The Slowdown

The Slowdown
Wikimedia Commons
‘The belly is still fertile from which the foul beast sprang’
Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

His cheeks hadn’t felt smooth for some time now. He has been using a branded manual shaving razor blade that had well passed its life span. Still he used it, even though it was becoming tough for the triple bladed product to do its job. It was also getting painful for him. But a bit of rough struggle every morning still felt less of an issue than the other aspects of his life. 

He hasn’t been sleeping well for over two years now. Sleep didn’t refresh him. He woke up at odd hours of the night: something that never used to happen before. 

For the last eight months or so, his strange dreams were also getting weirder. 

Once he saw himself on a funeral pyre. He was laid out on a bed of chopped wood. His body was neatly shrouded by a white cloth, except for his face. A large antique grandfather clock was placed by the side of the pyre. The clock was also dead; the pendulum didn’t swing; two arms which pointed to numbers were missing. There were a couple of priests – one of them was wearing a necklace of rodent skulls. A former boss — who was dead in waking life — was standing there with a digital camera, filming everything. 

Then his dreaming self sensed crippling anxiety. Something was wrong; the funeral pyre cannot be lighted because a password was required to log-in to a private mobile app. But no one knew the password except the one, who was dead. Two official looking bureaucratic men appeared. They were wearing trench coats and carrying black briefcases. They told the priests that without the required entries into the mobile app, the body cannot be cremated. It is a penal offence for dead bodies to turn into ashes without clearance from private authorities. The body will have to be taken to a detention centre for the illegal dead. 

Then some other scenes occurred which he didn’t grasp clearly. The last images were of a police team who had arrived wearing anti-riot gear. The dead body was handcuffed and hauled into a van. 
A crowd had gathered. He stood with the others, and watched the van, carrying his deceased body that had committed a crime, drive away within a cloud of smoky pollution.


Whenever he would wake up from such dreams, he will realise that the sense of constant anxiousness within his heart would have become more pronounced. His mind would feel numb; his tongue will taste bitter. Nothing will excite him and the sensation of things falling apart or the ground beneath him giving away will start to haunt, once again. 

He had thought earlier that he will get used to live like this. The abnormal will soon get normalised; things will begin to bother, less and less. All he has to do is to keep acting that everything was ok. Even the worried frown of his resting face — that provoked questions like ‘are you fine’ or ‘is something wrong’ — will also go away. 
But that didn’t happen. The heaviness behind his head and neck became more severe; his mental state also kept surfacing on his face. He couldn’t hide malaise under his smiles. 

The dosage of his regular medication – for blood pressure, anxiety and sleeplessness — had to be increased. His poker-faced elderly family physician had indicated that he should think of doing ‘something more’ to relax his tensed body that was stuck in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, while his mind also required ‘specialised care’. 
Intuiting his reluctance to agree to more expenses – to go for a vacation or to seek help from a psychiatrist — the perceptive doctor had suggested, ‘Do deep breathing.’ and had added, ‘You can learn it for free on YouTube.’ 

Soon a routine developed for him. Not so much on a daily or weekly basis; but a monthly pattern took shape. He would do more spells of deep breathing exercises at the latter half of the month, when it was the time for the bills to arrive. 

He felt like a foot soldier of a medieval army, carrying a shield and a sword, in front of a platoon of metal tanks. This scene had also occurred in one of his dreams. The feeling of being utterly vanquished: without help or hope. 

The breathing exercises were effective to calm his usual anxiety, make it manageable, but they couldn’t erase fear. He still couldn’t muster enough courage and read the SMSs that showed the due amounts of his four credit cards. 

Whenever those SMSs arrived, he would delete them immediately, while trying to look away. As if they were the most frightening scenes of a horror film that couldn’t be watched. He had been paying only the minimum due amount for seventeen months now. He mentally calculated the rate of constant increase and paid within the due dates. But the potential shock of the total combined due amount, still crippled him. He didn’t fear facing death; but he feared facing debts. He was unable to stand up to it. He shoved it away for later. 


When he met a couple of his old boyhood friends, once in a month or two, they had already shifted the venue away — on his insistence — from the hipster bars to the cheapest dives. He had even changed his drink from whiskey to rum. The length of the occasional cigarettes had also reduced. 

One of his friends worked in a local news channel, with a midlevel ranking. He liked to talk about popular cinema, movie stars, television serials, reality shows and one-day cricket. 
But for the last six months or so, he only spoke of how the advertisements had sunk in his channel; how he feared losing his job and despaired, in terror, if he did so, what will happen to his family: aged parents, homemaker wife, school kid and a pet dog. 

The other friend was a bachelor, mildly alcoholic, marijuana addict, lived on rental income out of his old crumbling inherited property, voracious reader, geopolitical aficionado and self-published poet. He would always recite lines from his new — often bilingual — poems. 

The last poem which he had recited in a haze of intoxication –by looking at his phone – had a title inspired from a 19th century book by a Danish philosopher. 

Fear and Trembling 

‘He follows his heart’s desire, but having found what he sought he wanders round to everyone’s door with his song and speech, so that all can admire the hero as he does, be proud of the hero as he is’ - Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

‘People are drinking poison sold as nectar / Devils are wearing masks of gods / Illusion is truth / Truth is a convict / Fear and trembling / fear and trembling.’ 

‘Let us applaud to the genocide of democracy / let us agree that all wealth belongs to a few/ Let us eat hallucinogenic mushrooms / over our enemies, let us dream of mushroom clouds.’ 

‘Stars of our nation have changed in the chart / this is no longer the land of non-violence and peace / this is the land of national security / Stars and Stripes and Star of David.’

‘Divide and Rule, rule and divide / instil fear, infuse hate, inject trauma / Religion, race, narcissism and supremacy / Halakha and Manusmriti, Manusmriti and Halakha.’ 

‘Read the second part of Ginsberg’s Howl / Moloch is rising here now / Heed to the futile warning of Ginsberg / 
‘Nightmare of Moloch!’, Mental Moloch!’, ‘cannibal dynamo’, ‘whose blood is running money’, ‘Ashcans’, ‘dollars’, ‘children screaming’ / ‘pure machinery’, ‘prison’, ‘soulless jailhouse’, ‘love is endless oil’, ‘vast stone of war’, 
‘Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks’. 

‘All is well, all is well / we are a new colony / Burning ground of Washington Consensus / Statue of Inequality.’

‘O fate of our ancient land / elites sell us to imperial powers / Supreme leader is a puppet on strings / Bow to the Glorious Puppet Masters / Hail the New World Order / Give them rights to trade our livers and kidneys / Sovereignty is unconstitutional, freedom is enslavement / Speak only in silence or in cheers of approval.’
‘Let’s give consent for the war to be raged on us / by the way of deception. / Let’s sacrifice for the work of a nation / for the centre of intelligence.’ 

‘Come lets worship traitors as heroes / lets sell all our public assets / Lets surrender to the pillage and plunder / Lets remain hypnotised with hysteria / Lets allow them to sodomise us / as much they want, again and again.
 ‘Beware, beware, become aware for God’s sake / for country’s sake, for decency, for soul and for future / Rise and resist, resist and rise / the hour has come for us to be heroes / Famine of conscience will lead to famine of hunger / Dead souls will lead to dead corpses / Fear and trembling, fear and trembling.’ 


An eccentric poet with scandalous ‘ban-worthy’ poems – sure to be interpreted as preposterous, dangerous and unacceptable — and an anxiety-ridden employee — who cannot utter anything remotely positive even in a thought: both of his boyhood friends depressed him further. They drained his energy and left him feeling unwell. He could feel his shoulders slump. His legs felt heavy. He didn’t enjoy their company any longer. He didn’t want to meet them anymore. 

That was just the beginning of his social isolation. His wife — troubled by the downturn of his business — left for her father’s house in North Bengal that was 560 km away. It was a well planned decision, not a sudden act of mercurial emotions. She had visited the bank’s locker, took all the jewellery and the relevant papers which concerned her. She took their only daughter of ten years, after obtaining a school transfer certificate that had to be applied for earlier. Most of their personal belongings: clothes, shoes, toys and other items were taken; even a couple of paintings which were a gift to his wife from a relative were removed from the walls. 
Only things left — with the security man of the apartment building — was a brief message and the keys to the apartment. 

After four days, his father-in-law called to say that they will be filing for a divorce. ‘I never liked you. You appeared to me as a malfunction, an imminent letdown,’ his father-in-law declared, ‘My hunch has been proven to be true. My only daughter and my only grandchild cannot suffer like this. You have shut down all their pleasures: dancing class, singing teacher, art school, movies, restaurants, shopping, beauty parlour visits and annual vacations. You have stopped the subscription of the film magazines which my daughter loved to read. You have drastically reduced the money you gave her for monthly expenses. You have cut off popular channels in the cable subscription. You have sacked the driver. My daughter has to avail public transport. The permanent maid left because you didn’t agree to a raise that she required. There is only a part-time novice maid who is unreliable; she goes missing for days. My daughter has to cook, clean and wash clothes. The physical labour and mental strain have been unbearable for her. Her good looks and delicate health have suffered. She had been brought up like a princess, but you have turned her into a servant. My only grandchild is always unhappy. She has to witness regular domestic fights. She wanted a white puppy for her tenth birthday; but that too you couldn’t afford.’

‘They don’t have any promise of a proper life with you anymore. All you can offer is a regression into a sense of non-living. A paralysis. A catastrophe.’  

‘Your finances remain at the subsistence level. Yet you squabbled with my daughter and disallowed her to take money from me. Your false pride is laughable. I cannot allow this to continue. My daughter has agreed for the divorce. My grandchild doesn’t miss you that much. She will be better off without your influence.’ 

He felt more alarmed than humiliated. The words panicked him. The throbbing heaviness on the back of his head shot up. He begged for more time. ‘It’s the slowdown, you see,’ he implored, ‘Give me some more time. I am trying to improve the business. I keep calling all my clients, but I also don’t want to annoy them. The market is really bad; customers of my clients have also vanished. It’s like a disastrous domino effect: one falls and everyone keep falling. There is an overall liquidity crunch. I have run up huge debts. I was simply cutting costs to pay back the debts.’

‘Things will become normal once again, like before, after the business picks up. Such things take time. Everything cannot go smooth always; one has to face hard times.’

‘Please don’t send me divorce papers. I will be totally shattered. I love my wife. I love my child. Don’t take them away. Please give me time. It’s not my fault; it’s the slowdown.’ 


For four months now, he has been unable to talk to his wife and child. The wife’s phone number no longer exists; his only contact is the father-in-law. His wife had also blocked him on social media. A sly relative from his wife’s side informed him that his child had joined a new boarding school in the hills. His wife had posted photos of herself in a social function on FB. She was escorted by an acquaintance of her father: a local star politician of a national party. He was from one of the ‘richest business families’ in the small trading city that has witnessed new political upheavals. They looked ‘gorgeous, resplendent and happy’. 

Everyday when he woke up, he feared that the registered letter from a lawyer would arrive. Every evening before going to sleep, he would think of taking the night bus, travel to the north, meet his family and bring them back. But his situation was worse than before. He had started thinking of selling his inherited apartment and five year old car. But real estate and car sales are also down. He won’t get a proper price. Whatever he will get out of a distress sale won’t be sufficient to clear all his liabilities; only way was to improve the business and make profits. And that looked almost impossible: it was the time of unprecedented doldrums. 

He regretted leaving his job seven years ago to start his own business. But it was proving to be a good decision before it all began to go downhill three years ago. His worries began with the shock decision announced on 8th November at 8 pm. Things got paralysed for several months; his business froze. His savings had to be used up to keep things running. 

Eight months later — when the business was painstakingly coming out of the coma — severe complications arising from a new technocratic tax system added more confusion and uncertainty. No one seemed to understand how it all worked; the confusing tax-slabs were also irrational and extractive. It further affected the small businesses, local traders and the supply chain. His worries became darker. The demand began to taper off drip by drip – like a slow death by a thousand cuts. 

Then something snapped once again eight months back: the remaining portion of the damaged demand collapsed like the weakened walls of a crumbling building. And now the demand is freefalling into the pit; but the bottom hasn’t been reached as of yet. He has no idea what to do next. He wasn’t used to praying. It appeared to him that the most honourable exit would be to die, and let the insurance company cheque go to his estranged wife. 


He had begun to think of railway lines and ceiling fans. Then he thought of bridges over rivers. It would have to appear as an accident; loss of control while driving on a bridge would work. His poet friend had told him that death by drowning feels pleasurable, even blissful: how did he know such a detail, wasn’t ever explained. 

Like it happens, the state of one’s mind attracts news that resembles it. He read a story of a young woman who had lost her job in the IT industry. But she was afraid to break the news to her parents. So for a month, she went out as if she was going to her office and wandered around the city aimlessly, before returning home in the evening. 

Acceptance of one’s bad news by one’s loved ones is an issue that can be heart wrenching. Dealing with the downturns which occur in life — which are cruelly interpreted as failures — is a much needed skill that is not taught anywhere. 

Posts about suicides by a diamond merchant and a coffee-shop-chain founder had already started to appear on his FB timeline.  The photos of people in tearful protests after having their life savings stuck in a collapsed scam-ridden bank also started to roll by. 

It was strange and harsh times. Most of the citizens were struggling financially and emotionally; he hadn’t experienced something like this ever in his thirty-five years of life. 

He felt attracted to news of distress: they gave him a sense of solidarity that he is not alone in his corner of isolated suffering. People’s woes have nearly disappeared from the daily psychodrama dished out on the television channels. The news largely spoke about a conjured reality — an imaginary world — that he didn’t live in. No one reports people’s stories; everyone sells establishment’s narratives. 

Whenever he could spot the stories on social media which mirrored his angst, he felt they were a representation of his own turmoil that people should know about. This comforted him. 

But he also had to deny himself those momentary senses of fleeting relief. He decided to quit using social media. He was receiving discomforting news and pesky questions from relatives about his family which he didn’t want to read or to answer.

Before he abandoned Facebook, he still gazed over whatever was sent and forwarded by his poet friend through WhatsApp. The weird geopolitically infused bilingual — even trilingual — poems like Deep State Ko Pranam Karo and Jai Jai Baphomet was well beyond his comprehension. He could never fathom the eccentricities of his poet friend who always said, ‘more one knows, weirder one looks to the people, who don’t know.’ 

Whatever he read in his present state of mind also felt more distant. He couldn’t clearly differentiate between what is meant to be real, satire, metaphor or joke: the most common qualities which pervaded his poet friend’s preferred genre of ‘geopolitical poetry’. 

But he liked one of those forwards about economics, politics and people’s suffering. It wasn’t a poem but a long write-up. It also contained these excerpts: 

‘Regimes come and regimes go. Those who force you to worship them by the jackboot will be remembered later with spite. Truths will come out; honest appraisals will happen; their legacy will be judged as disgrace. But they can leave behind lingering damage which can take decades to overcome.’

‘What is the rationale of enforcing a medicine upon the people that has proven to have disastrous toxic side-effects? Why are the imported Neoliberal policies of the crudest form — which are causing widespread rebellions around the world from France to Chile — being forced upon us? From cashless economy to data harvesting; from biometric identification to digital surveillance; from austerity to wholesale privatisation; from centralisation of power to unfettered propaganda machinery: all these are not Indian ideas prescribed in the Vedas and the Puranas: these are the ideas of the elite western powers: point 1 percent of the 1 per cent.’

‘Why do we need to bow to the psychotic Washington Consensus? It’s a weapon of mass economic colonisation that smashes national sovereignty, hands power to the corporations, funnels public money into private hands, sells out national resources, subverts the Constitution, undermines democratic institutions, gives rise to plutocracy, destroys equitable development, fosters social inequality and creates an oligarchic mafia state with an invisible appendage: a diabolical shadowy hand of immense chicanery and chutzpah.’

‘Who really benefits from such psychopathic neoliberal socio-economic policies which are ruining countless lives — the people or the 1 per cent?’ 

‘We don’t need Washington Consensus, we need Peoples Consensus.’

‘We need wiser economic and social policies now, or else we run the risk of facing permanent financial destabilisation, crippled economy, acute bankruptcy, back-breaking debt, devastating inequalities, fractured society, depressed masses, chronic backwardness, social anarchy and collective unrest.’

‘Dissent is love; love is rebellion. The rebel is a prophet of love that turns into a purpose that is greater than oneself.’ 

‘The rebel has to bring to focus all that is being hidden, distorted and suppressed. The rebel has to rip the curtain and reveal what lies behind.  The rebel has to throw a Molotov cocktail into the darkness. The rebel has to illuminate. Then only the greater awakening can happen.’ 

‘What is going on is not just a terrifying slowdown of the economy, but a slowdown of conscience, of propriety, of honesty, of decency, of civility, of goodness, of compassion, of intelligence, of wisdom, of freedom, of justice and of truth.’

His poet friend had a gift. The dramatic words managed to stir him. He copy pasted the long forward on his social media account. It wasn’t noticed — or ignored — by the 400 odd people who were there on his list. No one had left any comment. No one had pressed any icons of like, love, laugh, surprise, sadness or anger. 


After isolating himself from virtual life, he started to decline in both his mental and physical condition. He suffered a brief black out due to hypertension and hurt his right shoulder. The elderly family physician from his neighbourhood recommended extensive medical tests and a visit to a specialist. But he didn’t get tests done due to high costs. Neither did he go to the specialist. 

He also started to suffer from acidity and gastritis. His meals had become sporadic ever since his wife left. The maid also stopped coming; he didn’t look for a replacement. 

He made himself toast, boiled eggs and tea in the morning, and ate outside when he felt hungry. He no longer went to restaurants; he couldn’t afford them. He picked up cooked food from low-priced joints used primarily by the working class people. But his appetite had decreased. His nutrition intake wasn’t balanced. He lost weight. Dark circles formed beneath his eyes. 

The shrinking of his life continued. Everything contracted. The couple of staff in his small office also resigned. All his daily connections were severed. He had no one to talk to. He isolated himself further; crawled into a cocoon. Sometimes he would feel an urge to do something drastic and desperate. 


How does this story end is not yet known. There are several possibilities. If he didn’t survive the suicidal urge, he can end up in a river, and get fished out by fishermen on wooden boats. Or the main door of his apartment could be broken by the police, after the neighbours complain of a foul smell.
If he survives the crisis, he would require random help: an act of divine grace. A stranger gives him a contract that revives his business, or his boyhood friends arrive to help or he receives an inheritance from an unknown grand uncle. And eventually, against all odds, his wife and child also reunite with him. 

Maybe, instead of the two extremities of a tragic or a happy ending, something in the middle happens. Perhaps he survives, but his family doesn’t unite. His life takes an unexpected turn; an unthinkable incident occurs; he becomes someone else.


At this moment, he is in his two bedroom apartment that hasn’t been cleaned well for several months. 
Things start to fall apart rather quickly without concern and care. The apartment bore all the signs of abandonment and neglect. The floor is grimy; furniture is dusty. Intricate cobwebs have formed at the corners of the ceilings; unfinished webs are fluttering around the rims of lamp shades. 

Unwashed clothes have piled up on a sofa chair. In the storeroom a mice has given birth to a litter of four. An ornate wall clock in the living room has run out of batteries. A leak in a bathroom tap hasn’t been fixed. There are stale food and fossilised vegetables in the refrigerator. In the kitchen there is a pile of dirty dishes, smelly utensils and a cockroach infested garbage can. 

In the second bedroom a small gecko has died. Its shrunken carcass is releasing a lemony rotting smell that is hanging over the moist dampness in the air caused by late monsoon showers. 

He has turned on the television in the living room that no longer sees any visitors. He has stopped watching TV programs. He had already moved away from the news. But he used to watch sports, movies and wildlife channels with interest — and then blankly, trapped in his own thoughts. He has stopped that as well. 

The silence of the empty apartment without his family troubled him. It felt eerie: his eyes burnt, became moist. His breathing became shallow. His heartbeats felt irregular. So he turned on the television to fill the void with background voices and sounds, which offered him a sense of company. 

A female voice — interrupted by periodic advertisements — is narrating the happenings of her travel in a foreign city. The sound is reaching him through the half closed door of his bedroom. He isn’t listening, nor thinking. 

Numbed by the slowdown of his being, he isn’t bothered by the persistent bites of a tiger mosquito. 
Like a breathing stone, he is lying on his crumpled bed; his head resting upon a damp pillow. 
He is staring vacantly into nothingness. Oblivion is calling him sweetly from the abyss. 

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