Saturday Features

Memory interrupted

  • A woman recalls unpleasant childhood memoriesthat tie together in a narrative of abuse
- Prateebha Tuladhar

May 12, 2018-

I’m four. Maybe five. I’m visiting my grandparents in their working quarters in Nuwakot.

Socialising with neighbour-colleagues after work, is a part of life at Trishuli Colony. I’m part of this for close to two months of my winter vacation. I’m mostly the entertainer in the household. When visitors come over, I’m asked to sing them nursery rhymes. And I’m all chirpy and beaming amid the adulation. I’m asked to get up from where I’m sitting, stand in the centre of the drawing room and sing. The room is something like an entertaining space. It’s where the sitar rings and the tabala resounds and the harmonium flaps.

Then one day, we have a new visitor. Engineer uncle’s son. He’s also home for his winter school break. He’s a teenager. He becomes my friend. Unlike the elders, he doesn’t just make me sing. He also plays with me. Talks to me about my friends, about insects.

One evening, I’m at their quarter. We’re playing in his room. I no longer remember what. He asks me to sit on his lap. The entire evening, he makes me sing nursery rhymes, sitting on his lap. He has his arms around me. The whole time, I want to cry, I want to go home to Kathmandu. To my mother. Instead, I sing and concentrate on a cross-stitch frame on the wall. It has the picture of Krishna done in blue thread. He wears a peacock quilt on his head. His eyes are like stone.

The following evening, they come to my grandparents’ place. I wait desperately for the evening to be over. I don’t want to go to their house. Every other evening after that, I want to cry when they ask me to sing nursery rhymes for the elders. I no longer want to stand in the centre of the room, singing. I weep myself to sleep some nights. I’m homesick.

.................

I am six. Maybe seven. It’s a Saturday and my father’s friend has come visiting. His conversation with my father begins over a cup of morning tea in the tiny room in the front with big printed glass windows, and spans across lunch time.

When it is time for him to leave, my father’s friend mentions he’s going to a Korean film festival. My father suggests he take me with him to the festival and before I know, I’m following him to the bus stand. He takes me to the City Hall. A lady joins us at the theatre. We watch a film about a blind couple. There are a lot of scenes of the two travelling on the bus, talking. There are subtitles, but my English isn’t good enough for me to be able to read the entire length of the sentences or to understand. I can read a few words here and there, but they don’t do much for me. The film is called “Bright Eyes”. I could read that.

When we leave the hall, the lady friend comments she cannot understand why the film has such a title. They laugh. Again, I am unable to follow their conversation, but I walk alongside them, listening. My father’s friend takes me to his house after he parts with his friend. My parents live too far from the city, so my father is to pick me the next morning.

My father’s friend lives alone on the third floor of a mud-mortar house somewhere in Bhurunkhel. The house has large, orange pumpkins all over the place, like they were decorations of some kind. He cooks a pumpkin and potato stew, and rice. The stew is too spicy for me, so my nose runs as I eat. But I’m hungry.

And cold. 

There’s only one bed in the room. It’s the same room he cooked our dinner in. He tells me to sleep in the corner, so I won’t fall off. It is not a very big bed. I remember being very uncomfortable. But that’s as much as I can remember about that night.

My father picks me the next morning. When we’re riding on the motorbike, he always likes to talk. He asks me about the film I watched. I say it was nice. I respond to the rest of his questions in monosyllables. I’m thankful he cannot see my face. I grip the ends of his jacket, facing away, watching the people we pass by on the streets.

The next time this uncle visits our house, I bury my face in a book and read until he leaves.

.................

I’m ten. It’s Dashain, and my family is visiting one of our relatives for Tika. The house is full of people. In one of the rooms, men are playing cards. I stand at the door, watching, and one of my uncles tells me to come and sit next to him. He says I’m his lucky mascot. I go sit next to him.

I’m now flanked by him and his best friend. The best-friend-uncle pinches my cheeks and says maiya. I don’t remember meeting him before, but he says he’s changed my nappies when I was little. Big girl now, he says.

At ten, the outline of my breasts had started to make a hint and my nini had started buying me trainer bras.

There’s snacks on plates scattered all over the room. And there are beer bottles with blue labels. I don’t like the smell and don’t understand the game. But every time I get up to leave, my uncle tells me to sit down. He is losing. Best-friend-uncle keeps drawing in all the money. He tells me I’m lucky for him and puts his arms around me. Although I can no longer remember how exactly he managed to do this, I recall how his hands brushed against my chest every time he hugged me and called me his lucky charm. I hunch my shoulders in an attempt to keep his hands from brushing my chest. My ears and my face are burning. He asks me if I want to go to his house later to look at goldfish.

I slip out when I get a chance.

When we’re leaving the house, best-friend-uncle places some money on my palms saying I earned it for him and strokes my head and smiles at my parents. I have never seen him again. But every time I’m around drunken men at parties, I experience the same surge of fear I felt when his beer breath brushed against my face every time he cheered during the gamble. I never want to be around drunken men.

.................

I’m twelve. Uncle is visiting us for a few days. While my mother is taking a shower, Uncle is babysitting my baby brother. He’s walking to and fro in the corridor, singing to my brother. Come here, Uncle says to me. I get up from my homework and go to them. My brother speaks to me in gibberish. I lean in to kiss him on his cheeks. Then Uncle leans down and kisses me on my mouth. I pull away. My temples are suddenly drumming.

.................

Uncle has lived abroad for twenty years now. He has changed in many ways. Whenever he visits, he greets us all with hugs. He has gray in his hair now and plenty of wrinkles on his face. But the way he hugs hasn’t changed. He likes to squeeze people in his arms, one arm on the small of the back and the other just below the shoulders. The moment I see him before me, I prepare myself to stand still and let him do his part, while I cringe within.

I have never been able to read him. He appears like a friendly old man now, who is totally in love with the world around him and thereby engages in philanthropy. You’re a big, responsible girl now, he says. And I can’t tell whether I imagined that he had planted his mouth on mine one afternoon when I was 12 or if he was just kissing his little niece, who he did not expect to ever grow up into a woman.

.................

Last week, I was talking to a friend, about abuse children face at the hands of relatives. He said, that after years of fighting his demons, he had decided to forgive his perpetrator. That night, I lay in bed as chunks of the memories I’ve recorded above, came back to me in flashes. They seemed to tumble out of a shelf I had tightly shut the door to, a long time ago.

All of those incidents had one thing in common. They all ended as confused half-a-memory for me. Every single one of them. That tied them up in a narrative for me. A narrative of fear and disgust leading to a long term psychological baggage.

“He’s too old and I don’t know what I could do to right the wrong,” my friends tell me. Since that conversation, I have been wondering if forgiving is the only way for some of us to move on. Should I forgive? Can I? After all these years, can I still pick a thread from a memory and accuse Uncle of something that I believe he did? What evidence can I bring against him or the others? I have often wondered if I deleted the details of some memories consciously as survival strategy.

None of these arguments I make with myself change my anger or the repulsion I feel toward Uncle, or absolves anyone. But most of all, even the intent to forgive falls short of reconciliation when I think of my parents trusting me to the care of uncles. I cannot understand if I should forgive their naivete or hold them guilty for the damage that was caused to me for life. Who can we hope to trust when we can’t even trust our guardians? Who can really protect us when those who we call our own are party to violation?

Published: 12-05-2018 08:51

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