In Bangalore, two schools, Sacred Hearts Girls’ School and St Anthony’s Boys’ School, shared a common boundary wall. I studied in the former, and my brother, Manish, studied in the kindergarten in the latter. The schools were close to home. The gate between the two schools would be opened during lunch break. A maid would bring our tiffin boxes from home, and we both would be fed under one of the shady trees in the school grounds. One of my earliest memories is being summoned by one of Manish’s class teachers. She wanted to know if my brother had any speech impediment. He apparently never spoke in class, or socialized with his classmates.
He was born at home in Hazaribagh, in my grandfather’s huge house. And the standing joke in the family was that he was so puny when he was born, that he was delivered right on the staircase at home, even before my mother could be taken to the hospital. That was Manish for you. Fragile, delicate, and prone to getting ill. He was my mother’s most favourite child. If I said khichdi and he said kadhi, you knew she would make kadhi! She never forgot to rub it in, that of her three children, he was her best looking one, with the best ‘face-cut’ and a mop of curly hair. She literally protected him under her pallu. And he held on to it always. Theirs was a bond that was very strong. In her eyes, he could do no wrong. Every sin could be forgiven. Now, he’s gone back to be with her. His most special person.
Today, there is a strangely peaceful smile on his face as he sleeps eternally. He almost seems to be secretly amused. I see his school mates buzzing around helping me with the rituals at his funeral. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing. People who are vaguely familiar call to offer condolences, and I realize that he has been in touch with so many. That recluse who initially shied away from meeting people has connected with them through ways which were more comfortable to him. Through his writing. Through social media.
The hazy rush of images in my head takes me back to my childhood. When other kids played outside, Manish and I would spend our vacation playing games of creating stories. We would give each other a string of ten unrelated words. And each would have to weave a tale using them in an hour. I still retain copies of those stories we created. As a kid, I had a diary with a lot of my writing. And on the first page was a note, saying, that if something should happen to me, Manish would be the best person to edit my work. I wonder who would do that now. I look at my emails and find several of them, discussing the edits to the short stories that he wrote for his book, The Bicycle Thief and Other Short Stories. I know of a few film scripts that must be saved on his computer.
Sitting in the airport, I am trying to process the news of his death. All the photos that I have on my phone of him are from my childhood. hardly any from the present. My fingers scroll through the Whatsapp chats I have had with him. Strangely they are all about random memories and people from Pondicherry. A message I receive from a school friend talks about his elephantine memory. And it is then I realize where I connected with him best. A shared childhood.
It was memories which kept us connected. A stray tune from a Malayalam song, a teacher with a quirky teaching style, a rumour about a mistress that a neighbour had hidden away, a film that we had seen on the rewind on the VCR, lyrics of a song we sang together, the answer to a googly of a quiz question, an incident on the badminton court, a prawn rasam that we had tasted at Easter— vague but important memories. With my parents gone, I had only him to talk about details of things we cherished so much. I guess it was the same for him as well.
And now suddenly, it seems as if someone has wiped out that part of my childhood rudely.