ORANGE PEEL, BY SUSHMA JOSHI
I did not think I would live to be 75. But here I am, in 2050, walking through the burning trash piles of Kathmandu, the fine mesh of Super-Medtex face mask failing to keep away the dioxin and the carbon monoxide from my lungs. I draw in that smell of burning plastic with a shudder: I must enter the Pharma Kiosk on the way back home, and take a double dose of asthma spray, and a fifteen minute hook-up to the Easy-Breath Tank. Otherwise I would have to call the ambulance to get me home.
The sun sets over the horizon—through the black cloud that hangs overhead perpetually, I can see the sun, like a pale moon, slipping down the mountains. For a moment, the smell feels particularly acrid, as if its weighed down with lead. I feel faint, all of a sudden, and wonder if I panic if I will fall into one of those red, glowing piles of garbage. I can see a body or two, people whose lungs have collapsed as they walked, tossed carelessly amongst the plastic Wai-Wai wrappers. I wonder who that hand belongs to, with the elegant gold bangle. The person who tossed the body into the smoke did not even bother to remove the metal bangle.
Perhaps the young did not realize the value of that yellow metal, I thought. Then I realized: its all plastic now. The money is allocated by the Central Bank in New York, and everyone gets their monthly allowance piped straight into the card. These boys who mind the garbage piles worked for the Nepal Government’s Kathmandu Municipality, and their job is to keep the fires burning, piling up the dead bodies and the instant noodle wrappers and plastic bottles till the streets are clean. This is not an easy job—Kathmandu has 40 million people, and they generate multiple tons of trash. Everything comes in plastic—each grain of rice is wrapped in plastic, which is then removed by heating it in the microwave. The plastic cases pop off, leaving a bowl of rice. The Corporation that grows the rice grows it like this—they are genetically modified to grow with a fine plastic covering over each grain, to protect them from weevils, rot and drought. These rice casings pile up, and each family dumps a sack of it in the garbage each month. In a single day alone, a trash heap the size of Nagarjun Hill piles up in Tundikhel. That place used to be a green field at one time, I marvel, as I looked at the garbage mountain that people jokingly call Everest, because it is the tallest trash heap in the city. I watched it burn. How strangely enticing it looked, for a moment-the red embers glowing amongst all the rice casings and plastic bottles and orange peels and…
Looking around surreptiously, I moved closer. Were those really orange peels? Even though I hadn’t seen orange peels in two decades, I could still recognize them instantly.
Orange had long since been replaced by a hybrid fruit produced by Mondieu, and which everyone had to eat. The fruit looked like an apple, but has the strange taste of bananas, oranges and strawberries all mixed into it. It is called Elixir. It has a powerful chemical smell, rather like the Gatesade of yore. This fruit had all the Vitamins, minerals and daily trace minerals needed for a human being, and it fulfills all our nutritional requirements. Anybody who tries to plant the old trees that sprouted from cuttings nad branches are jailed. There are rumors some people who still try to hold on to their farms in the rural areas, or who farm secretly in their basements, have been tortured for resisting the Corporation. We don’t know if this was true, or a myth, since newspapers now only print Corporation news. The Corporation has the exclusive contract to distribute all grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and other food supplies. But of course, we in the Third World never get to taste other things except Elixir, although for purposes of roughage we also receive a bowl of rice with our rations. Without rice, there will be mutiny, the anthropologists of the Global Anti-Terrorism Council had warned, so to appease the two hundred billion people of the Third World, they have designed this Eternal Rice. Behind the high walls, farmers still grew other food, people say—grains, legumes, fruits. But all land now belongs to the International Investment Board, which leases it only to foreigners, and all produce is exported. Nepali workers who have stolen some of the produce and brought it out to feed their families have been disappeared.
I move closer. And bend down, with my hand on my hip, as if I’m tired. Then I pick up the peel. It was peel. I feel it, for a moment, that texture of something alive underneath my hand. The cool citric feel in my palm overwhelms me. I close my eyes, and feel as if I am in another era, one I thought had been lost irrevocably.
“What you doing, Grandma?” The young municipal worker grins as he looked at me. “Stealing somethin’?”
“Well, I’m thinking of Pineapple pickin’,” I joke, and the young man guffaws. He stands up, puts his wireless shovel down, and says: “You want a Pineapple? What for?”. I put my hand in my pocket, casually. Stealing from the trash can bring a jail sentence. That law came into effect to protect the dead bodies. There are so many deaths each day that the Municipality can no longer deal with the corpses, and therefore the easiest way to dispose of them has been through this method: put them in the trash, incinerate. The elite families did not want people rifling through bodies and picking out the Wearable Pineapples. Wearable Pineapples are stitched to the body’s epidermis with lasers, and signal the wealth of the corpses. They are flexible, bendable, a second skin—but they cannot be removed. Thieves, of course, still try to remove them—leaving the corpses skinned and bloodied, which is why dumpster-diving is a crime publishable with a jail sentence.
“For the news,” I say. “Maybe the Pineapple will tell me the news.” And we both laugh, he with a hoarse and hacking cough, because despite the Pineapple buzz-feeding in a trillion tetrabytes of information to the wearer each second, we both know that no real news ever gets reported. The only news allowed is the one authorized by the Corporation and the Central Bank.
I have not been online in years, so I have no idea what goes on in the outside world. People said Europe is completely full of people, and there are armored vehicles on the streets, with snipers ready to shoot anyone who dares to enter the borders. There are also rumors Europe still had some trees left, and water too, although nobody has returned from there in years to verify if this rumor is true or not. I have not seen a tourist in Nepal since 2030, when the air got so thick with black smoke and the sound of ambulance sirens the Europe Delegation finally banned its citizens from coming to the country. Those who came surreptiously did so with full body suits and tanks of super-refined oxygen, but even then there were deaths amongst the most daring of those adventurers, I heard. About 100 to 200 Europeans died every year in Nepal, trying to breathe long enough to get a story for their newswire. And then they stopped coming.
I hadn’t felt this orange peel texture in almost twenty years. The fruit nowadays is covered by a fine glossy outer skin that looks, and tastes, like plastic. In fact, it is plastic. Scientists have come up with an advanced way to genetically modify the fruit’s exterior to become an invisible weave of plastic, to make it resistant against all pests, droughts, and disease. The plastic breaks down in our guts in small granules, and because the body’s digestive system can’t handle it we are given a special chemical mixture after each meal which allows the plastic to liquify and exit our bodies.
“I’m talking shit, boy. Human feces used to smell at one point,” I say to the young man who is poking the hand with the bangle absent-mindedly.
He smiles at me and says: “It still stinks.” And he points to the other side of the trash heap, where a tall tank of sewage had been collected by mobile vans that go around the city all day, siphoning off waste from toilets. From this waste, our drinking water is extracted. For a moment, I hear that sound of water falling through the giant tank, and I feel a faint gratitude that in this city where everything had collapsed into chaos, the water still flows, and we still get our one liter a day. Forty million liters of water flows through that tank every day, I marvel. The whine of ambulances make it difficult to hear what he said next, but I could dimly hear: “And I’m glad I won’t have to shovel my own body in this pile here. I got a friend to do it. Seems I’m not going to last much longer. Doc’s given me two more days to live… lung is on the point of collapse, he says.” The young man smiles, almost relieved, as if he was glad to leave this job, finally.
I looked at him for a moment, and note the sadness around his eyes, as if he’d grown up without love. He was around 19, perhaps, and he was ready for the pyre. “You have a lovely smile,” I tell him.
The smell of plastic burning almost chokes me. I peer down and see two young boys even younger than the one I had been chatting to. They are inside the pit, almost ringed by the trash. They were laughing as they tossed in a giant ball of plastic bubble wrap, as if it was a joyful prank. For a moment, I felt a peculiar sadness. I was witnessing the joy of being young, which I would no longer feel again.
Then I walked closer to the boys and said: “Boys, you better put on your masks.”
They had taken it off, the better to smell with. “Why?” They say, grinning. “We love this smell! Draw a deep breath, Ama. See how fresh it smells!”
“Because its going to kill you.”
“We are all going to die one day, Ama! Not to worry, we’ll put on the mask in a little bit. Well, I think mine slipped and fell into the depths of Everest.” And the two young boys howled delightedly, as if they had made the wittiest joke.
During my conversation, I had slowly slipped the orange peel into my pocket. To be found with this contraband could mean torture—there were security guards posted at all junctions, going through people’s bags to make sure they were not carrying food. The Army shut off the lanes unexpectedly, block by block, to trap people. Then they marched down in their uniforms, looking like machines, and often the dogs with the long noses preceded them, growling and barking. If a unit like that closed off the lanes, I would almost certainly be attacked by the dogs.
A young man who had found the an egg in a crow’s nest, and who had decided to take it home to feed his young daughter, had been shot on the spot. I’d heard that through the underground rumor mill. “He recognized the egg instantly, even though he’d never seen one before,” the old woman who told me the story winked at me meaningfully. “See, they may try to erase our memories, but somehow, we always remember.”
Somehow, we always remember. I felt the texture of the orange peel beneath my hand, and I pressed and squeezed, feeling that little spurt of citric nectar in my fingertips. When I got home, I would smell my pockets—smell that wonderful, wonderful smell that no longer existed in the world.
By the gate of our thousand storey building, I saw our doctor. He was waiting, patiently.
“How are you, doctor,” I said. “Visiting a patient at this late hour?”
“No,” he said. “I was waiting for you.”
“Oh.” For a moment, my heart thumped. “A new vaccine?”
“Well, you’ve already taken the forty-two vaccines for this year. I was waiting for you because the drone saw you by Everest.”
The thumping of my heart got louder.
“It noticed that you picked up something.”
“Yes,” I said, smiling uncertainly. “It was something familiar. I wanted to take a closer look at it.”
“I am afraid the Corporation wants me to check you. If you are holding contraband, we have to sanitize you in the theatre.”
I turned white. “No, doctor!”
Our eyes met. His eyes were weary, I thought, all of a sudden. It had lost that hard edge of a man doing a job for the government. All I could see in his depths were enormous suffering. For a moment, I looked into his eyes, then I got close to him and said to him in a low voice: “I got an offer for you, doc. I’ll give you an inch of this orange peel I got in my pocket. Will you let me go, then?”
The doctor face changed, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d heard. Then his eyes lit up. He was silent for a moment. “Orange…?” He half whispered, then looked around, as if to make sure nobody had overheard.
“Orange,” I say, with a giggle. “Orange peel.”
“I may lose my job, Granny. Or they might take me to the torture house.”
For a moment, he looked at me, the longing so intense in his eyes. Then he whispered:
“How did you pick it up? You knew they were watching.”
“Yes,” I said. Then I shrugged. “Sometimes you have to take some chances.”
For a moment, I saw the faintest sign of a smile linger by the wrinkles of his eyes. Then he said, whispering: “I’ll take the peel. The drone may be watching me, but I’ll take my chances. I’ll have to pretend to check you now, since the cameras are watching.” I put my arms up and let him pat me down. He opened my bag. He rifled around. Then he gave me a thumbs up: “Good to go, Granny.”
I take my hand out of my pocket. I shake his hand with both of my hands. To the surveillance cameras, it looks like I am giving my doctor a warm goodbye. Then he feels that hard edge of something small and rounded digging on his palm. He looks at me, almost white, and he mutters: “Is it…?”
I nod. “A seed.”
A seed! Anybody caught with a reproducible seed was instantly shot. The doctor smiled, tensely.
“What do you want me to do with it?” He asked, with a tremor in his voice.
“Try to get it out of the city. Put it inside one of your vaccine containers. I hear there are still some areas outside where people are farming in secret. This may be one of the last remaining seeds of a live plant. They’ve killed off almost everything else.” An intense campaign to spray Agent Green over the entire continent had left the land completely denuded of any life. The only thing now planted in these hills were Elixir. Slaves worked on the plantations, day in and day out, picking the Elixir. I heard some of them went mad and jumped off the cliffs.
The doctor clenched his fingers over mine. For a moment, we stood there, his hands over mine. Then he said: “It shall be done.”