A story of love, loss and second chances by Nikita Singh, releasing this Valentine’s Day.
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“Neha refuses to stay married to her husband. She is ready to be a single mother and raise her daughter by herself.” Do read this account of a strong woman.
The arranged marriage tradition in India involves parents choosing the right partner for their child. However, this tradition has led to a situation where the women’s parents are getting their daughter married off, (often even giving dowry to the in-laws) – in return for a life laced with adultery, domestic abuse and misdemeanour. Meet Neha Balachandran (name changed to protect the identity of the interviewee) the woman fighting back.
The golden thread around Neha Balakrishnan’s neck is evident. The knot that rendered her life to naught. The 29-year-old adjusts it, as her young daughter climbs up the chair to sit next to her. When people walk past her, they nod in acknowledgement.
She grew up in Tamil Nadu, India, and was married off to her husband at 24, despite her reluctance. It’s not uncommon for Indians to have their parents choose their spouse for them. We all know the procedure. The parents enquire with relatives and friends, and shortlist suitable candidates based on salary, religion and caste. Parents also consult with Hindu priests and match horoscopes to verify their compatibility.
The girl meets prospective groom and decides whether she wants to marry him or not. In some cases, women don’t have a choice. Looks, educational qualification and property are also taken into account. The bride and groom meet only a few times before the wedding, and must get to know each other after marriage.
The girl’s future is often decided by her in-laws, which is unfair. In many cases, the girl is forbidden from studying any further after marriage. “I studied M.Sc in Biotechnology at Satyabhama Institute in India. I wanted to do research and get a Ph.D, but my mother decided to get me married,” Neha emphasises. “Even my in-laws didn’t let me study further.”
Though this tradition has been in our country for centuries, there is a high risk of being mistreated by both the husband and in-laws. The in-laws put up a friendly front before the wedding, and after, they exploit the bride in numerous ways. She is considered a multi-purpose machine, and is treated equivalent to a slave. The bride is compelled to do all the household chores, surrender her salary to her in-laws and yet, she is deprived of food.
“Parents just do what they think is best for their daughter, and are always in a rush to get her married, as having unmarried women at home is considered cumbersome in India. Once the daughter is married, it will take a load of their shoulders. They don’t think of the further consequences,” states Neha. “Parents of sons are aware of this fact and make use of this opportunity.”
“That’s what happened to me. Before the wedding, my in-laws acted like the best in-laws any girl could have ever have. They cared for me too much. When I got sick, they travelled a long distance to come see me and buy me medicine. Every day, they used to call me and talk to me. That’s why my mom wanted to get me married into that family. Due to their fake attitude, she believed them, hoping I would be happy there.”
Parents usually do a thorough investigation of the groom, or he is someone they are familiar with. Most parents let their relatives do the detective work and their verdict plays a key role when they decide on the groom’s worthiness. If the majority of those interviewed during the investigation give the parents positive feedback, the groom is finalised.
That’s what happened to Neha. Even if one individual divulges negative information, the family reconsiders. But in Neha’s case, her mother was desperate to get her married, as she didn’t have to pay dowry to the groom’s family.
Giving a certain amount of money or property to the groom before or even after marriage is a common practise in India, even though it is a punishable offence. But it is unofficially still in practice. Something which will probably not change anytime soon. That’s why families are relieved when they don’t have to spend enormous amounts of money for the bride’s marriage and dowry. “That’s one of the reasons why my mom fell into the trap. She thought she could marry me off to a good family without paying anything,” she mentions. “Clearly, she regrets her decision now.”
Despite the thorough investigation, Neha went through a horrific experience of being mistreated, just one month after her wedding. Her in-laws fired their maid and replaced Neha with her instead. When she protested, her father-in-law threatened to beat her, whilst her mother-in-law didn’t bother to stop him.
Neha was initially at loss as to how to deal with the situation. She could’ve avoided being in that situation though. “I actually didn’t like it. I could’ve said no at that time. But I remained silent,” she reminisces. “That was the biggest mistake and the biggest regret of my life.”
Neha’s husband, Prahar Balachandran (name changed to protect his identity) didn’t stand up for her, and he left to work in Dubai. He stopped contacting her after two months of their wedding, and would never answer her calls when she wanted to inform him about his parents’ behaviour. He rarely visited her, and he turned a blind eye towards her plight.
“But like a fool, I was hoping that my husband will be there to support me, which didn’t happen.” she curses herself. The abuse continued even during her pregnancy. She had to continue working at home, even during her maternity leave. Luckily, she didn’t have problems during her pregnancy. Her husband didn’t bother to visit her, during the pregnancy and even after their daughter was born. “He didn’t call even once,” she says, sadly. “How can he not care about his own daughter?”
As he continued feigning ignorance, the abuse was not limited to the bride, but also her child. Neha’s misconception was that irrespective of her tumultuous relationship with them, she presumed that they would treat her child well. Her daughter, Niranjala Balachandran (name changed to protect the identity of the child) who was born in 2012, received similar treatment.
“I go to work early in the morning, so I left my daughter who was two years old, with my in laws. And every day when I got back home, I would see my daughter all alone in my room, sitting in a corner, scared. I didn’t understand then.” she recollects, shuddering. “But later, I found out that my in-laws made my two-year-old daughter do the household chores, and if she didn’t do a good job, they beat her up.”
Beating up a child is considered a method of exercising discipline, which is done by both teachers and family members. There’s no stigma and it’s a common sight to see a child getting beaten. No one intervenes in such situations. Neha’s daughter was abused in multiple ways, just like her mother, but the child suffered from malnutrition and became a victim of child abuse.
“For breakfast and lunch, they fed my daughter terrible food. She cried as the bread was too dry and hard to consume. My mother-in-law poured water over it and made my daughter eat it. Sometimes, they would starve her. And when I returned home she used to ask me, ‘Mom, is there anything eat? I am hungry’. Every time I heard that, it broke my heart. I hoped my in- laws would take care of her. They treat me badly, but I never thought they would do this to a child. So I left my daughter under the care of my mother,” she revealed, tears trickling down her cheeks.
Her now four-year-old daughter was playing with a handkerchief near her, unaware of how close her escape had been. “And whenever I come back to my hometown, and try to take my daughter out somewhere she used to get scared and tell me, ‘Don’t take me to that house, I won’t come’. That’s how scared she was to go back there.”
Though Neha protected her child, she still put up with her in-laws, still hoping that her husband would finally come back and help. But her last shred of hope was destroyed, when her husband’s affair was revealed to her. “I started doubting him when he stopped talking to me. One of my relatives told me even before my wedding, that my husband was having an affair with another girl. His parents didn’t like the girl and that’s why they got him married to me. But my mother and I were stupid enough to not believe that and trust him,” she says, in an angry tone.
“Last year, a friend of mine who works at my husband’s office told me about his affair and I still didn’t want to believe it.” However, she decided to confront him and clear her suspicion. “When I finally confronted him, he accepted it,” she says, her eyes burning with fury. “He came back, after I threatened to file a case against his parents. Then, we talked.”
Irrespective of whatever she went through, Neha was ready to forgive him, because of her daughter. A reason most women cite, when they choose to stay with their cheating husbands. But in her case, she didn’t want her child to grow up without a father, in a society where children of single parents are considered pitiful.
If a woman is a single mother, she has to be a widow. A widow is given sympathy and pity, unfortunately, a divorcee is condemned and judged harshly. The same is applicable to the child. There is an assumption that children from single parent homes are emotionally scarred and often display volatile behaviour, and other children are warned by their parents to not associate with such children.
Neha fears that if she became a single mother, she would receive the same treatment from other parents and other members of the society. In order to prevent her daughter from being ostracised, she made this hard decision.
“I was ready to forgive him but when he shamelessly told me that he wants both me and the other girl. And he is ready to take me with him to Dubai, but he doesn’t want my daughter, just me alone, which is preposterous,” she exclaims. “And he was going to rent me a house there and once in a while, he would come to visit me. But he will be staying with his mistress. He had the audacity to say that to my face. That’s when I decided to get a divorce.”
Neha decided to file a case against her in-laws for mental harassment and whilst simultaneously filing for a divorce from her husband. Only later did she find out that she wasn’t the only woman who was cheated by her husband and his family.
“When I went to file the case, my in-laws were at the police station too. They were trying to file a case against me. The inspector admonished them about my husband’s promiscuity and how they had bribed police officers to drop former charges against them,” she narrates. “That’s when I realized, I wasn’t the first. There were many others before me.”
To ensure that no other woman is cheated, she is striving to get her husband and his family punished. Nonetheless, her mother’s hasty decision has damaged her life beyond repair. She had to give up her dreams of being a researcher and earn some income for her family, as her father passed away right before she completed her Bachelor’s degree.
As she is the eldest daughter, she shouldered the responsibility of being the bread winner for the family. She currently works as a librarian at her alma mater. This was the only job that was available to her, which she accepted.
Though she can financially support her family at the moment, she is concerned about her daughter’s future. She can’t afford to pay the exorbitant school fees once her daughter graduates from primary school.
She is struggling to find a high profile job that is suited for her qualification. She is ardently saving money for her family and her daughter. She dreads that she may have to enrol her daughter in a government run school, where the level of teaching is poor, and her daughter may not receive the high standard of private Indian education.
If her daughter doesn’t graduate from an good university, she will suffer the same plight as her, working in an underpaid job. She says she’s lucky since she doesn’t have to wage a war for child custody. Her husband has disowned Niranjala and has refused to pay for her living expenses and education. This is has further added to Neha’s avalanche of problems.
As a result, she has foregone her dreams of having the future that she wants. “I don’t really care about my future anymore,” she declares, patting her daughter’s head. “I have no ambition of doing research anymore. But I want my daughter to be happy. I will do everything in my power to give her a happy life. And just for her, I will live.”
Despite going through a roller-coaster marriage, she still believes in its sanctity. But she does not want to remarry. “Just because my marriage failed, it’s not the same for everyone. I know many women who are really happy with their marriage,” she states.
But she is rather sceptical about the success rate of arranged marriages if it’s done without the woman’s consent. “Arranged marriage is fine. But I really hope the parents ask their child’s opinion before agreeing to anything. And if the guy is really caring and loves you for who you are, then there won’t be any problems in one’s life. If my husband was supporting me, at least a little bit, I would have lived on, knowing there is someone for me. And I wouldn’t have minded the problems I had with my in-laws. I hope no other girl goes through what I have.”
Her mother is distraught after coercing her daughter into a marriage that has led her to live her life in abyss. Neha finds her mother’s repentance futile, as it makes no difference in her life nor her daughter’s life. Instead, she blames herself.
“They should have listened to me. I didn’t want to marry at that time. But it’s partly my fault if I was a bit more aggressive in denying the marriage, I would have been happy. But I didn’t. And here I am.”
Her in-laws haven’t changed their demeanour, nor asked for forgiveness after she filed the case against them. Nothing brought a change in their behaviour and they refuse to back down. “It was their true nature which my family and I were oblivious to. But I was fooled by their phoney nature. They have refused to acknowledge their mistake.”
The local police refused to press the false charges against her, which were concocted by her in-laws. Neha refuses to stay married to her husband any longer. She is ready to be a single mother and raise her daughter by herself, after defeating her husband.
Though the society condemns divorced women, she’s holding her head up high. She wants her story to be told, to inform other women about how they can easily be cheated by the society.
Though she has refused to reveal her real name and photograph, she wanted her story to be told, as it the story of some many other Indian women. “Only my mother and younger sister know about my divorce. After the divorce is finalised, my divorcee status will be promulgated one way or another. There are chances that the divorce maybe prolonged. Until then, I want to protect my child from the society. That’s why I haven’t revealed my identity,” she makes clear.
“The society will look at me and my daughter differently. She has to learn to get used to it. Society will assume that there is something is wrong with me, and pity my child. People will ask me, Niranjala and my family why I got divorced. People can’t mind their own business.”
Neha wants to enjoy the calm before the storm and her lifetime of troubles. She plans to explain her situation to her daughter, once the divorce is granted. “But once I’m free from the shackles of marriage, I won’t be bound to him. Now, my mangala sutra seems like the rope used to hang convicts,” she proclaims. “I can’t wait to take it off. I just want to say, women shouldn’t be scared to voice their opinion, or they’ll end up like me. So, fight and do whatever you want to do. Turn into warriors if you must.”
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