Can we have two sencha green teas?
You ordered tea? You’re both not coffee people?
We’re both not coffee people.
Well, we’re water people.
You’re like plants.
We substitute coffee with chocolates.
A freight train has hit the sand, and out steps a woman in black. She’s in a sleeveless top, with Shakira-like hair and cleavage to die for. She commands the leather seat by sitting cross-legged, like a queen bee reconstructing her hive out of plush and mortals. When she smiles, she could hitch a shotgun ride to Macau right now, if she so desired. This being a former Miss Malaysia World title winner, you don’t flinch. Kinda expected this.
But now—yeah—there are two of them.
That’s almost the point of this whole story: the ultimate walking, talking male cliché made famous by Alfred Adler and Austin Powers. Hot twins. One a former beauty queen, the other a corporate banker who’s quitting power suits for the local entertainment industry. Together, they’re a yin and yang washed by blood, like energy harnessed and ready to be unleashed on a public who live on this kind of fantasy island. Twin models, twin TV hosts, twin guests at social events, twin peaks in a magazine dying for such euphoria. And people say God is dead.
But what happens when you split an atom? You could run from the explosion. Or you sit down, because to understand one whole of anything—one marriage, one family, one divine secret to a sisterhood—you need to take the molecules apart, and watch a life exist as two halves.
Thanuja: We are Malayalees. You know, like Chinese have Hakkas, Hindus Malayalees. And we had nicknames. Mine was “kunyi”, which means “small one”. And Anuja’s was “kochi”, which means “smaller one”. We’ve had them…
Anuja: Since forever.
T: We were bullied in secondary school. So people would call us “Twin Towers”…
A: What were we called again? “Coconut trees”?
T: I guess we never felt it because we had each other to fall back on. We never grew up feeling alone. Even when we were bullied…
A: We knew we had each other.
T: We could fall back on each other.
A: We could.
T: We were really lucky that way.
Five minutes. That’s all that separated two babies sharing one womb. First Thanuja, then Anuja. The doctor took them out one after the other, and all cooed at one of life’s great mysteries: how two human bodies could look so alike. How one soul could manifest itself into two vessels.
They grew up tall. Very tall. So tall, that Form Five boys would stay back after class in the afternoons to gaze at these Form Two specimens who were taller than all of them. They tried to soften the blow to the ego by slapping all kinds of labels on them. Llamas. Arabian horses. Twin sisters who proved so inseverable, their mother had to walk into the principal’s office and tell him—firmly, unbendingly—that each had to be placed in separate classes. They’re too attached, she said. The umbilical cord must be cut. But she, like many, would learn that it would take more than a concrete wall to cleave this bond.
“There was once this boy…” Thanuja begins, leaning forward.
A light bulb goes off in Anuja’s mind, like she’s found a broken mirror and suddenly remembers who shattered the glass. “Yeah!”
“He’s a popular deejay now. Anyway, one day, he took a marker pen, and scribbled on her [Anuja’s] pinafore.” She mimes the action, drawing in the air. “So,
I went up to him during recess time. And…”—she balls up her fist, and thrusts her hands forward in the same motion—“I just punched him in the chin. There was this big commotion at school…”
Anuja grins. “This one, gangster lah,” She points at her sister like she’s a caution in the wind.
“True, true. It’s protectiveness lah.”
Two things stand out. Firstly, their sentences bleed into one another. Their conversation is a stream of consciousness uttered in two different shades and tones: the older twin owns a stronger, punchier voice, while the younger has a supple, gentler counterpoint—each work in harmony to produce one concerto of thought. What they’ve shared since birth is a connection, and it’s found its place in a constant back-and-forth echo between two chambers.
“She’s not just my soul mate. We’re birth mates too.”
Anuja nods. “Yeah. Yeah.”
“I knew her in our mum’s stomach. I probably can’t remember; it’s just something—the connection—that’s there. If you want to know, we do have a telepathic connection. Just instances. When I was doing Fear Factor [Malaysia], I had an accident. I fell 30 feet into a lake. It was part of the stunt; I wasn’t in a harness; and I fell head first into the water. My palm just swelled up and I just…”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Anuja says, turning her gaze towards me. “I thought, what the hell? The next day when she called, I was like, s**t. Now I know why.”
Secondly, you notice the differences between the two. This has confounded psychologists for centuries; how can birth order between twins matter when it can be determined by something as random as changing positions in a mother’s uterus? Yet, they’re different. Thanuja punches the boys, punches the air. She’ll hurt you, if you harm her sister, or an animal. She sets the pace. She tells the stories.
In 2009, she also took her place in the spotlight. As the newly crowned winner of the Miss Malaysia World pageant, it was the climax of a journey that started at age six, when she would ransack her mother’s wardrobe and walk down the stairs in grown-up dresses to her mother’s made-up narration. “Here comes Miss Venezuela!” she would portend. Since then, she’s travelled to far-flung cities for travel shows like TV3’s Unsung Places, and to model at fashion shows and for magazine shoots. She likes to get, as she puts it, “down and dirty”, whether it’s climbing over fences to rescue dogs or traipsing through 40º heat in the Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, India. “Everyone is made from that strong inner grounded-ness, so we believe in just being strong. To stand your ground.”
But if this world is a battlefield, you won’t win the war alone. Thanuja’s weapon of choice sits beside her. And though this is a story of inter-connectedness, it’s also a story of finding your own way. Through a fog of choices and stereotypes, all you know is to hold the hand of the person closest to you, and slowly walk forward together.
ANUJA ANANTHAN on PRETENDING, PINCHING BUTTS AND THANUJA
Is there anything about one another that you don’t agree with?
Anuja: What is there?
Thanuja: Me or with her? I have a temper…
A: Same! Yeah…
T: Both of us have a temper. I guess it’s because we’re so hyper, happy, you know. Happy people, our patience threshold can be quite low.
A: You know, before she even completes a sentence, I know what she’s going to…
T: Say. Yeah. Yeah.
A: Patience. Yeah, not our virtue. Thank God, we have partners…
T: So you see the same-same thing, right? Very rapid fire. Thank God, we have partners who have loads of it [patience].
A: Yes! Thank God.
She faces you as a lady in white. Her knee-length dress hugs her slim curves and hidden clefts. Her hair is tied up into a bun, and she conjures a vision of Audrey Hepburn in a snow princess uniform who sits up straight, laughs freely, talks softy.
But if her older sister is the rebel, Anuja is her janissary. Even in school, her peers could see the pattern. Before graduating Form Five, the twins had a bucket list. One of their goals was to switch classes. They’d pretend to be each other, hoping no one would notice.
“The boys in our class gave us away.”
“We got caught!” Anuja giggles.
“They were like, ‘Ini bukan Anuja. Ini Thanuja,’” Thanuja reminisces. “And I was like, shut up. Our classes were just next to each other. So her teacher calls her out. And they know, I’m the mischievous one, and she’s the innocent one. At first, the teachers thought it was funny. Word got around. After recess, they called us in and said, ‘Do you know this is an offence?’ I was like, really? Where in the school book is it written?”
Anuja’s laugh has grown exponentially, and she leans back like she’s taking in an incredible Californian vista.
“Friends were like, ‘You’re not supposed to do things like that.’ And I asked how is this going to harm anyone? ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
“But when we walked out of the teacher’s room, we just said…” Anuja emphasises, “mission accomplished.”
But their roads would diverge; Thanuja became a pageant pin-up, and Anuja studied in England for two years and became a banker. For four years, she was comfortable breathing within the whitewashed walls of corporate life. She partook of her sister’s success from the sidelines, and whispered feedback in her twin’s ear if she did a sub-par catwalk. “We balance each other out. Like magnets.”
But last December, she quit her job, and decided to join her twin in the same freewheeling dance of modelling, entertaining and following where the breeze might bring you. “I’m definitely excited. But I do miss banking sometimes. But you know, when I was in banking, many people thought I was her.”
“She gets it all the time,” Thanuja chimes in. “Once, this client of mine actually pinched her butt, thinking it was me.”
“What?” Anuja looks at her sister curiously, trying to place herself in their shared history. Then it clicks, and she waves her finger. “Oh yeah! Thank God, it was a lady!”
“She turned around and was like, what? And my client texted me later and was like, ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t know there were two of you.’”
There are two of them. And therein lies the formula: you need two separate halves to make a whole. Together, they’ll fill magazine inches, and are pitching for an opportunity to do a television show around their twin-hood. But they’re still unmistakably, undeniably different. “We have certain interests that are similar, but we’re also individuals,” Anuja says.
And because life is fleeting, they’ll hold hands until they’re unable to anymore. Even if marriage, and their respective boyfriends—Thanuja has been seeing hers for nine years, Anuja for seven—become paths that further split into separate last names, families and bungalows, they’ll power-walk on as living reflections. “We’re each other’s mirror,” Thanuja says. “I think it’s because we both know how much the other can give. She knows when I’m at my best, and I know when she’s at her best. I know how far she can go.
I know what she can become, and she knows what I can become.”
“I mean, we’re not just sisters,” Anuja adds, like a full stop to life’s uncertain commas. “We’re twins.”
Do you think you’re closer now than before?
Thanuja: I’ve never thought about that, really.
T: It’s always been the same lah.
A: I mean, obviously, growing up together, the ups and downs made us closer, but I don’t think it could have been any other way, really.
T: It’s only natural to grow together, and grow…
A: Strong. Yeah.
T: I don’t think there’ll ever be fights that tear us apart. It’s something that will never, ever happen.
And here's a video of the twins playing... well, it was supposed to be Taboo, but it ended up more like Charades—or is it Read My Mind?
First published in Esquire Malaysia's March 2014 issue. Photographs shot by Vincent Paul Yong and produced by Studio Verve. Art direction by Rebecca Chew. Hair by VV Chan. Make-up by Joey Yap.