This piece is from the new anthology Graffiti, the first in the POC United anthology series from Aunt Lute Books. Graffiti was edited by Pallavi Dhawan, Devi S. Laskar, and Tamika Thompson.
My mother called me about five years back, one month into my master’s program in New Jersey, right before I was about to head into class. “Listen,” she said. “I need to tell you something, but I don’t want you to worry.”
I immediately began to worry.
“Is it Dad?” I asked.
“No, no. Dad’s fine. It’s your sister.”
A couple of nights back, my mother had woken to my sister yelling. She ran to my sister’s bed to find her seizing. When my sister finally came out of it, she was drained and disoriented but didn’t remember anything. My parents took her to the hospital and had been there since. A few hours before my mother called me, the doctors informed her it was adult onset epilepsy.
“You waited two days to tell me?” I said.
“We didn’t want to worry you until we knew everything.”
“It’s bad enough I’m not there. You don’t have to shut me out as well.”
“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” my mother replied.
I didn’t think I was. As a new MFA student, I’d been contemplating ideas of alienation and loss. I’d been writing about themes of home and belonging. I’d have conversations over post-workshop drinks with my new peers peppered with words such as “dislocation” and “code-switching.” They’d respond back equally unsardonically with terms like “othering” and “cultural subordination.” It was an interesting bubble to live in, but this wasn’t my first time away from my family or Bombay, the city I grew up in. I’d left home to attend my final years of high school in a city 600 miles away. Two years later, I moved even farther away, leaving India to begin my undergraduate studies in Boston. While I moved back to Bombay after graduating, returning to the US five years later for my MFA had, in many ways, felt like a homecoming—that is, until my mother’s phone call.
There’s a dissonance to living in a separate country from your family. There are daily joys and daily tragedies that you miss, too distant and separate from you because they aren’t yours to hold or behold. I checked in often with my family the week after my mother’s call, but aside from that my life was undeterred. I continued writing, continued attending my grad classes, continued to go out with friends.
A ffew weeks later, during a call with my mother, she mentioned my sister had come down with the measles. “That’s weird,” I said. We’d both been vaccinated as children.
“I know,” my mother agreed. “She’s going through a rough patch, poor thing.” The measles stayed for a month. They got worse. A thick rash grew and spread all over my sister’s body.
Then, on another day, before another class, another phone call from my mother. Turns out, it wasn’t the measles. The doctors had misdiagnosed. It was a reaction to the epilepsy drugs. This time they’d been in the hospital for three days before calling me. “There’s a fear it might have manifested into Stevens-Johnson Syndrome,” my mother told me. “Don’t look that up. It sounds scarier online.”
I looked it up.
I started to have this dream. In the dream, I am my mother, running toward my sister’s bedroom. “Stop it, stop it, stop it,” I can hear my sister scream. When I find her, she is seizing, her eyes closed. “Stop it,” she mumbles. But I don’t know how to.
I begin to call my sister every day. Once, she tells me that every afternoon they give her an injection that takes half an hour to administer. The needle is longer than her fingers.
“Does it hurt?” I ask.
“Yes, but usually Mom is there and she asks me questions, which helps. Today, Dad was there. He’s not that good. He just sat and did his crossword and kept telling me not to think about it.”
We both agree that Dad is useless.
“He texted his friend that he wouldn’t be coming for bridge since his daughter was in hospital because of an adverse drug reaction,” my sister tells me. “His friend messaged back: God knows what stuff kids these days are taking.”
“What? That makes it sound like you’re a drug addict.”
“Did Dad at least correct him?”
“No. You know Dad. He sent back a smiley.”
Twenty minutes later, when I hang up, I realise this is one of the first real conversations I’ve had with my sister.
This is how I find out about my sister: My mother’s stomach grows strangely round when I am one and a half years old. She is thirty-six and happy that her prayers for a second child have been answered. “God is sending us a new brother or sister for you,” she tells me.
I am less impressed. “Tell Him I don’t want it,” I say.
When people ask me what the worst thing I’ve ever done is, I tell them I tried to throw my sister out of our apartment window. I was two years old. My mother caught me and stopped me in time. This is a good story because it has the desired shock effect, but a happy ending: the baby hovers for a terrible moment above a 200-foot drop, but is whisked safely away in the nick of time. Intention is stopped from becoming action. It’s also a safe story because it redeems me even as it inculpates me: I am two, I don’t know better, I don’t even remember it, though I am told it’s true.
Here’s what I do remember: My sister is sleeping in my old crib and I pinch her plump thigh. She wakes up crying. My sister’s face actually crumples when she cries, in the way you read about in books. It’s a slow process. A scrunching of the nose, a crinkling of the eyes, the cheeks collapse, the lips purse, and only then is there a wail. My mother found this whole progression so devastatingly cute that she would sometimes put a pinch of Vitamin C on my sister’s tongue just to watch her face crumple, always distracting her long before the wail could emerge. I had no such inhibitions. I was always committed to see the crumple through to its predetermined end.
My sister sensed none of this. She was naturally, foolishly trusting of me. As an infant, she would automatically stop crying when I held her in my arms. By the time she was three, she was calling me “Didi,” the Indian endearment for older sister. Around this time, I convinced her to let me cut her toenails with our mother’s scissors. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve seen Mom do it many times.” The result was predictably bloody. When we fought, I always had the physical and intellectual advantage. I’d grab her hair from behind, safely away from her reach, as she clawed the air. There, that crumpling face again. Yet, ten minutes later, she’d come back, all forgotten, and we’d go back to whatever game we were playing with our dolls that day.
When I think about it now, I don’t know what she saw in me, where this blind devotion came from. Now, I sometimes want to go back to that time and say, “Goddammit, kid, what the hell is wrong with you? You don’t seek comfort in the same hands that dangled you off a ledge; you always keep your back up when around a person who’s low enough to attack you from behind; and, if someone cuts off a chunk of your flesh, you stay away. You never, never, offer your foot again, one pinkie freshly bandaged, and say with a look that is both stupid and hopeful, ‘Didi, maybe you need to try with a bigger nail first?’”
My sister’s name is Daani, which means “the one who gives.” A few years back, she got a new laptop because her old one died. It was a great laptop, much lighter and faster than mine, and I increasingly began to use it when I wanted to get some work done. This should have pissed my sister off; it would have pissed me off. Instead, she came to me one day and said I could have it. “I can use yours,” she told me. “It works just fine.” I felt so many things in that moment: awe, guilt, disbelief, affection. None of that is really relevant though. What is relevant is that I took the laptop. And, really, that’s all you need to know to understand everything about my sister and me.
Flash forward to a few years after the bloodied digit. I’m no longer trying to pinch or defenestrate my sister. Instead, I am indifferent. We are not the kind of sisters who share friends or lives or secrets, even though we are in the same school. She is known by teachers in precisely the way I define her—as Kanika’s younger sister. I only recently found out how much this bothered her.
She will eventually enter another kind of school. One where she can escape the label of being my sister, but also one that comes with different labels of its own: “special needs”; “alternative learning.” But, before that, my sister is almost eleven. My mother was of the philosophy that, since my sister and I were born around the same time of year, we should have a combined birthday. My mother called this economy. I called it being cheap.
“You want cheap?” my mother would say. “I’ll give you cheap. How ’bout you kids take turns celebrating in alternate years?”
Let the record note: my mother’s always known how to win an argument.
That particular year though, I disenchant my mom of her notions. My sister has been held back a grade for the second time. I refuse to celebrate with nine-year-olds.
I have my birthday and it is great. For the first time, my sister and I don’t have to come to a consensus on a cake design. For the first time, it is only about me, although I grudgingly agree to keep my sister on the guest list.
“How come you get to be the older sister?” my sister asks me.
“Because I came first,” I say.
“So thirteen years is bigger than eleven years. Now don’t annoy me or any of my friends, okay?”
Two weeks later, when it is her turn, I am annoyed anyway. She’s in some outfit she’s convinced looks so good, but really doesn’t match at all. It’s new. She must’ve glanced in the mirror at least a dozen times. I roll my eyes. She wears her skirt too high.
“Hey, you know what?” she says while studying her reflection.
“I figured it out—I’m actually older than you.”
“Because I’m born in 1988 and you’re born in 1986. And eightyeight is bigger than eighty-six.”
“God, you’re so dumb.”
But even I can’t put a damper on my sister’s mood that day. She’s filled with such idiotic excitement it irritates me, having to stay, to bear with my little sister, her little friends. I am so old at thirteen.
Here’s another philosophy of my mother’s—if you have a party, you have to invite everyone in your grade, her version of No Child Left Behind. Only four girls show up. They stand by the window with my sister, praying in fervent whispers for more to appear; speaking in voices overcompensatingly loud to fill up the empty space. Eight eyes alight with condemnation for those no-shows; four mouths eating seconds, thirds even, of cake meant for forty, trying to make a dent; four self-righteous martyrs praising themselves just for being there. I hate them even more than the girls who didn’t make it. My sister smiles throughout. I am the one who registers the loss. I shut myself in my bedroom. I cry. I call my friends, angry, and five of them come over, bring presents, lead the younger girls away from the window and into the games my mother had planned.
This is the cementing of many firsts that will continue into long-lasting tradition. The first time that my disdain for my sister turns to protectiveness; the first time my friends will adopt her as theirs because she is mine: Kanika’s younger sister, always and forever.
The stories I’d write for my MFA workshop—those stories about alienation and loss—often featured families that were vaguely modelled around my own, with parents that invariably embodied aspects of mine, mirrored shades of the relationship I had with them—a strong mother figure, whose dynamic with the protagonist fluctuates between confidant and antagonist; a generally supportive, if mildly politically incorrect father, who acts as an anchor to the mother-daughter relationship. More often than not, a younger sister lingered in the background, butting her way into conversations with an occasional sigh or misplaced giggle that invoked slight annoyance in the protagonist, and slightly more annoyance than I’d anticipated in my workshop peers. “Do we really need the sister character?” a comment on my manuscript would read. “I don’t know what the sister character adds to the story. She seems an afterthought or a device to round off the family,” someone would say. I’d nod and assiduously scribble: What is the function of the sister character?
“Well, if you want to keep her, maybe you need more meaningful interaction between the sister and the protagonist,” a girl in my workshop suggested to me. I thanked her for the well-intentioned advice, but when it came to actually executing it, found myself at a loss.
I once read that the difference between something being lost and something being a loss is that inherent in the word “lost” is the idea that what is lost can be found. I began to wonder though, whether the truer loss, the greatest loss, is not of something that you can’t get back, but of something you never had to begin with.
I often question why my sister and I don’t have the kind of relationship that so many other sisters do. Maybe it has to do with the fact that my sister was diagnosed with severe learning disabilities when she was fairly young: dyslexia, dyscalculia, the list goes on. One of the side effects of these disabilities is the effect on her emotional growth. My sister is two years younger than me. In terms of emotional maturity though, she has been evaluated as many years younger than her actual age. I tell myself this is why we don’t connect in the way I’ve seen other sisters connect. But maybe that’s just an excuse. After all, my mother doesn’t have a close relationship with her younger sister either, for reasons that would take up an essay in itself, but let’s just say there are no learning disabilities involved there. Can you inherit certain losses? Can they, like illnesses, be passed down from gene to defective gene?
Here’s another excuse. I left home at sixteen and only really came back six years later at twenty-two. My sister and I were not around each other while we both went through a significant period of growth. While I was away, my family moved from Bombay to a small town for three years for my father’s final job posting before he retired. They had a whole new life that I knew nothing about.
I used to see this as my loss. But really, it wasn’t. There were no special needs schools in the town my family moved to, and my mother had to home-school my sister. My sister lost a school she loved, lost the few friends she had, lost a city in which she had spent her whole life up to that point. She and my mother fought more and more, unable to deal with the increasing amount of time they were forced to spend together every day. I went to new cities, new countries, gained new friends, new homes, new confidence. Is this how the world stays balanced? That for every gain one person makes, someone else has to lose something? Maybe this will always be the equation between my sister and me. She will continue to offer me her electronics, her dolls, her foot, her everything, and I will swallow my guilt and continue to accept. The world will maintain equilibrium. More and more, I think the reason my sister and I don’t connect is because I just don’t understand her. I don’t understand how someone so naïve, and trusting, and good can survive. And I want to protect her—from the world, from herself, but most of all, from me.
After my undergrad—years before my sister was diagnosed with epilepsy, years before I enrolled in my master’s program—I moved back home for a job. My mother handed off my sister to me. “You’re a part of this family,” she said. “She’s your sister, get her to meet people closer to her age.” I’d take my sister out with me, constantly feeling like her chaperone. I took her to a bar with some of my friends once, even though she doesn’t drink. A friend was talking about how you can pinpoint your passions or your priorities based off your first thoughts on waking up. “What is the first thing you think about in the morning?” he asked.
Someone said work, someone said money, some people said their significant others. I said I’d often be thinking of a story. My friend looked at my sister, wanting to include her in the conversation. “What’s the first thing you think about when you wake up?”
My sister sipped her Coke and looked at him like this was the most ridiculous question in the world. “Umm, breakfast?” she said.
I laughed, but my friend looked at her, stunned. He told me later that he hadn’t ever met anyone in their twenties who was that simple or unaffected. It was only through my friends’ eyes that I began to discover my sister’s innocence, her natural, often unintentional, affection.
By the time I returned to the US five years later, my sister had started teaching kindergarten, she’d made a few friends, she was more socially confident. She seemed to have made emotional progress. I could sense my mother relaxing. I suddenly had some hope that maybe, in a few years, my sister and I would finally be able to have a meaningful relationship.
And then, the seizures.
I didn’t realize how bad things were after my sister’s seizure until I returned home for Christmas. My sister’s face, arms, and stomach were all still marked by angry scars from the rash that were taking their time to fade. She began wearing dark, long-sleeved clothes. She rarely wanted to leave home. She lost her job because of extended medical absences. The losses weren’t just hers though. They were also my mother’s—my mother, who spent years teaching my sister, not just science and math, but also how to accept herself, how her disabilities didn’t mean she wasn’t intelligent or not worthy of love; my mother, who now watched as years of progress were erased overnight. I spent more time with my sister over that Christmas than I ever had before. I tried to take her out, talk to her.
“Encourage her passions,” my mother told me. I had no idea what my sister’s passions were. She played several Facebook games. I gifted her some food for her cows on Farmville, sent her a few extra lives on Candy Crush. I drew something on Draw Something. When QuizUp ranked her #1 in India in the Orange is the New Black category, I liked her status.
My sister’s latest passion was doctors. The seizures had turned her into a hypochondriac. If she so much as sniffled, she wanted to visit an ENT doctor. She had the numbers of seven different specialists on her phone. She was afraid that anything taken with anything else would result in the same kind of allergic reaction that had caused her rash. “Can you have milk with rice?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Can I eat this even though it was cooked yesterday?”
“Isn’t microwaving things bad?”
Sometimes lying is also a form of love.
I want this to be the kind of story where I had some kind of major breakthrough or moment of epiphany and everything changed—but life isn’t as easy as those movies where a serious illness works as a device to heal all relationships. Instead, after the Christmas break I spent trying to connect with my sister during her recovery from the seizures, I went back to New Jersey and once again got lost in my own life: I was working on completing my graduate thesis; I got engaged to my long-time boyfriend, and we decided to have the wedding in India. I graduated. I moved to LA to be with my partner, and in between job hunting and engaging in marathon phone calls with my mother about my wedding outfits and guest lists and price estimates, I had little time to have any meaningful conversations with my sister.
I came back home a month before my wedding to help with the last-minute preparations. It had been two years since my sister’s seizure, or what she referred to as “the incident,” and she had stabilized. The medications were helping, she had a new job at a school she liked, and my mother was back on her mission to get my sister to be more independent and responsible.
Toward this end, my sister had been enlisted to help out with organizing the wedding logistics, which was no small task. What had started off as a small-scale event had mutated into a sprawling celebration spanning five days and two cities. My sister tried her level best to help, and I tried less successfully to be patient with the well intentioned disasters that sometimes were the result. I would rewrite invites riddled with spelling errors and double-check price estimates to make sure she hadn’t added a zero or reversed some digits. Invariably, I’d snap—“How can you be so careless?” or “Why help if you’re just going to create more work?” Invariably, my sister would hear in these comments the silent echo of older words—God, you’re so dumb!
My sister’s face still slowly crumples when she cries.
Only now, I feel guilty immediately.
I felt especially guilty because, during my wedding, my sister was indispensable. She was constantly by my side, making sure I remembered to eat, rising before me every morning so she could make sure I woke up on time. She was my shadow, picking up my handbag when I put it down to dance, handing me glasses of water before I could ask, awake and sober even when the party went on till 4 am, so that I’d have someone to help me take off my jewellery and unzip my outfit before sleeping.
After the wedding reception dinner, when everything had concluded, after my parents and friends and cousins had all given speeches, I thanked my sister for her help.
“Did you have a good time?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “But you never asked me to speak. Everyone else gave speeches.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to say something?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you. You’re supposed to ask me. Who doesn’t ask their sister to speak at their wedding?”
It was a rare moment of assertiveness for my sister, and she was right. I made excuses to myself about how I’d done it to protect her, how I wasn’t sure if it would have been too much pressure for her, if she would choke up in front of all the guests and feel embarrassed. The truth is, it hadn’t occurred to me; on some horrible subconscious level, I may have even been afraid I’d be the one feeling embarrassed. I’d been grateful having my sister as my shadow, but hadn’t stopped to wonder if maybe this wasn’t an important occasion for her too, worthy, perhaps, of a moment in the spotlight for her as well.
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
My sister smiled and shrugged it off. “It’s okay.”
But, of course, it wasn’t. My sister’s face is an open book, and when it came to the story of my wedding, I’d already recognized the unasked question flashing in her eyes.
What was the function of the sister character?
If there are indeed any moments of epiphany in this story, then my sister pushing back at not being invited to speak at my wedding is one of them, even if it’s a fleeting one. For all my questioning about the relationship between my sister and me, this was the first time I’d heard her question it back, albeit in the gentlest way possible. Since then, I’ve noticed it happen a few more times. While I’m no longer pinching at my sister’s thighs or trying to take away her gifts, I’m still not above asking her not to touch my new iPad, while simultaneously demanding to wear a dress she just bought in the same breath. Mostly, my sister still lets me get away with it, but there’ve been a few times of late where she’ll see me eyeing a t-shirt that looks really nice on her, and she’ll say, “I really like this one. You can borrow it, but you can’t take it.” Or I’ll try and bully her into cleaning our room although the mess is mostly mine, and she’ll say, “No.”
And I guess it’s about time she made some demands of her own. My sister is thirty now, and even factoring in emotional maturity, she’s still in the realm of finally being an adult. She’s valued at a job where she teaches little children. She may still have problems with words and numbers, but she’s visually creative in a way that escapes me. She’s taught herself to sketch and paint and creates pieces of art that begin as a chaotic jumble of patterns and colours but seem to fit just right once she’s finished, often displaying a surprising depth and maturity of theme.
Sometimes, she’s a better adult than I am. I’m surprised by it every time I visit home and find myself looking to her for help instead of the other way around. She knows who to call if the toilet isn’t flushing properly or if the Internet isn’t working. She’ll notice if our father’s been coughing too frequently and bug him into making a doctor’s appointment. I tell myself this is because I don’t live at home anymore—the dislocations no longer hit me when I move away from family, but, rather, when I go back to visit them. I often feel like a guest trying to fit back into the rhythms of the daily life they’ve built without me, a life in which, in a surprising reversal, my sister has carved out a central position while I try to find my way back in. She never returns from work in a mood, but is always happy to be back home, generous in her hunger to find out what happened in my parents’ lives in the few hours she was away, curious to know if there are any errands my mother needs her to run that day. “She’s such a blessing to have,” my mother tells me. And though I’m sure it’s an innocuous comment, whenever my mother says this, I feel the undercurrents of a comparison.
And try as I might not to, I still sometimes feel that infant insecurity of the possibility that my sister might become a more integral part of my parents’ lives than I am. But it also makes me wonder whether part of my sister’s current growth doesn’t have to do with the fact that I moved away, that she could finally grow out of my shadow and reach for the spotlight that I wouldn’t willingly give her. I reach back for it at times in petty ways: insisting when I’m home that I get some time alone with my mother without my sister present, demanding that my sister and father give up the daily TV shows they like to watch together at night and invest in something I prefer watching. More often than not, my sister lets me have the win. It’s so easy sometimes that I’ve begun to suspect it’s not because she no longer knows better, but because she’s indulging me; because she knows I need it, and she’s always been the person who prefers to be kind rather than right. She may be the younger one, but, in many ways, my little sister is the bigger person.
Yet, despite my insecurities, if there were a way to preserve the current situation, I’d do it: keep my parents and sister fixed in the practiced harmony they’ve perfected—happy, healthy. I want to put a dome around them; encase them in a snow globe perched high on a shelf, safely away from any disturbances. Because I know there’s likely turbulence ahead—gentle flurries of what ifs that could turn into a blizzard at any given moment: What if my sister falls ill again? What happens as my parents age? Or worse, what if they’re no more? What if my sister is still not able to be fully independent by then? Do I move her to live in America with me? Can I legally do that given current immigration conditions? And, even if I manage, would I be able to provide her with as sturdy a cocoon as my parents did?
With these thoughts, everything shatters. The plastic figurines in the globe come unglued, scatter and fall. My palms grow clammy and my grip tightens around the dome; the glass spider-webs. These days, I feel, I am both the jealous sibling holding an infant over an abyss and the anxious mother furiously running toward her child, afraid she’s not going to make it in time to save her.
Kanika Punwani has an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University-Newark, where she also taught English. An editor and writer, her nonfiction spans the travel, lifestyle, and culture sectors and has appeared in several Indian publications. A VONA alum, she is currently working on a debut short story collection that deals with themes of home, identity, and migrations. Her most recent work has been published in The New York Times.
Mario Loprete is an Italian artist. He writes, “Painting is my first love. An important, pure love….The sculpture is my lover, my artistic betrayal to the painting. That voluptuous and sensual lover that gives me different emotions, that touches prohibited chords, The new series of works on concrete is giving me more personal and professional satisfactions…..The reinforced cement, the concrete, was created two thousand years ago by the Romans. It has a made amphitheaters, bridges and roads that have conquered the ancient and modern world. Now it’s a synonym of modernity. Everywhere you go and you find a concrete wall, there’s the modern man in there.”