“She wouldn’t climb out of the bed for her sister, but she had climbed into a crater. She wouldn’t cross a room, but she had crossed a continent.”
-Antony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Circa 2007 AD, I moved out of Delhi to go to college in Bangalore, leaving my sister to be ruler of the land of our rather modest empire. Our family’s old apartment in Delhi’s lovely south area, was a large 3-bedroom home, with a study, airy living room and an alleyway that could well be used to create a small living space. Well, let me reiterate, of the three bedrooms, two were full-bodied and one was, well, a small sliver of a bedroom. That room belonged to nobody, up until I moved back from Bangalore, 7 years later. It was then that the tiny bedroom, was aptly handed to the baby of our family, my sister. She vacated the large bedroom with a balcony, to make space for my homecoming, if only rather grudgingly.
And so it happened that whenever I was away from home even for a few days, I would find traces of my sister having lived in my room. The bedside table would be stacked with her books, her slippers tucked beneath my bed, her phone charger plugged restfully on the sockets on the wall. And I would come back to rightfully reclaim my kingdom and she would whine and whine. Eventually, she started giving me a heads-up of her existence way before I would land in Delhi. Either way, I always knew.
I don’t quite remember the first time I truly felt the onus of being a big sister. It was perhaps the time we started going to the same school, and my mother said, “Take care of your younger sister.” Or when I was in primary school and loaned out an encyclopaedia in my library class that taught the reproductive system in great detail. That was probably the first time I realised that my sister and I came from the same place. If your mother is your first introduction to the world, your sibling is your first reflection of it. In the most scientific way, your sibling is the same make as you.
When your sister is gifted to you, you have to reassess your place in the world and your world gets divided into pre-sister era and post-sister era. You relook at the ways of the world, its morality and its laws. For starters, your space is never yours alone. There’s always someone toddling over to get a share of your toys, your space, your parents, aping you, calling out on you. And most importantly, you learn the art of parting with your parents attention, and eventually, with the last slice of pizza on the dinner table.
You are no longer a single child free to hog all your parents mind-space, wandering the world like a vagabond, going from Pokemon to Pokemon. You now have authority to summon a glass of water to your bed whenever you want, you have a human-size punching bag for all your mistakes, and your Pokemon collection now a hand-me-down heritage that needs to be earned. Your private world is no longer yours alone.
She will find you talking to your boyfriend late into the night, smuggling doobies into your balcony, she will share her unwarranted opinion on your new haircut and declare her life’s tragedies unannounced, forcing you to deal with situations that were earlier not your domain of expertise.
Whoever defined the word ‘catfight’ never knew the wrath with which sisters could fight. I, the more burly one, would always use my muscle against her as a child. But she would fight back, scratching, hair-pulling, and yelling to her freedom, the point of contention being something excessively lame. The biggest weapon she had against me was, obviously, her age. My mother would intervene, usually reprimanding me for using my force against my little sister. Even as an adult, my sister, my sunshine when the entire year felt like mercury was in retrograde, is also my personal dementor on days I try to cross her.
There wasn’t a space in my room my sister hadn’t been to. She was in my wardrobe, as a dress I nicked from her in the hope that I would wear it when I was two sizes smaller. On all the slabs of my bookshelf, her Kahnemans interspersed with my Wendy Copes. She was inside my jewellery box as one half of an earring that she lost at a party. She was within the spaces inside my drawers as polaroids we took together and postcards she would send me from her treks. For sisters are encroachers of space, because there is no other way they know how to coexist. To have a sister is to have your space forever taken, whether it manifests physically or through your memories, like your childhood that is always ingrained in another’s.
There will always be someone to fact-check your most miserable moments, to remind you of your notorious stories, and to reminisce the most joyful of all days. My phone book never moved on to her name, it was always ‘Sister’ because there isn’t any term strong enough to draw your attention much like the bond does. It means that you have to take this call come what may, you have to text right back.
Much of your early life is about keeping your sister from encroaching into and tearing your world down, and the remainder part of your life is about keeping her in it.
“When our hair is white, we’ll still have our sister love.” -Lisa See, Shanghai Girls
My grandmother, one among 5 sisters, knew better than anyone what encroaching spaces felt like. One sister more gifted and ambitious than the other, they over-stepped each other’s boundaries while growing up. Each of them akin to the characters of Little Women, they were prone to measuring one against the other while still being joint at the hip. But years later, when her younger sister’s husband passed away from an unforeseen heart attack, they all came together. Filling up the spaces between meals, quipped with treatments for insomnia that only grief brings, reciting stories of strength and optimism to her. They took turns in attending to their widowed sister, visiting her after work, before work, during weekends, bending over their schedules to attend to her.
My mother, the middle one among 3 sisters, is a personality that understands quiet conflicts and the power of negotiation quite well. Sandwiched between an elder sister, the caregiver (while my grandmother was away at work), and her younger sister, the baby of the house, my mother undertook the role of the peacekeeper. Like most middle-borns my mother acted as a cement between the siblings, oftentimes, and in my book, “oversharing”. They still call each other almost everyday come hail, sun or rain, discussing stories about their routines and getting points of views on everything. One day, I told my mother, “Some things are really just yours to know and you shouldn’t be discussing them with your siblings,” and my mother exclaimed,
“There’s nothing that is private from your sisters, you will only realise it in time.”
When my sister moved out of home to another country for her college, she said to me,” Now you can also use the space in my wardrobe. You know, for clothes that you don’t wear often.” It is an idea that comes as a respite for someone whose wardrobe is bursting at the seams. The truth is, there is nothing more viscerally reminiscent of a person than an empty space they once occupied.
When my sister finally left, spaces grew larger for me. I am often reminded of her sliver of a bedroom and her jostling for more space between the crevices of mine. Her rooms, the shelves, the size of her study drawer, the space on her bed, all opened up and yet remained stiflingly small in their essence. There was no crease on her bed where she would lay, no book marked-up for reading with a pen-turned-bookmark, no gym bag flung onto the couch, no pair of slippers discreetly stolen from my room. There was a lot of space in her wardrobe for my clothes. Maybe some of my shoes would fit into the bottom shelf. There would still be a shelf that would stay empty. Somehow, that served no purpose to me. Only a glaring hope that it would be filled up again with my sister’s crap for when she comes visiting.
Only recently, my colleague had her second child and I texted her a congratulatory message that ended with, ‘Siblings are the best!’.
She replied, “I am an only child and I agree.”
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