Meenakshi at Madurai

The Messenger

The nail-marks on Manmatha’s neck matched his shirt – Ferrari Red. The girl could’ve been thirteen or fourteen. Her dark cheek had shone in the half-light. Hair silky, blouse torn, teeth sharp, white as jasmine buds.

He lit the gas ring.

Blue and orange flames consumed the pan in long tongues. The pleasure of the memory filled him up, creeping up his legs. He tried again but couldn’t make his lips touch without wincing. He looked into the restaurant, white kurtas blustering under ceiling fans. On the boxy screen, Zeenat Aman stood under a waterfall, nipples poking through wet, white cloth as Lataji sang Mohe natkhat Shyam sataye. . . .

The rains would come any day now, from navy clouds, bouncing off tarmac in large globules, forming deep waterways.

He made gusts of wind with the fabric of his shirt to cool himself, blowing upward, fish-like, to dry the sweat on his top lip. Today of all days he’d been made to work in the restaurant.

‘Happy birthday, yaar!’ Anu stuck his head through the hatch to the kitchen. He wore a gemstone earring and it flashed like lightning. ‘Listen,’ he said, playing with the peeling laminated corner of a menu, ‘I need a favour.’

Manmatha knew whatever Anu wanted would be something intangible – not a car, drugs or money. He’d want what he always wanted, an audience for one of his romantic dilemmas. Manmatha entertained these, imagining himself as a god, looking down on a floundering mortal, seeking with desperation something it thought it understood. He’d listen without response, which was fine by Anu, who’d already decided upon his preferred interpretation of events. But that afternoon, Manmatha was too enraptured by his own thoughts to humour a virgin. The air on the pavement smelt of fuel and kadamba flowers, and the beeping of cars called out like myna birds.

‘I’ve gotta go ’ack to work,’ Manmatha said, avoiding eye-contact, as was his habit. He shoved his hands into his pockets, removed them, and then put them under the armpits, where they stayed.

‘What’s up with your mouth?’

‘I can’t close it. My li’ keeps ’leeding.’

The skin was torn and the membrane exposed to the sun. Anu didn’t ask. He never asked, because Manmatha never told. If on the rare occasion he did, Anu couldn’t be sure he was telling the truth.

‘Listen, I need your help . . . I’m begging! I need you to take a message for me, to a girl....’

Manmatha half-laughed, picking at a scab on his elbow.

‘I’m totally in love with her. You’re the only one who can help me.’

‘’e?’ Manmatha pointed to himself, unable to utter ‘m’ or ‘b’ or ‘p’.

Anu and Manmatha had gone to the same schools and lived close by. When one was bored they’d message the other to ‘hang’, ‘chill’ or ‘do whatever’. That used to be playing kabaddi on the beach with the other boys but in recent years it’d been Anu going to Manmatha’s to watch him lie in bed or pretend to work in the restaurant. Manmatha knew Anu disapproved of the way he intimidated the restaurant boys when his father wasn’t there, and he liked that not only would Anu not contest it, but that he’d interject with unsure laughter. Once, to test him, Manmatha soiled a biriyani with his own pubic hair as an excuse to give the kitchen boy a good kicking. Anu feigned a laugh and said nothing. Manmatha had never spoken of girls to Anu, but Anu had always spoken of girls to him. Girls, girls, girls: their glances, their buttery voices, their unkindness.

For Manmatha women were private things. What you did with them was secret, to be pickled in generous jars, sticky, full and seedy. Manmatha’s jars moved other jars to the back of the shelf – ones with things in them that he didn’t want to remember. Like when his father, a hard-working and honest man, told him he wished Manmatha had never been born. Manmatha was disruptive at school. Then a petty thief and a liar. Then ‘hot-headed’, which meant he’d hit his mother more than once in the face. For two years his father hadn’t been able to face his own brother after his daughter told a family friend something Manmatha had done that was ‘unrepeatable’.

‘It’s a big favour,’ said Anu, eyes bulging. ‘But I have money.’

‘’oney. . . ?’

‘I’ll pay you. For the train.’


‘AC1! Sleeper service. Whole way!’

‘What ya, are you crazy?’

‘It’s Meenakshi – remember? She’s gone South with her family for two months. I didn’t get time, or . . . well, whatever, OK? I just didn’t tell her how I felt... . There’s this other guy and... .’ Anu clasped both hands behind his neck, and stuck his elbows out like two coat-hangers. ‘I love her.’

Manmatha did remember Meenakshi. He could see why his friend was getting excited. He rolled the word ‘voluptuous’ around his mouth with his tongue like a gobstopper. He remembered how she seemed to know she was attractive by the way she stood, the way she painted her nails pretty colours. Once the little slut had pretended not to know him at a birthday party when they had been in a Lit class together for a year.

‘And where is she?’

‘Kerala. Cochin itself.’

Manmatha displayed his prominent canines, and when he stopped laughing he looked at his friend with blood-shot eyes. He pretended to walk away but the amorous Anu had got hold of a soggy part of his shirt.

‘I can’t go myself,’ he said. ‘These exams are ruiningmylife! I want to tell her how I feel in the most romantic way possible. Not a WhatsApp, not a bloody call! I want her to go to the door and meet . . . a messenger. She loves poetry. You remember Kalidas? The Meghadoot, right? From school. You’ll be the Cloud—’

Manmatha could no longer hear Anu, who had descended into rhetoric on God’s Own Country. Coconut rivers. Vast, dark back waters. Landscapes of impossible greens – parrot, jade, chartreuse – and of the message he ought to give her. He banged on about the poem, the cloud that agreed to travel across India to give a message of love to a separated sweetheart. Manmatha couldn’t picture Meenakshi’s face so he used the one of his first prostitute, angular with a big birthmark and long earlobes. He sucked lip-blood off his index finger.

‘How ’uch ’oney do you have?’ he said.


The train departed from Dadar later that afternoon. Manmatha had bought the worst-class seat at short notice. A laundry bag had proven fortunate beyond concealing the hand-drawn lovehearts on Anu’s ‘wooing box’ – full, he imagined, of predictable love mementos – because, at last, it had started to rain. He watched the droplets on the window form patterns like spiders’ silk. A reflection of a woman appeared in the glass. He thought about the girl who’d bitten his lip, her sounds and her silence and how easy it was. Then the blond, smooth white girls from the three videos.

The train yawned over bridges, crossing deep black gorges as if in a dream, the headlamp drawing the nightscape as it went. Meenakshi appeared in his reverie, wearing an emerald necklace in the dead of night. Mascara tears fell from her doe-eyes onto her chest. She confessed, playing with the ruby ornaments in her ears, how she’d longed to speak to him but never could bring herself to, how, in her agony, she’d pretended not to know his name. She whispered it now, to the rhythm of the train: Man-mat-ha, Man-matha, Man-mat-ha, Man-mat-ha.

The carriage was thick with syrupy night air. It tasted like jaggery and perfume, dates and sweat, green onions and cardamom. The round silhouette of a body opposite him gobbled yellow sweets that in the darkness looked like fireflies. The colour caught a flash of golden thread belonging to the sari of a young honeymooner whispering into her husband’s ear. A phone played a sugary Malayalam song. Its high-pitched flute blended with the howling wind, and the mandolin with the falling rain. It sounded like every love song Manmatha had ever heard.


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