Always on Dussehra, my sister who is a rung up in the family ladder would remember the older one who lived with us briefly. She was not too old when she fell ill on a winter night that thundered and wept with rain. By the morning she was gone, a few days short of my second birthday, and one of her own too.
Although we were a family where the purse was slender and its strings were tight, it was not uncommon to make exceptions for an industrious ward. So, she would write extra lessons, help mother in kitchen and wash my baby shirts in a blue plastic tub, and her earthen money bank would be choking with coins by the turn of the festival. She was panting with excitement that last year in the fair, dragging around her younger sister for a final heist at the toyshops who would sell their stuff at half the prices before the closing time, once the effigies of Ravana and his kin had gone down roaring with the fireworks. She fondly brought home a clay horse for the brother who had missed all that fun. It was blue in colour, its saddle painted red, and the rider whose head I mistook for a candy was dressed in green; I nearly choked on the solid ball of clay and brought a lot of grief upon her. I am sure our mother boxed her ears in the ensuing hullabaloo. As for father, he forbade her to bring any more stuff for me, ever. Of course, she wouldn’t.
I don’t have the tiniest of memories of her but it was all whispered in my ears by the elder one who would go on to teach me quite a few things in life, like how to blow shiny bubbles off a burst balloon’s rubber, or why the crows cawed in the trees at dusk. Sometimes I asked her what she had looked like and she would say if I looked in her eyes with all my heart, I’d find her peering at me, because many things that she ever knew was taught to her by the lost one who loved to eat the crusted slice. I would be warned too, in suitably dark tones, not to broach the subject of this bubbly sister with anyone, most of all, my parents. To be fair to myself, I remained as faithful to her as a small boy could be, till one day my heart overflowed with love for the long lost sister whom I never knew, and I decided to enlist my father’s help to ensure her return —he was large and powerful, was he not?
Years passed after that and I’d never hear again of the missing sibling from my sister. There were times when on a whim, or for old time’s sake, I did try to invoke the lost one but she would seal her lips instinctively. By the time my sister parted ways with me to go to a girl’s school, it was all forgotten like a vague, flaky dream. Soon she would have loads of girlfriends both in the neighbourhood and school, and she would get busy in her own way.
One day though, she returned from school in pouring rain, drenched to the bones. She was shivering uncontrollably and had to be rushed to the hospital. Father came home briefly to inform she would not come home that night, she was down with pneumonia. Later, in the evening, I upturned her schoolbag to rescue the soggy notebooks and possibly dry them up. That was when a postcard sized black and white photograph of a girl caught my eye, it had fallen on the floor with her stuff. The face in the photograph seemed eerily familiar, she seemed to be looking back directly at me.
I slept fitfully that night and sometimes towards the daybreak I dreamt of a girl standing at our front door with a toy horse in her hands. She seemed dripping with water, her hair was half plastered on her face. She kept asking me to ride away together, to ride away into the sky and die. I kept refusing to talk to her and then she asked for a slice of bread, the crusted one. I am not sure why I woke up crying fitfully, I was a lad grown up enough not to do that. Perhaps I was stung with the pain of the girl who had been hungry out there in the rain for years, the girl from whom our family had pulled away her home and name. I don’t remember telling any of it to my mother who rushed in to hug me tightly. In between my sobs though, I asked her to give the crusted slice of bread to a girl who was perhaps on our door, and she froze. Quickly enough, her cheeks were awash with rivulets of tears and she pressed her face against my chest. Her body heaved with a terrifying whimper that had begun escaping her throat, but it was strangely calming to both of us.