My brother Yusuf was the prodigal son come home. Our house without my siblings in it was a more relaxed one, and my parents were enjoying the roomier timetable of a near-empty nest, but I had never been alone like this before. I was the youngest, and even when Maryam started becoming a teenager with all its anxious trappings, I had always had Yusuf. The features we shared were more delicate in his face, and his genial demeanour and brilliant mind had always made him seemingly perfect. Despite that, I still loved him.
But today he was just Ge-ge, and I was just Mei-mei, and we were stranded in his room while the Saturday flitted around us with suffocating boredom. The two of us and a pile of his clothes and the annoying mid-morning sunlight that lay splattered on his grey walls like a challenge.
“Ge-ge,” I drawled lazily from his bed, my head propped on a very comfortable pillow, “how have you lived in this room like this?” I made a show of swatting the golden light. “So annoying lah.”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me.” Ever since he returned from Oxford – the living cliché – he had lost our native inflections and gained a light Received Pronunciation accent. I both hated it and loved it. “And it’s always been there. I never noticed.”
“I just have and it’s ridiculous,” I declared, watching him. From where I lay it appeared as though his head was propped up on the tips of my feet. “What are you looking for, anyway?”
“My khaki shorts,” he replied, rummaging in the pile. “Er Sook invited me to play golf.”
I propped myself up on my elbows. “You never played.”
Another shrug. “I picked it up when I visited Cousin Edmond in Birmingham. It was all right.”
I smiled. “You beat him, didn’t you?”
He shrugged some more. Perhaps he was twitching in Morse code, telling me to [stop period poking period]. I could not. “You demolished his game; made him hate it and swear off it forever.”
“I did not,” he finally answered, flinging a black t-shirt at me. It landed clumsily on my head in a makeshift turban. “You can’t tear a man from what he loves that easily.”
“I’m taking the t-shirt,” I announced, groping my head to feel the worn cotton. “It’s the one with McCartney in glasses, isn’t it?”
“Consider it a gift.”
“If it smells like your stupid aftershave, I’m burning it, I don’t care who’s on it.” I sniffed the air. “Why do you even wear aftershave anyway? Our Chinese genes means it takes you five days to sprout a decent curlicue from your chin.”
“Perfume’s too strong and eau de toilette’s too…French. I’d be rancid otherwise. At any rate, beats my roommate’s Drakkar Noir.” He paused and stared at the wall closest to him, still glaring orange. I made a mental note to switch his room with Jie-jie’s, since she was barely living in hers anyway.
“Yeah,” he muttered, standing perfectly still, his gaze far and unwavering.
“I’m keeping the t-shirt.”
“Okay.” I flung a pair of his old boxers at him to hide my growing anxiety. Something was amiss – had been, since he’d arrived at the airport the other night and flung both arms around my shoulders and breathed deeply in the crook of my neck. We never hugged anymore, not since our parents gave us separate rooms the year he turned 10 and started asking questions about how babies were made. I had missed him and hugged him back, breathing him in, imagining the leftover molecules of summer in his long hair and browned face. But my heart had twinged with worry, and his smiles were puzzles to me now, when I had known them so perfectly. This person felt different – he hugged differently and set his gaze always ten centimetres away from your head if he spoke to you, his shoulders hunched low and weak.
“You’re weird,” I tried again. I wanted him to jump and attack my bluntness. I wanted him back. “You’ve been weird since you got here two nights ago.”
And he finally looked at me, his eyebrows drawn together, his mouth rigid with some vague anger. His dramatic cheekbones drew the skin around his face tighter as he set his jaw.
“So?” he mumbled. I wanted to cry. This was not what I wanted.
“Something’s wrong,” I tried, in a voice not at all strained.
He threw a white shirt onto the floor with a crack. “I am not lying to you!” he yelled. “Everything is perfectly fine, like it’s always been. The sun fucking rises and fucking sets and the sky is the same fucking blue it always fucking was!”
I had to force myself to take in deep breaths. “Don’t yell,” I whispered loudly. “Ma will hear.”
“Let her hear then!” he hollered, the volume of his voice markedly lower. “Life is too short to care what people think. There’s not enough time! Never enough time!” He punched the wall. This was normal. When we were schoolchildren I would hear soft thumps on the wall that marked our rooms, on nights when the air was a bit too humid and our homework had piled around our ears. Perhaps our parents, innately perceptive though they were, never knew what those midnight bumps in the night were. Perhaps they pretended to not know. They never told him to stop, even though a crack had slowly formed in the centre of the wall and the tips of his knuckles grew larger over the years.
My brother would not let me see him, his jet-black hair long and curling at the ends, forming a solid curtain from my gaze. The sunlight had softened into a deep golden hue that shone on his head. He seemed on fire, molten dark and simmering, his frame moving in staccato heaves with each breath. I could not reach for my phone; I’d left it in my room. Jie-jie would know what to do. Even if she didn’t, he would listen to her talk him down. They have had a lifetime of sedating each other with quiet jokes and furtively clasped hands. All I ever had was him giving in to my whims and whining and sharing all his toys with me. I didn’t understand any of this.
“I’m going to leave,” I said, standing up quickly and stepping out of the room. I let stupidity take over for one moment – I turned back to him, sought his gaze, and said, “There is something wrong with you. You’d better fix it, so help you God.”
Such a silly thing to say. Nothing good had ever come from stating the obvious.
“So he punched the wall?” Maryam’s shrill voice floated up from my mobile phone. I had put it on speaker but the fact seemed to have completely evaded her.
“Yes,” I hissed. “God, Jie-jie, you’re on speaker, he’ll hear you.”
“He won’t,” she barked back. “You told me he went out for golf with Er Sook. Golf.” I could imagine her mouth curled in a wholly unattractive manner. “I never thought he’d stoop so low.”
“He’s good at it, apparently,” I pointed out.
“Why taint a perfectly good Oxbridge education with such bourgeoisie play?” she exclaimed. Her voice was drifting in and out in waves; she was pacing.
“Golf isn’t considered very pish-posh nowadays,” I said with a sigh. “More middle-class than upper. You’re just the meticulous snob, with your fancy postgraduate degree that I swear you made up.”
“Edinburgh’s just over an hour by flight, Mei-mei. If Yusuf had a problem he could have called, he could have emailed, I would have gone right away. I’d take the bloody train if I had to. Why is he so stubborn? Argh!” I heard a soft landing, like into pillows and quilt. My older sister always had a thing for the dramatic.
“It’s his typical attempt to live up to the masculine standards of a patriarchal culture?” I tried.
“Shut up, Nisa’,” she groaned. “Not half as smart as you think.”
“Anyway,” I tapped a finger on the receiver, “what do I do? You know he doesn’t listen to me.”
“That’s why I always told you to stop with your sibling powerplay. Making him come at your beck and call makes him distrust you when it counts.”
“I’m the only sibling he has with him right now. Why would he think I’d betray him?”
“I’ve just told you, Mei! It’s the way you’ve been moulding him lately into this big brother type he never was to you. This wasn’t an issue when you were younger.” She sighed, the static dragging across the phone. “Quit it. It’s unbecoming and tiresome.”
I sighed. Oh, how she nagged. “Jie!” I barked into the phone. “Tell me what I have to do!”
Of course her sigh was deeper than mine. “Think, Nisa’. What was he doing when he had the meltdown? What were you talking about when he snapped?”
“Well,” I muttered, “technically, my asking him made him snap.”
“So think harder, because you know that’s not it,” she yapped.
“Okay.” A deep breath; I imagined it coming from within my diaphragm, lifting it up and pulling it to centre. “We were talking about perfume. Aftershave. Drakkar Noir.”
“Drakkar Noir?” Snobbery dripped in her voice.
“His roommate used it, apparently.”
She gasped. “His roommate? Rohan?”
I could hear her pace again, faint sounds; barefoot on carpet. “Rohan Mahesh. His roommate. They both bunked in the same house and… oh, Nisa’.”
“What?” I asked, failing to keep the tremble from my voice.
“You didn’t know? Why didn’t Mama or Papa tell you? Although I suppose one can hardly blame them, such news to be told,” she muttered absently. “Rohan… he died. Four months ago.”
I felt that pang in my heart that comes with each announcement of someone passing – like an audible shot in the wind. “Oh no. Innalillah. How? I mean, what happened?”
There was a long pause, so painfully unlike her. “He…he took his own life. Hung himself. Somehow had the sense to plan it away from campus, in the woods nearby, so nobody found him or had to stumble across him, except for this gardener who got a little tipsy one night. He was a darling boy,” she said with another deep sigh. “I’d met him once. Second-generation Surrey kid. Quite generous and ridiculously polite, and top student in his year on top of all that. So perfect I thought Yusuf would drive himself mad trying to be as good.”
“Someone better than our Yusuf? God forbid,” I chuckled softly, picturing a boy with brown eyes and curly dark hair and symmetrical features and a soft smile.
“I’m serious. Rohan was just…lovely. And even though you’d think they’d hate each other, Yusuf really admired him. They were real friends. You have no idea how hard that is to find in a roommate, kid.”
I frowned, pulling the phone close. “How come this is the first I’m hearing of this?”
Jie grunted. “Who knows, with our parents. But if that’s what’s on his mind right now…”
“Yup.” I got out of bed and walked to the door. “You want to talk to him?”
“No. I’ll do that on my own some other time. You’ll have to talk to him yourself, sayang.”
“But why? I thought you’d expect me to screw up.”
“Well, I still expect no less,” she said drily, in that final tone that meant she would hang up very soon, “but he will need a hug after he’s done, and hugs are better received from someone actually in the vicinity of his physical self. You’ll have to do.”
In all the years I’d known him, Yusuf had never had a fitness regimen before, although he was always doing something. Nowadays though, he was staying up after dawn prayers for a little run; Papa had mentioned that he’d been borrowing the Volvo to go to the lake before the sun was up. The morning after my call to Jie-jie, I stayed up as well, yawning constantly as I ran a comb through my hair, put on a pair of old track bottoms and a ratty headscarf, and waited in the dark of my room for Yusuf to make his way down the stairs.
I’m a theoretical fan of the sunrise – I like the idea of a mashing of bright spectrum, bringing light across the horizon in a magical dance, watching it go from dark to blue, a languid sort of majesty. I’ve seen enough time lapse videos on YouTube to know they’re beautiful. But the fact of the matter remains that I am only a morning person if I’ve had 10 hours of sleep beforehand, and that has not happened since I was eight. I had thought Yusuf was the same, and this surprised me more than his newly long hair did.
I drove quietly behind him in Mama’s car, giving a five-minute berth between us while we turned the quiet gravelly roads, everything else a midnight blue blur dotted by traffic lights and intrusive billboards that were never there during our childhood. I leaned down in the driver’s seat as he stretched several feet away from me, facing the lake and the circular path that marked the jogger’s trail. When he set off, I left the car. He ran briskly at a pace I couldn’t maintain for more than one lap, and I hung back in the foliage off-track, walking off the cramp in my side and praying I was unnoticeable as he passed me another six times.
After the seventh lap, he slowed down to match my pace. “Come on, kid,” he said, voice steady in between hard breaths. “Sit down and talk to me.” He pointed out a bench atop the small slope, overlooking the trail and with a view of the railway track and lake.
“How long did you know I was there?” I coughed, grabbing the water he placed on the bench.
“Mama’s car has a very particular noise.” He looked at me and I stared back at him. “Specific to the model – she’s asked many mechanics but they say it’s nothing they can fix. A trademark of Proton cars.”
I nodded. “Of course it is.”
“Now tell me,” he said, mopping his face with an armband that smelled from where I sat, “why the espionage?”
“I wasn’t spying,” I insisted.
“No,” he agreed. “You were stalking me. And we live in the same house. Voice your concern.” He stared out towards the rail tracks, where the sky was beginning to lighten to a deep mauve. “If you don’t ask me now, Nisa’, I’ll never tell you.”
“Okay then,” I took a deep breath, forcing my eyes away from his face made gaunter in the faint light. “I spoke to Jie-jie.”
“So tell me something new.”
“She told me about Rohan Mahesh.”
His breath hissed in a sharp intake, and I flinched for his hand to come down on me like it used to when we were five and six and new to taekwondo. “Yes. Rohan, my roommate.”
“I’m so sorry Ge-ge,” I said quietly. “I had no idea. Nobody told me. Not even Mama.”
He gave a short grunt. “Of course she didn’t. She told me to get over it after a week. Told me that he wasn’t Muslim anyway, so why was I mourning so much.”
I frowned. “She didn’t.”
He shot me a look, and all I could see in the dark were the whites of his eyes, shining bright and heavy. “She did. Those were her exact words, too. Told me to get a hold of myself, because it’s not like we were brothers in Islam or anything like that.”
I inched closer to him on the bench, still an arm’s length away. “You know Mama.”
“I know what some religious scholars say, kafirs ending up in hell, but we never know about a person’s heart, do we? We don’t have the ability to understand God’s Mercy.”
Yusuf rolled his eyes. “I know, Nisa’; you don’t have to talk to me like I’m some child who has no understanding of faith and Islam and mercy and all that. I may not be an ustaz, but I do understand enough to know that it’s not all black and white.”
“So what is the matter here then?”
“What is the –?” he sputtered, “I don’t – I don’t know. I don’t.” He sighed. “But it’s – Rohan, you never met him, so you don’t know. He was just the kindest, the nicest, the most driven – he was a great friend. All of us who knew him count ourselves grateful to be his friend. He had a great girlfriend too, someone you could see him with in maybe 10, 20 years. He was happy, you know? He really was; I’m not just saying this.” He turned to me and sought my eyes; finally, a direct gaze, after what had felt like so long.
I nodded, trying to move past the strain in his voice and the catch in my throat. “I believe you. He was happy.” I was the one who looked away this time, counting the heaves of his chest from the corner of my eye.
It was a while before he continued. “So we didn’t understand why he did it. Did Maryam tell you how he did it? In the woods just outside the grounds, some remote place none of us had been to. And he left a note in his underwear dresser, as though he wanted us to find it only if we were so hungry for answers we’d invade every layer of his privacy.”
My brother had shut his eyes now, and I ignored the slow trickle that left the corners of his eyes. “And in his note he fucking thanked us for making his life better, for giving him a few months of happiness on top of every blessing he’s ever had. He told us that he had to do it away from our flat because he didn’t want us to be haunted by an ugly memory in the place where we lived. Fucking idiot.” He coughed. “Astaghfirullah.”
I nodded, desperate for an appropriate reaction and finding nothing. “Okay.”
“By the time that groundsman found him, he was already swollen and deformed and looked nothing like Rohan. Like a cheap inflatable doll version of him all bloated and dripping.” He coughed again. “That wasn’t my roommate. Because my roommate was happy and successful and he had done everything right.” He sobbed this time, and he caught his mouth in his armband. I gripped his shoulder gently. “So why did he have to do that? He never told us why he wanted all of this to end in that stupid note; why he wanted to die. The post mortem showed that he was healthy, and if he was happy and healthy then why did he want to fucking die?”
I hugged his shoulder and then tried not to flinch when he fell into my arms, sobbing loudly, oblivious to the other joggers who tried hard not to stare up at us. I patted his back in what I hoped was a balance of harsh and comforting; leaned my chin on his back as I rocked us back and forth. How strange that the world continues so calmly when we completely fall apart. Perhaps it adds to our sadness, this alien Otherness to our emotions – the fact that your world can crumble while remaining physically intact. Shouldn’t devastation be reflected in our environment? Shouldn’t we look like we’re mourning, look like we’re sad, look like we’re broken? But the lake was as still as it had ever been, even with the few straggling figures tossing fishing lines across the surface, and the birds were chirping unperturbed by the unearthly sound my brother made. I understood his anger, but it scared me as well.
The sun had fully risen and the sky that perfect blue by the time he was done, almost as abruptly as he had begun. He wiped his face with some water and the corner of his t-shirt and continued to sit there, quiet. And I started estimating the time, trying to figure out the exact moment I should continue talking to him. He wasn’t done. I wasn’t done.
Thankfully, he spoke first. “I feel like I’m being an utter wanker about the whole thing,” he said.
It threw me off my counting the seconds. “Sorry?”
He rolled his eyes. “You know, a wanker? Someone who –”
I held up my hand quickly. “Please, don’t patronise me. I may not be an alumnus of Ox-freaking-ford, but I do know what a wanker is. Or does.” He chuckled. “So how do you mean?”
“Oh, you know,” he waved his hand, “someone close to you…leaves, and you’re angry and demanding answers you will never have, and ultimately it comes down to a very selfish notion.”
“And what is that?”
“Of not doing the same,” he breathed out. “Not making the same mistakes or thinking along the same self-destructive lines. Of being everything he was, and more.” He looked at me. “Because if he had all that and still saw reason to take his own life, then what chance do we have of not doing the same?”
I nudged him quickly. “You’re not the same person, Yusuf.”
“I know I’m not,” he insisted, voice too cheerful, “but let’s face it, Rohan was well-loved and with good reason. We miss him because we love him. What have I done to be missed?”
“What have you done with your life, you mean?”
“Yes. I wonder if he misses living. I wonder if he still looks back on us and regrets doing what he did.” Yusuf put an arm around my shoulders and leaned heavily, the sudden weight almost keeling me over. “In the end, it was like we never knew him. He even visited a therapist, and he always talked to us, about everything, and there is nothing – not even when we’ve discussed it long and hard – nothing that could suggest that he had ever been unhappy. The man who killed himself? That was a stranger. I didn’t know that Rohan.”
“Yes you did.”
He sighed. “I knew the Rohan who lived. Not the one who died.” He hugged me tighter, and the crack in his voice, fresh from tears, nearly broke me. “What is the point anyway, Mei-mei? Rohan had a future. He was set. He was loved. Isn’t that what living is about?”
“‘I have not created the jinns and mankind, but to worship Me’,” I quoted the Qur’an. Yusuf flicked my forehead in reply.
“I know that, nerd,” he scoffed. “But it doesn’t just mean praying salat five times a day and zikr every time after and reading Yaasiin every Friday night – there’s something more to it. It’s how you worship God in everything else.” He sighed. “I don’t think I have that yet. I don’t think I’ve found that thing I love; that thing that I can use to infuse meaning in every part of my life. Sometimes it feels like I’m drifting, and it scares me. So I run.” He smiled down at me, and I smiled back.
“Yes, I was wondering about that,” I teased.
He laughed. “I went through this thing about fearing death and dying, and then I became a bit of a hypochondriac and started eating better and working out. So this, yeah. This is part of that.”
“It makes you smell.” I made a show of sniffing.
“You’ll hate me for saying this, but no pain, no gain.” He chuckled. “But running, it’s good. Clears the head. Keeps my mind off being afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” I frowned.
“Afraid of everything,” he said lightly, looking ahead at a passing train. “Of making mistakes. Of risking your life, even for the small stuff – I was afraid of eating fried foods a couple of months ago, afraid of cancer risk, could you imagine? I was also very afraid of suddenly dying. I feel…I feel like I can’t afford to.”
“Life lived in fear is only half a life,” I muttered.
“Please stop quoting Strictly Ballroom,” he wrinkled his nose at me. “It’s unbecoming.”
“You know,” I started, “you and Jie-jie like to use that word, but I don’t think you know what it means.”
“It’s a true sentence. You can’t live your life fearing everything.”
“You think I don’t know that?” He bounded up from the bench suddenly and started walking away. I jumped up to follow him.
“Ge-ge?” I called out as I caught up with him, trying to match his long, swaggering strides back to the car. “It’s true, you know. You can’t live life afraid of everything.”
He turned to me, not missing a step, his eyes softer and his frown lines wrinkled in a smile. “I’m working on that, kid. But when you grow up you find that the more you have, the more you have to lose. And that will always make you a little afraid.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sorry, but I’m only a year younger than you. And even so, no. No fear. Don’t fear anything in this world. Fear God for the obvious reasons. But if you fear anything else then you’ll have lost. And promise me.”
“Promise what?” he asked, slowing down as we reached the sandy stretch where the cars were all lined up, staring into the lake. I felt a rush of panic sweep through me, terrified suddenly that I had nothing to hold him to while he stood there, waiting.
I wasn’t thinking when I blurted out the words. “Promise that you’ll always try.”
“Always try what?”
I shrugged. “Just try. At everything. Just keep trying, no matter what.”
His smile faltered for a moment, and he pulled my arm and linked it with his. “I promise.”
**If someone you know is contemplating suicide, or if you would like to talk to someone about it, please call a Befrienders hotline in your country. Here is also some advice on how to spot the signs and how to help.
 Ge-ge: Mandarin Chinese; ‘older brother’ +
 Mei-mei: Mandarin Chinese; ‘younger sister’ +
 Er Sook: Mandarin Chinese; ‘second paternal uncle’ +
 Jie-jie: Mandarin Chinese; ‘older sister’ +
 Innalillah: Arabic; ‘to God we return’; common expression during news of death or misfortune +
 Sayang: Malay; ‘love/darling/sweetheart’ +
kafir – Arabic; ‘infidel’, but more commonly used to refer to non-Muslims +
 Astaghfirullah: Arabic; ‘God forgive me’ +
 Salat: Arabic; Islamic term for daily prayer +
 Zikr: Arabic; ‘remembrance’; refers here to Islamic rosary +
(post image by David Carillet)