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 being around 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. Who was forced to stay with this aunt for months every year.
The aunt is a kind of person who when translated into a movie character, critics call Unrealistic, too Black to be believable in the real world. 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 skin of her daughters. At 7, she told me I would need jaw surgery when I grow up. My lips were too fat at 8. By 14, I was convinced that my hair were 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. She would take us to outside-airports, to see airplanes fly over us, because “you may never have seen planes” in Nagpur, poor, literally poor girls.
Another time she asked her daughter and I 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. When we dressed in each other clothes – she wore my dupatta and I wore her shorts and a spaghetti strap blouse – she 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.
I remember some moments like it was yesterday: She, a woman of 35, told a 9 year old me 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 was yelled at by her husband at breakfast, for teaching his daughter ‘dirty’ stuff. Stuff the daughter had shown me, picked up from an international – better than mine – school. Mehan Markle-ing me! About what? The bikini clad women on the Kingfisher Calendars!
When mummy came back from the asylum, a different person, she told me I had it all wrong. By the time I realized that what had happened to me – at her hands and at my aunt’s – was not normal, she also erased the narrative of this abuser. Making my abuse a figment of my imagination. She later silenced me, not wanting to hear a word against her family. HER 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 write – 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 when everyone was asleep, of stewing in self-loathing.
I could argue that the aunt and uncle are just insecure about having come from what-to-them-is-a-pathetic-rural Past to a high-fancy-designer-English Present. That they needed a 7 year old to be smaller, uglier, lesser for them to be bigger, shinier and happier. I could give this black character a grey-ish tint, for the sake of 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, spiritual gurus of 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. And people don’t understand the trauma of the scared 8 year old still hating herself, 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 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. Your trauma is valid and deserves to be taken seriously.