TW: emotional abuse
I have an aunt, related closely enough that I can’t avoid meeting her at least once a year. Close enough that it was impossible to avoid her as a child, without agency. A child whose mum was absent most of the time, who hungrily learned things from proxy-motherly-figures, subconsciously. This child was forced to stay with the aunt for months every year. The aunt is the kind of person who when translated into a movie character critics call “Unrealistic, too Black to be believable in the real world.” She was this person at least to me.
At 4, she told me I have dark (hence, bad) skin that requires talcum powder, in contrast to the cream needing fair skin of her daughters. At 7, she told me I would need jaw surgeries when I grow up. My lips were too fat at 8. By 14, I was convinced that my hair was so ugly it was offensive to keep them untied. She’d offer me hair gels and hair ties, only to take them back because I wasn’t worthy of something so expensive. The making-someone-feel-unworthy wasn’t subtle, too black to be believable. She would take us to outside-of-airports, to see airplanes fly over us, because “you may never have seen planes” in Nagpur, poor, literally poor little girls.
One time she asked her daughter and me to dress up in each other clothes. It was the year mummy was sent to the asylum. I had bought the exact clothes my best friend’s mother had bought her. I was very excited – as kids can be – to wear a dupatta, like an adult! Seeing us dressed in each other clothes- she wearing my dupatta and me wearing her shorts and a spaghetti strap blouse- the aunt said “do you see? she is uncomfortable in western clothes. But you are comfortable in both. And honestly yours are just prettier” to her daughter, as I stood watching. No mother to tell me that I wasn’t as disgraceful as all that, or to just buy me the clothes that made us equal. No mother to claim me.
Another time, she- a woman of 35- told a 9-year-old to not talk to her child in English. She was scared my bad English was contagious. She would make us drink our own pee for satvik reasons. I think this is where my hatred for bathrooms stems from. I was yelled at by her husband at breakfast, for teaching his daughter ‘dirty’ stuff. The stuff the daughter had shown me, picked up from an international- better than mine- school. Mehan Markle-ing me! About what? Some bikini-clad women on the Kingfisher Calendars!
When mummy came back from the asylum a different person, said that I was making these stories up. By the time I realized that what had happened to me- at her hands and at my aunt’s- was not normal, she had made the abuse a figment of my imagination. Soon she silenced me, not wanting to hear a word against her family. HER family.
Who is my family?
Whose family am I?
I try to reclaim the narrative: joke about “that metal bird in the sky” sometimes, when I see an airplane. I like my lips and hair. I take compliments about my jaw even if I don’t believe them. I- make comprehensible sentences out of jarring emotions, dark places, those months- of staying up scared, of worrying “who will protect me?”, of reading their prohibited Enid Blyton books in hiding, of stewing in self-loathing- in English.
I could argue that coming from a what-to-them-is-a-pathetic-rural Past to a high-fancy-designer-English Present made them insecure. Maybe it needed a 7-year-old to be smaller, uglier, or lesser for their bigger, shinier, and happier present to solidify, and become unbreakable. I could give these dark characters a grey-ish tint, for the sake of a tellable story, for the critic. But my recent experience in understanding trauma told me that I don’t owe them that.
That the ‘forgive them’ ‘let it go’ ‘don’t give it importance’ narrative was created by healers, motivational speakers, and spiritual gurus of the privileged. That I should pay no heed to them- now that they are out of my life, now that I only see them once a year, now that it’s a thing of the past- is neither theirs to preach, nor mine to force on myself. My body-mind went through what it went through, made sense of it however it could and it kept score. People neither understand the trauma of the scared 8 years old still hating herself nor of the lone-ranger adult, she became. No one can really know anyone’s trauma. The best one can hope to do is listen to the one talking about theirs.
And here is what I have to say about mine. I have stayed with this and I have stayed with the trauma of being sexually harassed. It is about as easy or imperative to forgive the emotional abuser as it is the sexual. That I, and by extension, you, are not ‘weak’ smaller’ ‘non-zen’ if I “still” see my traumatizer in anxious dreams “after all this time”.
Unacknowledged trauma is trauma. Silenced, negated, “smaller than what most people suffer” “sabhi ke sath hota hai” “hum ro rahe hai kya?” abuse caused by “daddy hits me because he loves me” relatives IS ABUSE. The “that shouldn’t affect me” effect is hurt. Your trauma is valid and deserves to be taken seriously.