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Flash Fiction: Shades of Reality

By Vrinda Baliga Email By Vrinda Baliga
June 2022
Flash Fiction: Shades of Reality

The seeker sat in the lotus pose at the entrance of his cave, gazing at the snow-covered mountains that were taking a final curtain call before night fell. The temperature dropped and the wind rose, but the seeker remained still, undisturbed, at peace. He was not body but mind. And his mind was one with it all—the mountains, the snow, the trees, the wind, the sky, the entire cosmos. This was reality; as real as it got.

The journey had started a couple of years earlier. At a VR hackathon, this new startup incubator had Rubik’s Cube-shaped tables that were like giant dice cast across a vast checkerboard floor. Beer flowed freely at a drinks counter called Augmented Reality. Yet, none of it could lift Neeraj’s spirits after the way his pitch had gone. His skill set was impressive, but public speaking was not part of it. The way he had mumbled and fumbled, it was no wonder that he found himself alone at his table. The minimum team size to qualify for the next round was two.

“Bro! That was a totally Zen idea!”

Neeraj looked up to see a bespectacled young man in distressed jeans and a T-shirt that read: Gaming ruined my life. Luckily, I have two more left.

Neeraj nodded uncertainly. “Thanks?”

“I’m Mehul. Can I join your team?”

“Oh.” Neeraj hid his relief and said in his best approximation of a matter-of-fact tone, “Yes. Of course.”

The relief didn’t last long. Mehul turned out to be a final-year student with a propensity for writing code replete with bugs that Neeraj had to debug. The kid had also established a super-efficient supply line from the Augmented Reality counter; the free beer was probably the main reason he had shown up at the hackathon in the first place. The final presentation had gone no better than the initial pitch, their rudimentary prototype barely eliciting a yawn from the judges. And yet, Neeraj had returned to his rented Indiranagar apartment, exhilarated from eighteen straight hours of coding and convinced he should soldier on with his idea.

It had been a long journey from that hackathon to Bengaluru’s top venture capital firm. Luckily, Neeraj didn’t have to do the talking this time. And he already had a team, small but dedicated. Mehul had graduated at the top of his class (minus the beer, he had turned out to be quite the whiz kid) and rejected multiple campus placement offers to join Neeraj. Then there was Vipin, a genius at video-editing and 3D rendering. And Ritesh, an MBA graduate with zero tech experience but great people skills. It was Ritesh who would make their pitch to the firm’s VCs. It would not be easy—with the gaming industry taking the lion’s share of seed funding in the Virtual Reality space, there was much jostling for whatever little was left. Would they succeed?

The three VCs who sat across from them at the conference table seemed to have similar reservations.

“Virtual spiritual experiences? I have to be frank, guys, I’m not sure about the market for this product.” Sameer Rastogi’s unassuming appearance—short, bald, dressed in simple business casuals—belied his stature in the startup ecosystem. Given his reputation for sniffing out the Next Big Thing, a mere nod from him could send a startup’s fortunes soaring. But he was not known for giving newbie founders an easy ride.

“We have feasibility studies, Mr. Rastogi . . .” Ritesh began, scrambling to bring up the relevant slide in his PowerPoint presentation.

Rastogi waved it away. “What I mean is, not everything in the world can be—or should be—packaged into a saleable product, don’t you think? A pilgrimage, for instance. It’s not just the destination, but the physical hardships, sacrifices and experiences along the way that are all part of the spiritual experience.”

His dismissive tone nettled Neeraj enough to speak up, even though he was under strict instructions to let Ritesh do the talking. “Actually, sir, nowadays a pilgrimage usually means a comfortable bus ride, if not a helicopter drop right at the shrine’s doorstep.”

Rastogi grinned at Neeraj provocatively. “Spirituality is very personal. Possibly the last ‘real’ thing left in the world. Should even that be . . . ah, for lack of a better term, ‘violated’?”

Ritesh gave Neeraj a pointed look, an unmistakable ‘let-it-pass’ signal. Neeraj ignored him. “At a river pushkaram a few years back, sir, the river that was being worshipped had dried up,” he said, his tone sharp. “Water had to be brought in tankers from elsewhere to fill a small bathing area at the ghats. And yet the devotees came in droves, took their ‘holy dip’ in the tanker water, and went home satisfied. What does that tell you?”

“It tells me you’re one cynical bastard,” Rastogi said with a laugh.

Back home, Neeraj found himself restlessly pacing the length of their lab. This cramped, messy living room of his modest 2BHK apartment, overflowing with screens, servers, sound and video equipment and what-not, was where they had brainstormed, argued, joked and laughed together as they edited, spliced and rendered their content into three-dimensional experiences. This day would decide the fate of all those efforts. Ritesh had promised to call as soon as he heard back from the VC firm. But . . . was it true, what Rastogi had said? Was that what they had been doing—degrading the sublime into something cheap and commercial?

No, Neeraj couldn’t accept that. In the past years, they had travelled the length and breadth of the country, accumulating material and footage for their 3D content. The Ganga-aarti at Varanasi. The night-long enactment of the Ramayana at Dusshera. The long queues of devotees at Tirupati, patiently waiting hours for a mere glimpse of the idol. The community fervor of Ganesh Chaturthi. The masses at the Kumbh. Madurai, Konark, Kedarnath, Srirangam, Kalighat, Amarnath, Rameshwaram, Dwarka . . . .They had met hundreds of people along the way—scientists, teachers, homemakers, daily wagers, engineers, farmers—people from all walks of life, bound together by devotion. So many myriad experiences had gone into the making of this product. And those experiences had all been real.

He could see now how his tone and choice of words had been misunderstood at the meeting, but that was not what he had intended to say at all. What he had meant was that it didn’t matter to those devotees whether the water was from the river or a water tanker. They came because of their faith and left with it intact. It was what they believed, what was in their mind that was important, not the physical reality. And yet, there were so many who lived in regret of being unable to visit the spiritual destinations of their choice due to financial, health or other reasons. If it was possible for them to have those same spiritual experiences virtually, in their own homes, why should they be denied?

If only he had made all these arguments, which came to mind so eloquently now, back at the meeting. He sighed as he donned his VR headset and plugged in his favorite experience. High in the sky, the stars had begun to blink to life, individuals at first, then entire constellations and galaxies—the universe unveiling itself bit by bit. A distant comet streaked past the crescent sliver of the moon. The seeker sat unmoving, removed from the material world, at peace with himself.

Suddenly, the whole world vibrated violently. The night sky seemed to shimmer and distort, and a notification bar descended from the heavens. A message glittered against the night sky: “We got it, dude! 25M in seed funding! Congrats!”

The seeker stared at the words, then broke into a slow smile. Neeraj removed his VR headset and took a deep breath. They had done it! Mind Pilgrim Inc. was going to be a reality. They would now have to rapidly scale up, move to bigger premises, hire staff, buy more equipment, invest in advertising, etc. Tomorrow, he told himself. Today, he would get some much-deserved rest. But first, lest he forget . . . Neeraj walked over to the whiteboard that listed their To-Do list of features to be added and bugs to be fixed. Picking up a marker, he wrote: “Disable notifications. Ruins the effect.”

Vrinda Baliga is the author of the short story collections Mixtape; Arrivals and Departures; and Name, Place, Animal, Thing. Her work has appeared in And Lately, The Sun (Calyx Press, Australia), The Best Asian Short Stories 2019, Asia Literary Review, Himal Southasian, India Currents and The Bombay Review, among other publications. She lives in Hyderabad, India, with her husband and two children.

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