Essence of Gandhi
When Sitaram Desai clones his great ancestor’s genes, the consequences are unexpected –
to everyone except Sitaram, now renamed Gamma Two-Eight.
A short story by Manjula Padmanabhan.
What I have here, Respected Masters,’ said Sitaram Desai, holding up his right hand, ‘is an ancient vial of ash, preserved from the funeral pyre of a great man.’ He paused for effect. He was being watched by two hologramic images, a man and a woman, hovering a few inches above the tiled floor of his clandestine laboratory. ‘The greatest man the Indian sub-continent has ever produced,’ said Sitaram. ‘The one and only... Gandhi.’
His audience was not impressed. ‘Yah, yah,’ said Aidid Nielsen, his ice-blue eyes at odds with matt black skin. He and Isabella beside him were the Supreme Commanders at United Gene Heritage (UGH). ‘Cut the manure. We’ve verified your claim to being the son of third cousins in the bloodline of that person. But so what? Why should your DNA be of any interest to us?’
Sitaram’s smile broadened. ‘Not just my DNA, but my ancestor’s as well, cloned from the ash. I’ve combined the two,’ he said, ‘spliced them onto a friendly virus and suspended the lot in a volatile solution. What d’you get? Essence of Gandhi.’ He held up a second vial fitted with a nozzle. ‘Two puffs and...’ He inhaled. ‘A thorn becomes a rose!’ As if to prove his claim, his face was now wreathed in a smile so sickly-sweet it made Isabella wince. ‘Map the gene-sequence of this hybrid molecule and you’ll have the blueprint for... weapons-grade compassion!’
He had barely stopped speaking when the walls of his workchamber crashed inwards. Towering muscular figures with horned heads sprang through the dust and rubble. Isabella’s voice, crackling slightly, commanded Sitaram to stay calm. ‘They’re humano-bovines! Quite harmless unless you resist!’ But Sitaram grinned as his captors stood snorting and pawing the ground around him. ‘Why resist?’ he said, to the already fading holograms. ‘After all, I’m the one who contacted you!’
Some hours later he found himself returning to consciousness. He’d been drugged and taken into custody by UGH, just as he’d hoped. Holograms crackled into focus. ‘Mr Desai,’ said Isabella. ‘We’ve analysed your serum. Preliminary tests confirm what you say: diffused through the blood, it disarms aggression vectors in mammalian brains. Making it a formidable weapon. In the wrong hands it could cause catastrophic pacifism and widespread loss of the competitive urge.’ She paused. ‘We are of course grateful that you chose to make your heri-data available to UGH but...’
Aidid continued: ‘... your very existence represents a dire threat to security personnel in the free world. Any unscrupulous business house could misuse you to win its brand wars at the expense of right-thinking consumers everywhere. We have no option but to place you under life-arrest...’ He droned on, citing the GeneSwap agreements of 1999 under which UGH could detain those citizens of inefficient business-states around the world, who were known to harbour hazardous hereditary materials. ‘Needless to say,’ he concluded, ‘we will mass-produce the substance ourselves for the use of our own marketing troops.’ Sitaram continued smiling, even when he was renamed with a code number: Gamma Two-Eight.
In the weeks that followed, Gamma spent his time touring UGH’s estate from his maximum-security cell. A wall-mounted Virtualizer allowed him to walk on a pacer as he surveyed the incubation laboratories, organ-farms and dupe-cradles. He saw gestating battalions of soldier-foetuses in see-through artificial wombs and rooms full of drowsily beating hearts, plump kidneys, glabrous lungs, all ready for transplant. He saw gleaming caskets of duplicants suspended in preconscious limbo till their millionaire originals required fresh bodies in exchange for damaged ones.
When he needed company he interacted in cosy virtuality with the other detainees in the facility. The majority had volunteered their genes for whole-body patenting. In compensation, their biological families enjoyed every luxury known to commerce aside from the right to reproduce. Pion Sixty-Three, a wizened hunter-gatherer from Urban Borneo whose pituitary gland was the source of life-saving anti-acne preparations said: ‘I fell for their “You sign, All dine” slogan. My family is prospering. But I’m BORED! Cybersex all day long, cyberhunts all night. It’s like being a duplicant whose original has died.’
A communication shield isolated the facility from the world, but information trickled in with new arrivals. ‘It’s madness out there,’ said Xhi Square, a melancholy Peruvian whose blood was found to cause night-blindness in teenagers. The Fourth World is being devastated by battles fought by the clone troops of competing MultiNations! The soldiers all share identical genes – so no-one wins!’
‘Be patient,’ said Gamma, ‘nothing lasts forever, not even tyranny!’ And he jogged out of visireach, smiling as calmly as ever. ‘Is that guy really serene? Or is it just his genes?’ wondered Xhi. Pion was silent. He guessed that Gamma knew something he couldn’t talk about on account of surveillance.
Meanwhile, the serum, dubbed Gandhitoxin, proved to be exactly as effective as Gamma said it would. It was delivered via clouds of reconstructed mosquitoes designed to function as air-borne hypodermic syringes. They infiltrated enemy lines through the air-conditioning and were as impossible to eradicate as their natural counterparts. Their initial bite delivered a pleasurable tingle, followed by triple-strength doses of Gandhitoxin. Instead of a high whine they produced a sweet musical tone just before striking.
UGH forces began to trounce their competitors all over the world. A consortium was formed to meet the threat. But it could not prevail. Beefy combat personnel, cloned from ten generations of war-heroes, wilted on the battlefields. Cyber-fighters staggered away from their work-stations in tears. Captains of Industry were reduced to whimpering heaps of guilt. A majority collapsed and died within minutes of being flooded with emotions lethal to their violent psyches. The few who recovered lost their muscle mass and became fanatically docile, unable at first to perform any tasks more hostile than tending organic herb gardens. Only very gradually did the side-effects begin to show up. It would be a full 12 months before rumours finally reached the detainees at UGH. ‘Have you heard?’ said Xhi excitedly to Gamma. ‘There’s a new kind of struggle going on!’ ‘It’s probably not new...’ said Gamma, mildly. But Xhi wasn’t listening. ‘Gandhitoxin survivors have become revolutionaries! They’re dismantling commercial institutions and reorganizing market places everywhere! They’re inverting the whole structure of international finance!’ Before he could go on much further he was cut off by a power-failure. Unthinkable before, they now occurred regularly even in the maximum-security detainees’ facility, heart of the UGH empire.
Not many weeks later, from the darkness of his cell, Gamma heard muted thumping. The power had been off for the longest time that he could remember. He sat in meditation, guessing that he was listening to the sound of rebels breaking in from the outside world.
A month later it was all over. Cease-commerce had been declared worldwide. Gamma and Pion deputed themselves to confront Isabella and Aidid, held in mosquito-free stasis till they agreed to be compassionated of their own free will. ‘We should never have trusted you!’ hissed Aidid at Gamma. ‘Your ancestor wasn’t merely a pacifist but a deeply subversive personality! He forced the British out of India and now you’ve destroyed the foundation of civilization as we know it!’
‘Not at all,’ smiled Gamma. ‘I cobbled together a handful of chromosomes and made them available to you. You did all the rest. You infected your competitors’ troops more effectively than I could ever have done with my modest laboratory facilities. The mosquitoes, for instance! They were a stroke of genius. Because of them Gandhi’s pacifism has gone planetary.’
‘But we screened for every known combination of undesirable traits!’ wailed Isabella. It was days since she had used her hairspray or done her nails. Her morale was at its lowest ebb. ‘I can personally remember erasing the tell-tale codes for disobedience and anti-social behavior! What went wrong?’
‘I can’t tell you that,’ said Gamma. ‘But as a researcher, I know how difficult it is to predict the long-term effects of manipulating hereditary matter. It’s like twiddling dials on an infinitely variable machine: you can’t guarantee the results. I didn’t know, for instance, that Gandhitoxin could actually kill anybody. I was horrified that it did. I beg forgiveness for those deaths. But I had faith in my ancestor’s precious ideals. I prayed that they were so deeply encoded into his genes that being infected with their clones would ultimately do more good than harm. I believe I was right.’
His eyes twinkled kindly at the two captives, believed to be amongst the last humans still capable of murderous anger, personal ambition, greed and lust. ‘Look. Can’t you see how happy the rest of us are? Don’t you want to stop struggling and start living?’
Aidid snarled: ‘I planned ahead for every contingency! I created self-dupes and stored them in hidden locations around the globe. They’re tuned to my bio-rhythm in such a way that the moment I die, one of them will emerge to take my place, complete with the whole data of my personality. And if that one dies, the next will take his place. And so on. You can’t kill me! I’m immortal! I’m invincible!’
Isabella was looking glumly at the walls of the stasis-cell. ‘But that means we’ll have to spend the rest of our lives in this isolation cell! Where’s the fun in that?’ Before Aidid could stop her, she’d switched off the stasis-shield and stepped out. ‘I’ll take my chances with the damn toxin. I believe that my character will overcome its effects. And when it does...’ Her eyes narrowed in pleasure. ‘I’ll have the market advantage over all you non-competitive sheep!’
‘Who knows?’ said Pion, shrugging as he and Gamma walked away. ‘Anything’s possible. Meanwhile, enjoy!’ Musical tones sounded behind them, as mosquitoes found their mark. A gentle smile distorted the usually frowning features of Aidid as he swooned under the influence of the bites. Isabella, tingling all over, lay back on the grass and, for the first time since childhood, slept without the aid of pills.
Manjula Padmanabhan is an artist and writer living in New Delhi.
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