By Yashmita Bharat
They buried my brother before I was born.
Four years, nine months and twenty-eight days is the space between his last and my first breath. I was flesh, a beating heart, chubby-cheeked with a permanent frown, an extension of his name, presumably cocooned in cotton-candy pink at Lautoka hospital’s maternity ward. He was dust and bones, my grandparent’s last hope for a grandson, my parents’ firstborn hidden somewhere unknown to me.
In our Hindu world, we don’t bury the dead. We burn them, scatter their particles in a stream of water and guide their essence or atman to the stars. At least, that’s how I imagine the afterlife: a kaleidoscopic supernova occurring many light-years away, the moulding of new celestial bodies, a cosmic expansion. Rebirth is a nicer thought than an eternal wandering through a dark abyss.
There’s a certain pressure that comes with being the oldest son in our bloodline. You must ensure the river runs red at all times, so your saplings, the first bearers of the name, can sow the seed of the Bharat family tree. The tradition trails back to ancient India, prophesying that sons stay and continue the name, while daughters are born strangers, destined to leave. Even after centuries, across oceans, in Fiji and New Zealand, this tradition still echoes through our lives, silent yet persistent. My parents tried to resurrect him with a slightly altered DNA—two attempts between 1995 and 1999, two failures: Yashna and Yashmita. I was my mother’s third C-Section. In the late 90s, in Fiji where technology was sparse and healthcare unreliable, a fourth was risky. Mom* could’ve bled out, her lungs deflated like a balloon let go too soon, but the doctors believed it was worth it if she could give her husband a son. It wasn’t the case, so they named my younger sister Yashilta, the last remnant of a ghost.
My brother had two names: Yash, the Y from my father and Siddharth, the S from my mother. Now, he is only remembered as Bhaiya, brother. When I was younger, he only lived in my head as Siddharth. I’d call him Sid for short, out of love, out of hate—the way I call my older sister Pri and my younger one Nugget. Imagining him as Yash meant self-sabotage and an identity crisis. It meant wondering who our parents would be if not ours and realising our stories wouldn’t exist without the end of his.
I’ve often asked Mom: Why do we burn? Why don’t we get a grave, a tombstone, something to speak of our legacy, to mark our existence?
Her answer, always: The buried find a way to stay because they have nowhere else to go.
In my imagination, the coffin is shoebox-sized, cardboard brown or vermillion red. In photos, it’s almost the length of my arm, painted black and edged with a swathe of lace. It looked like something Dad would’ve built, simple yet elegant.
The burial was two days after my brother’s birth in June 1994.
I find the funeral photos carefully sealed in a red Christies’ carrier bag within another Christies’ bag of spare Christmas greeting cards and pictures that didn’t make it to the family albums. Dad’s in most of them, pictured during the final rites and the burial. He’s dressed in a white polo shirt and black suit pants. His face hollowed out, youthful in profile with a thin moustache, yet aged in the eyes, grief lurking within. He was almost twenty, shoulders slumped over the loss of a child. I visualise my father now, twenty-six years later, inching closer to fifty: a spreading bald spot, incomplete arm tattoos sleeves, two soccer-related knee surgeries, at the zenith of his masculine pride and impatience.
Mom didn’t attend the funeral. She was still in the hospital, recovering and sedated. These photos exist for her, something to remind her she hadn’t dreamt my brother up. I don’t know how she found out or who told her. When I was younger, I never thought to ask. Now, it feels like a violation.
She’s in the kitchen, rattling the dishes in the sink. The crisp scent of chopped up Granny Smiths left for pickling swirls in the air. She knows I’m going to steal some later. It surprises me that she does.
I’m in the living room, only three steps away, surrounded by family albums, scattered photos and withering slips of birth or marriage certificates, trapped in the vortex of the past and the present.
Our house is structured weirdly. The kitchen, dining and living room are one collective space, divided by its function and mismatched interior instead of walls. My sisters and I’ve been begging our parents to sell and move, but they love this house—even though the renovations never end (Dad always has new ideas); the vintage cherrywood dining table, the stale chocolate–brown carpet and curtains don’t match the black and silver interior decors and furniture; and the rooms keep getting smaller and tighter. It’s the first house we bought in New Zealand after renting for five years, and Mom loves her gardens. My sisters and I joke that she cares for her gardens more than us. My parents have spent eight years trying to transform it into a similar version of our garden in Fiji. While Mom doesn’t have the twenty-five different species of roses she once did, we have a proper pond now—one that’s not a rusted bathtub with lilies and goldfishes—and there’s no limit date for us to move out and restart.
‘Where’s he buried?’ I ask her.
Tavakubu cemetery, she tells me.
I’ve always had this notion that my brother was buried in some faraway, mystical forest in Fiji: we’d have to travel into the hills, past ancient rivers and through fogs to find it. There, the mossy earth would shield him in her womb, phosphorescing wildflowers marking his resting place. So, finding out he’s in a cemetery is a bit disappointing. I’ve been to a cemetery once, the Manukau Memorial Garden when I was eighteen. I’m not sure where Tavakubu is, perhaps near Nadi or Ba. Later, Google Maps will tell me it’s 3.5km away from Lautoka hospital.
I try not to feel betrayed.
I’ve learnt to associate Fiji, especially my hometown Lautoka, with a desiccated landscape that spills out vicious fire ants and millipedes, radioactive air, red-hued nightmares of alien creatures that spit out mind-altering saliva, and the strangeness of familiar faces. I last visited in 2015 for my grandfather’s funeral, and after a month, returned to New Zealand as a pessimist and cynic, slightly depressed. I’ve sworn to never return, but my cousin is getting married next year.
My parents haven’t been back to the cemetery; there’s nothing to return to—no marking, no gravestone, no remnant. ‘We had a plant ready…we were supposed to go back, but somehow, never got around it,’ she says in Hindi, between thoughts I cannot reach. I hadn’t asked her. Her grief and guilt are harder to translate in English, but I’ve learned to read my mother a bit better after all these years. I wonder how long she has carried that weight, and I’m not sure what to do with the information either, so I lock it within my chest. ‘He was only a baby anyway.’
Cause of early departing: still unknown, an unsolvable puzzle. There’s no official post-mortem report or death certificate—that I’m aware of—to untangle years of questions, theories, and internal guilt. My parents hold on to what they were told: possible suffocation due to skin contact with the mother, or traces of milk in the lungs.
Back then, the doctors’ words were law and religion, especially to my family of farmers and builders—even when the hospital staff indirectly accused my mother of erasing her firstborn’s story before it started.
Growing up, when my sisters and I would reminisce about our childhood or excavate the debris of our family history with Mom, one of us would casually bring up my brother’s death. We’d gather close as if we were at a campfire. Sometimes, an aunt or cousin would join us—masala tea brewed on the stove, biscuits and cake displayed on the marble countertop. Dad wasn’t involved in these conversations; the past made him emotional. But Mom didn’t mind; she wasn’t the most sentimental person. She’d shared her theories on what might’ve happened: she was drowsy with sedatives, and the nurse in charge might’ve overfed him, realised her mistake too late and left him with an unconscious and insensate mother to avoid blame.
This is the narrative my sisters and I grew up believing, the one my mother often affirmed. But there’ll come a day when she’ll say, he choked on my milk or suffocated while feeding. I guess, after 26 years, she has given up trying to make sense of it.
I’ve always felt a strange connection to the idea of my brother, as if we were tethered by the same force, beating as a single pulse. Sometimes, I’d close my eyes, and he’d be there: a human-shaped blur with Dad’s athletic build and long-limbs, and the warmth of Mom’s Nepalese eyes. He’d play Master with me when my sisters refused or join my adventures to lure and capture faeries. As time moved on, his form shifted. Sometimes, he morphed into the reflection of my older male cousins, dripping ego and spewing out misogyny. Sometimes, I saw him among the reek of cigarette smoke and alcohol during drunken ramblings of men while the women supplied platters of barbequed meat or buttered fish. In these moments, Mom’s glad she didn’t have to raise another one of them, she’d say as much—she never shied away from calling out men on their bullshit. Whiskey heightens Dad’s absence of a mini-him, and he calls out to a phantom. I respond to the first half of my name and say: I’m here for you, Dad. Though he never really listens.
It can be hard living as a replacement for someone you never met.
My father doesn’t despise having daughters. But his longing for a father-son bond is always present, especially in his kindness and tenderness towards my male cousins. He’s their favourite, fun and easy-going uncle. As much as I pity my father, I’ve had much-repressed anger towards him for being so ignorantly discriminating that I never tried to understand his desires for a son. I just thought it was an ego thing, to prove his masculinity or something. Now I’m reluctant to ask in fear of what I’ll find. Who am I to dig into old wounds anyway? Maybe he only wanted to be better than his father—to raise someone he could confide in over a bottle of beer, pass down and share his love for soccer and go fishing with.
Sometimes, when I’m high on insomnia and paralysed with sleep-deprivation, my brother is the crescent light on the ceiling, creeping in through the crack in the blinds. I wish he was here and dwell on the possibility of it. In the morning, he’s a long-forgotten dream.
Now he is only fossilising photographs and the metaphors in my poetry, a lost planet in my cosmology.
* * *
My uncle Ravi is five years younger than Dad. There’s a photo of them standing side-by-side, staring at the sun. They almost look alike—deep-set brows, dark groomed hair, button nose—except Dad is angular in the jaws and has a moustache while Ravi is round and barefaced. I don’t remember the specifics, but I know my father helped raise Ravi while working on the family farm. Times were challenging, and my grandparents weren’t really attentive. Grandad had a reputation for drinking too much, and Grandma had two daughters to raise and marry. So, the brothers grew up inseparable.
When Ravi settled in New Zealand after his marriage, Dad followed him here months later. He was there for his brother through it all—the new life in a foreign place, the birth of his sons, the marriage problems, years of unemployment, the fallout of the divorce and the remarriage—almost obediently, with a parent-child pull.
The brothers talked almost daily. But one day, Ravi stopped picking up Dad’s calls. Eventually, Dad stopped calling. Although my father won’t admit it, I know he’s deeply hurt—we don’t understand why my uncle suddenly cut us out.
It’s a different kind of mourning to lose someone to life without a reason because you wonder if there was anything you could’ve done to prevent it.
In late March, Ravi and his second wife, Naina, welcomed a round-faced baby boy. We found out a month later through a soon-deleted message. Now we watch him grow chubbier and chubbier through Facebook. Dad’s eyes would glint at the screen, and Mom would say the baby looks nothing like Hamish and Veer—Ravi’s sons from his first marriage. The room would shift into a bittersweet silence. I couldn’t see him without catching a glimpse of the two other brothers I lost.
There are seven places I’ve called home, yet the pale brick-and-title house in Peninsula Park is the only one I trace my childhood back to—even though it was only a pit-stop in our map to creating a life in New Zealand. My first memory there: falling asleep under the golden light surging through the windows, celebrating my eighth birthday with Cadbury milk–chocolates, Ravi’s first wife Jyoti’s growing belly.
My mother, sister and I’d just migrated to New Zealand. Dad had already been here, living with Ravi and Jyoti, so we spent our first day in the country at their house. After a week, we moved to our first two-bedroom house.
Hamish was born two weeks later. According to astrological law, we were bound to drift towards each other. On our first meeting, he’d clutched my pinkie in his tiny fist. His skin was silky soft yet colder than what I’d expected for an infant. Things I remember: his Donald Duck laugh, the blue blanket he didn’t sleep without and unexpected heart-melting toddler cuddles. I’d spent most of my weekends and school holidays with my uncle’s family, so I’d help change his diapers, feed and sing him to sleep. He was my favourite person. I’d like to think I was his favourite too because I was the only cousin he hadn’t pooped, peed or farted on.
The other bearer of the Yash name was Yashneil, but we called him Veer. It means bravery or a warrior in Sanskrit. Ironic, considering he was a teddy bear—cuddly and tender by nature. He was born in January 2011. My parents were at the hospital with Ravi and Jyoti, but my sisters, my other three cousins and Hamish had a sleepover at Peninsula Park. We stayed up till five in the morning, playing Monopoly, then woke up early to prepare for Veer’s arrival. My cousin, a chef, served us pancakes with caramelised bananas for breakfast. My sisters and I preferred the Edmonds pancakes—the way Jyoti always made them for us.
Three years later, Ravi and Jyoti divorced. They sold the house, and Ravi moved in with us. Dad renovated half of the garage into his room. The boys spent the weekends with us while their custody case was on trial. Ravi was barely present those days, either due to work or partying, so Pri and I mostly took care of them—Mom didn’t like them that much. They were too chaotic, and she had already had her turn raising kids.
One day, without warning, they left our house and never returned, vanishing from our maps, leaving behind photographs and tilted memories. It’s been six years since we last had any contact with them. We heard from Jyoti’s relatives that she erased the Bharat from their names, Veer is only Neil now.
Mom always said - this family’s cursed with sons and our last name.
* * *
Blue fluff envelops him; pink and red flowers blanket him up to the chin. You can only see a smudge of dark hair and his face; eyes like sideway apostrophes, a black dot on the forehead, my button-nose, parted-thin lips and tomato cheeks. The longer I look, the more real my brother appears, almost like he’s smiling or cooing through the glossed rectangle.
I’ve always assumed my mother had held him, memorised his shape because every time a doe-eyed male cousin or nephew entered our family’s radar, she’d take one look at him and say in Hindi: Bhaiya was lovelier. The most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen. My sisters and I would gasp and feign offence. Wow, the disrespect, one of us would respond, usually me, and move on with our lives.
When she mentions she hasn’t seen him or remembers holding him, I don’t want to believe her. I don’t want to believe that these brown–stained photos are the only contact she has with him after nine months of waiting. I’d never considered what the loss of my brother meant for her because, unlike Dad, she never expressed it. Perhaps she buried him deeper than the rest of us. Perhaps the pain, the guilt fought so hard to crawl out that she numbed herself to all of it, became maternally detached, overbearing and overprotective to save herself from another supernova explosion.
The week before Diwali, Naina and Ravi visited our home with their baby, Reyansh. Mom noticed the tangerine Holden parked in our driveway. I thought she was mistaken, but I heard Naina’s scratchy voice chime in through the front door while I brushed my teeth in the bathroom.
When I walked into the living room, I found Ravi and Naina on our black leather couch. We exchanged awkward hellos and smiles. It’s an early Diwali miracle; the disbelief on Dad’s face suggested as much. To my surprise, Mom was happily playing with Reyansh. I mentioned this to her days later, she says he feels familiar and known.
Hamish and Veer were more than cousins; they were brothers. For some reason, I was afraid that meeting the new Bharat would make me resentful and grieve for the brothers I’ve lost or rejected if he didn’t accept me as his own. But as I held him for the first time, it was that familiar warmth and connection that I’ve with Hamish and Veer, and my brother before he got corrupted by the twisted reality of my family. At seven months, Reyansh is heavier than a two-year-old I know. His cheeks seemed like they’re about to explode. It surprised me how calm he was with someone he’d just met; a foreign face. Both Naina and Mom have pointed out the similarities between us: the buttoned-nose, widow’s peak, the eyes and the frown—the traits I share with my Dad, Hamish, Veer, Ravi and my brother.
They came over yesterday too because my sisters were at work that day. We can’t stop talking about him, and we can’t stop missing Hamish and Veer. An old wound has been ripped open in our family. Mom adores Reyansh now, but she hates his name, and always calls him Veer by mistake—maybe she cared for them more than I thought. It’s bittersweet to mourn those who may not even remember us.
It’s postulated that if the mass of a dying star in the supernova explosion is large enough, its stellar remnants begin to collapse in on itself under the strong forces of gravity, forming a black hole, in which, no light, no matter or thing could pass through or escape from.
There’s a lingering fear that Reyansh and Ravi won’t return again, that all we have left are ghosts of brothers and sons, only evolving black holes.
*the spelling of 'Mom' is a personal form of address for the author