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It never occurred to my parents that it was wrong on my brother's part to expect me to be his maid. They only saw my refusal to slave away as 'rebellion' and a 'lack of discipline'.
My younger self had foolishly thought that an awareness about sexism and the discriminatory treatment that my younger brother and I received at home was enough to break out of the patriarchal environment at our home.
I had spent many hours explaining to him that cooking and cleaning are basic life skills and that he should also contribute towards running the house. But as we grew up and entered into our twenties, I realised that an understanding and awareness about the unjust practices of patriarchy didn’t necessarily guarantee a change in behavior. Instead when I realised that he had decided to let things be as it was because he got to benefit from the existing order, I cut myself off completely from my brother.
This is our story- how a doting sister turned into an indifferent stranger to her brother.
I am the middle child of my parents. I have an elder sister and a younger brother. Being a middle child and that too a girl, my role in running the family and assisting my Amma began at an early age.
As it happens with most eldest children in brown families, my sister was designated as the carrier of my parent’s wishes and dreams. And she meekly obliged with their wishes and worked hard and excelled in academics. My parents wanted her to become a doctor while her dream was to become a pilot. Anyway, like a ‘good’ daughter she discarded her dreams, and studied hard to secure a seat in Medicine at a government medical college. She left home for studies when I was 14 years old.
Since my parents had all of their interest, time and money invested on my sister, my academic performance (or rather the lack of it) at school wasn’t noticed by them. I was an average student. More than academics, sports and dance interested me. I first ran a 100 meter sprint in my 5th standard and since then not a year has passed where I have not won prizes in race events. I have tried my hand in shot put and dodge-ball and handball and whatever sport was deemed as fit for girls by our school. I even represented my school in Regionals Sports Meet in Coimbatore. I would jump into every opportunity to dance, be it for the Annual Day programme or Onam celebration or School House activities. My parents didn’t bother me much about academics and I got the space to discover my interests and do what made me happy.
On the other hand, back at home, I had to step into the kitchen at a young age, assisting my Amma in cooking, doing dishes, cleaning the entire house. To my parents, who were both employed, I had seemed the most obvious choice as a help in running the house since my sister was engaged in her studies and my brother was three years younger to me and ‘obviously’ not to be bothered with kitchen and cleaning duties.
To me it had seemed like a privilege to be assisting my parents in running the house. I felt important. At the same time, I was an emotional child. I would be easily swayed by other’s sadness. I would do anything to make others comfortable and happy. I loved my parents so much, that I didn’t realise that I didn’t really have to work my ass off so much. I didn’t realise that I was missing out on my time to pursue my interests- in reading, playing games in the evening, do some dancing in my room.
My brother and I would reach home from school at around 4 in the evening and I would consider it as a race against time to clean the dishes that had remained from the cooking in the morning, before Amma came home at 5 in the evening from her work. I knew that our parents would be tired from work and I wouldn’t want them to come back to a messy kitchen. So I would try to get the kitchen in order and be ready with coffee on their return home while my brother would go out and play or watch TV. I put everyone else’s comfort before my own.
Since my sister left home when me and my brother were 14 and 11 years respectively, to him I was his sister, playmate and secondary caretaker. We were more like two brothers together than like a sister-brother. We would fight just as competitively as teenage boys do, chase each other around the house, have fist fights and throw things at each other. Growing up, I was his playmate. Be it in playing cricket, badminton or football or watching WWE and his favourite cartoons, we did it all together.
I was protective of him. In school I would go to his classroom during recess to check on him. I was friends with his friends. When my parents were fighting like dogs and cats at home, I would make silly faces at my brother to make him laugh and bring him out of his shock and fear at watching our parents shout and swear. I loved him so much that when either Appa or Amma allotted him some work, I would take it from him and do it myself. Once when my Amma raised a cane (a common tool for punishment) to beat him, I caught her arm in mid-air and stopped her from thrashing my brother.
I would comply with his demands and orders and run chores for him- get him his towel which he kept ‘forgetting’ to take along to the bathroom, wash his socks, polish his shoes, take down his clothes from the cloth line and fold it for him, cook for him, tidy up his room, get him water while we were all sitting down for food at the table.
So I loved him and spoilt him by treating him like a young child even when he grew up to be a teenager. My parents would laud me for the love and care I showered upon him. They considered me slaving away to fulfill his needs as an expression of my unconditional love for him. And I came to believe it too. I thought this was what love is.
Now, looking back at those days, I cannot not feel angry at my parents for making me believe that love meant doing things for someone, without questions, without complaint.
Our parents did both of us wrong. They made me believe that I had to slave away for someone if I loved them. They made my brother feel that he is entitled to be served. Little did I know back then that my parents were unconsciously taking part in playing out and instilling in us age old patriarchal mindsets – that a man is to be served and a woman’s job is to serve!
If part of the mistake was with me for always putting his comfort before mine, part of it was also my parents’.
My brother had the habit of drinking water while having food. We would all be seated at the table, having food and half way through it my brother would ask for water, and Appa would sent me to get him water. I would go to the kitchen, get him a glass, fill it up with water and give it to him. This had become a custom and for a long time I didn’t find anything wrong with it.
At some point I started asking myself why I had to do it every time. My brother knew it well that he would need water during food. Then why wouldn’t he get himself a glass of water before sitting down to have food? And most importantly why would Appa ask me, and not my brother, to pause eating and ask me to fetch him water? The day I realised the injustice in this act, I felt angry at my parents.
One day I refused to get up from my seat to get him water. I asked him to get it himself. Appa tried to emotionally blackmail me by saying that he himself would get up and get my brother water if I didn’t. Feeling bad for causing trouble to Appa, I reluctantly got up and fetched the water a few times until one day I outright told Appa to go ahead get his son his water if he wanted.
Everyone burned me down with their looks and judged me for my audacity to talk like that to Appa. My head bent with the weight of anger, guilt and sadness. I judged myself harshly as a bad daughter and sister. It was the time when I had been pursuing my Bachelors in English Literature from a college in Delhi University. I had been introduced to feminism and the mechanisms of patriarchy which keeps women in subjugated positions. Though I felt bad for talking back at Appa and refusing to be my brother’s water bearer, I knew that what I did was right. I had stood up for myself. I had decided to put my comfort along with the comfort of others in my family, and there was no cause to be ashamed about it!
I realised that change had to come from one’s own family and took it upon myself to bring up my brother as a feminist who would treat women with respect and see them as individuals with their own lives rather than as people who were born to serve men. I began turning down his unnecessary demands and requests like getting his towel to the bathroom, folding his clothes, clearing away the table after he has eaten, etc.
To my disappointment, when I stopped slaving away for him, my Amma stepped into that role! She would pamper him and would throw accusatory looks at me as if I was behaving unlovingly towards him. She would repeatedly tell me that this is how he express his love for me- by asking me to do every odd errand for him. She asked me to see it as a ‘privilege’ to be counted as his best friend.
I had had enough of indoctrination that asked me to take exploitation as an act of love and affection. I stood my ground.
Earlier he would just leave his plate at the table and leave it to me to pick it up. It disgusted me to see the remains of his food, dried out and stuck to the plate. I decided to take baby steps towards making him accountable. I told him that he is to take his plate to the kitchen, deposit food waste in the basket, rinse and keep it in the basin (of course, being a boy there was no question of his washing it with soap!) It worked well for some time, though occasionally he would relapse and pass it off as a joke with his smile. And my parents would join him in his ‘joke’ and just ask me to pick his plate instead of creating a fuss about it.
When I refused, either Appa or Amma would do it anyway, in an attempt to make me feel guilty! It never occurred to them that it was wrong on my brother’s part to expect me to be his maid. They only saw my act as ‘rebellion’ and a ‘lack of discipline’.
Things got worse once my brother joined the Army and would be away for months. He would come home every 5 or 6 months for a duration of three weeks.
Amma of course would be exhilarated at having her Raj Beta back at home. She would cook dishes after dishes and utensils would pile up in the kitchen, which of course I had to clean. My brother’s only duty was to turn up at the table, empty the dishes and then disappear back into his room where he would remain with his laptop and phone.
Since in his army training hostel he had to clean his own room, make his bed and do his laundry, at least during his junior years, I had expected some sort of discipline and independence in his lifestyle when he was back at home for vacation. To my utter dismay, I soon discovered that nothing had changed in him. He still expected to be served while he reclined on his bed.
The thing is, he could very well take care of his basic needs. But when he is at home, where he has a doting Amma and a sister who is at his disposal to meet his needs, he chose to make use of it. He was back to how he was before he left for training. And Amma would just ask me get for him whatever he wanted as he is home only for a few weeks and apparently he was back home to relax after undergoing physical training and other hardships at army training. Now really? Were things any different even before he had joined the Army?
I let it pass for a couple of years because even though my blood boiled at the privileged treatment my brother received at home just because a different sex organ hung between his thighs and mine, I loved him. He was my baby brother.
The trouble began when one time while he was at home, he asked Amma why the ceiling fans were dirty and he went on to direct that attack at me for not keeping the house clean. I lost my temper. I have been barely managing to sweep the ground floor and first floor of our house every week, while managing my studies. He is away from home round the year except for 6 weeks, doesn’t contribute in any way to managing the house, and has the audacity to point out how I needed to do a better job at cleaning the house! I told him to shut up and reminded him that he had no right to comment on my efficiency while he doesn’t move a finger to help in running the house. I told him to go ahead and clean the fans if he wanted. This was the beginning of the break in our relation.
Meanwhile my sister was married, became pregnant, delivered a daughter and was at our home. She was exempted from doing household work on the account of her pregnancy and health. My niece was born in April 2020, right at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and we were left with no choice but to take care of my sister and her baby by ourselves- basically Amma and I. We couldn’t even avail the service of a maid for the fear of Covid.
So here I was running the house, taking care of my sister and her baby, scrambling to find time to work on my research proposal (I had cleared UGC NET with JRF in December 2019) while struggling to hold on to my mental health in the middle of the pandemic and stuck at home.
The ultimate break between me and my brother happened on the vacation after the arrival of our niece. By this time my sister, a gynecologist, had joined back at work and the baby was left at our care. Her husband was away in Chennai. Our hands were full during that time, with me being the only person with something to close to a healthy body, my parents both having crossed the age of 60. I had to be available for service round the clock for everybody and in to this chaos came my brother. He still hadn’t grown out of his sense of entitlement even after three years of military training.
One afternoon, my brother-in-law had come home to meet my parents. Sister was away at work, and I was in charge of taking care of my 14 month old niece. I was told to leave the elders to talk alone without being disturbed. So I stayed indoors, playing with the baby while my brother was lounging on the couch. The baby wouldn’t go into the hands of my brother as it was the first time he had come home since the birth of our niece and she hadn’t got adjusted with his presence.
It was 6 in the evening and still my parents were talking with my brother-in-law. I was feeling drained and badly needed some black coffee. When I asked my brother to make me some, as expected he outright dismissed my request. I could have made it myself if only the baby would sit with him. I didn’t want to take the risk of entering the kitchen with the baby in my hand while I deal with hot water. So I sat there, exhausted and with a throbbing head, waiting for my parents to be back.
While I waited, my brother had the audacity to ask me to make him noodles! I told him that I can’t with the baby sticking to my side, not allowing me to move. Later when my parents came back from the meeting, he repeated his demand. I was angry at him for refusing to get me coffee and for not even making an effort to relieve me from taking care of our niece and on top of that now he wanted me to make him noodles! I refused to make it. Preparing noodles doesn’t involve any complicated recipe. Anybody who knew to boil water could make it. So I told him to do it himself. Remember that he was 21 years old at this time and an officer at the military academy!
When I turned down his request, he started yelling at me for acting like a ‘feminist’. I told him that hell yeah, I am a feminist and I am not gonna put up with his privileged ass that thinks that he is entitled to everything he wants, and treat his sister like his assistant. As always Amma reprimanded me for being hard on her Raja Beta who comes home only once in a while and deserves to be treated with love, and have his demands met without question. I told her to do it for him if she fancies it and made it clear that I will have nothing more to do with him.
I was hoping that he would see the injustice that prevailed at our home in the kind of treatment that was meted out to him and me. But when he came home for vacation in December 2021, I realised that even though he saw through the patriarchal set up at home, he chose to turn a blind eye towards it and reap its benefit for his own comfort. He had not changed and nor will he make any effort to change. The only change that has come in our home dynamics is that now Amma has stepped into my role and has taken it upon herself to be his personal assistant. She still spoils him by not involving him in any work at home, collecting his empty plate and glass from his room, cleaning his room and always making sure that he gets fed the first thing in the morning while the rest of us have to cook our food ourselves before we can sit down and have our breakfast.
I have given up trying to raise a feminist brother. I wanted to instil in him a sense of respect for women and teach him basic life skills so that his wife would not feel trapped within their marriage (if at all he decided to get married) with a man-child. And seeing such examples of bad parenting at my own home has scarred me and made me scared of getting married. After all, educated (education doesn’t guarantee progressive thinking!) parents like mine still think that boys shouldn’t be bothered with household chores. What are the odds that the man whom I get married to will not be yet another spoilt Raja Beta?
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