“There’s oceans in between us,
But that’s not very far.”
– Blurry, Puddle of Mudd
Growing up with three rowdy boys in the house makes me feel weird whenever I have friends who are older than me trying to act as my kakak (older sister). For Malays, respect is positively correlated with one’s seniority in age: between two friends, siblings, or strangers, the younger of the two must show respect to the older person, regardless of whether the age difference is just a few months or a few decades. We show this respect by referring to the person with the prefix ‘kakak‘ (‘older sister’ in Malay) or ‘abang‘ (‘older brother’), using polite terms in speech, you name it. Unfortunately — or perhaps the contrary — I spent much of my childhood without my older brothers and as an only child so I’ve had to be independent much of the time, which is why I always cringe whenever some of my older friends attempt to treat me like a helpless child.
Needless to say, when it comes to my relationship with my brothers and I, these rules of respect/seniority fly out the window, and there is almost complete anarchy in our siblinkship. I, as the youngest, am frequently consulted for advice on various subjects ranging from possible topics for a Master’s thesis, relationship problems (even if I myself have hardly been in one before), and even how to write a CV. As I’ve mentioned before, I never refer to them as ‘abang‘ and they never refer to me as ‘adik‘ (younger brother/sister) and in fact we call each other with the general — and rather unconventional too, I grant you that — term ‘bitch’. Perhaps because we are so close in age, and because we all grew up in practically the same period, that even their seniority in age doesn’t necessarily equate to more wisdom but rather serves more as a ranking system to facilitate their identification when I talk about my brothers to my friends. Case in point:
- Me: My brother is getting married.
- Friend: Wait, which brother is this?
- Me: The second one.
Although we were always at each other’s throat when we were growing up (and come to think of it, we kind of still are), my brothers and I have gone through a lot together and I do feel fortunate to know that I am not struggling in this sinking ship alone. You know what they say — misery does indeed love company. When I was thirteen, when my parents and I visited my father’s cousin in Dublin, my cousin gave me some of the books she didn’t want to read anymore. Hidden among this pile of books is Helena Echlin’s Gone — quite literally one of my top three books of all time. Gone is the story of Elizabeth, who returned to England to prepare for her wedding as per her dying grandmother’s request to see her granddaughter get married before she dies, only to uncover more and more skeletons in her family’s dark closet. It’s the story of a family constantly trying to reconstitute itself by putting the pieces back together, but family is a fragile thing… Just when Elizabeth thinks she has sorted out issues with her rebellious older brother, he commits suicide the day before her wedding.
This book sobered me up. Whatever issues I had with my brothers then, I packed them all nicely into a cardboard box and chucked it into the sea of oblivion, because there are greater things worth keeping and protecting, and our siblinkship ranks high above all. One day I could wake up and they may not be here. One day they could wake up and find that I am no longer. Death comes at its own time, unannounced, and always punctual.
The three photos you will see below may perhaps be an unorthodox interpretation of Daily Post’s threes theme for this week, but I wanted to show how our siblinkship has grown over time, and across different spaces: the first was taken in Batu Pahat, Malaysia — our hometown, where we were all born. This is perhaps the one and only photo from our childhood that I managed to salvage before we lost it all in an unfortunate incident. The second was taken on a short visit to Alexandria, Egypt, the country we all regard as almost our second semi-permanent home on account of my brothers having lived and studied there for literally a decade. The third one was taken on a river cruise on the Seine when we were in Paris. This ship has traveled the rough seas and through unfamiliar territories. But we still hold on.
Four siblings. A quarter of a century. Three continents. And there will be more to come inchaAllah.