For all of us, our year began with August. Two birthdays, two people to make cards for and payasaam made twice. But for me, the year really opened in September. It was my sister Chinnu’s birthday. When I think of my sister Chinnu, Renuka, I think of someone who was on the center-stage, the lights trained on her. As she walked, the lights followed her. Where am I in all of this? I am in the shadows, standing at the periphery, watching her with shiny eyes.

I’m third in this family of four girls. I was born five years after my sister Renuka was born. Five years is a long gap in context to a generation that gave birth to a string of children in an even order. She was the youngest for so long that she was called chinna (small in Tamil) and Chinnu she is for all of us.

Thus, without meaning to, many things in my life became because of her. For one, I was named by her.

I can’t imagine my parents—who seemed so harried by most things—using psychology. But they did. Thus, when it was brought to their notice by Chinnu’s kindergarten teacher that their five-year old seemed to be grieving, to allay her sadness caused my birth they decided to allow her to name me. I’m so glad that her best friend was a Vinita, because what would I have done had her best friend been Vasumati or Gretchen.

Childhood with Chinnu was sheer terror.

She told me that when I went to hell (and I surely would) I would have to walk across a chasm of fire (this being hell). The feat would be of two things: I would have to balance on a wire as thin as hair and my bad deeds would be what would add to my tubby weight. If I walked through, I would reach heaven. If, on the other hand, the hair-like wire broke or if I couldn’t do the balancing walk, I would fall and burn forever in hell.

I spent a large part of my childhood walking on imaginary hair, scaring the hell out of any of my friends (who also believed me, and thus her), who would also do the trial walk over and over again with me. She was also the one who told me that bad deeds made a mark—literally. Every time I lied, every time I was greedy, a black spot would mark my heart. In my head I visualized my heart, spotted with black dots, some bigger than the other (again something she said). Most of the time, just imagining my pock-marked heart, and indelibility of it all, my heart would sink.

I imagine her laughing as she Tom Sawyered her way to getting me to do all her chores, as I tried in vain to run out all the black marks in my heart. And I imagine her laughing as I stood in front of her, humble, as she scanned my heart to see if at least one mark had been blotted off with my good deed of doing her home chore (she had also told me she had the power to see into hearts). Because I always imagine her laughing. Her astute sense of humor, her ability to see the larger picture and the irony of it, her eye for the ridiculosity of things, and her permanent funny bone was what kept us in splits.

She could laugh at herself, at the situation we were in, and the comedy of our miserable lives and the caricatures we really were, always. There are days when I call my mother and hear her happy-voice and know that my sister Renuka must have just called, one call before this—the traces of laughter still remain.

Did I tell you I was the third in the family? Yet for long I don’t remember much about my eldest sister or my youngest one. Was it because I let this sister of mine be my Sun? I really did follow her with my eyes; she was the one who I silently revolved around, drawn by her easy charm and searing beauty; gratified when she saw me, or came over to my class to hand over candy, or took over to defend me from anyone who bullied me.

As I grew older, I think I also started worshipping her. My sister with her skin radiant, her large expressive eyes that she lined with kajal, and the row of perfect teeth, was stunning. We were vaguely aware of a string of boys would follow her and park themselves around our home to catch a glimpse of her; and her total disdain of them.

Of course because it is us, how can I talk of my sister and not mention food? She made the most bewitching bowl of thairysadaam one could ever make. I know you will read this line twice and think to yourself, ‘Curd-rice. Really?’ But if you can think that, then you don’t know food. The simplest foods are the easiest to slip up on.

When she made thairysadaam, the curds were set to perfection—the right temperature and sourness. The rice was cook to the right softness, and would be mixed with the cool curd, at only the right moment. Chopped cucumber would be added, along with grated carrot. The cut of the cucumber would be such that it would not water down the sadaam, and the carrots would be grated so that it had just the right amount of crunchiness without messing with the snowiness of the curd. The urud-daal, mustard and kadipatta tadka, along with the julienned green chillies only heightened the flavor. She would do this on a smoking summer day and we would eat her thairyasadaam, our bodies sagging with pleasure.

I tell you of her curd-rice because you need to know that anything she made—and she makes Mughlai, Punjabi, chaat, Chettinad, Andhra cuisines with as much poise as she would American and Italian—even the simplest food, was an art form. I’ve never eaten better dahi wada in my life. And I have eaten Dahi Wada. I have never had better rassam in my life. And I have had rassam, rassam and rassam.

When I see my sister now—multi-tasker-head-of-department-single-mother-of-two-chauffer-chef-counsellor-daughter-devotee-author—I look on in askance. It is not that she does all this. Most of us women are doing all this all the time, too. It is that she does this with such seeming ease, that it never seems like she’s doing anything more than shrugging her shoulder, or that she has her bulk of wresting-with-life thrown at her.

And yet when we do speak, she can still see the comedy of her life, of mine, and all we do is clutch our sides at two different corners in the world, laughing, laughing, laughing.

Happy birthday, Chinnu.