Everything changed last year.
I was at home with a fever a few days ago, whining and moaning in the same room as the children. I asked our youngest child, Naseem, for help.
“Ohoo hoo hoo. I’m not well, Namnoo. Make me well,” I said to her.
She looked up from her puzzle. “I cannot make you well, Mamma. Go and see a doctor.”
“You can make me feel better, jaanoo,” I said. “Say something nice to me.”
She came to me. She caressed my hair. “Lie down. You will feel better. Do you want a hug?”
I received a hug. I lay down. I felt better.
Another winter afternoon, our three children are playing in the parking lot outside our home. Laughter, energy, dust and sunshine. The youngest speaking too loudly, complete synergy between her and the middle child. Sahar, the eldest child, is quiet. She seems to be somewhere else. Her trousers are short on her, ending too early before her ankles. There are so many photos of her wearing pyjamas like that. It’s a constant, especially in the winter holidays.
She will be 10 years old in a few months. Sahar wasn’t 2 yet when our second child was born. She had come to meet me in my hospital room, holding my mother’s hand, like a little woman herself. When we returned home, she spent endless afternoons watching the video of “Yeh taara, woh taara, har taara” from the film Swades, on a loop. I managed the new baby and myself in the background. In a home video we sometimes watch, she wakes up from sleep, comes towards me for a hug, then stops and says, “Mamma ko dardee ho jayegi na…”
“Mamma will feel hurt, no, if I come too close to her?”
We all know that dialogue by heart, in a toddler’s sleep-coated, sing-song, plaintive accent.
At 2, she had been my perfect travel companion as we returned to Delhi, cutting short a holiday from visiting family in San Francisco, US. Her father had had an accident and was recovering after a surgery in Delhi. Between take-off and landing, we would spend 40 hours on flights and at airports. Balancing the four-month-old on my chest in a baby carrier, and pushing a trolley laden with bags and stroller, Sahar and I had wandered around Singapore airport looking for a transit hotel room. She walked next to me, reading my face as I read signs and tried to find my way in the middle of the night.
“Have we come the wrong way?” she would ask me every now and then. That two-year-old voice, concerned for us, trying to support me, reassuring me, is embedded in my memory. I had said to her before starting our journey, “You and I, Sahar, we are a team.”
Our family’s big challenge arrived when our third child was born. Sometimes we were just a bunch of scared, lost people in the same space. We were doing so much, yet it felt like we were getting nowhere.
I was gentle and loving with the baby. My voice would always be mellow when I turned to her. I felt depleted and dissatisfied with everyone else. In my frustration, I would yell at the older children. They had not met this angry, edgy mother before, and she seemed like she was here to stay.
Sometimes it’s a long time after one has crossed a threshold that one realizes how far one has come. One day at a time, little by little. Suddenly you look up and the season has turned.
The baby has become a big boss, the papa has become the mamma and the big girl gets to be the baby she missed out on being before. Instinctively I hold the older children more now that the youngest has jumped off my lap to conquer her world.
When we slow down and spend some time doing absolutely nothing, things begin to happen by themselves. We heal. We find our voice.
It’s nothing, really. Just a small story from one person’s perspective in one family. One woman trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her life. Create a barrier between the good and the hurtful in our everyday lives. Help preserve the gifts the children came with.
“Naseem,” I call out to her. “Tell me what to write in this column.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t even know how to write.”
“Should we draw something?”
“Look, Mamma,” she is suddenly distracted. “Light is shining in that corner. Get your camera, quickly. Take a photo.”
The leaves of the plant on the window sill are aglow from our angle as a shard of light cuts through them.
~This was first published in Mint Lounge
I have two brothers. Bhai, who is older, is the book I might write one day. Manu, our funny-serious kid brother, is my collection of short stories.
I love my brothers. In a way they are the story of my life, yet every year when Raksha Bandhan comes around, I just want to ignore it and look the other way till it has passed.
I feel like the ritual of Rakhi comes between my brothers and me. I look back at us and see the three of us wrestling, playing, cycling, recording song compilations, writing slogans for TV contests, collecting data in our quiz notebook and teasing each other with burp and fart jokes. Bhai was the leader of our pack with his magic shows, his science project expertise, his imitation of Abdul Qadir’s bowling style and his re-telling of Shakespeare’s plays on our way to and from the milk booth everyday.
Manu was unputdownable, his skateboard whizzing through the length of our home on endless summer afternoons. He gave me hockey and football lessons on the roof, so he had a partner to play with. He obediently played badminton with me when it was prescribed as physiotherapy for my broken elbow, all stiff and clumsy as it emerged from its cast.
On Rakhi morning, suddenly we would find ourselves separated into brothers and sister. The boys and the girl. Family, culture and society would step in with a different sort of narrative. Stories of helpless women in trouble. Their brothers, real and imagined, expected to rescue them from being dishonoured. The generosity of brothers and the giggly gratitude of sisters. The reminder that the sister is vulnerable and the brother invincible. The announcement of the “auspicious” time. As we became young adults, Raksha Bandhan began to leave me cold. I really didn’t need it.
Manu finished school and went to engineering college in Jamshedpur. He didn’t want to be an engineer. When he returned home two months later, his lips were swollen and his face marked by the slaps and blows that had been part of routine ragging in his college. He didn’t want to go back, but he had to. The next time he returned, he told me ugly stories of caste politics and student violence deep into the night.
The third time he returned in the same year, Manu was adamant that he was never going back.
“Its teething troubles,” I tried to convince him. “You’ll find a way to make a space for yourself.”
“You have no idea,” he said. “The way these boys talk about girls, the way they harass them in markets and cinema halls…I cannot stay in that place, leave alone study there. I will go mad.”
That was a Raksha Bandhan moment. I knew I had to stand by my brother now. He needed me to protect him, to support him to protect himself. We negotiated with our parents. Manu never went back.
A few years later, I was in a hotel room in Kemps Corner, Bombay, when the phone rang. Bhai was calling from New York. He had fallen in love and he wanted her to know his family. He was asking me to write a letter to someone I had never met. For him. That day was Raksha Bandhan for us.
I have value for tradition that binds. That underlines how we are equals despite differences. Not one that imposes roles and choices that feel blatantly false, that don’t fit the reality of our lives.
I own my relationship with my brothers. It is the purest thing in my life.
Underneath the obvious one, is a secret bond. We know stories that were never told, we have seen pain that was never expressed. We are oral historians of each others’ lives. We will always be there for each other, irrespective of whether the online Rakhi store delivers on time or not, unconditional of whether I turn up at Manu’s office lobby to tie a Rakhi on his wrist or not.
Every time one of us calls the other on the long drive to work, it is Raksha Bandhan. Every time we don’t bother to buy each other gifts because love is all we need, it is Rakhi. Every time we look at each other’s children and want to squeeze them tight because they remind us of us…it is Rakhi.
Mother, woman, lover, daughter, myself: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts