New Internationalist

The Divided Mother

Issue 229

new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY
The divided mother
The girl is ill but her brother gets the medicine; she is thin but he gets the
food. Maria Naseem tells the true story of Rahat from Pakistan.

'She has been possessed by an evil spirit! Allah Khuda, my daughter!' From the room where Rahat lay, she could hear her mother's wails. Through the crack in the door she watched and listened to the commotion in the yard. The village women sat shaking their heads in pity and sympathy while her mother cried and raised her hands to God, beseeching Him to save her family.

Rahat tried to move her head but it throbbed. She wanted to call her mother to find out what had happened. She had woken from such darkness, and was frightened lying in the room alone. Why didn't her mother sit beside her, bathe her head and speak words of comfort?

Then she remembered how she had been washing up teacups when her arms and hands started trembling and the china crashed to the floor as she jerked this way and that. She couldn't remember anything else, only the shock which hit her when she awoke...

'Send her to the faith healer,' a woman said. 'He is the only one who can cleanse her of the evil.'

No, no, not the Pir. Rahat knew how he cured sickness. Once she had watched him beat it out of a tiny girl with his powerful hands until the child was practically unconscious. Ever since, Rahat had prayed for good health.

By now the wailing had subsided and Rahat pulled herself up off the bed and went to the door to look for her mother. Her brother Dilawar had returned from school and was sitting in his mother's anns, complaining that the teacher had hit him with a stick that morning because his work was poor. The mother stroked her son's head. 'What am I to do now? This boy is sick and they beat him,' she crooned.

Dilawar was slightly retarded and suffered from behavioural problems; Rahat thought that he was also basically lazy. Often she watched him leave for school in the morning, carrying a big bag of books on his back and dragging his feet despondently. She was envious because if she had been permitted to continue attending school, she would have been a willing pupil. But Rahat also felt sorry for her brother because he seemed unhappy; and a little frightened of him because he was frequently violent. And that night she thanked God that all attention was on him because she was saved from being taken to the Pir.

Dilawar had always come first in the family, and Rahat knew it was because he was a boy. Her father often beat and abused her mother for having borne him a girl-child; he regarded girls as a waste of money.

Whenever Rahat's mother received such a beating she always blamed Rahat for her bruises. And in her heart Rahat knew that her mother was afraid to show her any love.

Her brother eventually left school and started working in one of the children's nurseries in town. Some days Rahat went to visit him. And it was at the nursery where her body was once again seized by an uncontrollable force which sent her limbs flying in all directions, and where she collapsed unconscious on the ground. When she came round Dilawar was holding smelling salts under her nose.

She was taken to see a doctor at the mental hospital nearby while her mother was fetched from the village. The doctor told them that Rahat was suffering from psychomotor epilepsy; she prescribed a dose of Tegratol and emphasized that it was imperative Rahat take the medication to prevent further fits. Her mother exclaimed at the price of the tablets as she tied them up in a comer of her chadar.

Dilawar was also treated for his moods, his insomnia, and his fits of temper. The doctor gave him a mild tranquillizer which was much cheaper than the Tegratol.

That evening Rahat's father was furious when he heard how much money had been spent on the Tegratol. He ordered her to give the medicine to Dilawar.

'He needs it more than you. He really is sick,' her mother explained to Rahat apologetically. Then she added consolingly, 'Here, you take Dilawar's medicine'. Rahat took it with a rising fear, because the doctor had said without the Tegratol she would not get better.

After that, Rahat lived in fear of the attacks which came without warning at any time of the day or night. Sometimes she looked in the mirror and was shocked at the dark shadows under her eyes and her sunken cheeks. Her father often criticized her for being so thin, saying: 'What man will ever want such a weakling for a wife?' And Rahat never thought to say that if every day the meat from the curry was saved for Dilawar then she could not get strong. If she had said such a thing, she would certainly have been accused of not caring enough for her brother.

After a fit she often found herself lying in the dark room while her mother wept in a corner. Now that Rahat was older, her mother no longer called the village women to listen to her woes, because she was convinced that the fits were a punishment for some wrong-doing: 'You have committed a sin. We must marry you before you bring shame on us.

Rahat begged her mother not to marry her yet, she was just 16 and could wait a little longer. But her mother became convinced that Rahat was planning something with one of the village boys.

The man to whom she became engaged was called Afzaal, a middle-aged widower from the town, who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. He agreed that he would marry Rahat before going back abroad and assured the family that she would be well settled with his elderly mother and widowed sister. He would provide everything for her.

The arrangement pleased Rahat's mother because Afzaal would see so little of his wife that he would never realize that she was flawed by fits. He could also afford to give her money - enough for her to buy the Tegratol and, with the Grace of God, the fits would cease. Rahat's mother was at last free of her burden.

* * *

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY Today Rahat has three children; two girls and one boy. She only has fits when she has not taken her medication and even then her in-laws don't bother about her ailment. Their only concern is that she does not eat with her children lest they catch her disease.

Now that the fits have subsided Rahat doesn't worry so much about her own health. Her main concern is for her eldest daughter, Parveen, who suffered typhoid when she was three and has grown up very weak and a little slow. Although the doctors tried to convince Rahat to take her daughter for regular check-ups, Rahat cannot afford the fees because all her expenses are controlled by her mother-in-law who says: 'Spare the money, you'll need it for your son's school fees'.

In the mornings Rahat stands silently at the kitchen door and she watches her sister-in-law serve the children breakfast. Rahat loves all her children equally. But her in-laws rejoiced when her son was born. And her son loves Afzaal's sister because she gives him special attention and feeds him fresh parathas dripping in butter. Rahat feels tears stinging her eyes and her heart wrenches at the sight of Parveen sitting beside her brother, so small and thin, picking sadly at her dry chapatti.

Rahat wishes so much that she could intervene, and take the steaming paratha out of her son's hand, break it into three and share it amongst all her children. But she stays quiet because she knows if she speaks up there will only be an argument which will change nothing. If she oversteps the mark she will be thrown out with her two daughters and separated from her only son.

She vividly remembers the day she was deprived of her medicine and feels as helpless now as she did then, with no control over the well-being of her own children.

She still visits the doctor who first diagnosed her, because there she can cry freely. The doctor listens patiently as Rahat tells her troubles: how she only sees her husband for one month every year, that he never writes to her and that he sends his money to his parents who only give Rahat just enough for the cost of the Tegratol which she so badly needs.

She also tells the doctor how worried she is about her ailing daughter. She wishes so much to see her grow up strong and healthy. But whenever Parveen is particularly weak and Rahat tries to nurse her, the in-laws accuse Parveen of vying for attention with the son and beat the girl.

The doctor doesn't criticize Rahat for not caring; she understands how frustrating it is for this woman to feel so trapped and powerless. And after her visit Rahat feels a little stronger, and more able to get through another week.

The names in this story have been changed.

Maria Naseem is a former NI staff-member who now lives and works in Lahore.

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