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Chapter 1 - Monsters Born and Made - Introduces the protagonist, Sets the stage for the primary conflict, and Explores the protagonist's apathy and entitlement through a catalytic event (follows the Prologue which is mainly action and no dialogue)

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He’d been assigned as their group advisor from the start of her program. He was older than them by decades but his boyish cropped hair, lithe frame, the way he adjusted his glasses to sit just so on the bridge of his nose, the way he folded his sleeves up perfectly and fixed that tuft of hair with vanity, his quick wit, the way he used catchphrases from their generation in perfect tandem with paternal truisms…all made him a favorite with almost everyone. 

But of all these little things dwarfed in comparison to the way he yelled her name across the hallways. Waking up late that morning and being off schedule, not even having the time to get a quick bite to eat from the cafeteria before running to class and the hangriness that accompanied her low sugar moments, all evaporated as she heard it again. “Ms. Prabhooo”, he emphasized the ending syllable way too much always. For a moment she was actually happy that she’d skipped breakfast and wouldn’t have to hold her stomach in…oh, the vanity! 
“I’m still waiting for your promised synopsis Ms Prabhu. It has been three weeks to our conversation, and I would very much like to know where you stand with the companies you are talking to.” 

She’d been ducking this question and him. This final year had been grueling with the pile after pile of assignments, the various conferences they’d had to attend to network and talk to industry leaders, completing their independent research papers, and of course the never-ending regular course work that took up most of their weekdays. “I…yes, of course Dr. Bedi. I have two more companies to work with on confirmations to use their products and then I should be able to hand it in. It’s taken so long to just to get responses from these people…I should have had it in already, but…”. 

“The delays do have to be factored into your schedule, there is absolutely no point in committing to the work and then spending your energy more on campus events than in follow-ups. So, l should be expecting a response from you by the end of next week then?”

He’d known about the campus events she attended. A trickle of nervous excitement ran down her spine as she nodded in curt agreement to his question and walked suddenly taller to her next class. Chiding herself for these digressions, she tried to remind herself that he’d just allowed for another week and a half to finish a task she’d already let slide and there was no reason to let her brain behave like an obsessed teenager around their crush. 

Further delayed by this little encounter she got flustered to find out that her card wouldn’t beep her in effortlessly at the lecture hall door like it did every other morning. This had happened a few times now and today of all days when she needed to be in class on time!!
When the carding fever started taking over The State 10 years ago, it was limited to their wrist IDs, the little embedded chips they’d all had to go get injected, to be used as identity proofs. The long hours of waiting in line for their papers to be checked and a new CCN to be created, followed by the short but sharp zap into the underside of their right wrists took over the imaginations of all of them. And soon every little experience was digitalized. What a great turn of events this had been - no more carrying papers and waiting for hours at every government office - every bit of information on every citizen was linked to their Civility Card Numbers now. When she went to a doctor, they could quickly see the results of all the tests and diagnostics anyone had ever run on her in the past…she didn’t have to worry about carrying her test results around. When she went to the library, she could just have her wrist tapped quickly to ensure whatever she was carrying out was recorded and she would be able to renew the materials online. Gone was the time of carrying membership and loyalty cards for stores and gyms and worrying about carrying cash. Every vendor in The State had been equipped to handle tapped transactions, so that street vendors, stores, cinema halls, and everything else that could be commoditized was now easily accessible with a tap on their wrists. 

All of this had of course made their lives really streamlined once the actual process of carding over 2 long years had finally been completed. But those two years had been marred with many strikes, millions of words written in critical editorials about the government’s need to control its citizens, and so much hoopla over how this would negatively impact them all soon. But nothing had stopped the carding and those who bought into it. They stood in the lines grumpy for having to spend their time in this unproductive manner, but sure that it would lead to something good. All of that to now bring her to moments like these when inevitably it was her card that refused to tap her into class until it was too late. 

Noisily entering with a grunt and a thudding of the door when the card finally worked, she ran up the lecture hall stairs as Prof Mishra’s shrill voice called out in the middle of the snooze fest of a lecture about compounds that could be used at nanoscale with a, “Welcome to the class Ms. Prabhu. Hope we haven’t interrupted your busy morning with our need to talk about boring old chemistry.” 
Ignoring the chide with an exaggerated roll of her eyes, she slid into the empty seat next to Arun, one of the two friendly faces that had kept her sane through these grueling years. They had clicked as soon as basic introductions had taken place at the start of year one and had stuck together since. He’d kept the chair next to him reserved with two hefty books which he quickly picked up as Prof. Mishra shot her more annoyed looks at causing even the slightest noise while settling down. Arun’s face mirrored the annoyance, this was his favorite subject and now he would be associated with the troublemaker of the day.

late again, aru…tut tut tut, popped up on her screen as the laptop booted up. 

oi, stop the policing. got caught by pb in the hallway…hush now before she spots us and gives me any more grief.

They had called Dr. Bedi ‘Pretty Boy’ since day one. Quickly having developed a close friendship with Arun, she enjoyed the juvenile banter about Dr. Bedi. The name they’d given him in that first semester had stuck.

Hmmm should have known with that distant smile on your face. What’s he want

Your number! 

She snickered inwardly and tried to focus. These were just extra credit courses they needed to take, but much needed credits, nonetheless. Competition was stiff and with hundreds of brilliant minds around them vying for the same handful of jobs, they had to give it their best and then some. Prof. Mishra’s material on semiconductors and their use in optometric devices had intrigued her. It would help her with the research project, but her big goal was to land a job with a defense firm. Her father was an ex-army man and sure enough she had wanted to use her skills to help those on the frontlines be better equipped. But so much work was still pending to even get started… and the first step was getting permission to use materials already legally permitted to be used to make military equipment more efficient. Right now, with deadlines seeming impossible, she would clutch at anything to make sense and provide her more background to finish her synopsis, so Arun’s need to tease her about Dr. Bedi’s attentions was just planting more distractions in her already scattered head. A head that should be focused on assignments and research, but one that kept thinking of how his lips moved, how his arms fit just snug in that shirt and the way he had definitely noticed what she had been into instead of completing her synopsis. Surely not every professor knew this about every student who had delayed a submission. Arrgh, she yelped out loud as she felt a sharp pain on her toe - it was Arun’s foot stubbing hers of course, giving her a knowing quizzical smile with his half-squinted tilt of the head. Omg, was she that obvious! 

Days like today turned into slow painful of hard work in this final year, making it seem longer than the 10 months of study it was supposed to be. If making higher than everyone else on grade point averages for assignments and exams wasn’t enough, the faculty had instituted a panel that evaluated their individual research projects. The chosen five, quite literally called the golden five, were allowed to present their projects with a 10-minute oral, a demonstration, and an open question session with industry leaders from around the world. Her heart beamed with pride every time she thought of the sheer opportunity to be able to study at an institution that provided such moments to shine for its students. The marketing unit of their institute travelled all year to showcase previous year’s winners. She’d heard so many times how the country was going to the dogs, but she never understood where all the negativity was coming from. There was so much opportunity if you only knew how to chase it and make it your own. Yes, there were some who just would not be able to afford these universities, but there were always ways - the multitude of grants and scholarships available to those who were willing to go the extra mile. Even God didn’t help those who didn’t help themselves, or something to that effect, right? For now, Dr. Bedi had showed great confidence in her project being chosen. She’d worked hard to understand the limits of current science to create the illusion of invisibility in soldiers. At the moment, companies that had delved into cloaking were creating tightly spaced nanowire placed in minuscule cylindrical devices to emanate light at angles that allowed the device to be almost invisible, not completely, but almost there. The problem was that this was only possible for ultra-small fixtures - to the degree of 10 nanometers in diameter to 60 nanometers in length… or in humanspeak, at a human hair being as wide as 100,000 nanometers, this was a setup that would be invisible to the naked eye. Using several such fixtures on say a Kevlar vest to cover a soldier was too expensive to make it financially viable for the benefit it would provide for intelligence agencies. 

She had, during her four years of study at the university made it her mission to find ways of decreasing the cost of manufacturing nanowires by using more economic oxides and extending the scope of being able to create defensive cloaks that allowed for inconspicuousness to a greater degree. It was a brave attempt and one that needed a lot more work, but her sheer passion in getting what she wanted had made a near impossibility seem feasible. 

As her work on the project heated up, the homey camaraderie that had started off in her initial interactions with Dr. Bedi was growing into a fun friendship. No one else in their year was able to boast such easy fellowship with their advisors and the amount she got to learn with him was helping her make great strides in her research. All texts to him met with prompt responses… there was coffee on her desk when she came in early to the research lab. Difficult to obtain contacts at companies who had never entertained her requests before showed up in her email with a smiley face. The grin that rarely played on her lips when she was busy with college work had now earned a steady spot on her face. And he wasn’t the only reason for it. If selected as a golden, her project and its applications in the present-day State with all its focus on a technology-dominated future seemed to be primed to open opportunities for her that she’d never even dreamed possible. She was going to prove her dad right when he calmed her mom down with a “Give her some time, she has the right focus and attitude to win. She’s going to kill it.”

Her vocals were almost ready, but she needed to fine tune her demo a bit more and was getting stuck - maybe today would get her to the breakthrough that she needed desperately before her time was out. Maybe she could use the almost-quiet that the lab afforded her on this Saturday morning, with only a handful of students trying to work on their submissions instead of the teeming dozens. The review submission was of course just weeks away now and Dr. Bedi had been hounding her mercilessly to get her materials right. She was going to try and create the thinnest possible wire today from a special family of semiconducting materials that allowed for the monolayer circuitry to have greater toughness and flexibility. Just as she had gotten ready with her PPE and gloves to work under the fume hood on the nanowire fabrication, and had adjusted her splash goggles to get working, a loud crashing thud jolted her out of her focused frame of mind causing her to drop the probe she was holding and bump into the table behind her, making her laptop and notebooks fall on the floor. “FUCK! What the heck was that…!” A couple of versions of the same sentiment were heard across the lab as a bunch of them ran out, necks craning eyes darting around to figure out what had messed up a morning of quiet work. What awaited them resulted in deep gulps, sudden flying of hands to surprised open mouths, cries of shock and dismay as their minds tried to make sense of the grotesque sight in front of them. A human form seemed to have come crashing down the tall research lab building, landing with a loud thud on the concrete and glass lattice that acted as the roof that they stood under when they waited in the sun for their rides to pick them up or their food to be delivered. More than half the lattice structure was still sticking out from the building’s facade in giant naked shards while the remaining had fallen on the tar below…they had to squint up at the glaring sun, hands protecting their eyes to make out his form. The bottom half of his body disfigured and splayed across the remaining lattice that had unflinchingly stuck to its place, while his torso hung down, arms limp and flailing given up on a life that had turned into a public spectacle in its most private last moment. 

Many averted their shocked eyes as a gentle buzzing of talk surrounded them and after an excruciatingly long wait a stretcher appeared with four men…two holding the stretcher and two with a tall ladder, for the body would now have to be brought down from its lofty final resting place. The day quickly turned into one of furtive glances and long silences as some sense had to be made… the public announcement system allowed their soft-voiced dean to quietly let everyone know that the next two would be observed as a period of mourning for the one they had lost. 

As afternoon quietly made itself felt, the campus became slow and devoid of activity, any talk now only happening in hushed whispers in small groups as quiet sobs and condoling hugs took over. The usually buzzing cafeteria was quiet and almost deserted. She made her way over to where a couple of students from her group were sitting, barely touching their now-cold plates of food. Giving a side hug to the girl closest to her, she shot an inquiring look at Aadil sitting opposite, with quickly raised eyebrows.

“It got really bad this past week Aru, you know of course how Rishabh and his friends had planned that outing to the beach last weekend. Deepak had never been invited to these, but this time someone decided to let him come as well and of course since then, it’s been downhill for the poor boy.” Aadil tried to summarize the event for her in his somber tone, but none of these words made any sense.

“Wait…so there was a beach outing last week, yes. And then he decided to jump off the roof of the research lab? Why? What happened?” Riddhi, the one next to her, started to sob a bit harder at this, making it even harder to understand what really was going on. 

“Well, Aru you know he was from a modest background. His father was a plumber, I think, and his mother was a domestic worker. He never had imagined being in a place like this studying with those who were born with a silver spoon. But he was always so determined and of course, really smart too. So, he made it happen and his parents were able to get multiple loans to send him here. Of course, no one ever knew how he was a Dalit until Rishabh’s friends uploaded a picture to their social and someone they knew responded to ask what their housemaid’s son was doing on a beach with them.”

Riddhi added amid her sobs, “Someone else in the group made a meme and it went viral pretty quick. He heard the words ‘down-market boy’ a lot this past week and we saw him… oh, if we’d only known then how bad it had gotten! But we saw him rushing through the hallway just two days ago and we just assumed he was headed to a class or something… we only found out today about the meme and all that happened at the beach.”

“Something other than the meme happened too?”

“Well, yes… someone wrote the words – quota boy, on his bag pack at night and it became the only way they talked to him that entire weekend.”

“Well, that is just awful. Who knew that instead of thinking about their studies and work our friends here had been busy bullying some of the students. Didn’t he complain though? He should have, right? They would definitely not let something like this fly!!” Her voice was deeply furrowed with indignation and hope that someone had tried something, but Aadil let his head nod disapprovingly.

“Doesn’t look like he did – it seems the university is as shocked as the rest of us. The only thing they’ve been able to find out is that he did call his parents a half hour before he jumped. He was in his room and that roommate of his, what’s his name, the one with that big puff of hair hanging onto his forehead…oh, the one with the loud stinky rich-boy perfume, aahhh, I forget his name, well he has been telling everyone that he’d just heard Deepak tell his parents that the trip had gone well, and he was back and busy studying. Apparently, nothing had seemed out of the ordinary to him, but then again, he probably was too self-absorbed to notice.”

“Don’t say that Aadil…what does it say about people like us. We didn’t really try and find out what was going on either.”

“We couldn’t have Riddhi – we didn’t know. But now that we do, we have to figure out what can be done about these bullying incidents. We have to rally support for those who did get admission on quotas and make sure they don’t get similar treatment or worse now 
And so, they went between the two of them, trying to find fault with themselves for actions that had no connection to them. She excused herself and stayed in a dull corner of the library the rest of that day, disturbed by the sight that had come crashing into her morning… trying to keep her focus on her work instead. 

Her being upset to the point of inaction wasn’t going to bring back the one they’d lost. She would go back to the lab tomorrow. She wasn’t unaware of the whispers around her of course, she could hear what was going on and was shocked to hear what had been said about the deceased student, the bullying he had endured. It sent shudders down her spine to think of how empty some of their souls were to feel like they could say vile things to someone repeatedly for their own entertainment. When she finally ambled into her dorm that evening, too tired to even think about eating before turning in, Diya and Arun were huddled in the hallway with Aadil, Riddhi, and a few more of their empathizer buddies. (That’s what she’d started calling them. Her father had showed her an old ad for a lithium battery where a little bunny ran tirelessly in circles, powered by this amazing source of energy. These people were the empathizer bunnies - constantly running their lives on empathizing with others…tirelessly chasing things that wouldn’t benefit them one bit and having zero goals for themselves. Having attached a funny label and mental image to them made it so much easier to keep herself detached from their propaganda.) So here they were, huddled up, hugging, and quietly sobbing…and just as she thought she could sneak past them into her room, she was being summoned. Ugh!

Diya was the first one to speak, in her soft-could-melt-anyone’s-heart-voice, “Aru…hey, you doing ok? I know you saw the b…him… had to see him this morning. Must have happened while you were in the lab. You’re ok, right? You look ashen.”

“I’m ok, fine really. It was ghastly, yes. It’s horrible how people we study and hang out with everyday can be so cruel, such bullies.”

Arun this time, “Yes, that’s what we were just talking about. Apparently, his mom’s picture had been made into a meme and sent around last night and it reached him as well. It’s just shameful. But Aru, we need to do something. There’re more Dalit students on campus like him and we were talking about how this shouldn’t have an effect on them as well. We need to put our heads together and make sure such things don’t happen again.”

Aru nodded in silent agreement, but something in her prompted the words that came out of her being next, “Sometimes I wonder why we have these quotas in the first place, I mean…think about it. What are we trying to do here blending worlds that just don’t co-exist? And then the ones who come from less fortunate backgrounds constantly have to try to keep up and end up feeling this hopeless sense of not belonging.”

Those thoughts were not her own, she’d heard them in the living rooms growing up, at the many parties and dinners when her parents and their friends had fought injustices with bottles of chilled beer in their hands or ice cubes clinking in a sea of dark, aged scotch. Expensive tailored clothing, jewelry that wanted to stand out, heels that edged them closer to being equal to their husband’s stature…and the words that conveyed concern at the many trespasses people made against each other in life. Words she’d heard at these extravagant occasions blending in with those she then heard on television from the ones peddling news and then again repeated by people that got elected passionately to lead them to a future of glory. The words that she had never given a second thought to but allowed herself to agree with. Were those even things she felt ok feeling? Now that they had popped out of her mouth, they made her quickly unsteady. Unsure as she saw the disgusted reactions in the group around her, the only thing that gave her solace was that their opinions really didn’t matter. They would empathize with anything and everything. That’s what they did. They found the worst possible feeling in every situation and stuck to it and made friends with it and rode the disappointed high to an end that no one could really understand. She didn’t have to worry about what they thought of her. No, the momentary flicker from her conscience had exhausted itself with logic and she would stand her ground.  

They tried to talk her out of it, to argue and dispute how she could feel this way, but she had already made a mockery of them with her imagination turning them into busybody little bunnies worrying about things they would never be able to change. Was this the first time a boy or a girl from a lower class had been bullied or had ended their life because it had been too much to keep going? Did they imagine that their endless needling of such “issues” would lead to any real change? Because the world would stop being exploitative and would suddenly realize the largesse of their hearts and give way to a flowering meadow that allowed for peace and equality and happiness. Such sad idiots. Why didn’t they focus on using the opportunity they had to turn their life into something that wouldn’t allow them the time to think of such sad events? That was within their control, right? So, shouldn’t that be what they did instead?

Amazed at how strong she’d been able to be in the face of such distractions, she apologized for being so fatigued and said she’d definitely talk to them tomorrow. She just needed to lay down for the day. Hugging a couple of them that she knew, rather perfunctorily, she squeezed herself into her room, ready to collapse and call it a day. 

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