The third curated piece by digital guest editor for November 2022, Taiba Abbas. Her curation is following the theme of Personal Myths.
I find it very difficult to be both gentle and honest when recalling the stories of the women in my family. In a truly empathetic portrait, I might say that they are haunted by the fragments of their past—cycles of generational fight and flight, controlling men, the pressures of “moral purity”—and yet remain glowing beacons of strength. But the reality is, I grew up seeing them bitter. My mom, Nani, Amma—mother, grandmother, great-grandmother—are all unsatisfied women frustrated with the instability of their finances, marriages, and even geographic spaces.
I’m aware of the ways my own body houses these ghosts. I feel it in the way I freeze in moments requiring action, my mind so jammed I can’t even reach for a glass of water a couple inches from me. I feel it when my stomach is always in pain, punctured and stretched like an abused balloon. I feel it when I practically turn to rock, expressionless and cold, in the face of the slightest conflict.
My struggle with the truth is not rooted in the obligation of politeness—I’m quite likely a bitter and angry woman myself. It’s just that stories are told within stories, in fragments, they are untold and retold, fictionalised and exaggerated. And so, while the journalist in me wants to find the linear, factual, and objective truth, the inheritor of my mothers’ past is far more attuned to the emotional core.
Amma is a living, breathing being in my memory. I refer to her in the present tense, but she died when I was eight years old. In fact, I have very few direct memories of her. I remember with certainty her salt-and-pepper hair and the conviction with which she’d declare Calcutta as her actual hometown. On principle, she’d wear saris on the daily, though her daughters were accustomed to the shalwar kameez. I remember her bed-ridden and thin to the bone. And yet, she is a fictional character in many ways. I know the stories as I’ve heard them from my mom and Nani, but I myself never had a full conversation with Amma, because she did not understand English and I didn’t speak Urdu.
When she passed away, my parents and I were living in Toronto. Not having seen her funeral, her death was relatively unremarkable to me as a child. There was no grief then, which is why my current preoccupation with her character is even more surprising. I’ve romanticised Amma to the point where I can’t help but project her image when I read Partition survivors’ accounts of fleeing at a moment’s notice, haphazardly grabbing fistfuls of jewellery and cash, the rickety clunk of metal against metal and clouds of steam blurring the air. Just like that, history and memory lose all reliability.
Fortunately, the researcher Devika Chawla disentangles some of my internal chaos. In Liminal Traces: Storying, Performing and Embodying Postcoloniality, Chawla writes about how she and her siblings never experienced Partition or the direct trauma of her family’s migration history, and yet, they have an understanding, albeit fragmented, of these events. Chawla terms this indirect understanding, a “storied inheritance.” She recalls the ways in which she has been a story-listener, absorbing the knowledge, incidents and wounds of her parents through their storytelling.
To be the recipient of a storied inheritance would mean that the act of listening creates bodily truth through our nervous systems and intuition. It was only on Amma’s twelfth death anniversary that my mom revealed the reason behind her refusal to attend the funeral.
Amma died when I was eight years old. But her actual death happened at the bazaar chopping block right before my mother’s eyes, her last remaining legacy bartered, transacted, and split
“I didn’t want to step into Amma’s room and feel her absence,” she said. “I’d see her empty bed and imagine her there.”
Then she plunged into a story about Amma’s golden bangles—among the only things Amma had carried with her as she moved from India to East Pakistan in 1947, and to Pakistan in 1971.
“I had to get rid of them today,” she lamented.
She had admired these bangles her whole childhood. The dense gold and delicate patterns adorned in precious gemstones made Amma’s arms seem both magical and invincible. And it was in Amma’s arms that she felt safest, fascinated by the rough, smooth, jagged textures of her golden wrists.
Despite all her tomboy glory—my mother’s insistence on wearing jeans instead of playing with her dolls and nagging her parents into letting her ride the Space Mountain roller coaster at Disney World—she remained adamant on trying on these bangles, modelling them in front of the mirror. The adults naturally told her off, distrustful of a child’s ability to safeguard Amma’s only precious jewellery. Her only independent source of wealth now that I think about it.
And Amma did unfortunately start losing her precious jewellery, but out of necessity when her age could no longer sustain her body as effectively. Six out of eight bangles were eventually sold for Amma’s medical treatment. It’s a surprising reality considering my family’s house in Pakistan was one of the largest houses I’ve stepped foot in. Entering from the gate, there is a garden and two tall sturdy coconut trees. Inside, the house has two floors connected by a marble spiral staircase. It has six bedrooms all decorated with beautiful carpets in shades of blue and red. A kitchen and living room on both floors. That the house was a direct reflection of my grandfather’s booming carpet business is disappointing. Amma lived under so much wealth, yet endured the pain of selling her limited riches, her bangles imbued with golden memories, for a meagre return of cash. She fled colonial erasure, only to suffer patriarchal erasure—her masters leaving her to fend for herself despite their abundance of resources.
As for the two remaining bangles, my mother was instructed to sell them and donate the money to charity under Amma’s name. My mom’s voice slowed now, struggling to maintain composure. She backtracked, set the scene.
Sullenly, she paced the stores of this crowded bazaar. What a place to carry Amma’s spirit through—this noisy, claustrophobic marketplace swarming in ball sack and armpit sweat, wiry beards and spit, guzzling motor bikes and slurs in multiple languages. Her eyes vacant as she bargained for best prices on the going rate of gold. A part of her likely hoped she’d be unsuccessful in this pursuit, and that she could continue carrying with her this relic of Amma’s migration through the Subcontinent three generations ago.
She shook her head, gosh, she had spent so much time away from Karachi only to find her grief catching up to her. Much like the mind dissociates from the body during traumatic events in an attempt to block out the inflicted harm, my mom had dissociated from her home city. In her imagination, Amma never existed outside of Karachi. So, if my mom were to never return home, Amma would still be alive, going about her day without a witness to make her death real. It was jarring then, to hold a part of Amma’s wrists and lead her through like a lamb for slaughter. These are the ways memories get manipulated.
When my mom did find the right store, the detached nature of the exchange felt cheap and debasing. As soon as the storekeeper handed her the money for the bangles, he cut those gold cuffs in half. Amma died when I was eight years old. But her actual death happened at the bazaar chopping block right before my mother’s eyes, her last remaining legacy bartered, transacted, and split.
I’ve been a listener of this narration, its revisions, and its fictions. As the next recipient of a storied inheritance, I can only hope that the chasing of gold cuffs ends with me.
Larayb Abrar is a photojournalist, essayist, and self-proclaimed human cat. Her writing typically covers gender, art, pop culture, and social justice. A true third culture kid, her work can be found in magazines and journals across New York City, Abu Dhabi, and Lahore. Follow her on Twitter (@larayb_abrar) or Instagram (@laxauh97) for more of her work (and quality rants on patriarchy and capitalism).