There are always women: aunts, aunties, mothers, sisters, cousin sisters, grandmothers, neighbors, friends. The women are rowdy, singing, dancing, telling bawdy jokes, laughing open mouthed, sharing sweets and snacks. They wear salwar kameez with colored chunnis, festive but casual in comparison to the saris selected for the wedding, pressed and hung on doorknobs with matching petticoats and ziplocked jewelry. The bride-to-be sits in the center of it all, arms and legs extended, salwar bottoms rolled to the knee, submitting with smiles to the ministrations of a mehendi artist, or two. A sister waits by her side, patiently offering a mouthful of lunch from her own manicured fingers, and a cousin is nearby, juice in hand, prepping a straw to bring to the bride’s lips. Later, when the juice is drunk too quickly, and the bride realizes she has to make a restroom trip without the use of either hand, an expert, laughing aunt comes to her rescue as attendant and aid.
I’d seen enough Hindi movies to know how the mehendi was supposed to go. Noise.
Laughter. Women. So when Kamala came home to apply my mehendi a couple days before my wedding, I knew she’d find the scene unorthodox. Our house was quiet. My mother and a few relatives efficiently assembled favors in the dining room. My grandmother napped. The television played old Billboard hits. Kamala and I set up in the family room, where I took an olive recliner. Morning sun streamed in from the backyard as Kamala started on a peacock pair, nuzzling heads in the palm of my left hand. Then traipsed in my brothers—all six of them.
The oldest had bought champagne at the corner store and was ready to pop it at just past ten, which he did. His twin searched the kitchen for glasses and returned, triumphant, with mugs in hand. Another, littler brother stood watchfully by my side, leaning in too closely to see the vines developing on my wrist. Yet another found a plate of watermelon on the butcher block and, coming near to be part of the fun, dripped juice and seeds all over Kamala’s bag and my left calf. My brother, sweaty from an early run and singing along to his iPod, stretched and headed for the fridge, oblivious to the proceedings.
I have no sisters, no cousin sisters even, just one brother and half a dozen cousins I owe rakhis. They crowded around while I had my mehendi applied, commenting sweetly and inexpertly, trading notes on soccer teams, until they got restless. Then a flash of inspiration and the fun began: a watermelon segment placed with glee in sister’s mouth (I protested, laughing first, then choking, face full of rind, both hands outstretched and henna-covered); a sip of champagne jokingly offered straight from the bottle, then spilled down sister’s front.
They hooted and clapped and filmed my sputtering on their cell-phones, while Kamala completed a drum on the head of a peacock on the back of a hand. Then, as swiftly as they’d entered, my brothers blew out of the room, dispersing to read and nap, play video games, shower and change. The mehendi continued until sundown.
I love my brother more than anyone, but I have always felt keenly the lack of a sister. (This cuts both ways. Growing up, I’m certain he would have traded me gladly for his friend Andrew’s older brother.) But being sisterless is my lot. Not only have I no sisters or female cousins, I’ve recently acquired two (wonderful, but unalterably male) brothers-in-law.
Certainly, I am spoiled. I have acquired an inappropriate amount of the family jewelry, heirloom saris, attention from relatives. I am the favorite sister, daughter, granddaughter, niece. But mine are lonely spoils.
My grandmothers each have many sisters. My mother, to whom I am particularly close, has one, too. And I have an unfortunate tendency to make friends with women who have sisters, which makes me feel all the more bereft. These sisters are sometimes close, sometimes not. But I sense they communicate telepathically, commiserating over the demands of parents, the follies of partners, the stresses of work, the labor of raising children. I imagine the clothes swapped and secrets shared—from first bras and first kisses, to late life diagnoses, crises, achievements, and decisions borne. I imagine a deep understanding. I imagine a singular bond.
There is only so close you can get to a woman with a sister. She is generally not looking for another one. She may have a best friend, or many, but she doesn’t need you the way the sisterless do. A brother will love you. A brother will carry your suitcases. A brother will take you for a sprint workout and teach you the latest P90X routine. But a woman with a sister has a woman to call her own: a woman who knows something of what it means to be a woman in this family, to these parents, in this country, at this moment, faced with these obligations, bearing these burdens, in this climate, harboring these disappointments, nurturing these many dreams.
Juxtapose the scene of my mehendi with a clip from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun! or Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and I look like the victim of a schoolyard prank, not a bride-to-be.
There is no Nisha to my Pooja, no Chutki to my Simran. All through the wedding planning, I grumbled to my mother. A sister would have been more involved, I said. A sister would have understood what I was going through.
Later, seeing the photos and video of my handsome brothers and brothers-in-law in kurta pyjama and suits, shrugging off their coats to dance and lifting our chairs in the air during the Jewish horah, I felt a stirring warmth. Watching my brother’s full-throated toast and dedicated song, I felt pride. My brothers might not have paid attention to all the wedding details like a sister would; they might never know the crosswise pulls most women bear. But they gave me their unaffected love in the form of champagne shower and watermelon face.
And now I wait—for that other gift of brothers, for my half a dozen sisters-in-law.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.