By Piya De Bose
This was the day the final shards of rose-tinted glasses fell off.
I was standing mute in front of a judge while my lawyer articulated why the interim custody of my 5-year-old son should stay with me till the divorce has been finalised. My child was shivering while clutching my hand, not comprehending why he was out on a school day. The previous day, I had walked out of my marital home with my son and just the clothes on our backs. Now, in court, I felt foolish for not having taken his jacket. But then, I may have never escaped. I may have been stopped and I may have lost my child forever.
My in-laws warned me that I could either quit my job or leave, but without my child. After all, my son was their only grandchild. That I was his sole provider and his father was an alcoholic living with another woman in a different city, didn’t matter to them. I was asked to keep up the semblance of a functioning marriage and be the obedient daughter-in-law in exchange for the social recognition and identity of a married woman with good character. It was only a few months after I moved in with my in-laws that I was allowed to work. That was when the school fees and expenses multiplied and I had to pay them for our upkeep. This last part was only fair, since their son never sent them money.
We didn’t always live with my in-laws. But they always knew of his alcoholic rage and chose to look the other way. He broke things during his fits, came home drunk only to hurl abuses and blame me for his situation and often force sex on me. All of this would happen even when my in-laws were visiting us. The next morning, they ignored my swollen eyes and loss of appetite and went on as if nothing has happened. He did not hit you, was what my mother-law would say. There were days I had to borrow money from a neighbour to buy baby food because he drank away the money and we were living from one paycheck to the next. My father had to clear the bill on my credit card (which he used without ever repaying) when I finally decided to cancel it.
Several such incidents later, as a compromise, my in-laws asked me to move to their town and live with them while my husband stayed behind because of his new job. Little did I realise that moving in with them would bring on other forms of abuse. I was not allowed to visit my parents often, though they lived in the same town. When my mother called, my mother-in-law would complain about how bad my house-keeping skills were and that I was neglecting the child because I was studying for a professional diploma when he slept at night. I was criticised if I came an hour late from work, or if my cooking was not up to the mark or if I listened to music. They frowned if I bought a book or a gift for a friend. I had to show them everything I bought because my money was the family money and it was considered indecent to indulge in any way. They sulked when I refused to make my salary account into a joint account. My mother-in-law kept all my jewellery with her and I needed her permission to use them.
Initially, I told myself that that their constant criticism was routine. A new bride, is expected to adjust to new rules, isn’t she? However, all the rules applied to me and none to their son. I should have seen this coming. A day after our wedding, he left for hours to get drunk in a bar, leaving hundreds of guests who were waiting at our reception to wish us good luck. His parents hushed it up blaming their relative who had gone with him. Ours was an arranged marriage and I was naïve enough to miss all the red flags.
A few months into the marriage, when reality struck hard it caught me completely off-guard. The daily binge drinking and missing work regularly, cost him his job. My in-laws sent some money so that we could tide over till he found a job, but also used the opportunity to tell me how they had almost finalised another match for their son, a girl who was working in a multi-national and earning a handsome salary.
By the time my son was four, I was already living with my in-laws for two years, earning our keep. Then, a well-wisher informed me of my husband’s affairs. On confronting him, he accepted that it was true. He was so casual about it that it shocked me. When I told my in-laws, they advised me to ignore it because I was not skilled enough to keep my man happy. A wife plays several roles, said my father-in-law. When the need arises, she should be as skilful as a prostitute to not let the husband stray. They told not to discuss this matter with anyone and that I should continue living with them as the daughter-in-law and someday when he gets tired of these other women, he will come home and take care of us. Meanwhile, all the slights and insults were so de rigueur that I learnt to ignore them.
Instead, the daily drama motivated me to do better at work — the only place where I was appreciated, and had some self-esteem left. Unfortunately, it began to shame my in-laws that I was doing better than their son. When I was invited to speak to a small gathering, my mother-in-law warned me to never to do it again — apparently, I was making myself available to the men.
Early on, I had the solace that my in-laws took care of my child for the few hours that I was at work. However, that didn’t last. My son spent every afternoon watching tv serials about sacrificing wives, polygamist husbands and family politics. My in-laws taught my four-year-old that boys were superior, and that they would never accept it if he married someone from another religion. They told me that I had no right to intervene in his upbringing because I was a bad influence on him.
One day my in-laws overheard me sobbing over the phone while I was talking to a work friend. Immediately, they began pressuring me to quit my job. They manipulated my son to throw tantrums every day — if you love me you will not go to work. With that, I had enough. I decided to leave.
There was a new beginning in the cold courtroom. The divorce case dragged on for over three years mostly because he did not appear and his lawyer kept asking for extensions. As my luck would have it, the neighbour who had told me of my husband’s affair refused to come down to testify in court, fearing his reputation. His relatives and friends, who knew of his nature and his affairs, expressed sympathy in private but were unwilling to come forward in my support. After 10 years of living in an abusive marriage, which chipped away at my self-confidence and worth, I had no proof to show. The million little things that broke my spirit over the years were too flimsy for the court. At every point, I was asked — why did you accept that. You are educated and well-spoken. So, if you accepted that, it means you consented to it. The elderly court-appointed mediator asked me several times why I was not willing to go back and live with my in-laws and try again. At times, the wife has to compromise more, she told me. When I told her of the instances, the years of compromise, his indiscretions, she said being a mother you need to think of your son’s future first. I realised that unless I am able to prove any of the misdeeds it was pointless to fight. Camera phones had not arrived yet and telephone conversations could not be recorded easily.
For that entire time, I never stopped looking over my shoulders every time I stepped out of home. My ageing parents jumped every time the doorbell rang. I asked for permission from work to escort my son to and fro school for that entire school year till I could change his school to one nearer home. The threat was real. My husband had several nefarious acquaintances and when I had left his parents’ house, he had warned me of dire consequences because they had lost face and people were asking them why I left so suddenly. He threatened to kidnap our son and get me killed. I believed him and lived in fear until the day I met him for the final divorce decree, which we both had to sign. That decree became possible only after I agreed to claim nothing, not even child support. Every now and then, I still see photos of my mother-in-law on someone’s page, wearing my sarees — sarees that my mother had saved over many years for my wedding trousseau. In a divorce, women lose more than just their self-esteem. I lost my grandmother’s gold bangles, her last gift to me before she died. I lost my prized collection of books. I heard they sold the books as soon as I left. After several legal notices, I was able to get some of my jewellery back. My lawyer on her part apologised profusely for her inability to get me a fair mandate and refused to take her fees. By then, wrung out emotionally and financially, I was only looking for freedom from him and his family.
Cold winds had blown through every aspect of my life. His parents spread lies and told everyone how bad a wife and a mother I was since I was of ‘loose character’. I wonder if anyone asked them why they allowed me to stay with them if I was having so many affairs while living in their home. Hard to say which stories upset my parents more — them bad-mouthing me, my parents or my younger brother who had passed away a few years earlier.
On the other hand, some folks also told my father to retaliate and that they knew my in-laws were crooks and my father in-law was a prime accused in a case of financial fraud.
So I got my divorce and that was the end. Not quite.
Being a single mother means it never quite ends. When I was renewing my passport, I was questioned why I wanted to keep my husband’s last name when I was divorced. During my son’s board exam, the registering official insisted that we fill out his father’s address and other current details even after I explained that we were unaware of his whereabouts. My financials are a mess because though my son is a nominee for all my transactions, he needs a legal guardian in my absence and both my parents are too ill to be eligible. I was refused a housing loan a few years ago because I did not have a co-applicant.
Whether it’s a hotel booking or a phone bill, the salutation is always a ‘Mrs’ by default. Whenever I meet someone new here, whether at work or outside, the first or the second question is always about the husband. When I say, I am divorced, it invites either suspicion or curiosity guised as sympathy.
It has been many years since I walked out of a life filled with self-doubt and misery. My friends often ask me why I didn’t leave earlier. I was brought up to believe marriages are for a lifetime. I didn’t know enough to recognise abuse when someone wasn’t harming me physically. After some time, I accepted it without any fight and believed it was my fault and that I was not worthy of anything good. I foolishly believed that leaving my husband would not only harm me but also our son.
It was much later, that I realised the sense of fear and foreboding that I constantly felt was a result of the continuous psychological abuse. To this date, I have trust issues that I am yet to overcome. I would startle easily when someone called my name fearing more criticism. It felt like walking on eggshells all the time. For years, I had to ask my mother-in-law which dress or saree to wear when we went out together. Things would go missing from my room and wardrobe but I did not have the courage to ask her about them. Weeks would pass before I would speak with my mother properly. I would leave the phone after a cursory ‘I am doing ok’ or ‘I have reached home from office’, which puzzled them. I could not sleep at night and whenever I slept, I dreamt of drowning or someone squeezing my neck and I would wake up in sweat. I would get obsessed with cleanliness and would wash hands unnecessarily till my skin started chaffing. I developed anxiety about everything. Several time during those spiteful years, I had contemplated suicide and I made meticulous plans in my head to execute it. Only the thought of my young son stopped me. But the most dangerous were the lies I told people that led them to believe I had a wonderfully supporting family. My make-belief life was a parallel movie in my head that I lived every day. That’s how I coped.
Today I am free. I am a responsible mother, sole caregiver for my parents and an active citizen. I learnt to manage my finances, file my taxes, run a household, hold my own in a conversation, travel alone. For me, the biggest reassurance that I did the right thing by walking away and choosing not to hate, is when I see my son as a sensible, responsible, empathetic young person who reflect the values I hold dear.
Those years has also taught me to be watchful of the signs. Recently, I noticed a young colleague was taking too many sick leaves. A little empathy and she opened up. Her husband and mother-in-law beat her regularly for dowry and controlled her every action. After a lot of counselling from professionals, she was confident enough to walk out and report them.
We have to watch out for each other.
Piya De Bose is a single mother and a HR professional who lives in Bangalore and loves to travel as much as she loves food.