In a new column, 'Category Error', Amruta Patil marries news-triggered observation with fiction, history, philosophy, against the backdrop of an Indian high rise.

Read more from the series here.

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1 | Foundations of Education

Before the 17th century, knowledge that had no practical or material worth was the indulgence of elites and autodidacts. Most human beings only learned what their lives needed them to know. Those imparting the teaching were close to home, often inside the house.

At this particular point in the 21st century, all scholastic and babysitting outsourcing having been disbanded, exhausted parents the world over had run out of DIY projects that only needed supplies no one had to leave home for. Notebook paper. Flour. Matchsticks. To-dilute glue.

The interior designer in Apartment D401 of Atlantis Co Operative Housing buckled herself in to address a tsunami of online class-related tech support queries on the parents’ WhatsApp group. This volunteering suited her delicately sociopathic streak better than those frontline grinning appearances of non-pandemic times. The weeks gone by had deepened her conviction that her 10-year-old son’s school education was a hoax. They were all winging it — rudderless, gormless adults ‘readying’ children for a gawping, question-mark future. Her boy, glassy-eyed during online modules, had learned to make a really beautiful dosa

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In the evening, they planned to soak onion peels to make a nutrient-solution-cum-insect repellent. No self-congratulatory photos would be shared online. The interior designer was too intelligent to over-celebrate low maintenance behaviour and obedience, and too New Age not to know this Indigo generation was preternaturally wise only because it lived in end times.

2 | PDFs of Newspapers

The retired Indian Railways officer, secretary of the Residents’ Welfare Association, touched the stack of raddi in the clubhouse almost wistfully. The five senior citizens — including his good self — who used to read newspapers there, had all taken to frantically circulating PDFs of national newspapers for the last few weeks. The RWA secretary was ashamed at how easily he had grown to like the format. Somehow, the photos looked more urgent, and the blacks looked blacker, truer than on newsprint.

Always one with an eye on the bottom line, the RWA secretary wondered how — and how long — newspapers could still afford to generate and distribute news, given that there was no advertising on their pages. Who were the fools ready and willing to go out and report when there was no glory to be had in the aftermath? When the axe fell, who were the fools to be made jobless first? The ones who edited shabby prose? The art directors? Those on the culture and sports beat had already gone silent. How grave, he thought, how terrible.

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If life returned to normal, he decided he would be willing to pay up to Rs 40 for his morning paper, but then he was that aberration — an Everyman who read.

A new incoming message alerted him to the fact that forwarding newspaper PDFs would soon be illegal and punishable, and that paper delivery service would be restarting the following day. The RWA secretary adjusted his monkey cap before typing out the following words in the Society WhatsApp group: We have decided it is still too risky to allow newspaper delivery in our building society. Who knows where these chaps have been?

He cared for the good health of media, but when it came to building safety, he was guardian of the moat.

3 | People Who Live in Glass Houses

The typographer in Apartment E202 was in a Zoom conference call with college friends scattered all over the world. What is the maximum number of people in a group, she wondered, before all hope of honest conversation is lost? Her friends had reproduced profusely in the interim years of low communication, and the typographer, childless and un-partnered, did not know the names of most of the kids who ambled in and out of the frame during the call.

News about how video conference platforms were not ‘safe’ was met with a snort-le by the typographer, given that 10 minutes of this ongoing call had been spent trying to explain to one person or the other how to activate microphone or video, how to swipe to see all the multiple screens. Ten more minutes were spent in silence as people waited for someone else to speak so they wouldn’t talk over them. Nope, no state secrets here, no lascivious views. Even if there were, people who live in glass houses (i.e. every one of us) must either be immaculately dressed, or own their wobbly bits like champions.

The typographer adjusted the lamp so light no longer fell on her face from below eye level like some old horror show. Not ageing so bad, thought she, then tore her eyes away guiltily from her own face to look at other rectangles on the screen — familiar faces made undefined by boozy lifestyles and lens distortion, college-era hot bods gone comfortably phlegmatic with age. They all wore rapt expressions. The typographer wondered if they, too, were checking out their own faces. Or whether they were secretly devouring one particular face at the expense of all other rectangles on-screen:

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Writer-painter Amruta Patil is the author of graphic novels Kari, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, Sauptik: Blood and Flowers, and Aranyaka: Book of the Forest. On Instagram: @amruta_gauri