“Don’t show this to your sister” mum said as she clipped the VCR box closed. I screwed my face up in confusion but didn’t question her. The story, Monsoon Wedding, was full of the colour, food and music of Punjabi festivities – it made me think that’s she’d love it. The story, it turned out, held more truth to our family than I was aware of. And now I realise this is the reality of every individual I have shared my story with. Normal families. Normal backgrounds. This script could have been written in the diary of any of the many girls I know. So what’s normal? I wonder, when normality is my best friend, my aunt, my high school girlfriend, but most upsettingly, my sister becoming survivors of abuse at the hands of someone they trusted? Who have had their safe place ripped away from them, destroying childhood innocence and souring familial ties. You can’t change those memories. Those memories become that person’s normality, and that normality was only talked about through a film script on their TV screens.
I was brought up on the suburban housing estates of multicultural Essex, the first generation of British Asian families finding identity in their new surroundings. My older sister and I, 18 months apart in age, were stuck together throughout our school years. Like salt and pepper we were distinct in character and appearance but oddly complimenting. We spent every waking moment toddling around doing the same thing; at home, school, Brownies, swimming classes – the “Sister Sister” of our place. Same could be said for our weekend trips to see the extended family. The scene, much like ones from Goodness Gracious Me. Aunti-jee’s chopping onions and chillies in the kitchen, uncles discussing their failing businesses whilst picking Bombay mix out of their beards, and the kids stuck in the spare room watching Tom and Jerry and eating ice-cream. We stuck together through those times too, or at least that’s what I remember.
There were many other things I remember about childhood with my sister. My day to day memories of temper tantrums and drama were just an uncomfortable and challenging reality that we had to go through with her. She was perpetually difficult, rude and unforgiving to my parents. Slowly as I found her more and more unbearable, I began to distance myself from her. Her erratic behaviour spoke of self-destruction and disrespect. To her this was an escapism and rebellion from the only place she knew as “safe”. To me, she was a spoilt and selfish brat.
Something had been rumbling for a few months. Our relocation up north had, if anything, given her time to process what had happened. We were away from our extended family and the weekend trips to our aunts and uncles had suddenly stopped. Her behaviour had become unbearable – screams across the landing were a daily occurrence. She’s got herself involved in some guys at school who just smelt of trouble. It was impossible to hold down a conversation without it ending up in some kind of tirade of abuse. Then came the night where everything just got tipped upside down, and suddenly our kitchen turned into a film set. It was as if the cast of Eastenders had entered our home and had us acting out the Christmas Special.
I’ll never forget it, sitting at the dining table with my brother as she threatened to take her life with a kitchen knife. Her hand gripping the handle and pushing the blade so close to her wrists that you could see her veins pulp through the pressure. What the fuck was happening? Life wasn’t that bad was it? If anything we had it pretty good; great home, amazingly liberal parents, a solid education, family holidays and plenty of time with friends. There was something that wasn’t right. Something we hadn’t been told and I was beginning to see it in the eyes of my parents. They didn’t tell us that night. She’d ran out of the house while I had run up to my bedroom and locked myself away. I started furiously scribbling a letter to my high school boyfriend, which he never got the chance to read in the end. It took a few years before I had told anyone what had actually happened.
My parents kept my brother and I in the dark for quite a few months. All I knew was that my sister was going to see a psychiatrist, which in my naivety made me think she had some complex mental health issues. Things weren’t perfect but they were quieter. We walked past each other on the hallway not even acknowledging one another, and that was our relationship was for quite some time before I began to forgive her. Slowly, we saw her coming back. She’d start making an effort, something we hadn’t seen in her for years. She’d begin to smile. Something that was always very rare but cherished. It was as if she had begun to trust us again, which somehow filled her with a cautious sense of confidence. I still wasn’t aware of what was happening but I cherished every silent moment that we had.
After three very turbulent years in the north, my parents decided it was time to move back to our hometown. By this time my sister had dragged herself through a university degree and I was enjoying myself through mine. We kept up to date with one another, but those days of following each other around and snorting jokes that no one else understood were over. We had become our own people.
I had almost accepted that this was going to be the dynamics of our relationship. She was difficult, challenged in some way and hard to relate to. That didn’t change how much I loved her, but it changed how I related to her. When I saw other friends and their sisters I used to twinge with envy. It had been a long time since my sister or I had hugged each other, or told one another we loved them. I accepted this sad reality as our future, until one day everything got turned on its head.
My aunt (a cousin of Dad’s) was getting hitched in London and we were all invited. This, appeared, to me as good news, but for my parents the time had finally come to face some home truths. I still can’t remember who told me but I remember what was said. Our uncle, who had disappeared for some years to the Far East, would be joining in the celebrations. This seemed acceptable given it was his sister getting married.
My uncle, who had disappeared for some years to the Far East had done some bad things.
I still didn’t see the link.
My uncle. Who had disappeared for some year to the Far East. Who through our childhood had been at every family gathering we had been to,who was only 5 years older than my sister, who had sat with us in the kids room eating ice cream and watching Tom and Jerry, who was part of us, part of our family, part of our safe place. That man had for all the years I remember been taking advantage of my sister in ways Ill never understand.
I felt sick. Even recounting that moment makes my stomach tie up in knots. I couldn’t do anything for shock and I’m pretty sure my stillness unnerved my parents even more. My sister sat bravely while I listened to some discussion about how she wouldn’t be going to the wedding. Suddenly, as I looked at her sitting there, my brain began to reshape its memories of what had actually happened. Everything started to make sense; her volatility, her distrust, her car sickness as we travelled to see our relative’s. Every moment of my childhood rewritten broke another chip in my heart. And then I looked to my parents, clearly beaten by what had happened. It was my Dad who had taken the full blow of this reality a couple of years back. His daughter, trusted in the hands of his younger cousin. It was unthinkable. It didn’t happen to families like ours. Normal families with normal backgrounds: but what’s normal anymore?
It transpired after a series of confrontations that my uncle had fled to the Far East to escape the truth of his own predatory history. He wrote a letter to my parents, a short and honest apology of his wrong doings with some sense of explanation. He had been abused himself at a young age. Again by a family member. Again by someone he trusted in his safe place. This was his normality, it took him some years and some distance to realise that he had destroyed my sisters trust in him, and in most men she knew.
It’s been ten years since that night at the kitchen table and it’s only come up in conversation between us once. We spoke a couple of times about what had happened between her and my uncle, and how she felt after he apologised. I stuck by her side at the weddings and funerals he attended since he returned to the UK. I know now, that that small gesture meant a lot to her. In the year that I lived with her she fed and looked out for me, I teased her about practicing for motherhood and she’d clip me across the ear then would kiss it better. An affection and trust that never existed has blossomed from somewhere.
This script could have been written in the diary of any of the many girls that I know. It just so happens that this is my diary, and she is my sister. Nobody can re-write the story of our childhood, but we can right many wrongs by opening up to each other. Hearing her say “I love you” is still rare, but it’s an unimaginable blessing when I know how much it takes for her to say it. Now I’m certain she knows I am there for her, and that is the best way I know to say I love you back.