In the early years of my life, my parents played cards. On Friday nights and Saturday nights and sometimes with the same people. The gatherings were affectionately called ‘card group.’ By virtue of my age, and the ages of my two sisters, we were the accessories to the weekly ritual, lugged into our families boxy navy blue Chevrolet and driven across town from Scarborough to the west end where most of the card group lived. The 45min rides were often grumpy, as we recovered from fighting over the middle seat, failing to convince our parents we were old enough to stay home alone, and listening to a lecture of all the things that were not appropriate to say or do that week.
Upon arrival, we were reminded to say hello to everyone, and entered into a procession of greetings with the cast of aunties and uncles who would go on to see me sprout on a weekly basis. It was always very loud, as the men aggressively shook hands and yelled kem cho and bus majama tu kem che to each other over and over again, while the women nodded demurely and adjusted their ruffled sari pleats back into place. Eventually, we would make it to the end of the line and join the other casualties of parents with active social lives, thrown together to entertain ourselves for 4, sometimes 6 hours, playing board games, watching SNL, listening to the older kids talk about Days of Our Lives, curiously snoop around the house and wait for snacks. It was not uncommon for 1am to roll around where my patience would wane. I would whimper over to my dad, who was sitting on the ground around a circle where a sheet had been laid, flicking poker chips into the middle, and beg him to go home. My request was generally denied and I was advised to find a corner in the house and fall asleep.
When you’re a child, adults are no more than one-dimensional characters, defined hastily by the tone of their voice, the levity of their jokes, and the quality of the snacks they give you. Sarla auntie cackled while squeezing you, Satish uncle addressed you like a colleague, Bakul Uncle inquired about the scowl on your face, and Purnima Auntie softly embraced you while maintaining a refined elegance. I shared a special bond with Surendra Uncle, a lively man and born-hustler, who always kept the first four buttons of his shirt open, flaunting chest hair and a brick of gold around his neck. For over a decade, every time he saw me, he would pull me aside and loudly whisper in my ear, ‘make sure not to listen to your parents, okay? if they ask you to do something, you do the opposite, okay? be rebellious. do what you want,’ ensuring my parents caught wind of the theatrics. My mom would shake her head, laughing nervously on what a rebellious child meant for her mental health, while my dad laughed in agreement, ‘tofani,’ he would add, meaning ‘naughty’ in Gujarati.
Surendra uncle was the same person who would wake up on a Tuesday and whisk his wife away on a spontaneous day trip to Niagara falls, pick us up to go watch the latest Disney movie and drive to Chinatown during cherry season, buying pounds of the blood red fruit and drive around the city dropping them off to friends. Every year, he threw an annual Diwali party with magicians, fireworks and loot bags, inviting our community and his whole street in Etobicoke to celebrate the festival of lights. He was so close with his adjacent Canadian neighbours, they removed the fences that locked them into privacy to freely roam between homes and backyards, sharing fresh bread and afternoon tea. When he died almost a decade ago after two years of deteriorating from contracting malaria on a trip back home to Tanzania, it left a vital hole in my heart and our community. He either saw my rebellious spirit and rooted for it or incited it. Either way, he became a guiding voice in my head. The closest person I had to a second father figure.
I’ve been thinking about him lately. About his unwavering zeal for life and people, how he saw me, and the indelible impact of elders on shaping children and protecting their spirit. Perhaps what is most regretful about our relationship is that I could never confide in him. The drawback of our collectivist Jain community was that it functioned on the fear of judgement, and the shared understanding that you were always one cultural misstep away from being exiled. Vulnerability and truth were considered a threat to belonging and acceptance; creating a very confusing environment for children with big feelings. ‘What will people say?’ or ‘Log kya kahenge’ is now the name of workshops and art exhibitions that modern-day South Asians use to heal from the trauma of generational quiet and silencing, but growing up it was the rule we lived by. And we lived by it, because as far as we could tell, the consequences were dire, i.e being caught on a date or struggling in school could mean disgracing your grandmother’s honour half way across the world less than 24 hours later, the shame waking your ancestors across a timeless web of genealogy. It was that deep.
As such, there was never any adults to talk to when the chaos of our home stirred, when my parents reached personal breaking points, when my mom and I could barely be in the same room and when I struggled to locate a sense of myself within myself. There was never anyone to talk to in general, because if vulnerability isn’t modelled in the home, how do you know it exists? Children are victims of their environment because their choices to seek safety and emotional support are limited and restricted if they haven’t been introduced to a board of adults who they have permission to confide in. At least, this was true before the Internet.
I watched Dr. Gabor Mate’s documentary, The Wisdom of Trauma, the other day. His work as a psychiatrist, who draws from his medical training, as well as eastern spirituality and plant-medicine work, just makes sense to me. ‘Trauma is the disconnection from the self, because it is too painful to be yourself,’ he tells us. The child who is left alone with their hurt, not able to express the fear, anger and stress of not having their needs met and the space to process the pain of being rejected and not held - turns into the traumatized adult. The trauma then gets stuck in the body, and fashions so many coping and defence mechanisms, its like the ultimate alternative traffic route to getting to where you want. These diversions make the conscious and authentic self difficult to access, partly because you’re stuck living on a loop in the past. This often means an existence of dissociating or distracting from anything that closely resembles the pain, or throwing blame for your discomfort on anything that will take it. The pain is merely a location in the body where a deep truth lives. A truth like - what you needed to feel safe to exist, to be yourself. Amongst other things, I needed adults besides my parents that I knew I could reach out to if things got really bad, to validate what I was experiencing was real, hard and even terrifying, and to understand myself beyond my ability to put my socks away and finish one roti at dinner.
What I found so fascinating about the documentary is that almost every behaviour and physical ailment can trace its roots back to trauma, to repressed emotions; the body desperate to feel and release, feel and release. In this way, trauma is the ultimate guide. I’m not sure if we’re all destined to experience trauma as part of the journey of coming into wisdom, but I suspect yes? There is so much work to be done to support adults in almost every part of the world identify their path to healing, all of whom have experienced some relative trauma living under these systems that thrive from our gross disconnection. In this current reality, it’s pretty easy to exist, be celebrated as successful, and remain completely oblivious to the ways in which your trauma is in the driver’s seat of your life. That’s the scary part of it all. Though, I have to believe that unexpressed emotions always surface in one form or another; as childlike behaviour, destructive rage, numbing, acting out, withdrawing, substance abuse and on and on. ‘If we’re depressed, we’re not expressed,’ a somatic therapist use to say to me. And who are the recipients of unprocessed trauma? Your most intimate relationships, your children, often behind closed doors.
We are waking up though. I mean I use the word trauma at least once a day, and it’s been all over the cultural zeitgeist for years. In Oprah’s new book with Dr. Bruce Perry, the title is sort of the invitation to all of us to ask ‘what happened to you?’ vs. ‘why did you do that?’ Dr. Gabor Mate references this phrase too. ‘What happened to you?’ recognizes that we are all on some level holding in some difficult experiences that is dictating our present behaviour, our reactions. But even this begs for self-awareness and courage. So much courage to say what it has felt like to disown, loath, judge and even hate yourself. There is certainly still stigma around mental health in the South Asian community, but it is changing rapidly, and I am thrilled for what that means for us. Not that this is a measure of anything significant, but I do remember my eyebrows raising when in 2016, Shah Rukh and Alia Bhatt starred in Dear Zindagi, telling the story of a relationship between a psychologist and his patient, and her struggles with fears of abandonment. In Bollywood style, she does eventually fall in love with him, but he sets a boundary and I’m proud of them for that.
Though my own healing has allowed me to forgive my parents, and understand how their lineage of repression manifested in our house as power dynamics, control and toxic relating, I grieve them and the generation of aunties and uncles stuck in cycles of their pain and the weight of cultural obedience and reprisal they carry. The hurt and anger still show up, but I don’t blame them for not meeting my needs. When I tell them I have a therapist, they usually act surprised, and ignore it, until the next time I bring it up. I know healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and so much of mine is attributed to being born in this moment in ‘time,’ and supported by a community who has role-modelled and supported me in ways that have felt safe to dive into the unknown waters of the shadow. I wish they had this privilege too, but I suppose we attempt to find comfort in the idea that we’re healing on behalf of them, breaking the chain, refusing to pass on the pain.
I’m not a parent, but as a former and sometimes current child, I have a lot of unsolicited opinions about parenting, which is both totally fair and also obnoxious. Seeing my friends parent already gives me so much hope, on top of own hopes. My hope that we nurture and steward beings who we recognize at birth as fiercely intelligent beings, who are often very aware of themselves and their needs. That we see ourselves as parents and not owners, as guides and not bosses, and as partners in the human experience, not experts. That we don’t try to be perfect, but rather create the space to apologize, process mistakes and draw learnings from our failures. That we offer children a community who will see, champion and protect different parts of their expansive selves. That we raise children with the understanding that no matter what cards we are dealt with, we will experience trauma, but we always have the capacity to heal, return to love and to ourselves. In the end, I hope I am an auntie who reminds all my babies who they are, who will compassionately listen without judgement, and who will be one of their many guides on this wild ride.
Until we can hug again,
We lost a family this week in London, Ontario from a targeted hate crime against the Muslim community. I don’t know how to reconcile that a 9yo boy will live his life without his parents, his sister, his grandmother, because a 20-yo dude was indoctrinated with Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments, and yet how do we expect these kinds of acts of violence wouldn’t happened, when Canada refused to take a position on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which is so connected to the global apparatus of Islamophobia, when Quebec has maintained a Niqab Ban, which disproportionately discriminates against Muslim women, and ongoing narratives of Islam being ‘extremist’ and ‘regressive’ to justify harm. There is no way to reconcile; only dismantle.
I suppose the only *positive* outcome of this string of horrifying events in Canada (I saw positive extremely lightly and gently) is that there isn’t much room anymore to continue to exist in the delusion that: This isn’t Canada. Because what we know, and what we shouldn’t be surprised by for a country built on a foundation of genocide, is that this is exactly Canada. And we’re just going to have to contend with that uncomfortable truth.