I understand that there are a lot of all…

I understand that there are a lot of allusions to Indian mythology in this piece. To explain them all would blow my mind — and also add considerably to the word limit. If you have questions, please PLEASE ask me!

Mani took Seshu back to the old apartment. Fifth floor, above Nayanamma’s. If Mani put his head out the balcony window he could smell the dish soap and hear the hysterical actresses from Chakravakam.

“You have the monkeys?” Mani asked, fishing for the keys.

He looked down at Seshu, still half-a-foot shorter, still a little awkward as he held the monkeys to his chest — action figures and two stuffed toys.

“Kinda.” (Seshu’s Americanisms amused Mani.)

One monkey was eager to escape his grasp, holding out a cottony arm.

Mani opened the door — two hard clicks to the right, like a grownup. Mani made a good pretend grownup. Ties, socks, shoes, ready in the morning. A morning person, like a grownup. Slopping perugu annam in his hand, a noisy buttermilk eater, just like a middle-aged tray-dish-shinal Brahmin. Seshu from bed at the last minute, sometimes forgot his socks. Always forgot his bag at home, had to rush back for it. Very Un-Grownup-Like.

Mani wished he could be more like Seshu, the energetic carrier of monkeys. Mani’s preternatural calm, this grown-upness, fazed him.

Hence, Kurukshetra.

After school, this tenant-less–airless–flat transformed into a hundred thousand battlefields. Kurukshetra was the most brutal of battlefields, most saturated with blood, the most tragic and heroic stretch of grass in history. Here, they had all the space they needed. Most of the furniture was missing, except for a couple of rotting chairs. On hot days, the light streamed through the mesh windows, fading the stone floor.

Divine light, Mani thought, smiling.

Since Seshu arrived from America two years ago, he was woefully undereducated on the great myths. At first Mani tried to teach him, often mucking up the details when things didn’t go the way he wished (and myths were like that — what to do?) but he stretched the fabric of the stories so thin that even Seshu questioned his credibility. Comic books from Odyssey solved the problem. They read them aloud to each other. Soon Seshu knew Krishna and the Pandavas and the Kauravas and the heroic, much-maligned Karna.

“Sometimes the wrong guys are heroes,” Seshu had said, when he found out about Karna’s death. Alongside his best friend, the man whose kindness killed him.

Mani agreed with Seshu. This was why they were such good friends.

  • Now, the Ramayana.

Sugreeva versus Vali in a match to the death. The monkey army looking on, desperate. Torn between rulers. Only Rama’s arrow can intervene in the end, they are so evenly matched.

Seshu was a natural at this now, injecting names of Sanskrit weapons and invocations and Gods with ease. They were hunkering behind the faded, mouse-ridden pre-Independence velvet couch. They made battle plans. How would Sugreeva and Vali have fought? How equal were they as fighters?

We’re not equal,” Mani said.

Seshu looked up, defensively. “What d’you mean?”

“Lie down next to me,” Mani ordered.

Seshu complied. Mani’s legs lolled about, touching the wall–they were a half-foot longer than Seshu’s.

“So what?” Seshu said. “I could still be stronger.”

“Boxing Sir —” Mani said, referring to Seshu’s downstairs neighbor, who used to be a boxer in Pune, “He could judge.”

“Boxing Sir is a crack,” Seshu said.

“Good,” Mani said. Boxing Sir was too self-important. His toddy-love was a sickness. Seshu, amused by Sir’s drunkenness, didn’t understand Mani’s deep sadness when he saw Boxing Sir tumble downstairs, his hand clutching the garage pillar, wheezing.

They placed the monkeys in a circle around the old sofa. For a moment, Mani walked to the window screen to check if Chakravakam still blared outside. And the odor of roasted corn outside gnawed at his young stomach.

He returned to Seshu. His friend looked happy, surrounded by the comfort of his countrymen.

That was about to change.

Suddenly, Mani went wild with Vali’s fury. How dare Sugreeva try to take a kingdom that wasn’t his? The lightness of Mani’s uniform felt liked nakedness, like his body was too light to be stopped. Seshu squealed against the force but returned to pin Mani’s hands behind his back. Mani let Seshu be the hero — the monkey who prevailed — and Seshu took this responsibility seriously. He fought with force he never felt from his old friend before.

Seshu felt the killing blow then. Mani was not in control of his big, sweaty fist as it came down on the side of Seshu’s head. He felt Seshu collapse from the force and cried out. Mani pulled back his fist, covering it with his right hand.

All things were no longer equal and he looked down at Seshu’s crumpled body. Mani felt an inexorable force pull him to his knees, grab Seshu by the hand. Felt the mythological urge to pray, his forehead against the cool wall, invoking all the gods he revered. Playacting, the serious business. Mani felt the tears come, slowly, to his eyes. He shielded them from his cheeks with his heavy eyelids.

Mani knew he would have traded places with Seshu in an instant. Why did he do this?

As Mani stood up, building speed as he went to the door, to fetch Nayanamma, to call for back-up and help—he heard Seshu’s voice calling toward him, weak and slow with pain.

“What, idiot?” Seshu said. “I haven’t lost properly yet.”

  • Mani looked forward to next week, when they would re-enact the battle of Lanka. This time, no wrestling. Mani was firm on that.

“Oh, but why not?” Seshu said, rubbing his head and leg. They had their backs to the wall. After a short trip outside, Mani bought them both roasted corn. They sat in the abandoned apartment to eat it messily, the lime juice stinging their legs.

Mani shook his head. He only had a mind for the next battle. He would take the role of Rama.

Attack, my loyal battle monkeys!

Yes, thought Mani. That sounded good.

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