Lindsay Pereira’s new short story ‘Return of the King’

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Elvis Presley had died in 1977 and no one could stand the idea of him being resurrected by a South Indian man. Now, on the cusp of 2022, Karthik intended to change that. Find out how in this new short story by writer Lindsay Pereira, whose critically acclaimed debut was one of the best books of the year gone by

Karthik caressed the fabric as if it were the cheek of a loved one. He used the back of his palm, allowing the cloth to move of its own volition, pulling his hand away guiltily when he noticed the grime beneath his fingernails. Sheathed in plastic, the outfit hung at the back of an olive-green Godrej cupboard, tucked to the right and out of sight.

He hoped it still glimmered the way it had when he set eyes on it a decade ago at Chagganlal Dresswallah’s store. It had cost more than his monthly salary at the time, and he remembered the salesman stifling a bored smile as he handed over the clothes and pointed to a cashier. What could a dark-skinned boy possibly want with an Elvis Presley costume?

If that smirking salesman were to meet him today, he would finally have an answer.

Moving the outfit aside as he reached for a plaid shirt, Karthik thought, as he often did, about the first time he heard the King. It was Love Me Tender, a song probably requested by some teenager on the radio show Saturday Date. He remembered how crisp it sounded in their one-room apartment, pouring out of a new Murphy set that glowed dimly under a tubelight. That was when his father was still around, months before he disappeared into the dusty sands of Bahrain, lost either to an industrial accident or the arms of another woman. Karthik would never know because his mother never mentioned her husband again. All that remained of him were two sweaters — his other clothing long exchanged for utensils — and a faded wedding photograph placed within the folds of her nicest sari, one she would never wear again.

Other memories rose gently to the surface as Karthik buttoned up his shirt: talent competitions at school, Diwali parties at the office, his arm swirling in an imaginary circle while he went down on one knee crooning Presley’s hits and misses. The lyrics to famous songs like Hound Dog came unbidden to his mind, along with more obscure ones like Promised Land. They were followed by the reactions his impressions elicited, expressions of astonishment giving way to laughter and derision. He stopped dressing for a second and sighed. Elvis Presley had died in 1977 and no one could stand the idea of him being resurrected by a South Indian man. Now, on the cusp of 2022, Karthik intended to change that.

Outside, the sounds of Kalina rushed in as if a window were suddenly flung open. Realising he would be late again if he didn’t bathe quickly, he cursed himself for daydreaming. There was nothing in the past but desolation, he reminded himself, shutting the cupboard.

Walking into the office at Parel an hour later, he felt his shoulders droop in a familiar fashion. They fell in step with how time always appeared to slow down within these premises, taking on the texture of molasses. Moving into his cubicle, he turned on his computer and double-clicked the day’s first Excel sheet.

Around him, conversation ebbed and flowed, broken now and again by a loud remark. Karthik didn’t look up. He had no illusions of how dispensable his role in the accounts department was, but it was all he had known. This was where he had worked for almost three decades now, the first company he had applied to after graduating with a degree in commerce. It was the job that allowed his mother to finally stop running a tiffin service to pay for his education.

He had spent years with his eyes firmly on columns and rows. Colleagues who had long moved to better jobs would ask him about girlfriends or an arranged marriage, then stopped joking about his sexuality when it became apparent that he was happy to occupy a room with just his mother and music collection.
Ten minutes before 5 pm, Karthik walked into the manager’s office to announce his resignation.

There was surprise because he had offered no warning signs. He was supposedly as reliable as the furniture, a blind spot meant to stay until retirement before fading away with an engraved watch and LIC policy. He gave no reasons, and politely refused to reconsider.

None of the sights or sounds on the ride home registered as he thought about the rest of his evening. It had been three months since his mother passed away, snatched away cruelly along with millions of others by a virus that laughed in the faces of those it left behind. His had always been a dark world, but the gloom seemed deeper. The only bright thing left to him lay in his cupboard, waiting to be set free.

Unlocking the door, Karthik slowly undid his shirt. He thought about early rumours of Elvis being alive and how they had quietened down years ago. There had never been a resurrection reported from Asia. Stepping out of his trousers, he walked in his socks towards the cupboard, his upper lip curling slowly upwards. “Wise men say,” he hummed, “only fools rush in…”

Opening the cupboard, he reached for the outfit and removed its covering sheet. The shirt and trousers were white, with gold sequins on every inch. They didn’t shine as brightly as he remembered them doing but twinkled in the fading light and distracted him into silence. Shutting the cupboard, he put them on and stood before the mirror, tying the cape. The dark glasses could come on later, along with mascara and his preferred whitening cream.

Turning to his stereo system that stood in a corner, Karthik reached for a cassette from the top of a pile. Sliding it in, he turned up the volume and went back to stand before the mirror. He imagined thousands of lights going down and a spotlight waiting for him in the centre of his room. Stepping into it, he threw up one hand. This could be the year Karthik would die. But Elvis Presley would live.

Lindsay Pereira is a Mumbai-based writer. His debut novel Gods and Ends (Penguin Random House) was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature and Tata Lit Live First Book Prize

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