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The remote: a bridge between two siblings

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(Drawing courtesy of Jackson Cote)

Anyone who has grown up with an older sibling understands the monopolization of the TV remote; you either watch what the sibling is watching, or you don’t watch at all. Consequently, I grew up watching football. I did rebel at first, even trying my hand at a physical brawl, but in vain. Eventually, I believe football became my Plato’s cave, wherein I found myself willingly waking up at 6 a.m. just to watch the Manchester Derby with my brother.

Since our parents both worked, Saturday mornings would consist of our five-and eight-year-old selves sprawled in the living room, watching Cartoon Network. My brother assembled bread and jam for the both of us, while I sat there majestically (internally reveling in his accusation that my jam-spreading skills were deplorable).

We weren’t the ‘prodigy sibling couplet’ that one often sees, where the younger sibling is just an updated version of the older. In fact, we were opposites. He hated peas, I could eat a bowl full of them; he saw his world in numbers, and I saw mine in words. We stayed up way past curfew each night, gossiping and recounting our days to each other, only to engage in a shouting match the following morning about who was responsible for us missing the school bus.

We watched our father and aunt talk on the phone maybe once every few months, and would look at each other and say, “That’s never going to be us.”

In 2014, my brother moved out and started college. Although he was in the same state, he was still three hours away and initially would only come home on the weekends, and then rarely at all.

I suddenly stopped watching football. All these years, I had considered myself a hardcore football fan – a Red Devil. However, I realized that my interest in the sport was tethered to my brother. Once he left, he took that link with him. It was almost as if watching television wasn’t as much fun now that I didn’t have to fight for the remote. At night, I would turn around with a piece of gossip I just had to share, only to find the adjacent bed empty.

It was on a train ride to Mussoorie that his absence truly struck me. On the train, we would usually book two pairs of seats in adjacent rows. Mom and Dad would sit in one, and my brother and I would sit in the other. That day, however, sitting between my parents in a three-seater aisle, I felt inexplicably suffocated. I envisioned my future: The immediate in which I would have to endure countless arid family gatherings without my brother beside me, making me laugh, and the long term in which I would go to college and one day get a job. That was the usual progression, right? Our paths from here, it seemed, could only diverge. Unavoidably, my thoughts went to my aunt and father. I quickly dispelled them.

Last year, the night before my physics final, this irrational yet unwavering fear gripped me – the kind that blocks out your senses. Sheer panic had seized me in its clutches, and I was drowning. I picked up the phone and dialed my brother – my panic–button response. I didn’t need to tell him what was wrong, my voice conveyed it. He knew I didn’t need generic, soothing words of encouragement, but a logical argument to make me see clearly again. Patiently, he talked me through the whole syllabus, pointing out that I had covered everything and there was nothing to worry about. That night, I counted my blessings. Few people will drop everything for you in your hour of need.

It’s the fall of 2017, and I still pick up my phone and dial that familiar number, even though it’s nighttime in New Delhi and there’s a high chance all I’ll hear is the voicemail beep.

I stand at the cash register of the Best Buy in Boston. Two sets of eyes are focused on me. My father’s eyes are irritated, while those of the cashier are perplexed. It’s 5 a.m. in Delhi, and I hear my brother’s groggy response on the other end of the phone. There couldn’t be a worse time to call, but I don’t care. I refuse to buy a laptop without my brother’s nod; that’s how it’s always been. On the way back, Dad looks at me disapprovingly, “You can’t always rely on your brother for tech-related advice. You need to learn how to function independently.” He doesn’t understand. Thirteen thousand kilometers separate us. Often, needing someone is just another reason to call.

Sometimes a whole week goes by without us talking. Maybe someday we will be like our father and aunt. But whenever we do talk, it feels as though not a second has passed; and I realize that is more than I could say for most relationships.

Bhavya Pant can be reached at [email protected]

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