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Bhai, Bhai

Ashwin Mahesh continues our reflections on fifty years of freedom

Illustration by Dominic Xavier 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 the ages.

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 their lives.

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 see?

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