We dreamed big, Shonu and I. Sitting under the shade of a tree similar to the Australian bottle tree, we’d dream of becoming small. We’d pick up one of its pods that looked a lot like a boat and imagine a miracle that would make us tiny enough to fit inside it. We’d plan to rip off a part of his shirt (it was always his shirt, never my frock) to make a sail of it, and sail the nearby watershed. Or, when the monsoon was gone, we would dream of sitting atop the very tree we used to be sitting under. Right where the birds sat. And look at the world from the eyes of a being that Saw It All. It was a big dream. At least we thought so at the time.
The three years between us was just the right distance. At every age, he was old enough to save his little sister, and I was young enough to satiate his sense of responsibility. I was a bungling, confused, irritable little girl and he was naturally suave and charming. But we were both incorrigible recluses. Quite a twosome. We laughed at the world, protected each other from it, learnt the tricks to rope in the moon just a little closer. Yes, we were great together. Perhaps that is why, despite having the usual friends at school and around home, we never really did need a special confidant for a tête-à-tête, or a best friend to chide us when we did wrong. When we grew older, we shared common beliefs. If one of us got past the other in overcoming a hurdle, the other was never left in the cold to wonder about the confusing labyrinth, for there was always a hand to chalk out the path. It was beautiful. We were old enough to call each other best friends of a lifetime, when he died.
Writing about a loved one gone is sometimes threatened with the prospect of the words sounding like eulogy. Please remember while we traverse through some of these memories I have of him that this is not a eulogy, it is a love note.
When I was born, my mother tells me, he would stand at her room’s door in the hospital and refuse to come in. He would just keep looking at this tiny bundle from a distance and probably wonder what it had done to his mother. He was in the habit of sleeping only if there was a strand of our mother’s long hair across his lower lip. I had come in between him and that strand. When they brought me home, he kept his distance from both our mother and me. We were with my grandparents at the time. The whole household was worried that he wasn’t accepting me well, and such a delightfully pleasant boy, too. A couple of days later, probably tired of sulking and dying with curiosity, he agreed to come to my crib-side. When he did, I grabbed his fingers, I am told. He grinned for the first time in days. That must have been the beginning of a relationship of mutual delight and support.
Through heartbreaks, failed cycling attempts, Rambo I – First Blood stories, climbing guava and mango trees (only to get stuck at the highest branch) and shoddy academic performance at school, he continued to hold my hand. I slipped and fell often, guided by my rebellious, confused ideas. In such times, he first did what I thought I needed the most. He saved me from my mother’s acerbic remonstrance, in turn saving her and, sometimes my father, from the agony of having to say difficult things to their much loved but annoyingly headstrong daughter. And then, in private, he gave me a piece of his mind. Ever so gently.
Our father had to be away often for months together on military exercises or deployments. We all missed him, of course. Mummy and I would tell him as much on phone. Shonu acted the man of the house, hiding his frustration when he needed this or that answered, or just wanted the dining chair next to him to be not empty. To keep us a little happy, my mother kept a picture of my father on the television in one of the bedrooms. She began to notice that on some days, the picture was turned down flat on the T.V. Blaming it on her own failing memory, she thought she sometimes forgot to put back the frame after the dusting. One day, she happened to be in the room when Shonu was going to take a bath. The bathroom was right next to the T.V. While going in, he turned down our father’s photograph. Curious, she asked him what he was doing. “Papa’s looking at me. When I come out, there will just be a towel around me,” he said shyly. “I sometimes forget to put it back up.”
But his gentleness was selective. And extremely biased in favour of those that he loved. I was 13 when I began to notice the attention from the older boys at school. I told my brother one day about this guy who’d buzz around my friends and me, exhibiting his newly discovered hormonal surge. He was the school’s newest, much-feared ruffian. The next day, this buzzer came to me and my friends, head bowed down, and said, “Sorry, sister,” and walked away. My brother was standing at the far end of the school quadrangle, watching. When I asked him what he’d done, he said, “Why would I do anything? He must have seen sense.”
My brother could lie too.
At his interview for joining the Indian Military Academy, the interviewer asked him how he rated honesty. He said he couldn’t possibly think of being honest all the time. “How can you tell a bride on her wedding day that you think the look is not quite right?”
Twenty seven years is a lot of time to leave memories that may last a lifetime, and more. Which ones do I type? What do I tell you to tell you how this absolutely brilliant individual changed my life forever? In his life, and with his death.
This vicissitude in our lives, my parents and mine, after we lost the one strong anchor that had helped us home in to the Goodness, has left us struggling to find a footing somewhere. But he wouldn’t know. He’s probably up there sitting on this tree-top outside my window, grinning his usual grin. Yes, he had a way with his grin.
About the title: Had he become a pilot, as he had wanted to, he’d have wanted his call name to be Fulcrum.