Fiction / September 2015 (Issue 29)


The Double

by Devi Yesodharan

Ranjit is talking about his grandmother's underpants. "She gets them washed and starched every Friday, the same day Ma has her kitty party over," he says. "Then she gets all six hung on the bright side of the backyard, where the neighbours and everyone driving past our house can see. Her underwear is huge. They just hang there like white flags. It drives Ma crazy."

"How huge?" Aditi asks, and Ranjit spreads his hands impossibly wide. She exchanges a glance with Manu. Her cheeks pink with suppressed laughter.

The three of them are sitting under the peepal tree in the schoolyard, school shirts stuck to their backs, part of the lunchtime crowd of students talking, assessing the others, strutting, flirting, watching watching watching. Speaking in a lingo that keeps the adults out. LS: low status. She's an aunty type: the girl isn't cute. Waterfall shot: when somebody's shirt is too sheer. BT: butter thighs.

They are a mean, carnivorous throng, these ninth graders. Their faces are still childlike, but there is something darker now in their voices, everything has a deeper bite. An insult—words said through newly sharp canines—the look in an eye, the curve of a cheek, it all stirs them deeply. The people around them are dangerous and need to be named: friend, enemy, unrequited love, lover, enemy. They count them up and call them out.

The bell rings signaling the end of break and students rush past them, but Manu leans further into his elbows, his fingers knitted through Aditi's. It's the kind of day only lovers can bear. The Delhi sky is glossy with heat, the blue looks impenetrable, the birds circle overhead as if trapped with nowhere to go. Winter is a bent memory. The faces of babies in cribs turn red as they sweat and cry and tug at their inflamed ears. Street carts hawk their summertime drink of salty-sweet lemon banta as the shade grows razor thin and the air buzzes with black gnats. ItchGuard Powder does brisk sales, enough for the company to buy primetime television ads in bulk, ads that show people scratching and clawing at their backs and limbs and underarms, a suggestive spectacle of itching that makes its audience scratch away as fans move slowly in humid living rooms.

But despite the heat, the three of them linger on until the last possible moment before ambling back to class. They try to make sure they are the last to enter, and it feels especially good to hit the sweet spot like today, when the teacher has to wait for you to take your seat, but not long enough to tell you off for it.

Manu has managed to wring casualness out of his school uniform, with the shirt one size too large and tucked into his trousers carefully careless. Underneath it is a spotless white vest. His grey pants sit low on his waist and are baggy at the knees. His tie is tied into a lazy knot, a knot that barely acknowledges the letter of the rule. He is good in class but keeps it quiet, sitting backbench with the other rich kids, exchanging notes, not raising his hand although he knows the answers.

After school, when he doesn't go for a "ghumao" with Aditi, riding her scooty around the Delhi markets, he and his friends hang out and talk about films and books and everyone they know, share a Milds. He doesn't like to smoke much, so he doesn't buy. And then either Aditi or Ranjit will give him a ride to his house, which is in the suburbs, half an hour from the city, in a long, quiet lane filled with bougainvillea.

He enters the massive gate with a nod to Ajay, the narcoleptic guard. He walks past the front garden and down the side of the house. He passes several large, open French windows, through which he can hear Kriti's and Akhil's voices and the television.

He reaches the back door and fishes in his bag for the key. While he is rattling it in the lock, his mother opens it from the inside. Her sari is partly hitched up, the ragged hem of the underskirt showing. She is barefoot in the utility area, which is filled with grey soapy water.

She smiles briefly at him, her escaped hair sticking to her face, "Go through to the kitchen, Manu," she says, pointing with the broom. "But walk on the side, it's very dirty."

He reaches the kitchen and pulls out his books, places them on the granite next to the stove. He has a stool he sits on, one with a too-short leg, and he rocks forward and backward, knocking the floor with the leg as he thinks.

He completes his homework with methodical speed. The faster he does it, the more time he has with Akhil, who has already turned up at the kitchen door, talking on his mobile phone, waving Manu into the living room.

This kitchen is not one of those newly fashionable open models. It is separated from the other rooms by a small flight of stairs, its cheap mosaic walls lit with 40-watt bulbs: the kitchen of a woman who doesn't like to cook. When Manu follows Akhil up the stairs to the living room, the change is always startling. His eyes take a moment to adjust. Even at 3 pm all the lights in the living room are switched on, the curtains drawn back. It is a brightness that vibrates in the tiny hairs of his neck, his arms and legs. Each time he moves from the kitchen, he is changed this way, awakened.

On the television, Akhil has loaded Super Mutant 2. "Want to play?" He tosses one of the Xbox consoles to Manu.

"Sure," Manu says. "It'll take me five minutes to whip you dead." He jumps on the sofa just like Akhil does, pulls off his tie and throws it over the armrest.

"Talk less, play more, lounday. Last time you went down fifteen-six."

"Fifteen-eight."

"Fifteen-thirteen still leaves you with the L-word stuck to your forehead."

Manu chooses his favourite avatar, the blue giant who kills with a machete. Akhil chooses the grey thundercloud monster, who kills with flying stars. They battle. The scene of the game shifts between a basement, a ripped-open plane, the top of a steep building. Each time the scene changes, they must adjust their attacks to keep from falling off, getting killed by flying debris or eaten by basement rats.

"Kapow!" Manu shouts. He usually lets Akhil win, but not today.

"Right back at you!' A shooting star lodges in Manu's blue shoulder.

It's an adrenaline-heavy, high-definition world that makes the real thing look a little worn out. Even when they hit pause, the music has a compulsive thud: Come back, come back. The Xbox, ordered through Amazon and arriving in a customs-cleared box shipped from Pennsylvania, is one of the things Akhil still plays, unlike other short-lived distractions that had similarly arrived filled with promise and squeaky Styrofoam—a 21-gear mountain bike, a Stratocaster guitar, a robotic arm assembly set which Akhil had seen a video promo of on YouTube.

They're on their fourth game—Akhil insisting on best of five after losing two in a row—when Kriti enters and shoots them a look before going to the fridge. Manu has lost concentration now, and his blue giant is flailing, three stars lodged in his neck. His life bar glows red.

"Yeah, fucker!" Akhil screams.

"Akhil!" Kriti says.

"OK, sorry," he says, without looking at his mother. Manu has turned in his seat and watches her open and sip a cold diet coke. She lives, apparently, on diet coke. She smells good all the time, a layered smell of freshly washed laundry, grape shampoo, lavender cream, Elizabeth Arden perfume. He's seen all the brands in her bathroom, rooting through the shelves while the family was out, sniffing at the bottles.

He doesn't have a crush on her; he thinks she is far too old, the skin on her face like a crumpled up tissue. Sometimes she wears calf-length cotton skirts that emphasise her broad hips and reveal the thick varicose veins on her legs. But there is still her wonderful smile, the hint of a once foxy young girl. Right now, Manu is working up his courage to ask her a favour. But first, he has to gauge her mood.

"Akhil, is your homework done?" she asks. Uh oh.

"Mmhmm."

"Is that a yes?"

"Mmhmm."

"I am not going to ask you again, Akhil." When Kriti grows angry, her lips thin.

"Mmhmm."

She bangs her coke on the table and comes over, circling the couch so that she obstructs the TV. Left with no choice, Akhil looks at her.

"Did you do your homework or not?"

"I thought you weren't going to ask me again."

They glare at each other. The music of the paused game sound-tracking the tension in the room.

"Shit, you are such a pain!" Akhil says, throwing his console to the side. He rolls his eyes at Manu, gets up and walks straight at his mother with such a menacing video-game swagger that she can't help but take a small step backward. Akhil, tall and thick in the gut and broad in the shoulders, likes to stand like this over Kriti, who is five three if that barefoot; she looks very swattable, something he could toss to the couch with one hand. He looms over her, a silent comment on the absurdity of her ordering him around. "Out of my way," he says. "I am going to do my homework."

She steps aside. She retreats to the sofa and picks up a half-read magazine. Manu fetches the coke, hands it to her. When she looks up, her eyes are bright with held-back tears. She cries at the wrong things, he thinks. He keeps his face blank. There is a bruise on her forearm, an old yellowing one. She is always bumping into things. "I am clumsy," she will say, showing him a new one on her fleshy upper arm or on her calf. When they appear on stranger places like her face, she doesn't bother explaining and dims the lights in the living room to the "romantic" setting. Manu picks up his tie and retreats to the kitchen. Before he leaves, she says, as always, "Don't do your studies in the kitchen, it's too dark in there. Do it at the dining table."

As always, he nods. "Thank you, Aunty."

He knows it's not his obligingness that has earned him a well-lit space to do his schoolwork. He just looks too middle-class to tuck away, a metamorphosis that began when Kriti suggested sending him to the same school as Akhil and paying his fees. "Shift him there now, in kindergarten itself," she told his mother, her widowed servant for whom she felt some sympathy. "He will feel less out of place."

The way he carries himself, the way he speaks, his crisp white shirts and askew tie knots, his shampooed, mousse-messy hair and his clean-cut handsomeness, the English he learnt alongside Akhil at school and the slang he's picked up from the Hollywood movies they watched together, him on the floor, graduating slowly to the sofa—these are triumphs eked out over the years. He has studied the ways of the Anands harder than anything in his life, and over time, his face has melded so close to his middle-class mask that it's hard to make out the old self he once struggled to suppress, the younger, tempestuous Manu, the one filled with an unbearable anger and a wanting that made it hard to breathe. He has managed to wrestle that version down, achieved a cheerful charm that makes him very likeable, a sideways smile that can sell you things.

As much as possible, he has tried to be here at the Anands with his mother, rather than in the tiny slum that smells of piss and dead dog guts. His most vivid memories are of Akhil and Kriti and even distant Mr. Anand, not of his obscured mother and long-dead father. His earliest memory is from when he was four, sitting at the Anands' kitchen counter with a piece of cake from Akhil's birthday that Kriti deemed he should have. The cake was what he later got to know as "Florida" cake, with sweet fruit—mangoes, pineapple, shiny gelatin cherries—covering the soft icing, the sponge underneath sweetened with fruit essence. He was fascinated by the idea that he was going to eat this thing. Around him, his mother's and the washing lady's voices faded to soft whispers. The only light in his memory came out of the dessert, from its sweet glimmering core.

He kept getting lucky. In the fifth grade, they shifted him to a school further away from the Anands' home—expensive still, the fees more than his mother's entire pay, but "Indian private" unlike Akhil's international school. A place where nobody knew the once rough-edged boy. Manu shape-shifted.

He washes his uniforms himself, with the Ariel two-rupee single-serve powders he insists his mother buy for him. The things he can't buy in small packets—aftershave, hair gel—he nicks in two-rupee measures from Mr. Anand's bathroom cupboard. His public identity is assembled from many such tiny pieces: the discarded, the forgotten, the stolen, the hastily given away.

When he was in the seventh grade, Manu visited the school's administrative office, changed his name in the school register to Manu Anand from Manu K. Nobody in the office asked for his birth certificate.

He rationalises: isn't everyone constantly reinventing themselves? Facebook profile pictures, double jaw surgery. There's a hair-weaving clinic right down the street from the Anands' house. Even the gods have two, three, four faces, one thousand names, a hundred reincarnations.

The miracle is how thoroughly Kriti has accepted Manu's reconstructed self. Her memory of his previous versions seem short, she is not so much approving of the upgrades as oblivious to them, as if appearing middle-class is the default.

Akhil seems not to care, until he does. Sometimes he baits Manu, especially when he is losing at a game, asking him in his wide-eyed infuriating way about other game releases, before smacking his own forehead theatrically. "Of course you don't have an Xbox at home. Or a TV. Do you have electricity? I forget sometimes, yaar."

Some days, a worry sets in that it's only a matter of time before Akhil seeks out Manu's friends and tells them exactly who he is. A heat emerges behind his eyes even as he thinks it. If that happens, I will leave, he decides, and make my life elsewhere. Manu Anand is him: he can't imagine being anyone else.

His mother comes in with mop and bucket. "Where have you been?" he says.

"Making the curry." His mother smells of the mop she uses. She runs her fingers through his hair and goes to the inner rooms, to do a final cleaning.

He notices that the mop strings are coming apart, the loose threads dragging on the floor behind her. There's a dissonance between the things the Anand family use—which are replaced quickly as they wear down—and the things used by the maids: the 1992 Phillips kitchen stove, the cast iron pans, the cleaning cloths, the broom, all of which carry the stink of deprivation. His mother doesn't seem to smell it, but he does. When he was younger, the Anands would give him Akhil's broken toys—the jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing, the toy cars with stuck wheels, the wooden Pinocchio with the broken leg. Every damaged plaything a message.

He clears his books away from the dining table and disappears into the kitchen before dinnertime. They will leave for home after the family is served and reach just in time to eat dinner and sleep. The curry his mother has cooked simmers on the stove.

He glances at the chicken curry, checks the doorway and takes out a piece, eats it in a few hot-fingered bites. It's very good—he picks up the ladle and slurps the gravy from it, again, again. He bites into a second piece and puts it back into the pot. His nerves had sprung up like the fur of an angry canine; now he relaxes.

In school the next day, he is on the sidelines of the court, sweaty from an impromptu badminton game. He looks up and sees Deepa approaching, a classmate, who he knows little of except that Aditi dislikes her. She is pretty in a bosomy way that reminds him of soft pillows. "Hey Manu," she says, taking a seat next to him.

"Hey." He is rolling up his dirty socks and taking out a fresh pair, his only spare, out of his bag. He doesn't want his feet to smell in class.

Deepa seems to be girding up for some kind of declaration.

"My mother had some friends over to our house yesterday."

"Mmhmm?"

"There is a new lady, the wife of a cardiologist. I think she lives close to you because she knows your parents, the Anands? You live on Janakpuri road, no?"

He puts the fresh socks on, not looking at her. "Yes," he says.

"So it was just so weeeird. She kept calling you Akhil."

"I have lots of pet names," he shrugs, tying his shoes. He can feel his heart thudding, like the music track on Super Mutant 2.

"Really," she says. She doesn't believe him, but she also doesn't know what to make of this. He is blushing, but that could be put down to exertion. What else had the lady said? Kriti wasn't exactly an extrovert, so when had she met her? How close was this lady to the Anands?

"Well," he says incautiously, "my mother is coming to school tomorrow. I suppose you can ask her yourself." And Deepa finally has the grace to look embarrassed.

His disguise is paper thin, full of holes. Someone could quiz her mother's friend more closely, visit the house, far away in the suburbs though it may be. He thinks of the favour he had planned to ask Kriti, which looks puny in comparison to what he will have to ask of her now.

Aditi drops him to the house that afternoon. She lingers, revving her scooty, as he pushes the gate open. Kriti calls the summer her "red season" because that's when she has the gardeners uproot the winter shrubs and plant the zinnias. The stems are heavy with half-open buds drunk with the afternoon sun, their red colour already setting the hedges aflame.

"Your garden is beautiful!" Aditi says. "So when are you going to invite me over?" her voice is light, but he knows it will come up again. "Soon," he smiles his sideways smile, before disappearing inside.

Akhil has discovered an old toy, a Hulk mask, and insists on wearing it while they talk and play the game. It is an eerie thing, one of those expressionless plastic masks with small eye-holes and a slit for breathing. When Kriti appears, he jumps off the sofa. "I'm going to eat you," he says, hopping around his mother.

"I won't taste very good," Kriti says, trying to push him away as she moves towards the fridge for her seventh, or possibly eighth diet coke.

"Not eat you. Hit you. I am going to heeeet you!" he shouts and giggles.

She freezes, then moves past him. "Stop this stupid game, Akhil." He retreats. His parents have always thought Akhil a little slow, but Manu knows better.

Later, when Akhil disappears into his bedroom, his girlfriend on the phone, Manu approaches Kriti. "Aunty," he says, and waits for her to look up at him. "I need a favour."

"Yes Manu, what is it?"

He starts with his first request, the one that had stuck in his throat like a chicken bone only a week before. "The principal wants to meet everyone's parents at school, to go over our performance before the Boards," he says. "Ma, as you know, can't read, and she wouldn't understand half the things he says. So I was wondering –"

"That I go as your guardian?"

He nods. "Till now, I have managed to avoid report card days, by telling teachers that Ma has work. But this is compulsory, with the Boards coming up next year. They aren't taking no for an answer."

"Of course, Manu. I'll drive you to school tomorrow, I'll speak to them then."

He prepares to throw himself at her mercy and blurt out his real request, but she is already looking down at her magazine.

Kriti drives with her hands ten to two on the steering wheel, honking in all the right places. He pays close attention to the car interiors, the leather trimming, the brands—the Sony MEX music player, the Harmon Kardon speakers—the glass that's so thick and tinted it shuts out the traffic and even the Delhi summer.

When they reach the school parking lot, he is sweating despite the icy air conditioning. As she gets out of the car, he circles around to the front and stands beside her. "I have to ask you something."

She squints up at him. In the sun, crow lines flare from the corners of her eyes.

"Can you tell the school you are my mother?"

She turns away from him and beeps the car locked. "Why?"

"If you don't, I will be humiliated. Everyone here thinks I am a normal kid. Actually, they think I am your kid. That's what I have told my friends. I need you to pretend to the principal and to my friends that you are my mother."

"How can the school not know who your mother is? Her name must be in the register."

He shakes his head. "I changed it, a long time ago. I put down yours and Mr. Anand's name as my parents."

She watches him. Her lips thin.

"Please, aun—Mrs. Anand. If people find out, I will have to leave this school. It will be too humiliating. There will be nothing for me here."

"Don't be stupid, Manu. I don't understand—why didn't I know about this before? Why didn't the school office ever call us to confirm?"

"I didn't give them a phone number. And—I put down a false address."

She looks at him as if an arm has sprouted out of his head. "Why all these lies, Manu?"

He doesn't tell her how he long ago imagined himself into their name, their wealth, even their unhappiness. That it doesn't feel like a lie, a disguise. That they should have realised how indispensable a part he already is in the Anand family: they have never been by themselves, for he has been there observing them nearly every day of the last ten years, he's their audience, and they were always in a way performing for him.

He wants to be acknowledged now. It's time. He wants that backstage pass.

Instead, he says, "Everyone behaves differently when they know the truth about you." He looks at her, imploring. He is trying not to beg. "You know it's true."

His hands are sweating, and he wipes them on his pants. He knows she can be sentimental—it's why he is standing here at all, speaking cable-TV English, smelling so good. He wants her to see this skin they share. The creams and gels and perfumes they both use as salves, bandages, shields. The BB cream she spreads over her marks and the crimson lipstick that covers her puffy mouth. The husband that makes his presence felt mainly in her bruises. Manu's own two-rupee, single-serve packets of detergent, shampoo, the aftershave he pilfers from Mr. Anand's cupboard, all the stuff that keep him smelling straight.

He is looking more closely at her than he ever has before, and she seems to bloom under it. Her former beauty remains like a ghost, in that she is still the kind of woman who becomes herself when she is being watched.

But then she breaks eye contact and looks away. "I am very angry with you, Manu. We need to talk about this. But I know you are a good boy, so talented. I want you to do well … But pretend you are my son?" she shakes her head, bewildered, and also possibly, as if she is considering the idea for the first time.

He imagines the comparison she could make between him and Akhil—the son with a shelfful of Air Jordans, whose promise is that he will disappoint her.

She then reaches out and slides her fingers through his in an almost, but not quite, maternal way. She doesn't quite look at him. They walk towards the gate and the crowds of students.

He holds his breath without realising it, lets himself be led. What is this? Is he forgiven, or is this a brief reprieve? Her fingers in his hand seem to signify something that will last beyond this school meeting. He looks around, checking who is watching. He can't help himself. He imagines that this scene is playing out in soft-focus, a breeze moving through his hair, everyone around them noting a family resemblance—"Of course he is her son."

He tightens his grip on Kriti's hand. I need to convince her, he reminds himself. Only her. If I can do that, everything will be fine.

 
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