The Soma Drinker Praises Himself, by Sharanya Manivannan

Inspired by a hymn in The Rig Veda, in translation by Wendy Doniger

“This, yes, this is my thought,” announced Kamban, pouring himself two more fingers of dark rum into his steel tumbler. “Over Pongal I will go back to Ariyankuppam and win a cow or a horse, there is always some sort of country fair at that time, and then I will sell it and buy myself some nice speakers. And maybe something for my wife and kids.”

“You’re being selfish,” said his brother, Kandan, idly fingering the unglued edge of a poster for a VD clinic on the wall he was leaning on. “The people at home need those things. What are you going to do with a cow or horse in Chennai? Tie it up on the Loyola College boundary wall and feed it exhaust fumes?”

“Your auto is swifter than a horse,” droned Arul from the backseat of his auto. Sometime in the past twenty minutes, he had climbed into his vehicle and stretched out. Too early, a bad sign, especially considering it was only 3.30 on a Sunday afternoon. It meant he had probably started to drink before they had met up here. The rest of them – Velu, Kamban and Kandan – were still on the bench, rationing their first bottle neatly into tumblers and cups. All four of their autorickshaws were parked by a vacant construction site in a leafy lane of shut offices and quiescent flats, with neither hope for nor chance of a passenger wanting a ride. They could be at peace here for a few hours. Kandan took a gulp and reached over to give Arul a shake on the shoulder.

“You are as drunk as a skunk in a trunk of Old Monk,” he said, in English.

Kamban picked up the cue. “Come now, old chap. Buck up! We can’t go after him in my automobile. Have you some sort of wagon?”

Kamban and Velu hooted and shook hands.

“Stop showing off your Peter business,” said Arul, in Tamil. “Ithellam vellaiku aghadhu.”

“My chariot,” continued Kamban, and extended an imperious hand in the direction of his vehicle. He had recently reupholstered his seat. To better accommodate his widening ass, he had said proudly. The backseat needed redoing, but it wasn’t a priority as yet. Behind the backseat was a particularly deep compartment, in which he usually stored his tiffin carrier of home-cooked lunch, a small bottle or two of TASMAC-controlled or bootlegged liquor, some reading material – and once, by way of a strange conversation with a poultry butcher – a live chicken.

“Pass me the firewater!” he roared.

Kandan, unimpressed, decanted a couple of shots’ worth of rum into his brother’s outstretched tumbler before his demands could get more dramatic. Kamban always got like this when they were drinking. He knew it might be amusing for their friends, but having watched a variation of these exact theatrics for over a dozen years, ever since his brother had picked up the habit, he felt the vague boredom of wanting to switch channels.

“Ah, the prayer has come to me,” said Kamban in a gravelly voice, and stood up. “As a… calf comes to its mother.” He placed one foot on the bench and a hand on his considerable hip.

“Still on the cow idea, then?” asked Velu. “Going back to your country roots?”

“Why not, Velanne, why not?” said Kamban, and he did the moustachio-stroking thing that made Kandan want to smack him. “The more I turn the thought around in my heart, as I myself turn the wheel, the more it agrees with me. And – ” he turned to Kandan. “I won’t have to tie it up fry it up anyway because I am going to sell it, for money.”

Dei madaiyya,” said Kandan. “You don’t turn any wheels. You sit your ass down on a seat and hold handlebars, like a boy riding a bike.”

At this, even Arul whooped with laughter.

“And you, you drive a BMW? Or a limousine, gifted to you by Sonia Gandhi?” challenged Kamban.

“I drive an autorickshaw, and so do you. At least I don’t think myself a god.”

Kamban laughed a deep, affected laugh.

“You take a few sips and then you grow horns, do you?” Kandan couldn’t help himself. The rum had given him some vigor too.

“Like your poor cow,” contributed Arul from his backseat.

“Big horns,” muttered Kandan. Whenever he was with his brother he felt this way, boyish and irritable. His brother was older, wittier, more effervescent, like a Sivaji Ganesan in regulation khaki. Also, he was mustachioed.

Kamban looked at Kandan. He shook his head. “I think my brother needs to get married,” he said to Velu.

Velu chewed his drumstick, bought at from a curbside briyani kiosk and gone cold after an hour, with serious concentration. “Mmm. Yes. You should get married.”

He pointed the bone at Kandan. “I also think your brother may have a point.”

“How old are you now, anyway?” said Kamban, as if he didn’t know. “24? 25? At your age I had a son and another little one on the way.”

Kandan liked his sister-in-law too much to resort to the comeback on the tip of his tongue. He scowled.

Satisfied that his brother didn’t have a response, Kamban settled back on the bench, and decided it was time to roll one.

He took an old camera roll cylinder out of his pants pocket, laid a crisp napkin on the bench, and gave his weed another good round of crumbling.

Velu gathered the phlegm in his throat noisily and aimed a thick spit at the gate of the construction site. Kandan lit an ordinary cigarette and went to sit in his own auto, facing the other way. Arul let out a phenomenal fart and then groaned. Velu grunted but didn’t look up.

A silence interrupted only by the sound of Kamban, incumbent demigod, lighting a match settled upon the group. Somewhere on the next street, another autorickshaw driver aimlessly pressed his horn as he careened through the stretch, with surely no other moving thing in his way. Not even a funeral today, with its grand drums and dancing and petal-throwing through the route to the cremation ground.

Kandan really wanted to say something, anything. It itched down to his balls. His brother thought he was so goddamned dandy, with his smart quips and choice quotes and his cute little family. These friends of theirs hadn’t seen him pissing himself with fear when a boar had bound at them out of a thicket when they were boys. Nor had they seen him cry when he failed his tenth standard exams. Or delivering a shit-eating grin month after month when his landlord came calling.

But from the corner of his eye he could see that Kamban was in orator mode again, as indicated by his shift in posture. Exaggeratedly, he blew smoke from his nostrils, closed his eyes as if with deep feeling, and proclaimed, “On a day like this, a man can fill his body and his heart and feel as though all humanity, every tribe, is no more than a mote in his eye…”

And there it was. Kandan swung his legs over his seat so he was facing the others again. “Yes, but must you father every single one of them?”

At this, Velu spat again, this time his rum, a reflex as involuntary as his laugh. It hit and dribbled down the wheel of the unconscious Arul’s auto. “Good one, Kandiah!”

His anger deflated, Kandan held the bottle out to his brother again. Kamban’s nostrils were flared and his jaw was set very tight. He met Kandan’s eye for a long second, then swiped the bottle out of his outstretched hand and poured a share for himself.

“You have seen only half the world, you runt,” he said, after a full swallow.

“What match is this half-brain’s half-world for a single wing of your greatness, my lord?” Kandan said with pronounced modesty.

“Your auto has grown wings now, has it?” Velu exclaimed. “Keep guzzling, boys, and it will.”

“Who needs flight, when he has Kamba’s might?” Kandan egged his brother on. “The sky and earth are…”

“… nothing compared to my vastness!” finished Kamban, and patted his stomach for effect. Then he reached over and gave his brother a comradely slap on the back. From his auto, Arul muttered unintelligibly.

Velu balled up the newspapers in which his lunch had come, scrunching together oily plastic sheets, bones sucked of marrow, and bits of rice. He handed this crude orb to Kamban. “Here is your earth, my lord. Where will you place it?”

Kamban knocked back what was in his tumbler and rose to the challenge. “Yes! I will place the earth here – ” he deposited it on the top of Arul’s auto – “or perhaps there” – he drop-kicked it so it cleared the low gate of the construction site, scattering rice, and landed on the other side.

“Careful,” said Velu.

“Why, are there dogs? Then I will thrash them soundly like the earth you just made me!” declared Kamban.

“That’s private property, you know.”

\           Kamban snapped his fingers at Kandan and gestured for the bottle. “Fuck that, Velu. Private property and private parts.”

“Your head’s in the sky with your wings but your ass is still down here on earth,” said Velu. “And it’s your ass that’s going to get thrashed if you keep at this. Do it in your own house, all this lord business.”

Kamban’s eyes were very red, from the afternoon of rum, no doubt. Still, when he looked at Velu with a strange and solemn expression, Kandan couldn’t help but think that in some other life, under different circumstances, that big-mustachioed, full-nosed character face might have belonged to a therukoothu dancer. Dancing or driving, or drinking, it was always there in his brother – some little flicker that would never catch fire.

Slowly, ambulating with the deliberation of the suddenly sobering, Kamban stood from the bench and wiped his hands on his shirt. Then he took out a kerchief and wiped his neck and face.

Velu, not knowing exactly what he had said that led to this abstemious moment, angled for a quick joke, but came up empty. Kandan sensed the same.

“Oh my lord is huge, huge, and he is flying to the cloud, for this mortal earth is no match for him,” he proclaimed, in as majestic and reverent a tone as he could muster. Just because his brother was a prick sometimes didn’t mean the evening had to end like this.

Arul, in the commotion of a dropped tumbler, bolted upright in his auto and chimed in, wasted-voiced, but without confusion. “For have you not drunk Soma?”

And Kamban, his handtowel over one shoulder like a magisterial shawl, his last, unlit, joint of the day in a stylishly composed grip, cracked a right royal smile before striding to his auto and climbing in. He started his engine.

“Indeed!” he shouted. “I am going – I am going to a well-stocked house, carrying the oblations to the gods. For have I not drunk Soma?”

His wife and children would be happy to see him home early. And one day soon, he would win that horse or cow, and he would sell it, and everything would change. In his rear view mirror he watched them becoming smaller – his fickle young brother, his old friends whiling what was left of their decades away – as he moved along, down the street and back into the suffocating catchment of the city, leaving them further and further behind.

SHARANYA MANIVANNAN’S first book of poems, Witchcraft, was published in 2008. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Drunken Boat, Ghoti, Softblow, Pratilipi and elsewhere. She lives in India and can be found online at www.sharanyamanivannan.com

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