A Zombie For A Rupee

The Home Minister of Kjinsoni looked at his watch for the second time in the last three minutes- a sure sign that he was getting impatient, observed the Finance Minister who sat beside him, his head supported on the clenched fist of his arm, looking bored.

Though only two years younger to the 56 year old Home Minister, physically he looked at least a decade younger. This was not just because the FM worked out every morning, dedicating two hours of his life every day for the upkeep of his body. It was also because the Home Minister worried a lot, especially since the zombie outbreak all but ruined the entire country.

And excessive worrying was the gateway to hastened ageing, as sure as bad sauce would ruin even the best prepared pasta.

The Home Minister pushed up the spectacles on the bridge of his nose. He was about to comment to the FM about how people don’t have respect for punctuality when the door was pushed open and his secretary peered in. “He is here.” the woman said curtly, nodding her head in reciprocation to the similar gesture by the Home Minister.

The man who walked in to the room, was 6 feet high and had a headful of blond hair, combed neatly to a side.

Soon as he entered the oval shaped room with a housing capacity of at least 100 but which presently contained just the two ministers, he offered the occupants a smile. It wasn’t a broad smile- the kind which one would offer a long-standing friend. It was rather the thin kind which professional acquaintances offered each other when they ran into each other in the aisles of the office, the kind which was described better by a term like ‘functional’ than ‘warm.’

After reciprocating the smile, the Home Minister ushered him to a seat in front of them.

The two ministers were seated in chairs on a higher pedestal. This meant that Michael Nambi- for that was the man’s name had to slightly lilt his head up whenever he looked at them. The symbolic meaning of the arrangement of the seats was not lost on him.

On behalf of Transa- the company that he represented, he has had meetings with many a powerful figure in the Kjinsoni central ministry before. This put him in the category of “acquaintances of the ministry” he believed. But still, he was never offered an equal seating with the ministers. He doubted they ever would. If there was one thing that he has learned from his years of dealings- in all senses of the word, with the ministers, it was that they were a greedy bunch.

And their greatest greed was for power, and damn if they didn’t display where they stood every chance they got!

Though the seating arrangement didn’t make him raise an eyebrow, he was surprised by two things- one, the meeting was being held in the hall reserved for holding press conferences rather than in one of the smaller conference rooms. Even more surprising was the presence of the Finance Minister.

The request Michael had made was for a meeting with the Home Minister alone.

As though reading his mind, the Home Minister said, “I made the invitation to the Finance Minister to join us as well, hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not,” said Michael, offering the FM a smile before looking again at the HM.

“Since you mentioned that what you wanted to discuss was a business matter, I thought that the Finance Minister’s inputs might also be valuable.”

“He is just exaggerating,” the Finance Minister interjected light-heartedly. “He saw me wandering in the corridors, looking bored. So he took pity on me and brought me along to the meeting.”

Both the Ministers laughed, and when two of the most powerful ministers of the country laughed, Michael knew that he should also laugh along.

Once the trio’s laughter died down, Michael got into his act. He set aside the leather suitcase he had brought in, on the floor beside his chair and leaned forward. He tilted his head up slightly, as though the words he was about to speak were bullets that had to come out of the nozzle of his mouth which needed to be pointed in the right direction.

Though he had wanted the meeting to be primarily with the HM, it was the FM he addressed first, “If, as you said, you were indeed bored, then this meeting is the perfect place for you to get some excitement, sir. For the proposal that I- on behalf of the Transa Corporation has to make is, quite simply, the best solution to the zombie problem which the government has been trying to solve for two years.”

At the mention of the z-word, the Home Minister leaned forward, an expression of interest coming over his face. Michael wasn’t surprised by this. It was his ministry that was directly responsible for tackling the zombie issue. The fact that there were more number of undead in the country than living breathing people made this a tough task.

Also, the fact that the zombies couldn’t be killed by putting a bullet through their brains- as pre-zombie pop culture would have you believe made it even harder. You either have to burn them or cut the head off.

This brought on a situation by which the undead now occupied the larger share of the country’s entire land. To the credit of the Home Ministries of the different states, and of course, the central Home Ministry, the areas that the zombies occupied were well- quarantined. At least, well enough to keep the rate of their killings to eighty humans per month- that’s the national average.

Which wasn’t terribly bad, all things considering. But bad enough for the opposition leaders to cry foul at the way the Home Ministry was handling the situation.

So, of course, the HM was always on the lookout for a prospective solution.

The FM, on the other hand, simply scratched his beard-an uneven spread that cradled his chin and the lower sides of his cheeks. He said, “If I may interject for just a moment, what exactly does the name Transa stand for? Pardon me, I know that Transa is one of the biggest cosmetic brands, having presence in multiple nations but I must admit I am not acquainted with the history of the nomenclature that well,” he hastily added.

Both Michael and the HM were surprised by the question -which seemingly didn’t have any direct bearing with the zombie problem.

Michael was the first to recover his composure. He answered the FM in the most courteous tone, “Transa, sir, began not as a cosmetic company, but as a courier firm. So, the name was an acronym for Transaction. But then, once the shift to being a cosmetic company happened- and that happened because the courier business failed and the company’s CEO-she always had a soft corner for cosmetics, the name remained. But its meaning changed. Now, it stood for transcendence.”

Seeing the baffled expression on the FM’s face, he added, “Transcendence. As in transcending to another realm of beauty,” Michael added with a smile.

“Oh, like that!” exclaimed the FM, snapping his fingers. “Okay, please continue with your plan. I promise I won’t interject again.”

“Very well, sir,” said Michale. He now gave all his attention to the HM.

“Sir,” he began again. “What I want to discuss is a solution to the zombie problem that the government faces. Already, the government is spending way too much money on keeping the undead quarantined than had once thought feasible. And it’s not really feasible, since the government is cutting down the expenses on other fronts- like infrastructure and health, a necessary move perhaps, but it does give fodder for the opposition to cry foul.” He paused for dramatic effect, wanting the point of the opposition to sink deep into the minister’s psyche.

“Now,” he continued, “What if I told you that you can not just negate the zombie problem, but actually gain from them- by making them consumers?”

“If I hadn’t known you better, I would have said you were a fool,” said the HM in a neutral tone. But the glint in his eyes made it clear that the Minister’s curiosity was indeed ignited.

“And what if I told you, sir, the solution to the problem lies in the solution to their itching?”

This time, the HM took a moment before answering, looking Michael up and down, as though assessing whether he has turned senile since the last time they met. Michael wasn’t old- shouldn’t be older than 40, so senility shouldn’t be a problem with him. But in a world where dead people walked around making jerky motions of their body and hunting for the living, anything was possible.

“Are you trying to get yourself thrown out of this meeting, Mr. Nambi?” the HM said, making it clear with a wry smile that what he said was a joke. At least, a half-joke.

“Not at all, sir,” said Michael, shaking his head and smiling himself. “Allow me to explain.”

**

At first, in the early months of the epidemic, many pop culture enthusiasts were gladdened by the fact that the innumerous zombie movies that they have watched got things right- for the undead not only walked by dragging their feet along the ground, their hunger for flesh was also insatiable. They weren’t picky- the flesh of any animal would do, but it was human flesh which was the delicacy in their world.

But as time went by, it became clear that many things, the zombie movies got wrong.

Like, for instance, the zombies were not as dumb as you would like them to be.

For one thing, they could organize and form bands. This display of organized behavior was seen mostly when they hunted for flesh, and also when the humans tried to hunt them down- they then formed alliances to resist.

Another thing that George Romero and the gang didn’t foresee was the itch.

Scientists have found that a zombie caught the itch every fortnight.

And the violence of the issue which prickled their entire body- from top to bottom, was so much that many zombies tried to kill themselves  to be free of the disturbance. It’s common enough for TV networks to relayi images of a zombie jumping off the side of a bridge in a quarantined area in a futile attempt to kill itself, only to have it spring right back up and start scratching again.

Though the zombies could organize- and some of them could even form rudimentary sentences, like “Flesh that way” and “Eat that!”, when it came to matters of memory, they weren’t all that great. So, it was common enough for them to forget that they could only die if their head got cut off. The smartest of them did ask others to behead them when they got the itch, but more often than not, the others weren’t smart enough to understand them.

The itch was observed by the scientists early on- some two months into the infestation, but though more than two years have passed since then, no one has figured out why the itch- which put the zombie in a frenzy so much that they either managed to kill themselves or remained in a seemingly depressed state for the next two or three days, happened in the first place.

“Until now, that is,” Michael said to the Ministers, who listened with rapt attention, the fingers of their hands entwined around each other, like studious school boys listening to the teacher’s lecture.

Opening the leather suit case, Michael pulled out a plain white tube- the kind of which is used for cosmetic cream.

Getting up from the chair, he walked up to the ministers and put the unlabeled tube on the table in front of them.

“The content of that tube is the solution to the itch, that our scientists have developed!” Michael said with evident relish- the note of triumph in his voice as unmistakable as the gleam of the hair cream on his head.

“We have applied the solution to our zombies in captivity. And it has been a roaring success. Not only did the itch subside within thirty minutes of application, no side effects were incurred. In fact, the zombies almost looked pleased. I reckon, if they could grin, they would have done so.” He smiled as he walked back to his seat.

Sitting down, he ran a hand down the front of his suit to clear imaginary wrinkles.

“So, what you are saying is that, you can sell this tube of ointment to the undead and turn them into consumers?” It was the FM who spoke. Though the expression on his face was incrdedulous, his voice was neutral.

Which made it hard for Michael to read the man.

The FM has recently joined the central ministry- after the previous person who adorned the position got killed by a horde of zombies when he went deer hunting in the woods- against the advise of his well wishers.

Though Michael was one of the invitees for the FM’s inauguration, this was the first time that he was in a meeting with him.

“Of course, by turning them into consumers, we would be bringing them back to the fold of civilization,” said Micheal in his best solemn tone.

“And how exactly do you propose to do that?” Contrary to his peer, there was open skepticism in the HM’s voice.

Michael leaned forward in the chair again, clasping his fingers in front of him. “Vast regions where the zombies have occupied are also regions of great natural resources. Resources that the living could use for a great many thing, sometimes things that are immediately needed, including medicine. Now, the only reason those resources remain under-exploited is that the government lack enough money and manpower to get at them. Clearing large numbers of zombies from large swatches of areas, are proving to be impractically expensive. And that’s not taking into account the ethical points the opposition would use in such scenarios. Already, the number of people- from different religions-who consider the undead also as the children of god are rising. All this pose a huge obstacle for the government to tackle the issue.

“But if we can put the zombies to use, to make them work in helping us get the resources that we need, and in return we would provide them with the remedy for their infernal itch, they would buy into it, I’m sure. Now, we all know that the zombies re smarter than we thought- they can band togetrher, and they can use tools- at least the stone age variants. But for our purpose, that would be enough!”

Michale halted to note the responses from the ministers, if any. There was none. They just looked at him with a contemplative gaze, waiting for what he has to say more. Taking this as a positive sign, Michael continued:

“ Transa would run a pilot project, if the Ministry can give us the approval. The government can see the results, and if it satisfies the government, we can perhaps go ahead into the full-fledged phase. Now, I know that all this sounds rather outlandish, but once  should try to capitalize the undead’s intelligence which no one saw coming. They are more intelligent than we thought they would ever be. And scientific evidences are plentiful that their intelligence levels are rising practically by the day. Though their brain mechanism significantly differs from the living, there’s still an underlying observe and learn mechanism functioning in them. It’s proceeding at a slower phase than in the living, but it’s there all the same. Which means that there’s a great possibility that the zombies could one day become re-instated in the civilization of the consumerists- meaning they would one day be smart enough to handle money, money they would pay to have that,” he pointed to the tube on the table.

The HM nodded. He looked at the FM who kept looking at Michael out of calm, calculating eyes. Michael caught the look and thought yet again the  way the FM remained inscrutable.

The sudden silence which settled among the three felt mammoth inside the cavernous hall. It was the HM who broke it. “Assuming that your plan works, and assuming that the undead would become savvy enough one day to be cash-users, it would still take some time for things to reach that point. So, until then, how do you- I mean, how does Transa corporation aim to profit from this?”

That was the question which Michael has been waiting to hear.

“Well,” said Michael, fidgeting slightly in the chair- a deliberate move that was meant to communicate a slight nervousness, even subservience. “We were hoping that until we reach a point where the zombies could transact using cash, the government would give us a cut of the revenue generated from the resources procured from the quarantined zones. We assure you that we would do our best to bring the zombies back into the civilizational fold,” he added hastily.

The HM reflected for a moment. When he spoke, it was in a measured tone, which Michael felt was good news. It meant that the Minister did give careful consideration to his proposal. But somehow, he felt that the success of his proposal depended more on the Finance Minister- the shrewd observer. However, the FM remained shrouded in silence.

“Surely, what you have proposed is an important thing- even if somewhat outlandish. But I would take it up with the Ministry. Let’s see what everyone says. I would have my secretary get in touch with you.”

“Thank you, very much, sir!” said Mathew promptly.

The HM stood up, indicating that the meeting was over. The FM followed suit. The three of them walked out, Mathew bringing up the rear. The FM nodded at him before parting, but no more words were spoken.

**

As he walked to the waiting car, Mathew ran the meeting through his mind once again, wondering if there was anything he could have done better.

This deal, if it came through would be a huge break for Transsa Corporation. Since the Zombie outbreak, the revenue of many major MNCs has gone down-losing a large share of the world’s consumers to the virus was only the beginning of the problems.

If Transa could close this deal, they would be the first in the world to actively gain from the zombies. Whenever he talked to his closest aides about the deal, he referred to it as “A Zombie for a Rupee” though if the deal came through, it would be more than a rupee the company would be making. Way, way more.

As far as the zombies were concerned, it’s the itch that posed the only issue big enough for them to buy a product. Other offerings, like bed and a toilet were not going to strike the fancy of those who never slept and didn’t shit- the entire contents of the flesh that they consumed were absorbed into their body.

The body weight once again depleted though no discernible waste was produce- the details of the biological mechanism necessary for this, Michael wasn’t sure of. In his service over a decade as Transa’s Chief Marketing Officer, he has come across many scientific papers that the scientists the company employed came up with – many pretty complex things. But nothing has been as dense as the report on the zombies.

For that reason, he was glad that the deal he had to make was with the government: He didn’t have to explain to them the scientific minutiae, just the political advantage of having the deal.

Stepping into the car- the door being held open by his chauffeur, he thought he has explained the said advantage to the Ministers rather well.

“Now, the ball is in their court,” he murmured. Once again, he thought about the shrewd, calculating eyes of the new Finance Minister. Since the deal would have economic repercussions too, he hoped that the FM would back it.

But throughout the meeting, the Minister has been unreadable.

**

The Finance Minister entered his office after the meeting. He arranged the things on his table for the nth time today- he was a sucker about having everything in its right place.

Even as he pushed the paper weight to its appropriate position- presented by a visiting Russian dignitary, it was a snow globe with a miniature Kremlin- his mind drifted back to the meeting just concluded. As he had mentioned at the meeting, the only reason he was there was that he didn’t have anything better to do, and his colleague the Home Minister invited him to join so courteously.

He went to the meeting expecting it to be some drab affair- all meetings that happened at a government level were almost always drab. But to his surprise, the proposal that the CMO of Transa Corporation made him excited. The most excited he has been for a long time.

Getting up from the seat, feeling restless with excitement, he walked to the window. Pushing aside the blind, he looked out to see Transa’s CMO entering a car, the car swifted away shortly- easily navigating the traffic free streets: one advantage of the zombie outbreak was that the road traffic went down to saner levels.

He watched as the black car curved around a corner, disappearing from view. A smile made his lips twitch at the memory of what the CMO proposed.

It was a wonderful plan, he thought. It would be neoliberalism at the service of democracy. For one thing, if the plan succeeded, it would bring the undead (surpassing the living at a ratio 3 to 1) become consumers, that would pump in more money into the mainstream economy, which would give rise to more overall growth.

Then, there was also the humanitarian aspect of gently re-civilizing them. For without being a consumer, how could the zombies be civilized?

Yes, the plan made perfect sense to him. Shutting the blind, the FM got out of the room and walked down the corridor towards the Home Minister’s office. “Never delay good things from happening!” was something that he has always believed in.

He must inform the HM how much he liked the plan, right away. He must endorse it, for it was the good thing waiting to happen.

**

Some eighteen hundred miles north to the Ministry, at the nearest ‘Zombie sector’- two of the undead, among the most evolved of the lot were talking- a mixture of words, erratic gestures and half words. They sat inside a cave, which they had designated as their ‘throne.’

No human- not even the most learned of zombielinguists would understand the exchange, to any degree of precision.

“These humans, they think they have us all figured out,” one of them was saying. “They think just because they are alive and we are dead, it gives them a natural advantage. Bah!”

“Wait till we surprise them with what we have amassed! The United Front of Zombies will rise, I am sure! We will rise using the resources that we have amassed! The living have left behind many of their factories in these zombie zones. And now we are processing the resources we have amassed in these factories-  a news that’s coming from all directions. It’s only a matter of time until we would have the weapons and stuff to counter them and annihilate the human race for good. Then, the undead shall inherit the earth!” the more revolutionary of the two zombies said, raising his hand passionately.

“Yes! By God we will,” said his compatriot, now equally fervent, catching a slice of the other’s passion. “Until then, we would keep pretending that we are super-dumb, just like they expect us. And let the silly humans live in the fake belief that they are safe from us as long as they have built the walls around us!”

“Yes, let’s!”

The two compatriots then shared a bottle of whiskey which they have found from an abandoned liquor shop in the vicinity. The liquor didn’t do anything to them, except leaving a slightly tangy feel in the back of their throat.

But the dreams of bringing down the silly living human civilization for good warmed them up a lot.

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