IN BENGAL, two days after Diwali is Bhai Phota. On this day, Bengali sisters become Jamuna, the sister of Jomdoot; Jomdoot is god of death, reigning over mortality. We place a holy mark (a phota) on our brother’s forehead, and our mantras go like this:
Bhaier kapale dilam phota,
Jamuna dae Jomke phota,
Ami di amar bhaike phota,
Jom duare porlo kaanta.
I put a phota on my brother’s forehead,
Just as Jamuna did for Jomdoot,
I give a phota to my brother
and bar the door to death.
Amit has always been my protective big brother — older by eight years — aware of a distress I did not always have the voice to articulate. In 2016, when the phone rang on a Saturday night in Chicago, which is Sunday in New Delhi and the time when family usually calls, I was unprepared.
Amit was in a cycling accident
He is in a coma
There is the possibility of a severe brain injury
No one knows whether he will survive
I reach the hospital after flying 7,500 miles from Chicago, changing planes in Delhi, reaching Kanpur past midnight. At the ICU, Amit looks asleep. He is less damaged than I had braced myself for, and despite the wires and tubes, he looks as if he could wake up anytime. I hold his arm tentatively, afraid to hurt him, but there is no reaction at all.
I look over the notes on the brain damage, a broken rib, leg fracture. There is a broken collarbone injury so severe that the doctors press on it to assess the immediate flinch; pain is Amit’s only connection to a reactive brain.
I cannot watch this necessary pinching and prodding, and turn away. I want to shout at the doctors to stop hurting my brother, but I am silent as they measure the degree of movement, notice the heightened angle of wince, then lean in to see the pupils’ minuscule dilation.
For the first time, I wonder about the stupidity of bartering with gods.
Amitabha is a common name, signifying the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life. Amit was born in Buddhist Bangkok.
At the news of Amit’s coma, I had rushed to my altar in Chicago, lit sandalwood incense in the dark, then switched on the prayer lamp of many buddhas carved into stone.
The electric bulb briefly sputtered. Then died.
I found a new bulb, an energy saver supposed to work for years. Nothing. There was no light. Increasingly frantic, I looked for another bulb, then another, maniacally tearing apart packaging, opening wires, tightening tiny screws, checking a fuse, aligning frayed rubber and metal … and stars.
Still the light would not switch on. On the 24th of January a bus hit my brother, and it was still the 24th in the United States, and I wanted to turn this into a bad dream I could wake from, summoning my inner Didion into magical thinking.
The darkness was resolute. Six buddhas on each side, four sides — 24. I had a flight to catch in a few hours. Before that, a universe to bend.
The poet Iqbal wrote: Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle, / Khuda bande se khud pooche, bata, teri raza kya hai? Sharpen your will till so unyielding, so determined, that even gods must ask at each fork of destiny, What is your desire?
There was a bedside lamp in the guest bedroom, with a flat base. On this I placed an ox-bone Buddha, a souvenir from Bhutan. I slammed on the altar my wrathful offering, praying: Return Amit to us … Make him wake up!
This light switched on, and a glow suffused the golden Buddha face, benevolent Amitabha’s right hand in bhumisparshamudra, rooted to earth, turning anger to wisdom, indulgent of human hubris.
And there was this certainty in my heart that no matter how long the route to India, no matter how many flight changes to get there, I would reach it in time. Amit would live.
My brilliant, amazing genius of a brother — even with a traumatic brain injury — would live.
At the hospital in Kanpur, I wondered for the first time, Would he have wanted this?
I was 16 when Amit — for the first and last time — slapped me across my face.
I am the darling of my family, the only girl born after two older brothers. I remember looking at the flame of the forest tree, the krishnachura blooming into fiery blossoms against green branches, the colors merging as my eyes watered.
Amit had been quizzing me on complex math equations so that I would pass my 10th-grade board exams in New Delhi. My father’s diplomatic career had taken us all over the world, but international schools had not prepared me for the grueling math of the Indian system; I was very likely to fail and have to repeat that entire academic year. But I was a teenager in love with the bad boy of my class, and all I could concentrate on was how late I would be for a date.
The slap was so quick that I later wondered if it had been an effort to physically turn my head to my books, a movement stronger than my brother had actually intended. Amit looked shocked. There is no word in Bengali for sorry, and no apology necessary when discipline is enforced from an elder to the younger, so we cut the math tutorial short, and my brother drove me to my date on his Royal Enfield motorbike.
Amit continued to tutor me in math, and I passed that subject with distinction: the highest grade possible. My brother would go on to change the trajectory of my life in significant ways: when I applied for graduate studies in the United States at the same university where he taught computer science, my letters of acceptance and of financial aid would be cc’d to him from the department; when I wanted to marry a man from another caste and my father refused to accept a son-in-law who could not be seated at religious ceremonies with kin, it was Amit who argued — successfully — that the problem was not with my choice but with the antiquated socioreligious framework my family still upheld.
I grew up on Thakurmar Jhuli — that wildly popular collection of Bengali folklore by Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar, published in 1907.
I learned, at the lap of oral storytellers, that sibling love is a superpower. I believed girls can save brothers by a force of will.
In the story of the three royal siblings — Arun, Barun, and Kiranmala — the siblings lived in the forest after their mother was banished from the kingdom by the king. They built a most magnificent fortress to live in, and one day, a holy man visited their palace and told them about the hill of Maya, filled with the treasures of a tree of diamond with golden fruit, a golden talking bird, and the elixir of waters from a magical spring.
Tempted by the treasures, Arun set off on a journey, leaving behind his dagger for his younger siblings, saying, “If there is ever rust on this blade, know I am in danger.”
The day the siblings found rust on the dagger, Barun immediately set out on the same journey in search of his brother. He gave his sister a silver bow and arrow, warning, “If these weapons are tarnished, know I am in danger.”
The days passed, and one day, Kiranmala saw the bow and arrow transformed into dull gray from its silver shine. She immediately took her sword and stepped out to save her brothers, walking faster than the wind to reach the magical hill. Voices cried out, “Oh look back, look at us, once!” But she didn’t turn to see the source of the noise. The voices screeched, “Stop, or you will die!” Kiranmala remained steadfast and walked on until she reached her destination.
When she found the treasures, the talking bird instructed her to take a branch of the diamond tree and sprinkle the waters on the rocks. The rocks miraculously transformed into people — including her two brothers petrified into stone.
She brought them all back into consciousness.
We do not need to lose someone to grieve. Pauline Boss describes ambiguous loss as a state of fluctuating between hope and hopelessness; when someone dies, there are clear rituals to mark a passing, but when a loved one is alive but lost to us, there is no closure.
“Pray for a miracle,” Amit’s neurosurgeon advised. Amit’s brain scan looked like that of Michael Schumacher’s, the most famous traumatic brain injury of our times; when the German race-car driver was in a skiing accident in 2013, it derailed his promising career, and he remains under medical supervision at his home.
My father asks: “Why do we think we are exempt from disaster? That bad things that happen cannot happen to us?”
My father — at 94 — has lost his parents and all seven siblings. He is the last one still alive to remember the color of eight types of village spinach, the slime of river mud in his toes, the taste of sweet river fish captured in handwoven baskets; he remembers days of a full home, unsevered communities — an unpartitioned homeland.
What is it that makes us so special to be exempt from life?
My father is determined to live until Amit recovers. He gives me the wisdom of the Upanishads, words written in the sixth century BCE:
You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.
Every year since Amit’s accident in 2016, I have been going back to India for Bhai Phota. Those of us living in one of the many-tentacled diasporas of this global age — the Chinese, the Indian, the Filipino, the Nigerian — understand exactly what Mohsin Hamid meant when he wrote in Exit West that “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
I refuse to murder my brother from my life. So, I will take a COVID-19 test 96 hours before my flight from Chicago, then quarantine in Delhi for the two weeks before November 16, which is when Bhai Phota falls in 2020.
There is always hope. My brother’s accident changed so many lives, reverberating in mine much harder than that single slap that changed my academic trajectory so many years ago. Last time I was with my brother, reading to him, I read out loud these words by Mary Oliver:
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
Dipika Mukherjee’s debut novel, Ode to Broken Things, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and her second novel, Shambala Junction, won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction. She is a contributing editor for Jaggery and teaches at StoryStudio Chicago and at the Graham School at the University of Chicago.