‘I’m going to go meet my sister since I’m in Gurgaon. She stays close by, on Sohna Road’, I told a gathering of friends over lunch.
‘Sister? But you said you have a brother?’ asked a doubting Thomas.
‘Oh, my cousin’, said I with a smile.
‘So say cousin, na. Not sister!’ he was quick to correct.
‘But we grew up together, in the same house, so the concept of ‘real’ … but the conversation had moved on. The thought, however, remained stuck.
Most of us trying to grow up since the 80s have lots of cousins. That’s because at that time children did not wait for office promotions or ‘right ages’ to come. They just came, like a logical next step to a formally organized marriage and a year or so of couple time, at best! Single children were as uncommon as a house without a carrom board, and ‘hum do humaarey do’ as common as evening cricket in the lanes. Kid 2 happened right after Kid 1, riding on the wave of left-over nappies, or after the mother had regained her breath and sanity and combed her hair. Economy of time, money and getting done with bodily expectations for the woman remained the drivers for “completing” a family. With romance and drama in it the movie reel went from I’m ready, set, go, boom, aaaa, push, out (times 2). Pack-up!
As a result of all that mathematically proven conception and delivering, happening in all our extended homes, we in our 30s have a vast network of cousins. If we compare the spoils with how many our parents had, we don’t have the same numbers. So let us not. But, if we compare with how things will be, with the single-kid wave spreading like a chalky patch of hopscotch in rain, we know Cousins, as a role and relationship, will slowly fade away.
And so will the Superpowers that cousins have had ever since the Big Bang.
Back then, when the bones were young …
… we did lots together! If you grow up in a joint family, like I did, you’re far above the rest of humanity in the Republic of Fun. Top class, really! But it is not the only way to know what cousins are made of, of course. Cousins, lived with or met over summer vacations after a day’s train journey with our mothers, were precious wherever they were. Distance no bar! Age no bar!
An older cousin was a window to our own futures, setting standards for a younger, aspirational demography of children in at least a couple of houses of the family. From getting princesses in Mario Brothers to ones in school; from acting guides on how to pluck mangoes to being buffers against bullies in the lane, older cousins were relied on with wide eyes and mouths agape. Idolising one such was as easy as the swish of hands pulling out a sling from the back pocket, or a billet doux. Looking up was especially easy if your relationship status with the ‘real’ brother or sister was … ahem … complicated, making you wish your parents never got a second ‘from the dustbin’ after they got you from a ‘pretty nurse in the hospital’!
Older ones put in place standards – of smartness, sportiness, suaveness, sensibility, sense and maths scores, sigh. They did the hard work of setting benchmarks, and the younger ones like me simply had to try to reach them. No marks for guessing the parental dialogue we heard-unheard if we did not. Let’s not go there!
On the other hand, a younger cousin, with kachhi mitti in all games, was exactly that. Soft clay in the hands of those who had lived slightly longer, and an inspiration for the older ones to act wiser than their milk teeth could ever allow. For all we know, those emulating hands and feet forced them to cut the wisdom teeth in time. In the complete food chain of all cousins put together! A sister who first taught you how to plait your hair may have grown into a confidant to discuss your period pain. A brother who let you in on his school bunking secret did so, so as to sneak you along to the cinemas. Another told you how bees do it because she had a chapter in the biology book. An army of cousins who made your goriest battles their own, and only in exchange for WWF trump cards (everyone wanted The Undertaker, and to see his face).
Yes. Our cousins were a cross between best friends and siblings, and they were great at being both; like those double-sided tattoos Boomer gum came wrapped in, or audio cassettes where both Side A and Side B were equally exciting! They oscillated from becoming kith to being kin, helped us grow up or grow down, and most importantly left us feeling a part of a big happy family, because they were family. No matter how infrequently we met them.
Now, when the hearts are getting weaker …
…families have undergone a change. We’re not just smaller, we’re also living lives within our own addresses. And our cousins are scattered all over the world. That proximity when we batted not an eye lid to share a bed with three others (tallest near the feet, please!) can no longer be achieved, not even at their weddings or our children’s first birthdays. We’re still close but we’re living apart and our lives are very different from those days when the same jean-pant passed down three pairs of legs, or the same Tobu cycle changed its moulded plastic seat for three toddlers in a row.
Does that mean we are islands drifting away from who we thought were our ‘real sisters’ and ‘real brothers’? Was what nourished us and shaped us as children and teenagers that impermanent? No. It has to be about scarcity of time and a busy life. Has to be. You can’t make invisible the little bits of our cousins that we have inside each one of us, no matter how you have found your I-for-Individuality in the maddening urban crowd. Nope, you can’t.
As I sit and type this, I realize how there is a very important secret superpower we cousins can tap in each other. The power to keep holding hands even when factions of families feud - over property or businesses or marriages or mere gossip - things that adulthood in our parents often comes furrowed with. What if we kids-of-yore stand up to our respective parents to say ‘You and your brother don’t get along. But my brother and I still do.’ Do you think this insistence to look beyond the temporary ‘now’ will help bind extended families with glue better than the translucent grey one we used to make birthday cards with, popping brushes into a shared blue-and-black bottle?
Isn’t it worth it to ground ourselves in happier memories of climbing trees and playing pitthoo than letting grown-ups fight like the kids we never were, not permanently at least? Isn’t it worth using that superpower, the power of choosing to be brothers and sisters despite all odds and above all else? Totally worth it, then, not growing up enough to let differences seep in. And especially now, at a time when cousins are an endangered species. Endangered, because the family tree is tapering and one day this role and relationship will …
Fade into nothing?