Emerging from the Shadows
On the mantelpiece in my parents’ house, a curved photo frame tells the story of two girls. In the picture, my father, my sister and I are leaning on a railing at the side of the road, while traffic whizzes past in the backdrop. My sister rests her head on my father’s shoulder, while I sit an inch away. The scene captures my essence accurately – a five-year-old cherub who had wedged herself into the life my parents and sister had built as a trio. Its significance dawns on me only now, three decades after we posed on a sidewalk to capture that time capsule.
Every year on my birthday, my father reminds me that my birth proved auspicious. He had interviewed for and obtained a new job that promised a lucrative assignment overseas. My sister, on the cusp of adolescence, had broken through her reclusiveness, and emerged from it a vivacious young woman. She loved me, her chubby new sibling, despite the spit and drool I piled on her cheeks in the guise of a kiss. Whenever she returned from school, she dumped her schoolbag, and affectionately lugged me around the house.
My father transferred to the Middle East, where my mother and I joined him a year later, but my sister stayed behind. She continued her higher studies in India, while my parents and I stuffed all our life’s belongings into suitcases and journeyed across the Arabian Sea to Muscat.
Overnight, I became an only child.
“So what do you want to be when you grow up?”
New acquaintances tossed this question my way at every gathering, especially upon learning that my older sister was studying medicine. Invariably they followed it up with an obvious query:
“Do you also want to become a doctor like your sister?”
My heart would slip to my stomach. My sister had grown up acing all her exams and always ranked among the top three in her class. I, meanwhile, held firm at the opposite end of the spectrum, scraping together pass marks on every test that came my way. I fared worst in biology – an ominous sign if I shared my sister’s aspirations.
When I was ten years old, I chanced upon a small white television at my friend’s house. The sight of the device set my pulse racing, and I learned only later that it was called a ‘computer’.
In the early nineties in the Middle East, personal computers were working their way into our daily lives. I signed up for classes and found myself at ease with the keyboard and the mouse. I whiled away many hours after school in my father’s office and taught myself WordPerfect, BASIC and the intricacies of the command-line prompt.
At school, I was still stitching together a mark here and there to finagle the necessary marks for passing. The weight of expectations hung heavy on my young teenage shoulders, and I, like most adults since time immemorial, dealt with the problem by ignoring it.
As for the question that became the bane of my existence, the polite answer – no, I don’t want to become a doctor – did little to thwart my interrogators. For Indian parents, only the career paths of doctor or engineer led to nirvana. The breath-taking pace of modern technology has eased this burden on the next generation, but in those days, I felt pigeonholed.
I couldn’t picture myself as an engineer either. It needed expertise in Maths and Physics, neither of which were my strong points.
What I did excel in, was English.
When I was all of five years old, I instructed my sister to arrange my toys: “Put these in a pile. Do you know what a pile is?”
For a girl on the cusp of her teens, she controlled her twitching palm admirably.
In the years to follow, she pounced on the smallest mistake that family members committed, be it a grammatical gaffe, a verbal miscalculation or a harmless mispronunciation.
Repeat offenders like my father and I received the sharp edge of the literary axe. Brusque scolds whiplashed us if we plundered language or grammar within her hearing.
My mother, ever the peacemaker, adopted tact and diplomacy to avoid the literary hatchet.
I spent my summer vacations in Mumbai, where my sister taught me the intricacies of the English language, including correct pronunciation, common mistakes people made and how to avoid them.
No one was surprised when my English test papers returned with ‘Excellent’ often scribbled across the top, and my scores increased in every paper.
She attempted to unravel the mysteries of math as well, but I did not absorb her lessons. Science and math remained my weak points for years.
In the ninth grade, I discovered that algebra came easily to me. When our math teacher set us a surprise test, I scored ninety percent. My parents, probably more shocked than I was, bestowed friendly pats on the shoulder. My sister beamed upon hearing the result – she always knew I had it in me.
My sister has built a sterling reputation as a psychiatrist, while I attempt to break the glass ceiling as a Project Manager in the software division of a reputed bank. I graduated with a degree in computer engineering, and have grown into the kind of sister my sister deserves.
On a recent outing for brunch at the Sheraton, we ran into an acquaintance. My sister and I introduced our respective children – her teenage daughter and my shy tween. When the initial pleasantries subsided, he asked my girl: “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
My daughter offered a noncommittal smile, as did my niece, a budding veterinarian. My sister and I exchanged looks. She answered for her niece: “She hasn’t decided yet. But whatever she chooses to do, I’m sure she’ll do it well.”
We both believe it.
Gargi Mehra is a software professional by day, a writer by night and a mother of two. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines online and in print. She maintains her website at gargimehra.com or can be reached on Twitter: @gargimehra or on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/gargi_mehra/