This week, the co-editor of your favourite weekend digital magazine is writing to you from Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala. In exactly one week from whence you read this letter is the wedding of this writer’s baby sister. And when I say baby sister I do not kid. I was thirteen years old when she was born.
I like to think that the bond that this kind of age gap creates is far more than that between siblings. In some sense I was a second father to my sister. And in some sense she was like a daughter to me. And in less than 10 days she is to be married. This is all very surreal, very joyous and very upsetting for my brother and me.
When my brother or I used to lie about homework or slack off at school and my dad screamed at us, she would waddle in between us and defiantly babble at dad to back off.
Little sisters are not meant to grow old. But from the moment they are born they refuse to do anything but. It is all very unfair.
I visit Kerala just about frequently enough to get a sense of continuity. And just about infrequently enough to get a sense of change and transformation.
The terminal at Kochi airport I disembarked into is somewhat new and very impressive. They’ve even got those abstract-patterned carpeting that is the staple of the great airports of the world. The kind of carpeting that can take all kinds of punishment and still look new after years of abuse. Even more gratifying is the clear signage, excellent lighting, cheerful staff and general sense of quiet competence.
And then I went to the toilets. One day Indian airports will design a toilet that will not, shortly after inauguration, instantly fall apart into a morass of bad plumbing, shoddy tilework, ramshackle plastic, and puiddles of water.
But that apart the airport was really quite good. My daughter instantly recognized my brother as I wheeled her out of the terminal, perched on top of the trolley. “His favourite team is Liverpool!” she screamed as she clambered off the trolley and ran towards him.
Kids remember the funniest things.
Many years ago, in another life and another career, I was sent to attend a conference on retailing at a five-star hotel in Mumbai. There a man, who I thought was very wise, told a packed audience that developing a real culture of luxury retail and sophisticated consumption was not at all about luxury brands, but about the brands that sat ‘in between’.
There were the very poor and the very rich almost everywhere in the world he said. And the brands that catered to them. There was nothing special. The real sign of a mature market was the presence of many brands that helped bridge the gap in between. Brands that made good things at a fair price. Brands that allowed consumers to make the compromise between cost and quality.
Listen, he said, did everybody in Milan go about wearing Zegna or Moschino or whatever? Of course not. They all probably owned a good suit. But most of the time they were wearing affordable yet trendy stuff sold by high street retailers.
Thrissur is a thriving example of this kind of coming of age. Restaurants that cater to students, police constables, security guards, and the other men and women who lubricate the economy sit cheek by jowl with the trendiest shawarma outlets, consumer goods shops and designer clothing outlets. There is a lot of money in this town. And it is all over the place. And yet the old brands still seem to be thriving. As if reminding the public of miseries past.
My dad and I were going to a barber’s when we ran into a pretty girl who lived next door to his house. Hello uncle, she said. This is my eldest son, he said. She is now working in a bank, just started, he told me, with a pride in your neighbour’s children that you don’t see very much in people these days. Her sister is also in a bank Sidin, he said. She beamed with the merest hint of pride.
They are very god-fearing Hindus, my dad said when she walked away. She always tells him to pray for her and her family. And he always prays for them when he goes to church. One day my dad was walking back home after a service at the local church when he saw her near his house. She immediately came over and told him that she had finally found the bank job that her family had been waiting for, for many months. I will buy some sweets and bring soon, she told him.
And then she noticed something in his hand. A single laddoo. What is that, she asked him. My dad told her that the church had given away the laddoos because Mother Teresa had just been canonized. She grabbed the solitary laddoo from his hands and ate half of it. It is a good omen, she said. I was looking for sweets, and the sweet came to me. My dad ate the other half. They thanked their respective gods.
Such are some of the people who live in my home town.
I asked the barber to give me the very same haircut I have had for the last 20 years. Maybe more. Short on the sides. Slightly longer on top.
And then I came back home. To find my baby sister in a tizzy. The relentless pressure of organizing, and being subjected to, a wedding was beginning to drive her a bit insane. Later we went for a walk up and down the the street outside our house. It was a very dark evening. The decorative lights all over our house had been installed but not yet switched on. It was too dark for shadows.
I told her not to worry. You will be fine. We are all there for you. I put my arm around her shoulder. And instantly I felt her let go of weeks and months of tension and. We walked for a few minutes more, talking about this and that, just trying to savour these moments together.
I still remember the yellow quilted onesie she wore all the time as a baby.
Finally she went to bed and I went to find my laptop and edit some story or another.
Baby sisters spend their entire lives wanting to grow up. And then they realize that sometimes they want to be a child again. And find a big brother. And get a great big hug.
Many things have changed. But I can still give her a damn good hug.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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