Is an Indian Holiday the Cure for Sibling Rivalry?

Marriage Counseling San Francisco-2

I want my children to value Raksha Bandhan, the celebration of the bond between brothers and sisters, as much as I do.

Although you’d never know it if you’re counting on Bollywood to mirror real life, Indians don’t only celebrate weddings. Holi, the festival of colors, photographs well. My family has a sparkler party with the neighbors every Diwali, the festival of lights. Depending on our backgrounds, Indians might celebrate Eid, Christmas, Hanukkah, or any number of Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Zoroastrian holidays. But my personal favorite holiday is Raksha Bandhan — a Hindu celebration of the special relationship between brothers and sisters.

Every August for 34 years, I’ve tied a Rakhi, a symbolic red thread, around my younger brother’s wrist, and he gives me money or a present. I’m not sure how other families do it — maybe they include sweets or prayers — but like many Hindu holidays, each region and even each home celebrates it differently. For us, it’s always been the thread and the gift, little bribes stipulated by my parents. It’s a small ritual meant to symbolize the bond of protection between brother and sister, and even though I’ve never seen a cinematic musical extravaganza built around it, nothing in our family of four is more sacred.

My brother and I have always been unreasonably close, especially for kids born almost six years apart. We’ve had exactly one fight. I was 13; he was 8. He wrestled the remote control out of my hand; I punched him in the leg. He screamed, developed a bruise and moved on, while I cried about it for two days. I can’t recall an argument since. As adults we live in the same city, have figured out boundaries and quality time and catch up over weekly family dinners and snatched phone calls. We know, it’s unusual. But now I look to my own small children, a boy and a girl almost five years apart, and am desperate to recreate the alchemy of it all.

Is our sibling bond just circumstance? Or did our parents, a pediatrician and educator, make a deliberate series of choices to force us together? Pediatricians and educators are rarely chill about child-rearing, and my experience tells me it was a combination of both.

The age difference certainly helped. By the time my brother was born, I was 5, a fully formed, fully bored person who wanted a baby in the house. But my campaign for a younger sibling had begun at 2 years old, when my nursery school peers in England started bringing baby sisters and brothers around. I was a bookish child whose only friends were my teachers, but a baby seemed like the best sort of companion — a pet, an acolyte and an outlet for my desire to be in charge of things, all in one. My mother claims not to remember the details of this, but my recollection is that the baby was my idea, that my parents had him for me, and that when he was born I gratefully took him off their hands, keeping him company, packing his lunch and making his afternoon snack, until I went to college.

My brother and I never fought for resources (except that TV remote) because we never needed the same thing. We both felt the full glow of our parents’ attention: me for five years solo, and my brother for much of his early life as I grew into my own. During our shared childhood, we lived in 20-odd places on three continents, often finding ourselves in new neighborhoods and schools, where we didn’t know any other kids. Raksha Bandhan was our yearly reminder that we’d never be alone, as long as we had each other.

I can’t speak for every Indian, but a survey of my extended family points to the potential of a larger cultural norm: that a sibling was a gift — a relationship to be celebrated rather than navigated. I asked my cousins’ WhatsApp group (you all do this, right?) whether they felt any sibling rivalry growing up. Of the 10 of us, now living in five different countries, I got the same response from eight: nope. “Only American kids fight,” joked one Toronto cousin.

The only two who reported any conflict growing up were also the only pair of the same gender (boys). They were born only two years apart, whereas the others had four to eight years between them. Maybe they fought because they didn’t celebrate Raksha Bandhan? After all, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of celebration for siblings of the same gender. My cousins all laughed at me. O.K., maybe the holiday was only big in my family.

After I had my son five years ago, I was immediately anxious about having another child. Apart from the whole gestation, childbirth and postpartum worries — what if they fought? If all American kids fight, and these kids were definitely going to be American, was my stressful fate sealed?

His dad and I were in no rush to decide, but history repeated itself when my son’s biological clock kicked in at 2. Just like the baby boom I lived through at Snowsfield Primary School, the minute baby brothers and sisters started showing up in his preschool’s Yellow Room, he wanted one, too. If he heard the word “baby,” he’d shout, even to strangers and empty rooms, “I’d like to have a baby!” For almost two years straight, he told his entire school, “We’re going to have a baby soon, because Mama and Dada are working on it.” We were not.

Eventually, though, his lobbying for a sibling somehow worked on us. By the time he was about 3½, we felt sort of ready to try it all again. Ten weeks into the new pregnancy, my husband and I found out it was a girl, and the next time our son brought up the Baby Issue, we were ready to lay some groundwork.

“We’ll see what we can do,” we said, as did my pregnant mother before me. “But if we decide to have a baby, do you think you want a brother or a sister?” We were prepared to nudge him in the right direction if necessary, but he was immediately set on having a sister. “Like Baby Margaret,” on his favorite cartoon, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” PHEW.

After I started showing, we told him we had, indeed, procured him a baby sister, and he couldn’t believe his good luck. “Like I’ve always wanted!” he said. After her birth, I was nervous about how this was actually going to go down, but other than some impatience at my inability to do everything at the same time, and hiccups resolved by the book “Siblings Without Rivalry,” he’s besotted with his sister, whom he refers to as “my baby,” “my little sissy” or “the little missy.”

“Can you believe this wondrous baby was in your belly?” he said last week, watching her pull herself up on a toybox. (Yes, he said “wondrous”; it’s possible we read too much.) She roared like a bodybuilder as he cheered her on. “She was just a tiny little thing, and now she’s cooler than I ever imagined!” It sounds like I’m making this up. I’m not — that’s how he talks. His dad and I know, it’s unusual. We also know that this could be a brief window of peace, and that the kids might spend the rest of their lives trying to punch each other in the face. Who knows? But Raksha Bandhan is coming, and I have solid plans to overdo it. Snacks, desserts, special toys, a new piggy bank.

After all, bribing us to like each other worked for my parents, and who am I to abandon our cultural heritage?

By Priyanka Mattoo