It’s because of him, I thought furiously to myself as I blinked away my tears to get a clearer view of the road in front of me. Because of him I’ve been exiled from my home, my parents hate me because of him, because I couldn’t live up to the standards he set for me.
He had ever been the wall that stood in my path, whose shadow loomed over each effort of mine.
Adi, my elder brother. Dr. Aditya Ganguly, the pride of his family, his school, his friends. A well mannered, mild spoken boy with an academic career to be envied. Extremely popular among his friends, for in spite of his achievements he embodied humility and kindness. He was always ready to lend a helping hand to anyone in need, and never said a hurtful word in his life or acted in a way which could hurt anybody.
Almost never, anyway. In spite of my efforts to maintain the intensity of my anger at him, a smile crept into my face at the thought of a certain winter afternoon.
“Howzzat!” Antyo yelled.
“And what sort of an out is it, may I know, dear sir, that I may document it in the rulebook as a precedent for umpires?” I retorted, a bit irritated.
We were playing cricket in our backyard, with a deuce ball for a change. As I played in the senior school team, this was no big deal for me. But I was apprehensive that Antyo, who was only seven, could get himself hurt. However, Antyo insisted. And when Ananta Ganguly insists, well, let’s just say that the ‘Ganguly Nibas’ would be hard put to stay in one piece after not acceding to his request.
“That was a clear leg-before-wicket! My turn to bat!” Antyo protested.
‘That’ was of course, not a clear leg-before-wicket. But then, who was going to take the risk of explaining that to my baby bro?
My first delivery had more exuberance in it than I intended it to have. Maybe it was just the frustration of an elder brother at being treated unfairly by life.
The next thing I know, Antyo was lying on the ground clutching his forehead in his hands, which were red and wet. I was at his side in a moment, pulling off his hands to see how much damage had been done, then tying my handkerchief tightly to his forehead and carrying him off into the house.
In retrospect, I realize that this was probably the first time that I was not frightened at the sight of blood. Probably I was too afraid for my brother to give way to my fears.
I remember only snatches of what followed. Antyo insisting that I stay in the emergency ward while he was being stitched. Clutching my hand tightly while the doctor put in the stitches. Smiling at me while his head was being bandaged. And later that day, when I tucked him into his bed for the night – “ Dadabhai, you’d make a good doc, you know that?”
“Kolkata na Bankura?” A man yelled into my ears, causing me to come out of my reveries. I hadn’t noticed that I had already reached the bus stand. Man, walking blindly like that could have killed me.
Not that it would bother anybody overmuch. My anger returned with that thought. I was always the problem child. Actually, I wasn’t that bad in studies either. Or at games. But what the heck did anyone care about that? If I did well, well, I was supposed to, with a brother like I had. If I didn’t, oh look, there goes the boy whose brother did this-and-that, and he’s so useless! I don’t want to be like him, I yelled, I am an individual with talents and dreams of my own, I don’t want to be trapped in a great career, I want to be a poet, a songwriter. But hello, was there anybody in there who’d hear me?
Funnily enough, it was Adi who ignited this ambition in me. He was the one who made me listen to Dylan, the Beatles, Floyd, Seeger, GnR, Mohiner Ghoraguli, Suman, to understand Rabindrasangeet, to enjoy both folk songs and Bach-Beethoven-Mozart equally, with their different flavours. Unknown to me, another smile lit my face up as I thought back to the day when he bought his first acoustic guitar.
Well, I had just finished my first sems of my first year at college, and I made baba-mam get an acoustic guitar for me. It was nothing much to tell of, actually, an f-hole Givson Crown. But it was my first guitar.
Imagine my wrath, then, when I didn’t even get to touch it within the first hour of its arrival at my home. Antyo was happily playing with it.
At the end of one hour, though, I’d decided that I had exercised my quota of patience for about a week, and now it was time to conserve what was left of it.
“Give it to me. NOW!!” I shouted.
“Just listen to what I’ve picked up, dadabhai.” Antyo said, unperturbed by my fury.
Then, on my still untuned guitar, he flawlessly played the first part of Für Elise.
At the end of about one minute, when he stopped playing, I could just say – “Wow. Santana junior is coming to town. Satriani watch out.” Santana was his favourite guitarist. Satriani was mine.
For probably the first and last time in his life, my little bro blushed. In pride. I could see that the compliment meant a lot to him. How much, I was to come to know later.
I got off from the bus at Esplanade, and boarded another, which would take me to my destination. The only place in the world, other than ‘Ganguly Nibas’, which I could call home.
And resumed my train of furious thoughts. Heck, he was the root of all my troubles, I thought. As if getting me a real, big acoustic guitar for my ninth birthday – under the pretext that I always had my hands on his – wasn’t enough, he was the one who introduced me to the members of what would be, in the future, my band.
Rohit was clearly impressed by both Antyo’s proficiency at the guitar, and the songs that he wrote. As was his younger sister, Ritika.
“We’ve got ourselves an artist and a technician here, a rare combination. We could really do with someone of your talents. Would you like to join us?” He asked Antyo. Rohit was a friend who I’d first met at our college fest, and the lead vocalist-percussionist-lyricist of the popular metal outfit, ‘Harp of Death’. We’d quickly warmed to each other on getting to know that we both hailed from the same town.
“Yeah, and throw both your talent and your sanity down the drain in the process,” Ritika retorted. “All they can do is shout, and drown the shouts in more noise. Join our group instead, Antyo.” She added with a winning smile.
“You mean that pop group with the weird name – Underlings? He’d be wasted there.”
“ It’s Ainulinde. And we’re alternative rock. It’s a lot better than your group of howlers, actually.”
“Are you asking me to believe that you can actually play the guitar that you’ve decorated your room with?” Rohit snapped back, and ducked just in time to avoid Ritika’s punch.
I got off from the bus where I was supposed to. Quite surprising, given that my brain wasn’t working properly.
I do not know why I chose Ainulinde over the Harp of Death. Perhaps my dislike of too-loud music, or perhaps, as Adi used to tease me, because I liked Ritika. What I know is that it sort of…worked for me, for the lack of a better word. I was really happy for the first time since Adi went away to college. I had more to look forward to in life than my brother’s occasional visits. No longer did I have only one person to open my heart to. Ritika, Joy and Som filled me with a sense of belonging.
His shadow still loomed over my life, however, in more ways than one. He had to be the first one to listen each song I composed, the one whose critique I held most important.
My happiness had to be accompanied by is fair share of problems. My academics took a place of second priority. As a consequence, my results belied expectations quite dismally. And the reprimands from my parents, along with the comparisons with Adi that were already quite regular, became part of almost every waking hour of my life, and even of some of the sleeping. The release I got from books and songs did not seem enough any longer.
Just thinking of those days brought back my anger. I reached into my pocket and found the packet of cigarettes and the lighter that was always there. I took out my cigarette, put it between my lips and lit it. Then I took it out, threw it to the ground, and stamped on it with much more force than was actually necessary to extinguish it. Waste of another three rupees, all because of him.
“Cigarette smoking is injurious to health, especially the variety with canna inside it instead of nicotine.” I announced as I walked into the cloud of smoke that filled his room.
“Oh c’mon bro. Floyd is psychedelic rock. And I don’t give a damn about my physical health anyway. What are you wasting your life studying those huge textbooks for?” Antyo was his usual nonchalant self.
“I prefer to think that Floyd wrote that stuff in spite of the hallucinogens, not because of them.”
“Twenty cigarettes a day each day for twenty years increases the risk of lung cancer in ten percent of cases, remember bro? You shouldn’t have got those stats into my head.” Antyo laughed.
“Firstly, you’re smoking canna, which has the additional benefit of being addictive. Secondly, that is just one study, and allow me to opine, it was a very optimistic one. Thirdly, I am not joking any longer, Antyo. I won’t say anything if you feel this is a stress buster, or it boosts your creativity. However, injuring yourself just to antagonize out parents seems very foolish to me.” I was serious.
There was a sudden change in the atmosphere of the room as Adi stopped smiling, got up from his bed and strode to me, stopping inches from my face. His usually calm eyes now held a frightening intensity, and his voice echoed with long suppressed anger.
“You want to know why, my dear dadabhai? It’s all because of you. Day-in day-out I have to hear your praises. I have had to listen to it all my life. I have tried to be what they want me to be to earn a little appreciation. To no avail. Then I stopped trying to impress them, I didn’t want any appreciation now, I just wanted to be left alone. Hell, but what were my desires to them? ‘You make us feel so ashamed, Antyo, look at your great elder brother, look at what he was and what you’ve become.’ But you know what? I don’t care what anybody thinks of me any longer. I am going to do what I want while you rot in your bloody great career. I am not going to stand being told any longer what to do, what to be. So just get off my back and mind your own business.”
I wasn’t ready for the outburst. I never could have been.
No, I was not hurt. I was broken. This was what I, unwittingly, had turned the person I loved most in the world, into.
“I’m sorry, Antyo.” I whispered, turning away very quickly so he couldn’t see my tears, and left the room in a daze.
Later that day, when I woke up from my siesta, I saw a note on my table, kept under a packet of cigarettes and a lighter.
I picked up the note. In Antyo’s beautiful but careless handwriting, it said – “You are right. I was being foolish. And forget whatever I said earlier. I meant none of it.”
He wasn’t in his room. Mam told me that he had gone over to Ritika’s place and said that he wouldn’t be returning that night, and that he was going to get into so much trouble one of these days.
Later, Mam told me that Antyo was never seen smoking after that day, although a packet of cigarettes could always be found in his room.
The torture only got worse as I entered college. Adi was by now doing his post-grads, so Dad bought a flat in Kolkata where he could stay. He now came home once in a blue moon. Ainulinde, and his infrequent calls were the only silver linings in the dark sky that was my life.
Then came today. Yesterday we had a gig at a local club. It wasn’t much, but still we celebrated late into the night and the early morning.
I returned home in the morning to find Mom and Dad already at breakfast. They didn’t shout at me. Just the snide remarks from Dad – “The great guitarist returns home. Enjoyed your night with those louts you call friends? Do you have to come back for your breakfast at your father’s place still? Aren’t you famous enough yet?” Mom’s whining – “What did we do to get you as our son? Where have we gone wrong in raising you?” And, of course, the inevitable comparisons that stung the most – “Who will say that Adi and you are brothers? Just look at what he is, and what you’ve become.”
I had reached the end of my tether. I calmly finished my breakfast, went into my room, packed a few things into my backpack, put my wallet, cell phone, the cigarette packet and the lighter in my pocket, and slung my guitar over my shoulders. On second thoughts, I kept the cell phone back in its place and walked out of my room.
Now, to get out of our house, you have to go through the drawing room. Mom and Dad were still seated at the breakfast table, which is in our drawing room.
“So, the great rockstar leaves home and becomes a great rockstar, is it?” My father commented. That I’d get out of the house without any more drama had been too much too hope for, I thought.
I struggled furiously to control my emotions, and then, in a voice as calm and stable as I could manage to make it, I began – “No, I’m doing nothing so dramatic. I’m just…”
“He said he was just going away from home for some time to stabilize himself. That he had reached the limit of what he could endure. That as much as he admired you, he had no intentions of being you. That he was going to stay for some time in a place where he’d be appreciated for what he was. That he was still grateful to us and still loved us. And then he left.” Mam’s voice broke down as she sobbed into the receiver at the other end.
“Have you called Ritika?” I asked, though I had a fair idea of what the answer would be.
“I called each of his friends; he’s left his cell phone here. He has gone to none of them. Your Baba has gone to file an FIR at the police station. God only knows what’ll happen now.”
“Don’t worry,” I said in the bravest voice that I could manage, “everything will be alright. He’s my brother, I know him. He might be a little eccentric, but he’s sensible enough to keep himself out of harm’s way. I am doing all I can here.” I replaced the receiver and prayed that I knew my brother as well as I thought I did.
Almost as if in answer to my prayers, the doorbell rang.
The label which said ‘Dr. A. Ganguly, MBBS’ suddenly disappeared from my sight as the door to which it was nailed flew open. I was enveloped in a bear hug and the gruff, big-brotherly voice I was longing to hear said into my ears – “Hey, you could have given me a call, at least. What if I was not home?”
In spite of myself, I felt all my anger, sorrow and trouble melt away as I replied – “I’d have done exactly that if I knew that there was even the slightest chance of you not being home for me. Ever.”