Sunday, 1 December 2013


I have always known I am a heart attack. Though there are signs of my arrival, I’m usually sudden and deadly. My brother is a kind of cerebral dementia: slow, inexorable, but not fatal on his own. My elder sister is cancer: catastrophic sometimes, clever always. But most of all is Joan. Joan is an aneurysm. She’s a time bomb without a clock. And she explodes spectacularly and without warning.

There are four of us. Vinay’s the oldest, and likes being the oldest. Then there’s Deepika, who for a long time was The Akka, until I realised other people had older sisters too. I’m third in line. Vaijayanti is a stupendous name for a child until people realise how much it sounds like vagina. And then there’s Joan. As if my name wasn’t enough, Amma really went for it and called her Jyotilakshmi Nityaneshwari. She was no sooner christened than Nanna looked at the birth certificate and called her Joan. Joan’s never been just my sister, though. If you woke me up in the middle of the night and me my sister’s name, I’d say Akka’s name without even thinking. Joan’s only a year younger than me, but in reality she’s about four hundred years older than all of us.

It really gets on Vinay’s nerves.

You might wonder why I describe my siblings and I as diseases. It’s a fair question, but it’s also a little irrelevant. We are what we are, as Nanna likes to say. Nanna’s an engineer, out of interest. He worked for Boeing, years and years ago, and his fascination for flight never ended. Even now he flies kites every day on our terrace, while Amma shouts at him to come down and eat before he falls and breaks his head.

Amma’s a type of her own. After Nanna changed Joan’s name she lost it a little. She’d call Joan Jyoti for hours on end, hoping to imprint her name onto her. But Nanna would say, in the soft tones he’s perfected, ‘Joan, da!’ and Joan would forget all the work Amma had done. Now in the office they call her Nitya, which is disconcerting for everyone. I’ve called her office and asked for Joan only to be told no Joan works there. It was only when we got a call on the landline asking for ‘Nitya’ that I understood what was going on. Joan didn’t seem to mind; then again, she never does.

Now only four of us live at home. Vinay got married three years ago and wasn’t about to live with his parents, his sisters, and his wife. He wooed her the same way he wooed every woman: patiently and persistently. He would buy her these artsy objects from all sorts of weird places. When she asked why, his answer was only that they reminded him of her. They’re all kept in their flat now, each with a story and a memory attached.

Deepika only left three months ago, and it’s still a little odd not seeing her toothbrush next to mine. ‘I’m going to Bombay and you’ll have to deal with it!’ she declared at dinner one evening. Not even Joan had the heart to tell her we were quite looking forward to having the use of an extra room. We Skype each other every now and again, and she’s still as neurotic as ever.

So now it’s just Joan and I left in the nest. It’s completely different from anything I’m used to. It’s astonishing when you think about it, but all four of us went to college in Hyderabad and lived at home. Vinay went to the Central University, Akka and I had a blast at St Francis, and Joan, being Joan, went to Nalsar without working a single hour for the entrance exam.

It’s comforting to still have her around, lounging about in the drawing room and flirting with her latest beau. I’ve never been able to fall in and out of relationships the way she has. When Abhay dumped me in second year I was an angry wreck for months. Amma would see me come home and pass some comment like ‘Vai the Volcano is back,’ and Nanna would giggle in the irritating way he has.

But Joan simply chops and changes. Her ability to take decisions bewilders me, and I’ve known her all her life. In the middle of breakfast today, as we’re all eating our puri and chattering about nonsense, she put her coffee down and said ‘I’ve decided I’m going to work in an NGO.’ ‘Which one?’ Nanna asked. ‘Oh, any old one. I haven’t really decided yet,’ she replied. I don’t know why I was so surprised, but I was. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. She’s been on her laptop googling NGOs in Hyderabad all day.

It’s just a matter of how well you really know her, I suppose. Amma wasn’t surprised at all, but when I told Vinay and Manju (who’s his wife) they were pretty stunned. I’m not too worried. Joan always lands on her feet, even if she has a tendency to shock the ones she’s landing on.

We’ll see how it goes. In any case I’m not going to leave home for a good long while. A PhD doesn’t write itself, and Nanna needs someone to remind him to take his medicine. Diabetes isn’t one of the children he had, so he’s not as used to managing it. Maybe in a few years, when it’s part of his routine and I’m ready to move on I’ll think about leaving. Until then, I’m going to stay, and I’ll make damn sure Joan stays with me.

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