another upbeat love song, just one of the never-ending library of new music stored in the tiny MP3 player on his belt.
As the bus trundled over the Yamuna Bridge, past the huge shoreline slum seeping its refuse into the river, he ran several variations of this basic fantasy, tweaking details of dress and location, identity of companion and soundtrack. The roar of public carriers receded into the background. Lost in his inner retail space, he stared blankly out the window, his eyes barely registering the low roofs of patchworked thatch and blue polyethylene by the roadside, the ragged children standing under the tangle of illegally strung powerlines. High in the sky overhead was the vapor trail of a jet, a commercial flight crossing Indian airspace en route to Singapore. In its first-class compartment sat another traveler, rather more comfortably than Arjun, who was squashed against the damp shoulder of a man in a polyester shirt. Did Guy Swift sense some occult connection with the boy on the bus thirty thousand feet below? Did he perhaps feel a tug, a premonition, the kind of unexplained phenomenon that has as its correlative a shiver or a raising of the hairs on the neck or arms? No. Nothing. He was playing Tetris on the armrest games console.
He had just beaten his high score.
Guy Swift, thirty-three years old, UK citizen, paper millionaire and proud holder of platinum status on three different frequent-flyer programs. Guy Swift, twice Young British Market Visionary of the Year and holder of several Eurobrand achievement awards. Guy Swift, charter member of a Soho club, a man genetically gifted with height, regular features, sandy blond hair which tousled attractively, relatively inactive sweat glands, clear skin and a cast-iron credit rating. For two years he had lived with the reputedly unattainable Gabriella Caro, voted the most popular girl in her class every year of her studies at the International School of Fine Art and Cuisine in Lausanne. He had the number of the door-picker at the Chang Bar on his speed dial. You would have thought he was untouchable.
Guy’s seat had eight different parameters, all of which could be adjusted for his comfort and well-being. The airline had provided a pouch of toiletries, a sleeping mask and a pair of disposable slippers embroidered with their new logo. He riffled through the pouch, ignoring everything but the slippers, which he turned over and over in his hands. A recent trend report had hinted that the airline was about to break the taboo on yellow-accented greens in the cabin. But the slippers and accompanying items were still presented in a conservative blue colorway. Was this, he wondered, a failure of nerve?
“More champagne, sir? A drink of water?”
He took a glass from the smiling female attendant, unself-consciously bathing in the soft-porn ambience of the moment. Mentally he noted the experience as a credit on the airline’s emotional balance sheet. He enjoyed the attendant’s android charm, the way this disciplined female body reminded him it was just a tool, the uniformed probe-head of the large corporate machine in which he was enmeshed. He (or rather his company) was paying this machine to administer a calculated series of pleasures and sensations. Respectful of its efforts, he had for the last four hours been sitting as immobile as a hospital patient, relishing them one by one. The heft of china and glass, the frogspawn dampness of a miniature pot of eyegel.
The flight was well into its nocturnal phase. The cabin lights had been dimmed. His fellow passengers had put aside their complimentary copies of The Wall Street Journal and settled into various states of trance. They fell within the standard demographic, these first-class people, balding business pates anesthetized by meetings and conference-center hospitality, glossy retirees occupying the stewards with long lists of requests. He settled a pair of headphones into his ears and pressed play on his current favorite personal soundtrack, a mix by DJ Zizi, the resident at Ibiza superclub Ataxia. Zizi, who bestrode the Uplifting Ambient scene like a tight-T-shirted colossus, had chosen to call his mix “Darker Shade of Chill.” It was, Guy thought, a good name, because although dark, the music was still chill. Breaking surf, feminine moaning and fragmented strings were countered by foghorns and echoing piano. DJ Zizi was comfortingly committed to the center ground.
The music trickled into Guy’s brain, slowly clearing his mental space like an elderly janitor stacking up chairs. He had a sense of angelic contentment. Here he was, existent, airborne, bringing the message of himself from one point on the earth’s surface to another. Switching his laptop on, he tried in a halfhearted way to compose an e-mail to Gabriella, but confronted by the blank white screen he could think of nothing to say.
Some way below him, in one of the newer sectors of the North Okhla Industrial Development Area (acronymically known as “Noida”) there was more to communicate. Horn Please. Bye Bye Baby. Maha Lotto. Dental Clinic. Everyone wanted everyone’s attention, and they wanted it now, from the State Bank of India to the roadside proprietor of Bobby’s Juice Corner. No. 1 in affordability. Inconvenience Regretted. Lane Driving Is Sane Driving. Sunny Honey. Suitings Shirtings. All the action of Noida fizzed through Arjun’s sensorium without leaving a trace. Love’s Dream. Horn Please. Aishwarya Rai, on a schooner, whatever that is, some kind of boat, in Sydney harbor. Or Venice. On a schooner in Venice ...
Despite his father’s frequently vocalized suspicions, Arjun felt he was in no danger of confusing his daydreams with reality. His desires expressed themselves as images of a world that appreciated the importance of the principles of prediction and control. Reality was Noida. The gap was too great.
The promotional literature called it the “new industrial fairyland of the nation.” In the mid-seventies the Uttar Pradesh state authorities had realized that the area on the east bank of the river Yamuna was rapidly becoming a de facto suburb of Delhi. Farmland was giving way to a chaotic sprawl of factories and shanties. The government started a program of compulsory land purchases, and in an atmosphere of corruption and speculation, the displacement of many people and the enrichment of a few beyond their wildest dreams, they zoned a huge grid that promptly exploded with life, generating a city of half a million people in less than twenty years. Shopping malls, multiplexes, temples and stadia jostled for position between acre upon acre of new twenty-story blocks, built in every imaginable variant of discreet, low-cost modernism.
The bus dropped him on the corner, and he picked his way through building rubble and piles of unlaid sewer pipe to the gates of the BigCorp Industries Housing Enclave, soon to be renamed HD Kaul Colony, after the company’s managing director. Greeting the chowkidar, who was hunched over a transistor radio following the cricket, he made his way across the parched lawn into the stone-clad body of tower number four, Gleneagle House. Number eighteen Gleneagle House was Mr. Mehta senior’s greatest source of personal pride, the chief perk of his Move. The leap from government service (whose values had been so eroded over the years) to the private sector had paid off. The Mehtas were no longer the family of a small-town administrator but modern people, participants in the great Indian boom. The apartment was proof. It stood for The World, with which his son appeared to be disastrously out of touch.
In real life, Arjun just stared at his feet when his father lectured him. In his head he issued fluent rebuttals. In many respects his daydreams were superior to Noida. Noida was upheaval. A properly organized daydream had formal coherence. It could respond to commands, reconfiguring itself according to well-understood operations. Outcomes could be built in as required. Obviously the preferable choice.
But dreaming was penalized. If you ignored the world it tended to ignore you back. Though he held several class prizes and was once a runner-up in a national computer problem-solving competition, Arjun’s certified honors were not as impressive as they ought to have been. He had scored badly in the IIT entrance exams, a failure that his disappointed teachers put down to a “lack of focus” but more accurately was due to focal misdirection, the star comp. sci. pupil having gotten obsessed during the crucial revision period with constructing a database of his all-time favorite films of the 1970s, searchable by name, cast, director, box-office takings and personal critical ranking. As a consequence of his passion for cinema, his (entirely genuine, non-bazaar–bought) higher education had been conducted not at one of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, but at North Okhla, a middle-ranking school that had the compensatory advantage, felt more keenly by his mother than Arjun himself, of allowing him to live at home while he studied.
He was still at home two years after graduation.
“Mummy? Mummy?” He bounded into the hall, almost knocking over Malini the maid, who was carrying a glass of tea.
“Oh sorry, Malini. Ma, are you there?”
“Yes, beta. Come through. I’m only resting.”
He flung open the door to his mother’s bedroom and gave her the news.
“Mummy, I’m going to America!”
He might as well have said prison, or be trampled by horses. Letting out a groan, she buried her head in her hands and burst into tears.
It was to be expected. As an Indian mother, Mrs. Mehta’s prime directive was to ensure that her firstborn son was never more than ten feet away from a source of clean clothes, second helpings and moral guidance. She expected to have to release her child eventually, but only into the hands of another woman, whose family tree had been thoroughly vetted and whose housekeeping could be easily monitored from the vantage point of a chair in the living room of Eighteen Gleneagle House, into which the girl would naturally move. America, unhandily located several thousand miles away, was known to be populated by females who would never dream of starching a collar, and whose well-documented predilection for exposing flesh, drinking alcohol, and feeding ground beef to unwitting Hindu boys was nothing short of an international scandal. Hardly the place for her beta, her unmarried twenty-three-year-old baby.
Arjun, who felt he did not really understand emotions as well as he might, made the gestures you make when you try to comfort someone. Disconcertingly, when his father came back from the office he started to cry as well. “My son,” sobbed Mr. Mehta. “America? Oh my son.” Even Malini was at it. At least Priti, his younger sister, seemed unmoved. She was hopping up and down behind her father’s shoulder with impatience. “What about my news? Is no one even vaguely interested in what happened to me today?”
For a long time Mr. Mehta had been unable to feel altogether optimistic about his son. Something about the boy emanated muddle, and if thirty-five years of line management had taught him anything, it was that muddle is prejudicial to career success. News of a job in America was most affecting. His joy was augmented by the thought that finally he had got one back on his brother-in-law. Arvind, the sala in question, was the owner of an aggregates firm, with a contract to supply gravel to the Gujarat state government. He and his preening wife lived in what could only be described as a mansion in one of Ahmedabad’s most exclusive colonies. They had dedicated a statue at a local mandir: there was a photo of them standing next to it, with some sadhus and a minister. Their unappealing son Hitesh had for some years been employed by an artifical flavorings company near Boston. For as long as Mr. Mehta could remember it had been Hitesh this, Hitesh that. Hits is topping fifty k. Hits is team-leading a push for a new minty-fresh aroma. And all the while his own fool of a boy never seemed able to keep his head out of filmi magazines. But now Amrika! God be praised!
Of all the Mehtas, the one with the best excuse for crying was Priti. She loved Arjun dearly. It was good he had finally stopped being such an idiot, but her parents were only going bananas over him because he was a boy. Why should he get chucked on the cheek for every fart and belch while she made her way in the world with a bare minimum of encouragement? Since she received her communications degree, all her parents appeared to want was to marry her off to the first all-four-limbs-possessing boy who wandered through the door.
As it happened, Arjun was not the only one to have a new job. But did anyone care? Did anyone even notice? Finally, after her parents had phoned almost everyone they knew with her brother’s news and her father had put the receiver down at the end of a particularly gratifying call to Ahmedabad, she got to tell them.
“What do you mean you’ve never heard of DilliTel? They’re only the most dynamic call center in the city!”
She explained the New South Wales connection, how she would be “in the hot seat,” providing service and support to customers of one of Australia’s biggest power companies. Her mother asked why she needed a job at all. Wouldn’t she rather stay at home? Her father frowned over his spectacles, grappling ineptly with the fundamentals of modern telecoms.
“What?” he asked. “You mean they call on the telephone here, all the way from Australia?”
“Exactly. These big companies find it cost effective.”
“Cost effective? It must be like throwing money down the drain!”
“Daddy, they buy capacity. The customers don’t pay. They don’t even know they are calling abroad. It’s such a great job, Daddy. I’ll receive training in Australian language and culture. We all have to be proficient in vernacular slang and accent, and keep day-to-day items of trivia at our fingertips.”
“Sports scores. Weather. The names of TV celebrities. It adds value by helping build customer trust and empathy. As operators, we even have to take on new Australian identities. A nom de guerre, the manager calls it. What do you think of Hayley?”
“Namda-what?” spluttered Mr. Mehta. “Now look here, young lady, what all is wrong with your own good name?”
Her mother nodded in agreement. “Beti, I don’t like the sound of this at all. It doesn’t seem decent. Why can’t you tell these Australian fellows to call you Priti, or better still Miss Mehta. That would be so much nicer.”
Priti had been trying her best. The tears would not stay in any longer.
“I don’t believe it. I do something good and you throw it in my face. I hate you! I hate all of you!”
“Don’t you talk to your father like that,” snapped Mrs. Mehta, but she was chastising her daughter’s departing back.
Mr. Mehta looked toward God and the ceiling. “This is what comes of too many TV channels. MTV, lady fashion TV, this that and what all TV. No daughter would have spoken to her father in such a way when we were having Doordarshan only.”
“She’s turning into one of these cosmopolitan girls,” said his wife. “I think we should find a boy for her sooner rather than later.”
Mrs. Mehta went off to poke a ladle into Malini’s dal. Mr. Mehta turned back to the business section of the Times of India. Arjun quietly slipped into the corridor and knocked on his sister’s door. When Priti did not reply he turned the handle and went in. She was lying on her bed, her face buried in a pile of pillows. He perched beside her, trying to devise a strategy to cheer her up.
“There there,” he said, and patted her shoulder. A muffled voice told him to go away. Obediently he stood up and was about to leave when the voice changed its mind. Priti’s face was red and there was a string of snot hanging from her nose.
“Well done, Bro,” she said.
“Well done, Sis,” he replied. She swung her legs off the bed and for a long time they sat together in silence. At the beginning this was comfortable, but questions were preying on Arjun’s mind and finally he felt compelled to speak.
“Do you think you’ll have to acquire facts about surfing or is it restricted to team sports?”
Priti looked at him. It was the kind of look that usually meant he was wearing mismatching clothes.
According to Guy Swift: The Mission, a summary of aims and ideals that its author had sometimes found occasion to distribute as a spiral-bound document, “the future is happening today, and in today’s fast-moving future the worst place to do business is the past. I strive to add value by surfing the wave of innovation. I will succeed.” He had always liked the Skywalkeresque note of the last sentence, and the Force had indeed been with Guy Swift: The Mission. As a written text it had helped its author win contracts and assert his authority with new clients. As a seminar it had once even led to sex, with a McKinsey analyst who had a thing about PowerPoint presentations. In three short years Guy had grown Tomorrow* into an agency with an international profile. GS:TM had undoubtedly played a role in that success.
Tomorrow* was, he liked to say, different from other agencies. It produced results.
In a glittering career Guy had raised awareness, communicated vision, evoked tangible product experiences and taken managers on inspirational visual journeys. He had reinforced leading positions and project-managed the generation of innovative retail presences. His repositioning strategies reflected the breadth and prestige of large portfolios. His communication facilitation stood out from the crowd. Engaging and impactful, for some years he had also been consistently cohesive, integrated and effective over a spread spectrum.
At the heart of GS:TM lay a philosophy (or as Guy preferred to put it, a “way”) he had synthesized from a study of the great marketing masters. He called it “TBM,” which stood for Total Brand Mutability. During his twenties he had dabbled in the youth sector, helping the agency he worked for to develop the well-known CAR triangle, whose three corners are Cool, Attitude and Revolution. Having helped to sell an unknown quantity of sporting footwear, games consoles and snowboarding holidays to CAR-starved under-thirties in Britain and continental Europe, he had experienced what he described as a personal epiphany, the realization at a full-moon party in Thailand that his future lay in the science of “deep branding,” the great quest to harness what in GS:TM he termed the “emotional magma that wells from the core of planet brand.” “Humans are social,” he would remind his clients in pitch meetings. “We need relationships. A brand is the perfect way to come together. Human input creates awareness and mines the brand for emotion. In a real way, the more we love it, the more powerful it gets.”
For Guy, love was the message. Love the brand and stay ahead of the curve. Much of GS:TM was devoted to the nature of the curve and the crucial importance of adopting a forward position in relation to it. Even so, the document’s eight hundred bullet-pointed words and Hokusai-wave intro-graphic left much unsaid about Guy Swift’s personal relationship with the future. In certain places—on moving walkways, at trade shows, in car showrooms—he felt it was physically connected to him, as if through some unexplained mechanism futurity was feeding back into his body: an alien fibrillation, a flutter of potential. Heading, say, toward the Senator Lounge at Schiphol, he would feel it coming on, a chemical lift that would grow as he checked in, blossoming into full presence as he stepped through the dimensional portal of the metal detector into the magical zone of TV monitors and international-marque goods. Surrounded by people on their way to other places, he would feel cocooned in the even light and neutral colors of a present that seemed to be declaring its own provisionality, its status as non-destination space. Then it was a time to grab things: a bottle of Absolut Citron, an open-face shrimp sandwich, a magazine. Like the objects buried with ancient kings, these items had only a temporary purpose: to help him get from where he was to where he was going, to ease his transition into the next world.
When, like Guy, you put yourself ahead of the curve, you live in the future. Literally. How else are you to understand it? It is as if you have become subject to a freak physical effect, a blurring that stretches you out beyond the trivial temporality of the unpersonalized masses of the earth. Unlike the package tourists, the mall shoppers and all the other yearners and strivers, your existence is extreme. The thrills are tremendous, but they come at a price. When Guy slept, he dreamed of tall buildings. He knew that the tiniest lapse of concentration, the smallest failure of response, could send him tumbling down toward the place of discount clothing outlets, woodchip wallpaper and economy chicken pieces. Sometimes at night his twitching took on a regular myoclonic rhythm, a constant cycle of fall and recovery. Boom and bust.Hari Kunzru [has] a skewering wit, wide sympathies and a gimlet eye for the killing or illuminating detail. (The Washington Post)
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