For many years, I’ve walked down village paths in Maharashtra with three children and an assortment of useless umbrellas. Local residents often stop me and ask who they (the children, not the umbrellas) belong to.
“This one’s mine,” I say, pointing to my daughter, “and these are my brother’s,” indicating my nephews. They nod encouragingly.
“Only one? Never mind. Next time, you’ll get a boy.”
Now that my daughter’s a teenager and I have grey hair, nobody expects me to produce a sibling for her. But in those early years, strangers on the road were perfectly happy to let me know it was my duty to start incubating a companion.
“Don’t you want a little brother or sister?” they would say to her and get a disdainful look for their pains. My daughter is good at disdainful looks. One day, thinking of my own fabulous sibling (more on him later), I inquired, “Do you feel bad that we didn’t give you a brother or sister?”
“No,” she said flatly. Kind of like my dear friend Bishakha Datta (no relative, but definitely a soul sister) in Mumbai, also an only child, who says: “I am firmly of the view that only is not lonely and truly can’t understand the obsession around pairing. Surely I can’t be the only ‘only child’ who never felt lonely?”
In fact, having a sibling is no guarantee of a warm and fuzzy life full of companionship and good cheer. I have a great sibling, but I’m definitely the exception. I got lucky—the one I got was the real thing. But I know people with three, four and five siblings, each one of whom is more useless than the last. And when I look around at most siblings, one word comes to mind: carnage.
Sand tiger sharks sometimes kill each other when they’re still in the womb. Humans and hyenas, like plenty of other animals, also commit siblicide once in a while. And when we’re not murdering our siblings, we might be undermining their spirits, beating them when nobody’s looking, or turning away when they need us. Brothers stealing from brothers. Sisters sleeping with each other’s husbands. Grabbing land, grabbing money, grabbing love, leaving when they should stay, staying when they should leave, pulling hair, pulling a fast one, crushing each other’s spirit…just because you’re related to someone doesn’t mean they have your best interest at heart. In fact, they sometimes don’t.
But wait—if you do feel the need for a sibling, why settle for the one you got? This is 2016, people, and the sibling possibilities are endless. In fact, they’ve always been endless: Since time immemorial, people have been creative about producing or providing siblings. In India, we have the time-honoured tradition of brothers giving each other their children. The wives, who are the ones who actually push the dear little things out of their bodies, don’t always have a choice in the matter, but for better or for worse, we all know children who are given to close family members to bring up as their own. There’s adoption, surrogacy, and all the exciting possibilities of the Mystery Sibling who turns up out of the mist. That just happened to a 14-year-old I know.
Her mothers went to a sperm bank and she was conceived via FedEx and a turkey baster. Fifteen years later, she went online through The Donor Sibling Registry, where children of donor fathers can opt to find each other. Soon enough, she started getting texts: “Hi Ophelia, this is Mike, your half-sibling.” Imagine! You grow up an only child, and suddenly your phone is lighting up with messages from half a dozen people exactly your age, who share half your DNA. You have no emotional baggage, no obligation, and no limit…you can take them or leave them. I love the 21st century.
I’m happy that I have a brother with whom I share the same two parents. We like each other and I consider him just about the pinnacle of siblingicity, if I might coin a word. Siblingitude? Siblingishness? He’s my only biological sibling, and utterly irreplaceable. Unarguably, there is a unique bond, between siblings who grow up together, for better or worse. But there are at least three other people who are my soul sisters and brothers.
We went to the American Museum of Natural History today. Two little German boys stood in front of the Apatosaurus. They might have been twins. They had bright blond hair parted neatly on the side, cerise cheeks, and neatly pressed button-down shirts—one blue, one green. And polka-dotted bow ties. For some reason, I found the bow ties, and their solemn well-scrubbed faces, very moving. They had the same faces and the same expression, and they stood very close to each other, gazing at 150-million-year-old bones. It was a little snapshot of evolution, and somehow it mattered that they were clearly related by blood. But will they remember, when they’re continents apart in a few decades, that they shared this moment, this visit, a womb, a story? Does it matter? Or will they find their true families later?
History is littered with notable siblings, real or imagined: Venus and Serena Williams. Henry and William James. Elizabeth and Jane Bennet (the less said about Lydia the better). The brothers Wright and Grimm. Jawaharlal Nehru and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Sebastian and Viola. Zeus and Hera, who were brother and sister AND husband and wife.
There are the siblings you get, the siblings you find, and the siblings you make. There’s a whole world of sisters and brothers out there. If you don’t like the one you got, don’t despair…you can go look for a new one. Just keep your hands off mine.
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.