Same but Different

Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New Yorker:

IdOn October 6, 1942, my mother was born twice in Delhi. Bulu, her identical twin, came first, placid and beautiful. My mother, Tulu, emerged several minutes later, squirming and squalling. The midwife must have known enough about infants to recognize that the beautiful are often the damned: the quiet twin, on the edge of listlessness, was severely undernourished and had to be swaddled in blankets and revived. The first few days of my aunt’s life were the most tenuous. She could not suckle at the breast, the story runs, and there were no infant bottles to be found in Delhi in the forties, so she was fed through a cotton wick dipped in milk, and then from a cowrie shell shaped like a spoon. When the breast milk began to run dry, at seven months, my mother was quickly weaned so that her sister could have the last remnants.

Tulu and Bulu grew up looking strikingly similar: they had the same freckled skin, almond-shaped face, and high cheekbones, unusual among Bengalis, and a slight downward tilt of the outer edge of the eye, something that Italian painters used to make Madonnas exude a mysterious empathy. They shared an inner language, as so often happens with twins; they had jokes that only the other twin understood. They even smelled the same: when I was four or five and Bulu came to visit us, my mother, in a bait-and-switch trick that amused her endlessly, would send her sister to put me to bed; eventually, searching in the half-light for identity and difference—for the precise map of freckles on her face—I would realize that I had been fooled. But the differences were striking, too. My mother was boisterous. She had a mercurial temper that rose fast and died suddenly, like a gust of wind in a tunnel. Bulu was physically timid yet intellectually more adventurous. Her mind was more agile, her tongue sharper, her wit more lancing. Tulu was gregarious. She made friends easily. She was impervious to insults. Bulu was reserved, quieter, and more brittle. Tulu liked theatre and dancing. Bulu was a poet, a writer, a dreamer. Over the years, the sisters drifted apart. Tulu married my father in 1965 (he had moved to Delhi three years earlier). It was an arranged marriage, but also a risky one. My father was a penniless immigrant in a new city, saddled with a domineering mother and a half-mad brother who lived at home. To my mother’s genteel West Bengali relatives, my father’s family was the embodiment of East Bengali hickdom: when his brothers sat down to lunch, they would pile their rice in a mound and punch a volcanic crater in it for gravy, as if marking the insatiable hunger of their village days. By comparison, Bulu’s marriage, also arranged, seemed a vastly safer prospect. In 1967, she married a young lawyer, the eldest son of a well-established clan in Calcutta, and moved to his family’s sprawling, if somewhat decrepit, mansion.

More here.

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