4thWrite Prize 2022: Kamal and the Bad Superimposition by Zui Kumar-Reddy

6:37 am and he is up on his toes; aching back, balding head, right hand casually combing testicular foliage, left hand posed introspectively on left hip bone, for balance—of posture and conversation—and he screams (!!!), 

            —Have you starched the sheets?

            Wife of two years turns in her semi-sleep state, she groans, she is tired: of being hounded like this, of being questioned on her laundry habits, of the persistent existentialism that she was prepared to take on only at parties, not every day, every morning for the past two years for Christ’s sake (or whoever’s, better not get into that, it’ll open up a whole other box of hmming and haahhing and, ‘my dear, when will you start finding your way and losing your religion?’).

            —Of course not, sweetheart, we all know about the eczema and I’m not trying to kill you.

Wife of two years mutters: just yet, andmomentarily enjoys that they are in that comfortable place in their marriage where she can joke about mariticide, before inhaling dried detergent fumes from pillow and thinking back to interrupted dream: tra la la, running through a green glass house, tra la la, inside my shoe lives a mouse. Squish.

            —It’s just—he says, having been a physics professor for ten times as long as he’s been a husband, and therefore deeply perturbed by physical abnormalities in the everyday but consequently inspired by his own perturbation—they never move.

            The sheets, completely oblivious to the early morning uprising their stern composure has caused, had in fact, never moved. Mostly because they were a cheeky anniversary present from an NRI uncle, therefore being the foreign type of sheets with elastic corners on all four edges which required one to be spread out star shaped across the bed to tuck them in, however, it caused the aforementioned physics professor to run to the adjoining toilet completely distraught before focusing hard on his reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror and uprooting a handful of pubic hair.

            He pulls and waits and then waits and pulls harder, nothing!

            What was he expecting?

            Consolidation, of course.

            He has yet to come to terms with the fact that he has fully split and the sheets, with their boastfully uniform composure, are a grim reminder of what could have been.

            What once was…

            Split, as in…

            His milky insides had been doused in lemon juice at some point, and this morning he was finally addressing it!

            High time, but it was painful, the addressing part, particularly because he was tugging at his tangled pubes, really going for it and also because he had been excruciatingly milky to begin with.

            He was straight from the teat kind of milky, with his starched trousers and checkered shirt and he had, despite his scientific disposition, been quite content with his own creaseless-ness. Strictly adhering to the physics of it, and firmly unperturbed by the metaphysical questions around it.

            He sailed smoothly along in the beginning, eating his porridge with three crushed up almonds for memory—no more, for there was then cholesterol to consider—coming first in all his exams by tying a thread from the top of his tight juttu to the centre of the ceiling fan so that anytime he nodded off between chapters he was jerked violently awake and back to business; investing half his career into trying to resolve the solar neutrino problem, and then spending the entirety of the second half studying the work of the Sudbury Observatory—where the whole thing was actually resolved in 2002.

            The truth is, he was born a talcum powdered, pink cheeked, bucket of freshly squeezed, thick, moderately inquisitive and timidly innovative, slightly yellowish, naati cow milk.

            Then of course,

            a cup and a half of lemon juice was poured in, completely fucking him up.

            Now, in the medicine cabinet mirror he sees two images of himself. One of himself, exactly where he stands and one of himself 0.00025mm removed from there, bouncing precariously on the edges of his life, always making him feel a little uneasy, untrusting, unfulfilled mostly which was just…

            a real bitch.

And this morning he is pushed to realise that nothing, no amount of self-inflicted hair pulling pain can induce a merging.

            —This is the end, my friend, he says winking first at himself who is himself standing right opposite himself looking blankly back at himself winking in an attempt to find himself, and then again at the removed bit of himself that doesn’t possess such a desperate need for re-alignment. When he winks at this removed part of himself, he feels himself whisper back to himself: fuck off, you loser, lame-o, lunatic. So, then he closes his eyes and brushes his teeth.

            Downstairs in the kitchen he doesn’t find what he is missin’, but instead, changes the menu. Out goes the porridge with crushed up almonds for memory because, frankly, it is disgusting, and where is the need to remember when one is fully split, completely curdled; it’s best just to forget it all, baby…and look in the freezer where there is a half kg packet of bluish beef mince kept for the dog. Lap it up, but thaw it out first, of course, not thaaat far gone yet. Ha ha! It is easier when you have accepted it, that’s the secret, wow, he arrived at that fast. Splosh into the sink, splash under the hot water, feet up on the table and wait. For what? The gap is getting wider by the second, the gaping crevice between himself and the runaway nugget of his psyche and, as it is, he not only suffers from the eczema but also feels the oncomings of rheumatoid arthritis so even moderate stretching is excruciating at best.

            —What is all that hullabaloo, darling? Wife of two years is getting too comfortable calling him out, does so again from upstairs. Voice is obviously annoyed, and the childish words are obviously a disguise. How to say there is no matter at all? A revelation in fact and a revelation calls for fried meat. But there is waiting involved and how does one navigate the time taken for thawing, in the kitchen and otherwise? By reading the paper, of course.

            —Sorry, darling. Didn’t mean to wake you but there’s been a shocking unrest over foot garments. The pro nationals have opened fire at the riots claiming the very conception of socks is western and therefore anti national and on top of that they are most dangerous because they obscure transparency of the sole.

            The wife, as is her way, takes time to formulate her response. She is uneasy, for at the crux of the issue with the socks lies a blinding belief in something else which she recognises in herself, worse, which he recognises in herself. Albeit hers is a different something else, and she is a bit more level headed about it only really allowing thoughts of the same to affect her metaphysically and never quite…physically,and mostly she’d rather not be associated with these blithering buffoons who have banned socks, even replaced the very word with ‘foot garments’, but she can’t help but feel guilty for thumbing her rosary before she falls asleep besides the overpowering rationality of her snoring (but split) husband.

            For the thumbing is a bit…physical…nevertheless, she says

            —Nothing more dubious than a completely transparent soul.

            As her husband downstairs smothers the fried meat with sweet and sour ketchup, conceding to the fact that it is probably his overpowering rationality that is making his split doubly excruciating, so perhaps it is better to blur things with a tall glass of…rum? Correct.

            Before leaving the house, he screams upstairs.

            —Stay opaque, babycake!

            The wife is shocked by this novel use of language and somewhat turned on, and as the husband slams the door shut behind him, she wriggles back under the blankets, and desperately tries to get the sheets to move.


            In his car, a small silver Santro, the very same model that was once famously described as what happens when a donkey humps an auto rickshaw, the removed part of himself, initially remains as is, 0.00025 mm removed, simply cruisin’ in the highway breeze, riding high, if you please, but then it is nearly completely lost before a traffic light when a goods truck speeds past, creating a surge of wind in its tracks. The removed part of himself twists and turns, gleefully dancing its way to the top of the whirr, till it makes a swift descent and bashes its head hard into the divider, and then again, and then one more time.

            —Return to me, you freak! He screams before the lights switch and he continues on, irked.

            The previous week he had given a lecture at the college about Spiral Galaxies and when he had mentioned the galactic bulge, Sriram, who was top of the class and never let anyone forget it, pointed to his pants and said, —look no further, boys and girls.

            Today, he would be doing an introductory lesson on the Solar Neutrino Problem, his life’s work, but of course, more recognisably, someone else’s. The un-removed part of himself was not looking forward to it, too close to home, and if Sriram made another stupid joke he might just—well at least one of the parts of him might just—fall to the corner and weep. But the removed part of himself couldn’t give less of a shit, so it was yet to be determined which direction the rum and the bad superimposition of his two halves, might lead him. He could just as easily fall to the corner and laugh, or fall to the corner, take all his clothes off and then rub himself up and down the rough, plastered walls, because on the sides of his mouth and top left corner of his back, the eczema was acting up.

            Aahouch! It itches, but wife said she didn’t starch the sheets, he will take her word for it, though he truly believes that she falsely maintains that the eczema is psychosomatic. Is it possible for one to believe in psychosomatic-isms when one also believes in heaven and hell? He wonders. Of course, he had married her because she kept it edgy that way, because she said she was saving herself for marriage before she sat on his face and steered his tongue hard into her clit and once around and then anticlockwise, but it often bothered him that it showed zero commitment to one thing or the other and he wonders, presently, what it is she truly believes in.

            The removed part of himself couldn’t give less of a shit.

            At the college his usual spot under the purple Jacaranda tree is taken. What bastard could have?! He parks by the compound wall, but sneers in the direction of the jacked-up Scorpio that has taken his place. Then he strolls into the hallways half an hour late for his lecture, shaking the sprinklings of the late August rains off his shirt and trousers.  

            Mrs. Menon, the economics professor, notes that he makes no attempts to dry off with the handkerchief he regularly carries in his front pocket but instead shakes himself like some sort of wild animal with his jowls swaying from side to side. She is beside herself, nearly dropping her notes to the floor because she has never seen a mouth on full display before and the pale gums and the waggling epiglottis and the dirtied crowns of molars are truly shocking and perhaps, she thinks later on, ‘indicative of some sort of imbalance’.

            In the classroom, students are leaning against the walls, throwing notes around, playing music off their phones. He enters and nothing stops. He has, over time, managed to maintain a casual camaraderie with his tutees, something he often regrets. A few scatter into place, Sriram continues cackling loudly telling some joke that is a humble brag disguised as self deprecation,

            —Can you believe it, man? They wanted me, my dirty old self (golly gosh) to be head engineer on the latest Mars Rover project lookalike contest drag show, fucking hilarious. something like that, Sriram is saying, but he—physics professor protagonist—wasn’t really listening and proceeds to ignore all forms of conversation offered to him as he steadies himself upright at the head of the class. He then drinks water from the green bottle that has been sitting on the corner of his desk, after which he proceeds to…belch.

            Ramya, who is far more diligent than Sriram, but perhaps not as inspired, notes that her professor belches in a most peculiar way, rather—and she tries to refrain from using, even thinking this word for someone so distinguished, but when she recounts it later she can’t think of any other—obnoxiously.

            —It was the type of eructation that one might expect from a dirty, stinking, pariah in a polythene shirt after a heavy lunch of chicken curry at his mother’s house, but not someone like the professor, no way, it was shameful. She recounts later, still shaking.

            But, eructed, done and dusted, the air is wafted casually here and there, ew, stale, ew, always knew he was a little bit of a wino, such and such is muttered, he takes no notice and proceeds to re-position his desk so that it is perpendicular to the classroom. Ah, there, perfect, sits on it. Students are excited, yipee, yoohoo, he’s going to let us off easy today, a Ted talk on replay or something like that, no serious brain work thank goodness, my hormones are acting up, etc, etc…He ignores it all and then he ….

            Lies down.


            From the front row, Ramya, confused, concerned, clueless.


            —Wh—What are you doing?

            —I’m not quite sure.

            He says, playing with the inside of his right cheek with his tongue.                       

            Some students get up to leave along with Sriram who says,

            —Come on guys, no point wasting time, you know the saying, let sleeping gods die, or is it the other way around?

            The removed part of himself thinks that he would have liked to have done this whole thing differently. That he should have instead walked into the classroom with a speech and proceeded to bend every single notion of everything through a special prism that refracted reality, absorbed it and reflected it back to everyone slightly bent, distorted, because this, he had come to accept, was the way he was going to see it, here on owwtt.

            But because of the un-removed part of himself that was still clinging tight to something unbent and un-distorted, all he could bring himself to do at that moment was lie on the table, in silence, playing with the inside of his cheek, trying to gauge how many cells he could swab with his tongue. Perhaps, if the removed part of himself had more of a say, or even if he had wider shoulders and stood a little taller and had a deeper voice or more hair on his head, he would have pushed it further, he would have done something heinous, like act out one of his perverse journal entries, their terrifying depravity forgiven because of the superimposition. He would have unzipped his dark trousers and touched himself vigorously, his only aim being to generate a gushing fountain of spunk that would hit the almost thirty-foot-high ceiling and have all his students see, but many had already left, and after all, his hair was thinning by the second, so he continued to swab his tongue as he lay in the quiet of the classroom.

            But Ramya, a real kiss ass, says,

            —S-s-sir, I was quite keen on learning about the neutrinos.

            Hilarious, he thinks, so was the whole world. But,

            —Funny fellows, he says, originate as one thing and then in the space present between the earth and the sun—between real life and a slightly shifted one—they transform into something physically unidentifiable, emotionally complex and spiritually, well … mind fucking.

            Ramya gasps!!! Novel use of language!       


            He exhales, swabs his cheek and thinks back to a trek up the second highest peak in South India in his college days. Ramya, shocked and offended gets up but briefly curtseys before she leaves. Then the classroom is empty but for him, staring up at the ceiling, so he closes his eyes.


Sniff sniff, what is that clearing his sinuses? Vicks Vapo Rub, of course. Not that he had any on him, but it is what the sky smelled like atop the second highest peak in South India. He had not wanted to go on that trek, but his father, a junior captain in the national cadet corps in his own youth, had said to his unwilling son,

            —nonsense, get your nose out of those books and some dirt on your shoes.

            His mother (dearly departed), who had been attuned to her son’s preference for the paved and tarred things in life, had packed his bag full of orange suckable candies and kissed him on the forehead before sending him out to be split in two.

            Imminently, whilst lying on the classroom table, he acknowledges that this is where the lemon juice was poured in.

            Dilly dallying with his hands in his pockets and head towards the ground he had got on a bus full of loud to-be adults and set off for the mountains. On the journey there, he stayed quiet and sucked on orange candy as packets of dried instant noodles were shared over his head and songs were sung loud and with such passionate belief that seemed to transcend tune, rhythm and key. When the bus arrived at the foothills the students were greeted by a deaf and dumb guide that the college had hired after a class of nutritionists got lost on the descent and spent two days foraging Shatavari that is known to cause lactation, menstruation and as per the nutritionists scandalous accounts,

            —wild, wild communal masturbation.

            The guide was neither overly enthusiastic nor dejected or annoyed, just, sort of…there. The young to-be physics professor protagonist (to-be PPP) tried to stick close to the guide as the rest of the class chatted loudly behind them, making jokes about the guide’s tattered rubber chappals and swimming shorts.

            —You better all have practiced your breast stroke, to-be PPP heard someone say as they ventured into the cathedral like canopies with the electric blue mists rising out their tops.

            In real time, an ayyah walks in the classroom and says,

            —Saar, why are you on the table?

            He kisses his teeth and says its none of her business, but she insists it is her business because the lunch bell has rung and it’s now time for her to clean the classroom. Aching back, split psyche, and no concern from anyone, it is a lonely road, so he gives in and gets up. Ayyah says,

            —high time

            and plummets her mop into a murky bucket of water before slamming it on the ground.

            PPP walks out into the hallways where he, as per Ramya’s shaky account,           

            —started loitering like a deranged zombie.

            In his zombie state he is even more in tune with the guide from twenty years ago, who, about two hours into the trek had stopped at a stream, crouched down and clutched his heart.                       The student group behind him had said,

            —What’s he doing maccha?

            —Taking a shit, I bet.

            —Maybe he doesn’t know we’re here.

            —Better scream.

            —Not like that would make a difference, he’s deaf!

            —HAHA ,HOORAH, GOOD ONE!

            To-be PPP had ignored them and walked up to the guide. The langurs in the tall teak trees above had been shrieking, swinging from branch to branch wailing their guts out. To-be PPP had noticed that the entire forest was silent, even the stream didn’t gurgle but softly slipped into pools and gently bent around curves. Then he saw it, a soft furry thing, lying in the rocks. He was careful with his footsteps, he was careful with the sounds he made, he moved closer, but he didn’t want to. It had fallen from the treetops, its heart was bulging and beating against its chest and its little limbs were splayed out, grabbing at something, what was there to grab at…the air? Even that was too much, it loosened, then let go, then tried again.

            In real time, as he is zombieing through the hallways, he still thinks that he himself, would have just let it be. Left it to science. Scientifically, the cardiovascular system would have failed, pulse and respiration would have slowed down to a stop, organs would have suffocated, and death would have arrived on its own, definitely not dressed in tulle. But what had happened was that the guide had picked up a large rock and in one swift motion brought it down bang over the baby langur’s face. Its wide eyes had still been open staring at the crowds in the trees above that beat their chests in its name and in real time, he—PPP—flinches.

            When the langur’s limbs had loosened their grip and come to a freeze, the guide had let go of his own chest, stood up and walked away, leaving behind some sort of unspoken agreement made between whomever was invited to the party on the crux of life and death. The group followed and the shrieking sounds of the forest fell into the distance.

            In real time, Mrs. Menon, the economics professor, is alerted of PPP’s peculiar behaviour and stands right in front of him blaring,

            —What is the matter with you today?

            He slants his eyes.

            —Are you—are you—okay? She says.

            He twists his mouth.

            —I think it’s better you make an early day of it, go home and get some rest.

            He turns around and walks away, out the main door, into the parking lot, passed that dick wad Scorpio still parked in his place, dirty chuthiya fatass, he thinks, while getting into his Santro, starting it up and driving off.

            After he’d seen the baby monkey and heard the squelching sound the rock made, he had thrown up, vigorously, on the side of the pathway. The guide had seen this and handed him three dark green leaves to chew on, stuffing some into his own mouth to demonstrate. Then after what felt like one and a half lifetimes, the temperature dropped, and to-be PPP’s blood froze in the nipple biting cold, what the hell. He shook his arms to keep his fluids moving, but soon enough it didn’t matter, he became less distracted by the cold and more focused on the smell of the sky which was right up against him, close enough to lick the clouds, which were, in turn, like a waxy emulsion in a pool of Vicks Vapo Rub. Must have just been the Eucalyptus, but it had never been clearer to him that the sky smelled of precisely the sticky stuff his mother would wipe on his chest and forehead whenever he fell ill.

            In real time, he is driving fast, and he is not driving home. Twice, those speed detector machines clock him at 20kmph passed the limit and twice he speeds on. The slightly removed part of himself is hanging out the window like a dog lapping up the highway wind. Twenty years ago, when he had smelled the VapoRub he had inhaled deeply and this had made him light headed and in desperate need of a seat. He had sat firmly at the start of a vast meadow and found that the guide was sitting right beside him. Soon enough they were conversing, not out loud, because the guide was deaf and dumb and, more importantly, because there was no need to. He, to-be PPP, had envisioned the meadow in full bloom, and the guide had manifested it as a field of Kurunji. The guide yearned to see an elephant, and to-be PPP made the silhouettes of an entire herd appear on the neighbouring mountain top. In this space they shared they felt wedded to the earth, their feet firmly pressed into the chocolate soil, communing with the burrowing creatures, the worms and caeacilians. Worms can be split into two endlessly, he thinks, in real time.

            At that time, they scaped the heavens, the guide and him. They sat amidst the mines on the moon, from which, years ago, a family of fisherman had harvested milk. From here they could stare out into space and watch upturned umbrellas fall slowly through it. While they both felt the umbrellas to be unnecessary and wasteful in space, and of course in time, they also found them to be romantic in a sense that they must have, at some point, belonged to a very particular instant and given that, their integration into eternity was unfathomably grand. To-be PPP found himself focused on one umbrella in particular, it was red and small, almost miniature. It looked like it belonged to a child, with it’s thin handle made for a small grip. Get a grip, he tries to tell himself, in real time. He tries to focus on the larger picture, to practice an open detachment, like the guide, the river, the entire forest, but, thinking back, he feels his descent was always inevitable.

            He rides first gear up a steep incline. The road is like something he’d seen while lying in the back of his father’s Fiat, following gooey eye floaters in the afternoon sun. It is so steep that one can only see the top when they are toppling over it.

            When the sky had smelled like Vapo Rub, the guide had sensed to-be PPP’s inevitable descent from the moon and had kindly stood up to offer him a hand before walking to the far-left corner, from which he then waved goodbye.

            Lemon juice!

            In real time, PPP slams on the brakes, oh no they are not that great, someone should have done the routine servicing two months ago when the damn light was blinking, and the damn wife was saying —Darling there’s a damn light blinking all the damn time in the damn car. Damnit, but the lemon juice, the…urr split!

            He starts again from first, he levers up the hand break, hopes for the best, slams the gas and slowly lets it go, ascending, yes, not quite, the road at least, phew.

            Acid; he means lemon juice. It wasn’t acid anyway, it was Datura, the leaves the guide had handed him, same effect, kind of, but that wasn’t the point. He had, in the moments leading up to his inevitable descent from the moon, slyly grabbed hold of that tiny red umbrella. Problem was, it had moved about 0.00025mm before he had let go, returned to earth, wiped the dirt off his knuckles and bent his knees carefully with each step downhill.

            In real time, he nears the top of the hill, the part that one can only see when they are toppling over it. He yearns to be whole, but cannot decide where to land. On one hand, he was tied to logic, lived for reason, got off on the precise pragmatism of his field, with the other he reaches out tentatively into space for a floating umbrella, for the slender fingers that had once held out those orange suckable candies, once massaged circles of Vaporub into his hot forehead before stroking the side of his face while singing him to sleep: bala jo jo re, it was all the same, he was seeking

            an other,

            the monkey,

            his dead mother,

            an unspoken agreement made at the crux of life and death that is beyond rationalisation.

            He inches closer to the top, wishes he could will this decision the way of whatever remains of the rum, but it is his alone.

            His wife thumbs the rosary in silence. Mrs. Menon shakes her head. Ramya is devastated for the rest of her life. The ayyah says she had a feeling. Sriram only makes light of it three years down the line saying,

            —Even a genius couldn’t get a fucking Santro to do that climb. RIP, Professor.

            Why? Because right before the tip top tippling over, he folds his fingers in to grip onto something and lets his foot off the gas.

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