What if you woke up one day, got ready for work, and ran into yourself at the bend of the road? Would you hug your other self, or run? When Poe’s William Wilson finds his double tailing him at boarding school, he jabs a knife into him, only to find he has stabbed himself. When Nabokov’s Despair has a doppelganger switching identities to murder his twin and claim his own life insurance—a foolproof crime till the mind starts playing tricks. Clearly, in literature, meeting your look-alike for coffee is not the brightest idea. But there’s an entire world out there, inhabited by six others who look exactly like you—what if at least one has seen you, perhaps in the rabbithole of social media, and earns a living pretending to be you?
Saharanpur’s Abhinandan Pathak is a spitting image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ask him about living in the shadow of the Ubermensch—the answers sound straight out of a sci-fi novel. “If Modiji was Ram, I thought of myself as Laxman,” Pathak says. After 2014, Pathak got his own spree of selfie requests. It’s uncanny…the same shining white hair, the gait seamlessly adopted, the voice perfectly modulated. Passersby do a double-take at ‘the PM’ addressing a modest crowd, at Jantar Mantar of all places. “Bhaiyyon or beheno! Kya achhe din aaye?” he asks.
Pathak has switched allegiance to the Congress. Why? “Life changed after DeMo. I saw people suffering. Some of them vented their anger against Modi on me! I was attacked outside ATMs and banks. I couldn’t leave my house,” he recalls. “I wrote to Modiji multiple times, asking him for protection from mobs. I got no response.” His inner Modi vanished. The outer one is now just a man on the Lucknow train.
Lucknow? Wait…who’s that lady with short-cropped hair, at the Ambedkar Memorial? Meet Sadhna, a 40-year-old employee here. “People gather near my home and office, shocked to see a carbon copy of Behenji. I always take selfies with whoever wants to,” she says. Sadhna has never met Mayawati, but as a Dalit is “extremely proud” to be associated with her.
North Calcutta’s Beliaghata, meanwhile, has found its own Didi. White cotton saree with green border, middle-parted hair in a bun, black leather watch on left wrist, hawai chappal…Didi 2.0 ensures no detail is missing. “Ki Didi, abar cinema’r shooting hobe naki?” (“Are you off for yet another film shoot?”), ask a few middle-aged men basking in the winter sun, sipping tea. Pat comes the reply: “Hyan re. Toder dekhar ichche achhe naki?” (“Yes, want to watch?”).
A small-time actress, Ruma Chakraborty found her calling while auditioning for a film in 2009. Soon, she found herself signing up to play Mamata in a biopic. “I tried to live like Didi, talk and walk like her…her character got into my skin,” she says. Her husband Sugato says she now “unconsciously acts like Mamata Banerjee”, and has found her self-confidence. The film got shelved, but her own life-story opened up. “I was offered another film on Didi, Baghini. It’s releasing on April 15. I’ve also played her in a jatra,” says Ruma. She also impersonates Mamata for local TMC leaders at neighbourhood events. “Once my husband and I were stuck in traffic in central Calcutta when a constable approached our car, saw us, and immediately cleared the road,” she laughs. “I’ve met Didi only once, but I’ve learnt she keeps track of the mediums on which I portray her.”
By Arshia Dhar with Probir Pramanik in Calcutta