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When the Lamps are Lighted

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The airport's the same as airports everywhere, and Kunal is watching Sam watch the suitcases fly around the luggage carousel. Sam's poised for action, his head cocked like some kind of overgrown fishing bird. He looks unfairly well-rested, already kitted out in the full holiday package of shorts and chappals and an enormous straw hat that he'd been forced to wear on the plane because it hadn't fit into his suitcase.

The suitcase in question isn't hard to spot: straining at the seams, as purple as ripe baingan, it barrels around the corner and uses its prodigious momentum to resist Sam's best efforts to drag it off the belt. After a moment the suitcase gains the upper hand and begins briskly hauling Sam along.

Puffing, Sam says, "Seriously, dude, you could give me a hand. Or are your giant muscles just decorative?"

Kunal rolls his eyes and hoists Sam's suitcase to the ground. "We're here three minutes, and already I'm your coolie," he complains. He doesn't mean it to sting. They've been roommates for a year, and Kunal has already made his peace with Sam being the kind of guy who can't travel without at least ten pairs of shoes, fifteen carefully colour-coordinated outfits, and enough scarves for an entire Punjabi wedding party.

Sam says in falsetto, "Oh, jiggerypoo, you're so strong. Carry it for me?" He bats his eyelashes.

"Sam," Kunal hisses. "God, you're so embarrassing." But he relents and drags Sam's suitcase behind him. It skips and jumps resentfully, and bangs against the backs of his legs.

Looking around as Kunal wrestles the behemoth into the taxi, Sam says, "Wow, I'm, like, so glad you made me sit through twenty miserable hours in economy just so you could find the exact same coconut trees we have back home." (Sam, Kunal has long since learnt, habitually overlooks minor distinctions like the fact Kunal's client specifically requested a Thailand editorial, whereas Sam's decision to tag along is purely to avoid being 'volunteered' to work Thanksgiving at the hospital. "Kunal, if I wanted to work eighteen-hour shifts of holiday homicides and deep-fryer disasters, I may as well have gone to med school and made my amma happy. Right? Right.")

Inside the taxi it's stinking hot; outside, Krabi town's dusty shopfronts and unfortunate selection of concrete statuary scroll past. Sam wrinkles his nose at the vista. "Reminds me of Goa, yaar. And if we'd gone there instead of here we'd at least have home cooking along with our coconut trees. Oh man, anda bhurji and keema pav for breakfast—I miss proper naashta, not this Miami stupidity of orange juice and celery sticks. If I stay in the States much longer, I'm going to waste away." Kunal privately thinks this is unlikely, given Sam's enthusiastic embrace of the all-American lunch: hotdogs, tacos, fried-fish sandwiches and all the assorted travesties served forth from his hospital's cafeteria. "Nothing I've eaten this whole year has even remotely matched my amma's cooking." Sam heaves a dramatic sigh. "No offence."

"It's cool," Kunal shrugs. He enjoys cooking for Sam, and before that for Neha too, but he's had aunty's methi paratha and knows when he's outmatched.

Sam is still bitching about Kunal's choice of destination when the taxi crests a small hill on the outskirts of town. The speed at which he shuts up is so extreme that it reminds Kunal of childhood power cuts: Vishy halfway down the pitch and three runs off a century, then the radio falling silent with a thoroughness that suggested the commentators, match, and perhaps even the whole outside world had ceased to exist. But Sam's still there when Kunal looks over, and somehow his expression manages to make every agonising minute of the journey worth it. Kunal can't help the goofy grin that spreads over his own face as he says, "Not quite the same as Miami, na?"

In front of them, limestone cliffs plunge from the clouds into a samandar the colour of Caribbean opal. Shaggy, green-sided monoliths rise from the shallows, balanced gracefully on their wide ends like eggs. There's nothing but islands upon islands upon islands, fading with distance until they're just imagined shapes against the bright line of the horizon.

If Sam's expression was worth it before, if anything it's even better when he sees the resort. It's not like they're not used to sharing, so Kunal has kept it familiar: a two-bedroom suite with a shimmering floor of polished teak, shared waterfall bathroom, and slatted doors opening onto sunset ocean views. It's smaller than their apartment, but oozes luxury. Sam, once he's recovered from the initial visual onslaught, doesn't waste a minute: by the time Kunal gets back from an afternoon of scouting, he's already happily ensconced on the resort's private beach, drink in hand and looking like he's been there for days.

Sam looks up, and Kunal recoils: his face is covered with a blue mud mask that resembles the texture of beaten eggwhites, except that it cracks when he grins.

"So, next you'll be attending Neha's lingerie parties?"

"Ha ha," Sam says. Flakes of blue mud fall onto the sun lounger as he makes a face. "Always knocking what you're too afraid to try." He puts on his squeaky voice. "Oh, I'm big, muscly Kunal, and I'm afraid someone's going to see me with mud on my face and think I'm a girl. Or," his voice drops back to normal, "a gay."

"Sam," Kunal says quellingly.

"Sam, Sam, Sam." Sam rolls his eyes. "Lighten up, Kunal, I'm just kidding around." He signals the waiter, who brings Kunal a stupid fruity cocktail in a half-coconut with a little umbrella. Kunal sends it back and gets a beer. The sunset is a clean blue and pink, nothing special, until he looks up a minute later and it's changed: the most intense gold light he's ever seen is pouring up from under the horizon, painting the undersides of the clouds and casting a bizarre celestial glow over the entire landscape. He sits transfixed, then realises what he's doing and leaps to his feet to grab some test shots. Sam, always eager to play the fool, pouts and poses for the camera. Kunal laughs and shoots a quick succession of frames: Sam's blue face with his mouth and eyebrows exaggerated like a Kathakali dancer, and his hairy knees peeping provocatively from underneath his dressing gown.

Still chuckling, Kunal flops down besides Sam and shows him the photos on the screen. The light is perfect; Sam is ridiculous. Kunal makes a face at the pictures and says, "Dude, that's just wrong."

Sam snorts and says, "I'm cheaper than your sexy models. Anyway, I've heard from my sources," which of course means Neha, "that strong eyebrows and manly chests are totally hot right now." He strikes another stupid pose, reclining like a swimsuit beauty, and draws his finger into the neckline of his dressing gown to reveal his unapologetically hairy chest. He beckons to Kunal and makes a kissy face.

Kunal laughs and shoves Sam off the lounger, but Sam grabs Kunal's arm and they fall tussling to the ground. Sam's laughing; he's softer-bodied than Kunal, but taller and heavier, and holds his own. There's blue mud smeared in his hair and all down his neck. After a minute he manages to roll them over and starts gleefully mashing Kunal into the sand. It's ridiculous, Sam astride Kunal with his dressing gown flapping around like a low-rent Marilyn impersonator, but suddenly Kunal's uncomfortably conscious of their closeness, of Sam's weight squashing the breath out of him.

Sam stops. "What's wrong?"

Kunal says sharply, "God, you should see yourself. It's disgusting." He pushes Sam off and grabs his camera. "Wash that shit off your face. I'll see you for dinner."

Sam's face has a startled, hurt expression under the remnants of his mud mask. Kunal feels a stab of something inexplicably horrible, and flees.

By dinner time Sam still hasn't emerged from his room, and Kunal, lacking his usual righteous indignation about pre-dinner delays, knocks on his door. Sam snaps, "What, yaar." He opens the door and glowers at Kunal. He's changed, shaved, and his hair is washed and oiled. Everything about him looks perfectly normal, and it makes Kunal feel unaccountably small and mean.

Dinner is silent and awkward. Kunal fidgets under the resort's stupid romantic lighting and brusquely orders all of Sam's favourite dishes. In a particularly heartfelt gesture of appeasement, he even orders two cocktails that arrive looking less like drinks than an architect's rendition of the Qutb Minar in semi-solidified dairy. To his immense relief, somewhere between the second and third courses there's a minute softening in Sam's expression. (Food has always been a reliable way to Sam's heart, something Kunal's never been shy about exploiting: he lets the dishes pile up in the sink for weeks and never cleans the toilet, and all he's ever needed to do for forgiveness is spend an afternoon preparing murgh makhani.)

He says, tentatively, "Ek saath kuch karein. What say?"

Sam grunts.

"I thought I'd do some location scouting on some of the other islands." Something about Thai food doesn't agree with Kunal; he feels ill. "We can get one of those twin kayaks, take a picnic. It'll be nice, I promise you'll like it. Come with me, na?"

Sam regards him with a frown, then digs into his ice cream and says with studied casualness, "You'll do all the paddling?"

"Done," Kunal says immediately. He can't help smiling in relief. Sam's his best friend; he hates it when there are things between them. That period when they were fighting over Neha was pretty much the worst of his life: knowing he'd have to choose one and lose the other. He's glad, at the end, it hadn't come to that.

***

Out on the water it's hot and humid. The glassy-sided swell buoys them up and down with infinite gentleness, Kunal's paddle marking its own sleepy cadence against it. Behind them, the resort has gone white with distance. Sam, lounging in the back of the kayak like a Mughal princess, entertains himself by producing a running commentary on Kunal's paddling technique, and eats dragonfruit. Every now and then he remembers and passes Kunal a slice.

Up close, all the islands are different. Some are nothing much more than limestone pillars, wide at the base and riddled with mysterious watery tunnels, or else narrow like mushroom stalks. Others have joined together into bridges and soaring arches. The best islands, though, are the ugliest: squat and dense with greenery, they have climbable slopes and tiny, sheltered coves of photogenic sand. Whenever they find one of these they paddle right in, and Sam swims and lounges on the beach while Kunal goes up and down taking test shots.

They take lunch at a picture-perfect island, skimming in over coral reefs and a field of waving blue-green seagrass. As they drag the kayak up the beach, Sam says cheerfully, "Isn't this just like Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai?" He adds in a squeaky voice, "Hrithik's so dreamy."

"So I'm Hrithik and you're the annoying heiress, right?" Kunal says. He rummages in the picnic basket and hands Sam a box of rice and Massaman curry.

Sam snorts and says in his normal voice, "Dude, you only wish you could dance like Hrithik. Anyway, at least the heiress survives."

Thinking of the movie gives Kunal an idea, and he jumps up to take a couple of quick shots from between the palm trees as a mental note to himself. "Perfect," he yells back to Sam, already framing the concept in his head—sulky, stranded heiress; steamships; vintage—but when he grins down the beach, Sam's looking at him with a strange expression. It changes before he can parse it, and Sam calls mockingly, "Oh, Kunal jaan! Why all this work and no play?"

Kunal just grins and snaps a picture of him—laughing, sand crusted over one side of his thick black holiday beard—and says, "At least try not to eat all the lunch before I get back, yaar," as he jogs down the other end of the beach to take advantage of a sudden dimming in the intense sunshine.

He gets in a good hour of shooting and sketching, completely absorbed in fleshing out the concept, before it finally dawns on him that the weather's turned: the wind slaps his bare arms and transforms the palm trees into multi-limbed monsters, and the sky is one vast roiling cloud. In front of him, the resort is fast disappearing into a thick sea haze. Worry churns in Kunal's gut as he trots down the beach to where Sam's still stretched out on his towel with an arm over his eyes. "Sam. Sam!" He grabs Sam by the shoulder. "Sam. Uttho, wapas jaana hai!"

Sam startles awake. "Ow, what the hell, Kunal?"

"We need to get back." Kunal looks out to sea: there's already rain falling between them and the resort. Even as he watches he can see the headland being erased before his eyes, a grey smudge smeared ever-greyer until it's a mere suggestion of land.

It looks bad, but for a moment he thinks they'll make it as they paddle directly into the line of surf breaking on the reef. Sam shouts frantically behind him, and the nose of the kayak lifts to meet the first wave. The nose rises, holding steady, and then in terrifying slow motion Kunal feels the kayak begin to roll. He's barely registered the sensation before time snaps back, dealing him a broadside blow that has him struggling underwater before he can process how he got there. Disoriented, tumbled end over end like the contents of a washing machine, he feels a hard impact against his shoulder—coral—and rebounds, choking and spluttering, to the surface. Even before his first breath he's already thinking: Sam.

Sam is nowhere in sight. Instead there's just a grey wash of water that, terrifyingly, seems to be flowing in every possible direction: upwards, sideways into the wind, stacking and piling in layers of churning white froth. A wave breaks over his head and pushes him under, but when he bobs up he suddenly feels a relief so strong it's like a burst of pure oxygen: Sam, frowning furiously with the effort of holding onto kayak and paddle, his face transforming when he sees Kunal falling down the side of a wave towards him. Together, flailing and kicking, they drag the kayak over the reef into the calmer waters and start the long slog towards the beach.

Back on dry land, Sam looks tired and afraid. Kunal suddenly finds himself shaking with emotion—something tight like anger that explodes with a force that surprises even himself. "Sam. What the hell is wrong with you? Why couldn't you have been paying attention to the weather?"

Sam jerks around, startled, and then his face sets into heavy, angry lines. "Me? This was your bright idea; why should I be paying attention? This is—this is so like you. Do you even know what the words 'personal responsibility' mean?"

Kunal shouts back, "And exactly whose fault is it that half of Miami still thinks we're gays?"

"And it's your fault we're officially gay, my mother thinks we're gay, and in case you've forgotten: you kissed me in front of hundreds of people at Neha's fucking fashion show!"

Kunal snarls, "Maybe you liked it."

As soon as the words leave his mouth, he feels sick. Sam has gone pale, the tendons standing out in his neck. Something horrible is happening, and Kunal isn't sure what it is; he can't help himself as he takes a step forward and shoves Sam on the chest. "So? Are you going to stand there, like you aren't even a man? You're not even going to hit me?"

Sam is going to hit him, Kunal can see it, and he feels a wretched satisfaction: Sam's going to hit him and everything will go back to normal—it has to go back to normal, because there's no other alternative.

But Sam draws back and says tightly, "Fuck you, Kunal," and turns and stomps off into the jungle. Kunal finds himself standing alone on the beach. He feels like he's going to throw up. It's too much salt water, nothing more than that; Sam can get lost in the jungle and get eaten by a tiger if that's what he wants, and it'll bloody well serve him right.

He's been alone half an hour when it starts to rain, a toofaan that thunders down like someone's diverted a river directly above his head. Kunal grits his teeth and huddles under a dripping banana tree. Between the rain and the low clouds, he can't see more than a few metres along the beach. He shifts restlessly. His t-shirt and shorts are already soaked through; being out in the rain surely couldn't be any worse, he thinks, and at least it would mean he wasn't sitting here stewing in his own sweat as a buffet for every passing mosquito.

The path is trickier than it looks: a steep, slick clay that makes him slip and grab desperately at the long grass. Every now and then he has to stop to scrape the leeches from his hands and legs. Wet vines keep trying to separate him from his chappals, and when he looks up through the rain he realises the whole island is nothing but creepers: a smooth, blanketing mass with eerie protrusions that make him think of an ancient city that's been swallowed by jungle. It's still unnaturally dark, although the bloody baarish has turned into a humidity so thick that it's only marginally better than the original rain. Sam's managed to make it pretty far for someone who hates hiking, Kunal thinks. There haven't been any side paths, though he can remember a few occasions where the path faded out and resumed a little to the side. But it's not like Sam's stupid; he'd have been able to find it again.

There's a small clearing up ahead. He's taken one step inside when he hears something that nearly paralyses him with terror: a deafening, mechanical whirring that rattles the leaves and sets his teeth chattering. After a long moment, he realises it's insects. The knowledge doesn't stop his heart pounding too fast, though, or his mind from automatically filling the shadows with the menacing animal-shapes of childhood nightmares. The swarm drifts closer, volume rising until it's a shriek that washes over him like a wave. Sam would have freaked out, Kunal thinks: Sam, who can't make it through the silliest horror film, even with Kunal and Neha beside him. Kunal finds himself trotting, then running, along the path, pushing through the undergrowth with increasing desperation. "Sam!"

He's still yelling "Sam!" when the ground tilts abruptly and he finds himself on soft sand. He hears his name a fraction of a second before he's grabbed in a firm hug, and for a moment all he can do is breathe. "Sam."

Sam's arms are strong, familiarly reassuring. The awareness makes Kunal stiffen and pull back. "What are you, mad, running off like that? What if you'd fallen? Are you magically expecting a helicopter to come and rescue you, you idiot?"

"Well, it's a good thing one of us has some medical training, then!" Sam yells. "And I didn't ask you to come after me. What if you'd fallen—you think you'd know how to splint your own bloody leg?"

Kunal's ears are ringing from his own yelling by the time he notices that Sam's stopped responding. "Sam. Sam. Sun rahe ho ya na?" He pokes Sam in the chest, but Sam just shoves past him and bends to pick something out of the water. The ocean is flat again, the sky a solemn lavender haze that reminds Kunal of temple smoke standing still at dawn.

He says stupidly, "A diya." In Sam's hand it looks familiarly Indian: a palm-sized banana leaf boat holding a candle, incense and a scattering of bright petals. It's another moment of Thailand's distorted mirror reflection of home, like the women in clothes that look like saris, but aren't; or the marigold malas draped around the necks of familiar gods called by different names, which gives Kunal the irrational feeling that his own deities are avoiding him.

Sam says, "They have their own version of Diwali here. I forgot it was today." His face is shadowed; all Kunal can see is the shape of his hands, gently cupping around the cheap tealight.

Kunal inhales, and the incense hits him like a visceral blow: home and puja and aunties in the kitchen making Diwali sweets and a million cousins' chaotically joyful weddings and Sam's mother blessing them, making Kunal promise to keep him safe always. The familiarity of it makes him feel small and vulnerable. It cuts into the innermost part of himself that he keeps tucked away while in America, away from people who wouldn't understand. Away from everyone in his Miami life but Sam and Neha, who know.

Sam says to Kunal, "Itna fight kyun rahe hain yaar? What's wrong with us?"

Kunal says shortly, "There's nothing wrong."

Kunal can feel his own answer eating away at him during the silence that follows, a sensation that reminds him of the time he'd challenged his second cousin to a raw chilli-eating competition. Not so much pain as the sick sense of something being devastatingly, fundamentally, wrong.

Sam bends down and launches the diya back to sea with a nudge. They watch it bob outwards, a single tiny light in the vastness of the ocean.

When Sam straightens up Kunal says, "Sam—" He feels clammy with dread, like he's yielding to something that doesn't have his best interests at heart. "I was scared for you when you were out there. Even though it was your own stupid fault you ran off. You're my—my brother." It seems inadequate; it is inadequate. It's no different from everything he's always told Sam. But he can't make himself put the rest of it into words. He doesn't want it sound like a joke, the same joke they've always been playing until the joke started to be on them. He defaults, "Albeit a brother from another mother."

Sam doesn't laugh. He's quiet for a long time, staring out to sea. Eventually he says, "One of the waitresses at the hotel told me that if you launch one of these diyas with someone and the candle doesn't go out, you'll be together forever." His voice is tight, trying to joke but not sounding like he finds it funny at all. "Maybe this should be our love story. Sachmuch more romantic than Venice, na?"

Kunal stares into the deepening gloom until his eyes ache. There's a tiny gleam that could be their candle, or maybe it's just the last of the sunset off the water. Here in the dark, where it's just the two of them, he can finally admit to himself which he hopes it is. He takes a deep breath and says to Sam, "I see it. It's still there." Without turning his head, he reaches over to take Sam's hand. After a moment Kunal hears him release a held breath. Their hands are awkwardly new together, familiar ingredients in an unfamiliar combination. Kunal thinks his palm is sweating, and he realises he's terrified. Kismet has handed them something too big, too impossible, something he's never seriously thought about and isn't sure he really wants.

The sky is still clearing, haze drawing back like a curtain. As the headland comes back into view Kunal's surprised to see a dim glow in front of it. At first he thinks he's worn out his eyes with staring, but the light grows until he can finally make it out as lakhs of bright pinpricks filling the sea and sky: lanterns rising into the air like clouds of alien jellyfish, and diyas forging their way out to sea—all the way out past the blazing curve of the earth and on towards India. Lakhs of wishes borne on fragile paper and banana leaf, and Kunal thinks he can see his and Sam's amongst them: a tiny flame mingling with all the others into a light that leaps up and banishes the dark.