Content warning: mentions death and self-harm
The scene is set: there is a room, with white walls, and nothing but a white bed with white sheets, and there the central object: my grandfather. He lies there dressed in white, with a red mark somewhere around his stomach. I don’t know how much of this is imagined, I just hope the blood is. The cause was natural, that much I know.
Let’s go back. First, there is this: your grandfather is sick, in fact, he is dead, but it will be a few more days until you are told this. Your father is quiet, you go to your classes in the morning and when you come back they tell you the truth and the sickness you’ve felt all day makes sense to you now.
There is a vague memory of asking, almost begging your father to be able to follow him, he is going to India to bury the body. You have never been to a funeral before but you’re old enough to know that you should go to your grandfather’s.
Your father’s voice is firm in a way it rarely is with you, the laughter in him evaporated and everything feels wrong. He leaves for a few days and it isn’t until three years later you feel like you can fully grasp his presence in the room.
Your bibi, your nan, told him he must have a proper burial and your father said no, I won’t do it
He sits with them on the plane and says no, I won’t do it
They travel to the village together and he says no, I won’t do it
He knows this will destroy him: no, he won’t do it.
But there is this: it’s what his father wanted, and what his younger brothers and sisters will do: so he does it anyway.
So this is what you learn about love: you have to be selfless. No matter how much it hurts you.
He doesn’t tell you the details until a few years later when you’re almost old enough to understand. Almost is the keyword.
He explains why after the funeral, he moved away, to another city, another life, just for the first few years, why he couldn’t be around you, for all that time. How PTSD destroys a person.
This is it: the first time you remember seeing him cry and it’s when the images first appear to you: your father shaking in the living room as he tells you, like he must have been shaking on the plane, shaking as he washed his fathers’ corpse, shaking as they burnt him and shaking as he collected his bones.
I wish you could get rid of these images but I know this is something that will burn inside me for the rest of my life. There’s so much I wish I could know. I wish I knew more about my grandfather, about the partition, about what it did to him. All the stories of partition my father tells me are impersonal, mostly reduced to digits. Two million dead, 15 million forced to leave their homes to rarely safe places.
But my grandfather, he was alive then too. What happened to him then? Was he safe? Was he forced to move? I wish I knew more but deep down I guess I’m relieved I don’t.
It burns through me, this fear of a long past unknown, but it doesn’t reduce me to ashes in the way knowing could, in the way seeing would.
But what I do know helps me understand. My grandfather drank himself into an early grave. I don’t blame him for it, I can’t really, knowing what I do about his life. His story is a common one, moved to Britain as a young man, barely in his twenties, with a wife, newborn son and a life filled with racism and shitty low-paying jobs. Strange how the jobs we take are the ones they’d never do themselves. And the only thing that scares me more than UKIP is the National Front. The ideas are still here, now thinly veiled in polite language, but at least the violence is less frequent. So my grandfather drank and died young. Who can blame him? His own father did the same, and after spending the majority of his life under the British rule of India, who wouldn’t drink that much? What would I do?
Well, what about me? This is how the story went for me.
I remember one of the last times my grandfather visited, I think I was about ten at the time. After half an hour he left for the pub, it’s probably the fastest I’ve ever seen him move. I think my dad made a joke about it. I didn’t worry about his health, at the time. Why would I? When you’re 10 years old your family is immortal. I wonder if my dad felt that way as well if that’s why he shook so much. My imagination of it and the reality of it are blurred together. I shook too: when I was told about my grandfather dying and years later when I was told about his funeral.
Two years later, my dad isn’t around. It’s okay. I can forgive him for this because I know how grief has been dealt with before in this family. He wasn’t around but at least he wasn’t drinking.
But that’s not the reason I couldn’t breathe then. I couldn’t breathe because I wanted to be white and didn’t know how to be.
Maybe I didn’t want to be white maybe I just wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be pretty, wanted boys to like me, even if I wasn’t totally sure how I felt about them. This is the year a boy from my class told me he was disappointed when he met me. That when he was told there was going to be a new girl he was hoping she’d be blonde, and pretty.
Blonde, and pretty. There’s a pause between them but at that age, they’re inseparable in the same way blondeness is inseparable from whiteness. A whiteness you’ll never embody, no matter how much you avoid the sun that summer.
And the feeling just won’t go away, won’t stop and there’s no way other teenagers feel like this…like they want to rip their own skin off. I know teenagers are supposed to be self-conscious, that it’s normal to hate yourself just a little. But it sure didn’t feel normal at the time.
I sat in class and rub at my skin until it’s red. The skin at my neck is my most common target. I rub it till I can barely see the brown through the red, I do this almost every day for a month. My mother thinks I have a rash and I don’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.
I get older and the rubbing turns to cutting.
I get even older and I have plenty of things to distract me. I realise I never really knew my grandfather like I now know my parents.
I think about this on the anniversary of his death. It’s been years. I think about how for ages after he died I would make sure I thought about him once a day. Being happy would be a betrayal, he needs to be on your mind. But I still, as an adult, don’t fully know him, and never will now. I don’t know if my memories of him are of a drunk man or a happy man.
But after it all, this is what my heart links to him: laughter, the times he would sneak in chocolates for me and my cousins before meals, the chess games he would play with my aunt, Bollywood music videos in the background, my family all in one room,
And here’s me. Now. I’ve learnt now that I don’t need to know someone to love them. I love them the same.
My grandfather is brown, my father is brown, and so am I. How can I hate myself for this when it is in the people I love? My father is around now, and can ask me that himself.
I won’t ever really know my grandfather but when my family all sits in one room I know that what he must have felt in that moment: complete. These people look like me and it fills me with warmth, I am a good and worthy thing. In those moments I feel what my grandfather felt as well. I can see my father can feel it now too.
So I sit with my family and I gain my happiness through seeing their happiness, I learn to love myself through loving them. The love doesn’t hurt anymore, it heals.
Image: Devon Gleed via eieihome.com