Honey Kumar tried to control his breathing. “I was passing by.”…

“Oh! I’m expecting a guest,” Miriam said in confusion. The lights had come on brighter than before.

“Guest? Who?” He popped a pellet of chewing gum into his mouth. To make my breath smell sweet, he thought.

“Someone I know.”

“Someone you know. I see. I was driving around and then I saw I was quite close to Central Towers, and thought why not give you a surprise.”

“That’s just fine, really,” Miriam said, aware that the surprise was, unhappily, leaning his weight on the door, and that she would have to step back and allow him to enter.

“Come on in.”  The bulbs flickered.

Honey Kumar entered the room and sat in one of the two plastic chairs close to the telephone table next to the door. “How’s your writing going?” And how did she look without clothes?

“Struggling really.”

“I don’t know much about writing, so I wouldn’t know. But it seems to me a task that demands a lot of faith in the self.” Honey Kumar saw the passport receipt and a visiting card next to the phone. He read the name: Paul Roy, Director, Cryogenic Propulsions, Indian Space Research Organisation. The day was descending steadily into dire notes. Someone somewhere was always ahead of him.

“My visa…?”

“Yes, your visa now. I see no difficulty really except that…”

“Of course.” She got up from the bed and walked towards the window, drawn by the rain. There was the smell of the earth after the first rain. Petrichor, she thought. “Why should there be any difficulty?” She didn’t think Roy would come in the rain. That would be love. Or something like it. In any case, wouldn’t his wife suspect something if he went out in this weather? What could drag a man out of doors in this rain but illicit pleasures? She recalled the story of a holy man who in his lust for a woman crossed a river in spate at night, holding on to a corpse. Not so holy then. And who was that sad corpse? No one ever talked about the corpse. The true novel would be about the corpse.

“No, there is no difficulty,” Honey Kumar agreed. He pocketed the passport receipt stealthily. “Except… except that you need to be frank with me. Really, really frank.”

He found that he couldn’t talk and chew gum at the same time. He removed the rubbery ball carefully from his mouth and stuck it on the side of the table.  What was it that Ram Mohan said about existence? Ah, I stick my finger into existence, and it smells of  EMIs. Well, mine smells of chewing gum, Honey Kumar thought.

“I’m frank. Why should I not be frank? I have nothing to hide.”

“No, I didn’t mean in that sense,” Honey Kumar said, a little at a loss. It was clear to him that Miriam was in possession of a secret and that it was being withheld from him. It occurred to him like a fleeting itch in his throat that she was the secret. “What I meant was, there should be a give and take about these things. A frank exchange of…”

“I’ll come around to your office tomorrow?”

“I’m here. In my line, we work all the time. We might as well talk now.” Honey Kumar got up from his chair and took a step towards her.

Miriam stood her ground.

Honey Kumar placed a hand on her shoulder.

“You can stay here for as long as you want. This land welcomes all. Write that novel and have a good time.” It was dark again because the lights had gone off.

Miriam thought she had guessed right. She wanted an extension of her visa, and the visa officer was demanding sex. It was a frank exchange, as he put it. And quite simple on the face of it, except that she didn’t feel like getting into bed with him…

“No,” she said, just as the lights went out and the room filled with the insistence of rain, like a sea boiling inside a box. “No. Please get out.”

In the dark, Honey Kumar felt more at ease. He suspected his looks had come in the way again; or the not very satisfactory world that his looks created. He never forgave his parents for his face, this terrible gift of his appearance that would last him a lifetime. People fought their wars against the world. But he was different. He fought against his skin, his nose, eyes and hair, the underworld that the black magic of these features conjured up everywhere he went. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t flee his appearance. He was a puppet of his looks.

His childhood had been a series of pejorative labels that spurred him to violence in classrooms and deserted streets; he recalled the long school corridors and the dark restrooms heaving with solid shadows that he wrestled down and exacted bloody apologies from. But his mockers were legion. How many would he beat up? He had slowly learnt to live with his international legacy: The big African hair. The broad-ridged Dravidian nose. The Chinese cheekbones. The long Arab chin.  When he looked in the mirror, it was like inspecting a fossil site where an evolutionary catastrophe had taken place. What was his mother thinking of when she conceived him? He was scarred forever by the interminable accident of his birth. But he wouldn’t give up so easily with this woman. Why should he? He had her passport.



“You’ve blown it.” Honey Kumar pushed his chair back and stood up in quiet rage.

He had had enough. “Don’t tell me later I didn’t warn you.” He hoped Miriam’s guest wouldn’t turn up just now. The door was closed anyway. He was keen to test if Miriam was seriously uninterested in the vaginal paradise he had promised. Very often people denied themselves what they most wanted, and that denial was their vengeance. One never knew. “Let’s talk about your visa then. Shall we? Keep it professional?”

A car passed below, and in its headlights the lampposts and foliage and trees travelled back on the wall as if it were a movie.

“I just want an extension. Please don’t complicate it. And if you can’t extend my visa, just tell me and I’ll go.” But she knew that between a wish and its fulfilment stars burned out, lives turned upside down, ships sailed.

“The visa is nothing. It’s just a stamp and a signature.”

He didn’t think it strategic to confess that the visa had been extended. “I can grant you the visa right now.  That’s why I have come.  To give it to you in person. It’s just ink. It’s nothing.”

Everything is nothing, he thought. There was nothing. What was father Almeida? Nothing?  What did anything matter? Nothing. What was anybody in the last count? Nothing.  Where did his mother go? Nowhere. What was her laugh about? Nothing. He could see no abiding value in anything at all. This very, very insubstantial life, he thought, you could barely hold on to it if it were not for, say, the passport in his pocket, anchoring him in space. He put a hand on the table for support.

“I don’t want more. I just want to stay a few more days here. But if that’s too much, I will leave.”  I’m done with here, she thought.

Honey Kumar gently placed his hand on her shoulder again, closer this time to the nape of her neck. One of his fingers tasted her skin and found it cool like water. He let his finger drink. “Of course, that’s a very legitimate wish. Unfortunately, what you must realize is that right now you are an illegal alien here.” His voice had become a whisper. “That means you have none of the rights that this wonderful land confers on its citizens and guests.”

“I came to your office and met you with my papers and a valid ticket.”

“Did you? That was probably when the visa was still valid. Since I did not authorize the extension of your stay then, you could be now arrested under the Foreigners’ Act. As a matter of fact I’m not sure if you have a passport at all.”

“You gave me a receipt!”

“Show it to me.”

“It’s over there.” She pointed at the telephone table.

Honey Kumar pretended to peer at the table in the dim dark. “Nothing here.”

“I’m leaving tomorrow.” She didn’t see how the receipt could have been misplaced. It was there in the evening. Unless the wind had blown it away. “Please give my passport back.”

“I don’t know if you can leave like that, even if you have a valid passport.” Honey Kumar’s voice hardened.

“When you are booked under the Foreigners’ Act, you are not free to move about. You stay put till we finish our inquiries.”

“F*** off,” she said as the lights came back. “Get out.”

Honey Kumar yanked Miriam’s flimsy slip at the point below her neck, and it came away in his hands like a piece of perforated paper, down the middle, all the way to Miriam’s waist, to the point where her hips began their curve. Momentarily the voltage seemed to have gone up again and the room brightened as if someone had raised the wick; Honey Kumar saw that all of Miriam’s back was taken up with the tattoo of a splendid rocket blasting off from the launch pad of her hips, through clouds, past a crescent moon and stars, all the way up to her neck, each section clearly flagged and marked. It was the most striking piece of tattoo art that Honey Kumar had ever seen, and for a moment the power of the drawing and its unexpectedness shocked him. “And what’s this!” he said. “What the hell is this?”

“A rocket.”  Actually a gift of love, she thought, but you won’t understand.

“It’s a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle powered by a Viking engine! That’s what it says.” 

“Please get out.”

So that was why she didn’t want to take her clothes off? You didn’t want to strip when you had classified secrets tattooed on your back. “Who did this? Where are you taking this?”  He thought he knew the answers, of course.

“That’s none of your business,” Miriam made no effort to cover her back.

The room had plunged back into darkness in the pause between their sentences. Honey Kumar listened to a distant rumble build up into a massive peal of thunder. And the noise was exactly what rockets made as they took off. “From now on, you are my business,” he said. She had been wearing a mask, he thought, it was now off finally. Only it was too dark to make out her expression.

Excerpted with permission from Hadal, C.P. Surendran, HarperCollins India.