Ashwin Mahesh continues our reflections on fifty years of freedom
This autumn, it will be five years since my brother died.
He was my
friend, my opponent in a thousand games we played and the many brawls we
had, my companion, my target for big-brother bullying, my secret-keeper and
my competitor for his and my share of my grandmother's toffees or the one
bicycle we had. I didn't always agree with him, I didn't always fight
either, we simply had the normal lives of siblings engaged in the battle of
When all the actions and memories of our childhood have receded
into the dust of the ground, he will still be my brother, and that's what I
remember the most. In some weirdly complex process that I could never
describe fully, I miss the intangible more than the tangible. From that
deep bond that is borne of a shared childhood, and without ever
acknowledging it to him, I loved him. I often think of him.
I lost another brother like him a long time ago. Fifty years ago, to be
exact. He was much older than I, so much older that I thought he had died
before I was born. I've heard stories of his life, of his remarkable zeal
for a free nation, his undying struggle for his people, his courage, his
vision. I've also heard of his dark side, that he left our family because
he wanted his own house. He felt that I was a privileged child in our
family, and he felt that he would never gain the sort of attention and
stature that I could because he was neglected and I was cherished. Fifty
years ago, he left our house, and built his own.
When he left, my brother urged a number of folks in our family to go with
him, to build his new house and to give his dreams shape. Some went, some
stayed. Some of the elders in my house have said no more than "good
riddance", they even taught their children to remember my brother's
estrangement, and never cared to mention his redeeming qualities. Some
others have mourned his leaving in unfathomable ways, their grief too
bitter to express, their loss too profound to comprehend. Still others
have tried to put his memory out of their heavy hearts and move on with
Our family regrouped and looked ahead to the future, to grand visions laid
forth by such luminaries as Gandhi and Nehru. With their passing, the pall
that had fallen over our family deepened. The wounds of the terrible summer
when we were broken apart by our conflicting dreams re-emerged. Many of my
uncles and aunts found themselves not much better for this separation,
others merely ignored the malaise and hatred that had divided us and lived
their lives in vigorous detachment, seeing no more than they wished to,
and hearing even less.
Every once in a few years, my brother comes to see us. The entire family
sometimes sits in the verandah outside our ancestral home and reminisces
about the past, about a time when we were all children of the same house,
about the things we do in our homes that are still so similar even after
these years of separation. Other times, bullies hurl rocks and insults and
demand that my brother be forced to stay in his own house.
Sometimes when I think of my brother, I try to imagine how life would be
if he were still with me. Perhaps we would still be playing together
outside the house, perhaps I'd have someone with whom to share my distaste
for homework and school. Perhaps my grandfather would spend half his time
telling him not to do half the million things he warns me to avoid. We'd
probably still fight every once in a while. I find these things hard to
imagine, perhaps by such dreams, I achieve little more than fit him
into my world, I find I know so little of his.
Reality is a strange counterpart to my dreams. I realise how my life has
changed since his leaving. The agony of a family torn by the loss of a
brother has lived with us for some years now. I consider his passing and
cherish so much more the life I myself have. I consider his leaving and
mourn the half-liberty that I gained from it. Why did he leave, will I
ever fully understand his aspiration, will I ever fully realise his
hopes? Can I be both the person I am and the future he never grew up to
The family-feuds and shared childhood are mixed in a web so complex that
my mind can weave it only partly. But inside of me, in a place that I can
only imagine, I can stop caring about the feud and our childhood fights
and simply remember the one thing that matters more than anything ever
will. He is my brother not because of the fond memories of our childhood,
and certainly not because we built the castles of our dreams together. He
was born my brother, and that he will always be.
I wish I could have my brother back.
Ashwin Mahesh is an atmospheric scientist at the University of
Washington, in Seattle. His contributions examine and challenge the status
quo in a range of social and economic issues.
Illustration by Dominic Xavier