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Tinaz Nawaz - Finding Family: A Personal Essay

I was seven and my sister two, when Papa moved out of my mother's house where we lived and into his ancestral home, where his sister, our Ammai, lived. It didn't make much of a difference to either of us; my sister was too busy rolling into things and under sofas to notice, and I was used to him being away for work. Our mother remained our mother - stoic, showing no signs of any of this affecting her, and maybe that helped with our coping, if that is the word to be used for it. We stayed with Umma for the week, and Papa would come to pick us up for the weekends.

Whining and comfort came easily with Umma, and when she was teaching at school, it came easily with her mother, Mamma. It didn't feel strange or unnatural that Papa had moved out because there were no in-depth discussions about it like those that happened over dinner about politics and going abroad. I would occasionally ask about him, and everyone would smile and work their way around the question without showing signs of anger or conflict. The only indication I had that something was wrong was when once, Papa called and my aunt, Gigi, picked up the call. She smiled as she handed the receiver over to me but made a face as soon as she thought I wasn't looking. Maybe things weren't as good as I'd thought they were.

Papa would come to pick us up on Friday evenings, his kisses smelling like the office and his car still warm from the afternoon sun. Tanu and I would pack our clothes into our school bags, the fancy ones for when we would go out to dinner and then nightclothes for bedtime. Only Umma ever came to the door to say bye to us. Paapa (grandpa), Mamma (grandma) would be inside, Umma would avoid looking at Papa.

Ammai would've made the best dinner for us if we weren't going out, biriyani, chicken stew, and aripathiri (rotis made of ground rice). Sometimes she would make dessert, caramel pudding for me, and semiya payasam (vermicelli pudding) for Tanu. Her kisses smelled like biriyani and chilies, her eyes always smiling and happy.

Saturday mornings were met with a 10 o'clock sun battling with the AC, the blanket protecting us from both forces. One time, Papa and I woke up at 5:30 in the morning so we could walk to the beach and collect seashells that were still fresh from the journey they made to our sands. He would try to keep calls from the office to a minimum when we were with him and would get back to them when we were with Ammai. As Ammai made lunch, Tanu and I, bored of our toys and books, would go to the kitchen and make curries with chili powder, turmeric powder, garam masala, and curry leaves. She would occasionally ask about school and Umma and Mamma and Paapa. Most times, she would talk about Umma and Papa getting back together, how she was praying and keeping nercha (bargain) with god. She was famous for getting her way after keeping nercha.

Papa prayed every day, if not the five times, at least the two most important ones – at daybreak and sunset. Tanu and I would wear our white niskara kuppayam (prayer clothes) and join him, mimicking his words and gestures. Even after we finished the prayer, Papa would continue to sit on his prayer mat and pray for Umma to come back to him. He would always cry, and I cried with him, not knowing why. Even as a seven-year-old, I knew that this would end up affecting me and my relationships because, in a way, it already was. Despite their efforts to hide the hurt, Umma's way of shutting down all emotions and Papa's sadness made me think of my mother as the villain, someone who didn't care about her husband or children.

When Sunday night arrived, it was hard for all of us to go back to the semblance of a normal routine we'd set for ourselves, but it was especially difficult for Tanu. After a weekend of running around on cool red oxide floors and petting/terrifying cats, she'd be soaked in tears and all kinds of fluids leaking from her face. The only time I ever saw Ammai's face fall, to the point where I could imagine her eyes filling up, was this.

The dust only cleared from Papa's sparkling eyes when Umma and he decided to give their relationship one more shot and rented a house near hers. This happened when I was eleven and my sister six. We had to find normalcy again, but it was easier this time. There was no negotiating for weekends and birthdays, and Eid. It wasn't a very spacious house, so the smallness moulded us to each other. Gifts from Papa became less frequent because we weren't celebrations he waited for every week, but I made my peace with that.

I still don't know why they did what they did, but I do know that we would see a lot more of Papa during the day, and he would always pick up our call even when he was at work. They would speak to each other, and that was something I didn't know I needed to see. Umma would still go to her house occasionally, stay over when her siblings came to visit from the gulf, and Papa didn't mind staying at home by himself because he understood. I've heard too many stories of men who would not listen to women when they spoke, and I'm glad I grew up seeing Papa listen to Umma and doing what she requested, respecting what she said.

Looking back on this 15 years and a pandemic later, I think I villainized my mother the same way our society taught us to disrespect and demean women who chose their happiness over husbands. She was and still is emotionally distant, but at twenty-two, I can respect that part of her more than I could as a child because I am that way too. Umma, who, for all her impassiveness, cried when I said I did not know who she was or what she liked, made an effort to be more emotionally inviting and available to my sister and me, even though she was never "unavailable." She was distant, yes, but she was always there. And it took me three years away from her, learning about women in a college in Bengaluru, to realize that.

Umma loves tea to the point where she gets headaches if she goes too long without it. Umma, who loves sappy romance k-dramas and loud women and laughs with her stomach and arms, who puts the effort to understand Tanu's gen-z memes, is more childlike than I let myself be at seven.

I got to know my family through its brokenness - every jagged end revealing each person's hurt and the place it broke away from the other's heart. If the mosaic had remained whole, I wouldn't have found the answers I was looking for. I wouldn't have found the individuals in my family.

Edited by Angel Maria (@ang.el_maria)

Artwork by Miguel Orozco (@adustypairofcortezs)


TINAZ NAWAZ is a senior at the University of Hyderabad, pursuing a degree in English. She loves reading and looking at art. She's usually found with a cup of tea looking at clouds outside balcony windows.

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