The blank page stared like her cat Billi when she wanted something. The cursor blinked furiously, unlike Billi’s steady beguiling eyes. Write something, anything. Just start. But try as she might, Taz couldn’t. What’s wrong with me? Usually, the words flowed.
She had been in a writing rut for days. Her deadline was just a week away.
She was writing a piece for her university’s biannual journal, themed ‘An Exploration of Intersecting Pacific Identities’. Stories on her blog had caught her lecturer’s attention. Taz mostly wrote poetry, auto-fiction, creative non-fiction, even rants. Writing was how she understood life. She mostly wrote for herself, but now her lecturer wanted her to write for others. She had never done that. The idea of it was tripping her up.
Fuck this shit. A break would do her good, maybe a walk. But that would require putting on a bra and it was too hot for that. Taz strolled into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Before she could take a sip, someone grabbed her elbow and pulled her back violently.
“What the…”, Taz shouted as she fell hard, water splashing everywhere.
“Who are you? What are you doing in my house?” asked a familiar voice.
Taz looked up to see her grandmother glaring at her. Grey hair disheveled, she wore a pale yellow nightie and clutched a frayed red purse to her chest.
“Nani, it’s me. Remember? Tazzu, your Choti Beti.”
Her grandmother’s expression softened a little.
“Tazzu… yes, yes… Tazzu. Why are you on the floor, Choti Beti?”
“I slipped and fell. It’s ok. I’m not hurt.” Taz pulled herself up. “Here Nani, sit on the settee. I’ll just get the mop. Don’t get up from there or you’ll slip too.”
When she came back, Nani seemed to have listened to her instructions for once. She was sitting where Taz had left her, still clutching the purse.
“Nani, do you want some lal chaa? Let’s have some chaa and sit on the porch.”
“Ok, but after that I have to go to Hasim’s house. He wants it today.” She looked scared and clutched the purse even tighter.
“Don’t worry, we’ll have chaa and go to Hasim’s house straight after. Come, come to the kitchen with me.”
Taz filled the kettle. Who is this Hasim and what’s this purse?
A few minutes later, with tea in their hands, they sat opposite each other on the porch. Surrounding them were pink and red bougainvillea plants potted by Taz’s mother.
Nani was smiling at Billi, sprawled on a doormat near them. Who sleeps like that? Cats who have no deadlines.
Nani looked calmer, no longer clutching her purse which now lay in her lap. She bent to scratch Billi, who flipped over slowly to roll onto Nani’s feet. What a pair.
Nani, her mother’s mother, was Taz’s namesake. Taz was short for Tazmeen. Muslims didn’t typically name their children after others in the family, but hers was unconventional. No one ever called her Tazmeen, as it would be rude to take Nani’s name directly. Instead, she became Taz, Tazzu, and Choti Beti. To Nani, Taz’s mother was Bari Beti, ‘Big Daughter’, and Taz was Choti Beti, ‘Little Daughter’.
Nani hadn’t always lived with them. She had lived by herself in Nadi until ten years ago, when she’d moved to New Zealand to live with her son. She only came back to Fiji after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Paying for a caregiver in Fiji was less expensive than in New Zealand. Her mother and uncle shared the cost. When Nani had first returned, she could remember her daughter and Taz, but lately she didn’t recognise them on some days. Today seemed to be one of those days.
“My chaa is finished. Let’s go to see Hasim now.” Nani got up.
Oh fuck. Now what? Think Taz, think.
“Nani, let me call him and see if he is home. He might be at work.”
Taz took out her phone and pretended to make the call.
“Hello Mister Hasim. As-salamu alaykum. It’s Taz, uh, Tazmeen’s granddaughter. Are you home? My Nani wants to come see you. Oh, you’re not home? When will you be back? Next week? Ok, I will tell her. Acha, bye. As-salamu alaykum.” She pretended to hang up. “Nani, he’s not home and will be back next week. We’ll go then, acha?”
Taz held her breath. Would Nani buy her lie?
“Acha… he’s not home? Ok… next week then. I’m tired. I think I will go lie down.”
“Ok Nani, do you want me to turn on the fan? It’s hot inside.”
Nani nodded and went into her bedroom. Taz followed. She watched as Nani put the purse under her pillow and lay down. She looked around Nani’s room and saw her drawers were messy. Nani tended to keep refolding her clothes but always put them away neatly. Leaving them out was unusual.
Taz set up her laptop on the table next to Nani’s room to keep an eye on her. Instead of writing her journal piece, she started listing questions: Who is Hasim? Is he even real? Does Nani owe him money? What’s the deal with this new purse? And what is in it?
When her mother came home Taz had to hold herself back from immediately bringing up this Hasim business.
Her mother, Nisa, was a counsellor at a local women’s support centre. Her days were spent talking to survivors of sexual and physical violence. She was often drained of energy in the evenings. Ever since the few times Nani failed to recognise Taz and her, Nisa’s face tightened with apprehension every time she walked through the door. Taz knew her mother was very sad to see Nani lose her memories and sense of reality.
“As-salamu alaykum, Ammi,” said Nisa. She touched Nani’s shoulder, who was next to Taz on the settee watching TV.
“Wa alaikum as-salam, Bari Beti. How was work? Are you hungry?”
Nisa and Taz looked at each other and smiled. Nani remembered.
“Yes, very. What has Tazzu made for us, huh?”
“Uh, nothing, sorry. I was working on my story. But I can do it now! I defrosted some chicken.”
Her mother got up. “Let me have a quick shower then we’ll make chicken fried rice. How does that sound? We have rice left over from last night, right?”
“Right,” said Taz. “I’ll make you some lal chaa, Mum.
Nisa came into the kitchen fifteen minutes later. She looked relaxed. Taz debated whether to ask her about the Nani-Hasim situation. But what if Nani started asking about it again and Taz wasn’t there to explain? No, she should tell her mother.
“Mum, do you know a guy called Hasim?”
Her mother stiffened. “Hasim. Why do you ask?”
“Uh, Nani mentioned him today. She wanted to go see him. She looked worried.”
“What did you do?”
“I pretended to call him and told Nani he’s not home and will be back next week. Hopefully she won’t remember. But anyway, do you know him?”
Nisa was quiet. Taz began to think the situation was more serious then she had assumed.
“Hasim was our landlord. We rented his house when we were very young…Class One I think I was in. All I remember is we had to leave that house in the middle of the night. Ammi was crying, holding me. Bhaiya was carrying one of our bags. He was so small he could barely lift it, but…” Nisa drifted off. “I hadn’t thought of it until now. Your Nani told us never to talk about that night, and I had forgotten it altogether.”
“Need any help, beti logan?” Nani’s smiling face poked through the door, interrupting.
“All done! Shall we sit on the settee or at the table? You choose, Ammi,” Nisa said, with a look of distraction.
They ate in front of the TV, watching the Hindi comedy serial they enjoyed every night. Nani chuckled every few seconds. Taz smiled to see her grandmother so at peace. She turned to see her mother’s face. Her heart sank at her Nisa’s anguished expression. Nisa was also staring at her mother. Is there something that Nisa had not told Taz?
Nani was already having her morning cup of chaa with their neighbour and her caregiver Va when Taz walked into the porch.
“Good morning, Va. How are you today?”
“Yadra, Taz. I’m well. How are you? Off to uni?”
“Yes, I’m catching the bus with Mum. Where is she, by the way?”
“I’m here!” Her mother stepped out. “I overslept. The bus should be here in five minutes. I don’t want to miss it. I have to go to the police with my client today.”
They jumped on the bus, managing to get seats together. “So what’s happening with the police today, Mum?”
“My client’s husband breached the DVRO against him. Two days ago. She didn’t tell the police, or me.”
“Oh no, why not?”
“Her parents want her to reconcile. She doesn’t want to. They invited him to their house without her knowing. When she told them about the DVRO her parents got angry with her. She’d been living with them since leaving her husband. Now she’s scared of everyone. She feels no one is on her side. She hasn’t been to work since because she’s worried her parents will let her husband take their three-year-old son.”
“Oh man, it sounds so complicated. What will happen now?”
“These things are never simple, Taz. We’re dealing with people and the ways they try to use power over others. Our priority is our client, especially her safety. First, we’re going to the police to report the breach. Then, if she doesn’t feel safe going home, we’ll see if she can stay with other family or friends. If not, a safe house. I told her to pack some things and bring her son. We’ll see how it goes.”
Taz knew what a safe house was. Before her mother became a counsellor, their life was very different. Taz’s father was abusive, and it took a lot for her mother to seek help. She knew Nisa regretted not leaving as soon as the violence started. Nisa had thought he didn’t mean to do it and that it would eventually stop. She even blamed herself for making him angry. It was only much later, after receiving counselling herself and speaking to other women survivors of violence, that she realised the only one responsible for violence is the person committing it – that violence is a crime. Nisa was so grateful for the help and wanted to do the same for other women. She had been doing this work ever since. Taz was proud of her mother’s dedication.
Ok, here’s my stop now. You have a good day at uni, Tazzu. I’ll see you at home.”
“Bye, Mum. All the best.”
Va called while Taz was in the middle of her third lecture.
“What’s wrong? Is Nani ok?”
“No, she’s very agitated. Wants to meet someone called…Kasim?”
“Hasim, you mean?”
“Alright, ok, why don’t you just take her for a walk down the street? Pretend you’re going to see him. I pretend-called him yesterday and told her he’s not home.”
“Ok but who is he, lewa?” Va sounded confused. Taz didn’t blame her.
“I’m coming home in an hour. I’ll explain.”
Later Taz helped Nani into bed for her afternoon nap. She looked around her room. Where was it? There, on the bedside table. The red purse. She looked closer. A coin purse with a metal clasp.
With one eye on her grandmother, she picked up the purse and opened it. Inside were black hair slides her grandmother always used, stuck to cardboard, as well as a $20 note, and some fifty and twenty-cent coins. The note was dirty and folded in quarters. Taz looked at the unfamiliar note and coins. How strange. They were unlike the ones used today. Could this be what triggered Nani’s memory? Some forgotten debt?
She looked at her grandmother, so old and vulnerable, and felt a lump rise in her throat. What happened to cause her so much anguish?
Her mother came home earlier than usual that afternoon.
“Still asleep. Did you hear about today?”
“Yes, I called Va before coming home. I found out more about Hasim.”
“You did? But how?”
“I called Ammi’s friend in Nadi. Aunty Sheila. You remember her? She told me everything. When my father died, your Nani was very young. About 20 years old. Her in-laws kicked her out with us, her children. She had no belongings and little money. She went to her own family, but they didn’t want her either. She had one friend, Aunty Sheila, who found her a job and let Nani live with her for two months. After a while she saved some money from that job and moved into a small house. Hasim, the landlord, aside from wanting rent right on time, wanted… other things.” Nisa said slowly.
“Sexual favours. He even said she didn’t have to pay rent at all and could just ‘take care of business’ in other ways. That’s why we left one day in the middle of the night. He was at our door threatening rape.”
“Oh my God. That arsehole!”
“We moved back in with Aunty Sheila. We ended up staying there for a long time, until Nani earned enough to build a small house nearby.”
“But where does the purse fit in, Mum? She didn’t use the money in it. And did you know she’s been going through her drawers?”
“Yes, that must be how she remembered. Aunty Sheila said Nani used to say to her that this is her bura din paisa, her rainy-day money. She wouldn’t use it unless she absolutely had to. That money reminded her of the two worst days in her life – when her in-laws and parents abandoned her and it was all she had, and when Hasim tried to take advantage of her. Having that in her purse reminded her she had survived and she had a friend like Aunty Sheila who helped her.”
“I wish she had reported him to the police,” said Taz. Sala harami.
“Me too, but we all know the many reasons why so many women don’t. She probably thought no one would believe her or support her, and she had to focus on the three of us just surviving.”
“I am glad you were able to report Abba to the police, Mum,” said Taz, knowing her Mum must be thinking of her own situation years ago with her ex-husband.
Taz and her Nisa were sitting in the dark. The sun had set long ago. They stayed like that until they heard Nani’s voice singing out cheerily.
“Arey yaar, who died? You’re both looking so sad. I am hungry. Shall we have lal chaa and butter with long loaf today? Let’s use the tawa. I don’t like the toaster one.”
Taz and Nisa looked at each other and smiled, then grimaced as Nani flipped on the switch, flooding the room with light. The three of them went into the kitchen, the youngest following the oldest.
That night, with Billi on her lap, Taz typed the title of her draft article: ‘The Red Purse – A Woman’s Tale of Survival That Echoes Across the Pacific’. She would research violence against women and girls, and write of how her family members’ experiences of violence, including generational violence and trauma, was not dissimilar to those of women widely, no matter their ethnicity. Taz was named after one of the bravest women she knew, and she would honour her grandmother’s story, her mother’s story, and the story of all survivors in the way she knew best. By writing – for herself, and for them.
Shazia Usman is a Fijian feminist activist and writer. Her first children’s book Kaluti, a story of a 10-year-old girl facing colourism, was released in August 2019. For this she was nominated as one of the International Women’s Development Agency’s ‘6 must-read women writers from Asia and the Pacific’. She currently works as a Communications and Media Specialist for UN Women Pacific’s Ending Violence Against Women and Girls programme.
Views expressed are her own.
Visit her website for her information. Kaluti can be purchased here. Follow on Twitter: @ShaziaUsman
Special appreciation extended to Sophie Margretta for being so generous with her time and providing thoughtful edits on this story.
Illustrated by Gregory Ravoi