Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sibling love

(Published in Business Standard on August 24, 2013)

Apparently a barn owlet will squawk less if it knows its sibling is hungrier, taking up its own cause only once its sibling has been fed. Isn’t that sweet? Barn owlet siblings are just precious. They sound like atypical siblings, though—if you’ve ever watched piglets fight over access to a sow’s teats, you know the meaning of cutthroat competition.

My own siblings are a huge pain in the posterior, have authored some of my strangest and deepest wounds, and cannot be counted on to pipe down with the squawking just because I’m hungry. However, I do love them to bits, and will methodically disembowel anyone who messes with them.

Raksha Bandhan is the only Indian tradition I know of—not that I know much, having been raised by cultural wolves—that is dedicated to the sibling relationship. Except that it’s not, really. If it were dedicated to siblings, every sibling would tie rakhis on every other sibling. In its present form, Raksha Bandhan is dedicated to the same old paternalistic relationship between men and women that so many of our cultural traditions are dedicated to.

So while I love my brother, I disapprove of raksha bandhan. The notion of going begging to a man for protection makes me green around the gills. A holiday in the service of women worshipping men with sweets and men showering material largesse on women makes me hurl. The whole thing is, I contend, a lousy idea that feeds right into all our worst gender assumptions (women are weaklings in need of paternalistic protection). We tend to defend cultural tradition from critique, but there’s nothing innocuous about culture. It reflects and further institutionalises behaviour.

For some years in my young adulthood I enjoyed rakhi as a sort of social occasion. By the time it started to bother me, my brother was out of the country, where he stayed for years and years, so I never really had to confront the beast. But he’s back now, so I sent him a message stating that the cultural assumptions behind raksha bandhan are not to my taste, and proposing the following alternative: we exchange rakhis, and ditch all commercial transactions. That’s more in line with celebrating general fellow feeling among siblings. When my sister returns to live in India, which should be approximately the same day that pigs start to fly, I will propose the same thing to her.

So now I have a nice flame-coloured rakhi on my wrist, he does too, and we have pledged to support each other. Nobody has yet said anything about toning down the squawking, but at least we’re doing away with the one-way nonsense. I am now my brother’s well-wisher and protector, and he mine.

I inaugurated this solemn vow by offering his daughter five bucks to whack him on the bum without incurring his wrath. (I didn’t have change, so I borrowed it from Tara’s mother, who only had a ten-rupee note, which she said Tara could keep if she whacked him twice. It was a teaching moment: showing Tara that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and schooling her in the art of persuading someone to get on board with an idea that is not necessarily in their self-interest.) What can I tell you, once a sibling, always a sibling.

Tara is a much better sibling to her younger brother and sister: when her three-year-old sister attempted to blow out her birthday candles by sitting very still and going ‘Ffffffffffffffffttt’ many times with no result, Tara stepped in and helped.

In her place I’d have started eating the cake. Or at least squawking loudly.