My uncle was a vile man. My dad’s elder brother, he did what I would otherwise deem impossible- surpass my father in being a beast. It’s heart breaking, and disgusting, and staggering all at the same time, how these things come full circle.
My uncle was always the black sheep of my dad’s family, literally. He was darker than his siblings, and a trouble maker in his childhood. But being a trouble maker has entirely different connotations when you have a harsh and unforgiving father, like my grandfather was. He was punished mercilessly, and he rebelled repeatedly, and the hate on both sides hardened, till one day when my grandfather threw his teenaged son, my uncle, out of the house. Then, when he tried to sneak back in late at night, he had him arrested.
My uncle never came ‘back’ again. Stories of his exploits and people he exploited would reach home, occasionally. Sometimes the conned would show up at my house, where my dad would roar and bellow at them and tell them it was their fault they got gypped. Somewhere in the middle my uncle married a girl who came from nowhere anyone knew, and a baby followed soon after. No one knew which came first, the baby or the wedding, but no one cared except to gossip viciously a little more. The woman, who I never got to call my aunt, was happy, loud, jolly- at least, that’s what I can see in old home videos and old wedding reels. A few more kids followed till there were five, but things had started going downhill long before they got to the fifth.
My uncle’s penchant for cruelty, for example. Probably other people have trouble grasping how he could have even done it, but I’ve seen my dad, and I know, these brothers and sisters are capable of things the sane human mind cannot think of inflicting on other human beings. After a few years of ill-gotten business gains and a spurt of prosperity, the scam dwindled and my uncle hit the bottle. And when he hit the bottle, he hit his wife. Repeatedly. Every weekend, then every night. The woman stopped laughing, the children stopped smiling, and by the time I was old enough to talk, she had already subsided into a sullen silence. My uncle, as it turns out, hit her so many times over the head that she went insane. He beat his wife into insanity. She’s still alive, if you can truly call it that. A gibbering, drooling mess who talks to walls and chews her own fingers when active, or simply sits there rocking herself, when passive.
Soon after that her oldest daughter took over the role of house mother. Managed the cooking and cleaning, kept the house together so that the younger ones could go to school.My uncle vanished chasing a more dubious scheme, and in his absence, my father and his siblings funded their house. The younger siblings studied and worked, under their oldest sister’s eye. I met them maybe once or twice a year, whenever we came here, and had that odd dynamic of people who are related by blood but don;t even know each other. We grew up, and I think we were in high school, when my uncle came back. Very soon after that my oldest cousin went down exactly the same route her mother had. She isnt as passive as my aunt, she walks around more, but she’s a blank slate too. Blank eyes, hair that went white before she turned twenty, and a masklike, absent face. Her siblings left the house soon after, shipped to boarding schools by my father.
Things had been looking up for them in the last few years. My uncle had a couple of cripling heart attacks that should’ve killed him, but just slowed him down enough to be human, like the rest of us. They broke his ‘power’, though, and he stopped barrelling through everyone’s lives. One sister is a professor of microbiology, one brother married a woman older than him but became a architect and settled down with her. The third brother works as an accountant, and the youngest sister, my youngest cousin, just finished writing her exams for her Bachelors in Applied Genetics.
She died this morning.
Two girls on their way home, crushed on their bike by a swerving bus. The bus driver ran over them, got out and actually tried to run away. People around them caught him and thrashed him to within an inch of his life, and called the cops and EMS. Both died on the spot, resuscitation didn’t work, and that was that.
We buried her in our family’s plot in the graveyard, close to my grandmother, a few uncles, a few aunts, most of whom I have no recollection of. After they released her body to my father, we ‘women’ took over the process of preparing the body for burial. Muslim women are not touched by men, after death. The body is washed by women who are clean, preferably related to her. She is washed, cleaned, clothed, her hair parted and braided, and the body wrapped gently in five pieces of cloth. Everyone who has come to say goodbye does so, after this, and then she is bid farewell. Every Muslim woman is advised to help bathe at least two other Muslim women in her life, so as to know closely, what death looks like, what it does to us. Muslim men are advised the same. Every person who goes to say goodbye is to contemplate their own death, to face the inevitability of death, and realize the blessing that is life.
And I stood there, helping bathe this girl who I knew but didn’t know, thinking of the last time we’d met, two months ago at a wedding, when she was showing me how long and healthy her hair had gotten. And I washed that hair today, it had grown even longer- but she had grown lifeless. And I was marveling at the odds that her one fully capable sister had gone out of the city, and couldn’t be contacted. The other, poor thing, didn’t even understand when we tried to tell her. My other aunt’s daughter was out of the city, and me, the only ‘sister’ left, was by some miracle, clean enough to help her one last time. And that doesn’t sound like a lot, I know, but here’s the thing- Today was a drinking day. I had no plans of doing anything but drink myself into oblivion, which would’ve automatically made me unclean. But I literally walked to the bar’s door and away, because I didn’t feel like, at the last minute. Instead, I went home early and showered, and was clean enough to pray, when I got the news.
And we washed her, we bathed her, and I glared daggers and wished a long and poisonous death on all the women who stood idly gossiping near her body. Couldn’t they see my sister? The sister I never saw, the sister who never really saw me, but the sister who I watched like a hawk over till it was time to bury her… And I realized by the pain, the pain I felt when I saw her unlined face, so peaceful in death, the pain I felt that she would never know the exhilaration of moving away from the madnesses that we grew up in. She would never feel love, she would never have children, she would never live- she’d never comb her hair out and watch our other cousins look on jealously. Everything that is Life dies. Everyone who is alive, dies. And in death we know the fierce protectiveness, the love, the visceral, undeniable, bone deep relations we choose to deny in life. And that realization wakes us up for what comes after. We never laughed together. We never bled for each other.
But blood was always thicker than water.
For Husnah, our beloved
I wish I had had more time to love you