When I try to open my Pandora's box of memories, as a child who grew up witnessing domestic abuse, I am assailed by recollections that are too horrifying to bear.
Years later, every conversation has resurfaced in my mind with new meaning.
One day, my grandfather looked at me as I stood smiling at him. Suddenly his face crumpled up and he prayed that I get married into a good family. Not like Jugnu Khala (my maternal aunt) — her name means firefly in English.
When I asked him what he meant, he mumbled something about her husband, my maternal uncle, mistreating her and taking her into the graveyard to see a certain pir. He refused to say anything more about it.
A graveyard for the living
Years later (when my grandfather had expired), during an emotional family gathering, my father cursed Jugnu's husband, and when my mother tried to hush him (indicating my presence with a nod), he angrily pushed her away, stating that the pir had ruined Jugnu's life.
In an effort to get her to become more 'submissive' to him, Jugnu's husband had taken her to see a pir.
The (un)holy man advised him to stop feeding her in order to force her submission; and then, in a calculated move, told him to force himself on her in the middle of the graveyard. The pir's house flanked a small graveyard near Karachi's North Nazimabad area.
He promised it would work. It didn't.
To pacify the frustrated husband, the pir then decided to give the ultimate sacrifice: he would 'fix' her. Jugnu's husband just had to leave her with the pir for a week. He agreed.
At the end of the week, upon his return, he found Jugnu passive and docile. In his words, the 'perfect wife'.
In medical language, suffering from acute depression and PTSD, Jugnu's condition only worsened after that — her family members refused to help her.
It all had to remain inside the family. No one could know.
No one came to help
I must have been five years old. I remember sitting with my cousins in one corner of the room as my mother and her sister furiously talked to each other in undertones. I remember pretending to play with my dolls, while my little ears strained to hear every last whisper, every last hiss.
It was late, perhaps after midnight. The house was deathly silent. All of us were crowded in that one room, as though waiting for the apocalypse. I did not know whom we were waiting for.
"Shhh. Play with your dolls," was the constant reprimand to any question I asked.
Suddenly, my khala rushed out the room and my mother got up to follow. "Stay here!" she ordered me when I tried to get up. My mother had never spoken to me harshly before.
They came back leading my second khala (Jugnu) between them: she had run away from her house.
She was leaning heavily on both her sisters, with my mamu supporting her from behind. They sat her down on the bed, carefully placing her head against the headboard. My eldest cousin rushed to get a glass of water for her.
I vaguely remember hidden glances filled with meaning, a chance remark and a breezy reply; always with innuendos that I was too young to understand as a child, but not young enough to be oblivious to. Dust has gathered on the mental images and some have cracks on them filled with rust, making it hard to identify — but not impossible.
I remember Jugnu fell unconscious as soon as she was laid out on the bed. My mum put the glass of water to her lips as her sister held her lolling head straight, forcing water down her throat. The adults had all crowded around the bed, murmuring words of support and encouragement. They decided to let her rest and moved to other parts of the room to wait.
Her son had come with her. A chubby boy of four, his dark eyes were wide with fear as he looked at his mother lying pale on the bed. We surrounded him and tried distracting him with our toys.
After about 20 minutes or so, she suddenly awoke with a scream. My mum and khala rushed to her side, wrapping their arms around her protectively.
"Baba!" she said, pointing hysterically towards the landing outside. "Baba's here!" Baba is Arabic for father. She was saying my maternal grandfather was standing outside the room.
Excited to see him, I got up and went outside to greet him. There was no one there. I came back disheartened to find my khala and mother trying to pacify her with soothing words and assurances. "Baba is not here...shhh...we are here with you. Baba is not here."
It dawned on me that she was terrified of Baba. But why? My grandfather, who was the sweetest man I knew, never hurt anyone. I edged closer to the bed, trying to get a gist of what they were saying without getting noticed. My khala was promising her a safe haven.
"Don't let him take me back please," she begged, tears streaming down her face as she wildly looked around the room like a caged animal.
Her gaze settled on me and she beckoned to me to come forward. Jugnu reached out and kissed my face, her tears making her kisses sloppy and disgusting for a five-year-old. Then she turned to my mother and made her promise that she would always take care of me. My mother started to cry and agreed. She hugged me one last time and then let me go. I went careering back from the sudden freedom.
My khala turned to Jugnu's son, Mohammad and said, "Such a strong boy! You are a strong boy, aren't you? You'll take care of your mother, yes?"
And the little four-year-old got up huffing and walked over to the bed, before promising to do just that; with his wide eyes glued to his hysterical mother as she continued to weep.
Everyone is okay with abuse
Fast forward to 25 years later, and we all met again; this time under very different circumstances. My maternal grandfather had passed away and the whole family was pouring into his old house to pay their respects.
Jugnu came with her husband and their three children. Life had changed.
She had two boys and one girl — two of them teenagers. Her husband, my uncle, had grown much darker than I remembered him to be — in a scary way. His skin had an unnatural dullness to it, and his eyes looked a bit too bright.
Jugnu herself had changed. So much so that I hardly recognised her when I first saw her. But I knew those eyes; I would recognise those eyes anywhere — the same as my mother's. I went up to greet her and she asked me how I was.
She could barely talk; she was mumbling out the side of her mouth suggesting either a mini-stroke or a previous beating.
Her face, her legs, her feet, her hands — everything was swollen. Her eyes had decreased to flints, reminding me of a puffer fish on legs. She looked nine months pregnant. I knew she could not be pregnant though; she had undergone Tubal Ligation years ago. The doctor had done it to save her life.
I helped her sit and sat down next to her, holding her hand. An image flashed in my mind of a hysterical woman being held by her sister as she screamed for help, shaking me to the core. The funeral went ahead as planned, with one constant: members of the family kept coming up to Jugnu and asking her how she was, she would just nod and attempt to smile through her stiff lips.
I noticed the covert glances sent towards her, the whispers and the head shakes — people at the funeral were constantly talking about her. They repeatedly asked my mother about Jugnu's health, and she would just say, "she's fine" shaking her head, discouraging further talk.
Her husband swaggered into the room, loudly greeting everyone and smiling jovially, before turning to his wife and loudly telling her to take care of her health. She nodded in agreement. I was bursting with a dangerous rage inside — my mind conjured images of punishing him.
My mamu came up behind him and hugged him cordially, they left the room, talking loudly as though they were meeting at any other family gathering. Jugnu just kept sitting where she was for the entire five hours we were all gathered at the house.
For a brief moment, I saw tears in her eyes as they were taking my grandfather's body away; they were swiftly wiped away.
All around us, people were crying or holding on to each other, saying words of comfort and support. Next to me, she sat completely still; unmoved.
Living with the abuser
A few more years down the road, and I have finally recognised the signs for what they were: acute depression. Her extremely slow reactions and response times, coupled with the slurring speech, are all testament to that fact.
A fact that was as glaringly obvious that day as 25 ago; yet not a single person in the family moved a muscle. Nobody did anything but throw sympathetic looks in her direction before moving on to greet the others.
Looking back, it all begins to make sense. Those whispered conversations, my mother's helpless hatred for Jugnu's husband; the outbursts.
Jugnu was forced to go back to her abusive husband within a week of that hysterical episode, because he kidnapped their son from school and threatened to harm the boy if his wife did not return to him. Given Pakistan's non-existence domestic violence laws at the time, she had no choice.
Sometimes adults talk too much in front of little kids. Maybe they think the children will not understand what they say; or maybe they hope they will forget the darkness of the words uttered.
That is never the case.
My father finally opened up during my mother's absence one day, and shared the ugliness of Jugnu's story. She was taken back to her husband's house by her father and brother at 2am.
He refused to open the door until they begged forgiveness for insulting him.
They stood outside in the pitch dark neighbourhood for three hours. He only came down and let them inside at 5am when the call for prayer began to wake up the rest of the neighbourhood.
No one ever talked.
A bright, spirited girl became a shell of a woman; unable to string two words together. In their determination to prevent a scandal from tainting the family, Jugnu's own loved ones left her to die a slow and painful death everyday.
What of her lawfully wedded husband? He still lives with her and their three children.
—The name of the writer has been changed to maintain privacy.