[6 MINUTE READ] About my brother Shyam
With time, everything is forgotten. Memories and dreams grow alike and interchangeable, and leak beyond the horizon of the heart with the certainty of sunset. They leave a residue of love and longing, that remain in our bodies and become our stories.
My brother was 17 months older than me. When he was 7 years old he won silver in the 50m run at the school sports meet. As he crossed the finish line, the wind raced past my ears and a surge of lightness rumbled through the wooden stadium planks. His joys and fears were mine and my hopes and victories were his. I could never truly accept that he was another person.
My brother spoke with a stutter. His hesitating request for a chance to bat once, was mimicked by some of the older kids. It briefly became a clarion call to choke him on the cricket field. I don’t recall for how long. I learnt to cope with forgetfulness. He did with kindness. That was the way things were.
I heard my mother speak to him about it. It was my earliest dreamlike awareness towards the haunting nature of human vulnerabilities.
My mother came to school once to seek exemption from him making a speech at the assembly. We were unburdened of that when she returned, even as she shared a story about our English teacher who spoke impeccably but practiced talking with stones in his mouth – on the beach and facing the full force of the sea breeze – to overcome a childhood stutter. Not sure if that was true but what persisted was the visual image of our English teacher in an endless conversation with the stormy seas.
We had an unspoken pact between us that my confidence would be his armour. Our code of combat was implicit. If he ever needed to push back I would partner him with a fraternal intensity that far outweighed the power in my limbs.
We fought each other like brothers do – he was the sage and I the savage. I turned on him once during a family vacation in Yercaud. He disappeared from my moment of brutal retaliation with the one rebuke I knew would hurt him the most. We searched for him for a few hours. He finally returned with a forgiving smile even as the anger and disappointment of everyone else around me remained. It no longer mattered then because his forgiveness was complete. His love for me did not need reasons – only the smallest opportunities.
Many years later I would return to Yercaud. Driving through a winding tree lined slope, I would imagine they were the same paths on which my brother walked away from the brief treachery of his only sibling.
The landscape of human memories are filled with familiar territories that have long been deserted. The monsoon winds swept across the Arabian Sea and left a spray of fresh mist on the olive green table in our bedroom. Our LP player infused that breeze with the Calypso sounds of Harry Belafonte singing Jamaican Farewell. That song was our anthem – it rolled into the rainfall and seeped into the aquifers of our childhood.
— x —
My brother died four days after his 25th birthday. I was sitting at a desk in a make-shift office within a warehouse when I got the news.
I drove back to the city in a Jeep, the familiarity of the retreating landscape tinged by the strangeness of my brother’s dissolution. I put an arm around my father to comfort him. It was hard to respond with either faith or fury to the irreversible nature of destiny.
We sat together quietly on the sidewalk waiting for our ride to the airport. Life continued to be relentlessly lived on the street. Their stark sounds floating towards us like a faint echo from another dimension. I could only hear his sadness and love, both overpowering each other into a helpless silence.
Death, unlike life, does not get immediately swallowed by the momentum of time. It remains transfixed, even as the air fills up with a surreal scent that settles on everything around and throttles their animated solidity.
A widening distance between molecules is all it takes, to transform all that we think is real into what we consider as nothing.
I wait for an uplifting way to accept mortality, one that is intimate and kind, like he was. As I dust his ashes into the ocean, they float away like a flock of migratory birds. I embrace the spirit that remains – one that churns everything into itself.
I spent the next year in seclusion with my mother’s younger sister. She was matter of fact in a way that was almost comical and lived her life with a soft discipline that crept onto me. He would tell her that she was like his own mother. So that’s how I accepted her too.
The way people mourn is as typical as how they speak. Both distilled from a variety of combinations drawn from the same pond of social influences. A mourning congregation can resemble a mutiny of voices at a crowded Café.
My aunt was the anti-thesis of a mourner. She had been a widow since her late twenties. Pragmatic acceptance and the avoidance of unnecessary thinking were the two legs on which she lived. Both of which are hurdles to the build-up of a suitably mournful environment. So she left me largely to my own devices, fed me well and ensured that I woke up before the birds began chirping in her bungalow compound and went to bed soon after the sun sank into the suburbs. It kept me close to the smell of the earth.
My sadness began to resemble the borrowed emotions of other people. And yet when I cried, something flowed like the extended emotional variant of a sneeze. A spontaneous wave that concluded with a sense of relief. It is so hard to deceive our own biology.
Confusion and curiosity were what persisted. Imbued with earnest love. Propelled by a longing for reconciliation.
— x —
My daily routine included cycling twice a day to a Mutt that skirted a large Temple water reservoir. The city’s busiest shopping district was at one end, and on the other side was this large meditation hall.
I would sit here each day, enveloped by a familiar and fluid darkness.
That darkness had appeared before my closed eyes a long time ago. Sitting on the floor in my bedroom, on my yoga mat, listening to the halting voice of our old bespectacled yoga teacher. I was six years old. I would watch it then – it had the darkness of a mother’s womb. Safe, warm and filled with a peace delivered with no strings attached.
As a child, I was afraid to be alone in a dark room. They were never empty. Ajar bathroom doors, open dusty loft cabinets, corridors turning into secret niches, window hinges groaning under the strain of the wind. I sensed a constant stranger behind each dark corner. A tingling fear would travel into the pores of my skin and strangulate them. I had to dart towards the door and open it. The light would pour in to displace those dark corners and my pores would breathe again.
But the darkness behind closed eyes was like my own soothing reflection. An imperceptible identity. Independent of my body, my home, my name and my life. Being close to it again felt reassuring.
The grip of my ordinary life gradually weakened. A void would take its place – one that escapes time and all the stories framed within it. When we surrender into its vibrant emptiness, who we are is left behind along with all the confusions that bind us.
It is only then that we can truly see.
My brother had disappeared from the dream of the elements. A tuneful note consumed by the rhythm of its own song. His passage was no longer my story but remained as a pure experience – free of the voice of pain. What began as a singular event frozen in time became a flowing airstream – that could not be held or resisted but only embraced. And that is how he remains within me, even as I remain within him.
In silence, we encounter the world with its essential fluidity intact.
The purpose of the human experience is to understand our own true nature. The idea of loss, hardship and pain are songs of the heart that we accept, befriend and dance with along our journey and not burdens for us to carry. The human spirit is inextinguishable, and it transcends our preoccupation with ourselves through every life situation.
When Lord Krishna sought to take leave of the Pandavas, after helping them win the epic Kurukshetra battle and ensuring that their dark days were behind them, Kunti sought for calamities to rain upon her so that Krishna would always remain by her side. It is a metaphor for the elixir of suffering, which makes the physicality of events fold into the elusiveness of experience, until all that is left is love and surrender.
In life my brother showed me the unconditionality of love and in death he left me with the wisdom of surrender.
Those were his songs that stayed behind. And so, there are always songs to sing.