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Jasvinder - Interview 18

Age at interview: 42
Brief Outline: Jasvinder's sister, Robina, died in 1987 from burns. She had an unhappy marriage and told her husband she was going to take her own life. Jasvinder has kept her sister's memory alive by setting up Karma Nirvana, a project that advocates for Asian people.
Background: Jasvinder is the director of Karma Nirvana. She is also an author. She is divorced and has 3 children (1 grown-up). Ethnic background/nationality: British/Indian.

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Jasvinder was one of seven sisters born and brought up in England. Her parents had come to England from India in the 1950’s. They were Sikhs and spoke Punjabi. Jasvinder grew up in Derby with her sisters and her brother.
 
Jasvinder felt especially close to her sister, Robina, who was just a year and a half older than her. When Robina was almost 15 she was sent abroad for an arranged married, and came back to school in England, as a married woman.
 
Jasvinder was also expected to have an arranged marriage, just like her sisters, but she ran away from home to avoid this arrangement, and as a result she was disowned by the whole family. Her parents said that Jasvinder had brought “shame “to the family, and they refused to see her or talk to her on the telephone.
 
Eventually Robina made contact with Jasvinder and the two sisters saw each other occasionally and talked secretly on the telephone.
 
Robina did not have a happy marriage and she divorced her husband. She re-married, to a man who was accepted by her parents, but once again she was desperately unhappy and said she experienced domestic violence. She told Jasvinder that she was suffering physically and emotionally. Jasvinder had seen bruises on Robina’s body and she urged Robina to leave her husband.
 
Robina went to see her parents to ask for their advice. They told her she must return to her husband in order to protect the family “honour”, or “izzat”. Jasvinder was extremely worried and wanted to protect her sister but felt quite powerless.

Jasvinder was interviewed in October 2007.

 

Robina was suffering “horrific domestic violence”. Jasvinder is convinced that her sister did not...

Robina was suffering “horrific domestic violence”. Jasvinder is convinced that her sister did not...

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Robina in her love marriage, she still was in this position of having to consider the families honour, izzat, we call it, and that really meant her decision making was impacted by this concept and one of the things she used to tell me was that she was suffering horrific domestic violence in her relationship. She was suffering physically and certainly emotionally, mentally. I had witnessed bruises and I remember saying to her at the time, “Leave him.” And she used to say to me, “It’s easy for you to say that, because you don’t have to think about Mum, Dad, the community and what people think.” And I used to say, “But he’s hurting you, I’ll take you in, leave him.” But she couldn’t and she really was making the point that in my position of being disowned by my family, I didn’t have the authority to give her that advice. So I always asked her to go back to Mum, tell Mum, to tell Dad about the situation. Which she did and my Mother’s response was always, as it was with my other sisters; I’d witnessed this as a child, to go back, to make the marriage work for the sake of honour, for the sake of the family’s honour.


So I, I don’t believe that she intended to kill herself, I don’t believe that. You know, I’m not an expert in suicide, and maybe some people make that decision and plan it or don’t, but I don’t believe she did, I believe there was so many attempts, direct attempts in terms of crying out for help, I still believe that, and at the point where there could’ve been the intervention, she wasn’t saved and okay, it maybe my role to help her, and I did, but I never had any power because of my position of being disowned, and they did, they being the family and the community. And ultimately it would’ve, it was them she would’ve listened to, and clearly there’s evidence it wasn’t me.

 

Jasvinder felt she should have done more to help her sister but she couldn’t because her family...

Jasvinder felt she should have done more to help her sister but she couldn’t because her family...

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I was in shock initially that, it was the sheer disbelief that my sister had committed suicide; I couldn’t comprehend the actual thought. And then as the hours went by, very quickly as the hours went by I was beginning to feel angry and as the day went by I began to start feeling guilty that I could’ve done more. I did ask her to leave and come with me, she said, “I can’t do that.” And I was feeling quite, I was feeling quite ashamed as well that you start back tracking and you start thinking to yourself, well okay, you didn’t, you couldn’t do more because you are in your position of being disowned, and you know you almost are a victim of that, well you are a victim of that, but there comes a point where you have to lift yourself out of that, and jump out of that space, and maybe it was that position that I’d owned, of being my place and I could never get out of it, so the shame part of it for me was a little bit, a bit about you should’ve done more, you know that kind of you should be ashamed of yourself, that kind of shame I mean. And I remember a couple of weeks before Robina took her own life, she rang me and it was out of the blue and she said, “I want my son to know his father, his real father.” And I thought it was a really strange question because all this time you’ve not seen him, you’ve not bothered with him. And she said, “I want my son to know who his father is, and I want you to take this phone number,” and it was in Canada, “and I want you to ring it, to see if you can get hold of him.” And I said, “Okay, I’m fine, I’ll do that, I, I’ll ask.” She goes, “Well I can’t make the call,” she said. So I did make the call and I left several messages, he never got back to me, and the guilt for me is, also, I should have questioned that more, why was she asking me to make contact with her ex-husband for the sake of her son, it was as if in her head she was making plans, not necessarily plans to commit suicide but there was sheer desperation there and she was making plans to do something. And she was trying to cry out to me, and maybe I should’ve questioned it more and more, about why and why and what for and, but, I didn’t think to do that.

 

Jasvinder felt perturbed because the funeral took place at the house where her sister had taken...

Jasvinder felt perturbed because the funeral took place at the house where her sister had taken...

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And when she died I was told to stay away from the funeral. I did go to the funeral, under protest, even though people ignored me and as I walked into a room people walked out of rooms. I made the point of being there. And her coffin was laid out in the living room and her body could not be seen because 90% burns completely would distort the body totally, but there was a photograph put on the coffin, of her face, and that’s how I remember her, you know, smiling back, just the face, and it just niggled and niggled at me, you know, how could they take this life? It still does. The community leader was there, and I was thinking, “How dare you be grieving here at my sister’s funeral when you sent her back [to her husband].” So the anger in me was boiling and boiling.

Do you mind saying just a little bit more about her funeral?

Yeah.

They didn’t want you at the mourning.

Yeah, yeah.

Did the funeral take place there, or was it in a, somewhere else?

The, the funeral itself was actually in the house, the coffin came to the house where she had committed suicide.

Was that taken by the local priest, the local Sikh?

Yes, it would’ve been the local, it would’ve been a Sikh priest, but I felt quite perturbed at the fact that it felt very insensitive to me that her coffin was being laid in the house where she’d committed suicide, it didn’t feel right to me, none of it felt right to me, at all. And when Asian women mourn, when somebody dies,  what happens is and I remember this from being young and also when I went to the house when I was told to stay away, this was the case, they take all the furniture out of one room and they lay a white cloth on the floor, white sheets on the floor and you have to go in and cover yourself, your head, take your shoes off and you sit down and you cry and cry and some of them hit themselves and beat themselves, and cry and cry and you walk into that environment and you see that, and when I walked in, people walked out. But the fact that Robina’s body was actually in the house where she’d committed suicide for me, never sat with me, it should’ve been at my father’s house.

Mm.

And that’s where it should’ve been.

Was there any formal part of the service, was there a service as it were, or just the mourning, the people there mourning?

There were people mourning, and she was cremated. And that was it.

Were any special words said at the mourning?

There was an Asian priest there that spoke, but nobody passed any special words to her. I mean my mother was being held up by people, she was in such grief, in such a grieving state and I remember seeing my nephew who was her son; he must’ve been about 3 or 4 at the time, just running around oblivious to what was happening.
 

Jasvinder fought to have her sister’s inquest re-opened. She was glad when the coroner...

Jasvinder fought to have her sister’s inquest re-opened. She was glad when the coroner...

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My family could’ve prevented it; the community leader could’ve prevented it. She was driven to commit suicide as far as I’m concerned. And I still hold people accountable for her death, in fact I fought it and it went to an inquest and it’s an open verdict now. I felt very strongly and still do, about my sister not having to die in the way that she did and the point with my sister is, suicide they tell me is a very personal matter, and you’d never know, I would never have suspected my sister was going to commit suicide, but what I do know is that she made several attempts to cry for help and nobody helped her. And that I was not in a position to be heard because she couldn’t accept my support as a disowned human being.


Was the original coroner’s verdict suicide?


Yes. It was, it was. And I fought that.

 

Yes it never sat with me at all that Robina would take her life in that way, and the bigger thing that never sat with me, it still doesn’t even today is that I hold people accountable for her death. I believe her death could’ve been prevented, she clearly was crying out for help and these individuals, regardless of them being some of them my family members, put honour before her life. For me that is as, worse, as I’ve grown as a person today and I’ve worked in this field, it’s equivalent to an honour killing, this you know where women are being driven to commit suicide.

 

You were talking about the fact that your mother went with you to the lawyers.


Yes, and there was an agreement that the file would be re-opened and looked at, and in the end the hearing was in court and the person that had to take the stand was my sister’s husband. At the end of the day he was in the house when she committed suicide, and he actually stated that she told him, because of an argument, she told him, “I’m going upstairs and I’m going to set myself on fire.” He actually said that. And I was making the case he should have prevented that. He should’ve stopped her from doing that which he always argued, he didn’t believe she would’ve done that, he didn’t take it seriously. And when she did do that, one of the things that never sat with me again was the time it took for him to ring for an ambulance, the fact that his burns were minor in comparison to her, if somebody was standing there on fire which she was, he should’ve done more to save her. So there were so many unanswered questions for me, and there’s still unanswered questions and I suppose they always will be…


Mm.


And there are unanswered questions about that incident but also the fact that other people could’ve prevented her death. And the verdict in the end was an open verdict which for me gave us a sense of justice; it will never give us full justice, because at the end of the day that man and other people cannot walk out innocently. There was a question mark put over it and we’ve been told, I was told which meant a lot to me, if there was any further evidence it could go back. And in some shape or form for me and maybe even for my Mum I think that felt reassuring.

 

Jasvinder did not want to take antidepressants. She found counselling helpful because her...

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Jasvinder did not want to take antidepressants. She found counselling helpful because her...

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What encouraged me to do it [have counselling] was the fact that she reassured me that it would be between me and her, and it wouldn’t go out of the room, what stays in the room stays in the room, and I’ve been told that, and it enabled me to start the process of speaking about my problems, of letting out what was inside me, and to be honest with you I, I spent most of the first few weeks just crying. And I learnt that crying wasn’t a bad thing.


Mm.


And I owned the concept of it being okay to seek support to talk about your problems and I went through my university degree, part of it with a counsellor again, and even today I would, if need be, speak to a counsellor in that environment if I felt the need to be, because nobody can carry all that pain on their own. I don’t believe they can.


Mm.


And I would encourage anybody to consider that because you start the process of releasing the things that are holding you prisoner in your mind and you start the process of letting go of the most important thing for me and that was guilt. And once you start doing that you actually start seeing the “you” in all of it.


Would you look for support anywhere else?


No I, I mean when I saw my GP and tried to talk about these things, I remember on a couple of occasions I was given antidepressants, and I just refused, and he thought I was taking them, but I’d go home and throw them away. Because I just didn’t want to take them. I was scared to take them, I’ve never taken drugs before and it just didn’t appeal to me to think that I was depressed either, so you know for me the talking was the therapy and even today it is, and I’ve learnt to structure myself, tap into the people, the very few people I can count on my hands that I would go to, for support and that is so important because ultimately I don’t have my family and even people who have families may not be able to turn to family members regardless of what ethnicity you are, you know there might be some guilt or shame attached to going to family members or you might not want to put your pain onto them ‘cos they’re grieving as well, so it’s important that you have others that you can talk to in confidence, that have the ability to be impartial, objective, and that can offer you that unconditional kind of love and support.

 

Jasvinder understands feelings of depression and guilt about losing a member of a South Asian...

Jasvinder understands feelings of depression and guilt about losing a member of a South Asian...

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Have you got any message for other people who’ve been bereaved like you?

 

I think the important thing here is to say to South Asian women out there, and men, that I understand the feelings of sheer depression, alienation, and guilt in relation to losing a member of your family to suicide. And I also understand the sheer powerlessness, the powerlessness of being able to save that life, because at the end of the day as a sister watching your sister, or a bystander watching a member of your family, self harm or even die of suicide, you have to remember that you are not responsible for that death, and you are also somebody who is entwined in that web of the family in the community, and that may, and I say may because I’m not generalising, that may put the izzat, the honour of a family, before a life and that is something that you must break from and you must speak out about and I would encourage people to speak out if they have lost somebody in that way to give other people hope, and also to prevent suicides of south Asian women.

 

Professionals should be aware that ‘honour’ is important in the Asian community. They could help...

Professionals should be aware that ‘honour’ is important in the Asian community. They could help...

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I think there is such a lack of understanding of how powerful honour is in our lives, and how much it restricts us [people in the Asian community] and how much it prevents us from talking, it prevents us from making decisions that you may be presenting to us, as the easy option – leave [the marriage] for example. What you have to understand is that we need support around confidence issues; we need you to reassure us of confidence, of confidentiality, first and foremost. Secondly, as a professional I believe you have a responsibility to find out what is available for victims or survivors so that they can tap into that service to receive that level of support that you may not be able to give.

 

Mm.

 

So it’s important for you to understand how to signpost, how to refer over and above what you have to offer, and I think because it is so difficult to apprehend that members of your family could drive you to commit suicide in that way, because of honour I think you have an obligation to raise your own awareness and understanding of these issues.

 

Mm.

 

And if your practise hasn’t taught you that or your education, then maybe you could take the responsibility to find out more about that.

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