Asif sat up in his bunk with panic spilling over from his dreams to reality. The clock showed 9 AM. He looked down and cursed to see Paul already at his desk and typing away furiously. He jumped down and promptly fell flat on his face as his foot got caught in his blanket. He groaned and tried to get up again.
“Can you keep it down, please? I lost the thread I had in my head”, Paul said. “Ay biteerally schept gown”, Asif said, pinching his bleeding nose. “What?”, Paul asked. “I literally put myself down”, Asif said with some effort. “I don’t have time for your lame jokes”, Paul said and turned to his laptop, scratching his head and trying to remember the story thread he forgot.
“It’s not like you were on the verge of turning into Hemingway with your next sentence anyway”, Asif said and sat down at the desk right next to him, his elbows almost touching Paul. The labor camp authorities didn’t see the value of providing elbow space to writers. Paul tucked his elbows in with a long-suffering look and continued typing. Asif peeped at his screen quickly. “Hey, you can’t plagiarize my bloody nose when you didn’t even give a flying fuck that I got a bloody nose,” he said, angrily.
“I’m trying something new”, Paul said.
“Plagiarism isn’t new”, Asif retorted.
“Oh fuck off”, Paul said.
“If you’re trying to keep it to yourself, I can see everything on your screen”, Asif reminded Paul.
Paul sighed. “It’s a journal, except that I substitute the boring parts for something better. Like instead of a prison cell, we are on a cramped spaceship heading to Alpha Centauri, and instead of falling from your bunk, you floated up and hit the ceiling. Your blood is balled up and floating around”, he said.
“Wow, that was a hell of a lot of exposition. Haven’t you ever heard of show, don’t tell”, Asif commented. Paul snorted.
Asif felt a sudden rush of panic as he realized he lost 10 more minutes joking around. But don’t you need to do something to get inspired? This was the most eventful day in a month, except for the day when their neighboring cell inmates got into a fistfight to get inspiration for a supposed sequel to fight club. There were no issues with writer’s block in writer’s camp # 332. You write or you die. Does wonders for deadlines, even though it messes up world-building and character development. He rushed to start a new chapter on his writing software.
“Tamir is getting released today. His ‘Meditations of a prison bug’ hit the bestseller list after Shashi Tharoor tweeted about it”, Paul said. “That rat bastard. How did he manage it?”, Asif asked.
“He worked out a system. He writes nonsense for three-quarters of the day, and then his real book late in the evening. Apparently, his mandatory 15,000 words per day were an absurdist commentary on the life he imagined he could live, and then he wrote a more existential piece late at night about his real life here. The book combines imagination and reality to become a memoir of the past and future. Some nonsense like that. He was bragging about the synopsis he will put on the cover and said he’ll send me a signed copy after the launch”, Paul said.
Asif stared at Paul with his mouth open. “Why can’t we think of shit like that?”, he asked. “This is why”, Paul said, making a hand gesture indicating a mouth yapping.
A loud buzzer broke into their conversation, followed by an announcement through the speaker in their cell.
“Cell 128, inmates 22 and 23, you have been selected for maintenance duty. Please report outside immediately”, it blared.
Asif sighed in relief. This would save him from today’s word target. Paul looked irritated. “I was on something good”, he muttered.
“Yeah, just because you heard Tamir made it”, Asif said, heading for the door. “Come on”, he said.
10 minutes later, they were crouched behind the generator near the fence, trying to fix it. Asif heard footsteps and craned his neck around the generator, to see Tamir walking out with a big grin on his face, accompanied by 2 guards who were escorting him to a car waiting nearby. A well dressed man who looked like a real writer stepped out and walked towards Tamir. Tamir grinned wider and stretched his hand out, and then fell to his knees gurgling as the man slipped a nylon thread around his neck and strangled him. Asif almost shouted out in horror but regained his senses and crouched back behind the generator, hoping no one saw him. Paul heard the noise and started to get up but Asif pulled him down. The look of terror on his face made Paul settle down quickly.
They heard voices from just beyond the fence after the gurgling stopped. “Why didn’t they have him gassed at the transfer station like everyone else?”, one voice asked, growing more distant as its owner walked away. “Because this particular asshole might have ruined it all. People are not believing his book was written by an Atma Nirbhar algorithm. The editors who missed it are getting gassed later today.
Note: This was written in a writing group workshop. We were asked to make some writing prompts around the theme of absurdism, and then write on it in 45 min. The writing prompt I came up was this:
You are one among hundreds of people living in a labor camp for writers. You are tasked with writing 15,000 words per day to avoid getting lobotomized. Quantity matters over quality as it is a matter of life or death (as long as it is not gibberish), but if you happen to write a bestseller, you get released.