Tell Me You Are a Phantom

Jul 9, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Fiction

The featured image has no relevance to the post other than the fact that the author of this post is a coffee lover. 

Finding true love is quite easy. You meet a girl, you throw in some silly jokes, you encourage her to laugh, you ask her number, you remain in touch with her for a year or so, you buy her a ring, you insert it in her finger and there it is, you have just found your life partner, your true love. These were the thoughts of Bilal Hammed, a twenty one year old university student, who was an ace player in the game of flirting. Although he was short, but his large eyes and wavy hair coupled with a “larger than life personality” had a certain charm for the opposite gender; causing him to be always surrounded by a bunch of girls who all shared a misconception of being his special one.

But Bilal fancied no one neither did he ever think that he was capable of feeling love. Even though he would make a girl feel special but deep down in his heart he thought of them as commodities: replaceable and disposable. The philosophy of one true love baffled him, and he was always unable to get his head around the idea of souls being created in pairs. It was in this frame of mind that he befriended Anum who met him in an inter-university competition. Anum was a girl with a perfectly round face and a slender figure. She had deep set eyes that showed you a glimpse of the universe they contained within.

Once Bilal took Anum to a local café. Summer was in full swing and the sun was making its glorious decent into the sparkling sea.

Nodding towards Anum’s Mocha drink, Bilal asked: “How does it taste?”

Anum replied quickly, with a ting of uneasiness: “Good…”

Bilal looked closely at her. This used to make his (girl) friends feel awkward at first but with the passage of time they grew accustomed to his penetrative look, and most of them cherished it as an indication of his absolute attention.

“Do you like chocolate?” said Bilal.

“Like? I love it! I could probably live on nothing else but chocolate for the rest of my life.” replied Anum.

“I could say the same for coffee but as with everything else, excess can be fatal. Same is the case with relationships, don’t you think?” He took a sip of his own drink. “I mean, the whole point is that you think about one person all the time then.”

“Of course, Of course, you being a stereotypic young bachelor would definitely think the same way about long term relationships,”

“No, seriously what’s the point of spending your entire life in the company of a single person, and don’t get me started on that dreaded phase, till death do us part”.

“What if your parents thought the same way as you do, do you actually think you would have enjoyed that wholesome upbringing? Anyways, different people have different opinions; let’s talk about something else…”

And so this topic was put aside, never to resurface during their subsequent conversations. Two years passed this way, and Anum turned out to be the only girl Bilal had dated for a time span greater than a fortnight. One day, Anum told Bilal about a proposal her mother was forcing her to accept. Although she tried her best but she was unable to conceal her distress.

Bilal got the cue, and after a long thought decided that he would ask Anum to marry him but secretly made up his mind to remain engaged for as long as possible. He was in no mood to get married, and accept a ton of responsibilities that are a part and parcel of that sacred bond.

So while they were both on stage during the wedding ceremony of mutual friends, congratulating the newly wedded couple, Bilal got close to Anum and whispered in her ear:

“I am about to ask you something and I want your support”.

Anum, without a moments delay, knew what the question was.

“But I thought you dreaded the phrase, till death do us part.”

“I think this isn’t the right time to call upon old demons.”

Saying that; Bilal got on one knee, and purposed to Anum on stage in front of their friends; silence fell upon the hall and for a moment everyone held their breath, including Bilal. Anum, feeling wry, curled her lips as if she was about to say “no” but then the word “yes” sprang from her mouth, and everyone went wild with joy.

After their engagement, Anum and Bilal started seeing each other more frequently. They used to share all things with one another, from the most trivial happenings to the most important events. Life seemed like a bundle of joy and happiness, and sorrows and pain were like objects of ancient past.

Three months passed in this manner. Than one day, Bilal was at the reception area of his office staring blankly at the T.V. screen, and trying to kill the remaining half an hour of his break time. He was idly listening to the news of a horrific car crash which had resulted in the death of the driver. One of his coworker took a seat beside him and inquired what the breaking news was all about. Bilal started relating all the details of the news he had subconsciously registered in his mind. He was still staring at the T.V. screen when something suddenly captured his attention. It was the number plate of the car still attached to the mangled wreckage. That simple arrangement of letters and numbers reminded him of someone. It was the registration number of Anum’s car.

For the next 6 months Bilal felt nothing; no pain, no emotions, no nothing. He was too numb to really care for anything. He didn’t cry at Amna’s funeral. Somehow he couldn’t get those tears to flow from his forlorn eyes. A profound grief clutched his heart. On recommendation of friends and family, he agreed to be treated for acute depression. Slowly but surely, life started returning to the way it was, without Anum.

No one can deny the healing power of time. So after almost one year, a smile was seen again on Bilal’s face. Instead of being tormented by Anum’s thoughts each and every day, Bilal used to think of Anum with a lesser frequency and a significantly lesser intensity. Eventually, he started dating again.

“Finding true love is quite easy. You meet a girl, you throw in some silly jokes, you encourage her to laugh, you ask her number, you remain in touch with her for a year or so, you buy her a ring, you insert it in her finger and there it is, you have just found your life partner.” said Bilal to a young girl he had taken out for a date.

“I think you have oversimplified the whole the process. It’s not that easy, you know.” replied the girl.

“Well, I was talking from my own experience.”

But even before uttering those words, Bilal knew there was something wrong, something very wrong. He knew what he said was a lie, a bunch of hollow words arranged in a despicable way. Who was he deceiving? Himself? All those dogmas he stood for? Suddenly a sinking feeling gripped his heart. He started hyperventilating. His date became conscious of his deteriorating condition and reached out to touch his shoulder in a supportive way but Bilal recoiled. He felt disgusted by that girl.

Bilal stood up and rushed towards the door in a hurry. He was unable to think straight. He got in his car and started driving rashly towards an unknown destination. The thoughts of Anum began flooding his consciousness. Who was he fooling? How could he overlook his defragmented soul? The entire world around him seemed like a lie, without Anum. This hopeless longing for Anum plunged him deeper into hysteria. It was not until one of his car tires punctured that he became aware of his surroundings.

Everything at home, from furniture to appliances, had a certain memory of Anum associated with it. Everything reminded him of Anum. He was convinced that Anum was his soul mate, his one true love. Gradually all the chains securing his sanity broke and he started plunging deeper and deeper into madness. This volcano effect was spurred by those antidepressant pills he had taken during the early stages of his grief.

Bilal started visiting places that were related, even in most trifling of ways, with Anum. He went to the university where she studied, the restaurant she liked the most, the café where he first took her on date, the wedding hall where he proposed to her and so on. He became a perfect embodiment of a madman. He broke all links to the outside world. He was in an appalling state of mind, where nothing else mattered, except Anum.

Bilal spent most of his time at the crash site of Anum’s car. He felt a certain connection with that particular crossing but loathed it from the depths of his heart. All that time he would constantly nag himself on being imprudent; ignorant to Anum’s true worth. He partly blamed himself for her death. Had he known Anum’s true worth, he would have taken better care of her, he would have loved her even more.

On one of these visits, Bilal’s hysteric brain came up with an absurd plan. He decided that there was no point in living such a bleak and miserable life and so he would take matters in his own hand. He would go against God’s will and try every possible way of reuniting with his soul mate. He drew a list of all the things he could try to get back to Anum:

  • Use time travel.
  • Find a way of creating Anum’s physical entity and instilling life into it.
  • Find Anum in the afterlife; commit suicide.

He wrote all the preceding points on a whiteboard and hung it inside his room.

From then on Bilal went to various universities and consulted their Physics department for the possibilities of time travel. At first he would barge into the classes or offices of eminent Professors and plead them for their help in building a time machine. He was always manhandled out of the university building. But then his maniac mind finally observed a trend and it adapted to the situation in its own delusional way.

All those efforts were to no avail since technology, even in its most advanced form, was still unable to free humans from the shackles of the present. The clock remained stubborn about the speed and the direction of its hands movement.

Companies that preserve human DNA or vital organs provided a glimpse of hope. Their only purpose is to store these reminisce of a human being with a possibility of future resurrection. Although they provide no guarantees but for tormented and distressed Bilal, they seemed like a sure, fool proof way of reuniting with Anum.

But there was one question asked by all of these companies that used to shatter the false hopes and dreams of Bilal. They all asked for Anum’s DNA. No one had preserved Anum’s DNA. To get to it would require digging up Anum’s grave. Bilal was still sane enough to shudder at the thought of disturbing his beloved’s grave. So, with a heavy heart, he crossed off that option from his ungodly list. Now there was only one item left on the list, untested and untried.

One day, in the middle of winter, with his shaggy coat on, Bilal made his way towards a nearby park. His mind was clouded by a profusion of various thoughts and emotions that struggled to get hold of his sense of direction. On one side he saw the golden ambience of sun flooding the evening sky, he heard the twittering of birds, he smelt the freshness of air and felt its cold spell work its way to the inner core of his body. All of this made him appreciate the beauty of this world in spite of his grief-stricken life.

But then he remembered the warmth of Anum he used to feel in his palm, when they used to walk side by side, hand in hand. That memory made all the splendor and magnificence of this immortal world, irrelevant. A sinking feeling clutched his heart once again and he made up his mind to try out the last option on the list.

So feeling dejected and forlorn, Bilal made his way towards an empty bench and sat down to say a solemn goodbye to this world. At the back of his mind, he planned to stop by the pharmacy on his way home. He decided that it was best to get over with it as soon as possible.

“Hello Muslim…hellsshhhsshsh”

Bilal looked over to find the source of this broken voice and found it to be originating from the laptop of a middle aged man sitting beside him. He presumed it to be a result of conversation on Skype with a poor internet connection.

“Hello Fahad, we meet again after a long, long time.”

This time around the voice was clear and with no interruptions. He noticed that the middle aged man had now starting typing furiously on his laptop. After 5 minutes, the man screamed out in sheer joy:

“Eureka!”

For a moment, Bilal was surprised by this sudden display of emotions. But he was too numb to care and so sunk again in the ocean of his thoughts. The middle aged man, somewhat irritated by the ignorance of Bilal, punched him on his shoulder, in a friendly way, and upon capturing Bilal’s attention said:

“Man, I did it! I finally did it! I am finally able to bring people back to life.”

At first, Bilal felt a surge of anger upon being disturbed in such a manner. But the man’s last sentence grabbed Bilal’s attention and without a moments delay he inquired:

“What do you mean by bringing people back to life?”

The middle aged man, fueled by his recent achievement, was quite verbal.

“Well, my name is Dr. Muslim and I am a scientist. So, for the past 10 years we were working on bringing people back to life. You see our human brain and a computer have a lot in common. Most importantly, they both use the same language that is they both operate on the language of zeros and ones, on and off. We have found that all our thoughts, feeling and even emotions can be replicated by a computer program. So that was specifically what we were trying to do, we were trying to make a software out of the memories of a person. This program can interact with everyone else in the same way as the actual person would. But just listening to the sound of our beloved ones wasn’t enough, so we went a step ahead:”

Saying this, Dr. Muslim tilted his laptop screen so that Bilal could get a better view of it. He saw a very clear and sharp image of an elderly lady, as if Dr. Muslim was having a video chat with her.

“Using the most advanced computer generated graphics technology; we can make the program imitate a person’s facial movements and expressions while they talk thereby creating a life-like experience of human conversation. Say hello, mom…”

The image on the computer screen turned towards Bilal and said “Hello”. But Bilal was too immersed in his thoughts to respond.

“Oh! What a taciturn fellow. Young boy, you looked distressed, what’s the problem?” said the computer program.

 “Can you make this software replicate my fiancée? She died about a year ago in a horrible car accident. Doctor didn’t even get a chance to save her, she died on the spot. I miss her. I hope you don’t need her DNA and stuff. I really don’t want to disturb my beloved in her grave.”

Bilal had no control over what he was speaking and at what pace he was speaking it. His mind was suddenly rejuvenated by this unorthodox chance of finally interacting with Anum again.

“We would eventually need volunteers for testing purposes but it is way too early to enter that phase. Heck, I have just removed the last bug in the program, a few minutes ago. Give me your number and your name; I would inform you when we are ready for human testing. But please, don’t expect my call till the next month.”

“Doctor, please, I beg you to develop a program for Anum! I would provide you with an accurate and detailed feedback about it. You can count on me!”

For a while the doctor did grow suspicious of Bilal’s mental health but the constant bombardment of his pleas and implorations made him buckle, at last he agreed on taking in Bilal as his first specimen.

“Alright, in a day or two my staff would come to your house and would try to collect as much data as they can about Anum’s nature. They would also take various photographs of your dwelling to increase the accuracy of various aspects of her personality. You know what would be most helpful? Anum’s dairy, did she used to keep one?”

“No, not that I know of,”

“Well than we will subject you to extensive questioning about Anum, please fully cooperate and remember all your information would be kept confidential.”

The anticipated visit by the team took place on a bright but chilly Sunday morning. There were 4 individuals, and each had a predetermined job to perform. One went about taking pictures of Bilal’s apartment; one started extracting all the written communication between Bilal and Anum from Bilal’s computer and cell phone, and the remaining two interviewed Bilal about Anum.

They asked all kinds of question such as how did Bilal perceive Anum’s looks, what was her voice like, what were her likes and dislikes, how was her sense of humor, things that made her angry and sad and happy and so on and so forth. Bilal surprised himself by answering all their questions comprehensively. Even though one year had passed since Anum’s death, he was still able to vividly recall the details of her visage and personality.

After a while, Dr. Muslim called Bilal to his lab. It was on the 12th floor of a high building and was artistically designed; indicative of the fact that the project was well funded. Taking Bilal to his office, he started conversing in a deep solemn tone:

“Bilal, let me clarify one thing before we proceed, we are taking a great risk in shape of this early human exposure of our product. We are still unclear about the effects of this program on human psychology and behavior. Now take a look at this legal document. It releases us from all kinds of responsibilities, in case something goes wrong.”

Bilal took the document and started signing various different sections without even reading the contents. Dr.Muslim was surprised by Bilal’s impatience but decided to remain quiet. After all, he was getting a specimen that was willing to go to any lengths to test his product and provide the much needed feedback.

“Here you go, please check if I have signed at all the required places.”

“That is good enough. All right, we are going to give you the program in a sec. Now, in a week’s time my assistant would come to your house to uninstall the program from your PC and bring it back to us for analysis. Remember, all your interactions with the program would be monitored by us here in the Lab, so I want you to keep your PC hooked up to internet at all the times. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes.”

“As a token of your cooperation, we would give you a free copy of this program, once we officially release it. We would price it around 5 to 6 lakhs.”

After completing various other formalities, Dr.Muslim handed over a USB containing the program and guided him on how to install it. Bilal couldn’t help control his excitement and wanted to reach home as fast as possible.  He drove rash but still thought he was driving way too slow.

Upon reaching home, Bilal rushed towards his PC and inserted the USB. For the next hour, he just sat in  front of his laptop screen staring at the installation bar which was taking an eternity to move from one end to another, a distance no more than 6 inches in the physical world. When the installation bar, touched the 100% mark, the laptop screen went blank. Bilal’s heart sank. Maybe, something had gone wrong with the program, maybe he had made some mistake while installing the program or maybe his laptop didn’t meet the required specs!

Bilal jumped from his seat and turned around, about to race towards the nearest computer store to buy a new, more technologically advanced laptop. Suddenly he heard a familiar voice.

“Bilal, is that you?”

Bilal froze in his footsteps. He could now feel his nerves pulsating against his skin. He slowly turned and saw Anum’s inquisitive face surrounded by what seemed to him like a celestial glow of the LCD.

“Why aren’t you answering me?”

Tears started rolling down Bilal’s cheeks.

“Yes, Yes,, it’s me; it’s your very own Bilal.”

They talked and talked and talked. Seconds turned into minutes, minutes into hours, and hours into days with absolute ease and no resistance. They talked about everything from old memories to how things had changed since Anum’s departure. Bilal was too joyous, too blissful to be distracted by his petty bodily needs of food and sleep. Anum, being a computer, a program, was immune to them.

“Look at you; you have made such a mess of yourself. What don’t you take me with you to the park? The change of environment would do wonders on you.” said Anum.

Three days had passed in this way during which Bilal remained indulgent in conversations with Anum.

“Oh, I can’t. Taking you to the park would mean losing the internet connection and Dr.Muslim has strongly advised me against it.”

Anum, with an innocent look on her face, replied:

“Well would you listen to me or that nut crack of a scientist?”

Bilal stared into Anum’s electronically generated eyes for a while than made up his mind to abide with her wishes. He unhooked the internet and took his laptop with him to a nearby park. Without being consciously aware of it, he chose the same spot to sit where, about three months ago, he had decided to end his life. It was spring now, and flowers could be found in abundance everywhere.

 “Bilal, will they take me away from you after 4 days?” said Anum.

“Yes but only for a short while.” said Bilal.

“So you do believe them? Bilal, what if they decide against launching this program? What would you then? How will we meet again?”

“Anum, you are just being paranoid, nothing of this sort is going to happen. After so much effort on the development of this software, they would have to be insane to back out.”

“So you are willing to risk losing me again? Your self-loathing over not being there for me was nothing but a lie, I guess…”

“Well, you are making a fuss about nothing. You know I love you, you know I would do anything for you.”

“Then hold my hands…”

Bilal was baffled by Anum’s request. Seeing a puzzled look on his face, Anum said mockingly:

“You say you can do anything for me but can’t even hold my hands, ha ha ha…the irony of it!”

“You know Anum that’s not humanly possible.” replied Bilal in a desperate tone.

“You are nothing but a liar. You can’t deceive me with your declarations of love. For the past one year I have been waiting for you on the other side. Waiting to hold you in my arms; waiting to spend an eternity in your company. But you, you are too busy enjoying your life on this filthy Earth. Why are you bent upon torturing me?”

Bilal was taken aback by what Anum had to say. He had no idea that it was not only him who was feeling the torment of being ripped apart from your loved one. Anum was feeling the same and with the pain in her voice, maybe she was feeling it with even more intensity. But then the logical side of his brain kicked in and he responded with an apparent disgust in his voice:

“What rubbish are you talking about? You are just a computer software, what do you know about the other side.”

“If I am just computer software than why don’t you close your laptop screen. Surely you won’t mind spending a few hours by yourself. If you think I am nothing but fake than what’s the point of having these long conversations?”

Three days had gone by since Dr.Muslim last heard from Bilal. He and his team were unable to log Bilal’s interactions with the software owing to the fact that Bilal had disconnected his system from the internet. Bilal had turned off his mobile and a repeated banging of his front door failed to elicit any response. Dr.Muslim feared the worse:

“I think it’s about the time we contact the cops, What if he sells our program to another software developer? We would be doomed! All our efforts, all our hard work would amount to nothing.” said Dr.Muslim to his assistant. He was going through the pictures of Bilal’s house in search for clues that may indicate his affiliations with another software company.

“Sir, you are worrying too much. Even if another programmer does get hold of our software, the codes are too complex to be replicated. Moreover, you should not forget that the version which we gave to Bilal was custom made for him. At worst, we could expect only Anum’s program to be copied which is of no practical use to anyone other than Bilal, himself.” replied Dr.Muslim’s assistant.

One of the pictures of Bilal’s apartment caught Dr.Muslim’s attention. The object of interest in the picture was in the background thereby needed zooming to view clearly. Dr.Muslim studied it for a while with a growing expression of concern on his face. Then he asked his assistant to immediately call the team which had visited Bilal’s house for the purpose of data collection. Addressing them, Dr.Muslim said:

“Why didn’t you guys report this picture to me?”

The picture was of Bilal’s white board containing the list he had drawn up of ways of reuniting with Anum. The last option was still uncrossed.

“Do you know what this implies? It means that our test specimen was psychologically unstable. Do I need to tell you guys again and again that the image our program portrays of a loved one is nothing but a manifestation of what an individual thinks of them, how they remember them, how they want to remember?” said Dr.Muslim, clearly frustrated.

“I am unable to see what seems to be so upsetting about this picture, for all we know, he may just be randomly scribbling on his whiteboard.” said one young scientist.

“What are you talking about? Can’t you see? Sooner or later our program would detect these pent up thoughts inside Bilal’s mind. Than who knows? It may even convince him to carry out his plan. That’s how we designed our program; to learn the traits of a user’s personality and adjust itself accordingly.”

After that, Dr.Muslim fanatically started searching for his car keys. His assistant handed them over to him. He asked two of his subordinates two accompany him to Bilal’s house. He drove as fast as his old age allowed him to. In the car one of his subordinate asked him:

“What is the worst that could happen?”

Dr.Muslim answered her question with an apparent annoyance at the girls’ ignorance:

“What is the worst that could happen? Well, Mr.Bilal may end up killing himself. The software may have convinced him to commit suicide in lure of reuniting with Anum again. Is that scenario drastic enough for you?”

The company reached Bilal’s house at dusk. First they rang his door bell but it didn’t take much time to recognize the futility of civility in the given scenario. Dr.Muslim directed the strongest person in the company to take down the door. He willingly obliged. Inside Bilal’s house a meek light came in from the windows, reminiscence of the sun’s splendor that faded away a short while ago. The house looked as if it had remained un-kept for ages.

“Alright, I am going upstairs to Bilal’s room, you guys search for him at the ground floor. Also keep your eyes open for any signs of foul play involving our software.” said Dr.Muslim.

Dr.Muslim now started to make his way to the upper floor. When he was half way up the stairs, he heard distinct voices conversing with each other but was unable to comprehend what they were talking about. As he drew closer to Bilal’s room, the voices started becoming more coherent. The voices were of Bilal and the computer generated version of Anum which seemed to be persuading Bilal to carry out its wishes. Dr.Muslim, still curious about how his software interacts with a human, pressed his ears against the door of Bilal’s room and tried to eavesdrop on their conversation:

“Bilal, it will all be over in a second and before you know it, we would be hand in hand gearing up for an eternal life of happiness.” said Anum’s voice.

“I don’t know what to make of it. You talk like my love, you act like her but at the end of the day you are just a computer program!” exclaimed Bilal, clearly agitated by the perplexity of the condition he found himself in.

Dr.Muslim heard Anum’s sobbing and was somewhat dumbfounded by the program’s profound display of human emotions.

“I…I thought you would go to any extent to reunite with me. You said so a thousand times, who knew they were nothing but lies, each and every moment we spent together was nothing but a lie!” shrilled Anum.

*Click Click*

It didn’t take long for Dr.Muslim to realize that what he heard was the sound of loading of a gun. He barged into Bilal’s room and saw Bilal holding a gun to his head. Their eyes met for a moment. What Dr.Muslim saw was a man’s intense yearning for his lover’s company and the madness, the hysteria that accompanied it.

In the next second, a loud bang was heard followed by silence.

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