My Brother’s Keeper

First Person

My Brother’s Keeper

Illustration: Mandar

The big bluebird was pacing. I’d fed him some daal chawal for lunch and he’d gobbled the bowl in big mouthfuls, jumping up and down in his chair. I was afraid that he was going to choke, but when I made the portions smaller, he began to fuss. I couldn’t brook the thought of upsetting him – my little brother dressed in an avian costume – that day.

It was, after all, his first sports day in the “big boy” school. He’d been looking forward to this for weeks, memorising the St Joseph’s anthem the best his broken syllables allowed him to. We had it all planned out. I was going to give him lunch, put him in his bluebird costume for P.T. and then our mother would come back from work and take him to school. But it was already past noon and our mother hadn’t come home yet. The little bluebird was frantic and dangerously close to tears.

Years before, when he was just about to join our family, our parents sat my younger sister and me down and told us that we were both going to be big sisters. By then, I’d already had practice – I was elder sister to a doll-faced little girl for three years. She’d play with all my friends, who adored her like their own sibling. When she started school with me, I would pick her up and drop her to class 1-C every day. I’d also use her as my personal makeup mannequin – a decision that didn’t go down particularly well with my parents, but as her immediate sibling and first person-in-charge, I’d made an executive decision. We were happy, my little girl and I, so I wasn’t sure if I wanted another infant thrown into the mix. I resented my parents for adding this responsibility to my roster because I didn’t know if I was equipped to handle a boy. You can’t even put makeup on them.

The bluebird drooping in front of me proved all my apprehensions right. But the clock was ticking, it was his big day, and he looked helpless and minuscule. I had no option but to rescue him.

I loaded him on the carrier of my broken-down ladybird cycle and told him to hold on to me, no matter what. He was afraid of trucks at the time, so I also told him to keep his eyes closed, because Thornhill Road was chock-full of them in the afternoon. Then I pedalled, one foot at a time, holding my breath. I’d cycled on the same road a thousand times, but I had never been more afraid or more aware of everything that could possibly go wrong.

I’m grateful for my younger siblings every day and as their perennial first guardian, it’s hard not to feel irked by celebrations like Raksha Bandhan.

We crossed my favourite Darbhangawaala halwai and I could smell fresh samosas being deep fried to perfection. I promised myself that if we reached the school without incident, I’d return to stuff as many samosas as I could fit into my mouth. As I fixated on my ascent to street food heaven, I felt a crushing weight around my midriff. The little birdie was holding on to me for dear life, eyes narrowed to slits, lips pursed in fear.

It’s been 12 years since that cycle trip, but I remember the weight like it was yesterday. My birdie is all grown up now, wants to be a doctor, talks about quantum physics for fun. But every time he’s in trouble, that weight comes back to me and with it, the instinct to protect him from whatever trucks are coming his way.

I’m grateful for my younger siblings every day and as their perennial first guardian, it’s hard not to feel irked by festivals and celebrations like Bhai Dooj or Raksha Bandhan. There we are at these ceremonies, egged on by our parents, anointing our little bluebirds with a red teeka that marks him as our protector for life. To my mind, he’s still the little boy who used to eat all of our Choco Pies and then pretend to not know where they went. He might be a foot taller than both of us now, he might have started driving, he might even have a girlfriend (not sure about that one yet, but an investigation is afoot). But my sister and I can never reconcile the image we will always have of our little pipsqueak with the role of the protector that tradition expects him to play in our lives.

Maybe celebrations like Bhai Dooj are occasions to introspect and update the expectations we have of our siblings.

If my brother has to be my bouncer through life in order to protect me from the crème de la crap of his gender, then I could probably file his taxes in return to protect him from the IT Department. And in his absence, my sister and I can protect each other from heartbreak, disappointments, and our parents’ expectations (in that order).

It’s nothing we don’t already do, so why not make it official? We were raised to be a team anyway, responsible for each other’s care and protection.