“It’s just…” Rishabh turns another page of the book he is pretending to read, “I don’t like the way he looks at me.”
I try to be indignant. I should be able to defend you better, brother. It hurts that I can’t stand up to my own son, when you were always ready to fight the world for me.
“Don’t talk about your uncle like that.” A feeble attempt.
“Sorry.” Equally unconvincing.
The doorbell rings and Rishabh burrows further into his book. I open the door to find you, brother, as radiant as ever. My usual joy battles with this new sense of fear, of bubbling anxiety as your eyes flit towards your nephew. I can’t make sense of this. These feelings are unfamiliar, out of place. So I tamp them down. You are home. You are safety. You are comfort and warmth and everything right. You are my protector. I don’t know how to be afraid of you.
And I don’t know how to protect.
Did I ever tell you, brother, how grateful I was every time you walked with me from the bus stop? It was irrational, at least to you, for me to demand that. You didn’t know about those teenage boys and the hair-pulling and the arm-twisting and the punching. I forget their faces now, never even found out their names. But you never asked. You just walked with me when I asked. Did you figure it out? Did you notice the dishevelled hair and the scratches and the desperate beelines for the shower when Mummy was too busy and Papa too tired to notice?
I don’t know how you did it, but you were always there, brother.
I think sometimes that I didn’t do enough for you. But you never asked me to. I never thanked you for that, because I know I couldn’t have given you anything in return.
“Rishabh! I need your help!” I cry over the sizzle of the onions. The heat and the proximity of the cooking pan grate on my nerves. I sigh and turn around, irritated. The door swings open and he steps out of the room, his head bowed, refusing to make eye contact. He does that a lot these days. You follow him out, looking apologetic, your expression unbearably fond as you smile down at him.
“Sorry for keeping him,” you say, patting his shoulder.
It’s easy to miss the tiny wince he gives when you touch him. Easy to miss the beads of sweat glistening on your foreheads.
I can still hear the AC rumbling inside the room.
“It’s okay, I don’t need him anymore,” I croak and turn back to my onions.
I pretend not to notice the hauntingly familiar way in which Rishabh rushes to the shower.
The weather really is hot.
Do you remember the time Rishabh was born? I want so much for it to make a special memory. It only gets worse each day.
I try so hard to remember my baby’s first cry, his first look. All those highly romanticized emotions that are supposed to be triggered in a new mother. I’m sure they were there, under the lingering shadow of all the things that had gone wrong that day. The storm, the floods; the news of my husband stuck in a car, a potential casualty of the fatal Mumbai rains. Not knowing whether my baby would come into this world fatherless. And still you were there, brother. You were there to get me through it all, to first pick my baby up and place him in my arms.
You were so happy, brother. There was so much love in your eyes. I knew it was there to stay.
And I was right, wasn’t I?
Because I can see just how much you still love my son.
“Why can’t papa take up a regular job?” Rishabh asks me, as I iron out his uniform for the football game. “Why does he have to be away all the time?”
“He is happy with this job. And it isn’t always that easy.” I feel too tired to explain.
He picks at an invisible thread in the bedsheet.
“How long is uncle going to stay?” he asks in a near-whisper, like it isn’t meant to be heard.
I sigh in response, feeling the weight of everything he is trying not to say. I look up at him and for the first time in days, he meets my gaze.
I wish he hadn’t. His eyes are too vacant for a twelve year-old’s.
“I’ll be out late for the game,” he says, getting up from the bed and snatching the half-ironed jersey from my hands. He pauses. “In case uncle asks.”
The fact that he doesn’t slam the door shut on his way out speaks volumes. I feel bile burning my throat.
I know I wasn’t a worthy sister to you, brother. But did you have to make me a terrible mother too?
I was wrong before. You ask far too much in return.
When Rishabh was four, I took him to the market. We were followed by some drunks on our way back. Nothing came of it, we lost them soon enough. But I was terrified for a few minutes. And you were the first person I thought of, brother. It should have been Rishabh’s father. But no. I thought of you.
I clang the dishes noisily as I wash them, trying to maintain the illusion of my ignorance, my back turned to you and Rishabh at the table. Desperate to hear more, to hear it from you. For you to give me something to counter this still-present semblance of trust to which I can’t stop clinging. This lingering doubt that I can’t brush off even in the face of all those soiled pyjamas Rishabh has been laying out for me in the bathroom ever since that day you came to stay.
When you say it, finally, I nearly miss it amidst the blood rushing in my ears.
It comes out breathless, urgent, as if you have just been running. My stomach churns painfully.
I turn around to find you stroking his palm on the table, looking at him in a near-trance. Rishabh glances at me as I walk towards the table. You don’t.
It is then, in the face of your casual indiscretion, that it smacks me in the face. The reality of it all. The fact that I was equally, if not more, culpable in this. That all this while, I had been in denial of not only your guilt, but mine too.
Because wasn’t it me who cemented these roles for us? You, the protector, me, the weakling? After all, it isn’t surprising that I could be so invisible to you. I practically made myself invisible, didn’t I, hiding from everything that scared me?
“Please,” you whisper, still in that breathless tone that disgusts me more than those bullies ever did.
“He said no,” I say as I come to stand behind Rishabh’s chair, testing that word on my tongue, the weight of it making me feel stronger, more significant.
You look at me finally, your eyes unrecognizable. There is no fear, no affection in them. They repulse me now, make it easier to look through the brother I had once loved.
You scrape your chair as you get up, and stomp out of the house without a word.
I look down at Rishabh staring at his porridge. I have always been afraid of being alone. I used to think you were all I had. But this doesn’t feel too bad, I realise, as I lightly squeeze his shoulder. He hums a little, acknowledges my presence. I sit down beside him. I don’t hug him just yet. There’s still a lot to wade through.
I’m still scared, brother. But it’s better this time. I’m scared of you. I’m scared of what you turn me into.
I finally learned how to be afraid of you, brother. And now that you can’t be my protector anymore, I will learn to cope without one.
I will learn to protect.