Jenny Fan Raj
“Robert, right? I heard you were in this tent. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
I’d seen her mounting her approach from a distance, head coyly cocked to one side, a teasing smile on her lips. She gave an illusion of length, from the feathered earrings dangling along the curve of her neck to tanned legs that ended in narrow feet, silver rings circling her toes. White crocheted crop top, shredded denim shorts. It was a look cultivated from Instagram, indistinguishable from any other twenty-something tech groupie. I grinned in recognition as she placed a cool hand on my arm. “Is this your first time at Burning Man?”
“Nah, it’s my third year. Getting old, actually.”
She leaned back and worried her lips before smiling again. “But we must remember that change is the only constant. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is here this year. Care to meet him?”
“I don’t do yoga. Maybe you and Cheri can catch a session, or whatever.” I nudged Cheri forward with a shoulder. Cheri and I had met last night and had some fun, but she’d been trailing me all day.
“Cheri? I’m Rachel. Nice to meet you.” The two women sized each other up. Advantage Cheri. She looked like a young Elle MacPherson, loose blonde hair knotted on the top of her head, full lips now in a pink pout. Nicer ass too. Rachel smiled back at Cheri’s frown and I felt a twinge of interest. There was a confidence about her that was intriguing. I’m usually the cocky one.
“Rachel,” I said. “Call me Rob. SunTech is hosting a dinner tonight. Join us. I’m flying in chefs from the French Laundry. It’ll be sick. You’ll love it.” I felt Cheri’s resentment rising next to me like steam in the hot desert air, but I shrugged it off. There was something fresh about Rachel.
“Sounds fun, Rob, but I don’t do social events anymore. Maya Rai sent me. She’s waiting with Mahesh Yogi. Come with me. You’ll thank me later, I promise.”
Five years ago, I’d have given anything to pull off a camp—an air-conditioned luxury camp with Sherpas, no less—at Burning Man. #LifeGoals, right? The trouble was that in five years all this could be gone. I wiped at my brow. I needed to stay relevant. My investors needed me to stay relevant. I surprised myself when I followed Rachel. We left Cheri behind and picked our way through the chatting Burners, Rachel’s arm intertwined in mine like a warm snake.
We started down the broad avenue, tents arrayed around us like medieval battlements. The dust was gritty and hot between my toes. The sand beat against my face and forced its way into my eyes. A pair of women rode past us on cruiser bikes, hair streaming, bodies nude except for thin gold chains circling their foreheads. One of the girls raised an arm in greeting, her full breasts swinging, a dimple in her cheek. I turned my head to watch her.
“Where are you taking me?” My throat was dry. Tears cut channels into my dusty face.
“Not far, but if you don’t want to walk we can hitch a ride.” Rachel’s eyes had lightened in the sun and were now almost the same blue as the sky. She looked otherworldly. I shuddered.
“Yeah, might be a good idea.”
A pedicab pulled up next to us. The driver was bare-chested, his hair and skin both nut brown. He smiled at us through tousled curls.
“Headed this way?” he asked.
Rachel hopped onto the seat. I climbed in with some effort. Luckily there was a tasseled parasol over our heads, allowing respite from the sun. Rachel arranged a cushion behind my back. We sat high above the sand. Her breath was hot in my ear.
“When we get there, don’t tell Maya about your dinner. I’ll go if I must, but she needs to focus on GuruMe. We’ve only got a few more days here and our list is long,” she said.
“I don’t get it. Where are we going? Who are you talking about?” I asked. She blinked and laughed.
“You haven’t heard of GuruMe, have you? I guess we’re smaller than we think. Maybe it’s better this way. Maya’s got big plans for you.” The pedicab stopped in front of a small tent and Rachel led me in. Inside, the air was thin. Dappled shadows crisscrossed the floor and I could almost hear the whisper of green leaves swaying above our heads. An aged man sat meditating in the center of the tent.
I felt a pair of hands grasp my ankles. Cold pinpoints of metal touched my feet as someone removed my shoes.
“Robert? Maya. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
She was stunning. Dark brown hair tumbled down her back, where a patch of bare skin shone through the fabric of her sari. She stood in front of me as a Hindu goddess; curved, seductive, timeless. I blinked. Maya’s green eyes were direct, appraising. She took my hand. “Come, darling. We can talk after.”
She led me to the old man. Without a word, he embraced us. Everything was still. “Good. You are ready. Drink this.” The yogi passed me a small ceramic bowl. Seeing my hesitation, Maya wrapped my hands in hers and tipped the cup into my mouth. I swallowed the bitter drink. The yogi murmured some foreign words and left.
I felt a cold ease seep into me. Then, for a long while, nothing.
When I came to, Maya was wiping my brow with a cold cloth while Rachel rubbed my feet. “How do you feel, darling?” Maya’s smile blinded me. I closed my eyes again. “Wow. What was in that cup?”
“Never mind. You had it within you, you see? This is GuruMe. My passion. What you just experienced is the Nirvana level, of course—what our clients might work years to attain. I gave you the full tour on your first go, so to speak.” Maya’s giggle was surprisingly girlish. “But I need your help. I have the content and the contacts, but I can’t build a viable company without SunTech’s resources. Will you help me?”
I laughed. “Ah. You want money. That I know something about.” Maya’s sari had loosened, revealing the lush curve of her breast. I pulled her towards me. “Everything has its price.”
“Darling, you are absolutely naughty!” Maya swatted at me with another giggle. “Not to worry. Rachel will take care of you.”
I don’t remember much about the return trip. Rachel was chatty and bright. She told me she headed PR for GuruMe. They had a stable of om-gurus in India, trained in social media and ready to connect with Western seekers. Market research showed that the mindfulness trend was set to peak in two years, and the buzz among early adopters so far was awesome. Membership was invite-only, but the plan was a global launch by December.
I tuned her out. Maya had disappeared without saying goodbye. Her smell stayed with me. I’d found a single gold bangle, as small as a child’s, tucked into my pocket as I dressed. I wondered how I could see her again. As if reading my mind, Rachel handed me a slim folder. “Sign these. Maya will be in touch.” She pecked me on the cheek and climbed back into the pedicab. I watched her disappear into the dust.
Maya had me hire Mahesh Yogi for a blessing ceremony and made plans to tour GuruMe with me the day after. I had my assistant book two rooms at the Oberoi Bangalore, though with luck we’ll only need one. We’d emailed and texted a fair bit after Burning Man, but mainly in bursts. Sometimes she was chatty and open, sometimes distant. Just as I was getting into it, she stopped cold. I missed her, the excitement of seeing her name pop up on my screen. Her last text said: “I miss you,” but she never answered my long response. I felt like a fool, but I wanted her.
I slept with Rachel a few times. She would appear at my hotel room in a random city and slip into my bed. I didn’t ask how she knew my travel schedule. She laughed when I asked her to be discreet. She was the only one who might’ve understood.
“Don’t tell Maya” I asked.
“But you haven’t actually seen her since Burning Man.”
“No, but we text a lot.” I knew I sounded ridiculous. “I don’t know, what I have with her just feels so real, you know.”
“Yes,” Rachel said. “That’s Maya’s way.”
Rachel’s words ran through my mind as the driver zigzagged through heavy traffic. I turned my head to stare at a man standing on the overgrown median. He held a brown bear, its fur matted by grease, by a chain. Every once in a while the bear stood up on its hind legs and clapped its hands, then, head drooping, fell on all fours again. The man walked up and down the road, collecting rupees from bored drivers.
Maya was perched at a small table in the lobby of the hotel by the time I finally arrived. She was talking intensely to a gorgeous redhead. They leaned into each other, laughing, so close their noses almost touched. When she saw me, Maya kissed the redhead goodbye and turned to me.
“Hello, stranger.” Her accent seemed thicker today. There were rumors that she was an Indian princess raised in Britain, that the saris she wore were embroidered with real gold, that her perfect breasts and lips came from a Brazilian plastic surgeon. GuruMe broke records the week it launched and stayed on top of the charts for twenty consecutive weeks. Its daily users rivaled Facebook. The western appetite for Nirvana appeared insatiable.
I kissed Maya. She smelled of citrus and flowers. She turned her head and kissed me back, lightly, on my lips. “Thank you for your investment, darling. You were pivotal to GuruMe’s success. I won’t forget that.”
I grabbed Maya’s hands. “Listen, I’ve got an amazing night planned. Have you heard of The Atelier? Fantastic food. It’s small. Private. My CFO knows the owner. He’ll close the place and cook just for us. We can get to know each other,” I said.
“I’m so sorry, darling. I was looking forward to our time together, too. But something’s come up. I won’t be able to attend your opening tomorrow after all.” I felt blindsided and unreasonably angry. What was she saying?
“This is ridiculous! We had a deal, Maya, you can’t just ditch me like this!” My voice echoed in the marble hall. Heads turned toward us. Maya kissed me deeply. I felt her tongue snake into my mouth.
“All in good time, darling. I’ve arranged for my driver to bring you to GuruMe. I’ll be waiting for you there.” She patted my hand. “Don’t worry. Rachel assures me that everything’s all set. She’s quite something, isn’t she? I only give you the best.” She left me stunned, her steps ringing against the stone floor.
The road turned to mud but the driver didn’t seem alarmed. He swerved around a small girl walking down the center of the road, spraying red clay onto her. We missed her by inches and she did not flinch. “Slum child, sir,” he nodded back at me.
Glass skyscrapers had suddenly given way to low huts at the last intersection, as if the road itself divided first world from third. We drove past colorful dwellings, their bloated wooden doors sprouting inside yellow walls. Saris and rags hung on laundry lines, obscuring rusted tin roofs. There were children everywhere. They patted the side of the car as we drove past, jogging alongside us with outstretched hands. Other than the kids, no one paid attention to us.
The street was alive with women crouched in circles gossiping and trading and thin men pushing overfilled carts along the side of the street. We came upon a group of men wrapped in loincloths, their chests bared. They were washing a cow, dipping their washcloths into a pink plastic bucket at their feet. Like the others, the men studiously ignored our car, but the cow turned toward me with curious eyes. Its liquid gaze seemed to commiserate with me. We drove into a small opening in the wall and the parked next to a dusty car in a courtyard.
The first thing that hit me was the smell: warm, fetid, sour, the smell of an unwashed crowd. I gagged as it struck me that we are all animals after all. Here there was no need for pretense. There were more essential concerns. Maya walked towards me, arms open in greeting. My heart jumped when I breathed her in.
“Darling! How was your drive?” Maya giggled. “I bet you don’t get to see this side of India very often.”
“It was—” I struggled for the right word. “—unexpected. What are we doing here? I thought we were touring GuruMe.”
“Oh, I have a surprise for you. Because you’re special, Rob. Our first investor. You signed the NDA, right?” Maya laughed again and slapped her forehead in mock exasperation. “But of course you have, darling. I received your DocuSign this morning. Oh darling, I’m so excited! Come with me.”
We ducked into a low door and entered a large warehouse. It must’ve covered at least ten blocks. It looked as if the walls between the tenements had been knocked down and makeshift roofs joined over them. Pale light struggled through uneven windows. I momentarily lost sight as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The overhead bulbs were unlit.
Inside, the smell was even more overwhelming. Rows of women, men, and young children squatted on the floor, their faces lit blue by the screens in their hands. Black surge protectors snaked through the aisles connecting everyone, charger cables twisting out like the entrails of a decaying creature. A clicking hum pervaded the room. Sharp-eyed young women in polyester suits patrolled the aisles.
A skinny woman in a yellow sari raised a hand. Her other arm was cradling a breastfeeding infant. One of the young women bent down to her. They whispered softly before the older woman resumed her work, tapping and swiping methodically on her screen. The baby slipped off her breast and began crying, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“What language are they speaking?”
Maya shrugged. “Oh, there are so many dialects in Bangalore, darling, I don’t even know. Luckily, we have our girls. Supervisor level, you see. College graduates, smart as whips, but local so they understand these dialects. Only four hundred rupees a day. A steal, I’d say.” Her hand brushed mine. “Proud of me, darling? Keeping our costs down.” Her hand was ice cold.
“For the kids, too?” I asked. Maya laughed.
“Oh darling! No, only our best get four hundred. The worker bees on the phones, they’re just tapping! Choose the option that best fits the client’s query. Tap tap. No skill at all. It’s all programmed, you see, but they provide the live element. Our clients are sophisticated, darling, so we can’t automate everything, at least not yet. We do pay them, of course, but to be frank it costs GuruMe more in electricity than it does to pay these workers.”
The baby was still wailing but no one paid any attention. Two children sitting near our feet had been staring at me and rubbing their faces, eyes comically agog, but a young woman hushed them with a tap of her stick. Stricken, they bowed down to their phones. The smell intensified as we walked deeper into the room. The workers worked intently. Even the supervisors refused to be distracted. They marched up and down the aisles monitoring each tap, swipe, and click.
“We track everything through the app, you see. Productivity metadata.” Maya nodded conspiratorially. “They work in twelve-hour shifts, so GuruMe is always available. Our clients come first.”
My head spun. I grabbed at Maya but only touched air. I fell.
I came to in a pale pink room of gold filigree moldings and damask curtains. Astringent air-conditioning blasted into my face. Maya smiled brightly down at me. “Darling, how do you feel?”
“I’ve been better. Where are we now?”
“Oh, this is my office. More like a refuge, as you can see.” Maya giggled. “You and I aren’t made for those conditions.” She indicated the door, through which I could still hear the hum of the workers. “I rest here during the longer days. Sometimes I bring investors in here. Not easy managing the masses, darling. But soon I won’t have to anymore.”
I was lying on a low bed in the center of the room. One of the young women walked in with a tea tray. Her kohled eyes avoided mine as if she were ashamed for me. She set down the tray and left.
Maya brought a cup to my lips. “Drink. It’ll help.”
I sipped the sweet tea and leaned back. “So, this is GuruMe.”
“Yes, darling, what do you think? Oh, but you haven’t even seen the best part! Are you ready to walk now? At your own time, of course, darling, but I am so excited to show you. It’s the future, really. ”
“I’ve seen enough for the day, Maya.” I smiled and patted the mattress. “Maybe you can join me on the bed.”
Maya giggled and kissed me lightly on the lips. “This is important work, darling. Time for that later.”
I grabbed her arm. “Enough, Maya. You’ve been jerking me around all week. I’m tired of this!”
“Rob. We have business to attend to.” She spoke coldly, barely hiding her disdain.
I let her pull me up. We walked through a door on the far side of the room and stepped into a small room with whitewashed walls that was divided into two sections. Long white desks filled the first half, where men in white polos sat typing quietly as they stared at lines of code scrolling upon a wall-mounted screen. Except for the rapid movements of their fingers, nobody moved.
The other side of the room looked like a lounge, with colorful beanbag chairs strewn haphazardly over a rug. Two hulking leather massage loungers were plugged into an outlet in the corner. Fluorescent light shone brightly over everything. It looked like any other cash-strapped start-up, except for the row of young women who stood at attention against the wall. Six or seven men sprawled on the beanbags, their faces obscured by white helmets.
One of them raised a hand. A young woman bent down and removed his helmet. His eyes were dilated, unseeing. She wiped his brow with a handkerchief and gently embraced him, whispering into his ear.
“This is the next frontier, Rob.” Maya swept her arm over the room. Her bangles clattered musically. “We’re testing GuruMe in virtual reality. So much neater, isn’t it, darling, and less—shall we say—odorous?”
I felt nauseous again. The sightless men lying on the rug resembled overturned insects. “What are you saying? That the gurus in GuruMe will only be code? Isn’t that taking it too far?”
Maya turned to me with wide eyes. “Oh darling! But did you think there were ever any gurus? Mahesh yogi, sure, but I mean, he’s just a marketing tool. Anyway, people aren’t really looking for gurus, darling. It was just a hook, as they say.” She giggled. “The secret is to know what people want and give it to them. Even if they don’t admit to wanting it. Even if they’re ashamed of wanting it.”
She motioned to one of the young women, who came over and took my hand. Maya took the other. They led me to one of the loungers and pushed me into its soft embrace. Maya gently removed my shoes and buckled a restraint over my legs, then my arms and my torso.
“For your protection, darling. Oh, I’m so excited for you. You’re about to get everything you’ve ever wanted. As I’d promised. You’ll see. Our code is more human than human can be.”
She pulled a helmet over my head and adjusted the cushion under my neck. I heard a click, then darkness. When I can see again I am sitting on a plush bed, like in the room next door. The scent of bitter citrus floats in the air. There is no one else in the room. I peek out the window, drink some tea, and finally, bored, open the cabinet. Colorful silk lingerie fills the first drawer. The next contains a finely braided horsehair whip and a blindfold. I feel a soft embrace from my back and instinctively lean into it. Maya’s strong perfume sucks me in.
“Darling,” she giggles, “I’m so glad you’re here. What shall we do first? We have all the time in the world.”
Jenny Fan Raj lives and works in San Francisco, where she teaches at the California College of the Arts and is working on a novel and a short story collection. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Columbia East Asian Review, The New Engagement, and Flash Fiction Magazine.