Pass It On

Jaiveer Mariwala recounts tales of sibling rivalries and second-hand stuff. Illustration by Hannah Bigley.

They were part of our school uniform; matte black, with creases in the vamp, and a sheen that appeared more polished cardboard than the advertised faux-leather. A year and a half later, I would pass on the same pair of shoes to my little brother, albeit with a little more wear. This passing-down of footwear was just one part of the ritual of entering primary school, which seemed like a pretty big deal at the time.

My siblings and I attended a large private school in Northern Kerala run by an eccentric owner with an even more eccentric taste in uniforms. Mornings involved putting on various permutations of drab-green pants, short-sleeved white shirts starched to the point of effectively being paper, red waistcoats, striped socks, the occasional blue shorts, and also an entirely different set of clothing for Wednesdays, on which we wore our PE uniforms. 

The early stages of growing up felt closely tied to maintaining these numerous pieces so that we could pass them onto our siblings below. The four of us - three brothers and a youngest sister - were each born a year and a half apart, and so formed a chronological chain of using, taking care of, and then passing down different pieces of uniform. Given that our school required both boys and girls to wear the same uniform through primary school (less a function of early gender-neutrality in South India and more likely a factor of the costs-saved in designing only one set of uniforms), our sister also got to be an organic part of the system.

Keeping the said pieces in acceptable condition was easier said than done, as things didn’t always go to plan in school. Something as simple as the combination of a free period in class with an impromptu game of football often proved the same. There was more than one day where I arrived at home with my shoes rimed with the sheen of illegal tackles and the orange Kerala mud.

When I turned six, I received my first pair of hand-me-down shoes from my older brother.

On those kind of days, after-school activities involved scrubbing, polishing, mending tears, or even stitching back pockets and the like. Durability turned out to be a chore that each of the four of us played an active role in, and its spectre loomed especially large on days where we managed to rip through our shoes, or when we got irremovable turmeric stains onto our paper-shirts. 

Luckily, time itself helped us escape this routine we unwittingly created with our sequential births. As we all grew older, the chain warped; rates of growth changed both rapidly and unevenly, as some shoulders grew larger than others, and some feet chose to stop growing before others. The hand-me-down system could no longer ensure that we each started the school year with full sets of uniforms, or ones that fit at the very least. 

The system slowly changed in its entirety, but never really went away; just because we no longer had to pass hand-me-downs to our siblings didn’t mean we stopped doing so.

The catalyst for that change was developing a taste for my older brother’s things. It was an innocuous sort of desire: admiring the leather of my brother’s first wallet that he took on his first date, staring at the cleats that he wore when he played for the JV team, or perhaps noticing the unusually large timex that he was gifted when he decided he wanted to run cross country. 

My simple desire wasn’t born of the material qualities of the object themselves, but what my brother was able to bring out of them in their use.In admiring so, I started imbibing the quality of survival into things that I had no control over. Very often I would imagine myself achieving childhood greatness with things that weren’t yet my own. It was the most literal dichotomy: I hoped that he would wear his things down enough to feel okay about handing them down to me, but at the same, not so much that they would fall apart before he even could.

And so durability morphed, it mattered to me that things from my brother survived, but only for imaginary qualities that I could hope to emulate through their use. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost; sometimes the boots would arrive intact, sometime the watch would break down before it was my turn. 

It didn’t matter to me too much, because I had soon begun to look at my own things anew. With two of my own younger siblings to come, I hoped to impart into these objects my own qualities, qualities that my siblings would recognise, desire and then emulate. My things weren’t just objects anymore, but little canisters, empty canisters, ready to be filled with nostalgia and imagination and then passed on.