Birth order is an amazing thing. Logically, it makes no sense to believe that your personality, your competence, your choice of career, all depend on the chance of your birth. After all, you’re you. What has the fact that you were born the first, the last, the second in a family got to do with it?
Yet there’s no denying that an eldest child does usually have an authority that a younger child does not; that a younger child is often not as lashed to responsibility as an older child, and that a child in the middle is neither here nor there. And that these characteristics are often carried over to their lives as adults.
All over the world, psychologists have been studying birth order patterns – with no particular conclusions. Though some surveys have shown such fascinating statistics as most CEOs in the United States are first-borns and a high percentage of terrorists are youngest children, the fact remains, says child psychologist Pervin Dadachanji, that there are too many variables in families to pin down anything concrete. Yet, it’s easy to see that siblings somehow grow up with an idea of their place in a hierarchy, even if the parents don’t encourage the thought.
Much of this can be put down to the society we live in. Looking at our mythology and the way the oldest brother is venerated even if he (like Yudhishtra in the Mahabharata) is mired in self-doubt, it’s clear that age is the way we navigate life.
"In India, the eldest has the most responsibility and the crown goes to him," says mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik. "The crown could go to a person with the most talent. But how could ‘most talent’ be determined? So Indian society settled on age."
In some families, every sibling is referred to, not by name, but by order of birth – Didi, Bhaiyya, Dada. These are titles so they have implications of authority that a mere name can’t have. "I’m always aware that in my family, I’m the only person called by my name," says actress Soha Ali Khan, the youngest of three siblings. "I call my brother Bhai and my sister Apa. When we fought as children, I felt there was a line I couldn’t cross."
Parents also tend to get an older child involved with a new child by asking her or him to help take care of the baby – instantly giving the older child a licence for authority over the younger one who will grow up believing that big bro or big sis is, well, big. So the older, once only, child suddenly goes from baby of the family to almost grown-up person and that stays with her or him for life.
"I distinctly remember being the only child," says Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO of UTV Motion Pictures, the eldest of three brothers. "As a child, I was the centre of attention. Then I was told a baby was coming and I was excited. And then the baby came – and the attention went there!"
But the younger child was never the only child. "And with a second baby, parents are more relaxed," says fashion designer Nikhil Mehra, the younger of two brothers. "So the new kid is not as fussed over as the older was, and turns to the older one for support. And the four-year-old who reacted to the newborn with anger and jealousy sees his parents behave differently with the younger one, thinks, ‘dude, I’ll take care of you,’ and a big brother is born."
But though society may have given us fixed roles, we’ve all got our own personalities. So history is littered with the bodies of fratricides. Oldest gets the crown be damned. ‘More talent’ enters the ring.
Fortunately, the clash between right and ability isn’t always bloody. "There’s a folk tale about Ram and Lakshman," says Pattanaik. "Lakshman told Ram, ‘I have to listen to you because you’re older.’ ‘No,’ said Ram. ‘You listen to me because I’m wise. If you think you only listen to me because I’m older, then in our next lives, you’ll be older and I’ll be younger and you’ll still listen to me.’ And in their next lives, Lakshman came back as Balaram and Ram came back as Krishna."
Growing up, you’re defined in relation to your siblings. But these are comparisons. You may be quiet-er, but that does not mean you’re quiet. You may be boss-ier, but that doesn’t mean you’re the boss.
But as a grown up, you’re simply yourself. You may carry traces of your sibling relationships into your adult life. You may relapse into your old role at family reunions. But when you’re all grown, you’re not the first, third or fourth. You’re only you.
All Together Now, Boys
The Three Roy Kapurs
Photo: Natasha Hemrajani
When all three are lined up in front of you, it isn’t hard to see who’s the oldest, who’s the middle one and who’s the family baby. And that has nothing to do with how old they look. Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO of UTV Motion Pictures, answers most of the questions. Kunaal Roy Kapur, actor and stand-up comedian, needs to be drawn out. Aditya Roy Kapur is jokey and lively. Birth order pattern? Classic.
“And I am the classic confused middle one,” says Kunaal. “I had all the responsibility and none of the authority. Siddharth was older, always busy, Aditya was too young, so I did the chores.”
Even in their careers, the brothers live up to the birth order theory. Siddharth always needed a plan, he says, so he went after an MBA. “I wanted to work in entertainment, but I needed a management degree even if that meant I’d have to work elsewhere.” Kunaal was always into theatre, but took up photography for some security. “It was not as crazy as being an actor or director,” he says. And Aditya, like many youngest children, had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. “So I joined Channel V as a VJ and did my graduation along with that, then I thought I’d go abroad, but then I got roles in movies, so I just went with the flow,” he says.
Working in the same industry, the brothers are supportive of each other, but some things they consciously avoid because they’re brothers. “We don’t get much into criticism, I don’t think we want to venture into that territory,” says Aditya. And when one or the other is criticised by the media, the others just grin and bear it. “We’re in a business where anyone can have an opinion on anything we do,” says Siddharth. “We’re in touch with each other enough to know what we’re all up to.”
They’re also nervous of being accused of nepotism and so far have managed to keep away from each other professionally, says Kunaal. But the industry is small and there have been occasions when the brothers’ jobs have overlapped. For instance, UTV Motion Pictures co-produced Delhi Belly, in which Kunaal acted, and Guzaarish, in which Aditya had a role.
“But we’re conscious of avoiding each other’s spaces,” says Siddharth. “Maybe that comes from some defensiveness – I don’t want to hear my brother won’t be good for a role.”
So Who’s the Boss?
Soha & Saba Ali Khan
Photo: Aparna Jayakumar
It’s intriguing to see Soha and Saba Ali Khan interact during an interview. Soha is relaxed – she’s an actress, interviews are part of her life. Saba is not tense, though not 100 per cent comfortable. But she’s determined to give this a good shot. Is there a role reversal here, experience making the younger sister more confident than the older one?
You’re not even halfway through the interview when you realise that in their case, the birth order theory is a little more complicated than that.
There’s just two-and-a-half years’ difference between Saba and Soha, but Saba mothered her little sister when she was born and there’s a photo that’s proof of that. “It’s black and white and she’s a three-month-old golu, and I’m nearby, helping Amma with the nappy and feeling very proud,” says Saba. That’s a classic big sis moment, and it’s never changed for Saba – you hear it in her voice even now when she talks of how she “watched Soha grow and develop”.
But that didn’t mean she was the boss – though she has her opinions and doesn’t fail to let Soha know them. Sensitive Saba often let the more independent Soha handle arguments with parents, and also the other realities of life.
“I was always more assertive and like our brother Saif, I’d use charm, diplomacy and wiliness to get my way,” says Soha. “I feel I’m a lot tougher than she is and my skin is a lot more coarse – speaking metaphorically of course.”
The two of them have different strengths and because of that, who’s the older and who’s the younger is not an issue. They take charge of each other when it’s necessary. “Individuality came to me only when I went to college,” says Soha. “I didn’t know what my personality was like before that. I was wishy-washy, I’d go with the flow. And my sister would tell me I had to have my own opinions. I had to think for myself.”
But there are times when Soha has to think for her sister too and Saba is happy for it to happen. “I remember once we’d gone to Morocco with our mother for a film festival, and I hadn’t eaten all day,” says Saba. “Soha just looked at me, said, ‘let’s get you sorted’ and took me to McDonald’s for lunch. I was so touched. I needed her to take charge and she did.”
Brothers in Arms
Shantanu & Nikhil
Photo: Ajay Aggarwal
If first impressions have any value at all, what you see when you meet Shantanu and Nikhil Mehra, the brothers and partners behind the fashion label Shantanu & Nikhil is not brothers. You see partners. Two individuals, each with a strong personality, each a leader in his own right.
Which is weird because growing up, they were living proof of the birth order theory. Shantanu, the older, was focused, sure of himself and what he wanted. And Nikhil, the younger, was just wild. “He was quiet and also pretty serious,” says Nikhil about his brother. “Every night, he’d put the clean school uniforms on his side of the bed and I had the dirty ones. One reason I became a designer I think, is because I never had clean clothes.”
“At school, I was what was called ‘a scholar’. Scholars got a special blue coat,” says Shantanu. “I was gowned and he wore a green coat – the disparity between the two of us became larger. We were brothers at heart, but we had different mindsets.”
Fortunately, their parents never compared the two of them – “I was beyond comparison anyway,” says Nikhil – and there was never any particular rivalry except for sports, which both boys excelled in. “We were competitive, but only at that level,” says Shantanu. But they weren’t friends until they went abroad to study. “He was in Ohio and I was in Los Angeles and there, the rivalry turned to togetherness,” says Nikhil. “Alone in a foreign country, we needed each other for support.”
The turning point came after the brothers finished college. “I went to LA to look for a job and he took days off work and we opened up to each other,” says Shantanu. “I saw so many changes in him. I saw how particular he was about his work and how responsible he’d become and that changed my perception of him.”
“When he talked to me about what we could do together, I had a great sense of pride,” says Nikhil. “I had always looked up to him and wanted to be like him and now the guy says, ‘let’s do something together.’ That was a moment, dude!”
Since then the brothers have worked together. Shantanu is the brain behind the business, Nikhil is the man without whom there would be no business. “He still depends on me to make the business decisions and I leave the creative work to him because he’s the best,” says Shantanu.
This story appeared in the Brunch Quarterly, the new lifestyle magazine from Hindustan Times. Out on stands now.
From HT Brunch, September 16
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