Stepping Out Of Those Shadows With You, Sister!

Posted: May 20, 2019

The physical distance had also widened the emotional distance between the sisters, something that Maya had felt that the most when Miti had called to tell her the news about Amma’s leukemia diagnosis, three years ago.

In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month gets bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry.

The writing cue for May 2019 is these lines from Victorian poet Christina Rossetti from her most famous poem Goblin Market.
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”

The second winner of our May 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Shraddha Niphadkar.

The wail of a newborn rang through the halls of the hospital. The doctor came out with a smiling face and told the anxious father, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!”

Ramanathan hugged his 7 year-old older daughter, Maya, excitedly. “You have a sister,” he exclaimed proudly.

Maya beamed at her Appa (father). Her prayers to God had been answered. She had a little sister, a sibling, just like her friends did.

Inside the hospital room though the mood was sombre. Her Amma (mother) was weeping silently, while her maternal grandmother, Ammama, looked worried.

Maya was confused- was Amma not feeling well? Amma looked at Appa and said, “I am sorry it’s a girl again.” Maya’s confusion increased- what was wrong with the second baby being a girl? Appa lightened the mood by reassuring Amma that he felt like the luckiest man in the world for having two daughters. Maya felt relieved that Amma was smiling again.

Over the next few weeks, as relatives and friends came to see her new sister, many commiserated with her parents for not having a son. Some even asked whether they might try for a third child that could turn out to be a son. Appa got furious each time this happened, and eventually refused to meet with any of the visitors. The comments didn’t stop though. Amma’s tears also wouldn’t stop, angering Maya further. She wished she could just run away with her little sister somewhere, far away from all these cruel people. Why couldn’t they just leave her family alone?

Her sister was named Mythily, Miti for short. Maya was fiercely protective of Miti. The 7-year difference between them didn’t really matter. Miti was a serious child who looked up to her older sister, her Akka. As she grew older, everything that Maya did, Miti wanted to do too. “Two peas in a pod,” their Amma used to refer to them. Miti was Maya’s shadow, following her around everywhere and Maya felt very proud of that.

The sisters’ close bond continued throughout the school years. Sensitive Maya was learning more about the imbalance of power in the Indian society, in favour of men, and this continued to frustrate her. She often overheard Amma crying while talking to Ammama on the phone, about being belittled by her in-laws for not producing a male heir.

While Appa loved his wife and daughters, he seemed to not realize what Amma went through on a daily basis. The roles were clearly divided in the family- Appa was the breadwinner and Amma managed the household and raised the two girls. Maya loved her parents, but the older she grew the more she realized the limitations that these gender roles put on both of her parents.

Appa and Amma tried their best to shield her and Miti from the harsh realities of the world, giving them all the opportunities that their male cousins got. But, the oppression of patriarchy could not be hidden forever. By the time she reached college, Maya was determined to prove that daughters mattered and can be as good or even better than sons. She wanted to do something that no one else in her extended family had done before- she wanted to be the first woman in her family to study abroad.

Appa and Amma were concerned with her decision, mainly because of financial reasons. They were a middle-class family and though they wanted to support their daughters’ dreams, they were also aware that in their conservative culture the marriage costs are borne mainly by the girl’s parents. With two daughters, most of their savings were geared towards getting them married. How were they also going to be able to be able to afford the cost of Maya living abroad as well as have enough saved for her wedding? And, Miti was still in school, and had her future ahead of her too.

Maya had thought through all of this, and thanks to her excellent grades and extracurriculars, she had managed to secure full funding at the University of Florida. “It is a rare opportunity Amma and Appa,” she pleaded with her parents, “please let me go.” Reluctantly, her parents agreed to let their 18 year-old step out into the world by herself.

The excitement of a new life ahead of her made Maya overlook the sadness in Miti’s eyes. A few days before she flew off to the U.S., the two sisters were alone at home. 11 year-old Miti sidled up to her sister and suddenly hugged her. A surprised Maya looked down at the child and realized that she was crying.

“Will you forget me Akka once you leave?” asked Miti tearfully.

Maya felt tears prick her own eyes. “Miti,” she said, “you are a piece of my heart. How could I ever forget you? Whenever you feel sad, just remember this stanza penned by one of my favourite poets-

For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands.”

“Does this mean that you will always be there for me?” Miti asked.

“Always,” Maya promised.

Little did she know then that in a few years, it will be a promise that she will be called upon to fulfill.


Twelve years later

30 year-old, Dr. Maya Ramanathan, stepped off the plane into the humid Mumbai afternoon. A neuroscientist employed at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, Maya had definitely broken barriers and shattered glass ceilings that had been intended to keep her down. It had come at a cost though- she had been so busy building her career that she hadn’t realized how far behind she had left her family. Amma and Appa were understanding and Amma would call her every day and talk to her for a few minutes to check in on her. But, her relationship with Miti had suffered the most. The physical distance had also widened the emotional distance between the sisters, something that Maya had felt that the most when Miti had called to tell her the news about Amma’s leukemia diagnosis, three years ago.

Maya had been 27 then, and Miti 20. The diagnosis had come right when she had started her new job at Harvard. Therefore, she hadn’t been able to come to India, but had been hoping to visit during the Christmas holiday. Unfortunately, Amma hadn’t survived and six months after the diagnosis, Maya had traveled to India to attend her mother’s funeral. Shock and grief had overwhelmed her, not just because of seeing her mother’s pyre but also because of noticing the changes in her remaining family members. Her father had a head full of White hair, and he had looked at her with utter desperation in his eyes. And Miti, her little Miti was now a full-grown woman who had greeted Maya very formally and had stood holding their father for the whole funeral.

Maya had realized then that in the past few years, Miti had been the one who had stepped up to care for their parents. Miti was the one who had taken a leave of absence from college to care for their mother throughout the treatment. Miti had also been with Amma the night she died. Her sister had been dealing with all of these challenges alone, while she had been selfishly pursuing her dreams in the U.S. She had failed to keep her promise of protecting her. The weight of the shame and guilt had been so much, that Maya had returned to the U.S. within 13 days of the funeral, claiming that she needed to be back at her new job. Miti hadn’t tried to stop her, and Appa had been too lost in his grief. The family had been torn apart!

Today though, she was back for her sister. When Appa had called her two days ago to tell her that Miti was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, Maya knew that her sister was suffering and likely self-medicating. Nobody expected her to come, but she had to be there for Miti. She took a taxi directly to the hospital. Just outside Miti’s room, she found Appa talking to a doctor.

“Maya, when did you arrive?” Appa asked perplexed.

“I have to see her,” Maya whispered.

She went into the room. Her sister was sleeping, surrounded by several beeping machines.

“She is doing fine now,” Appa said from behind her. “It was touch and go for a while but thankfully, her friends called the ambulance right on time.”

Maya knew that her father was battling exhaustion, worry, and anger. “Appa, please go home and rest. I am going to stay with her for a while.”

“How long is your visit this time?’ Appa asked.

“I am going to stay for as long as it requires. I am on a sabbatical and can stay for up to a year or even longer.”

She could see Appa’s face lighten. He was definitely relieved to have extra help.

When Miti finally woke up, the meeting between the sisters was awkward. Over the next few days, Miti made a complete recovery and was discharged from the hospital. Maya knew though that the actual challenge began now.

When Maya tried to talk to Miti about what had happened, Miti refused to talk to her. After a few days of this, they got into a major verbal argument when Miti lost her cool and screamed at Maya that Maya had no idea who she, Miti, was. It was during the fight that Maya learned that after she had left, Amma had fallen sick often and Miti had fallen into the role of being her caregiver. Maya had known none of this because they hadn’t wanted to add to her stress in the U.S.

Maya realized that Amma’s death had left a larger vacuum in Miti’s life because her identity as a caregiver had been taken away. Her father had been too mired in his grief to notice, and Miti had eventually turned to alcohol to numb her feelings. Appa felt guilty too. He said that he had assumed that Miti was just stressed because of working with an NGO for kids who had been abused.

“It was always about you Akka. I have lived in your shadow my whole life,” Miti said broken-heartedly.

Maya was stunned as she realized the truth in Miti’s words. Miti had always been regarded as the quieter, shy one who would be protected by her older sister. None of them had realized the quiet strength that Miti possessed. Her empathy had been looked at as a weakness when that was what had carried their family through in the past few years and made her successful at her job.

“I am sorry Miti,” Maya said sadly. “Please give us a second chance to be a family again,” she pleaded. Miti reluctantly agreed.

The road to recovery for all of them wasn’t easy. Maya persuaded them to try out family counselling, and painstakingly, slow progress started to happen. As the months passed and they addressed their grief, the family bonds started getting stronger again.


One year later

It was their final counselling session. “Maya, will you be returning to the U.S. soon?” asked the therapist.

Maya could feel Miti’s and Appa’s eyes on her.

“I am not going back,” she said. “I handed in my resignation a month ago. I have gotten a position with the NIMHANS institute in Bengaluru and have decided to take that up. I am not leaving my family again.”

When they walked out, Miti impulsively hugged Maya, for the first time since Maya had returned a year ago.

“Thank you Akka,” she whispered.

Maya hugged her back tightly, a lump in her throat. She finally felt at peace.

Shraddha Niphadkar wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!

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