Siblings like me who turned up nineteen years after their eldest sibling was born might identify with this. The youngest of five sisters, even my fourth sister is eight years elder than me. As a result, my four sisters had eight years together before I turned up. Plenty of time to create wonderful memories and recall them when they feel nostalgic.
As soon as I grew up enough to enjoy stories, my generous siblings would share their tales with me. How one sister accidentally ate sleeping pills and had to be walked around the park for hours so she didn’t fall asleep, another injured her lip, didn’t realise it at the time but woke up in the middle of the night covered with blood or a third who was extremely scared of Appa when she was younger that she would completely go speechless in his presence. Another sister began earning an income at a very young age. She recited poetry so beautifully and flawlessly that she would be called upon in gatherings to recite a poem, and rewarded with a steady supply of candy from these recitations.
Many such stories form the topic of conversation when we meet up. Of late, we have been trying to jog Amma’s memory over our weekly video calls to see what she’s able to tell us about her childhood, her siblings, her life before she was Amma. It has been an amazing experience so far.
So when New Year’s Eve came along last week, I was reminded of yet another memory which my sisters have narrated to me a number of times. Of all the memories they have shared with me, this is the one memory that always brings out my jealous streak! It is such a beautiful and innocent memory that I sorely miss not being there for it. I have replayed it in my mind like a movie many times over the years, and built an image of what it would have been like over time.
It is the late 1960s. Four children are huddled in a corner in the balcony of the room which is at the far end of the two bedroom apartment they stay in with their father and mother, aptly named “The Last Room”. While their parents sleep in another room, the children get ready to welcome the new year in their own special style.
A tradition has been created, as it should be, by the eldest sister. She gathers her younger sisters around and they all sit on the balcony floor, their eyes shining with excitement and anticipation. They’ve very recently moved into the house they live in, and it is a very simple life their parents lead. There is no internet, no live streaming, no smart devices, no television yet in their corner of the world. Their sole source of electronic entertainment is Ceylon Radio and Vividhbharati that comes through the airwaves on their radio.
But at this time of the night, even the radio is silent. Minutes away from midnight, the eldest sister places two candles in a holder. She has carefully chosen the candles, one is obviously shorter than the other. She lights the shorter candle first and whispers theatrically to her sisters, “That dear sisters is the old year… just a few minutes left for the light of the old year to die out.”
They all watch the small candle, experiencing the magic of the moments that tick away… with each passing minute the candle wanes and so does the year.
As it inches closer to midnight, the eldest sister quickly takes the smaller candle and lights the new, larger one. As if by magic, the smaller candle loses its light just as the bigger candle glows bright, encompassing the hope, dreams and aspirations of these four close knit sisters.
But there is more magic left. The local Brijwasi sweets shop has prepared mouth-watering Bengali sweets and the sisters all have a sweet tooth. It is very rare for them to eat anything that is not made by their parents, so this is a super special treat, which they will cherish for the rest of the year until the next New Year’s Eve arrives and the magic is experienced all over again. Online ordering apps have not made an appearance yet, and indulgences like this are still rare and special.
Over Chamchams, Sandesh and Rasagullas which were surreptitiously purchased in the evening by the eldest sister and kept hidden away from the prying eyes of the elders, the children enjoy their quiet revelry of sweets over candlelight. Quiet because they don’t want to wake up their parents who are blissfully asleep and completely unaware of this tradition which the children are forming, crouched together quietly in a balcony bathed in candlelight from the candle of the new year.
Little do the children know that in a few years, another sibling is going to join their gang of four and that decades later, she would write about how her four sisters welcomed the new year as one. As she pens the tale down, she longs for a glimpse of those simpler times when a few short minutes of celebration held so much significance. She sighs as she comes to the sad conclusion that those magical times may never return.
She can choose to close her eyes any time though, and return back to that special midnight celebration. And imagine she was there too.