© Claudia Tremblay
We are all girls, my three siblings and I, though our tastes and wishes and whims have been as different and varied since the beginning. I was almost 7 years old the first time I met my sisters. Until then, I had mistakenly assumed my ‘siblings’ consisted two sisters and three brothers, who, as it turned out, were my aunts and uncles, the biological siblings of my mother. I've no idea how it would have felt as a young child to be on the receiving end of this surprise bequest. Neither did my sisters, I imagine. In my mind's eye, there is an enormous blank canvass that I've never been able to paint in Technicolour, no matter how far I've tried to stretch my imagination. Either side of this greyness, my memories leap from momentary glimpses of the life I lived in India with my grandparents, to simply being an integral one of four.
The four of us shared a bedroom in the council flat in London that was my new home; two of us slept top and tail on each of two single bunk beds. I shared a bed with my eldest sister. Her feet were always a looming presence in the amorphous, fluid world between wakefulness and sleep. When I was 10 years old, I watched the British television premiere of the movie ‘Jaws’, and my sister's feet transmuted into the fins of a shark. I lay in the dark, petrified, too afraid to close my eyes in case I fell back into the nightmare. Eventually, I crawled to the lounge where I sat with the light switched on until dawn.
As children, when we often understand our physical limitations before emotional ones, I got to know my siblings through their body parts; nails scratching across skin, fingers grappling onto hair, a hand clenched into a fist as it punched into the side of my arm. There was also the knife throwing incident that missed someone's eye by a couple of inches and shattered the TV screen instead.
There were moments of sweetness and laughter too. My younger sister's cute ponytail hairstyle that looked like a pineapple crown, made-up choreographies danced in the garden to Boney M and Showaddywaddy songs, and munching eggy-fried-bread while watching Bollywood films at the Curzon.
I am sure there were many times we talked and shared girly secrets, but words remembered after decades are easily misquoted and misinterpreted. Usually, verbal communication was a competition of the loudest, most aggressively sworn expletives, when shouting drowned all reason like the blast from a shotgun ricocheting back and forth within a mirrored room. Though I was the nerdy, quiet one, our physical interactions lived in my flesh in a way that words never did.
Through my teens, I existed as a voyeur, observing the trials and tribulations of my two older sisters. They fought and argued constantly, and broke every cultural taboo, yet shared a bond that was unbreakable. They were defined by each other, against each other, loved and hated simultaneously.
Borrowing clothes, shoes, and makeup was fraught with conflict. As we got older, however, our tastes diverged and so did our sibling collective. When education, jobs, drugs and boys entered the fray, we split like particles in a Hadron collider.
Society pressures us into believing that ‘blood is thicker than water’. Technically, this is true, however, civilisation cannot evolve beyond genetic survival if we continue giving prominence to the familial unit and its wider influence. (For example the inequality we create in housing, education, access to opportunities, business, laws of inheritance, etc. due to outdated tiers of family and class structure.)
Family dynamics are set young, and while acceptance, love, and caring for each other is the basis of society's belief in the family unit, for how many of us is this ideal a rose-tinted delusion? In my family, wanting a vocation that was artistic and creative made me ‘the weirdo with no common sense’, and this definition meant being at the whim of siblings who knew exactly which ‘buttons’ to press to take my dream down a few pegs. We spent so much time in each other's company that familiar innuendos simply became unconscious and destructive habits.
There was a period in my 30s when I felt incredibly close to my siblings. My heart was opened to the possibility of intimacy, being vulnerable, and cutting through the bullshit of ideals and expectation. We communicated our pain and frustration (without shouting), we embraced and cried, and we healed the past. I realised that so much of my life had been lived in the surreal efficacy of memories, instead of the present reality, and that it was time to let go. Literally. There was more to life than re-iterating the cycles and habits of my ancestors, whose sole purpose in life was to extort the biggest inheritance from the previous generation.
But there were not enough of these moments to build new habits that last, and sadly, the tide of genetics and biology seems to have swerved again, like a pendulum that has lost its momentum.
As an adult, with a measure of distance and objectivity, the lives of my siblings are my wealthiest inheritance. With only seven years difference between my eldest and youngest sister, I often reflect on the choices we've made, which has taken each of us into the parallel worlds we inhabit. I know that my world has been defined by watching and learning from them, particularly in relation to the kind of life I did not want to have. This is my siblings’ greatest gift to me.
I too have made mistakes and been intensely jealous of my sisters in the past. However, the thought of swapping and living the life of any one of them now mortifies me, because in spite of our shared history and the pressure to conform, the ties that bind can be as unhealthy as they are wholesome. There are deeper, individual needs that must be excavated and unearthed, where identity, belonging and meaning is created through our uniqueness.
As we grow older still, we are having to face the inevitability of mortality. And though we argue less, I feel we are also less willing to listen to each other, which results in a strange limbo of avoidance rather than embracing the uncertainty of death and using our will to break free of the past and live our dreams.
The bonds of sisterhood are no longer binding. When I make decisions about what I do, who I want to be, I choose to perceive my freedom as a consequence of my early Indian childhood, without my siblings… and I imagine this grey blankness of time may have saved my life. More than ever before, I experience my freedom in creating a narrative of the past that supports me to be the person I desire to be here and now. Whether this narrative actually happened or not is irrelevant, because no matter how many years the four of us existed in the same space and lived through the same events, we have always lived (and are living) four very different lives.