My Sister, the Lady Bird and the Everyday Drama with Mama

Modern Family

My Sister, the Lady Bird and the Everyday Drama with Mama

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

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ighteen years ago, my Ma bounced a steel katori on the dining table of our house and sent the bowl flying at a perfect angle, hitting my elder sister on the forehead just as it was meant to. A livid teenager, she screamed bloody murder at Ma for hurting her and started packing her bags. This was two days before her class tenth exams. Taking a local bus to our grandma’s house, my sister stayed at that far-flung place for the next few weeks and took her exams.

When Ma requested her to come back, she agreed just as suddenly as she had left. Ma fed and pampered her before her last exam as if she were Dolly the sheep.

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I was surprised then, because I was younger. But I am not anymore.

My sister and Ma have had this weird stress-drama-equation going on for years now. My sister has always been an impulsive, feisty person who can’t let anyone tell her what to do, even though they might be right. And Ma is perennially that person who insists on doing the telling. She is the voice in my sister’s head, always reminding her that she can do better. Better at studies, better at work, better than she looks, better at her choice of partner.

The result of this volatile relationship is lots of angst, followed by lots of love that springs from the guilt of hurting each other. I have been witnessing this for as long as I have been alive. And frankly, I’ve missed out on the opportunity of creating some drama of my own, so taken have I been with their journey.

I recently watched Saoirse Ronan perfect the role of Christine aka Lady Bird in the movie by the same name and couldn’t help but feel a surge of warmth and stress through my veins. Warmth because I know this story too well. And angst because I have always found myself in the thick of it.

From insisting on using an alias to sneakily applying to colleges and having a great relationship with her father while being in denial about his financial or mental health, Lady Bird could be any teenager’s story in Sacramento or New Delhi. The crazy upheavals, the knowledge only youth allows you, of being more than what your surroundings or people are and finally, the biological desire to just be at loggerheads with your mom… nearly all of us have been through this process. And while I might not exactly be the adopted and tattooed brother in the film, I am sane enough to know who the Lady Bird of my family is.

Lady Bird

From insisting on using an alias to sneakily applying to colleges and having a great relationship with her father while being in denial about his financial or mental health, Lady Bird could be any teenager’s story in Sacramento or New Delhi.

Image credit: Scott Rudin Pictures

That mothers and daughters fight, is an old film. Mothers assert a birthright over the child, the fruit of their womb, theirs to instruct and improve. The daughter, unlike the son who loves this concern, is her own person and refuses to oblige and become her mother’s mirror image. From both their points of view, their fight is a good fight. For the second child, though, there is no shot at spotlight in this gargantuan David and Goliath clash. People like me simply get a lifelong free pass to the front row of their drama and a clear distaste for being further fuel to fire.

While growing up, everything in our house was about my sister. Once, after her math exam went poorly, she asked my father to request the teachers to let her pass. These were board exams so obviously, there was little Baba could do. But he truly understood his first child and didn’t want the rest of the family to go into brooding mode. So he told her that he would do something and she believed him. A month later, she scored 34 out of 100 and thanked Baba for helping her pass. Whether she was that naïve or my Baba that shrewd, I’ll never know.

When she got her first job, she splurged her first salary on a Mango jacket for herself. Ma, who can look sterner than Laurie Metcalf any day, was exasperated that she’d decided to spend her first earnings this way. Half an hour later, my sister and Ma were screaming their lungs off, about the freedom to choose for oneself and doing the right thing respectively. So when I got my first salary, I quietly opened a bank account because I didn’t want an encore.

Some of our most serious life crises weren’t a debilitating disease or a secret that could rend us apart as a family: They were her umpteen trips to Turquoise Café wearing clothes that Ma disapproved of. Each time my sister would arrive at 2 am, Ma would be wide awake, ready to pounce at her with the choicest of rebukes. You see, being a mother makes you worry. But being a mother to a daughter in Delhi makes you paranoid.

Lady Bird has got an Oscar nod, but my family has been giving an award-winning performance all our lives.

But my sister glided in and out of things, hardly hearing Ma over the ruckus they jointly created, leaving me and Baba to sleep through the chaos. A few days later, the two would go back to being the best of friends, high on some strange concoction of love and guilt from the last friction.

And like all good movies, our young adulthood climax was also written by my sister. A few years ago, she informed us that she wanted to marry a guy she had been dating. I held my breath until Ma could react. But Ma, instead of scoffing, was surprisingly happy about it. Right before the wedding though, the two had a tiff that could put two kangaroos to shame. My sister, red-eyed and furious at Ma’s suggestion that she should take it easy and party less now that she was getting married, decided to call off the wedding. It took hours for me to explain to her that cancelling a wedding to just spite Ma was not only unusual, but also counter-productive. (Also, she had to be reminded of how beautiful she would look in her wedding trousseau to bring the plan back on track.)

Today, all of us live in different cities, and yet, I constantly find myself in the centre of their virtual storm. “Ma asked me why I chose Bombay for the new job, why does she impose her choices on me?” she asks me angrily one day. “Your Didi is so stubborn, why cant she call that aunt up and get the formalities over with?” Ma complains on another. They don’t even spare the family whatsapp group where their egos clash in chaste Bengali, as Ma writes, “Tumi phone koro ni keno, eto kisher kaaj? (why don’t you call, there can’t be so much office work)” while Didi will shoot back with, “Ma please, taka emni emni ashena (Ma please, money doesn’t grow on trees)”. Later Ma worries that she is eating less and my sister thinks Ma doesn’t understand how yoga works.

Lady Bird has got an Oscar nod, but my family has been giving an award-winning performance all our lives. Funny thing is, my sister, today a grown and feisty woman just like our Ma, rang me the other day, asking me to watch the film. Apparently, Saoirse Ronan’s character is just like my eight-year-old niece, and how she clashes with my sister.

And so it goes on.

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