by Hareendran Kallinkeel
“So, it’s a mad race, right?”
Manu’s drooped head rises. His eyes, scanning a blood-smeared palm resting on his thigh, lift up. He stares at my face, still picking at his nose. “It’s a race, something I focus on with everything I have.” He rubs his finger against the coarse material of his jeans. “But it isn’t madness. It’s sort of a revelation I seek. I need to know my true self.”
“So, you consider this session as a platform for introspection?”
“I don’t know.” Manu sweeps the finger on his jeans again, and takes another look at his palm. “Maybe. I need to wash my hands.”
“Don’t bother. What are you trying to prove?”
“Again, I don’t know.” He fumbles in his pocket, and fishes out a pack of unfiltered Camels. “Do you mind?”
“Of course not. I’d rather share one with you, though normally I’d go for filter-tipped, and I prefer to smoke outside the bedroom.”
“Thanks.” He takes out a cigarette, lights it, and offers me the pack along with the matchbox. He doesn’t notice the pale blue smoke rising from a cigarette between my lips.
Manu sucks, chubby cheeks caving in with the pull, brings down the hand that holds the cigarette, and runs the tip of his tongue along the curve of his upper lip. He glances at the pack of cigarettes and matchbox on the dressing table.
Trails of sweat trickle down his sideburns, drop onto his polo shirt, thinning the tiny crimson polka dots that litter the white garment in an erratic pattern.
Manu lets out smoke through his thick nostrils like fumes from a steam engine. “You didn’t light up.” The twitch of a facial muscle trembles the collar of his shirt. “I think you said you’d share a cigarette.” He pulls at the fabric of his shirt clinging to his muscular chest like an extra layer of skin.
“Yeah, I did. Let’s open the window, so the smoke will go out.”
“I didn’t really intend to disregard your tastes. In fact I wanted to buy filter-tips.” Manu sweeps a hand along his hair, combed back in shiny cowlicks. He observes the burning cigarette between my fingers, and nods his head in approval. “But the seller had ran out of stock.”
“Maybe, you looked in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“The right places closed at the right time.” Manu takes another drag, and casts his eyes back on his palm. “And you know, today I couldn’t have done without cigarettes.”
“So you put up with what you got?”
Manu throws the cigarette out, and returns from the window. “You wanted the window opened, but I’m the one who did it. Would you still say I ignore you?”
“I was right there with you, when you opened the latch. I even saw goose pimples rise on the back of your hand as a chilly breeze rushed in when we pushed the window open. Now, can we resume our conversation? We must end this session soon. You must be tired after all that hectic activity.”
“Yeah, you’re right. But I need to make my point.” He holds his head with a hand, thumb on one temple, fingers on the other. His eyebrows curl into knots as he presses, and grooves appear on the shrunken skin. “You were there, watching me do it. You saw how he struggled on the ground, pinned down by my forearm on his chest, knees on his belly.”
“I’m always there with you. You know that.”
“You’d seen that incredulous look of horror in his eyes.” Manu snickers. “And the plea in them as I raised the blade.”
“That was brutal. I’ll never recover from that gruesome nightmare.”
“What he did to me was far more cruel than what I’ve done. He always shared whatever I had, didn’t he?” Manu opens his hand, stares at the crisscrossing lines, and scratches off dried crusts of blood from his palm with a finger. “Even my identity. Often it was like I didn’t have one. Everything was he.”
“Have you ever thought that Vinu might have felt that way too? I mean he must have gone through the same crisis, right?”
A draft of air sweeps curly locks back from Manu’s broad forehead. “I didn’t take anything away from him. It’s he who stole whatever I had.” Manu draws in a deep breath as if he were sniffing the scent of jasmine he grew in the courtyard for his girl. “I came into this world first. He’s just a copycat, an imitation of what preceded him. He didn’t deserve to be born.”
“Did he have a choice?”
“Yes, he should’ve gone away, acknowledged my priority rather than sticking to me like a stigma and depriving me of everything.” Manu fumbles in his pocket again, for another cigarette. His fingers shake. “He robbed me of my uniqueness. It was his worst sin.”
“The cigarette is on the table.”
Manu grabs the pack, and pulls out a cigarette. “Thanks.” His hand jolts as he places the cigarette between his lips. “I didn’t mind him sharing my toys, did I? I didn’t mind him sharing my inheritance, did I?” He lights the match. The flame flickers unsteadily at the tip of the cigarette, and dies away as Manu sucks in a cloud of smoke and blows it out in spiraling curls.
“Have you ever looked at it from his perspective?”
“He didn’t have a perspective. Didn’t deserve any.” Manu taps out a layer of ash. Ringlets float in the air, crash soundless against his stout figure, surrendering their shapes. Erratic fumes spread across his face like a transparent veil sewn by an eccentric designer. “Coming after me, duplicating me, he shrouded the core of my existence. Do you think anyone could tolerate that? A threat to his essence?”
“Yet, nothing is an excuse for murdering your twin brother.”
Manu takes another whiff of the air. “You don’t know how a jasmine bud smells, do you? You’ve no idea how erotic the fragrance turns out when it blossoms, have you?”
“I see it through how you react. But, again, nothing justifies a murder.”
“The jasmines she likes, I’ve grown. Not he.” Manu stamps his fist on the dressing table. “The shape she loves, is mine. Not his.”
“Even in that case, did Vinu really have a choice? It’s his shape, too. She loved him, not you.”
“He did have a choice. He should’ve realized that the shape his girl loved is originally mine. He should’ve understood her craze for the aroma of jasmine.” Manu’s shrill voice rebounds from the table’s wooden top, ricochets against the concrete ceiling and vibrates along the tiled floor. “He did have the choice to cease shadowing my life and go elsewhere rather than courting a girl with an identity that belonged to me. I wanted her because it’s my personality she’s in love with. Not his.”
“Why couldn’t you court her in the first place? It was a choice open to you.”
The cigarette slips out of Manu’s fingers. “I came to this world first; maybe he met the girl first.” He clenches his fist, and then unfurls his fingers. “Being the first claimant of the identity, it’s my turn to have the girl no matter with whom she’s involved.”
“Who knows, between identical twins? How can anybody be certain? Your mother didn’t mark the first born with a blemish, did she? Why would a mother care which of her sons arrived first?”
“You’re my other identity; someone who does things at my bidding, and you speak against me?” Manu’s fist clenches again. “If I can kill my twin brother, do you think I’ll hesitate to snuff you out?”
“You can snuff out what’s tangible. You can blow out a lit matchstick, or extinguish the life of a twin brother, but not me. I’ll be there with you every second you breathe.”
Manu stands, picks up the wooden stool he sat on, and poises to smash the dressing table’s mirror. “I didn’t want a twin brother. I wouldn’t want you either.”
“I’ll still be there, when you look at another mirror.”
Manu puts the stool down and climbs on it. “What happens when I snuff myself out?”
The collar of Manu’s polo shirt trembles as the stool falls off and his hands claw at his flailing legs.
Copyright © 2006 by Hareendran Kallinkeel