Ayesha R. Gill
Red reverberations trickle down the walled fortresses of his life and I become like him not knowing how he came to be. Aware of how he behaves but unaware of the reasons behind his cautious actions, I have been unconsciously and inadvertently influenced by the crooked lines haunting his memory. The ultimate father – he is dedicated in a selfless manner, he has sheltered me under his wing, and offered sound advice in times of need. Despite this kind and steady support I forced myself to bleed.
One might wonder – how did my loving father end up with me? My world overflowed with chaos and fundamental questions, unanswerable, coupled with a longing for death. Meanwhile searching for security and finding uncertainty, all that my father could do was deadbolt the doors of our house – false security. A heartbreaking history intertwined with a catastrophic mystery, this is the story of my father and me.
In August 1947, The British Empire, having ruled India for roughly a century, redrew borderlines, shrinking India to allow land for a new nation. Pakistan. The departure of Great Britain was brought about in part by the Indian National Congress, a movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, and in part by Muhammad Iqbal, the originator of the conception of a consolidated, autonomous Muslim state in India. The philosophy of the Indian National Congress was non-violent resistance in order to coerce the British out of India.
Post-partition and departure of Great Britain, Sikhs migrated southeast to India and Muslims northwest to Pakistan. Violence erupted in part because a now disorganized government, or lack-there-of, gave way to anarchy. Widespread looting was not uncommon, including the confiscation of migrants’ properties who had journeyed across the border. Bloodshed of innocents and rape of women were also commonplace at the time.
In December 1947, my grandfather, Dada, was an accountant for cantonment, civil administrators of a military base stationed in central India. Indian army personnel escorted Dada, my grandmother, and my father, Abba, to a ship bound for Bombay and then Karachi, a Pakistani port town. From there they boarded a train headed for a small village in the Hindu Kush Mountains where Dada’s job transfer awaited. Abba was just under three years old at the time and recalled the sensation of cold air against his skin as he descended onto the station platform, a feeling he was unaccustomed to when he lived in central India.
Unmarked dirt graves are traditional in Pakistan. Dirt is piled above the corpse in a large almond shape and over time this raised dirt descends back into the earth. Communication methods were painfully slow and it was dauntingly difficult to discover locations where loved ones landed or were stranded, and whether or not they had made safe passage over the border. During her stay in the Hindu Kush Village, my grandmother learned via written mail from her sister that their remaining family members had been victims of the wave of violence occurring in central India. Presumably her mother, father, brother, and all but one sister had been slaughtered upon the arrival of machete-armed gangsters who sought out lingering Muslim families to murder and pillage.
Abba’s grandfather was the principal of a school who had erroneously entrusted benevolent Sikh connections to shield him from any potential threat of violence. Unfortunately these connections were not present to rescue him or his family when the time of dire need arose. They were all killed in India in the town where they had lived. Less than two years after receiving the news of her family’s bloody massacre, my grandmother fell ill. Dada, my grandmother, and Abba were traveling in rural Pakistan despite my grandmother’s health; they were a family unaware of the severity of her condition in a location of insufficient medical care. Abba, still just a small boy, recalled the sight of my grandmother’s urine in a concrete basin in the corner of the guest bedroom, and my grandmother’s nearly lifeless body draped halfway onto the bed, her knees resting on a bedside bench; she was too weak to climb up onto the bed, and too weak to make it to the bathroom. Her urine was so thick and full of sugar that it did not travel down into the drain of the basin; her urine was solid. In 1949 during a visit to her only surviving sister’s home, my grandmother passed away. Abba remembers nudging her lifeless body, but not realizing that she was dead; he was too young to understand death. She was buried in an unmarked dirt grave in the village they were visiting, the name of which escapes Abba’s memory.
After my grandmother died, Dada and Abba did their best to get by in daily life. Abba tagged along with Dada to his accounting office, dragging behind him an unusual life-sized doll. Dada’s co-workers were aware that Abba had recently lost his mother, so they gave him hugs. Dada did not know how to cook and Abba was still a small child, too young to start school, so Dada would send Abba on a fifteen-minute walk to the local bakery to purchase a cupcake-sized pound cake for one rupee. Abba thought it was a great idea and they split it for one day’s ration. At other times Dada sent Abba to visit an inter-office bicycle messenger to find out if he was using his bicycle. If not, Abba borrowed the bicycle, brought it to Dada, and they rode together to the local Bazaar (open-air market) to eat in a restaurant. Upon Dada’s decision that Abba’s lifestyle should not continue like this, he sent Abba away.
Shortly after Abba’s arrival back at his maternal aunt’s home, she packed up with her children and left her husband. Abba was stranded with an uncle whom he hardly knew, and whose name he cannot recall – “a stationmaster.” Abba recalled “playing with an age mate” under a parked freight train when Uncle Stationmaster discovered Abba and became infuriated. As punishment he tied Abba’s ankles to a ceiling fan and left him dangling there. Abba recalled hanging upside down from the ceiling fan being fun but wondering how he would get down.
Years later Dada remarried, ultimately having three additional sons and daughters. His new wife was not fond of Abba so she ordered him to sleep outside with the buffalo, she beat him with slippers, and she forced him to go hungry if there was not enough food to feed him after her biological children had finished eating. She insisted that Abba was destined to become a servant and that he was worth nothing more.
Despite constant overdoses of adversity throughout life, Abba later graduated from King Edward Medical University in Lahore, Pakistan, after which he migrated to the United States to complete medical residency at Mt. Sinai in New York City. It was not until Abba was in medical training that he realized my grandmother’s potential cause of death. As he studied diabetes it became clear to him that the sight of my grandmother’s urine shed light on the cause of her death; Abba concluded that her urine was solid because her body could not process sugar. Left untreated, diabetes can be fatal, and in my grandmother’s case, it was.
One day during medical residency, Abba noticed a nurse in training playing tennis and he asked her out on a date. They shared greasy onion rings at the local diner, took a permanent liking to one another, got married, and moved to a suburban town in New Jersey.
February 2nd, 1982. My existence began. All six of Abba’s brothers and sisters agreed to have traditional arranged marriages to Pakistani matches. My father married my mother, an American of Norwegian descent. Maybe his decision was a result of the absence of my grandmother to arrange his marriage or maybe he simply remained true to himself. In any case, Abba persisted through the darkest depths of a bloody and lonely upbringing and here I write. Who could predict a past that never happened? What about a future? I swam in a sea of darkness for twenty-five years, until the reality-shattering truth of my father’s childhood was finally revealed.
A seemingly happy and innocent childhood turned rotten, I commenced my journey to adulthood by testing every limit and pushing every button within my reach. My consciousness was completely convoluted, knotted, and nailed to deceitfulness and lies; nobody could hear my cries or understand that I was truly in flames. I tried using reason to make sense of life but the world remained so incredibly deranged. As I struggled to untangle the perplexing puzzles of my existence I only fell deeper and deeper into a chaotic abyss; it felt as though sewing machines were continuously perforating phantasmal needles deeper into my bewildered soul and my moribund anemic skin. Did destiny and fate exist? Were signs of imminence bleeding from the stars above? My life was an irreversible, wicked jest in which a cruel buffoon had scalded my paper-thin sense of wellbeing. The final four lines of a naive adolescent poem entitled “Black and Blue” express longing for a brighter future, though I was blind to it then:
Someday, someone, somewhere else
In a time to come
My lifelong dream
That it will all make sense.
A now foreign consciousness caused me terror at night; it was during those endless hours of darkness that I unthreaded my thinly woven skin. Into pale arms I inscribed bloody messages using safety pins – sketches of the letter ‘X’ and a pentagram. Dried blood droplets often formed a heart, split into two halves and jagged-edged like a ninja star. “Black and Blue” now exists as a roundtrip ticket into the past, allowing me to rehash my most deeply disturbing memories – memories of emotions that would otherwise be gone and forgotten. I imagine myself becoming tired while lying in the dimly lit, pink-tiled bathroom tub; lukewarm water turns scarlet as I bleed to death. If I slit my wrists deeply enough and with the grain of my skin, maybe it will not take excessively long to lose consciousness.
A week prior to this fragmented memory, my best friend played the lead in a live drama right outside of school. We attended Milton, a high school for emotionally disturbed adolescents who were unable to cope with the multitude of pressures present in public high schools. Before acceptance to Milton we passed a series of tests administered by social workers in order to be classified as emotionally disturbed. Lounging outside on a grassy patch during a sunny fall lunch break, Stefanie became mesmerized by the reflective shimmer of a razor-sharp art blade and proceeded to separate the skin of her wrist in one long, deep slit. From a distance I watched the hateful crowd gather around Stefanie until a lights-off ambulance whisked her away to have the skin of her bloody arm sewn back together in black. She never returned. Meanwhile, I had chosen to attend Milton solely because Stefanie did.
Here is the remainder of the dimly lit, pink-tiled bathroom event. Using an identical art knife stolen from Milton, equally sharp and shiny, I slit my wrist but the bleeding was insufficient. I slit twice and the amount of blood still would not do. I slit a third and fourth time and sliced a vein! As I watched the blood gush out of my own extremity, my first instinct was to stop the bleeding but I couldn’t! I screamed for my mother’s help and she bandaged my wound very tightly but the gauze quickly turned scarlet red. My parents then transported me to the emergency room at Morristown Memorial Hospital. After receiving a nominal amount of stitches, I convinced the psychiatrist on call that I had not made a whole-hearted suicide attempt and she released me the very same night.
For the next couple of days I refused to go to Milton, so my parents employed trickery to lure me out of bed and into the car. Little did I know that I was going to be admitted to CCIS, The Children’s Crisis Intervention Service at St. Clare’s Hospital in Boonton. I was essentially admitted to this ward because of my unwillingness to attend school, but I happened to have black stitches in my wrist. The truth is that I had originally intended to make a serious suicide attempt, but at the exact moment I was face to face with real danger, I no longer wanted to die. By slitting a superficial vein in my wrist, I realized that I wanted to live! As a matter of course, the psychiatrists, nurses, and social workers refused to believe me. I stuck to the truth anyway – yes, I had stitches because I willfully slit my wrist open – but I was cured and did not need to remain on the unit. They held me hostage for a week, probably until my parent’s health insurance policy would fund my stay no longer.
Later I attended a day program at St. Clare’s called PHP (Partial Hospital Program), or “Partial” as we called it. During a family meeting, an incompetent clinician by the name of Dick directed a question at Abba: “Do you still love your daughter the way you did when she was a child?” Abba replied, “No.” On that low-pitched, crushing note of pain in the pit of my being I crept out of the hospital, wept, and chain-smoked outside in the dark parking lot. It did not take long for Dick and my parents to find me and when they did I recall Abba’s kind voice asking me, “Do you want to come back here?” I replied, “Of course not!” Dick then interrupted, “She is not ready to be discharged and you’ll be removing her from the program AMA (Against Medical Advice).” Abba placed his arm around my shoulder and said, “Let’s go.” Dick looked at me with bitter eyes and barked, “You’ll be back.”
That was the last time I was admitted to St. Clare’s Boonton. After a total of three inpatient admissions to CCIS and countless months in PCP I was all right, no thanks to the mental health system. All I really needed was the freedom to learn from my mistakes – the freedom to learn how to live.
Back to the question at hand: how did a girl from a nurturing family become so deeply disturbed by life? Abba is Muslim and a child psychiatrist. At the exact moment I began sprouting into a woman, he panicked. The only solution he knew of was to shelter me – to prohibit me from attending social functions such as school dances. Meanwhile, all I wanted was to be accepted by my peers! Perceiving Abba as a brick wall stopping me from living, I sought revenge using the only method accessible to me – I disrupted his professional life by becoming a part of the mental health system.
On a surface level this makes sense but there must be more to the story than that. Sure, I am a rebel at heart and maybe I was a rebel without a cause then, but where did Abba and I really steer each other wrong?
I had always been told that Abba’s mother died when he was a small child and that he found her dead not knowing what death was. He recalls the consistency of her urine – thick and full of sugar – too aware today of what he was unaware of yesterday; she was extremely dehydrated and diabetic. I had always been told that my father’s mother died of diabetes. After all, they were living in rural Pakistan in the late 1940’s, so the story was unquestionably plausible.
It was not until my twenty-fifth year of life that I learned the unexpurgated truth. It was revealed to me at the dinner table two summers ago, after my mother slipped. The subject of that night’s dinner was a heated conversation regarding the bleak state of the world today, the new dark ages, during which my mother mentioned the words “slaughter” and “mother” in the same sentence directed at Abba. Full attention intercepted and, subject sticky, I probed for the root of her statement. Abba hesitated at first but then he told the story of our family’s history. Abba and my grandparents were living in India when violence broke out; Muslims were being slaughtered in India and my father’s family was Muslim, so they fled to safety in Pakistan. My grandmother’s family insisted upon remaining behind to carry on in the midst of reckless, hate-fueled violence. Not long after Abba and my grandparents escaped, my grandmother’s family was massacred. She died less than one year after receiving the news. My grandmother died of a broken heart.
Like I said, red reverberations trickled down the walled fortresses of Abba’s life and I became like him not knowing how he came to be. My father lived his mother’s pain and I lived his.
Following Abba’s grandfather’s death, a benevolent Sikh student paid respect by having his book of poetry published. The book remains in India today.
life, one memory
cloaked injury shield
hawk guarded field
I think I am one
hazy sunlit shade
reflected fire blade
craving another run
Never done, un-won
beat, back beat
I think I am one
tearing raw flesh
praying for vulnerability
a concrete witch
I think I am
driven by fear
afraid to sheer
Red reverberations trickle
but the Scarlet kinds
will always find.
did not design.
let eyes cry
Scarlet Eyes Dry.
The Child Inside
Is Still Alive.
Of a Void.
My Scarlet Eyes
See Love, Above.
my Burnt Heart
beats in between
Burnt Hearts Heal
Writing, Photography, and Site Design by BlueAngelAyes, Ayesha R. Gill
For SF, Professor of Sun in Fire, Fairy Godmother, Mentor, and my Most Precious Friend. I am Proud and Strong. I know I’m not alone, my gut no longer vexed, I trust and have been blessed. I Know and Trust MySelf. Thanks to You.