“And this is the patio,” he says, pointing to the dark red wooden floor, brightened by the morning sun. Then, he points to the window in the ceiling that “brings in natural light,” the two bedrooms and common area, the fireplace that he will light later today when Ma visits, and the two car garage.
“It’s lovely,” I say, “I’m proud of you.” The words sound empty, like something a parent, not an older sister, would say. We are on a video call – he is in Texas, I’m in New Delhi – that I’d requested to see his newly purchased house. My baby brother, a homeowner. That he is doing such grown-up things makes me feel more grown-up by association. Then again, despite being four years younger, my brother had always felt older, wiser than I was.
Papa wanted to his children to be “different.” He wanted us to stand out, to be unique in a way that made others pay attention. These differences began with our names. Mine came from the Gita; “Pragya” was an enlightened state of being, one indicative of balance in thought and feeling. Srajan was a derivative of the Sanskrit word, srijan, meaning “creation.” My brother stood out, even when he was in Ma’s belly.
The year is 1988. Papa was posted to Sofia, Bulgaria. I am nearly four years old. Ma and Papa Bhagat are expecting their second child, but there is a problem with the pregnancy. The child is facing the wrong way. Ma’s mother flies to Bulgaria – her first international trip – by herself to support Ma during this difficult time. Family legend has it that after our grandmother’s arrival, Srajan turns around in the womb. By himself. From his time in the womb, this becomes a defining characteristic of my brother, his ability to create both the problem and the solution. By himself.
The year is 1990. In the beginning, I want to hold him, to share my life with his. I dance to my favourite song, hoping for a response from the cherubic infant. There is none. I sing to him. He smiles sometimes.
The year is 1992. My desire to please my younger brother fizzles into part irritation, part jealousy. Srajan is cuter, he is younger, so naturally he gets away with more than I do. He is allowed to wet the bed. He is allowed to cry. I try to assert my elder sibling status by proposing a later bedtime or more television, but my requests are rejected. Srajan can’t stay up late, so neither can I. It is difficult to befriend an infant.
On his second birthday, Srajan wears a blue shirt and red knickers, along with a gold chain that my mother’s mother – she had traveled alone for his birth in Bulgaria – gifts him. Ma tells me the birthday is a joint collaboration, that my sixth birthday is being celebrated too. But I don’t remember any presents. I remember the song I danced to, imitating my older sisters.
Mujhe neend na aaye
Mujhe chain na aaye
Koi jaye use dhoondh ke laye
Na jane kahan dil kho gaya
Na jane kahan dil kho gaya
I can not sleep
I am restless
Can someone go and find it
I don’t know where my heart has gone
I don’t know where my heart has gone
Srajan cuts the cake. Ma and Papa hold the knife for him. I clap excitedly, because what else do you do when your brother is the VIP of your joint birthday? That day, I love my brother. He has the most dazzling smile, all tiny teeth and crinkled eyes and wrinkled nose. He doesn’t develop the Bhagat nose, the long, slightly crooked bend in the bridge. That way, and in many other ways, he takes after our mother. Gentle, beautiful, giving. Long nails, full cheeks. He is, I decide then, worthy of my friendship.
What started as an hierarchy quickly turned into a relationship of equals. Once he was old enough to run, we raced on empty streets and made up games that involved pinching. I taught him how to swim, he taught me how to bicycle. We shared a room and fiercely defended our side of the border, marking our territory with stickers and drawings and posters.
We held magic shows for Ma and Papa, and though our parents quickly grew bored with the shows, we thrived on the changing identities that role play allowed, because we did not yet know how our own identities would change anyway. Siblings during childhood are, in some fundamental ways, what married couples eventually become. Srajan and I knew each other’s vulnerabilities. I knew his favourite colour, he knew which boys I liked. In other words, there was no pretending. Till the time I was 15 and Srajan 11, I suppose we were close.
I wonder now where we went wrong. Was it when puberty happened and I craved the attention of other boys? Was it when we were trying to figure out who we were, and in the process, forgot each other? Or maybe we just took each other for granted. I surely did.
Maybe it was the labels our parents gave us. Adults have a way of planting self-doubt in the heads of growing children. I wish I’d learned to ignore the doubt, but I learned to notice it instead. This doubt crept up inside me, steadily, until my body was no longer mine. I was the smarter one, the one with more potential, these parental labels said. I preferred to study, and Srajan preferred to not. It was nice to be recognized for something, and I began to crave this recognition, to shape my identity around it. Srajan, however, wasn’t like this. From the time he turned around in Ma’s womb, he didn’t dance to music that wasn’t his own.
My brother and I didn’t share what we used to. Maybe it was the pressure of becoming the all-American teenager, the kind of person who hung out with friends instead of a younger brother. Or maybe, regardless of the people and places around us, it was bound to happen anyway. Regardless, I wanted privacy, and the only way to get it was to push him away. And when I no longer cared for privacy, when discovering myself was no longer important, a decade had passed and we had become different people.
Srajan was popular, Srajan was funny, Srajan crafted beautiful stories. Srajan was way smarter than I was; his college entrance scores surpassed mine, shocking my parents (I wasn’t surprised). Srajan was brave, much braver than I ever was. He partied like there was no tomorrow, and his falling grades led to academic probation. But my brother, Papa had decided from the very beginning, was creation.
My brother built a new life for himself, working in childcare at the YMCA, as a valet in a hotel, pedalling drunk teenagers on a rented cycle rickshaw. He swam everyday at a natural spring, became a yoga teacher, trained in classical music, and eventually earned a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Sciences. He did all this on his own, because I wasn’t there to support him.
Sometimes, when I think of my brother, I think of lost opportunities. Here’s the moment I’d like to go back to. I was 17 , and I’d just gotten into a fight with Ma. I slammed the door shut (Srajan and I had our own rooms by then). I sat behind this locked door and cried, because I wanted to build a fortress around myself, and this door was all I had. Srajan slipped a note under the door, and in doing so he reached out through the one crack in my fortress. I don’t remember what the note said, because I saved it in some place so valuable, even I forgot where I kept it. The note made me feel wanted. I wish I’d opened that door and hugged my brother.
I think about us as children, racing on empty streets, about us as teenagers, when I decided to break free of our bond. I think about us as adults, about realising what he brought into my life, about growing older, about him owning a house, and I know that in this race, he left me behind a long time ago. But that’s okay, because I want him to win. Besides, he’ll be there at the end, waiting for me.
Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and the author of two books, More Than a Memory and Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir. You can follow her work at facebook.com/PragyaWrites