I am new to Bonnie’s and in my first month, I walked downstairs to see a client sitting across from her family worker. The client had the same background as my grandmother. Immediately I knew something wasn’t right. The fear in her eyes made me think of my grandmother. It also made me wonder: what if my grandmother had sought help, just like this young woman? Because, looking across at her husband by arranged marriage in Kerala, my grandmother wouldn’t have any idea of the violence that would take place in her own home.
It’s difficult to say what the true rate of violence is because many victims never come forward. My grandmother was one of those. Maybe she was too afraid of what others would say, or felt she had a duty towards her husband. Maybe she thought she was to blame. Either way, she had no way out. She didn’t have a job, skills or the money to seek help. And she didn’t know many people who could.
I never saw the violence. But I saw how it changed her. She became very unwell. I’d find her in a trance, unable to feel. I tried to make her laugh and keep her in the moment. But I didn’t know how. I didn’t know she was suffering from anything serious. She took care of us and lived with us since the day I was born. She wasn’t too different to other grandmothers. Maybe just more withdrawn. Sometimes, she was very sad and anxious, spending time alone in her room. But to my young self, this was normal. It was what people did. My grandmother’s illness grew worse over time. By the time I reached high school, it was as if she was no longer there. Later, I found out she had been abused.
Both my grandparents struggled with their own identities, in their own way. My grandfather, who was dark skinned, held on to English customs and spoke English. Schooled by the English in India, he joined the British India Navy as a teenager before working for the British in then Malaya. My grandmother, staying home to cook and clean for family, held on to her customs. She wore saris, made traditional Keralan meals and used every chance she had to speak her native Malayalam.
Despite their struggles, both my grandparents grew apart. They were two different personalities brought together by tradition. After a while, living in the rubber estates near the remote jungles of Malaya with five children, my grandfather began to show his other side. Getting drunk often, he would return in the pitch dark to abuse my grandmother physically and emotionally. The abuse went on for months, years. Everyone could hear everything through the doors. Including the youngest child, who was only two.
Nobody thought much of the seriousness of violence until my grandfather’s death. We sat down to understand what violence in the family meant:
What does holding your breath, day after day in fear mean? Not knowing how or when the violence will take place, or even why?
I wish my grandmother didn’t have to carry her pain all alone. I was too young to know how to help her heal. Now that I am at Bonnie’s, I see how women are empowered by reaching out to protect themselves and their children. Because without opening the door to trusted others, no matter how painful and difficult, the cycle of violence only continues, leaving those affected at loss of how they even got there.
Written by Amanda
Image via Canva