Dust and ash engulf the land, dry rivers snake the earth and a phantom darkness looms over everyone. As most of India reels from this environmental catastrophe, water replaces oil as the most valuable commodity and cities get infested with gangs and powerful religious figures.
In this dystopia, the hi-tech Millennium City, which is inhabited by the rich, overlooks the quarters of the poor. Millennium City gives rise to a form of technology that manufactures artificial humans in laboratories.
Born in one such lab, Haksh does the forbidden: he falls in love with Chhaya, a human.
A coming-of-age novel about violence and transgression, Darklands is about one thing above all: love-both all-consuming and redemptive. Here’s an excerpt from this dark tale of love.
He woke up, dreaming of sheep. They were everywhere. Atop a hillock, cascading down a brook, their curly white fur gleaming in the soft, wintry sun. And then, with a slight flutter of an eyelid, they were gone. What surfaced was the wasteland, corroding away in the harsh morning sun. It was still early morning, but the sun was already severe. Through his half-open eyes, still very heavy with sleep, Easwaran tried to look. The dust and ash had begun to swirl across the barren landscape. Some people were up from their sleep, while some had wrapped their tattered blankets around their heads, trying to evade the daylight. Easwaran tried to gauge what time it must have been. Probably still seven. But in the vast, desolate landscape, time and its precise classification had become vestigial rituals of an age that no longer can be. It was reduced instead to a rough probability. As was everything else. Life even. His son was still in the blanket, but Easwaran knew he was wide awake. The infant was still asleep close to him. From a bit afar, towards the edges of the makeshift camp, the lanterns were giving up the last of their flames. Set against the glowing daylight, these tiny flames seemed pathetic, like a puny space rover approaching the cosmic infinitude of Jupiter. But the flames stayed, pale and almost invisible, but intact nevertheless. No one in the camp seemed to mind.
Aakash walked softly over to Easwaran, a cold rifle gleaming in his hand. His face was taut and visible from a distance. Well, at least to Easwaran, it seemed hardened. As if laughter hadn’t meandered on the soft pastures of his face for a long time now.
‘There’s trouble,’ Aakash said, crouching unevenly near the man. ‘Apparently, that Phanai’s lad is missing.’
‘Is it what I fear?’ Easwaran remarked. He was up by now. Granules of dust and ash were on his face, but he seemed unperturbed by this.
‘Could be. But no one knows. I saw him last night, quiet and all by himself, as he normally is. More than anything, he seemed safe.’ Aakash regretted the moment he said this and he even anticipated what Easwaran’s reply would be.
‘Nothing is safe,’ Easwaran replied, his eyes turning away from Aakash and towards the desert landscape that stretched before him and all around and shimmered like a hot metal freshly pulled out of industrial fire.
‘I was thinking of telling Eaklavya that we need a search party. We should look for him, no?’
‘Look for him where? Where do you think he could go? How many nooks and crannies and undiscovered lanes do you see here? It’s a damned wasteland.’ Easwaran tasted the bitter trickle of bile rising in his mouth. He thought he had accepted his fate and along with it, everyone’s. He thought that he had stopped caring. For that was the only way he could make sense of it all. But he was clearly wrong, it seemed.
‘What else are we supposed to do then?’ Aakash asked. Easwaran knew he could not answer that—he didn’t have an answer. He chose to keep quiet. The infant woke up crying. He picked it up and began cradling it in his arms. He recognized those to be peals of hunger. But he also knew he could do nothing about it.