I came after my brother, in the same month of November, just three years and twelve days later, when the winter is just setting in and there is a slight nip in the air and you can see woolens being stretched out over parapets and the silhouette of inverted, grey skylines turning orange in oil films gathered over pickles. He must have resented me at first, my brother, but he didn’t show it or at least didn’t show it in ways embarrassing enough to be remembered and sustained in family folklores. Over the years, however, we grew very close and almost inseparable, our pet names ringing out in quick succession around the house, our twin silhouettes, scraggly, identical and distinguishable only by our heights, running around to answer the calls.
On warm, summer afternoons, we would nap on straw mats spread out on our bedroom floor, on either sides of the snoring mound of our mother, our backs sweating from where they touched the ground. When her snores grew louder than the whirring of the fan that battled mightily over our heads, we would know it’s safe to sneak out. We would go out into the streets, running after every vendor we could lay our eyes on, our half-trousers weighed down by coins saved from our tiffin or pressed into our hands by departing relatives. We would splurge our little treasures on pickles and lozenges and dubious-looking treats whose origins would hardly be approved by our mother. And sure enough, she wouldn’t. We would sit relishing our treats on the porch leading up to our house, when she would wake up from her siesta and stand at the door, her eyes bloodshot from the sleep, her hair dishevelled in a halo around her head. She would be simmering with unspeakable anger, her knuckles whitening around the straw pankha that she had fanned herself to sleep with. I would always sustain more bruises than my brother, being the more stubborn one, a little too prideful to run around the house or cry out in exaggerated assertions of pain, to escape disciplining like him. We would have bruises over our bodies all the year round, brown islands or archipelagos (depending on the gravity of our afternoon shenanigans) of dried and peeling skin speckling the water of our warm, sun-browned limbs that never really needed any tending, healing themselves with time and negligence.
Our mother took care of our universe, our days beginning with the swishing sounds of her broom and our days ending with the rapid succession of thuds with which she bolted the doors and the and windows around the house. She was the one who came up with my brother’s formal at a moment’s notice, when the school authorities asked for one to fill in the admission forms. She was the one, who starched her saris a little extra stiff, and matted our hairs a little extra down and presented us in a ‘presentable way’ every annual day, the armpits of her blouses gathering colour from the sweat that came in anticipation of the nuns who conversed only in English. Our father existed in the periphery of our lives, his flitting presence disclosing itself only at night or on holidays . His work occupied his day and jaded him out too, so much so that, at the end of it, what was left for us was a man blowing smoke into the darkness looming over our backyard, close at hand but never close enough.
As we grew older, my brother and I drifted apart, disclosing only a certain aspect of ourselves to each other in keeping with the propriety of the house, choosing instead to confide in our friends from school (his all boys, mine all girls), our secrets no longer as simple as a stray nickel found under the sofa but conflicted secrets of first love and first heartbreaks, those adolescent years of effervescent pursuits and the agony that came with that. My brother married first, three years before me, his wedding coinciding with my matriculate exams, so that all that I remember of the wedding are some disjointed, chaotic moments of celebration snatched against the backdrop of an otherwise stressful few days. His wife, a year younger to me, was older in relation and was addressed as such, the address wedging a formality that we never really got around to overcoming. A fortnight after my marriage, when I came back home, my room had been converted into a warehouse of sort, for a small food delivery business that my sister-in-law had started. She walked me through her inventory, stacks of rice, flour and spices, stopping excitedly pointing at the labels that had just come home printed. I slept in my parents’ room that night and never stayed overnight after that.
Growing up in the same household, eating the same food, surrounded by the same people and adjusting our glass ceilings to match the same expectations of society, my brother and I had expected similar, if not identical, outcomes to our lives. When that didn’t happen, we became irritable and spiteful. While my husband navigated the ever-changing and underwhelming bouts of business, my brother slumbered in an equally underwhelming but somewhat more stable government job. His prosperity bothered me, his effluence always seeming a bit too ostentatious, almost unnecessary. What I couldn’t make up for in money, I made up for in upbringing, raising my children with the chagrin of a brutally defeated horse-trainer. We projected our insecurities onto our kids, who bred them with their unsuspecting sincerity, learning to think of their cousins as ‘they’ or ‘them’ instead of ‘we’ or ‘us’, a labelling we adults didn’t have the honesty to acknowledge.
The day he died, I went to visit him at the hospital. His wife was standing nearing his bed, huddling the children close to herself, a ghostly look on her face. I sat beside his bed and scrutinized the lines on his face, observing his countenance for the first time in many, many years. There were hollows under his eyes, and spittle had dried in uncomfortable patches around his mouth. His catheter was poking out from under the sheets, his splayed legs hardly concealing his modestly. I drew the sheets over him and closed his eyes, stopping to kiss him on his brows, the skin underneath my lips feeling papery and foreign. A smile was playing at his lips, or maybe I imagined it, the last vestige of an abandoned laughter that I had seen the sun go down on, on so many odd days. We mourned the same person, his family and I, just very different aspects of him.
On the day of his funeral, a woman came to visit. She stood standing near the gate, shifting her weight from one leg to another, unsure of whether to join the people milling in and out of the house. My sister-in-law had her called in and took her upstairs, hosting her in her bedroom for the entirety of her visit. Years later, while we were combing through our family albums, I noticed a hint of her face in one of my brother’s college photographs, the two standing a little aloof from the rest of the group, the ensuing distance suggestive of a couple trying to steal a moment for themselves. My sister-in-law followed my gaze, and when she thought I wasn’t looking, discretely guided the photograph under her seat, refusing to compromise her late husband outside of family.
Sameeksha Dutta is a 21-year-old student pursuing her Master’s in Physics from RKMVERI, Kolkata. A closet writer and an avid reader, she hopes to have her own book published someday.