Being south Indian, I didn’t grow up with raksha bandhan. This week, rather than tie a rakhi for my brother, Shyam, I thought I would write this column about siblings. When you are a child, you are convinced your sibling exists to annoy you. Shyam was born 14 months after me. He didn’t give me respect I thought I deserved, eavesdropped on my conversations, read my diary, and took an undue interest in my friends. We fought all the time. We had to share a room. When I wanted to study, he would want to sleep. I would turn the light on; he would turn it off. We would scream for our parents. My dad named our house Kurukshetra.
Even today, I get juvenile thrills when Shyam has to get up early. My brother is a deep sleeper and it was my job to wake him up for school, an unpleasant exercise for both of us. I would pull his feet off the bed, he would pull up the bedcovers. Finally, I would pour a mug of water on his head, and he would wake up yelling. Today, his puppy has achieved what I couldn’t. He is up at the crack of dawn to take Koko for a walk.
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It was only after Shyam left our home at age 16 to sail the high seas in the merchant navy, ending up as a Master Mariner (captain) that we struck up a friendship, pretty much overnight. When he returned home from Poland, Australia or Japan, laden with stories and gizmos, all my animosity vanished. He would tell us eye-popping tales about steering his Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) around Cape Horn where vertical waves tossed his giant ship as if it were a catamaran. With his dollar salary, Shyam funded part of my college education and bought me my first designer bag. He later used this salary to put himself through Wharton business school.
It is funny how life has changed. When we were growing up, I thought my role was to look after Shyam. I was the big sister after all. I still am enormously protective of him, thanks to a lifetime of conditioning. Save for my husband and kids, my brother is what my husband calls “non-negotiable” in a relationship. I stick up for him, almost reflexively. When he gets teased by our cousins, however good-naturedly, I find myself bristling. No matter that my normal stance is Leftist, I can turn turtle and abandon principles for my brother. No angst, no guilt, none of the second-guessing that is second nature to me.
The irony is that Shyam doesn’t need much looking after; never has really. If anything, he has looked after me, without letting me know it. He introduced us to the city we now call home and to some of our closest friends here. When we moved to Bangalore, the fact that we moved into my brother’s house was because of Shyam. But the reason that we lived with them for nearly two years as a joint family was entirely, but entirely due to my sister-in-law Priya’s uncommon grace and generosity. She has been the glue that has kept us together.
Today, we live in the same housing complex, something which our spouses engineered. As married adults, the relationship you have with your siblings depends on your spouses. If they will it, your relationship will flourish. If not, it will flounder. As simple as that.
Shyam is stand-up comedy buff. He owns pretty much every DVD of every stand-up comic. Thanks to him, I’ve become addicted to this genre too. As mature adults, our relationship has fallen into this most juvenile of pastimes. We exist to make each other laugh. When Shyam wants to discuss something meaningful, he calls my husband. When he calls me, he knows he will get something like, “Do you know that elephant urine can corrode metal?” In fact, half my life is spent thinking up random things that I can say to Shyam, simply to get a laugh out of him. We try our best to out-joke each other. Sibling rivalry channelled into becoming the better comic.
I’ll call him at work in the middle of the day. “Hey, can you talk?” I’ll ask.
“I think I can…since I was four years old,” he’ll say without missing a beat.
Darn it! Score one for him.
We make puerile jokes and engage in inane competitions. We quip in shorthand or imitate a certain yoga teacher we both learnt under.
For most of us, our siblings are the ones who have known us (and will know us) the longest. Our spouses missed our pre-marriage life; our kids missed our childhood; and under normal circumstances, our parents will miss the later half of our lives. Only siblings, particularly if they are close in age share a lifespan. They share your quirks and your sense of humour. They let you exhale into relaxation.
Shyam and I are very different. He is a Leo—regal and classy. I am an Aries. But we are also very similar: basically lazy; or as we like to think about it, we don’t sweat the small stuff. When we throw parties together, our house-proud spouses will rush around getting stuff organized while the two of us will sit on the couch, swigging drinks and look at each other with a grin that says, “Can life get better than this?”
The reason we need siblings is not because they share our genes and are our closest blood relations. It is not even the sentimental Bollywoodish “we are born of the same mother in the same womb” dialogue. It is not because our brothers and sisters are the storehouse of our childhood memories and will probably be our link for life. The reason we need our siblings is because they are the only people we can talk to about our parents and expect complete understanding.
Shyam is the only person who will not judge me or my parents when I say things such as, “Appa still treats me like a baby. He went on and on about filling the income-tax forms correctly.” We will both roll our eyes and laugh. Your sibling is the only person who will understand your family’s quirks and dysfunctionalities and accept them without judgement. Even your spouse, however tolerant, will take time to buy into your family’s very particular traits: the penchant for gift-giving; the focus on food; the pattern of spending. All this can seem weird to someone who wasn’t born into it. A sibling on the other hand will both understand and do the eye-roll.
Shoba Narayan is thinking up jokes and one-liners to keep her brother on his toes.
Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org