The Food of Love
Muthu hailed from a village close by. I came to know him well, as he was an excellent chess player (Tamil Nadu, after all, is the hotbed of Indian chess), like me a regular participant in open tournaments, and we used to meet regularly for practice skittles games. He was an unschooled player with great natural talent, and I lent him chess books from my library. Our chess friendship ripened into personal friendship, and I learned about the events I now describe first-hand from Muthu himself, who used to unburden his heart to me.
He was an excellent student and seemed on course for a rank in the school finals, but his father died suddenly and he had to contribute to the family kitty. His uncle was the cook in the Opal mess hall, and through him, Muthu had managed to get this position as a mess boy. Of course, he first had to pass the interview with Meeenakshi madam. All the mess boys were teenagers, and Meenakshi subjected them to a stringent background check and personal interview before they were admitted into the fold and allowed to serve her darling fledglings. Meenakshi was taking no chances. Take in one bad egg, and before you knew it the yolk would hit the fan. She did demand character certificates, but she also knew most were not worth the paper they were written on. So an important component of the personal interview was the stress test. It was Meenakshi’s husband who had devised this extremely simple yet revealing test, based on a similar test used by one of the lesser Mughal potentates to screen his harem staff. The test had a sound psychological basis, namely, the flanker paradigm.
The interviews were conducted in Meenakshi’s office. The mess boy candidate would be ushered into the room, where he stood nervously wringing his hands while Meenakshi occupied herself with signing important-looking papers. Naturally, the boy, having nothing else to do but wait, looked around the room. It was then that his knees gave way, and he rubbed his eyes with disbelief. Just behind madam on the wall, slightly to her left, hung a large framed poster-sized photo. The boy’s eyes opened wide. Was he hallucinating? For the photo was of a well-endowed topless blonde in a pose that screamed for male attention.
It was at this point that Meenakshi would put away her papers and invite the hapless boy to sit down. She would then track the boy’s eyeball movements during the interview; too many glances stolen at the photo meant instant disqualification on grounds of “dubious character, lack of self-control, and therefore unfit to serve as a mess boy in Opal.” Her peon was at hand to record stolen glances that Meenakshi missed, so that the final score was a truly objective, scientific measure of the wanderlust of the roving eye. It had proved to be a successful litmus test, and had helped weed out the bad eggs. There had even been one shameless boy who had paid more attention to the poster than to Meenakshi.
Meenakshi was grateful to her husband for suggesting such a simple, practical stress test. He had bought a Playboy magazine for the poster, grumbling to Meenakshi about the danger of his morals getting corrupted during his advancing years and about his reputation having been irreparably tarnished in the eyes of the newsstand boy, who had winked at him as though to say “You randy old goat, you!” when he handed over the magazine. He locked the magazine in his personal drawer, telling Meenakshi she might need another poster from the magazine later if the one he had given her got misplaced.
Muthu loved his job and did it well. He was gregarious by nature, liked pleasing people, and served with a heart-warming smile. He was strikingly handsome, dusky, of medium height but blessed with a muscular, athletic frame that clashed endearingly with large soulful eyes and fine features. The girls of his village were smitten with him and had tried to catch his eye, but he was having none of it. He knew he had to study and make a better life for himself and his family; no energy-sapping distractions for him.
And then came the blow of his father’s untimely death. But Muthu had rebounded well from his misfortune, and radiated good cheer in the mess hall. The Opalites liked him, and he them, but he liked Poo best of all. She had captivated him from the moment he set his eyes on her. In fact, if the truth be told, he had fallen hopelessly in love with her. He always had an extra-warm smile for her, and after some time Poo (and the other girls) noticed that the omelets Muthu served her were bigger and fluffier than the ones he served the other girls. In time, she began giving Muthu the kind of dazzling smiles the campus boys had never had the good fortune to receive. And Muthu had checked with the girl at the Opal gate who took visitors’ messages up to the girls’ rooms and learned that Poo did not go out with the boys, leave alone having a steady boyfriend. No hanky-panky with hunky punks for Poo. Muthu was gratified.
From the time Muthu stumbled upon the mess hall nocturnal sessions, he made it a habit to leave late after dinner to catch the action. When the girls trooped in like the elves in the fairytale, Muthu spied on them like the shoemaker and his wife from his now customary position under the table. It did disturb his conscience that he was sneaking on his akkas, of whom he had grown fond, but truth to tell he was hoping that Poo would put in an appearance, which she never did. Still, he did not give up hope.
And then came the fateful day that changed the course of Muthu’s life. The previous night he had not got much sleep, as a baby in the house had fallen sick and had to be rushed to hospital. As usual, he had stayed back after the rest of the mess staff departed, telling them he would study for an hour and leave (the relative’s house where he was put up was cramped and noisy), for Muthu had never given up hopes of continuing his studies and wanted to stay in touch with the subjects. He took his customary position under the table and waited. He was feeling drowsy. His thoughts wandered …
First, he thought it was a dream. He could hear excited female voices, and someone was shaking his shoulders. He opened his eyes, and took in the scene. The lights had come on in the mess hall, and the angry-faced girls stood around him in a circle. With great difficulty, he managed to haul himself to his feet. He realized he must have fallen asleep, and his gentle snoring must have given him away. The girl who had shaken him awake was Poo, whose accusing eyes were more than Muthu could bear. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words emerged. He swayed on his feet, and then came crashing down. His head bounced off the corner of the table, and then hit the floor with a sickening thud. He lay in a crumpled heap on the floor and did not stir. Blood oozed from a gash where his head had struck the table, and a thin stream of blood-flecked drool flowed from the corner of his mouth.
At the hospital, the doctors did their best to revive him, but to no avail. He had slipped into a coma. The girls were contrite; they hadn’t suspected that Muthu had hidden himself under the table to watch them. They thought he had merely overslept. But Muthu’s guilty conscience had misled him into thinking that the girls knew all about his snooping. At any rate, he didn’t respond to any form of therapy, and after a week, there seemed no hope that he would ever come round. Poo was inconsolable.
I went to the hospital to see Muthu and talk to his doctor. Muthu lay on his back, tubes sticking out of his body. His eyes were open, but they stared expressionlessly at the ceiling. The doctor was at his wit’s end, and so was the college principal. The villagers were getting restive, and rumors were rife in the village that a group of girls had pushed Muthu down. Politicians had begun to whip up emotions, sensing the popular mood. Security had been doubled on the campus.
It was in this charged atmosphere that I met the doctor in my capacity as Muthu’s good friend and well-wisher. Dr. Muthu (yes, another Muthu!) was nervous, and feared that the mood in the village was growing so ugly that the villagers might storm the hospital in the next few days. It was then that I suggested to him the idea that had occurred to me. I had earlier spoken to Poo about it, and convinced her that it was a last-ditch chance to revive Muthu. The doctor was not so easily convinced, but when I pointed out that the mood in the village was worsening day by day, the poor chap relented. He summoned the ICU staff and took them into confidence. They were surprised, to say the least, but relented. They were as desperate as the doctor.
So, on the appointed day, Poo and I took the bus to town and walked to the hospital. Everything was ready for us. We entered the ICU room where Muthu was lying. The doctor was there, and so was the head nurse. Poo looked nervous, and I made small talk with the doctor to give her time to calm down. Another minute, and we were in Muthu’s room. He looked a pathetic sight. A glistening tear rolled down Poo’s cheek.
I looked at Poo. “Look, it’s for Muthu,” I urged her. “Go for it.”
She bit her lips, and a few steps took her next to Muthu. Another look at me, and she pecked Muthu tepidly on the cheek.
“No, no,” I said, “for heaven’s sake, put some enthusiasm into it!”
“OK, but what are you two doing here? I need privacy.”
I exchanged glances with Dr. Muthu. “I’m afraid I’ll have to be here, as the doctor in charge,” Dr. Muthu said.
Poo shrugged her shoulders and turned to me: “Then you might as well stay too.”
Poo bent down, pressed her lips against Muthu’s, and began kissing him as though her life depended on it. I looked on with professional interest; I was certain this would revive Muthu. I knew I would have revived if I had been in Muthu’s place, but Muthu did not stir, not even after a few minutes of passionate kissing that would have normally raised the dead.
And — and was I seeing things, or had Muthu’s arms risen up and clasped Poo to him? And unless I was hallucinating, it appeared to me that Muthu’s lips were moving in unison with Poo’s, and his hands was responding to Poo’s caresses. I looked around, and saw the doctor staring open-mouthed. I opened the door, and stepped outside. The doctor followed me. I took a last glance backward. Muthu’s nails were raking Poo’s back. There was no doubt about it! Muthu was back!
A wonder-struck Dr. Muthu wrote up this case study as a paper for the British Journal of Medicine. It created a stir among coma specialists, some of whom applied the idea successfully to their patients. It seemed success required just the right chemistry between patient and therapist. In Dr. Muthu’s honor, the therapy was called Muthu’s Mutham (Tamil for kiss) Method.