"Sometimes, I worry... if she dies first, what will happen to me?"
This fear is voiced not by a spouse or partner, but by a sister -- in Tanuja Chandra's latest film, 'Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha', a documentary on her two elderly paternal aunts who live together in a village close to Delhi. The film is part of this year's online NYIFF & is available on MovieSaints for a few days. I had difficulty logging in, which was a great disappointment this weekend. But even the 3-min trailer left a mark on me ... & compelled me to write this post.
I was moved because it resonated with me. This is, after all, what I ask myself frequently… have asked myself most in the past few months. If anything were to happen to didi (my sister), how will I live?? For as certainly as I know that the earth is round & that night is followed by day & winter by spring, I know that I can’t do without her. Doesn’t matter that oceans lie between us, that even an annual meeting is too much to ask for, that we will always miss out on each other’s special days, that I will bring up a child without ever having the comforting presence of either my mother or sister near me, that we will actually never live together. Doesn’t matter. Because I know, when I need her, she will be there. Always. From convincing Baba to agree to my marriage when I was quite young to standing in for Ma when Srishti was born 13 years later, from gifting me a holiday when I was almost losing my mind in my mid-30s to standing by me when I started afresh in my early-40s, to financially supporting my dream project… she has been there for everything that really mattered to me.
21 years we have lived apart: first in different cities in India, then in different continents - in two glittering capitals of the world, New York and Amsterdam - leaving Ma forlorn in Kolkata. At one point, we fantasized living together in our old age… may be in adjacent flats, for we fight too much for us to survive in the same space!! After Ma’s death in 2016, that fantasy should have given me renewed hope… but, ironically, that is the time I realized that we are destined to live apart. I’ve made my peace with that reality now.
But I have seen other sisters, across three generations - my grandma’s, Ma’s & mine - who have been both mentally and physically close, living in the same city/ town/ neighborhood/ building, sharing lives in ways that are never possible long-distance. This is true of all relations, not just siblings. But there’s something about the intimacy of the bond between sisters that renders it particularly desirable. I have heard numberless women of varying age vouch that their sisters are the closest person in their lives, and that they would like to live together, or at least close by, in old age – if they don’t do so already. I have seen the truth of this statement borne out in the lives of women dear to me: my dida (maternal grandmother), who lived walking distance from two of her sisters in Habra; same for my mami (maternal uncle’s wife); my sister by marriage, who lives one floor below her own sister in Hyderabad; my dearest aunt (outside family relations) whose sister lived one floor above hers in Kolkata (till last Nov). This is not to say that I’ve never seen soul-mate brothers, or soul-mate brother-and-sister; I have, but soul-mate sisters seem to outnumber them easily.
The sisters I am referring to are, however, not just one’s own siblings, but also cousins or friends who have been an integral part of one’s life for a long time. In fact, given the no of people growing up in nuclear families since our generation, friends are increasingly the only family one is left with. Both didi & I have another sister we can’t do without – our respective besties. Here, too, the fantasy of living close by in old age is strong. In my case, once again, I’ve accepted the impossibility of it; but didi might still land up with her bestie somewhere in the US. (Save for me, all three of them live there).
This brings me to the question: what about those who don’t have siblings or friends they want to die with? And what of them who can't rely on their partners to hold their hands in old age? I’m afraid the latter category is the invisible majority. For, far before death parts partners, life does. Some part amicably, some bickering all the way. Still others, live separately in the same house. The only lucky ones are those who genuinely live together – though it’s a luck that is always hard earned.
We are conditioned to believe in ‘happily ever after’, the ‘death do us part’ a natural corollary to it. We aspire to that condition, and are invariably left distraught when it turns out different for us. We give far more importance to romantic love and marriage than they deserve. Because, in the final analysis, neither romantic nor marital relationships are life-sustaining - for a vast majority of people. The ones that are - the loyalty/solidarity of friends and siblings - are not eulogized obsessively in poetry and song and film. That’s because we tend to take these relationships for granted… until we are left alone.
May be it’s time that we gave the other kinds of love in our lives their due.