“They’d known the end times were coming but hadn’t known they’d be multiple choice.”
Samit Basu’s The City Inside pulls no punches as it comes for your anxieties about society, government, the environment, and our world at large—yet never loses sight of the hopeful potential of the future. The City Inside arrives June 7th from Tordotcom Publishing—read an excerpt below, and check back for an additional selection tomorrow!
Joey is a Reality Controller in near-future Delhi. Her job is to supervise the multimedia multi-reality livestreams of Indi, one of South Asia’s fastest rising online celebrities—who also happens to be her college ex. Joey’s job gives her considerable culture power, but she’s too caught up in day-to-day crisis handling to see this, or to figure out what she wants from her life.
Rudra is a recluse estranged from his wealthy and powerful family, now living in an impoverished immigrant neighborhood. When his father’s death pulls him back into his family’s orbit, an impulsive job offer from Joey becomes his only escape from the life he never wanted.
But as Joey and Rudra become enmeshed in multiple conspiracies, their lives start to spin out of control—complicated by dysfunctional relationships, corporate loyalty, and the never-ending pressures of surveillance capitalism. When a bigger picture begins to unfold, they must each decide how to do the right thing in a world where simply maintaining the status quo feels like an accomplishment. Ultimately, resistance will not—cannot—take the same shape for these two very different people.
The office car is waiting outside Joey’s Harmony Place apartment building when her taxi rattles to a halt behind it, and the driver holds a door open and looks at her suspiciously as she rushes past him into her lobby: a quick scan for evidence of illicit sexual activity.
Her flat is as impeccable as always, everything in its perfect place under this morning’s layer of dust, she’s just flowers, food, and friends away from party-hosting readiness. Joey’s flat is her pride and joy, the only part of her life that’s wholly adulted (apart from the out-of-order smartwasher), aesthetically arranged (a set designer needed a favour), and adequately tidy (she believes this is because she’s very rarely home). She always intends to have many guests over, perhaps next weekend, but there’s never time for a proper party, and her last few lonely-swipe male visitors have displayed no interest in interior decoration.
She can’t remember the last guy’s face, only his topknot: the memory of it tickling her thighs distracts her briefly. How long ago was it, even? It’s funny how her visual memory’s started working like a three-second SanSan video: nameless topknot guy stirs and begins to look up at her, but the memory loops before his eyes appear.
She’s been a Disappointing Daughter already, at the crack of dawn: missed her alarm, dead battery, and ignored Avik’s morning irrelevant-feels lament while scurrying around the house trying to find a strong enough network to book a cab. She’d finally had to call the manager of the Little Bengal black-yellow cabstand, an ancient sardar who’d been saying, “Okay, madam, taxi with-AC/without-AC?” to three generations of her family. “AC,” she’d said, while Avik informed Laxmi that there was nothing as crushing as a child’s indifference. This had been the last straw—she’d told Avik to feel lucky his irrelevance came with air-conditioning, and no one really gave a fuck about it. She’d regretted it immediately, but the damage was done.
Narad has had her flat powered up and settings-optimised since she entered the lobby. Laundry bag toss, shower, equipment checklist, pack, coffee in flask, mirror scan. She rushes out in fifteen minutes, hair still wet, and remembers only after the elevator doors close that she’s forgotten to bring her mask again. But it’s a shoot day today, so she doesn’t have her usual walk to work.
The ride to the ground floor is short, but rendered extremely uncomfortable by her neighbours, a trendy and overfamiliar Israeli documentary filmmaker couple wanting to know who she’d hooked up with this weekend, and she can’t bring herself to tell them she’d had a wild night consoling her sobbing parents and hearing Rajat Gupta stories. She still doesn’t know what drove the Roys and Guptas apart—her last memories of Rajat Uncle were not fond, she’d been fifteen and he’d been creepy, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her up close one night when he was supposed to be sleeping on their sofa and she’d walked past on her way to the fridge to drink some water. She’d pushed him off, and he’d apologised at once, saying he was drunk and he was sorry, begging her not to tell anyone. A decade later, she’s surprised she wasn’t more upset or angry, that she hadn’t even thought about it all this time: it wasn’t the first time that an uncle had pawed at her. She’d just gone back to her room, glad that she hadn’t elbowed him in the face. She’d heard him crying as she shut her door. She hadn’t needed to avoid him afterwards, or tell her parents: she’d never seen him again. His horrible wife had stayed in touch for a long time, though, mostly through viral forwards and endless streams of pictures of her new saris. Joey had asked her parents last night what went wrong between them, they were such friends, closer than family, for so long. They didn’t want to talk about it.
“We have to focus on the good things,” Romola had said. “We grew up together, you were supposed to grow up with his sons.” Avik had said nothing: he’d just found album after album of old photos and handed them to her for the memorial video. It always amazes Joey that her parents are so old their baby pictures are black-and-white. That there are whole years of their lives with no photos, no videos, that they just appeared on the cloud fully formed in their twenties. No wonder they’re able to forget so much—the nostalgia algorithms have nothing to haunt them with.
The driver is new: she face-scans him to make sure he’s assigned to today’s car. He’s not one of the people she’s hired off the lists Laxmi keeps sending from her neighbourhood. “Any job, didi—guard, driver, cook—they will do anything, all good children, if you don’t take them they’ll turn bad.” Most of the IDs are obvious fakes, but very few of Laxmi’s boys have caused Joey’s Flowco any trouble. Laxmi’d wanted Joey to find them Flowverse work, as camera assistants or makeup artists or spot boys. She’d done her best, but most of those jobs were reserved for people who knew somebody. The driver’s face is correct: she wonders how many scans he’s already undergone since morning. She’d struggled at first with the idea of putting people through this humiliation, but you had to be safe. Just a few days ago she’d seen a Flow about a serial killer being captured by tollbooth cameras while crossing the Yamuna on one of her regular routes: the original driver was in the trunk, his IDs switched, his smartatt skinned right off his wrist.
Getting out of her gated neighbourhood, India China Harmony Place, takes longer than usual because her neighbourhood militia are out in full force, sponsor logos glowing over clean grey uniforms. It’s not some regulation march-past: they’re herding people out of ICH Place. Men and women in rags, matted goldbrown hair, and children, many children, all of them girls. How had they found their way into her upscale neighbourhood? What horrible detention centre were they being taken to? Had the state already taken away their citizenships? Was it about to take away their organs?
She knows better than to stop and ask, she’ll hear they were illegal immigrants or terrorists or Pakistani spies, and her concern will be noted in the Welfare Association’s security app discussion threads, marking her out as a potential troublemaker. As the procession passes her car, she knows better than to make eye contact with the prisoners: What if they ask her to help? What if they shout at her, demand she join the resistance? How will she tell them she has no idea how?
Indi’s convinced that one day the poor will rise, an unstoppable zombie horde, and just destroy the city, that they’ve suffered so much for so long that they won’t care about taking over, they’ll just want to burn it all down. Not that the Years Not to Be Discussed left a lot to be burned, but Joey doesn’t see how: Indi’s job is to look for inspiring creative ideas, he doesn’t see the production challenges like she does. But whenever she looks at the streets, at the cams, scanners, guards, barriers, spikes, and drones, she knows that the city’s rulers are prepared to fight any insurrection. So she looks away, as usual, a skill everyone she knows has learnt since childhood, because not looking away means seeing terrible things.
She’s seen other Reality Controllers and even Flowstars lose their jobs for taking stands online, for helping the ill or dying during There-Is-No-Crisis crises with money or food or information, or just attending permitted elite-person protests—never punished directly, not anymore, but she’s noted each inevitable fall, watched them fade and disappear from the industry, or redeem themselves by complete transformation. Inspiring photos of millions of protestors fighting the same battles, standing up despite their differences, braving police brutality, fascist mobs, and harsh weather, across the country and all over the world don’t help. It’s not wholly safe to go look at them too often, either; some of the sites are ID traps. Daily reminders of her own cowardice don’t really boost her productivity. Neither does stalking the accounts of people she’s met who’ve suddenly gone completely silent.
Her driver finds a clever shortcut and in no time they’re speeding over the flyover chain towards Film City. Network booster in place, headset on, she loses herself to the newsFlow.
There’s a horrifying video about a gang of fifteen-year-old AR gamers being tricked into beating up elderly Malayali writers for digital credits, but today’s news crisis is a Singapore real estate tycoon openly advertising for partners for an organ farm business, claiming it could give backward Indians a chance to contribute value to the world. Somehow, the debate is not centred around rampant body ownership and its links to human trafficking and slavery, but around the maximum allowable percentage of foreign ownership of these firms.
—You could be happier, Narad texts. Care to share?
—I want to do better, Joey. I want to be more in sync with what’s going on in that lovely head of yours, but could you help me out by playing a simple expression-matching game with your mountain buddies?
—Okay, how about this—a therapist! I have five great picks for you near your favourite locations.
“I have to find my ex-boyfriend and current colleague an onscreen girlfriend,” Joey says. “Do you have anything helpful to say?”
—Let’s update your contact description for… Indi!
—Okay, you know what? I’ve got a great selection of inspirational quotes about love, breakups, coping, finding new love, office relationships, hiring the best candidate, or secrets of long-format content!
The traffic overlay in her headset’s vision field looks like a blood circulation diagram. There’s a couple of large processions out: a massive farmers’ march, thousands of white-clad, red-capped men and women in floating pop-up videos hovering in front of Joey’s eyes, all standing patiently in front of roadblocks, trickling through gaps in single file to submit to searches and face scans, solar panels on their caps charging their out-of-date phones. Some of them already have the new data implants installed on their necks: they look like meteors striking the earth. Sun-baked leathery skin, dust-caked faces, blood-streaked feet. A gaggle of urban kids hovers around the farmers’ leaders, shooting SanSan selfies. The dense smog around the crowd sizzles and shimmers as drone-cams fly by. Heavily armed police are out in force too, a large fleet of commandeered school buses behind them. These farmers have been travelling for weeks, to join Azadgaon, the shifting self-sustaining city of protesting farmers that has been barricaded in a cluster of western Delhi suburbs for over a decade now, harassed across highways and into cordons by the police, weathering everything the government, the oligarchs, and the city itself have thrown at it, an act of incredible endurance that only makes the news now when international celebrities namecheck Delhi’s farmers in their Flows, and stays in the news for a few minutes before the censors catch up.
The nationalists are out in a rival march in West Delhi, demanding the thousands of temples and cow-care facilities they had been promised, mass deaths for various demographics, compulsory cow urine drinking in all schools, and government sponsorship for Muslim-identification squads. Joey mutes them, and speed-scans through the newsFlows about the farmers. She forgets to silence public commentary, and is too shocked by the troll-wave to gesture it away. Her smartatt gives her a rage-spike alert two minutes in and her headset autoplays happy SanSan videos.
“I brought you in here because I trust you more than anyone in the world,” Indi had said to her on her first day. “No one ever really got me—the core of me—like you did. Just promise me you won’t try to change the Flow, or me. People come to my Flow because they trust me to be myself.”
“You were a flailing baby when I met you,” she’d said. “I trained you to be human, and other people get to enjoy the work I put in. I should be asking for royalties.”
“I feel that way about my exes too,” he’d said. “Yes, we learned a lot from each other when we were together. But you have to move on from that, Joey. I have.”
She’d considered punching him in the face, but he’d been really helpful with the contract. And she’d known since college that she and Indi made a brilliant team, a winning team, even if it was one she’d want to quit every few hours.
“I’m going to change absolutely everything about your Flow,” she’d said. “It’s… not good.”
“I’ll try to change you too, but I can’t promise results there. Fixing your Flow is easier, though. No more breathless inspirational bullshit. No more know-it-all dickery. No more stealing other people’s stories and making them about you.”
“Fine. I’ll tone it down, and keep my shirt on.”
“No, you’ll lose your whole audience.”
“Just… don’t talk to me like this in front of the team.”
She’s making good time on the highway. Her Flowco’s paid for silver-level road privileges for the whole team, which has proved invaluable in getting Indi’s Flows out in time for the office crowd’s morning commute. But even with tolls prepaid, preapproved scans, and cashless-subscription bribes she still has to leave early on shoot days because there are construction delays on every route. Most of East Delhi’s being broken down and rebuilt from scratch; not new-conqueror city razing, they’d have to be pretty stupid to try and build new towers of power in East Delhi anyway. No, it’s all just regular construction, but it’s still a lot. Through the grey-white haze she can see the towering Brave Hanuman statue standing over the Delhi end of the Yamuna bridge as if daring the mobs from the Uttar Pradesh wildlands to cross. A protective cordon of Delhi Police drones hovers around Hanuman’s loincloth. The drones are to protect this Chinese-manufactured Indian-pride icon from celebrity Dalit drone-mural graffiti artist E-Klav: every week, he (she? they?) crowdfunds a new piece of drone-painted vandalism on the statue’s bottom. Sometimes it’s just red buttocks; the last one was a poem about riverside slum demolitions. A troop of bare-chested men stands at the statue’s feet, naked swords in hand, officially to protect the statue against Neo-Naxal attacks but really to remind Delhi’s citizens that their sect and its war hordes could sack the city anytime they chose. Joey had forgotten to cancel outdoor shoots during their annual stampede last time, a grave error: Indi’s whole crew had been locked in a car showroom for a whole night, with drunken pilgrims threatening to break the glass and rape everyone, held back only by the glare of their light rig and their evidently professional live-broadcast setup. Then, as now, there had been policemen on patrol among the mob, armed and ready to do absolutely nothing should violence erupt.
An update floats in from Jin-Young: the Flow is live, and Indi’s doing very well, it’s an easy gig. Not that Jin-Young would ever put any real criticism of Indi on record: ever since he took over her former role as Senior Reality Manager, she’s had to remind him he’s now allowed to be critical of Indi, that his wary politeness is bad for the Flow. Today’s joint Flows are studio conversations between Indi and a few Hindi news mainstreamers, generic happyfluff but worth the journey in terms of viewership boosts. But it’s not just about numbers, it’s about boosting Indi’s value as a nationwide trendsplainer, a familiar face everywhere, and Joey always manages to reel in a big sponsor or two on these fishing trips.
—We’re on the smooth stretch, says Narad as she appears in an AR puff, hovering over the driver’s head. Time to put your face on.
Joey takes off her headset. She sits in absolute stillness for a minute, eyes shut, mind empty, breathing slow and deep until Narad sends her phone an alert: her systems are good to go. This is another action montage she knows the beginning and end of. She opens her rucksack and pulls out a small case. As the car speeds over the bridge, over parched earth and the brown trickle of the Yamuna, Joey transforms, with smooth, precise applications of finely strategised, big-data-recommended makeup, from recently-draped-over-parents’-sofa Wet Sock Joey to Work Joey, Reality Controller, loved and feared in equal measure by the hottest Flow team in all of Delhi. Wet Sock Joey once binge-watched a cat-matchmaking reality Flow directly on her headset for two days while eating only banana chips. Work Joey has three aggressive notes ready for Indi’s Look of the Day, and has already decided which nepotism-beneficiary intern gets to make Creepy Rajat Uncle’s memorial video. The car pulls up at the SachVoice News studio and a gaggle of assistants rush towards it with tablets and problems. Work Joey goes to work.
She’d worked with Indi once before, after college, before they broke up, when he’d tried to be an edgy twenty-four/seven real-life streamer, the kind that everyone in America had been obsessed with at the time, broadcasting warts-and-all honest anti-influencer too-much-information Real Life, performing social experiments, questioning the system, provoking Real People. She still has nightmares about it. He’d tried lifegaming, setting himself real-world action quests while his followers gave him instructions, feedback, and money, and made him their puppet, paying larger and larger sums for increasingly dangerous stunts, and he’d had no qualms about taking Joey with him. They’d learned the hard way never to share his real location, because they couldn’t afford security back then: he kept getting more popular, and while they were both immune to abusive messages, his fans’ attempts to control all his relationships went from bad to worse, and then he’d start getting mobbed, people would start sending food and reporting crimes wherever he was, and even hiring thugs to attack him. If it had been America, they’d have sent SWAT teams. She’d told him before they started that no one in India wanted that shit: that people wanted escape, not truth; perfection, not reality. They had more than enough reality to deal with. She’d hated being the on-display cameo-appearance girlfriend, shielded herself from the constant avalanche of lewd commentary by going wholly offline, abandoning first her phone and then most of her life. Her girlfriends had pulled her out of this hole, and realising that Indi was fine with watching her suffer as long as his fans could watch it too had finally pushed her into breaking up with him, something all his infidelities couldn’t achieve. It had taken two years of relentless charm and pursuit before she’d even agreed to meet him.
Jin-Young’s officially in charge of keeping an eye on Indi at all times, but she does it too, force of habit, as Indi and a couple of young newsFlow anchors walk along a track, following pre-programmed cameras and their superfluous operators, followed in turn by a greenscreen backdrop on a trolley. At the far end of the studio, a screen grid displays possible settings for their conversation: Manhattan, Mohenjo-daro, Mars. The mainstreamers wear flexi-costumes, bright green bodysuits that are different on each screen: Indi’s casually dressed, sixty-four-colour screenshirt scrolling through his personal moodboard and sponsor logos, many of which will be blurred for mainstream broadcast. A drone flies above them, picking up panoramas: Indi’s been wanting one of his own, but Joey’s forbidden it.
SachVoice executives appear every few minutes to subtly find out if Joey’s interested in headhunting them for her Flowco and she makes no real pretence of interest. Word has gotten around all the media that Joey’s stock is rising: everyone wants to have meetings with her because they’ve all heard everyone else wants to have meetings with her. She’s been through the SachVoice roster already and found it sadly lacking in value: they’re all placeholders anyway, like Indi’s current co-anchors, youngsters quickly promoted to help everyone forget that their recent predecessors from the Years Not to Be Discussed are now in hiding, swept under rugs after several international exposés declared them guilty of fostering genocide. They couldn’t go out in public without causing flash-protests, and the new Japanese investors wanted fresh faces. These studios used to ring with the screams of anchors not reporting daily lynchings or massive corruption, but for now it’s all Indi effortlessly outshining the mainstreamers, explaining what the coolest people in New New Delhi really want. Joey wonders, sometimes, if it’s really that different from the banal-evil reality management exercises of the Years Not to Be Discussed, where inside the studio all was well, just strutting government spokespersons and preening anchors sharing in-jokes and appreciating the wild successes of the regime, as if there was no catastrophic failure, no mass graves, no people dying like flies in the world outside. The world is better now, definitely. At least the bits of it she is allowed to see.
“I have the girls lined up for this afternoon,” Jin-Young says. “Would you like to examine them alone? Or should I select a focus group?”
“You make me sound like some kind of flesh trader,” Joey says, and watches blank-faced as Jin-Young considers an outraged explanation, then realises she’s covering up for him, then realises he’s made a basic error by discussing Indi’s new-girlfriend auditions in a rival office, and is then consumed with shame and regret. He looks like he’s ready for a moody close-up. He’s dressed in the K-pop idol gear he now wears to work every day—immaculately coiffed blue/blond hair, sparkly Anmu-loop screenshirt, dangerously tight pants.
Joey’s the only one who knows that Jin-Young’s K-pop outfit is a disguise, worn to thwart potential race-hate attacks and add to their whole group’s near-mythical cool quotient. She’d almost made him a Flowstar because of his story: she can still see it, a nice docuFlow set in Korean neighbourhoods, Jin-Young narrating how he grew up in Delhi, speaking perfect Hindi, how confused he is by the growing tribe of Indian Hallyu kids. How the mid-’20s anti-Chinese agitations across India (so much dramatic background footage freely available) inspired him to become one of several Korean-diaspora people who dress up as K-pop or K-drama idols instead of the completely fashion-free engineering/infrastructure executives their parents raised them to be. Reenactments of Jin-Young’s escapes from at least three late-night lynchings over the last year: a season finale featuring the most recent one, where he’d thought his luck had run out, but the youths chasing him with hockey sticks had just wanted a selfie. Jin-Young had heard Joey’s docuFlow idea out, and then, in an absolute first for his Flowco career, refused immediately.
She’s been dreading the girlfriend auditions since morning, but giving up control over crucial Flow elements has always proved to be a bad idea, and it’s important for the candidates to know that a woman’s in charge and they’re not expected to sleep with Indi or anyone in his crew at any point. And she can’t depend on Indi to not start anything with whoever his lucky co-star is.
“I couldn’t have done any of this without you,” he’d said to her after winning his first Gujiaboyzz Flowstar of the Year Award (South and Central Asia) a year ago.
“Everyone knows this,” she’d said, and then he’d kissed her, and gone off to do interviews. He’d tried to come over to her flat at dawn, and when she’d told him very clearly they weren’t going to be a couple ever again he’d let it go after sulking for a week. He’d tried to bro-fy her after that, discussing potential celebrity conquests whenever he could, and she’d gone along with it for the longest time because she hadn’t wanted to give him the satisfaction of knowing how angry it made her.
She lines up her distraction ploys as Indi strides towards his team, eager to gloat over how he’s absolutely dominating the mainstreamers. He goes through the usual Monday routine of punishing Joey a little for not sacrificing her weekend for him. Joey and Jin-Young run him through the update. There’s only one thing that requires real decisions: a new Central Reality Editor will have to be found.
There are two producer-editors handling the final checks on Indi’s Flow now, and they’re perfectly competent, but Indi likes having people he knows as the final burden-bearers of key responsibilities. Why he sacked his chief editor over the weekend Joey doesn’t know, but she doesn’t really care. She’d never liked Raj, who was some sort of cousin of Indi’s. Raj had not only been bad at his job, he’d kept derailing meetings with pitches about Indi taking a stand against Dravida separatists, or explaining why people who still used Instagram were long-form traditionalists.
She tells Indi she’ll find the new Central Reality Editor herself: the production side of the crew is her turf, Indi is best left to handle the glamour and the entourage, the people whose names she struggles to remember: stylists, trainers, personal care specialists, bodyguards, tech pit crew, and a few miscellaneous hangers-on. The people neither of them have time for, the kids who do his game playthroughs or the body doubles who record visuals for point-of-view travelogues, adventure sports experiences, and cooking tutorials on his behalf, are left to Jin-Young.
There’s at least a week’s worth of human activity recorded as Indi’s life on any given weekday, and Joey’s biggest secret, the source of all her power, is that she’s the only person in the country so far who’s managed to find ways to deliver it perfectly to her Flowstar’s viewers. Each of Indi’s Flowfans gets a customised Flow, specifically catered to their interests and preferences, so while most of Indi’s fans follow the sitcom of his life and friendships, there are several who genuinely think Indi’s a serious gamer, or a visual artist. She’s not sure if there’s any other Reality Controller in the world who manages as complex a multi-channel setup with as tight a crew: her own Flowco has been trying to get her to put it down on paper for months, and all her rivals have tried in vain to emulate it. Indi’s the only Flowstar in the country whose fanFlowers often discuss wholly separate shows and whose Flow pirates get accused of faking. Every other Flowstar has to deal with Flowjackers who steal their Flows and run them with their own commentary. Indi’s fans have learnt there’s only one place where they can get exactly what they want.
Joey gets at least one headhunter call a week because the whole industry has taken note of the speed at which she took Indi from Influencer to Trailblazer. The only remaining rank is Icon, and Joey fervently hopes he’ll never get there: she’d lose the last traces of control over her own life. As things stand, at least half of Indi’s team is expendable, but the Flowfunders told Joey long ago that it wasn’t about how many people were needed: a crowd around you meant status. In a world where Flowstats are mostly fake, what you need to show power is human bodies.
He probably doesn’t even remember his first attempt at livestreaming his life: Indrajith Mathew and Bijoyini Roy, college legends and debate circuit will-they-won’t-they obsessions, giggling awkwardly over a plate of momos in a dingy Tibetan Quarter restaurant, letting their friends know they were a couple. Joey hasn’t seen that vid in years, but she remembers every moment of it. She was the star, he was breathless and nervous. But he’d said they would be together forever. They’d taken the video down later; relationship declarations were never a good idea during culture shifts. The restaurant was gone as well, razed to dust like the rest of the neighbourhood.
“I’ve let you down before, I know. It will never happen again,” he’d said to her years later. They’d looked into each other’s eyes for a long time; he’d flinched first. Fortunately the job hadn’t required that she trust him.
Joey and Jin-Young leave the shoot area with a couple of interns and a bodyguard. The girlfriend auditions have been set up in a nearby Film City studio; it wouldn’t do to let all the ladies into Indi’s spaces, or on SachVoice turf: they’d have a mainstreamer version on the air within a day. Besides, the shortlisted ladies are all in Film City anyway, scurrying from meeting to meeting with their agents in tow. All Joey’s New Bollywood friends have moved back to Delhi over the last three years; the culture-control wars of the Years Not to Be Discussed have destroyed all but the richest and most insular Bombay entertainment houses. Several of these friends are in one or the other of the large media-plex buildings they’re driving by now, sparkling new towers with fashionably slanting facades of bright paint, darkened windows, and solar panels. They message Joey from their work-play stations to bitch about their meetings, sometimes about one another. Between their towers and at every corner, concrete bunkers and sniper stations are packed with armed guards—Film City is on the Delhi–Uttar Pradesh border, a favourite destination for culture-outrage vandals, rape gangs, crowd-sourced flash-robs, and fanatic lynch mobs. Rumours have been doing the round for months that the warlords who rule Uttar Pradesh are planning an organised invasion.
Joey and her team don’t have time to observe the architecture or the militia—they have to do a bug sweep each time they leave competitor turf. Narad spots the first one—it looks like a portable phone charger—in Jin-Young’s man-purse. Joey finds a strange pen in her rucksack. They all stare at the bodyguard in fascination as he extracts a flower-shaped hairclip from his pocket. Everyone wants to know what Team Indi’s planning. The only time the bag had been out of Joey’s sight was when it went through the security scanner at the SachVoice entrance. She sends out a companywide alert, and sends pictures of the bugs to the Flowfunders. That’s one regular sponsorship from SachVoice more or less assured.
“What are the names of your father’s friend’s sons?” Jin-Young asks, waving his phone at her.
“The intern wants to know. For consent forms.”
“What consent forms?”
Jin-Young shrugs. “Maybe he is from abroad?”
“Why is he calling you?”
“He’s scared of you.”
She reaches for his phone, but Jin-Young is faster. “Just finish the job, please,” he says, and hangs up.
The truth is Joey doesn’t remember the name of one of Rajat Uncle’s sons. The older one, the one who’d taught her to play chess, introduced her to the Beatles, and told her long ago that she could be one of his wives when she grew breasts but his main wife would be American and blonde, was Rohit. The younger one, her own age, she mostly remembers as Fatty, because that’s what Rohit called him. He was a quiet kid, interested only in playing games on his phone and avoiding his brother. She remembers talking to him only once—he’d made eye contact with her while she’d been staring in horror at his obnoxious mother, and informed her solemnly, before diving back into his phone, that his mother changed the settings of every device in their house every day, just a little bit, but every day, because she was trying to drive his father insane.
She’d resisted the idea of Indi getting an official girlfriend at first, not because of residual feelings but because Indi’s clear ambition to woke-flirt with every attractive woman in the National Capital Region had been the regular spine of their daily narrative, so no one in his team, least of all Indi himself, had wanted him to go monogamous. But the funders have issued very specific directives, and Joey has to admit their numbers are solid. Like most of Indi’s major life decisions of late, it’s been about product placement.
A Finnish company has developed a smartatt upgrade called Tavata, which lets users measure both their compatibility with and their attraction to anyone they meet, and let their smartatts know of their exact degrees of interest and consent through wholly nonverbal cues. It can be customised to work for people anywhere on the sexuality spectrum, but all that is for more open cultures—in India, New or not, they want to launch a version that lets a committed partner know if you’re physically intimate with anyone else, and performs or allows compatibility checks on the basis of “acceptable” communities.
Joey had immediately refused to work with the wrist-chastity-belt version of the device—it was very easy to see, in a country where most kids got their first smartatts from their parents, how the upgrade could be used by families or communities to filter potential matches for people in their power by religion, or caste, or any of the dazzling array of discrimination options India continues to use, or simply exclude non-hetero matches. The same Tavata used as a consent-ensuring successor of the dating app in the West could easily become an arranged-marriage enforcer on your skin.
“I know the orgy version is better for our creative team and our core demographic,” Funder Radha had said, “but the One True Love version—”
“The chastity belt version.”
“That’s not necessarily how—”
“Don’t quote me on this, but the Indian Conservative Casteist Nightmare version means bonuses for everyone, and the new Augmented Reality design team you wanted. And you could do your usual coded nudge-wink thing where the people-like-us audience knows he actually hates it. They can break up after two months, it’s not a marriage.”
“But we’re going to get so much hate. So many hot takes.”
“If the project works, I’m pretty sure they’ll do a premium edition, which is the full-spectrum global one, and that means more raises for everyone. Everyone. Hot-take-proofing is for children. Just look at the fucking number, Joey.”
Joey had looked at the fucking number and settled, yet again, for minor consolation victories about casting inclusivity. But she knows these are hollow: the truth is that her funders could have forced her to shortlist only potential girlfriends who looked like Bollywood stars if they’d wanted to, or could have chosen some fair-and-lovely high-caste Hindu instead of Indi to be their alpha Flowstar for the right price and partnerships. They have other teams that do exactly this. But Indi’s their golden boy, their international credibility booster, their token-woken poster child, and they’ve always given Joey and him more freedom than other Flowcos would have.
“Our company is deeply committed to a fair and diverse workplace,” Funder Radha had told her at their first meeting, and Joey had still been innocent enough to not see her hidden smirk.
“I have mixed feelings about so many things about the Flow, but it’s lifting up so many people who’ve simply not had platforms for their voices before,” Joey had said. “It’s really one of the things I want to explore.”
“We’re exactly as committed to our diversity goals as our international partners,” Funder Radha had said, smile unwavering, and it took Joey years of experience and a couple of very disillusioning meetings with foreign Reality Controllers to realise Radha had actually told her the truth.
She’s in a small and aggressively air-conditioned room, Jin-Young to her left, classic reality show audition-hazing table in front of them, assistants hovering around a mounted camera pointed towards a rickety wooden chair, bodyguard exuding silent menace by the door. About to execute her proposal that had made Funder Radha burst into actual applause: to let Indi choose his girlfriend himself by using the Tavata update and seeing who among the shortlisted candidates he was most attracted to, all of this live, ideally in a situation where he didn’t even know the audience could see how much he liked each new girl. Every match-fixing reality show season condensed into a two-hour interactive Flow.
“Tell the team what we’re looking for, Jin-Young,” she says.
“Our standard unicorn. Someone completely original, but also trend-friendly. A wildcard, but market tested.”
“I’m so proud of you. We’re also looking for someone with an actual voice. Maybe a few fixed values. Not a bot grown from a trending algorithm and covered in skin, even if it’s nice skin. Got it?”
The team nods.
“Bring them in,” Joey says.
She says it again, that evening, at Cheezburger, the noughties-nostalgia bar where Indi hosts his in-group social Flows. The scene is set: Indi and his friend-Flowstars sit around a wide circular table on the lower level, covered with early Xbox game posters, trading banter fresh from their writing teams’ rumbling collaborative cloud docs. Extras sit around the other tables, pretend-conversing, drinking, or actually working on laptops. On the balcony above, the stars’ long-shot camerapeople jostle for space; others are concealed in shadowy corners. Each of the Flowstars has their personal POV cam, of course, mostly discreet monocle-cams designed to maximise user face exposure. Indi doesn’t use one: he’s wearing his smartglasses. All the camera feeds go live to a cluster of OB vans parked outside Cheezburger, where editors sit and monitor the Flow, and writer teams relay conversation tips and joke ideas to their stars’ earphones. And this is where Indi’s a step ahead of his rivals, thanks to another piece of Joey Roy magic, the real reason why none of the other Flowstars who’ve studied him and copied every aspect of his Flow have succeeded, why none of the other Flowcos who’ve duplicated his product with hotter, Hinduer, or more mainstream-famous actors have managed to eclipse him: there are no writers in Indi’s van.
The extras sitting at the other tables, working on their laptops, are actually Indi’s writing team, live inside the stadium while the others watch at home. They respond in the moment, catching moods that never travel to the OB vans, relaying text directly to Indi’s smartglasses, where he just reads or discards them. Indi has no conversation lags while listening to voices shouting in his ears, no monocle cam to distract him. Joey’s got him to focus on body language, on actually listening and responding instead of waiting for pauses to launch into monologues like his friends. Everyone else competes for airtime, Flows muddled and scattered like noughties social timelines. Joey had actually thought they wouldn’t be able to get away with it after a point, but Indi had reassured her saying the idea was flawless: no one would notice. What Flowstar would ever take note of recurring extras?
Indi’s closest rivals have been a part of his group sometimes, but they’ve never lasted long. They’ve never been able to handle Indi’s effortless group-alpha performances day after day, never understood why their fans stayed with Indi’s clique even after they left. The current friend group are all people who gave up trying to compete with him for overall Flowstar status long ago, specific-interest Flowpros who enjoy the boost from Indi’s top-tier audience. Today’s panelists are Vijay, a history rewriter trying to restore authenticity to textbooks; Shalini, a theme park designer with an unfortunate tendency to attempt text-to-speech recitations about various grand cultural projects under construction in the heartland next to smart cities that will probably never be built; and Pia, a collectible-celeb AR game creator who always has a pixiu-themed hat and cutting-edge multifield gossip. They’ve got a good equation going: asteroid belts of stans, shippers, fanFlowers, Flowfic creators, reactors, reenactors, and deep-fake pornographers have declared them a combination worth collective obsession. Joey’s considered getting a whole team in to actively manage Indi’s Flow spinoffs.
The contestants enter—Pia has agreed to pretend she knows them—and assume their seats. Three women, carefully shortlisted, all amazing, all combat ready. Joey gestures up viewership stats, and notes the sharp uptick with grim satisfaction. Indi activates his smartatt upgrade on cue—he’s had the new tattoo implanted during his afternoon spa session—and everyone can now see just how much he likes them.
It’s not much of a contest. Hot off the starting block, ahead of the rest by parsecs, is curly-haired, dark-eyed, impossibly gorgeous Uma, who maxes out the smartatt’s attraction/compatibility settings the moment Indi lays eyes on her, and transforms his audience into a slobbering mass of reaction videos. Joey has been expecting this: Uma has haunted her own dreams since morning. She has some kind of interesting wellness-y job, and many relevant things to say, but Joey doesn’t hear a word of it: all she can think of is invading Troy to rescue Uma, dragging her off to their private island and devouring her logic-defying body until the sun explodes. Why Uma is here drinking fake Just-a-Faiz whiskey cocktails and not on the other side of the world fending off amorous Hollywood he-men, Joey does not know. At the table, conversation has more or less stopped: everyone’s just dumbstruck. The viewers clearly couldn’t care less—Uma is already a national phenomenon.
“I am having improper thoughts,” Jin-Young whispers solemnly.
“You and me both, brother,” Joey says. She looks at him: he has bad news. “What is it?”
“There’s a mole on her cheek. Two more on her left hand.”
“I see them. So?”
“The live-reactors are saying this girl might be Desibryde.”
Narad warns Joey she might be having a panic attack. Joey silences her.
Is it possible? Desibryde is the world’s most notorious South Asian sexFlower, whose Flows are so powerful that no amount of culture-police net censorship can prevent them from reaching every corner of the country. Desibryde is a counterculture Icon. Joey had assumed that Desibryde shot her Flows far away from India, in some country with breathable air and everyday freedoms: her whole performance concept, sex with mostly Black men while wearing AI facemasks of goddesses or male religious leaders, is dangerous anywhere in the world, but to do it while living in India? If she’s outed, she’ll be on a hundred actual death lists. But—and Joey’s heart skips a beat—what if she’s tired of the guerrilla life and wants to find a Flow where she can just be herself? What if she wants to stay ahead of inevitable discovery and danger, and avoid all the trouble that previous mainstreaming ex-pornstars had faced? Where would she go?
“Jin-Young, sign that woman up at once. Right now. And hire ten new bodyguards,” says Joey. “Now. Go go go.”
Jin-Young grimaces. “The sponsors won’t allow it,” he says.
“The funders will,” says Joey. “Fuck it, we’ll crowdfund. Look at her.”
They both do, and breathe heavily.
“She doesn’t have a Reality Controller of her own,” says Jin-Young. “Would I get that job?”
“Over my bloodied corpse.”
“Indi still has to choose her.”
“Forget Indi. Jin-Young, if we let that woman out of our lives, we’ll never forgive ourselves. Every day will be a grey wasteland. You see this, right?”
“Yes. Also, the mainstreamers are picking this up. And her agent’s calling.”
“It’s a done deal. Alert Indi, call a break, I’m heading downstairs.”
Indi heads up from the table and stalks towards the restroom as Joey races downstairs.
“Girl’s gone national,” says Joey, breathless. “This is a game changer. Should we close it before she gets new management?”
Indi’s face is unreadable. “Get her number,” he says. “And get her off my Flow.”
“It’s my Flow,” says Indi, and heads back to the table.
Joey still hasn’t managed to move when Jin-Young races up to her. “Trouble,” he says. “Some godman’s outed her and said she’s here. Mob coming. We should head out.”
Joey shakes her head. “Call the newsboys, call the police, call for extra security,” she says. “Call for meat. And drinks. The Flow stays live.”
But Uma’s figured something’s wrong, and is on her own phone now, and a second later she’s up, and racing towards the exit. Joey chases her out of the building, but obviously Uma’s faster: a car’s waiting for her, door opens, and she dives into it.
“You’re hired!” Joey calls.
“I’m sorry,” Uma says. “I really wanted this.”
She slams the door shut, and her car roars off through the ICB Market central lane before the already approaching media horde can catch it.
As Joey approaches the Cheezburger exit, one of the other girlfriend nominees—a beautiful super-liberal intellectual activist type whose name Joey has now blanked—comes storming out. She’d impressed Joey during the audition with her well-crafted feminist takedowns of everything in Indi’s Flow, but lost her com- pletely over the last hour by sulking and glowering into her fake cocktail as she watched Uma own the table.
“You should head back in,” says Joey. “You’re the favourite now.”
Option Two shrugs. “Fuck you. Fuck all you people, you’re monsters,” she says, and walks away.
“How are we doing?” Joey asks Jin-Young as she slumps back into her observation chair on the balcony. “Police? Thugs? Hate mob? Food?”
“All good,” says Jin-Young. “Maybe it’s all for the best.”
“I suppose it is.”
“Are you all right?” Jin-Young asks after a while. “How… sorry, but how old are you, Joey?”
“I’m twenty-five,” she says. “It’s the new forty. And the new twenty.”
They turn back to Indi’s table: in the rubble of their plan sits the sole survivor. The audience doesn’t really know what to think of her; it’s still busy speculating about Uma. All they really know about her is that she just came third in a field of three in Indi-attraction scores, not really a ringing endorsement for a match-fixing tattoo, and they don’t like it, or her. Her name is Tara, she’s a trained singer-dancer-futurist, which doesn’t impress anyone; most of the discussion online is about futurists being the new wanderlusting sapiosexuals. But not picking a winner is not an option, either for Joey or the audience.
Joey had only selected Tara as a filler because the other girls were generic and Tara wasn’t a clear Type. But she can work with this woman: definitely pretty, potentially interesting. Clever, earnest, unthreatening. A good enough girl for a two-month monogamy schedule.
Tara looks up at the balcony, and meets Joey’s eyes. She smirks, drains her glass, and lays long, slender fingers gently on Indi’s arm.
“I’m hungry,” she says.
Excerpted from The City Inside, copyright © 2022 by Samit Basu.