This August full moon, it’s down to recycling my Raksha bandan post from two years ago.
Raksha Bandan – Bond of Protection
When I lived in Zambia my family celebrated Raksha Bandan, a North Indian festival that honours the love between sisters’ and brothers’. It falls on a full-moon in August every year.
My mum, aunts and I picked out beautiful rakhees weeks in advance. There is a range of choice, from simple threads to more extravagant ones with mirrors and gold fringes. A few years ago there was one that played a popular Bollywood song. This year the fashionable rakhees have green, red, and shiny diamond-like stones on them.
I always chose the simplest threads and tied one around each of my brother’s and “cousin-brother’s” wrists. This gesture was to symbolise my love for them. In return my brothers’ had the duty of protecting me. From what, I wasn’t always sure.
After I tied the rakhee, we hugged each other. I always whispered an awkward, “What are we doing guys? Do we need this string to symbolise our feelings?”
I was the pain-in-the-ass, no fun girl who wasn’t into rituals, or for that matter, kitsch Bollywood dance because as a classical Indian dancer, Bollywood dances were corrupt versions of the real thing.
So, back to the hugging, after that we fed each other Indian sweets that my mum and aunts had prepared over the last week or two. In return, the brothers’ proudly offered me envelopes stuffed with notes.
Next was my mum and aunts’ turn. They tied rakhees around their “cousin-brother’s” wrist. He was the only one in Lusaka. They sent the others theirs in the mail, without fail.
My dad received his two rakhees by post, usually in good time. Since his sisters lived elsewhere it was my job to tie them. I got two envelopes from him as well.
Once it was all done, we’d have a big meal, and spend the rest of the day together.
When I left Zambia at 16, I forgot all about Raksha Bandan. One July my mum called to remind me about it. She asked if I’d sent all the boys a rakhee. I replied that I hadn’t so she quickly bought some on my behalf.
On the full-moon day, she called me. My little brother had refused to wear the rakhee since it wasn’t an initiative of mine. I was taken-aback. I had no idea that this really meant anything to him, or to any of them.
I immediately apologised, and ever since, I’ve made a special effort. I don’t always send them a rakhee in the mail, but I call or at least email.
This year, my mum only “reminded” me about it yesterday. There is no way I can get them rakhees in time. Phone calls will be in order, and a promise of more planning and organising for the years to come.
In my mum’s typically thoughtful and unimposing manner, she mentioned, by the way, “I’ve sent you a rakhee that L can tie around R’s wrist, if you guys want to do that of course.” I can’t wait to see the mini-rakhee.
My brothers are dearer to me than I can express. I do in fact feel safe, supported and strong when they are around.
So why not have a special day that celebrates the bond between sisters and brothers.
The phone rings in the morning. My brothers and I wake up. It rings again. The person on the other end won’t give up. I rush into my parents bedroom to double check. Their unmade bed is empty. It’s no dream.
Mum and dad woke up their doctor friend in the middle of the night. They met at the local university teaching hospital UTH. He gave them a stash of morphine. They sped on the unlit, but familiar roads from Lusaka to Livingstone. My dads record time is 3 hours to do the 500km.
That was the first of my grandfather’s heart attacks. Let’s just say there were a few of those sudden trips – between the two grandfathers and grandmother living in the little tourist town bordering Zimbabwe.
By mid-morning my brothers and I are stuffed into a car, packed with snacks, clothes for the parents as well as for us, and we are on our way to Livingstone.
Every single time I have seen my grandfather after that, and I tell you he has had many fantastic days and many issues since -ranging from more heart attacks, to epilepsy, and to cancer, I thought it would be the last time.
Maher jokes that my grandfather has been dying for 25 years but is going to outlive everyone – his first wife died suddenly, after insisting that her daughters return to Tanzania regardless of school terms in India to see her, my other two more “healthy” paternal grandparents left before as well, and his second wife, who happened to be my dads oldest sister, died to cancer.
He moved back to India when my aunt (his wife) was diagnosed with an advanced stage of colon cancer. By being in India they could have affordable medical as well as domestic help. He left India on a boat leaving his family in Bombay as a 25-year-old with a wife and baby girl, only to return 50 years later as an outsider living in a strict Jain community in a dry state. Gandhi’s Gujarat of no alcohol.
Foreigners, people with a non-Indian passport can take alcohol into Gujarat. Of course it is the state where the most alcohol is consumed.
Maher is not a whiskey drinker like the generation of our parents and grandparents, but the only person he never says no to is my 88-year-old grandfather.
Nanaji, as we call him, hands Maher the key to his securely locked cupboard. He pours out tots of whiskey, holding the bottle close to the floor. None of the nosy neighbors or people in the street have caught him out yet.
We saw him last in December 2012. The four of us, my parents, one of my brothers and his fiance, were all there. When Maher, the kids and I left for Koh Samui on my birthday, I had the same thought I always have.
I didn’t even know he had the cancer until that last trip. He’s had it for 10 years already.
My mum has been in India for the last 4 months with him as it spreads. My dad has missed his wife, he is off this week to reunite with her, and to say goodbye to one of his best, most trusted friends, the man who taught him good whisky, who introduced him to my mum and who also married his closest sibling.
Now, I realise that my grandfather surrendered to the process a long time ago. He has always been gracious. He loved to take photos, listen to classical Indian music, eat good food, entertain friends, and drink only the best whisky. Anyone who has spoken to him has heard his humble, “Please correct me if I am wrong,” line qualifying every statement he makes. He listens, and gives space to people without imposing.
He is strong and tall, but flexible like the coconut trees I see around me, moving with the wind.
Rahul: Why Maher choosed you?
Me: Ah, very good question, but this one you have to ask papa!
Rahul: You and papa is in love?
Me: Yes we are. Papa and I love each other.
Rahul: You and papa loved each other before me and Leila came out of your belly?
Me: Yes, we did, honey.
Leila: Mama, where was Leila and Rahul before we was in your belly?”
Me: Hmmmm…your body wasn’t anywhere. And you were an idea that mama and papa had.
Lelia: Why your tattoo is still there after you shower?
Me: Because it’s a real one. It will never go away.
Leila: Even when you die?
Me: Yeah, even when…
Leila: But I don’t want to die. I want to see snow.
Me: Oh really, you want to see snow? You will probably be able to see snow one day.
Leila: I want to make snow with white paint on black paper.