Back To The Future
New Internationalist Issue 269
The Future Imperfect
Outside, the palm trees bent and snapped in a blizzard of pale green snow. Inside, Prof Saraswati Ali was warming to her point.'He's not a bad student,' she was saying to her colleagues, Professors Zuleikha O'Brien and Christine Krishnaswamy.'But his thesis on late Twentieth-Century Fundamentalism is what I would call deranged.'
'Surely that's not reason enough to consider flogging him?' asked Prof Zuleikha.'I had the impression that he was rather too cuddly for that!' It was well known that she had a weakness for her male students. There had been several complaints, but the University had always managed to hush them up.
The indicator on the entrance module purred. 'Well, here he is now,' said Prof Christine, sucking on her substance simulator, currently set on 'coke'. Sure enough, three seconds later, Elijah 'Bunny' Mikimoto stepped out.
He was short but well-muscled. He held his thesis shyly across his pelvic region. He wore natural plastic tights, ski boots and a moon-beam collar. His entire upper body was encased in a hologram of dense tattoos which gave him the appearance of being both chic and deeply vulnerable. He had electrolyzed his hair to give himself a fashionably mature bald pate. And his beard was maintained at precisely five o'clock-shadow length.
'It's your central idea, I'm afraid,' began Prof Saraswati.'This ridiculous notion that there are fundamentalists amongst us today! And that they are no different from the religious fundamentalists of the previous century...'
'I beg to disagree, M'lady Professor,' said Bunny, in his endearingly masculine whisper.'My argument suggests that the fundamentalists of our era are even more dangerous than those of the past, for being apparently invisible to us.'
There was a pained silence.
Prof Zuleikha, taking pity on the boy said,'Come now, my sweet, you can't possibly defend that little idea?'
'I believe I can,' said Bunny.'I believe that today's fundamentalists oppress millions of people through the media and the market...'
'Blasphemy!' snapped Prof Saraswati'...the fashion industry, for instance,' continued Bunny,'ruthlessly eliminates all those who do not conform to its dress codes. ' He looked down at himself, gesturing with the regulation cigarette in his hand. 'My hologram has to be updated every week if I want to avoid being lynched!'
'But a well-dressed man is an ornament to his society,' said Prof Zuleikha breathily. These young things were so sweet! So charmingly rebellious.'You should consider it your privilege to uphold the standards of this progressive age!'
Prof Christine leant forward on her ornamental bone-china crutch: 'Consider the dietary restrictions of the past,' she growled. Her subject was Classical Vegetarianism.'Pork for some, beef for others, dog for all except the Chinese...'
Bunny took a deep breath.'And today we need special permits from the meat industry if we want carrots with our tiger stew! Today we're forced to eat rattlesnake ratatouille and platypus omelettes because we can no longer share the planet with creatures we don't eat!' He looked defiantly up at the three towering women.'The mullahs of yesterday are the multinational moguls of today!'
All three academics snorted.'Sheer guano, sweetie!' said Prof Zuleikha.'Don't they teach you anything? The slogan of the traditional world was "Annihilation is better than cure". Whereas today no-one is killed except by their own non-conformity!'
Prof Saraswati reached for her ayurvedic suppositories. As the president of the Enema League, she had led the campaign to bring bowel functions out of the toilet and into the drawing room. 'And of course,' she said, 'the ancient Hindu strategy of erasing fundamentalism by denying its existence has guaranteed a free and fair society.' Inserting the suppository through a cunningly devised slit in her tartan sarong, she continued: 'Look at our University! We're open to all customs, all ages, all diets, all genders, all perversions, all disabilities. Our students are chosen for their mixed ancestry and our courses for their lack of cultural context.'
Bunny said, 'Isn't that a problem too, M'lady Professor? Isn't there something amiss with the Theory of Mandatory Liberalism? Doesn't it lead to the oppression of those who don't wish to be liberals?'
'Pah!' exploded Prof Christine. 'You're a Closet Terrorist, that's what you are!' she exclaimed.'Behind that obsequious male exterior there's a sneaking, snivelling traditionalist, just dying to run back to the bad old days when Right was Right and Wrong was Wrong!' She poked him with her crutch. 'You need to have a little sense twisted into you! The rack in the Psychopathology Lab would do you a world of good. You don't realize how fortunate you are to be living in this permissive era. In the twentieth century you, a man, could never enjoy the sacred privilege of bearing children. Today, through the omniscient grace of biotechnology even the lowly masculine abdomen can be fashioned into a receptacle for the Divine Catheter!'
Prof Zuleikha was beginning to squirm. She always did, as the time for her quinturnal copulation approached. She realized she would have no choice but to force herself on Bunny.'Excuse me,' she said, tapping him lightly on the shoulder with her obedience prod. 'If you would just come this way...' He followed her, his eyes glassy, to the couch.
The other two professors indulged their separate fixations while watching the weather outside the window turn abruptly tropical.'In his thesis,' said Prof Saraswati presently,'he makes absurd comparisons between the vile caste system of ancient India and the sacred genetic classification of today!' She wiped herself delicately with personal hygiene tissues hand made from the skins of rare Indonesian lizards. They were believed to be beneficial for several life-times ahead.'He suggests that our chromosomal typing is cruel and unnatural.'
Prof Christine gurgled slightly. She had to set her simulator back to neutral before she could speak.'Well, it's hard to understand any of it,' she said. 'My domestic help was born with the dentition and DNA of a thoroughbred manservant. And yet? For the first fifteen years of his life, his parents steadfastly refused to send him to a Jeevesary, insisting that his IQ suited him to a career in bonsai gardening! Mutants, I tell you! They're all around us...'
Prof Zuleikha rejoined them, panting slightly. 'Did someone mention mutants?' she asked. 'I heard on the Telenet this morning that a community of them had been discovered living in the mangrove swamps on The Fringe. 'The Fringe was the name for the boundary of the climate-controlled zone. 'I can't understand why they haven't been caught and reconditioned yet. This modern squeamishness about behavior-modulation is ridiculous! Without it, our men would still be uncontrollable brutes.'
Bunny joined them, looking subdued. His willpower was returning to normal and with it, his natural modesty and sense of shame. 'Excuse me, M'lady Professors,' he said in his soft voice.'I want to protest this recent event! I had thought that at least in the chambers of my esteemed professors I would be safe from an obedience-prod attack!'
Prof Christine trained her brilliant pink eyes on him. 'As you are surely aware, young man, Professor Zuleikha belongs to the Holy Order of Hedonists for Peace. It is her sacred duty to perform the reproductory rite five times a day. She certainly finds it more inconvenient than you did just now, but you don't find her complaining or shirking her duties. 'The strong sunlight outside was bruising her transparent skin and she turned to move inward.
At this moment, Bunny struck. Whipping out the canister of FemOff he had concealed in his back pocket, he sprayed the room with the concentrated odour of a thousand unbathed, male, American football players just after a game. All three women slipped to the floor, unconscious. Using the telenet unit on Prof Saraswati's wrist, he entered the code for the Resistance headquarters.'Mission accomplished,' he reported,'the vixens sleep. Begin transmission of reverse-conditioning program...'
A volley of enthusiastic clicks and twitters issued from the unit. Too late Bunny remembered that in recognition of !Kung Appreciation Day all communication was to be in that language. Paralysed with the indecisiveness bred into his sex, he dithered just long enough for the effects of the odour to wear off. He was led away, bravely singing Rugby songs, by a crack team of commando grannies.
Restored to dignity, the three professors congratulated themselves upon their narrow escape.
'Well, it was all for the best,' said Prof Christine.'He was caught young enough to qualify for a sex change and maternity. In a year he'll just be another balloon-bellied noviciate at the Breeding Central.'
'Or I could have him lobotomized and trained as an erotic assistant, ' murmured Prof Zuleikha dreamily, 'on compassionate grounds of course. He was a menace to himself.'
'Who are you talking about?' said Prof Saraswati. She had just finished vaporizing Bunny's thesis.
'No-one,' said Prof Christine, as she watched the mid-morning narcissi unfurl their petals in fast forward mode, outside the window.
Although best known as one of Indias few women strip-cartoonists, Manjula Padmanabhan is also a short-story writer. She lives in Delhi.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995