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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.

All sisters are extraordinarily protective of their brothers. We need a festival that honours that too. So when I pick up the three bits of rice soaked in red and put that tilak on my brother’s forehead, the thought in my mind is, “Go on Bhai, be the best version of yourself, I am here to protect you. To hold you."

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She writes a fortnightly column on family and relationships.

Also Read | Natasha’s previous Lounge

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