It’s a little after 8.00 a.m. on a deliciously cool April morning. I sit down to read the morning papers having just sent off my seven-year-old to school. The hubby is working on his laptop getting ready for an important meeting. The house is pleasantly quiet. I skim through the news and shake my head at film actor Hema Malini’s tweet on ‘senseless suicides’ which apparently is directed at television actor Pratyusha Banerjee’s recent death. Just as I was mulling over her words, the doorbell rang. My husband called out to me: “It’s for you”.
Wondering who could be calling so early in the morning, I saunter into the living room to see a lady who happens to be my fishmonger’s wife (will call her Durga – not her real name of course – for the sake of this story) and the mother of two of my husband’s protégés at his football academy. I smile to greet the pleasant faced, soft spoken lady thinking it is just another visit maybe to ask about her boys who were away at a training camp. Just then I noticed her red-rimmed eyes and trembling lips and body and my smile froze. She wanted to talk to me privately as it’s a ‘women’s matter’, she said looking at me in despair. My husband discreetly leaves the room to give us privacy. I make her sit on the sofa, give her a glass of water, which she refuses and wait for her to talk. She looks at me and starts sobbing inconsolably. “Memsahib, I want to thank you and sahib for all that you have done for my boys and I know that with you they are always in good hands.” Sensing that there is more to this I keep quiet and look at her with trepidation. Sobbing and shaking uncontrollably, she continues, “Memsahib, please forgive me. Please, I just can’t do this anymore! I want to leave my two boys in your custody. I don’t want to live anymore! I can’t, I just can’t!”
The despair and inexplicable sadness in her voice was unmistakable. Taken aback, I took her hand in mine, and held her shaking and fragile body. “It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s going to be alright,” my own words sounded hollow as I tried to make sense of what she was trying to say. I felt her despair, her hopelessness and wondered what could have happened? What could have driven to this state? I held her tight and let her cry. What were the right words to say? I didn’t know. All I saw was a broken down young woman, a mother who was so beaten, so lost, so desperate. A broken spirit, a bruised body, and haunted eyes.
What could have made her this way? “My husband, memsahib, I can’t take it anymore. I tolerated it for twenty years for the sake of my children, my home, my family but I can’t do it anymore.” What did he do? Did he beat you? Was he drunk? “No, no memsahib. He was not drunk. But he abuses me. I am scared of him. He is very dangerous. He will kill me! I know he will!” And then she showed me the scars. The stab marks all over her body, the bruises and seared flesh. I shuddered. Tears ran down my own eyes. I was shocked at the brutality of it! And there was more. Two decades of mental torture, physical violence, marital rape, infidelity and several attempts to murder her and her children. This was no less than the Nirbhaya case, or any of the countless rape cases that make headlines almost daily. And it had been happening for twenty years. Day after day. Night after night. WHY? Why, I thought? Why would a human being do this to another? And why did she suffer such cruel depravity? There are no easy answers.
Married off at the tender age of 12 to a man much older to her, she had her first child when she was just 14. Two years and countless beatings later she gave birth to another child. The beatings, the cruel taunts, the rapes, the physical brutality, the humiliation, the indignity, continued. For her, and her small children. That was her world. The only one that she had known of since she attained puberty. The only one that could ensure that she gets two meals a day and a roof over her head. The trade off was incidental. Why didn’t she leave him, you may ask? If only it was that simple. Leave and go where, memsahib? She asked me when I questioned her about it? Born to extremely poor parents this marriage was her ticket to survival. “And anyway, I had to make my marriage work, memsahib. “Or people would point fingers at me. After all, isn’t my husband supposed to be my God? To obey and honor under all circumstances?” It was simple economics in one way. Societal norms, in another.
And yes, she survived, if only for her children. But sadly, bit by bit, life and laughter was snuffed out of her. What was even worse, (if there could be anything worse) fear took over. Fear for her life. Fear for her children, her family. Fear of constantly looking over her shoulder. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of simply breathing. So great was the intimidation, the children grew up equally scared of their father. Strapping young teenagers today, they lack the nerve to stand up to this tyranny. Helpless, bound with the shackles of abject poverty, a non-existent education and a psychotic misogynist for a father, what does the future hold for them? What kind of men will they grow up to be?
I tell the story of this woman at length, because somewhere here, I think, lies an answer (or at least a possible explanation) of all that is going wrong in our society today. The ever-increasing violations, the molestations, and the rapes; even suicides and honor killings. Look around you. The story of this woman is the story of thousands of women in India today. Hunted, haunted, suppressed, abused at the very hands of those who swore to protect them and love them. Some may argue that things are changing and that many women are standing up for their rights. Maybe so. Yes, there are women I know who have walked out of such abusive marriages and are living lives with dignity and freedom. But they were the lucky ones; they perhaps had a choice. What about the countless women who don’t? Does that mean they don’t have the right to survive? The right to live with dignity? The right to say NO?
Of course she has. At least, that’s what the media, and advertisements/cinema reminds us often. But consider the odds. What hope of justice does Durga (and many in her situation) have? Yes, she can go to the police station and register an FIR. And we all know where that will lead! “You are a married woman! Why do you want to break your home?” Or she can take shelter in a women’s home in the hope of getting free legal aid and start life anew. Sadly, here too she will have to very lucky to file a case at all because as per the Indian Penal Code marital rape is considered a crime only when the wife is below 15 years of age! Marital rape victims have to take recourse to the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA) where the offender if guilty is liable to a fine of Rs. 20,000/- and a jail sentence up to one year. That’s it. One year for years or decades of mental, economic, and physical torture! The offender is free, after a year to go back and indulge in some more. In most of the cases the victims, if they dare to raise a voice, are shushed up by society; or get so intimidated by the legal system that they don’t have the wherewithal to pursue. Many go back to their parental homes and try to rebuild their lives, many live destitute lives on the fringes of society, in the hope that one day they will finally be liberated. And free.
This is a story that I began some time back and like the women that I write about, didn’t have the wherewithal to pursue it. Till I saw the movie PINK by Shoojit Sircar, which deals with similar issues about the women living in India today. It gave me hope that one day we too could be liberated and free to live the lives that we WANTED to, that we choose; and not the ones that were imposed on us by family, society, or our circumstances. Just like Durga.