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The Dolphin King By Kuzhali Manickavel

At 3 am, Senthil is swaying in the middle of the room, talking about the tragic hero Karna. He doesn't know much about the Mahabharata but he knows about Karna because he's seen the movie 103 times. If you can improvise a bow and arrow for him along with a voluptuously curved moustache, he will do the entire movie for you, songs included.

"Forget the other guys," says Senthil. "Forget that fucker Arjuna. A hero is someone who knows he's going to be fucked but is heroic anyway."

"What's the point in that?" asks Jameson.

"I mean Karna was better than Arjuna at everything but for some reason we call the national sports awards Arjuna Awards. They should be called Karna Awards!" says Senthil.

Once Senthil actually made little Karna Awards out of matchboxes and beer caps. They were supposed to look like trophies but they ended up looking like matchboxes with beer caps stuck to them. Later he found a group of children playing cricket and tried to give them away but nobody wanted them.

"And then he can't die," says Senthil. "There he is, Karna, King Of Everything That Goes Wrong Even When You Do Everything Right, eight million arrows sticking in his chest but he can't die. Just imagine that- I mean just think how much that would hurt."

"Is he from one of those Hindu stories?" asks Jameson. Senthil rubs his face and blinks as if he's trying to clear his eyes.

"What?" says Senthil.

"This is from one of those Hindu stories, right?"

"Are you kidding me?"

"The Ramayana or something?"

"The Mahabharata," I say and someone starts to sing the theme song from the Mahabharata TV series.

"Get out," says Senthil.

"What?" says Jameson.

"Get out of my house."

This isn't Senthil's house but Jameson stumbles to his feet and disappears down the stairs- he seems to clatter against the walls and I wonder if he's falling down. Senthil collapses on the floor beside me and I pick bits of popcorn out of his hair and hand them to him. He sadly puts them in his mouth like he's popping pills he knows won't work. An hour later, Senthil decides to go out and buy cigarettes.

"Are you coming back?" I ask.

"Of course I'm coming back. Why wouldn't I come back?"

He disappears down the stairs and I don't see him again for a week.


Senthil is a wonderful concept, something that has great potential like a rising sun or a new bicycle. It's only when you take a closer look at him that you notice he's not held together very well. Sometimes he cleans himself up and becomes chubby and irritable, his lips puffing out while his eyes completely disappear into his face. But it's just a matter of time before he starts to wither again; his knuckles and elbows become dry and sharp while his eyes grow like puddles of dark water. You begin to hear stories about how he beat up an autorickshaw in the middle of the road or gave his shoes away to beggar. Once he called me shortly after news had spread that he had relieved himself on the hood of somebody's Mercedes.

"Guess where I am," said Senthil.

"I have no idea."

"Guduvancherry! I think. It looks like Guduvancherry."

"How did you get all the way over there?"

"Must have taken a train, I think I'm in the railway station- I mean I woke up and there were railway tracks and a tea stall so I'm thinking it's a railway station. I could ask someone if you want- you want to hold on while I ask?"

"Senthil I canít do this now, I'm at work."

"Why don't you come down here? It's very small-townish. I could take you sari shopping. Or we could go to a temple or something."

"I don't think so."

"How come there are no Karna temples around? In all my life I have never seen one Karna temple. I've seen an AIDS manual written in Tamil though. Have you ever seen one of those?"


"Did you know they have diagrams? They're not very good ones- I mean I didn't get what they were doing at first and it's hard to make out what the guy is holding. Then you're like oh! Ok, so that's what they're doing. It's strange because she seems to be looking one way and he's looking somewhere else."

"Senthil, I have to go."

"But what's the deal with the Karna temples? Is it against the law to have one?"

"I don't know."

"But then there are no Arjuna temples either. How come none of these guys have temples? I could build one though. I could build a Karna temple, couldn't I?"

"Ok, I'm hanging up now."

"Aren't you coming down here?"


"I'll wait for you by the weighing machine."

"Hanging up now Senthil."

"I used my last 2 rupees on this call though."



"How am I supposed to get home now?"

The extension tone started to beep and he hung up. I was pretty sure he would spend the day wandering around Guduvancherry, unless of course he wasn't in Guduvancherry in the first place.



Senthil usually doesn't visit me because he doesn't like my landlady and my landlady doesn't like him. One day however he shows up with half a candy bar which he ends up eating himself.

"You got fifty bucks?" he asks.

"For what?"

"I'll pay you back."

"I don't have fifty bucks."

Senthil nods and leans against the wall- he suddenly reminds me of a bundle of dead branches that has been sloppily tied together.

"How about if I give you this?" He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a dolphin pendant that has been cleanly snapped in two. "This is Karna. King of the Dolphins."

"Where's the rest of it," I ask.

"100 bucks. I'll pay you back."

"Senthil I don't have any money."

He nods and shrugs.

"Keep it then."

"For what?"

"For whatever. In case of something."

After Senthil leaves I try to find a place for the pendant. I don't want to keep it but I don't want to throw it out either. I finally decide to put it outside on the windowsill. About an hour later the phone rings.

"It's me," says Senthil. "I stole your sugar tin."


"I took your sugar tin when you weren't looking."




Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.