By Gemini Wahhaj
If anyone asked Humayun about his younger brother, he would laugh through one side of his mouth and state in a painful voice that they had become estranged. Usually, it was a common acquaintance from Bangladesh who asked. Humayun lived in New Jersey and his brother Kollol lived just two hours away in New York, but they barely spoke once a month. If Humayun sent a Skype message, Kollol replied after several weeks, accompanied by a brief note of explanation, sorry, I was grading papers, or I was at a conference. A compilation of their exchanges showed a steady stream of communication, documenting the critical points of their parallel lives with faithful accuracy. Humayun was applying to be a professor. Kollol had published a paper in physics. Humayun’s wife had caught a bad bout of flu. Kollol was traveling to Italy for a week to attend a conference in Milan, did Humayun want anything? Emails were relegated to brief legal exchanges or prolonged practical discussions about their recently widowed mother, who lived in a flat in Mohammadpur in Bangladesh, her health failing.
They had been horribly close once. An old photograph showed them in their twenties, two laughing, young men, their narrow, thin faces cracked open and the corners of their mouths and eyes creased with pleasure, sitting side by side on metal chairs, their heads thrown back and chins lifted. It had been taken at Kollol’s undergraduate graduation at Harvard University and now hung on the brick wall of their mother’s drawing room. That day, Humayun had taken the train to Cambridge from New Haven, where he was pursuing a PhD in physics, determined to attend his younger brother’s graduation in place of their parents, who were far away in Bangladesh and could not obtain visas to attend (nor could they, really, afford the airfare, being humble teachers).
After his graduation, Kollol had moved away briefly to University of Chicago for a PhD, then back to the northeast after accepting a tenure-track faculty position at NYU. Meanwhile, Humayun became a professor at Princeton and moved next door to his brother, just an hour away by train. Their parents could not have been more pleased, both at the accomplishments of their sons, ascending the ladder of their middle-class dreams, and their proximity to each other. They imagined that Humayun and Kollol would now see a great deal of each other, Humayun taking the train from Princeton or Kollol taking the train down from New York. They might meet in the city to have dinner and watch a movie together, or Kollol might come down to the beautiful campus of Princeton and the two brothers might take a walk along one of the pristine trails by campus. And certainly, their sons would run to each other’s aid instantly, if needed, in any crisis. Being middle-class Bengalis, they imagined these crises with powerful clarity. Their own lives were ruled by daily trauma and disaster, a fall, a break, stays in the hospital, a great deal of anxiety regarding the payment of bills and taxes, and squabbles over property, although they never wanted to involve their sons in these lowly problems. On his deathbed, the boys’ father shook his head of white hair, telling his wife in a weak voice that it made him glad to think that his sons were together, close to each other, although their distance from their parents meant that he died without seeing them. After his death, his widow lived alone, went to the doctor alone, and scurried to various offices on hired rickshaws to pay her bills.
There had been no quarrel between the brothers, except perhaps, the last time they had met, the younger brother Kollol, the economist, had made a remark about black holes and Humayun the physicist had retorted that since Kollol had become such an authority on physics now, he, Humayun, should start writing economics papers. Or perhaps it had been the other way around, with Humayun the physicist asking his brother why they did not teach Marx in economics classes and Kollol getting angry at the criticism of his discipline.
There was also the matter of Humayun’s wife. Since he had been a freshman in college, women had looked upon him with unrepressed interest. He was handsome, with a shock of black, curly hair and a thin, chiseled face with a pointed chin like his father. After much thought, he had selected for his life partner a Californian named Kathy Frickson, a fellow physicist. Kathy was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty, with bangs, a nose ring, slender arms and waist, a sharp wit, and brains to match his. They had been married quietly, in a vineyard in California, with only Kathy’s family and friends present, but when they returned from their honeymoon in California, Humayun invited his beloved younger brother to come visit and meet his wife.
To his surprise, the busy Kollol agreed. Two months after the wedding, on a lovely summer day, Kollol arrived at the little train station at Princeton junction. Humayun embraced his brother and kissed him on his stubbled cheek, admiring his lean, tall body and lumbering long legs. They drove to the quiet cottage that Kathy and Humayun had just bought. Despite the loveliness of the day and the cottage, Kathy and Kollol did not get along. Perhaps it had been Kathy who had asked the question about Marx. Also, she kept hugging Humayun around his neck, hanging on to him, sitting on his lap, putting out long cigarettes on the table nearby to light another, and blowing smoke into the air. Kollol narrowed his eyes and said he had to get back to the city. Humayun felt a fluttering sensation on the right side of his chest. Bowing his head, he watched his life unfold silently in this crucial instant.
The upshot of this visit was that Kollol refused any further invitations from Humayun. When Humayun suggested that he could take the train up to the city to see his younger brother, Kollol said that he was busy working on a paper. It was not a good time.
Their mother called Humayun daily to ask when Kollol was getting married. Humayun imagined her curling her lips in a helpless expression, rubbing her hands over her round, soft face, and pushing up her thick, black glasses as she wailed, “I would really like to see him married before I die.”
“You’re not dying!” Humayun protested.
“I have stomach aches. It could be a tumor.”
“Go to the doctor!” Humayun commanded.
At his mother’s behest, Humayun called his brother on his cell phone, and when Kollol, characteristically, did not pick up, Humayun texted him a fake crisis text.
Amma is very ill. May be cancer. May I come up to discuss what is to be done?
Kollol texted back immediately, from the number which he ignored so resolutely usually that Humayun had begun to wonder if it was still in service.
Sure. Would Saturday work?
Humayun and Kollol met at a midtown Bangladeshi restaurant near Kollol’s work. They sat at a table by a window, with the sunlight pouring in, and ate biryani, food they used to love as children, biting on raw onions and long green chili as they talked about their mother, their home, their childhood games, Ludo, Scrabble, chess, and the park near their parents’ flat where they caught small fish from the drain using a glass jar. As they sat facing each other, two long, thin faces with large, black eyes, their lips cracked open in a smile at the same time.
“Why don’t you stay the night?” Kollol suggested. “It’s getting late.”
Humayun made a face. “I can’t.” He checked the time on his phone. “I have to get back to Kathy.”
Kollol pressed on. “We could play a game of chess. I bought a set the other day.” He looked at his brother expectantly with his mouth half open.
Humayun walked outside to call Kathy on the phone, standing in the gummed up, ashy air, then came back inside, wearing a watery smile. “Kathy is scared to be alone at night. It’s a remote house. Not too many neighbors around,” he said, looking away slightly to stare at the lit menu at the front. His chest fluttered.
Kollol nodded curtly. “I understand.” He wiped his long, thin fingers over his chapped lips, and Humayun knew that he wouldn’t be seeing him again soon.
“By the way,” Humayun said, cocking his head as he pocketed his phone. “When are you getting married?”
“Amma was asking. If you get married, she would feel a lot easier. Her health would improve.”
“This is ridiculous,” Kollol said, shaking his head as he stood up with his tray.
“When will I see you again?” Humayun asked, following behind his brother, who was slightly taller than him.
Kollol did not answer.
As Humayun had expected, Kollol did not answer his phone calls, texts, or Skype messages for a very long time after that day. In response to his emails, about their mother’s health, Kollol wrote terse, professional opinions and plans, ignoring any personal notes. Gone was the younger brother who had sat so close to him in that Bangladeshi restaurant, staring at Humayun with a smiling, expectant face.
A month later, their mother was diagnosed definitively with stomach cancer. One of her nieces took her to Singapore for a second opinion. Humayun kept promising to visit, but Kathy was expecting their first child and fall classes had started, so he was at a loss about what to do. Finally, when fallen wet leaves covered the campus grounds, turning all paths treacherous, Humayun’s cousin called from Bangladesh and said that his mother’s cancer was terminal. The doctors in Singapore had given his mother six months to live. Humayun decided to book a ticket to Bangladesh.
Bro. Humayun texted his brother. I am thinking of flying home in December. Do you want to come?
To his surprise, there was an immediate text back from Kollol. Sure!!!
The response shocked and delighted Humayun. Any reply would have surprised him. The three exclamation marks, uncharacteristic of his taciturn brother, made him shout out in joy and pump his fist in the air.
Do you want to book tickets together? When does your semester end? He texted back.
This time, there was no answer to his question.
It was this exchange of texts, perhaps, that delayed the search for Kollol’s whereabouts. A few times over the next few days, their mother called Humayun and told him that she could not get a hold of her younger son, could Humayun check? Humayun shot Kollol a hopeless short Skype message at his mother’s entreaty, but he never received a reply. He was still waiting to hear from his brother before buying a ticket home.
One day, it had snowed outside Humayun’s office window. Staring at the beautiful grounds, Humayun reflected how ideal his life was, as a professor at a distinguished institution of higher education, on a beautiful campus, with the snow falling like ribbons outside his window. At this precise moment, he received a phone call from the New York police, informing him that his brother Kollol’s colleagues had reported that he had not shown up to his office or to teach his classes for several days. The police were looking for him. Did Humayun have any information about his brother?
After another twenty-four hours, Humayun received another call. The police had found his brother’s body in a remote location outside the city, inside a forest of trees beside the highway to New Jersey, buried in a deeply dug hole. They told him what had happened. Humayun read about his brother’s death in the news, trying to absorb it better. His brother had been having an affair with an older married woman, not an academic or one of the numerous women in skirt suits carrying leather briefcases who worked in the financial and consulting firms in the city, but the harried wife of a construction worker. Kollol and the woman had been texting each other, and the husband had found out. The husband had beat up the wife, then forced her to text Kollol, suggesting a rendezvous in a remote spot, a clearing in a forest beside the highway. When Kollol arrived, the husband cut him down with an axe, severed his head, got rid of it by throwing it into a deep gorge in the forest, then made his wife help him dig a grave. Together, the husband and wife had lowered Kollol’s fully clothed body, dressed in a light tweed jacket and collared blue shirt, ash pants, and black leather shoes, gently into the earth. They had been the last people to know him, to touch him, in this foreign country.
“But,” Humayun said to the police, “I received a text from my brother at that time, a response to my text.” He remembered that he had been so happy to receive that response, a sign of life from his silent brother.
“We believe that message may, in fact, have been from his murderers. Remember, the husband had used his wife’s phone to text your brother. He must have sent you a text from your brother’s phone after he murdered him. Your brother must have already been dead at the time. The phone was not found. They must have thrown it away somewhere.”
The police asked Humayun if he wanted to take his brother’s body and bury him properly, but Humayun, broken by the news and what it would do to his mother, sobbed, “No, please take care of it, dispose of it any way you like. I am not up to it!”
Humayun did not tell his mother about Kollol’s death. She died just one month later, before December, while Humayun’s semester was still raging. He missed the death of yet another family member, buried in a grave he had not laid eyes upon, by other people.
Gemini Wahhaj is the author of the novel Mad Man (7.13 Books, Fall 2023) and the short-story collection Katy Family (Jackleg Press, Spring 2025). Her fiction is in Granta, Zone 3, Northwest Review, Cimarron Review, the Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Chattahoochee Review, Apogee, Silk Road, Night Train, Cleaver, Concho River Review, Scoundrel Time, Chicago Quarterly Review, Arkansas Review, Allium, Valley Voices, and other magazines. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston, where she received the James A. Michener award for fiction (judged by Claudia Rankine) and the Cambor/Inprint fellowship. She is Associate Professor of English at Lone Star College in Houston.
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