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Are sisters the perfect best friends?

How sisters survive and flourish despite the comparisons, the competition, and the meagreness of resources, and rally behind each other again and again

Photo: Natasha Badhwar
Photo: Natasha Badhwar

One evening, Naseem, the youngest of the three sisters who are our children, discovered a playful use for the black computer cover of my laptop. While her two adolescent sisters were immersed in their never-ending daily homework, Naseem stuck two large circular paper eyes on either side of the cover and attached a conical horn to one of its corners. Then she unzipped the rectangular cover and wore it over her head, so that the horn seemed to stick out from her forehead. She had become a unicorn.

She practised her act on me first, and being her parent, I was happy to see her as whatever she was imagining herself as. I squealed with delight and admired her wobbly horse-like dance. She went up to her sisters’ room to get a few startled laughs from them. She had less success than she was expecting. One ignored her, the other was irritable.

“Mamma, these guys are so rude to me," she said to me, her unicorn head now looking sad. “They are mean."

“It’s okay, beta," I consoled her. “They are your sisters. It’s their job to be rude."

I grew up without sisters. My relationship with my two brothers was colourful and privileged, yet for some reason I remember always pining for a sister. My mother is one of six sisters. Most of my friends in my all-girls’ school in Kolkata seemed to have lots of sisters. I hoped for some of this intangible magic in my life. I wanted a girl in my life.

Decades later, as our three daughters laugh, talk and sing together, I listen with an unadulterated sense of awe. Often I feel like I’m a spectator on a film set, watching them effortlessly create scenes together. I write down dialogues I overhear, so I can replay them years later.

I have been wanting to write about being sisters for a while now. I am acutely conscious of the fact that I know very little about this. I really have no insider’s experience.

One of the definitions of sisterhood that has stayed with me was provided by our second child, Aliza, when she was still a toddler. She entered my room and found me wearing my husband’s T-shirt.

“This is Papa’s T-shirt," she said.

“Yes, it is," I said.

“Are you two sisters?" she said.

“Whaaaa?" I must have gone in my head. Then I realized that little Aliza had interpreted from her life experiences that sisters are those who are forced to share each others’ clothes, toys and room.

A decade later, Aliza can expand on that definition. As she peered at this laptop screen to see me writing about sisters, she helpfully offered some quotes.

“Mamma, sometimes I hate them. Sometimes I love them also. Sometimes I kill them."

I look up at her. “In my head," she adds. “But then I think to myself, if they weren’t here, I would be a brat."

I’m glad she has a generous reason to spare the life of her sisters.

Our older daughters, Sahar and Aliza, are slightly less than two years apart in age. People often ask if they are twins. Sometimes they are too close to each other for their own comfort. The youngest, Naseem, arrived late to the party and has to rely on ingenious ways to be included.

I walked into a mini-disaster zone recently. Aliza was playing by herself and had created an elaborate set where a family of small dolls were leading their lives amidst various lifestyle props. I don’t know what followed what, but by the time I reached the scene, catastrophe had struck, the dolls were scattered and there were dark clouds of anger and gloom hovering over the two sisters.

Thankfully, I have learnt by now that it isn’t my role to try to dispense justice. I sat down at a safe distance. After a while I spoke to Naseem, who was sitting by herself on the stairs.

“Are you feeling guilty about destroying Aliza’s family?" I asked.

“No, Mamma, I feel alone," she said.

Denial kicked in almost immediately. She couldn’t have used that word. How could a child who has never been alone, feel alone?

She did. It is the nature of all love relationships to make you experience extreme emotions. I remember thinking that one advantage of dividing the world into countries with borders is that it is an effective way to separate warring siblings. Bhai and I get along so well, now that we are separated by continents. Perhaps that’s how it all started.

Ever since we have become a family of three daughters, we observe others who are a similar combination of siblings. I make notes. I am always delighted and reassured to meet others who are also sisters. I notice this detail in friends and family that I have always known. I want to hear their stories. I watch them like a student on assignment.

I pay attention to how sisters support each other. How they survive and flourish despite the comparisons, the competition, and the meagreness of resources—both emotional and physical. How they challenge the pressure to be nothing more than pretty and obedient. How they defy low expectations to create their original selves. How they rally behind each other again and again.

“Will you all look out for each other when I am gone?" I sometimes ask my children blatantly and seemingly out of the blue.

“Yes, Mamma," they chorus in response. They are used to me by now.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets at @natashabadhwar

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