I wrote my first book with the motto ‘write what you know’ pasted in giant letters on my forehead. When I created Ahad (my hero), I put together the best of my real life relationships with my childhood fantasies, and I flung in little bits of my husband (my favorite husband! It can’t be said enough) for good measure. Rumi is the woman I would like to be, both physically and mentally. I drew inspiration from the strongest women I know. There’s little bits of me in her (the hair falling forward to hide my face—did it all my life), but mostly she’s a pale imitation of one of my best friends.
Then I had to create Juveria. The villain. The arch-enemy. The annoying thorn in Rumi’s side. I have ample real life examples to base her on, so I did. But my first draft of her turned out so evil that my editor thought she was unbelievable. I wanted to tell her (my editor) that Juveria didn’t hold a candle to the person she was based on. That she didn’t even impinge on the universe of hate that my father’s sister lives in: my youngest aunt.
Little Aunt, as I would call her most of my life (or it’s Urdu equivalent, Chhoti Phuppi), was the youngest of seven siblings. When her family migrated to Pakistan from India in 1947, they lost everything they had. They lived in abject poverty for the first few years (when my father would tell us that he had to walk five miles to go to school every day, I believed him). My grandparents, neither of whom had much education and couldn’t get high-paying jobs, had to make some sacrifices. Despite their own lack, their first goal was to educate their children, and they did. They denied themselves, and to some extent their children as well, basic luxuries like new clothes and entertainment in order to educate them all. Little Aunt has a master’s degree in economics from Karachi University.
This family of nine lived in a three-bedroom house in a small neighborhood. The three boys shared a room. The parents had one room, and the three elder girls shared a room. Little Aunt, who didn’t get on with her siblings too well, chose to live in the tiny covered courtyard that overlooked the dusty back yard of the house. She always griped about the fact that there was no room for her.
Of the seven children, my father was the eldest. The heaviest burden to graduate, get a job and contribute to the family lay on him. And he did, for many years. I suppose Little Aunt came to expect his continued support, because when he married, she didn’t graciously defer to the new bride. She threw shoes at her (not a figure of speech—she literally threw shoes at my mother if she ever dared come out of her room). By the time my father had married, the eldest of the girls had been married off and had left the house. The second son had moved out (he was earning, and by moving out, he felt no obligation to contribute to the family), so in terms of population the house was a little lighter. In terms of the environment, though…
Before they moved into their own place, my parents spent three fateful months in that house. Three months with Little Aunt was a nightmare for my mother. My mother collects books and loves to sew—anything to do with a needle and fabric. When she married, she packed her cherished possessions into a trunk and brought those, along with gifts from her father, to her new (albeit temporary) home. The three sisters ransacked the trunk; they took what they wanted, broke anything they deemed unworthy (items of sentimental value for my mother, whose own mother had passed away just a year before she married), and ‘accidentally’ left several of her books and sewing samples in a vat of water. My grandparents, in some delusional world of their own making, treated the aunts as children, and begged my father to indulge their little whims. The little whims included tantrums if they ever found out that my parents had bought something for themselves. Just few days before my parents were packed and ready to leave the house, they bought a small TV for themselves—back in the late sixties, this was a big deal in Pakistan. Needless to say, the TV never left the house with them. Little Aunt had cried and stormed and ranted until my mother had finally relented and presented the TV to her as a ‘gift’. My parents didn’t have the money to buy another.
When Little Aunt’s mood was particularly off, she’d climb to the roof (it doesn’t rain much so we don’t have vaulted ceilings; roofs are flat terraces for the most part) and yell obscenities at passersby and neighbors. She accused one neighbor of being a peeping tom, and conducted a tirade from the roof about how he begged to marry her while he spied on her in the shower (though how that’s possible is beyond me. Houses in Karachi all have boundary walls). The poor man restrained himself for years, ignoring her antics until my grandparents both passed away. Three days after my grandmother’s funeral, he came to the house and told my father that he would burn the house down if she ever opened her mouth about him or his family again.
She has never married (really, who would marry her?) and she’s moved around a lot since then, because she invariably imagines that a neighbor’s out to get her and her reactions are predictable: get out in public and yell. Very few communities will tolerate that kind of behavior and getting kicked out of an apartment block or neighborhood is routine for Little Aunt. About fifteen years ago, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but she’s had fifty years before then to well and truly drive everyone away. I don’t remember a single day in my entire life when I saw her laugh, or smile. I don’t know where she lives now. Since my own father died a few years ago, I don’t bother, or care, what has become of her. In his lifetime, my father was the only one who tolerated her presence.
When I think about it, life with my father’s family was a soap opera from top to bottom. Little Aunt really was the worst of a bad bunch of siblings (with the exception of my eldest aunt, who was married off at 14 and spent very little time in the house, and my own father, who left the country shortly after he married and spent 20 years away from his family’s influence). Each of them, in their own way, created a little hell on earth for themselves and everyone around them.
Almost 5 years after they had left the country, my parents returned to Pakistan for a visit, this time with myself and my brother in tow. When we left, my parents had less than Rs. 30 in hand. Little Aunt (with the full support of her own parents) had cleaned out my father before he left. We were travelling from Pakistan to North Africa, and a delayed flight meant an unscheduled stopover. Without enough money to buy food or find accommodation for the night, my father was forced to borrow money from another Pakistani couple, an event that my grandfather heard about. Instead of apologizing for leaving my father with no money, he railed at him for putting him in an ‘embarrassing’ situation.
I wasn’t really surprised, after my father’s death when my mother and I cleaned out his effects, that we found piles of letters from his family that my father had hidden from us. Each letter was a condemnation, a whining litany of the perceived ‘abandonment’ of his family in favor of his wife, a strident demand for money (no amount was ever enough for them), and a list of all their grievances. For the 20 years that my father spent outside the country, he only received complaints and vitriol from his family back home. We never found congratulatory letters or birthday and anniversary cards. We never found notes of happiness or pride from his parents either.
Rationally, I recognize that most of them would have benefited from extensive psychiatric care. I realize that my grandparents were initially overly harsh in their upbringing, and later, just let go of their responsibilities instead of maintaining some balance.
Using Little Aunt as inspiration for my character helped me break down her motivations, the possible reasons that she may have behaved the way she did. So maybe writing her in as a villain is a little cathartic, a little release.
I’m not sure I understand her, though—I’m pretty sure I never will.
Natasha Ahmed is the author of ‘Butterfly Season‘, a romance novella about a Pakistani woman who dares to go against her culture and traditions. Butterfly Season is available on Amazon, Smashwords and on Indireads.