The Panacean Dream

“Panacea’s Baby Boomers! 


‘And congratulations! How can congratulations not be in order when you have, successfully for the tenth consecutive year, made competing shoulder to shoulder with the Generation Z a reality! Ten years ago, when the legislation was passed, you would all remember the backlash and boomerang. How could we take away from you your precious retirement years, many had contended? How could we let this grey ageing generation put to tough tasks their hollow bones? How could we be so insensitive?

‘Insensitivity is the prelude to surest sensibility—and you can all say uncle.”

Nobody said uncle.

“What hurdle are hollow bones and sagging skin to the man of will? What obstacle is nearing death to the generation that has lived through, and survived fantastically, the many wars their forefathers so insensibly fought amongst themselves, laying to waste the resources of this planet?

‘Your forefathers lived a silent and shameful existence: waste, waste, waste was all that was dear to them. Manpower: wasted! Human resources: wasted! A generation of able-bodied, supple-limbed, and mentally-sound men and women sent to rot away in their cozy retirement cottages by the sea, wasting that of which the world has so much but humans so little: Time.

‘And didn’t they just love to say: Time will tell?

‘Tell it did, my lovelies, tell it did. With time we learned how frail and faulty the concept of stopping really was: how disastrous to the economy and how unjust to your nether years. My dears, if the past was all about waste, the present is all about work. Work is the force that drives not only the economy of this great country but drives the blood through your veins, drives the meaning of life through your mind. Because after all, life as we have realized, is but work, and when you stop working you stop living altogether.

‘Had the tables not turned, had we not assumed control of the steering wheel that keeps the economy revolving, 2030 would have seen more than 81 million baby boomers going over sixty five years of age, stagnant their lives would have been and stale their skills, but for the unretirement mission. Together we have undone the strings of the apocalypse we might have seen had these 81 million people continued to follow the hollow paths to a boring death: boomers who failed to plan, who underestimated their expenses and their years in retirement, who retired too early, and who didn’t save enough to keep their boats afloat. Together we have managed to subside the storm which would have inevitably followed had the burden of expenses and welfare of an ancient generation been left entirely on the shoulders of our youth.

‘There’s a distinct taste to independence, a delicious aroma of sustained financial responsibility, and the sweetest relish in working till Death do us part. Together we have made this country great again, and with our hard work together we shall keep it afloat.

‘Remember, gentlemen and ladies, 
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.


‘The force that through years obsolete drives me dour
Will no more drive my grey age;
That blasts the roots of trees – 
I am its destroyer!

‘The force that through the years of man sucks out its fervour shall no longer reign supreme for we have a force of our own that counters it squarely on the battlefield: our workforce! Stretching Time never felt so useful before!

‘If old age is a marker of wisdom, then the greatest of wisdom lies in work.

‘One force. One nation. One dream: The Panacean Dream.”

No corner in the glossy streets of Panacea existed that did not ring with the address of the glossy young president: televisions and radios boomed at their loudest, the text rolled off screens on the freeway, and copies of the iconic speech were distributed by the dozen whenever cars screeched to stop short at the many signals. Panacea was the world’s finest and strongest economic power, and its secret wasn’t very secret at all: it was all around them in the open. If a tourist was visiting Panacea, he wouldn’t need a copy of the president’s speech. He had only to turn on his heels, watch the waiter serving him food, watch the cook preparing his food, watch the driver driving him to the diner, and he would have his answer: Retirement was as extinct as dinosaurs, or almost nearly as extinct, since its skeletons did remain to remind the citizens of the plaintive life of a decade past. 

Work was in the air.

Grey fossils of men and women washed the street with their enfeebled presence: every morning they poured out from their overcrowded but well-furnished apartments, spilling out into the streets and then onto the roads, staggering weakly to work, limping and lagging, holding on to their crutches and sticks—stumbling, but not falling. The administration received many well wishes by the day for their timely and mindful construction of a separate road walk for those on wheelchairs: after all, the government cared about its workforce with a force that paralleled the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. 

The old and the young, the grey and the green, the jouncy and the bouncy fused to force the economy further every day in Panacea. In its truest sense, the citizens of this haven of hard work were living the Panacean dream.

Tall towers that shone with glassy windows and that reflected like a prism in a thousand directions colourful dancing rays fostered within their slick walls a sickly green world: men and women in all shades of green scampered about like mice and rats, balancing bundles of files and documents in black and white. One of the rooms—the greenest of them all—housed walls plastered with the plastic and still photographs of a lone man: that he was as green as Oz was barely disputable, but that his emerald robes were distasteful to him was clear as the crystal walls of the tower. 

“I A Eluther. I A Eluther.”

A jaunty head shook in disappointment and dismay with every mention of the Ozian rebel. Pens clicked and unclicked, nails were bitten and unbitten, shoes tapped and legs crossed as the frighteningly similar faces attempted to avoid the steel gaze of the president. And the chant that from the presidential pair of lips poured forth stopped.


The force of the articulation was barely strong, but the bravery of the endeavour worthy of praise. The addressed looked up and looked on with slight encouragement, and so the speaker spake.

“Thirty five.”

The president had to his name an icy pair of eyes, which like the rest of his body believed in performing maximum work and producing maximum output by putting in minimum effort. The eyes—they rose. Thirty five?

The speaker understood.

“Yes, Sir. Thirty five. That is the number of applications we have sent forth. That is the number of job offers we have issued.”

Tense eyebrows, stretched for a second too long in the foray, dropped—the fraction of a centimetre. And none…have been accepted?

“No, Sir. None, I’m afraid, have been accepted.”

Before the pair of eyes could affix their steely gaze or flash in rage like they so often did, another voice—timid, nervous, brave, stupid—broke the ice.

“Uh, Sir.”

A slight movement of the neck, a minute change in the angle, and the gaze had now shifted—still as ice in the North Pole, unmelting and unforgiving.

“There is no data that explains why he would continue to choose to be jobless. I A Eluther had not only been to the best university in town on a scholarship, he was the top of his batch. Cream of the institution, pride of his peers. We believe the university has failed and—and… we were considering if it should be blacklisted. If its best is not part of the workforce, what good is the university?’

The eyes glinted for half a second before the lips could part. And then they did.

“Why he would continue to choose to be jobless?” and again, on repeat, “Why he would CHOOSE to be jobless?”

Stygian silence fell like a curtain all around as the sour sting of the address settled. The president went on.

“The university is not to blame. The universe is. Fancy knocks on the doors of their minds at times, lures them into its trap of wastage and decay. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower seduces the best of them to bloom and blossom—and after that bloom and blossom comes rot, and decomposition. They fancy themselves flowers yet are truly only fungi. And there is no space for fungi in my country.”

If anybody dared to speak, they hid it well as a blanket of blank but expectant stares turned towards the ringleader.

“My workforce is my only love. And I love any body that houses a mind which can potentially join my workforce. His cheek and his folly I might despise but I am willing to overlook his illusion and delusion for the sake of a greater workforce.

‘Now, where does the rest of his family work?”

But for the young and madly sought-after I A Eluther, the family would fain have been called anything other than hardworking. Work was, after all, in the air, and this particular family differed not in the slightest from the numerous other hardworking families of Panacea. So it was that when the old patriarch of the family received a reward as a bonus at work, the eighty-year-old hurried to his grandson, wobbling on his legs like a tortoise, slow but steady, and evidently gleaming with delight at the recognition he had received at work—the recognition, too, which instead of being accorded to the ripe eighteen year olds working hard part time shifts went to the antique eighty year old filer. He found, as he had expected, the lad sitting under the shade of a tree surrounded by half a dozen old women who went about pruning the wilderness: slow, but steady.

Sighting the rickety rattletrap figure of his old man, Eluther did what he was least likely to do: he stood up for apparently no reason at all. He watched with patient distaste the unsteady march of the shaky old chap, lifting with much effort one leg and pushing with a mightier effort his other. In about five minutes, Eluther’s quota of patience washed away, and he walked the brisk walk of the young, coming face to face with the ancient so shadowy he seemed an apparition.


That was enough for a greeting—small words for small talk, and the small wrinkled man pushed forward in his small hands the reward that he was so delighted about: two books, bound together in the fanciest of knots by some expert but shabby fingers.

Inexpressive and unresponsive as he otherwise was, the death-like grim and blank stare of Eluther’s eyes flew to the fiery pits of hell, for a moment to be replaced by a childish glee only to be seen in the eyes of those who dwell in paradise. The childish glee was soon replaced by a sly greediness. The books were swiftly snatched.

“Since when do you get time to read books, grandfather?”

“Reward, son. I got myself a bonus at work, the boss was utterly pleased with my work in the recent months.”

His fingers worked deftly on the undoing of the knot, and a look of stark disgust sparked on his features for a second too many.

“Don’t call that idiot your boss, nana. He was my classmate at college.”

The nana, with a tremendous exhibition of effort, eased himself down on the grassy down, his bones cracking as audibly as the popping of corn at a fair.

“So?” Small men ask small questions and care only for small things, and so did this small specimen. 

“So? So he was a loser. Also, he’s younger than you.”

“Youth and Old age are but concepts. Age is but a number. Time is but an enemy.”

“Where did you hear that? In one of the president’s perfectly pitched speeches?”

The old man did not have to answer for Eluther to know, and so he undid the knot with one final flair. He went on.

“Now nana, youth is a reality. Old age is a reality. Age is a reality. Time is an absolute reality and it will eat you up eventually, and you have no way of defeating it. You are old, Father William, and your hair has become very white, and yet you incessantly stand on your head, do you think at your age it is right? In my youth— 

Overcome by annoyance, the nana asked, “Don’t you like them? They are so shiny. So new!”

“Nana, for the love of sanity. This is hogwash. Utter tripe.”

In the palms of both his hands he held a copy each of the shiniest books he had ever seen: gaily coloured letters in bold reading out the titles against the neon cover. THE SIX HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE OLD MEN, the first read. Eluther grimaced. THE SUBTLE ART OF NOT WASTING A SECOND, the second read. Eluther’s grimace turned into a visible look of displeasure and dismay.

“Pardon my Panacean, nana, but what the hell.”

It was one of those supposedly motivational, self-help drivel being sold in the few remaining bookstores. Eluther could never figure out why the fad had never died, why people refused to recognized the poppycock twaddle being passed off as motivation, even after all these years.

“But I A! My boy these books…all my colleagues read them. They’re the most popular books around. Even the president reads them. And I thought you liked books.”

“Not all books, no, nana. A bundle of papers bound together carrying a paragraph or so about copyrights does not make the item readable or important.”

“My…my colleagues have pictures of these books pasted to their workstations you know. They would envy me if I told them I had these.”


“Pictures, yes. Of many, many books. Beautiful pictures.”

“Just…that? Just pictures?”

“Oh yes but those are great pictures. Beautifully taken. Books perfectly placed and positioned in the frames, surrounded by pretty things.”

“Pretty things like flowers, trees, or a backdrop of a snow-capped mountain from their last trip to the north?”

“Precisely, my boy. But don’t be so rash in belittling them. They have kept their books in apple pie condition: so shiny—”

“So shiny they’ve never been used, perhaps?”

The times had changed but the dispositions of the elders of a community had somehow managed to persevere, traveling with unimaginable ease into the new era of unretirement. Jobs were not the only thing they did not retire from: Eluther of two generations past too found his doleful progeny remarkably dull in his meandering manner which only added to the ire that he (and the rest of the hardworking family members) had long felt owing to the young rebel’s idleness.

“Eluther. Boy…”

From the tone of the utterance the boy who had been addressed could tell what was to follow: a plea. To join the workforce. To help boost the economy. To fight death to the last with his arms up in struggle against the tyrannies of Time.

The grandfather knew this just as well as the grandson—and old as he was, idiocy had not yet come washing on the shores of his understanding. A different approach needed to be taken, and this the elderly man realized in good time.

“I am not asking you to work, boy. Just…just try reading the books. I brought them all the way for you. Because you like them.”

“To call them books is a disgrace, nana. Yes, technically they are books but…oh. Would you stop making that face please?”

That old age was prototype childhood Eluther had no doubts about, all it took for his grandfather to persuade him into reading what he considered twaddle and hogwash was a face so full of childish, passionate innocence and so devoid of logical, reasonable understanding that Eluther had given in at length. 

And it was one of the few decisions the making of which he was to regret as page after page turned at the mercy of a finger that fumed with the rage of a man whose nerves are done with the superficiality of all that surrounded him.

“Debt! Deficit! Retirement crisis! Economic stagnation! Intergenerational warfare!

‘These are only a few drops from the ocean of evil that waits to pounce, tsunami-like, in only a few years’ time. The beaches of humanity and the economic borders of this country will be awash by a zombie-like horde of men with arthritis and cancer, walking hand-in-hand towards a sure death after living a useless life!

‘But can that life be transformed into something meaningful?

‘What is it that truly gives you a purpose? Why do you exist in this world?

‘To do good work. To contribute to mankind. To add and multiply. And how exactly is mankind supposed to achieve unparalleled success if half of its able population has convinced itself that we are not fit enough to work after a meagre 60 years of age?!

‘Does age rot the brain and lay to waste the body? And do we believe this nonsense?”

Age, Eluther thought to himself, does rot the brain and lay to waste the body. It was the progress in the world’s age that Eluther felt added more and more to mankind’s rapidly rotting collective intelligence. As the world grew older, so did it grow more childish and more ridiculous: this child of a world, trapped in the body of an ageing planet, was glad to be led this way and that at the whims of anyone who showed authority. Not only had its population largely accepted that work till death was the sole purpose of their being, they firmly believed in and preached the fruits unretirement was supposed to reap:

“Our seniors are aged but not rusted. They are weak in body but not weak in conviction. They are sick but their skulls are just as thick. They are old but better than gold! The economic and entrepreneurial prosperity that we shall reap as rewards from the services of these seasoned men and women is a fact that none should overlook. Professionally, they’re more experienced. Financially, they’re more stable. Intellectually, they’re more sagacious. Who better than these stable and sanguine sages to guide into a better era our greener generation that is but hot blood, hot words, and hot deeds? Who better?”

Perhaps the composer of the popular hogwash had been right, for Eluther upon deciding he had had just about enough banged the book shut with a movement so intense and so zealous as was nothing short of a hot deed.

The books meant for the purpose of self-help had always failed to cast their otherwise powerful spell on Eluther: was it help that he did not require or was it a self that he did?

Dislike for the books which he had had the displeasure of reading and for many others of the sort was the last—or should have been the last—of his worries. Eluther’s hardworking family was working hard as hard could be, and yet the desired results could not be had. Was it money that had stopped pouring in with its old frequency or was it—as Eluther believed—the desires unneeded which continued to siphon them of their peace, of which they already had so little?

Grandfather and second cousin, mother and remotely related aunt—relatives who otherwise mattered little other than an occasional mention of their devotion to the workforce—all joined in the chant that attempted to make Eluther see the wisdom which lay in work.

Perhaps the boy was blind or perhaps he was full of insight: it is after all one and the same.

His grandfather tried the hardest—as he should, by virtue of being the hardest working man in the unit. He would speak and speak until a dreadful bout of cough would hit him and force him to double back down, hunched and stooped, panting for air. Pity him Eluther did, but obedience was out of the question. The boy refused to see the wisdom in the numerous new inventions which had been the direct result of senior entrepreneurship in the workforce: medicinal advance, technological progress, economic hike. For all their hard work and dedication and years of employment and professional experience they still did not have enough—never did, and perhaps never would.

And then, when the grandfather could no longer afford to walk to work because the electronic device which enabled him to walk despite his limp legs could no longer be replaced for a new one; Eluther implored the older man to give up. To live like a man for once. To retire.

To retire!

If he retired, how would he manage the expenses? How, he prattled on, would he afford to buy the various medicines—the pills that kept dementia at bay, the injections which pumped energy into his muscles every day, the potions which kept his eyesight fairly intact? How would he ever manage to keep the device that enabled him to hear and listen to the many melodies the world played daily for him to hear? How would he maintain the ivory set of teeth which allowed him to chew on all the edible, chewable goodness that the world had to offer?

To retire!

And Eluther put forward the funniest of suggestions: why not?

Why would he need the device that enabled him to walk if he did not have to walk to work daily? Why the pills and why the potions? Had the old man not had his fill of the world’s melodies and edible goodies? Would it be so disastrous to let Time run its course, to let that lady of Fate, La Guillotine, slash inch by inch at his life’s fluid? Would it be so disastrous to grow old and wear one’s trousers rolled?

Deciding at last that his smartest and brightest was his idlest, was his laziest, was utterly devoid of ambition and was undeniably a lost cause, the grandfather went off, sanguinely shaking his head—off to try and make ends meet, perhaps to find another job on the side so as to keep his financial boat afloat.

Two black figures loomed in the distance, concealed deep in the shadows of the tall towers that at twilight hours seemed to give off the illusion of brooding in silence as they looked down upon the insectine creatures who scampered about. Around them, exposed dangerously in the lights that had begun to emanate from the street lamps, walked a flock of men and women in different stages of life—yet all looking scarily the same. The two men who had for the more recent years of their lives taught impatience and to whom instant gratification had become second habit: these men stood leaning against the wall, waiting with a Herculean display of patience which they had become so unfamiliar with.

One—and only one—face and figure stood out: unlike the centipedal, systemic, synchronized movement of those around him, this figure moved in the bouncy jog of a being slightly more superior. Slow and slacking was the movement of all those around him, hunched their shoulders and bent their bodies as if weighed down by an invisible, heavy set of weights. In their serpentine and sluggish traffic they looked much like larvae hoarding and at the same time consuming as much as they could, in hopes of the breakthrough which they looked for with an optimism that if they had bothered to do a statistical research would have been thwarted right away. Many had to them an outlook of considerable experience, and the wrinkles on their well-clothed bodies were still not hidden well enough; lending to them a look of pupae—wrapped like mummies in their years of toil and yet failing to emerge forth, victorious. All had transformed—if not overnight then over a decade—into monstrous vermin.

As soon as the upright figure that had hitherto walked under the sombre orange bliss of the setting sun moved into the electric beam of the streetlamps—his head held high, shoulders erect, limbs which betrayed no evidence of labour, and eyes clearly looking at that which was not directly there—he was sighted. The men in the darkness who had under their dark coats darker artillery and who were there present to do the darkest of biddings in these dark times took aim. 

Presently, the young creature whose hue stood out against the colours of hardworking Panacea, stood exactly where he was wanted. His eyes had fixed themselves up at the sky which to him seemed so vast and not entirely unapproachable. Eluther felt that he deserved, truly, this moment of calm and quiet speculation after the menial work that he had just performed for reasonable wages: someone was always wanting something done, and Eluther had hardly reason to starve when so many hardworking people needed softer, lighter work done around their neglected homes and streets.

And as Eluther gazed at the wonders of the world, the two men went about doing their daily hard work, lurking around the corner, one pointing towards him a sophisticated weapon.

“This is I A Eluther, confirmed?”

“It is him. I have been shown about a hundred photos and my information, as you have well known for fifty years, has never been incorrect.”

“Alright then. I just received the green signal from them. You’re good to go.”

The fifty-year-experienced partner was not only famous for his penchant for accurate data collection, he was also rumoured to have been the best shot the unit had known. Then checking for one last time his aim, he pulled the trigger.

But the new, advanced, efficient bullet missed Eluther—and by a long shot. 

Unbeknownst to him, his would-have-been-assassin lay huddled in the arms of his less able partner, clutching wildly at his chest, his mouth open in an apparent indication of extreme pain. 

He was having a cardiac arrest.

As the less able partner panicked and watched, out of the corner of his eye, the target walk dreamily on to God-only-knows-where; he accused the shooter of not having taken his medicine for the day.

And the shooter acceded. He’d just, somehow, forgotten to take his pills for the day—and eighty years of life were finally taking a toll on him. 

“Please…. Please. I am done for. Tell my…. Tell my…”

“Yes, yes, I will inform your family.”

“No! Tell my…”

“Yes, yes, I will tell your wife you loved her.”

“No! Tell my…boss. Employer! Tell him…that I was good. That I worked hard. Tell…. Tell him that.”

“I will. Don’t worry, old buddy. We’ve been together forty years, I will see to it that you’re properly remembered.”

“I spent my…my life…on the job. I…was…hardworking. Wasn’t…. Wasn’t I?”

“Very, very hardworking, yes.’

“See to it…that my family…knows this. Inform them…of the nature of my work…how important…it was. And how…hardworking…I was. Wooorrk…”

And so with the pronunciation of that last, most important word, Panacea’s vast sky witnessed the demise of yet another hardworking man. The sky was perhaps as cold blooded as the youth of Panacea were: for nobody, and certainly not the family of the dead old man, remembered him in his death—and they had had hardly time to remember him in his life. After all, these were all hardworking men and women, toiling and labouring just as hard as the next dead man, working towards and pursuing the Panacean dream. What is the death of one hardworking man to the rest of them?

The death of hardworking men is hardly news: they die all the time.

Noor Us Sabah is a visiting lecturer at the English Department in the University of Karachi. Her work has appeared in Zau, The Falconer, minor literatures, The Express Tribune, The Nation, and is due to appear in a Johns Hopkins University Folio. She has written a children’s novel in 2020 under the Oxford University Press Pakistan, and is currently working on a critical-literary translation of a classic Urdu memoir by Hasrat Mohani. Noor was part of the inaugural Salam Award Writers Workshop cohort in 2023. She tweets at @the_nust.