Never A next Time

‘‘Atanu is 6 years younger than you, Ritu!’’ Mama hissed through her clenched teeth. Ritu sulked and shuffled her feet as she emptied the leftovers from her lunch box into the garbage bin. Her thoughts veered between two extremes. First she felt horribly guilty about forgetting to look after her kid brother on their walk back from school. And then she felt angry at why SHE was expected to look after that pesky brother of hers.
Chattering away with her friends, she hadn’t noticed that the zip of Atanu's school bag had broken, and a number of his books had fallen out - some irretrievably muddy and wet. Why hadn't the silly boy said so right at the beginning, she silently fumed. But Mama seemed to read her mind. ‘‘If the poor boy had noticed it was broken, he might have told you; but what can you expect of a five-year-old?’’

Ritu couldn't stop herself from retorting, ‘‘I was much smarter than that when I was 5!’’ But that only earned her another lecture from Mama, listing all the times Ritu hadn't quite been a good elder sister. Ritu blushed at her own behaviour, but also felt exasperated that so much was expected of her. ‘‘I hate being the eldest!’’ She blurted out.
Mama snorted, ‘‘Ha!’’ she laughed, ‘‘I’ve never seen anybody who enjoyed bossing over her younger brother as much as you do!’’ That made Ritu feel lousy because it was true. She enjoyed all the benefits of having Atanu around. He fetched her shoes when she asked him to. He searched for her watch every time she lost it (which was almost every day)…but somehow, when HE needed help from HER, she never seemed to be around. Worse still, every time Ritu vowed that the NEXT TIME, she'd be a better big sister, when ‘next time’ came along, Ritu wasn't around.

Again, Mama seemed to read her mind, saying sadly, ‘‘And don't tell me that 'next time' you’ll be more attentive, Ritu...I've heard that enough.’’ And then Mama's tone changed. She said, "You know Ritu, before you know it, Atanu will grow up and not need an elder sister…and there may never be a 'next time' for you." Secretly, Ritu felt that would be great…a time when she was not expected to be a big sister to Atanu. But that feeling only lasted 2 days.

On Monday, after Ritu returned from school, the doorbell rang. Normally, Atanu trailed in a few minutes later, so Ritu always left the door open. So this was obviously someone else. Ritu got to the door just as her mother did. And there stood a girl whom Ritu felt looked familiar, probably from the Std 10 batch in her school. Smiling, she introduced herself. Her brother, Vikas, was in the same class as Atanu and they were good friends. Excitedly, she went on, 'You know Aunty, we are all so fond of Atanu, he's so sweet. Vikas longs for him to come to our place to play…can he? I promise I'll walk him back before it gets dark…Pleeeease…?" She pleaded.

Mama smiled for a moment and then agreed, "Let him come in and have a quick wash and change. He can join you if you promise to drop him back before 6.30." By the time Mama had given her permission, Atanu and his friend had reached the door and both of them hooted with delight. After that day, Atanu was never at home. Vikas' Big Didi would wait till he left his school bag at home and then the 3 of them would walk on to Vikas's house. And all Atanu's talk at home was peppered with, 'And Big Didi said…" or "And you know what Big Didi gave me…?" At first, Ritu was relieved not to have Atanu around.

Then she began to miss him. But that didn't worry her, Atanu would come running to her any time she wanted, Ritu felt. But Atanu didn't! On the day Ritu felt she really wanted her little brother around, she waited for him at the school gate and whispered, "Let's hurry home, I'll bake your favourite cake for you!" But Atanu's face didn't light up as expected. He looked bored. 'It's okay, Didi…don't worry.  Big Didi already baked a cake for us last week…it was YUMMY!" And he ran off, ahead of her. By the time Ritu got to the house, Atanu had gone off to Vikas's place.

That evening, Mama found Ritu crying over her math homework. Startled, she gave her daughter a tight hug and asked what the matter was. Ritu burst out, "Mama, I think I'll never have a chance to be Atanu's Didi again. He's found himself a better Big Didi." And she sobbed her heart out. Mama let her cry, holding her tight all though her outburst. Finally she lifted Ritu's face and said, "Ritu, Atanu's now enjoying himself with his new Big Didi. But you can always prove to him that you're the
Better Didi…you'll find a way, don't worry." Poor Ritu wasn't so sure…but she was determined to try.  

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