My first word was bow-bow.
Mama says it is because I was fascinated by dogs but I think I was confused about my species. Perhaps, it is not surprising that when we got Shadow I was scared he would become a Tamil speaking dog instead of an English speaking dog and that this would cause communication problems. I needn’t have worried. Shadow is ten now but he can only speak “dog”, a language that, despite my best efforts, I am not fluent in.
I do not believe in love at first sight but I loved Shadow at once. I had never seen anyone so beautiful. I know I never will. His silky hair should be on the cover of every magazine – fashion, business, science; it doesn’t matter. But Shadow does not like posing for photos and I do not want to share him with the rest of the world.
When Shadow was a baby I was particular about gender equality and for all official purposes (birthday cards) his name was ‘Shadow Mary Mathew’. When he became an adolescent, he put this behind him and would answer only to “Shadow”.
I did not find him. My grandparents did. Or maybe, Shadow with all his wisdom, facilitated this meeting. I do not know. Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like if we had found another dog. Reason tells me that I would love that dog just as much but a more powerful conviction tells me that would not be possible. No animal could ever be Shadow.
It is still early in the morning and the man is taking his dogs for a walk. A nineteen-year-old girl is struggling as she pulls her suitcase over the uneven road. As they pass her, the baby dachshund moves closer to her. The girl stops, stares at the dog and a slow smile stretches across her face. The dog ignores her and continues on its way. What a weird human.
Shadow was not my first brother. Actually, my first brother was my sister.
“Are you sure it’s a boy? Maybe it’s just a girl who looks like a boy.”
That was the first thing I asked my father after he told me I had a brother.
Papa smiled. “No, it’s a boy.”
I wasn’t disappointed, just confused. I had been certain I was destined to have a sister.
Papa must be wrong, I decided. Even doctors could make mistakes. Just because my little sister had short hair it did not mean she was a boy. Mama had short hair too.
“I have a younger sister in the nursery.” “I have an older sister who escaped from prison.” “I have a pet snake.” These were the stories my nursery teacher had to deal with. Not lies. Never lies. Simply replacements for the sister that my father had now mistaken for a boy.
Before R was born, a friend’s mother came to our crèche to breastfeed her baby. I was aghast and came home indignant.
“Mama, Nick’s mother came to school today to give Nick’s baby drinks.”
“She fed him from her stomach.”
A smile. “Okay…”
“But Mama!” I protested. “Nick’s baby is not a cow baby or a goat baby! He’s a person baby!”
R was a person baby. Simply the wrong gender. And then I saw him. Tiny fingers that curled into fists. Spiky hair. Small eyes.
I refused to allow him to suffer the same fate as Nick’s baby. He could not survive only on drinks from a dubious source, so I took it to myself to provide a balanced diet. By the time he was two weeks old he would smack his lips whenever I gave him vinegar flavored potato chips. My parents didn’t know because this was our secret – the first of many.
Fifteen years later R is still grateful that I saved his life (even if he won’t admit it) and I couldn’t be happier that Papa is always right.
“You got mud on your face. Big disgrace.”
They hit their knees twice before clapping. “Somebody better put you back into your place.”
A slight pause.“Mama, Papa, join in! We’re almost done.”
Their mother looks amused.
“We will, we will rock you.”
Their father turns the wheel.
“We will, we will rock you.”
“We will, we will rock you.”
The girl and boy grin at each other.
“We will, we will ROCK YOU!”
My twin brother is being raised by giraffes.
When I tell people this they look very confused. I tell them that Roger and I have telepathy – I found out about his existence when I was thirteen and we have been keeping in touch ever since. “So he’s imaginary?” I hate that question. To call a friend, pet dragon or family member, “imaginary”, always sounds like you’re degrading them.
People make it sound like that they don’t exist but imagination is more real than reality. We see the world through our lenses of subjectivity but cling on to the myth of reality. This is why giraffes are so much more sensible than humans. Ever heard of a giraffe who looks down on imagination? Exactly.
Shadow and R had already arrived by the time I realised that there had been a prequel, but I don’t think this revelation changed how we saw each other. R convinced my parents to put their guilt behind them and add Roger’s name to my fourteenth birthday cake. I responded gratefully by thinking of letting him have a twin sister but then decided against it. I liked being the only girl so R’s twin is our handsome Maruti 800.
“You know,” the girl says. “I think I would like a twin brother.”
Her mother nods.
The girl changes tactics. “No, I have a twin brother and he has just contacted me through telepathy. Why did you never tell me about him? After all, he was a special child abducted by a ninja,” she says, certain that this is an idea that movies have used repeatedly.
Her mother plays along. “I’m sorry, Shefali. We hadn’t planned on tell you but now that you know…”
“And now he’s being raised by wolves.”
“Wolves are too old fashioned. He’s being raised by giraffes.”
Neither of them have any idea how important this conversation is. They are not taking it seriously, they do not realise that the girl has found a new family member.
For the moment, they just laugh.
I do not remember when I met Snaily, the toy (not to be confused with his namesake, Snaily, the pet snail I had for 3 hours). Maybe I found him sitting on a shelf, pretty and pink. Maybe, I tugged my mother’s sleeve and asked her to buy Snaily for me. Maybe, a visitor found him and gave him as a gift.
I gave Snaily away to a child who needed him more than I did. It was the right thing to do and I have never forgiven myself for it. How can I forget standing in front of all my toys, coldly evaluating and then picking Snaily up, as if he didn’t matter as much, like he was the one who could be discarded? I told him I was sorry, kissed him one last time and gave him to the little girl.
When the child left, I lay on my bed and cried bitterly. Now it hurts to write about it because I feel like I am using Snaily for my own personal gain. This is not how you treat family. Once you find your family, you keep them carefully. “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” Lilo and Stitch. I should never star in a Disney cartoon. I don’t deserve it.
Reason reminds me that I did the right thing. I had stopped paying attention to my toys. Snaily was the lucky one. Don’t my other toys deserve what Snaily got? It is Toy Story 3 and I wonder if I will ever be brave enough to be like Andy. I don’t think so.
The snail has been abducted by a giant. “I’ll take care of you,” the giant says. “I wonder what I should call you. What do you like?”
Sunitra is a pretty name, the snail thinks.
“I think I’ll name you Snaily. You like that, don’t you?”
The snail most certainly does not.
“Mama! Look, I brought a pet!”
Ten minutes later, the snail is back in its original habitat. The giant sits cross-legged in front of it. “Mama says it’s probably better not to have a snail. We may be shifting soon and we are thinking of getting a dog. I still love you, ok.” And the giant stays with the snail the whole evening, happily chattering about her little brother who has just started school. Giants talk too much.
My Hogwarts letter never came.
This is why, at the age of seventeen (old enough to be an adult in the wizarding world), I told my friends I was going to Hogwarts College of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and instead made my way to Bangalore.
I sit in class. B and G are arguing about how much a teacher wants us to write when she says “3 pages”. Does she mean 3 sides or 3 sheets of paper? They have been arguing since morning and it is A’s class now. He tells them to hold hands and keep quiet and they laugh because they have been caught.
I think about how much I love it here. About how happy I am. About how dark the future looked a year ago, and how wonderful it is now. I feel so safe.
I’m proud that I found this family. I chose to do English. I chose to come to this college. I’m a Pokémon master, throwing my Poké Ball and screaming, “I choose you!” “This is my family. I found it, all by myself. It’s little and broken but still good. Yeah, still good.” Lilo and Stitch again.
“Hey, how much do we have to write?”
“So, is that one side or –”
“S, do we have to write one side or –”
“No. I am not getting into this again! Do whatever you want.”
Cue laughter. Twelve seconds later… “But seriously, what do we –”
“Oh God. It’s happening again.”
I feel guilty for those I have not mentioned, my little families named by their WhatsApp groups – The Blue People, Sushmasa; names that make no sense to anyone but us. Three sisters that understand my love for animals. Multiple lizards all named Lizzie. A huge blue teddy bear who knows the secrets of the universe.
Sometimes they found me. Sometimes I found them. And, in this process of finding and losing and finding again, memory falls into memory making me realize how weird my life really is. I know that once I read this, all the words are going to seem wrong and these reminiscences will seem out of place. They don’t make sense. I suppose, my only excuse, is that as a child, fantasy was my reality. I waited for Peter Pan and I checked my house for Narnia. It’s alright. Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That sounds so much wiser than anything I say but it isn’t true. All my families are happy. All my families are different.
As I finish writing this, the train passes the last station. I am almost home.I look out of the window and wonder what the day will be like. I know that Mama will come to pick me up and I will hug her. I will walk around the house proudly wearing Papa’s slippers and he will look amused. Shadow will wag his tail and get excited about going for a walk. R will look down at me from his new position as the taller sibling. And I will smile and I will laugh. Because, even as I find new families, I’ll never let go of this one.
*This essay won the Barbra Naidu Prize – 2016 for the best personal essay. Shefali Mathew is a student of II EJP, St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous)