Pakistan is awakening to violence that women suffer at the hands of others. But have we confronted the violence that women do to themselves?
During my feverish undergraduate days in America, a phrase from an Introduction to Psychology textbook threw me off. It went something like this: “unlike in the United States, Pakistani girls canvassed between the ages of 12-15 reported no instances of eating disorders.” Full stop. I was dubious. We didn’t hear a lot about eating disorders back home, but one couldn’t say that they didn’t happen at all. In fact, I knew some of the unlucky few locked in this unique circle of hell.
Heck, I shared DNA with one of them.
‘Privileged rich girl disease’, #firstworldproblems, are some of the words used to describe eating disorders in Pakistan.
They don’t sit well with people in South Asia. The neuroses that come with SUV’s and fluorinated water are not to be taken seriously.
We have religion. And family. And parathas. Yet I know firsthand that we too can suffer from anorexia. It is not a product of modernity. My grandmother (T.R.) is anorexic. She has been this way ever since I have known her.
You could say T.R. was always ahead of her time. She grew up in a conservative family in Rawalpindi, but she played sports and had keen interest in the stock market. She was the youngest of seven children. If born in this era, she would have made an amazing CEO.
She was incredibly beautiful. She had two strong, healthy children. Grandchildren also followed. She was a consummate hostess. She was always smiling, with sweet offerings in her hands for us. She was wise. She was perfect.
She was a control freak.
I never recall my grandmother enjoying food. When she did eat in front of me she shoved food into her mouth without tasting it, unaware of people around her. I don’t know what drove her to anorexia.
Perhaps there was a darkness that always lurked next to her on the dinner table as a little girl. Perhaps, with her computer-like mind atrophying, she, with her 60’s bouffant, was a silent screamer at catty society dinners.
The origins aren’t important anymore because she is too old to go back.
Each day she eats one mango, some yogurt and seven cashews, and that indulgence only appears when mangoes are in season.
As I was saying, T.R. was ahead of her time. Her dining table was filled with foods that weren’t popular in Pakistan until decades later. Raclette, stir-fries, not to mention kababs and pulaos that made you want to suck on your fingers just to make the memory of the flavors last. Her dishes were designed to impress, and above all, assure guests that only a person who really really liked food could have made them. No meal passed without her cajoling us to have one more bite of zarda, with a dollop of cream.
But, here I was, wanting her to feel what we felt. Sometimes, I would refuse the half of wafer-thin square of chocolate she held out to me. Her grey eyes would flash. “I’ve had enough,” I would reply, enjoying the defiance. For a moment, I was as strong as she was.
Excuse the wordplay but as far as illnesses go, eating disorders are among the most difficult to stomach. And make no mistake, they are illnesses – of a very dark material. With cancer you can shake your fist at heaven, weep, and seek medical treatment. It shows up in scans. There is chemotherapy. There are more scans to tell you that you are doing better.
Pakistanis can do cancer.
Anorexics give no excuses to society. It is a violence that sound people seemingly do to themselves. It is an astonishing disease. I imagine the feeling of control T.R. gets from taking her body to the edge of its limits. The world might be going down the toilet, but if you’re denying your body and it still works, it’s under your command.
Watching this triumph from the outside, however, is heartbreaking. Someone that you love is hurting themselves through one of the most central and pleasurable acts of life: eating. More than once it has made me doubt my own relationship with food.
People from my grandmother’s generation do not go to therapists. They do go to GPs but where would they even begin? There isn’t an antibiotic for what she has. Besides, my grandmother is so stylish that every doctor is charmed. They remark on how fabulous her clothes are and how lucid she is for her age. They wink at this feisty, fashionably thin lady and she winks back. They are not trained to see past the veil. Besides, there is nothing visibly wrong with her. We aren’t equipped for mental health issues in this country.
So she and I end up back at a sullen dining table. She plays with her food whilst barking at me to eat.
Today T.R.’s fine, upright posture is twisted. Her bones are fragile like dust. She is miserable. I have been gentle and at times stern. I have scolded her like a child. Yet she won’t eat. She weighs a pound for every year of her life: 86. Her clothes hang off her. Her beautiful silver hair lacks nutrients and she is balding. I know there are folds of pain inside her but I cannot reach them. I don’t blame her either. For many women, their worth is still intrinsically tied to their looks. In the uphill fight to remain visible, some of us shrink.
Emily Dickinson once said, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words.” We dance to this tune every time I see her. I hug her and pretend not to notice her protruding bones. She turns on the AC and feeds me a shard of chocolate. I swallow it, weakly inviting her to share the sensations with me. I know, every time, that she won’t.