“Hi Ram.” Ms. Natasha greeted him with the signature ‘Hathaway’ grin as she entered the store.
“She seems upset. Her boyfriend must have done something dumb again.” Akira voiced Ram’s thoughts aloud, enough for the guy at his counter to hear. She must have heard it too, but Ms. Natasha was busy lighting up the store behind her “Anne Hathaway Model No. IV, Oscars edition” veil to pay the comment any mind.
“Akira!! There’s another customer here.” Ram gave an apologetic look to the middle-aged guy getting his purchase packed. But too his dismay, the man gave a chuckle instead. ‘Don’t do that.’, Ram groaned silently, ‘Don’t encourage her even more.’ As he packed the “Vito Corleone limited edition” veil that he had only taken out of the cryogenic chamber last week, Ram guessed that the man was probably wearing a “Jeff Lebowski”, one from his own signature collections.
“I know what you are thinking.” Akira spoke after the man left, “The guy must be into a lot of vintage classics.” Her mischievous eyes brightened up as she crafted yet another conspiracy theory in her head.
“Yeah, sure.” His neutral comment made her shut up and move back to her terminal.
Situated inside a maze of alleys and narrow passageways in the centre of Calcutta, Ram’s shop was the go-to place for anyone looking to purchase limited-edition custom-made veils. Although a majority of population still purchased mass produced ones, specialist veil making shops has started gaining moment in last 25 years, cropping up like mushrooms all over the world, and Calcutta was at the centre of this trend. Ram’s shop specialized in creating veils based on characters from the fiction of early 21st century. Initially started as a side project, the shop gained a cult following soon. He has even received a recent offer from a large player in this business, and the only thing stopping him from selling the shop was Akira.
Although he was a talented veil maker, he himself preferred one of the mass produced “Cool Salesman” lines. He felt it gave an authentic air to his job. Akira, on the other hand, always wore the “Monkey D. Luffy” veil, which she had crafted with her own hands in the basement of the store. It was an iconic character from a famous Japanese show, and was particularly popular with the VR gaming communities of Calcutta region.
Ms. Natasha’s chirp interrupted his train of thought. “Could you help me out a bit Ram? My boyfriend just lost some money in gambling and I need to scold him for that. Which one of the veils should I choose?” Akira gave Ram the ‘I-told-you-so’ look before chiming in. “May I suggest a new one I took out of the chamber last night?”
“Sure, why not?” Ms. Natasha was excited to try out the new collection made by Akira. Excitement bordering on disbelief. Having worked in this industry for a decade now, very few people could see it better than Ram.
Although the veils manufactured in the early days only helped a person to adapt some mannerisms and traits of the imbedded veil persona (IVP), the modern form completely overrides the host’s original personality. So much that nobody can ever tell a person’s original emotion anymore. All others can see, hear, talk to or feel is the personality which the veil and its wearer intends to convey. Ram still remembers the day they first told everyone about this technology. While some criticized it as a monstrous creation, others praised the advancement of our technological prowess. “Hiding your true personality behind a mask will destroy the very essence of what makes us human.” shouted a large section of pundits, philosophers and psychologists as it gained traction among others. Fearing backlash, the UN never allowed the original inventors to file a patent. So, they shared the research notes on live TVR, and all hell broke loose.
Five years later, the first astronaut to land on Mars was wearing a “Neil Armstrong” special edition veil. She even quoted the famous small-step-giant-leap thing, although it was in Chinese this time.
Akira bought the ‘Ripley‘ mask for Ms. Natasha to try on. “It’s from a classic 1980 movie.” Ram explained.
“Oh, I really like it.” Ms. Natasha said after using it on the terminal. Can you get it delivered to my home address?”
“Nat is furious. I can see it in her manners. Even a Hathaway has its limits, and I thought I’d never see that in life.” Akira spoke after she had left.
“This actually makes me wonder. You remember that one guy?”
“The ‘Che‘ mask.”
Ram remembered him well. A 26-year-old Investment Banker wearing a ‘Che‘ veil, the guy was asking for a ‘Ron Swanson’ custom build. Ram had to watch the whole series thrice to properly develop the personality and then embed it in the masking gel.
“How do people like Nat and that guy do that?” Akira kept up with her rant.
“Do what?” Ram said under his breath.
“Change their personalities by almost 180 degrees. I can never go from Luffy to Levi in an instant. It’s as if they have….” She stopped in the middle of her sentence but Ram kept his quiet, forcing her to complete it instead, “As if they have some kind of a split personality.” Akira’s voice trailed off as she ended her sentence. He waited for a few minutes for her to continue. When he realised that nothing was forthcoming, he started putting the demos back into the freezer.
“I’ll put the inventory back in the store.” Akira picked up the experience terminals and started moving them in the basement. Ram was still counting the day’s cash when she closed it down.
10 minutes later, he pulled his shop’s shutter down under the neon streetlights playing around in the monsoon drizzle. Akira had already put on her jumpsuit and was opening up the padlock of her hoverboard. He went up to her, “What about dinner at Chinatown? I need to talk to you about something.”
“What you want talk” Akira tried her best to speak with a mouth of Park’s special noodles. Her table manners never failed to lighten Ram’s mood. “One more bowl of soup, would you?” He signalled to the Chef.
“Sure.” The old man bowed a little. Ram liked the guy and always ate at his shop whenever he visited Chinatown. It was tucked inside one of the narrow alleys off the left side of the entrance. A first-time visitor would have a tough time finding it in the crowded, narrow streets. But for old timers and regulars, Park’s shop was ‘the noodle shop’ in all of Calcutta. Although everybody called him Park, Ram was sure that it was not the real name of this decorated veteran from the Second Korean War. Park seemed to wear a veil of some legendary Korean chef of the 19th or early 20th century, although he had never asked him about it.
“What I wanted to talk about,” Ram turned towards Akira, “is the thing you said back in the shop.”
“About split personalities.” She quickly gulped down the soup. “So…. you think it’s true?” Her eyes suddenly lighted up.
“What” Ram kept his gaze fixed on the bowl of soup, “is true?”
“That the veils are actually creating a breakdown in our own personalities.”
“Keep your voice down.” He hissed as Park served her more noodles. When Akira got excited, she spoke fast and spoke loudly. Luckily, the din ensured no one else heard her rude comments except for Ram and the old chef. The centenarian didn’t seem to pay much mind, he bowed and left them alone. Ram waited for Akira to finish another bowl of soup before speaking again. “I think it’s more than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Akira, I want you to answer my next question with full honesty. And I know what I am going to ask you may seem inappropriate, but I still want you to answer.” Akira put down the unfinished bowl of soup and saw the look of death on Ram’s face.
“Go on.” She spoke in a serious tone.
“When was the last time you ever completely removed a veil?”
Ram could sense the jaw muscles tightening up as flames burned brightly in Akira’s eyes. Asking someone about their veil, even indirectly, was the greatest social sin a person could commit. Both EU and AfriCoN considered such questions punishable under the invasion of privacy act, and people took serious offence for such question even in India where the laws were not this strict. A media personal had been lynched in Delhi for asking a religious leader a question about the veil. Ram feared the worst as Akira clenched her fists tight enough for the chopsticks to crack. But the blow he was expecting never came. Instead, she replied.
“When was the last time you removed yours?”
“At least 15 years have passed.” His quick, sincere answer flabbergasted her. She wasn’t expecting an honest reply, and now her eyes suddenly lost the temper and the fists unclenched. It was a full five minute before she replied. “Honestly Ram, I don’t even remember.”
The moisture in her eyes told him that the realisation had finally dawned over her.
Park came up to ask him if they needed anything more. Ram asked him to pack a plate of fried prawns. He spoke after the chef had left. “You are not alone Akira. Nobody removes their masks anymore; I am certain of that. Do you even remember that it all started out as a hobby? A fun thing to do, to pass the time and entertain guests during a party. But look what it has become now. People need a veil all the time. They need one to sleep in, one to wear at work, one for a party, another for a funeral, one for sex, one for dates, another for going to the gym, one for shopping, one for a fight. We don’t even know how our real voice sounds like anymore, what our original thoughts and opinions are. It’s all just a copy of some cool, popular figure.”
He waited for her to respond, but her silence encouraged him further. “It’s bigger than just two personalities Akira. We copy someone else, a dead person or a character we watch on the VR. We try to put up a show for everyone else, all of us want to be the perfect host, the perfect guest, the perfect employee, the perfect boss, the perfect care giver, the perfect fear inducer. But if everybody is perfect in everything, who the hell is perfect is good in anything in real terms. Nobody knows what he or she truly is anymore, their real emotions, the true self. Do you know they have started making masks for infants?”
She vigorously nodded her head. “The first ones were pilot tested last week in Canada.”
“You see? Those psychologists were not wrong you know. We are taking away the essence of what makes us human. Everyone hides their true self behind a mask. And soon we’ll forget if our true person even exists beyond the boundaries of this thing.” It was the first time Ram had ever shared these thoughts with a fellow human being. He felt relieved at that moment. He was also felt exhausted and tired. All he wanted to do was go home and sleep.
Akira slowly drank what remained of her soup. Park bought him the packet and the bill. Ram paid a generous tip and stood up to leave. The heavy load he had been carrying in his head was partially removed for now, and in this state of elevation he felt a strong urge to ask the old man something which he had always wanted to since he first came to this shop, but never had the courage.
“Excuse me Mr. Park. If you don’t mind, can I ask you something very private. It’s in regard to your veil.” Akira’s mouth opened wide in shock, and she interfered on the chef’s behalf. “Mr. Park, my friend seems to be under the influence of some medication he took a while back. You don’t need to answer, I’m really sorr….” Park waved off her worries with a slight raise of the right arm. He stared at Ram for a few moments with a puzzled look in his eye, and then a wide grin came over his toothless face.
“Mr. Ram.” He spoke in perfect Indian accent. “I don’t wear a mask. I have never worn one. And I never will.”
It took Ram a few minutes to comprehend Park’s reply. He had heard rumours about them, the disbelievers – people who opposed his trade and never wore a veil – but had never met one in person.
“What do you mean? You have never worn a veil in your life? I don’t…”
Park’s grin widened. “You don’t believe me Mr. Ram. And I can understand. Today, everyone wears a mask. Even my wife of 50 years.” A slow sadness crept into Park’s deep-seated set of eyes. “She started it 5 years ago. And to tell you the truth Mr. Ram, I have never loved her since that day. I think nature makes every one of us unique for a reason, and we don’t have a right to tamper with it. But that is just my opinion.” He bowed politely.
Akira stood up to leave. Ram could see from her expression that she was still in shock from the events of past few minutes.
The old face suddenly turned serious as he spoke to Akira. “Would you two care for a small advice from an old street food vendor?”
“Go on.” She gave her permission.
“Try to live a day without your veil for once. Maybe it’ll help you understand why I do it.” And then the chef left them standing in the middle of the steam and din and neon lights of Chinatown to ponder over his question.
“But how do you remove something that has become a part of you?” Akira spoke to the wind as she unlocked her hoverboard and waved Ram goodbye.
As Ram entered his residence on the 7th floor of a skyscraper near Salt Lake, the words of the South Korean chef echoed in his mind. “A day without the veil.” he thought. The idea wasn’t that crazy, at least in theory. Anybody could remove their veils – which was a basic synthetic gel made of microparticles, an ultra-thin layer covering all of the cerebrum and the spine. This gel was embedded with a code which comprised of the IVP. The instructor manual that comes attached with every veil chamber always contains this information on its first page.
But every drug addict can also stop using it anytime they want. At its basic, the veil was a drug, only that it was also the most addictive of them all, it was perfectly legal to manufacture it, and the profits were immense.
The coming together of this impossible trinity made this drug so popular that discarding it meant being discarded away as an outcast.
“The question is not if I can remove it, but whether I want to remove it?” Ram asked himself as he changed into his night overalls. His mind was still occupied with this thought as he turned off the lights and went to bed. “Why do I hesitate? Is it habit or am I afraid of something? What? What am I afraid of?” Unable to sleep, the voices in his head kept asking the same question over and over. “I have to only remove the mask. It’s just an accessory. Something I wear to ensure that I am at my best behaviour in front of the customer. But then why can’t I seem to remove it?”
Ram certainly wasn’t afraid of being treated as an outcast. What did the word even mean in this world? An orphan with no relatives, he was an introvert child, and never made a friend after the 5th grade. The only people he knew were his clanmates in the various simulations he played on a regular basis. Apart from Akira, he had no real-world acquaintances – and she certainly wouldn’t mind. The rest of them won’t even notice.
“What am I afraid of?”
And then it stuck him.
He was afraid of meeting a stranger. The stranger which lived under the mask. The stranger whose birth name he will never know. The stranger who had his own choices, his likes and his dislikes. A consciousness, which was lost to Ram at this moment. What if this stranger does not like the food he eats now, or the work he does, or the games he plays?’
He finally realised that he knew nothing about this stranger. That stranger had been killed a long way back by his own hands.
But it was there, lurking somewhere in the darkness. Trying to rise from the ashes.
In the cold darkness of his bedroom, he took off the veil.
For a fleeting moment, Ram came face to face with it.
And then he disappeared, only to be replaced by the stranger.
“A day without the mask.” The stranger spoke as sleep engulfed him in her comforting arms.