“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, or start from the beginning here!
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.
When the guards stationed outside his family’s new farmhouse refuse to let Rudra in on the day of his father’s funeral, he feels many emotions but surprise is not one of them.
It isn’t really their fault: they’ve never seen him before, and they’re new boys, fresh from some dying town, now gatekeepers eager to prove their worth by shielding their masters’ people from every possible interaction with people of their own kind. And it’s not like anything about Rudra screams rich-boy in any way, not his demeanour, not his features; even his mask is untrendy. He’d had to borrow it from his neighbour Chuki: Rudra has built a life fundamentally based on not needing masks, on not needing anything outside his room at all. His clothes and shoes are clean, and sufficiently brand-appropriate, but not on trend: they must think they’re secondhand. But worst of all, he hasn’t arrived at these forbidding gates in a car, and what could be more low-class than that?
He knows a ride to the Culture Colony is not the epic journey it seems like to him, that it’s just another part of the city and thousands of people make the commute every day, but it’s been too much sensory input. He’s overloaded his brain. He’d had to pay the autoguy an outrageous amount of money to come all this way, roasting and rattling down dusty roads in his clattering deathmobile. The autoguy had flatly refused to go to the Culture Colony at first—they beat up people like me there, he’d said— but Rudra had cash, enough cash to forget the risk. He’d paid the autoguy to hang around and take him back, but the moment he’d stepped out, dirt-streaked, flash-burned, the fucker had taken off, solar roof twinkling happily over yellow-green-brown roach-bot, dust cloud in his wake.
The guards refuse to call his brother: Sir is busy, show entry QR or give phone. Rudra has no intention of opening up his accounts for their inspection: it’s not just the indignity of it; it’s not safe, every guard has a data-theft side business. They grope him for good measure, enthusiastically grabbing his balls, letting him know what’s what. They demand his fingerprints, to see if he’s on an approved guest list: he knows he’s not. So he pulls the most Delhi line of all: “Do you know who my father is?” It’s not a good line today of all days: his father is dead. And he’s pretty sure his brother or mother was the one responsible for shutting down his taxi accounts. They didn’t want him here. Not in their home, not in their lives. They hadn’t even told him about the heart attack. He’d found out later, when the automated condolences started pouring in from people he hadn’t met in over a decade. It was too late to even turn up for the cremation by then. They hadn’t taken his calls. But he couldn’t blame them, he had avoided theirs whenever possible for at least five years: the only way they stayed in touch was by moving large amounts of money through his bank account. He’s tempted to open his account up for the guards: when the hackers show up later, he’ll ask them to send his family their regards.
He tells the guards he’s here because of the shraddho, the one they might have noticed being organised inside, it’s for his father. He tells them they should just send his photo to their boss, that he hasn’t been around for years but he’s very important, that they’ll all get fired if they don’t let him in.
The guards are completely unmoved. “Whenever big men die there are always long-lost sons,” their leader says, grinning. The sun feels like it’s hovering an inch above his head: his humiliation isn’t even happening with just the guards present, there are photographers hovering nearby, leering, hooting, taking pictures. The accredited media ones and the personal Flow assistants are all inside, of course, not that there could be many: there are only a couple of genuinely famous people that might be attending. The ones near the guard hut are the lowest of the low, nicknamed paprasis, dead-eyed young men who roam the streets taking pictures of people, asking strangers for autographs, the rag pickers of the data age. They’re shouting encouragement to the guards, asking for a beating. One of the guards eyes him speculatively, stroking his baton. Rudra is shouting now, voice cracking, making empty threats, but they see right through it. You can’t fake Culture Colony arrogance. He can feel himself drifting: already, a part of him is zooming out, looking at the gate, at the walls, from a great distance, wondering how he’d get into the compound in each of six different genres of game, drawing dotted lines, imagining heat-vision single-colour silhouettes patrolling the grounds. In each situation, he’d have been in command, barking out orders to his teammates, and if his meatspace avatar could only have had a tenth of that authority, he’d have been inside long ago. He’d have been on the high ground, taking out enemies with a sniper rifle, sending animated taunts, leading charges, capturing flags. The guards form a circle around him, slowly, savouring it. He wants to reload from last save. He wants to play at an easier setting. He wants to ragequit and try another game. He hasn’t been beaten up in so many years. He wonders how it’ll feel. He can already taste blood in his mouth.
He doesn’t even notice the car pulling up behind him, but the guards sigh in frustration and fall back. One springs to the window as it rolls down. An arm emerges, presenting a QR code on a phone. The guard scans it and salutes smartly. Another guard starts pushing Rudra away as the gate beeps and swings open, but Rudra’s seen the man at the wheel, and shouts, “Avik Uncle!”
For a horrible second, as the window rolls up, he thinks he hasn’t been heard, but then the car stops, the door opens, and Avik Roy emerges, eyes wide.
“Rudra? Babu, is that you?”
The car’s air-conditioning hits him hard as he slumps in the rear seat, displacing Rono—so big now, he wants to say, but his mouth is dry. Romola Aunty, the first human woman he’d ever had dirty thoughts about, hands him a bottle of water, and he drains it, chokes and splutters. He’s reeling, blurry, but recovers in an instant as he sees Joey—that’s Joey, it’s disturbing how much she looks like Romola Aunty—turning and simply staring from the passenger seat, and the pity in her eyes makes him want, for the first time since he learnt of his father’s death, to burst into tears.
Rudra had always known his father made lots of money, it was obvious from the sums that flowed in and out of his bank account around every tax deadline, but this is the first time he gets a sense of exactly how much. The farmhouse is cutting-edge: sprawled over impeccably manicured land—there’s a fountain!—and featuring a sprawling Star Trek–looking glass/stone/wood/concrete two-storey house and 3D-printed smartmud huts. There are stations for every kind of alternate energy, greenhouses, water plants, giant unsmogger fans, questionable flamingo statues, even an orchard. In the distance, beyond the high stone walls, the Culture Colony Shiva holo-lith towers over it all, smiling down benignly. This place could survive a zombie apocalypse, possibly not even notice one. Rudra watches the Roys struggle not to comment: they’ve evidently not been here either, and Avik Uncle seems as if he has many things to say about possibly ill-gotten wealth. Rudra is grateful for this, and even more grateful that they’ve asked absolutely no questions about how he is or what he’s doing or why they had to sneak him into his family home. He wants to let them know he’d be happy to be adopted, that the love he feels for them in this moment is the closest to family-love he’s ever experienced as an adult.
Avik Roy and Rajat Gupta had always been unlikely friends: Avik was studious, intelligent, conventional, Rajat a charming hustler. New India had treated them very differently, and driven them apart, but Rudra remembers holidays together, birthday parties, concerts, remembers awkwardly holding a massive bouquet in a hospital lobby when Rono was born. Rono is immersed in a phone game now, his interest in Rudra’s evident loserness long dissipated. Joey keeps checking her phone as well: Rudra’s vaguely pleased to see that Avik’s and Rajat’s children have at least one addiction in common, even if it’s something that defines everyone in their generation.
The guards must have sent a warning message, because his brother strides out of the house before the car even stops outside the open doors. Rudra is impressed by the time Rohit must have put in at the gym or one of the family clinics: he looks like a cartoon thundercloud of pure muscle. His shaved head is a light green, his dhoti a brilliant white. As the car stops, the brothers come face-to-face.
“Let’s talk,” Rohit says.
It’s not much of a conversation, it never is: Rohit has inherited not just Rajat’s chain of ethically dubious luxury body-modding “wellness” clinics, but his power-presentation skills as well. He doesn’t take long; the speech seems rehearsed. There is no room for Rudra at the actual ceremony, especially since he hasn’t observed any of the proper rituals since their father’s death (stop opening and shutting your mouth, Rudra, just listen). He may meet their mother later, but she is deeply disappointed with him for not being there during this terrible time when his family needed him most. No, they hadn’t taken his calls, but that was because they’d had the wrong number saved, and the whole world had been calling to express their grief. That’s why he hadn’t received the news, obviously. A simple miscommunication. He is most welcome to spend the day at home, but he has to promise not to disturb any of the guests, especially the important ones. Rohit will talk to him later in the evening, there are important things to say, but he is not to be bothered until then. There is a lot of work to be done. No, his help is not required. No, he hadn’t blocked his taxi account, how ridiculous. If Rudra was going to go home, that was fine, but all the cars were busy, and he should head out before any of the other guests saw him. No, Ma was definitely busy too, pay attention.
And then his brother disappears, leaving Rudra reeling from a thousand memories of one-sided brother-chats, conscious only of a desire to charge his dying phone and disappear into it. He tries to convince himself he’s home, genetically speaking. If home is where the people you love most are, his real home is currently a server in New Zealand.
He has a bath. His Kalkaji flat hadn’t seen water in four days now, and he’d emptied the last borrowed bucket in the morning. The first-floor bathroom he slips into is all grey marble and Japanese design: he can’t remember when he’s last felt this kind of water pressure. There are devices he doesn’t understand saying things in happy-child Japanese and making cheerful noises. He loses himself in gels and foams and conditioners and textured scrubs, remembering at the very last possible second to stop himself from first singing, then masturbating. He considers moving into this house. They’d refuse if he asked, and of course he’d never ask, but what if he just brought his stuff over in a truck and took up residence? They wouldn’t even notice him. He’s been invisible to them all his life; when he was a child he was often convinced he really couldn’t be seen, he was a ghost, a POV camera. A floating whisper adrift in a hurricane.
He feels the grime on his clothes when he puts them back on, his body clean and smelling like a fancy spa. The house is filling up: there are voices everywhere, echoing up from the ground floor through spotless corridors as Rudra shuffles through, staring like a tourist at the smartpaint sculptures growing in their cocoons. The smell of incense floats up, with strains of classical music. Some kind of chanting. He finds his brother’s bedroom. The AC welcomes him, speakers start playing some waily Punjabi pop. Rohit doesn’t appear to have changed at all since they last met, so if he remembers correctly… yes. From a shoebox on the bottom shelf of one of the cupboards, he extracts three neatly rolled-up joints. It looks like there are sensors on the box: Is Rohit getting an alert? Best to be prepared. Two joints go into his pocket, and he lights up the third, not even bothering to open a window. A long, burning, deeply satisfying drag: if Rohit handles his money like he handles his rolling it’s no wonder business is booming. Pure vegetarian. He opens a long-unused productivity app on his phone and makes a note to eat some token-defiance beef.
He opens Rohit’s cupboards and exhales on his clothes. Carbon nanotube sportswear and fertility-regulating briefs, what an unbelievable asshole. The mirror starts overlaying outfit options on his body; he tries to instruct it to make nudity the default setting but he doesn’t have admin privileges. He stubs the joint out on the mirror before sinking onto the bed: it wouldn’t do to burn the house down on his first visit.
He wakes up with a start to the sound of loud moans: it’s Mehta Uncle, call centre owner turned click farm magnate, and… his new wife? Someone else’s wife? They’re making out by the door, hands wiggling everywhere. They have those absurd mood-sensitive smartatts, both glowing bright pink. He’s lying right there, in broad daylight, and they haven’t even seen him. It still works, this invisibility cloak. Mehta Uncle’s friend seems nice, and it would be nice to see a live naked person for once, and her blouse is about to come off, but this seems bad form for a funeral, so Rudra coughs loudly and they yell in shock, covering up.
“I haven’t seen anything,” Rudra says, rising swiftly. “Got to go.”
“Jesus, you look just like your father did at your age,” Mehta whispers. “Almost gave me a heart attack. Where have you—”
“This has been a pleasure,” Rudra says, bowing—and wishing mid-bow that he didn’t behave this way when embarrassed—“but I have a pressing family engagement.” He catches a glimpse of himself in Rohit’s mirror—poor little rich boy. So edgy, living in a multicultural low-rent neighbourhood full of people whose histories he’s scared to ask about, whose lives he couldn’t have endured for an hour. Behind every door in that warren is a different alt-universe horror story. Like every Useless Culture Colony Younger Son—there are several downstairs, he knows, all fashionably bored and cool—he’s not even a real person, he’s handed his identity over to his family. If he looks himself up right now—he ignores the impulse as usual—he’ll find he’s doing very well in whatever career he supposedly has. Good Rudra has spent the last five years at Harvard studying bio-augmentation instead of dropping out and slumming it, being all self-reliant and independent but so inherently obedient that even his rebellion is budget-friendly. It’s just a phase, he’ll come around eventually. One day, he might even get to wear his own smartatt, though he’ll never be as physically fit as the company employee who proxies for him. Rudra is the human equivalent of a shell company: If he dies today, how long will it be before his family notices?
Mehta Uncle and his friend stare at him—do they think he’s expecting an invitation to join in? He leaves, his high wholly vanished. He wanders around corridors, a lifelong pastime: in the house he grew up in, there weren’t many doors, but there was one that led to a “backside” balcony full of decaying cartons. Rudra would keep opening and closing the door, hoping that if he got the timing right, it would open into another dimension: a mirror city, a fantasy paradise, a time-traveller’s ship, another planet. This mansion has many doors, but he doesn’t really want to look inside any of them anymore.
The family ghost enters the hall largely unobserved. The shraddho rituals are in full flow. A priest reads out shlokas while inaccurate translations in English and Hindi float up on everyone’s phones. Rohit sweats in front of a fire, surrounded by a vast array of flowers, fruits, mounds of rice, and ceremonial paraphernalia. Rudra catches his first glimpse of his mother. She’s Flowing in a corner, flanked by two of her most formidable Colony aunty friends. Large tears stream down her face, and her sari is on trend as always. Rudra has blocked most people he knows, and stays off the meatspace data stream as much as he possibly can. Sometimes he worries about being the last person to learn about a war or a tsunami because he’s silenced everyone who might tell him. But his mother always finds innovative ways to force her daily ruminations on clothes, spirituality, current affairs, and high-end travel and living down his throat. She actually hires spammer agencies to make it difficult for people to block her.
His father had been the one who kept him informed about really big-news events. When they tore down the KRP Industries Taj Mahal and Changacom Khajuraho six years ago, his father had pulled him out of a national intercollege gaming tournament because Hindus Weren’t Safe. When allegedly-Canadian hackers had broadcast the names and addresses of Indian foreign-aid-theft kingpins and vaccine scammers, and his father’s name had appeared on these lists by mistake, Rajat had tried to kidnap Rudra and smuggle him out of the country. Even after Rudra left his family, he’d relied on paternal newsbreaks—his relationship-with-father highlight reel could have been called Previously on National Trauma. The last time he’d tried to debate his father? The 2024 purge, when upper-caste boys all over the country had used mysteriously accessible data to destroy Dalit houses because a Dalit taxi driver had given a Brahmin a low rating in Jaipur. The last time they’d discussed meeting? The 2026 horror, when police and mobs torched the few remaining lower-income Muslim ghettos in Delhi, targeting survivor families with pinpoint precision. He’d pointed out the obvious: that all of this had happened before; that he wasn’t Muslim and didn’t live in a part of the city that was being recultured; that he wasn’t even going out to do relief work, wasn’t saying anything on the internet or out loud, so no one was going to kill him and throw him into a drain. He’d even sent pictures of the now-familiar visual of Hindu homes standing untouched between the charred husks of Muslim ones, but his father had wanted him behind real walls in case there were retaliatory riots this time. He’d refused. The last time he’d seen his father was in one of his mother’s Flows: he’d seemed happy. It was his birthday, and he kept saying how much he loved celebrating with his whole family.
She’s not the only one Flowing at the ceremony: there are her acolytes, various other guests, there’s an official Flow being recorded by a cousin, live coverage plus specially made videos that Rajat’s many, many friends have brought from around the city. A fitting farewell for one of Delhi’s earliest social media influencers. There are lots of other fame-aspirants here, but this is not Delhi’s elite. Those people are mostly abroad or in hiding, in transformative cocoons, reshaping themselves daily, keeping close tabs on the world they must reemerge into. This is the next layer, New India’s young wave now middle-aged, first-generation players replicating whatever they can remember of the lives of those they envied growing up, because now it is their day out of the sun. Rohit’s friends are huddled together in a corner, their hands grasping air in the absence of guns or whiskey glasses: one clocks him, whispers, and the whole group gives him ultra-Delhi pre-violence glares. They’ve still not forgiven him for that time he’d sent messages from Rohit’s phone to all their friend groups, telling them recent studies had revealed that all fascists had micropenises, should they all pretend to be communists? It hadn’t ended well: his shoulder twitches in memory.
His mother spots him and gestures from across the room: hundreds of eyes are on him as he walks over.
They hug. Padmini turns towards the camera and says, “My long-lost son.” She grapples him firmly again.
“You stink of drugs,” she whispers. “Even today. Get out.”
“No,” he says, looking deep into her eyes and finding nothing.
“Any trouble and we’ll have you unpersoned,” she says.
“No, you won’t.” And he detaches himself and walks away. She resumes her Flow, wiping her large, expressive eyes, murmuring about gratitude and unity being the core of her culture.
Reunion accomplished, Rudra wanders about unsupervised, enjoying the sights. The walls are lined with screens and tributes to his father, a Museum of Rajat: his warmth, his generosity, his humour, his honesty, his open home, his expensive tastes. His father would have wanted physical photographs too, though, even one of those fake oil paintings.
“Photos fade, babu, paper can be torn, but digital disappears— companies shut down, drives get hacked, bank accounts get locked, governments erase you with one stroke. Nothing is permanent, but never trust anything without a body. Always remember this,” he would always say, but this was also a man who kept no records of his own transactions, and whose collection of alternate legal identities could have filled a small funeral hall. Rudra tries to remember what he’s really learned from his father, and he can’t think of anything, except the importance of always carrying cash.
The digital-only displays are his mother’s design. The largest screen is hers, currently running an old clip-compilation of a trip they’d taken to Paris. They’re in the Louvre, his father complaining about both the insults meted out to Indian tourists and the atrocious, nation-shaming behaviour of those same tourists, his mother taking pictures of herself in front of each painting, his brother sneaking videos of girls who knew exactly what he was doing. She’s used the videos he’d shot, but as he waves through the rest of the tribute, he notices he’s been cut out of all the others. He’s overcome by a strange urge to find himself, and he tries the Roy family tribute, next to theirs, scrolling quickly through his father’s childhood photos, and there he is, he exists, he’s stuffing his face with ice cream, but just for a second, and then it’s Romola Aunty telling his father to stop photographing the food, Rajat laughing a little too loudly and turning his camera on her.
The biggest tribute screen is reserved for the one from their guru’s ashram. At least that monster is not here today. One of their biggest fights, definitely a top-ten contender, was when Rudra, still in his teens, had refused to prostrate himself before the god-man and kiss his feet. His father had hit him then, kept hitting him until the guru graciously forgave him (he took his time). Rudra remembers the guru’s benevolent hug. His flesh had been cold and clammy, like a fish. It had turned out later that the guru might not have forgiven Rudra: when he’d been severely infected during the third pandemic wave, the godman had insisted that Rajat feed him some strange quack herb mixture instead of getting him actual treatment. Rajat, fortunately, had decided not to sacrifice his son.
The godman’s booth is special in another way: there’s an in-booth camera and a QR panel for donations. He considers making faces, but people are watching.
The godman’s network has been good for his parents, though. A lot of the most high-net-worth people here today are fellow cult members. One of the kids lurking outside the hall, chasing cartoon Augmented Reality collectible creatures on her phone, is a familiar face from old cult-social times. He’d had to babysit her when she was five or so, while his father tried to persuade hers, a media baron of some sort, to cover his first holistic-healing clinic. She’d been perfectly well-behaved, but had told him, at some point when the grown-ups were having dinner, that her daddy thought his daddy was a fraud. Her name pops into his head out of nowhere: Kyara. Her whole generation has names that sound like apps or shampoos. Her father isn’t here: she’s been sent as an ambassador. The other devotees aren’t including her in their conversations about aligning spheres and resonant cosmic energy and indigo children. She’s probably not one of the godman’s chosen soul-daughters that go and live with him from time to time: lucky for her. She sees him watching her, and quickly changes apps: a video of Zaria Salam, the controversial Muslim investigative journalist, appears on her screen and she closes it quickly. Clearly she’s going through a rebellious phase: he decides his babysitting inspired it years ago.
His smartatt vibrates. At first he thinks it’s the usual notification that his proxy-lifer has walked his diligent ten thousand steps, but there’s activity on his phone: a message from his mother: Don’t leave, your brother will speak to you.
Is Padmini worried he’ll start some kind of inheritance dispute? That would be hilarious. But wait he does, for hours, as the funeral slowly transforms into a party. Competitive Rabindrasangeet singers from his mother’s side of the family caterwaul in turn. Rudra passes through the crowd unseen. Sometimes people talk about him, he can feel their eyes on him, but no one knows what to say to him, for which he’s profoundly grateful. He starts a conversation with his long-lost cousin Hindol, pretending to be unaware that Hindol had taken a vow of silence ever since his cult-procured Mizo bride stabbed him in the penis and ran away, but gets bored after a while. He finds unlikely allies: a group of teenagers brought here against their wills, white kurtas and kameezes dragged over their regulation clothes—he can see their T-shirts changing colour underneath. They’re lurking on the landing discussing ways to murder various prominent guests. He approves of many of their choices: Tandon, apparently in the news recently for holding children captive in his workshops, gets eaten by cost-cutting robots; Satpathy, the mythology-astrology investment tsar and mainstreamer outrage ninja, has a sex dream about Mao and dies of shame; Shankar, the Chinese-made 3D-printed religious icon franchisee making loud, off-colour jokes about prostitutes with QR tattoos, gets an STD and is then clobbered to death by his corporate-Hindu-moral-instructor wife.
“Chopra, the positive propaganda thinktanker, is force-fed happy pills until he chokes,” he contributes, at one point, forgetting he’s a decade older than these kids.
“That’s my dad,” says the girl. The two boys with her size him up, consider punching him, but decide he isn’t worth it. Or have they heard the rumours he’s deranged, that he’s been in rehab all this time? Is that what actually happened, has he just imagined the rest? He considers telling them about his imaginary friend Bon-Rui the Pangolin, an AR pet he’d fallen in love with as a child. He’d taken months to even acknowledge that Bon-Rui existed only on smartglasses his father had brought him from Japan; he’d been convinced the pangolin was just hiding. He’d grown so attached to Bon-Rui that he’d refused to take the smartglasses off, worn them all day and night for weeks, and they’d had to tear them off him as he screamed and kicked. He’d told them he could still see the bouncing blue pangolin for months after that, even without the glasses. They’d laughed, but he’d been telling the truth: he still sees Bon-Rui sometimes, but he’s learned not to talk about it. He suspects these teenagers might not enjoy that story. They shoot him classic teenage dirty looks and slouch off, a clear lifelong pack of feral Useless Younger Children. They’ll probably run the country one day. Rudra approves.
A quick foray to his brother’s (fortunately empty) bedroom later, Rudra is relaxed, confident, and positively social. The family ghost drifts down the stairs and floats around the edges of clusters of conversation, accepting condolences with grace, wincing only slightly when the screenshades descend around the hall, cutting out the slanting afternoon sunlight and scrolling black-and-white graphics about his father. He is an ambassador from another planet, come to gather anthropological information about this place and time, and return to his own world with fascinating facts: it’s not that much different from getting lost in wikis.
Most of the conversations are immediately discardable ones about numbers: square-foot costs, mileages, exchange rates, multibagger potentials, cash components. He stumbles into a group of women discussing their designer vaginas, and beats a hasty retreat. He’s thrilled to hear that a long chain of murals on the highway depicting the transformation of Hindu men into gods through bio-augmentation have been burnt and covered in blood by unknown vandals, and the culture-terrorist E-Klav is a prime suspect. A man pitches a location-based mob aggregator app at him, thinking he’s his brother. He meets a neuromarketer, a flying warehouse distributor, a portable crematorium arranger, a non-fungibility shaman, a viral mutation futurist, a detention centre designer, and a friend-renting social maven. He pretends to understand complaints from smart city investors who all bought land in the hills and seem surprised that construction is at least five years delayed, though this has happened every year for the last ten. They all want to move out of Delhi to find cleaner air. They will not. Everyone keeps complaining about the Chinese buying everything while scanning the room to verify there are no actual Chinese people present.
Rudra has always been skilled in knitting together the effluvia of other people’s loose talk. He finds soon that he’d chosen, with his typical unerring accuracy, a very poor target for imaginary assassination: Chopra, whose daughter he’d recently offended, was just a medium-visible propagandist five years ago when Rudra last saw him, but is now access-caste elite, and the most important man at the party. You never know with people who claim to be access-Brahmins—some of them are just frauds claiming real connections to power to get invited to enough parties to launder their lies—but a quick look at Chopra’s Flow Highlights reveals casually stockpiled one-degree relationships with real power. He’s likely to be the real deal.
A single hour shadowing Chopra as he circuits the room, smoothly discarding unworthy networkers, and Rudra learns things he’s sure he couldn’t have off mainstream news if he watched it, and one of those things even he will remember: the social-credit rankings are coming back soon. His gaming circles had all been very excited by the prospect of limitless coding/ hacking funtimes when the Indian government had tried to set up human scores in the early ’20s. But the project had failed spectacularly, and it had been discovered that Chinese-owned shell companies were building India’s surveillance infrastructure at a time when hiding Chinese land grabs from the public was growing impossible. And then the Indian technocrats handling the ratings system had decided that since India was still nominally a democracy, everyone should be able to rate everyone else in pub.
lic. The resulting avalanche of online hate-mob attacks, offline revenge killings, and general furore over mass-downratings of every single well-known person on every point on the political spectrum had led to the project’s sudden and welcome disappearance. But that was then.
“This time, the new idea is the old idea, haan? We’re just buying the Chinese systems again,” Chopra says. “Yes, I know, security concerns, but why pretend, sirji, the Chinese will find out everything anyway. All our data will be sold anyway, better we have some stake, no? What everyone forgets is that the Chinese are our friends now. We rename one neighbourhood after another—prime locations—to remind people this, bhai. No need to fight them all over the web anymore, but people forget.”
This time, Rudra learns, your average Jyoti will never know what his rating is, or get to rate anyone else: it’ll be wholly secret, wholly automated, based on every transaction, every observed adherence to or violation of every unwritten rule, every movement, every word spoken or messaged, every act of consumption, participation, or expressed emotion, and then categorised and filtered, obviously, by Jyoti’s family, his community, his friends, his biometrics, and his overall performance relative to the ideal life he should be living as a Good Citizen. Only the Chopras of the world will have access to who Jyoti really is, will have a seat at the ceremony where Anubis weighs Jyoti’s heart. No wonder everyone in the room is treating Chopra like a minor deity. Rudra’s just grateful that he’ll never see any of these people ever again. He wonders if Chopra’s daughter and her boys were making actual death lists on the stairs: if this was the sort of job Daddy assigned them while he was catching up with new old friends.
There’s just one major decision left as afternoon sinks angrily into evening: Should he have the last joint right now, or wait until after the long trek home? A decision he still hasn’t reached when his brother’s hand descends on his shoulder like the hammer of Thor.
Rohit semi-drags Rudra out of the hall, out through the kitchen where a small army of secret Bangladeshis is cooking for the guests, out into the farmhouse grounds. No doubt he has a small speech prepared about land and blood and how far they’ve come, but he checks the time and grimaces: always running slightly late, our Rohit.
“I choose to forget what I saw you doing in my room,” says Rohit. “It’s not important, I’m just glad you didn’t ruin the Mehta plan. Bastard doesn’t even know he works for me now. Listen, let’s just put the past behind us and talk brother to brother, okay? Baba’s dead. The last couple of years have been difficult, you didn’t know, but now the family has to come back together. Better days are coming again. So let me just ask you one question. Can I depend on you?”
“Yes,” says Rudra on autopilot. Always agreeing with Rohit was something his lizard brain had taken charge of long ago.
“Do you know, when you were a child, Baba thought you were a retard? They were going to send you away, but I didn’t let them. Whatever my brother is, he’s my brother, I said. He’s family. You’ll realise this later, no one has ever been as good to you as I have.”
“But I can’t handle the whole family on my own anymore, and god knows Ma isn’t any bloody help. We need you back. Playtime’s over. I got mine too, I spent it neck deep in red meat and white girls in Berlin, and why you spent yours in Kalkaji surrounded by Africans and Bangladeshis—”
“May I point out that Bangladesh’s economy has been growing faster than India’s for a whole generation?”
“Quiet. Why you live like a middle-class loser stuck on your stupid computer I’ll never understand. But blood is blood. Rudra, I was planning to tell you all this peacefully tomorrow, and move you back in here, and have the big meeting next week, with you properly prepared. But then you went ahead and showed up, so I’ve got to throw you in.”
“Into your new life, idiot. You’re getting a job. Now I can’t let you fuck up the family business, but there’s a huge expansion coming, and I need you to take charge of it in two years. You’ll work for Chopra until then. Learn how the world really works.”
“It’s best for the family if I’m not given this sort of responsibility.”
“Believe me, I know, and so does Ma. But it’s good you’ve understood this. Means there’s hope. This is a huge step up. It was supposed to be me, but Baba had to go and die ahead of schedule. This is everything we’ve ever dreamed of, so do not fuck it up, do you understand?”
He squeezes Rudra’s shoulder, hard.
“I love you, brother,” he says.
“I love you,” Rudra says. It seems polite.
They hug. There’s no time for further questions: Chopra steps out of the kitchen. Is there a Sinister Silent Entry app? Rohit introduces them and vanishes.
Chopra tells Rudra he’s been watching the excellent work he’s been doing at Harvard, while his eyes tell Rudra he knows absolutely everything about his real life, probably had a tracker inserted into his spine a few days ago. Rudra wants to run, and keep running, but his legs stay rooted as Chopra explains the job. The joints are kicking in now, and Chopra’s talking really fast. Normally Rudra’s good at just taking in words, leaving them in a pile in his memory to process later. But someone in the kitchen has switched on a massive exhaust fan; it’s droning like a helicopter and he can’t really hear anything. Is it all on purpose, so Chopra can’t be recorded? Is he supposed to know how to lip-read? His throat is suddenly blocked: he can’t summon up the courage to interrupt the access-Brahmin, he’s flashbacking to childhood beatings from his brother. So much energy, even then. Chopra’s saying something about human resources, competing with the Chinese on their turf, migrants, human utility and purpose, Kalkaji, domestic workers, missing children, opportunity, Rudra knowing how it is… the African exodus? Climate change? The Libyan slave markets? European blockades? Digital solutions? Immigrant control? The caste pyramid? Communist terrorists? Pragmatism?
It dawns on Rudra that he’s being told about a slavery app.
His family is sending him to work as a slave trader.
The fan in the kitchen turns off.
“Formalities will be sorted next week, but I need to know if you’re on board right now,” says Chopra. He extends a hand. A blue pangolin appears on his shoulder.
And Rudra finds himself unable to speak. Chopra’s eyes grow even colder. How is that even possible?
“Look, I’m really sorry to interrupt, Chopraji, but Rudra’s hiding something from you,” says a voice from behind the access-Brahmin.
It’s Joey. Rudra’s noticed her a few times during the day, running away from people pitching her Flow ideas.
Chopra raises an eyebrow.
“Rudra accepted a job offer from me this morning,” she says. “I guess he’s too scared to tell you? His family doesn’t know yet. So, sorry if this is a problem, but he is taken, sir.”
“Is this true?” Chopra snaps at Rudra.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sorry, I—”
Chopra flashes his perfect teeth at them in the approximation of a smile, and silences him with a gesture. “Sorry for your loss, my boy,” he says. “God bless, haan? Good luck.”
“What a dick,” Joey says as they watch him stomp through the kitchen. “Sorry, was that your dream job I just ruined? You looked like you were going to say something stupid, I waited and waited. But you weren’t doing it, so I did.”
“Thank you,” Rudra says.
“So… my folks are finally getting the hell out of here and I came to see if you wanted a lift,” says Joey.
“I do,” Rudra says. “I also want that job you just made up. If possible. If it’s not too much of a problem? Please?”
Joey spends a few seconds looking at him, and then shrugs. “Can you edit Flows?”
“Yes. I can edit anything,” Rudra says. “Can you pay me in cash? And can I live in the office? I think my family might unperson me. Or kidnap me.”
“That’s nice,” Joey says.
“Do you have any more of that weed you’ve clearly been smoking all day?”
He hands her the last joint.
“You’re hired,” she says.
Excerpted from The City Inside, copyright © 2022 by Samit Basu.