The other day, I started a series on my siblings. If you are back, thanks for sticking around. If you want to get some back-story, you might want to read this one first.
My palms were sweaty.
My heart was beating so fast I thought it would burst from my chest.
What if I don’t recognize him? I thought.
Or even worse, what if he doesn’t recognize me? The second thought hit me just as suddenly in the gut.
I panicked, brushing my palms against my lavendar corduroy pants that looked so foreign as I stood at the Arrivals gate at the New Delhi airport.
I gave myself a little pep talk. A pep talk delivered both by the confident part of me, that despite years of extensive training (pep talks within pep talks) was generally beat up on regularly by its insecure counterpart, probably well into my twenties.
Heck, who am I kidding?
As long as I have known myself.
The dialog ran through my tired, jet-lagged brain, still so clear in my mind.
Confident me: You can do this! Piece of cake!
Insecure me: Run for the hills! Heck, see if you can climb right back onto that Air India flight and hide under one of the stewardess’s saris.
Confident me: But you have waited this for sooooo long!
Insecure me: But what if you’re nothing like he thinks? What if . . .
Confident me: What if . . . what?
Insecure me: What if you’re not pretty enough, or not smart enough, or just not . . .
Confident me: Just not . . . what?
Insecure me: What, well . . . he expects his sister to be.
Confident me: Oh.
Confident Me had nothing to say. This was not new. Confident Me often got perturbed by the things that Insecure Me said. Cutting down what little self-worth Confident Me often had developed, Insecure Me was always sure to run back in, no matter how busy she was, to knock Confident Me down off of whatever temporary pedestals she (I mean, I) had created for myself.
Usually with no more than one fell swoop of her teeny, but precise, hand.
Aplomb, if you will.
Funny how that happens . . .
My mother unintentionally broke off the now silenced debate inside my head and reached her hand out to me.
“Chalo.” (Come with me).
I stood in the airport, clutching my mother’s hand, tightly. I was aware of the curious looks I was drawing, and would continue to draw when I visited India throughout my youth, as my mother did not give much credence to the term “when in Rome.”
I was packed in a bright orange polyester coat straight off the sales rack of J.C. Penney’s. My thick black eyeglasses rested on my little nose, continually sliding down its slope, despite the obvious bump that should have hindered its path but aided by sweat. My naturally curly hair was brushed to a fine swath of frizz – my mother prescribed to the Marcia Brady approach that 100 brush strokes a night would make my hair beautiful.
Good for Marcia Brady.
Not so good for me, with my naturally spiral curls to rival Shirley Temple’s.
I stood in wonder as I looked upward at the glass panels on the second level where family members and friends stood trying to identify their loved ones who were leaving customs below.
Hundreds of people.
How will I know it’s him? I have only ever seen pictures. The panic returned.
I let go of my mother’s hand and looked up. I turned in circles – feeling somewhat like a little freak show on display – no doubt assisted by the bright orange of my fashion forward J.C. Penney puffy coat. I must have looked like some mini astronaut to most of the people up there.
And then I saw him.
It was like nobody else was there. Everyone else disappeared into the background.
Tall. Same, slightly tilted eyes as my Munni Didi, no doubt hinting of the Nepalese lineage within our family, often evident amongst many of my cousins and siblings.
Handsome. I couldn’t help but notice the looks he was getting from other people, especially the women, standing by him.
I smiled. He smiled back.
I waved. So did he.
Confident me gave Insecure me a big heave ho and told her to take a freaking hike.
I turned to my mother. “Ma, that’s Phoolbhaiya, right?”
She looked up, smiled and waved and said, “Yes.”
The year was 1981. I was 5 years old. My brother was 18 years old.
I was seeing my oldest brother for the first time in my life that I could remember, after he had been sent to India to study when I was just a year old.
I had seen his face in pictures, so many times.
And there it was.
I remember him running to action when he realized it was us and gracefully making his way through the heavy crowds of people. A crowd that suddenly seemed to be so thick, keeping me away from hurling myself into this young man’s arms.
And then, there he was. Standing right in front of me. I remember him holding me in his arms and me snuggling my face in the deepest recesses of his neck, not wanting to ever let go.
Thinking how frail the connection that bound us was in the absence of having those four years of my life, not knowing him, not hugging him, not being able to fight with him or tell him I loved him.
Another part of me realized that no matter the distance, and no matter that we might be apart again – that today I was able to hold my brother.
I will never forget that day. I turned 35 years old the other day, and when I think of major events in my life, I will always remember the first time that I saw my oldest brother, Himanshu, my Phoolbhaiya.
My oldest brother continued to study in India, completing medical school there. He came back to the United States when I was in my teens. While we continued to love each other (and also made up a little for the years we couldn’t fight with each other), I have always felt cheated of the years that I did not have with him.
I don’t know how to always tell him that. There is a generational divide that separates us due to our age, but there is an abyss that lies between us which spans the years we were separated – across continents, across culture and across totally different lives.
He is still far from me geographically – but Florida is a lot better than India if we need to talk distance.
We try to build a bridge across that divide that was dealt us. Dealt to all of my siblings due a complex and hard to explain family situation.
Sometimes we succeed.
Sometimes we don’t.
But we always try.
Because it matters. He will ALWAYS matter to me.
He is a successful doctor in Florida. A lot of people ask me sometimes how my parents were alright with me not going the traditional arranged marriage route after both of my sisters had arranged marriages.
Well, Phoolbhaiya was the “trailblazer” for me there. He married a beautiful Irish Catholic woman whom I am proud to call my Sister in law and they have three beautiful daughters. So beautiful, that sometimes it makes my heart ache.
And I am so happy for them that as siblings, and as nieces whom I love dearly, they will never have to bear the separation that I bore with my own brother.
P.S. The reason for the title of this post, is that the old song, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” always reminds me of my bro. On his wedding day, he danced with each of his sisters to this song, so it always brings a smile to my face when I hear it, and makes me remember all the reasons I love him.
What I tend not to share, as much, is my relationship with my siblings.
I am the youngest of five children in my family. In order, my siblings are named Kanchan (Sister), Himanshu (brother), Kusum (sister), Sudhanshu (brother – and yes my brothers names rhyme).
And then there is me.
I sometimes think I avoid writing about my siblings because on so many levels, the sibling relationship is often complex and full of ever changing dynamics. If you have a sibling, you know the powerful connections that bind you through a shared history.
A history that encompasses so, so much.
Each others dreams.
Seeing each other at our worst.
Seeing each other at our best.
We have been part of some of the biggest joys of each other’s lives.
We have shared some of our most painful memories together.
We have also been the ones to sometimes inflict the most pain on each other.
And we never stop loving each other.
When I was growing up, many of my memories are really about my sister Kusum (whom I call Munni Didi) and Sudhanshu (Sudhu Bhaiya). They were older than me – Munni Didi by 12 years and Sudhu Bhaiya by 10 years. In Indian culture, you attach the designation of “Didi” (older sister) and “Bhaiya” (older brother) to show respect for your elder siblings.
My other two siblings were not with me till much later in life. We were together for my first year of life – of which I have no memory. My Kanchan Didi had been married through an arranged marriage at a very young age and stayed in India with her husband from when I was 1 years old until I turned 16. Himanshu (or PhoolBhaiya) was also sent to India to do his studies there from when I was 1 till I was 15.
In many ways, we were a family divided. Not by love – but by circumstance.
And you know, like everything else, it’s all very complicated.
So while my parents were lovely parents to me, I was raised a great deal by both my Munni Didi and my Sudhu Bhaiya. They played with me, spoiled me rotten and made me feel very loved.
But it was also different. While Sudhu Bhaiya was there for me a lot, he had found a love in cross-country running and spent hours on this new passion of his, making new friends and having as normal of a life as he could have had given the rules and regulations placed on us by strict Indian parents.
Munni Didi didn’t really have that. She had friends and she was beautiful. But she didn’t have the chance to do things that most teenagers her own age did. Her life, in many ways, was based around her being almost a surrogate mother to me, while my mom worked at our family business and my dad in NYC as an Engineer.
There wasn’t really an option of after school activities or anything like that for her. After my afternoon kindergarten would disband, she would be there, waiting to get me, having walked the mile from our home – no matter what the weather.
She had my back. I had her’s.
We were a great team. We had a pretty good system going down by the time I was 6. She would let me watch one episode of “Scooby Doo” and then we could watch “Guiding Light.” It seemed like a fair trade, especially because I was starting to crush more on Philip Spaulding than Fred anyway.
We shared a room. I didn’t know how to sleep on my own. We had always been in the same room. I had a small twin bed and she had a larger full bed on the other side of the room. It really didn’t matter – I would always end up curled next to her – asking her to read me another story or sing to me – maybe the new song by the “Styx” or something.
She really couldn’t do any wrong.
I remember one day, she didn’t give me something I wanted. I cried and cried and pouted and shouted. Finally, I had enough.
“I’m running away!”
“Oh no!” she said. “I am going to miss you so much!”
“Do you want me to help you pack?”
I was devastated. Did she really want me gone?
I sat there quietly as she painstakingly packed my suitcase for me. She made sure to include sweaters and lots of clean underwear, because those were important, she said. She also told me to make sure I changed my underwear every day. She snuck in a bag of Ruffles – “just in case.”
I watched numbly and nodded my head in assent.
As she helped me bring my suitcase downstairs, I started to cry. I was trying to keep a brave face, but I hadn’t expected her full cooperation in my running away “scam”
“Do you want me to make you a tuna sandwich for the road?” she asked.
“No,” I said, though I was thinking that maybe it could buy me some time and she would realize what a mistake she was making.
I think she let me go halfway down the block, past the Yablonickys’ house, when I finally turned around, snot and tears all over my face and I ran back and thew myself in her arms.
I couldn’t imagine ever being without her.
That same year, at the end of my kindergarten year and my sister’s senior year of Madison Central High School, her arranged marriage was settled.
She was 18 years old.
My parents, my sister and I went to India and traveled through to the northern recesses of Bihar to the village my paternal grandparents lived in – Simrahi. My Sudhu Bhaiya could not go, because he had to stay home and take care of our family business – an Indian grocery store.
My sister’s wedding took place over the course of several days. I sat there and enjoyed the time with my cousins. I laughed during the festivities. I sang songs and sat as close as I could to Munni Didi, nestling myself into her side. My other two siblings were there – Phoolbhaiya and Kanchan Didi – so this was a joyous time for me – getting those rare opportunities that I had to see them. My new Jeejajee (brother-in-law) seemed really nice and I was so excited to show him what life was like back home in America.
And then, the wedding was over.
I was so excited about going back home. I missed pizza. I missed doughnuts. I missed my friends and cousins back home. I missed Sudhu Bhaiya.
I didn’t realize until then that my sister would not be coming back with me.
I still remember standing on the platform of the Simrahi train station, begging her to stay with me. She sat in the railcar with her new family. The open windows of the train were minimally protected by bars across the windows, which reminded me of a prison cell. I held on to the bars as my father tried to pull me away while my sister struggled with her own tears.
“Didi!!!! Don’t leave me!!! Don’t leave me!!!” I could not hardly get the words out. The tears and the force of the pain I was feeling wracked my small body, making my words sound useless.
My six year old heart burst as I sat there, helpless. I still was holding on to the bars as the train started to pull away from the platform, but I eventually had to let go.
I tried to run with the train as long as I could before one of my cousins stopped me.
And all I remember is curling up on the ground and crying like my six year old self had never cried before.
The next few weeks were a blur as we returned home. I was listless and unable to grasp this life without my sister. I tried, but I felt like a vital life force was missing from our home and nothing was the same.
My sister and brother-in-law came back from India about a year later. I got my groove back and managed to somehow survive as they started to build their own life in the United States.
There is a lot that happened on their journey. My sister, who only had a high school degree, first could only find a job at Wendy’s. Ultimately, she found herself a great job at a bank, where she worked her butt off to get promoted multiple times.
She had two beautiful babies. One of those “babies” – is getting married this year at the age of 26.
She decided to go back to school and get her Bachelors Degree.
Then she decided to go back for her Masters, at Columbia.
She is currently the Assistant Superintendant for a prestigious school district in New York State.
And she is not far from completing her PhD.
“Dr. Didi,” I joke. So proud that she is as successful as she is.
SO, SO proud.
My life with my siblings spans two continents. I think as I write some of my posts to introduce you to them, it will be clearer why my heritage plays such a big part of me.
It is present in virtually every memory, or tied to it in some way.
I am glad you got to meet one of my amazing siblings. I know this was a long post, but sometimes, there are some things that you just can’t shorten.
Reconnecting when its really just because your droid is malfunctioning and you are too lazy to resolve the issue
Today, I was sitting in the lobby of my hotel, waiting for a cab to get me to take me back home. I get restless and I feel very awkward when I am not doing something with my hands. I imagine that knitting might be a good outlet for me, but really, I didn’t have time to find an A.C. Moore.
So I did what I normally do at times like these and harass my friends and co-workers with whatever is on my mind.
So I am sitting there on my freaking Droid 2 which I have deducted is the following:
1) an utter piece of crap
2) has a serious dysfunctional hardware issue going on – but I am too lazy to lose all the things I have put on it
3) I had sabotaged myself and downloaded some horrible apps that were slowly choking the minimal power of this existing phone
So, I am calling my “lucky” colleague, whose name is Aaron (who often quite heroically puts up with some of my rants) thinking I am ready to complain about this, and bitch about whatnot and tell him my theories on the world (you know, because I was bored and this is just what you do to overstressed colleagues at times like that).
A voice answers.
“Aaron. It’s me.” I say nonchalantly.
“Oh -hey. How are you?” I hear a male voice in the background.
“Dude, we have so much to talk about. You in the office on Thursday?”
“Um, who is this?”
At this point, I am exasperated.
“Aaron, stop being such as A^&^. It’s ME.”
“This is Aaron Sylvester. Who the heck are you?”
“Aaron, like from college Aaron?”
“Depends, I guess.”
“Oh shit, this is Kiran Ferrandino. I think I accidentally dialed you because you come up in my Facebook contacts. I fully blame my Droid.”
And albeit a short conversation – it was one of the best accidental dials. It was great to hear a voice from my past – of a person I had always held in high esteem.
And I realized that while we all have so many friends on our Facebook page or through other avenues of connection – why shouldn’t we make more accidental calls?
This year I vow to accidentally call (I believe my Droid will be fully cooperative) old faces and friends from my past.
Let’s do it friends. We get enough prank or bullshit calls in our lives. Why not make a few calls of your own to someone who would never expect it?
I mean, I don’t want you to be like – bunny-killer stalker or anything.
But just remember that there are so many people you are connected to. And while life gets crazy and we rely so heavily on email, facebook and texting to keep us in touch.
Remember that there is nothing as powerful as your voice.
Hoping you make an accidental connection today too.
Most of the time.
My father, especially, is a man who has spent much of his life driven more by need than passion, duty over selflessness.
Which is why I guess I am always so amazed by this one particular story about my father.
A story that has a huge impact on my identity, on who I was raised to be and an even greater impression of the man I call my father.
Growing up in an impoverished village to a very poor family, in a town where to this very day, there is no school house or fresh water supply, my father was born into a surname.
A surname that is as common as Smith in America. Russo in Italy. Fernandez in Mexico.
My father’s last name was “Das.”
It’s a name that many Indians have. It doesn’t always clearly identify where you are from in India, or potentially even which “caste” you are from. To clarify when I say caste, I mean the social stratification system which is still prevalent in India in determining class and economic and societal associations, practices and norms.
So one day, I believe it was as he was leaving for college and taking some fairly pivotal exams, my father decided to do something so unlike him, so unimaginable to me, that to this day, I still wish I could get into that head of his to understand.
He decided to change his name.
And with that decision made, my father started signing all official documentation with the following last name:
For some reason, it was easier for him to go forward from that day on with the last name of “Kairab” over “Das.”
And with that name, he carved a new identity for his future family, some of the only ones to hold this name in the world. I have checked fairly thoroughly. It is possible that there are other “Kairabs” elsewhere, but if so, I am not aware of them.
I love my maiden name, which I have still maintained and hold onto proudly now as a middle name.
In ancient Sanskrit, Kairab translates into “flower that blooms in the night.”
Given what sometime seen as ethnically ambiguous looks, people would often ask me where “Kairab” was from. When I would respond, “India” they would sometimes say – oh, yeah, oh yeah – I know some other Kairabs.
And you know, I really loved the uniqueness and this reminder that my father had a moment where he did something unexpected, something totally for himself.
When John asked me why it was taking me so long to change my name, I waffled. I mean, of course – who “likes” dealing with:
The Social Security Administration,
All your airlines where you have your frequent flier miles lined up,
credit card companies,
all of your previous employers who still handle your IRAs/401Ks/etc?
Let’s not forget banks, getting new checks, new passports.
Frankly, it sucked.
But while the very “un-fun” aspect of changing my name WAS a major contributor to my desire to start the process- there was something about John’s observations that were true.
A part of me didn’t WANT to change it.
That realized that this name was something that always tied me to that part of my father. The free and uninhibited part – the parts of him which I had been able to see so little of in my own life, during what has been a very hard and challenging life for him.
I think about the beauty of that name. The pure poetry of it. For when you think about a flower that blooms in the night, I know my thoughts turn to something beautiful growing in something dark. Something finding light and sustenance within itself where perhaps there is no sun or hope of future brightness.
And when I think of the story of my father’s life, I can say with absolute truth, that there really is no better word to describe how I feel about this man who created a life for himself through education – never giving up despite battles of malnutrition, poverty, lack of clean water and medicine.
When things are dark in your own life, I think there is a lesson to be learned within all of us that something beautiful can be borne from darkness.
We see it throughout history. Whether it is the brave few who opened their homes to protect their Jewish friends and neighbors during World War II – at a time when decency was long forgotten and fear and hate-filled propaganda dictated action for so many.
We see it around us. We see it in the face of the young men and women who risk their lives for this country every day. Their acts of bravery in full bloom continents away as they fight in darkness, isolation and fear.
We see it in ourselves and the neighbors around us.
So let’s honor it today.
No matter how dark things may seem in life, you always have the power to bloom.
I often ask my father about the things he reflects on in his life now, as he is in his 70’s. I think of the life that he came from and the one that he gave me in this country – and the contrasts are often such sharp juxtapositions of each other.
When I was 1, I was crawling up and hitting the television in our house or banging on the toys in my family room.
When he was 1, he was crawling on the dirt floors of his village in India, already malnourished and struggling to meet many of the milestones I was meeting.
When I was 4, I was jealous that my next door neighbor could already read.
When my father was 4, he was just gaining the ability to walk. Years of malnourishment had lead to delays in core milestones for him.
I was 13, I was angry that my parents told me I would never be able to date.
When my father was 13, he was worried about how he would find a way to educate himself to make enough money to support his entire family – including all of his younger siblings.
The stark contrasts between our lives extend for so many years . . . I can hardly name them all here . . .
As I approach my 35th birthday, I question where I am in my life and some of the direction it has taken. Am I fulfilled? Am I doing what I want? Where do I want to go from here?
When my father turned 35, he realized that he was going to living a life in pretty much extreme blindness and that it would degenerate till almost complete blindness. Doctors explained that this may have been the direct result of the malnourishment he went through as a child.
So I ask my father to tell me his stories. And to share the things that he wanted to achieve in his life. Frankly, I am so proud of what he has done, though I know he has stumbled – as we all do – in some of the decisions that he has made.
My father was a man who had dreams. I don’t know how many of them he has been able to fulfill. I feel like so much of his life has been about ensuring that other people’s dreams were achieved. But I wanted to know what his were . . .
In an in-depth conversation with my father one day, he lamented that the one thing he is so sad he has not done was to create a clean water source for the people in the village he was born.
This small village in the northern recesses of Bihar (this is like Compton, for Americans) where my father was born is a place I have only visited twice in my life. People walk miles to get water. Children do not go to school so that they can lug back water from local streams back to their families.
The water is often contaminated.
The sewage systems are not something many Americans would be able to comprehend.
As my father has aged, such a venture is in many ways impossible for him.
But I still think about his dream quite often. And for now, his dream has become my dream.
The need to fulfill it is not only for him, but resides within the deepest part of me. My father’s dreams and my own are intrinsically tied.
So I dream of a day when no child goes thirsty.
When no man has to drink contaminated water, polluted with human waste.
Where people can bathe in water without the risk of being exposed to arsenic.
How is it that such a simple thing – water – is overlooked for such a large portion of this world?
My New Year’s Resolution for this year is to do what I can to make sure I can help as many people as possible receive one of the most basic resources they need.
I ask you to go to Water.org TODAY to learn more about what this really means and how we might be able to make a change.
If nothing, please just take a hard look at the facts.
Let no child, woman, man go thirsty. Ever.
“We have the ability to provide clean water for every man, woman and child on the Earth. What has been lacking is the collective will to accomplish this. What are we waiting for? This is the commitment we need to make to the world, now.” – Jean-Michel Cousteau