“You know full well as I do the value of sisters’ affections: There is nothing like it in this world.” ― Charlotte Brontë
My sister, whose childhood images usually adorn the top of my blog posts, is visiting us in Dhaka this week.
She is nearly 11 years older than me, but from the time I was 15, people have always asked upon meeting us together for the first time, “Who’s older?” I would be affronted if I didn’t love her so unconditionally.
We share the same parents but we had rather different upbringings. She was born when our father was a university professor, while also studying to become Bangladesh’s first actuary. They didn’t have much money those days, and our mother tells charming stories of their various modest accommodations as they moved around London for most of the 1960s while our father completed his studies and started working.
My sister had a sudden growth spurt at age nine, making her a head taller than anyone else in her class for several years. A cousin told her gleefully (and erroneously, as it turned out) that our extended family were having serious conferences over my sister, fearing she would end up a giant, growing and growing until she was seven feet tall. (She stopped at 5’5” – there’s nothing remotely giantesque about her.)
My sister was ten years old at the time of our country’s liberation war from Pakistan in 1971, when our family moved back to Bangladesh. She remembers relocating frequently with our parents to stay with various relatives from our father’s side in Sylhet at the start of the war. She recalls how unsettling it felt, not having a home, being constantly on the move. With the pervasive worry that Pakistani soldiers would enter the country from the north, our family moved back to Dhaka.
Our parents’ house was in Gulshan, a largely diplomatic zone at that time. Much of the neighbourhood soon cleared as the war progressed, the embassies shut down and foreigners left. My sister’s sense of upheaval continued when, with our mother heavily pregnant with me, the family moved to stay with our father’s cousin in Dhanmondi to be less isolated.
Our father’s cousin had two sons who were freedom fighters. They would appear at the house at odd hours, long-haired and unshaven, to grab meals on the run or a quick bath. My sister remembers a friend of theirs, a fellow freedom fighter, coming over one evening with them and spotting her. He sat down to sketch her on several sheets of paper, handing them to our family when he left. The artist was Shahabuddin, who went on to become so famous and celebrated that a canvas with his signature can sell for millions of dollars. In the chaos of war, our parents lost the drawings he made of my sister.
Our family moved back to our house in Gulshan when the bombing started. All my sister remembers is deafening noise – of air raid sirens, the heavy drone of fighter planes swooping low and bombs dropping all around. Our father told her to sleep under the bed, with her hands over her ears, and a roll of fabric wedged between her teeth to catch her bite.
She remembers our parents installing thick, heavy curtains around the house to prevent light leaking out in the evenings. After I was born, a few weeks before the end of the war, our family moved to the stairwell of the house as the bombing increased around them.
The schools were converted to Bengali medium when they re-opened after the war, and my sister made the adjustment accordingly. More change followed, with our family’s move to Kuwait some five years later. She switched back to English medium and sat for her A-levels, receiving an award for getting the highest results in the region for English Literature.
With our family still in the Middle East, she moved back to Bangladesh alone to start at Dhaka University, but the constant stop-start pattern of the university’s classes prompted her to move abroad to complete her studies, the first woman in our family to do so.
Jemima Khan, in the New Statesman in February 2013, wrote about the theory of how fame arrests development, so Michael Jackson was the perpetual child who enjoyed sleepovers and funfairs; Winona Ryder the errant teenager who tried shoplifting and popping pills; and George Clooney the 30-something commitment-phobe. I think this theory applies not just in the case of fame, but when we first blossom and discover who we might be. It’s telling that my sister still looks remarkably like the serious college student that she was when she first moved to the US. This was her opportunity to become exactly herself.
She completed her undergraduate in Biology at Wellesley College and her PhD in Toxicology from MIT. She married a fellow MIT PhD, Mark, and they have two children.
Seeing how different her daughters are from each other makes me marvel at how unalike my sister and I are as well. Our age difference means we were never competitive, but where she could have easily ignored me, she strikingly did the opposite. When her friends came over, instead of coolly locking me out of their grown-up conversations, I was always invited to join them.
Maybe it’s not a surprise given the amount of upheaval in her childhood and adolescence that she has stayed within a 15-mile radius of the Boston area for 34 years (and counting). I grew up being somewhat mobile too, though I’ve thrived on it, even when I’ve despaired of it.
Our personalities are wildly different as well, and not just because she’s a scientist and I’m more of an artist. If I’m an emotional and tempestuous roller coaster, she’s a self-possessed and poised steady line. I can be black and white – accommodating when I adore somebody, unforgiving if someone annoys me even once. My sister is far more generous about people’s idiosyncrasies and philosophical about their fallibility.
She loves routine, schedules and the fact that she never has to move house (let alone countries) ever again in her lifetime. I love adventure and change, and always have a ticket at hand to another continent, wherever I may be.
Every January, for the past two decades, she calls to say she’s looking at her calendar, and how about I come to visit from the 24th of August so we can plan to go to Maine for the long weekend. And every time I tell her that until the 22nd of August I won’t know what I’m doing on the 24th.
It makes perfect sense that she’s a terrific mother and I can’t even look after a houseplant.
Nevertheless, whenever anything of note (or even not) happens to me, I have to share it with my sister before I do anything else. Not just because of all the years of her total acceptance of who I am and zero judgment on her part no matter what I do, but because other than my mother, there’s nobody whose opinion and thoughts matter more to me.
I’m grateful that even though we’re so unalike we can find common ground.
She’s visited me when I’ve worked on films in India, taught in Italy or lived in England. I go to see her in Boston every year to spend time with my nieces.
We both love books and films, and have an inexhaustible appetite for Jane Austen adaptations.
Nobody has to urge either of us to go inside a museum of Impressionist art, but sometimes they do need to tear us away.
When we visit a new city our favourite activity is to walk around for hours, inhaling everything in.
While we may have different temperaments, we’re both highly punctual, get annoyed with flakes and pompous people, and share exactly the same values.
Given all of this, I’ll happily put up with strangers asking which of us is older.
“You can kid the world, but not your sister.” ― Charlotte Gray