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Domestic abuse sounds like something that always happens to someone else, not to ourselves. I could not accept that an educated woman like me was being subjected to it. I was ashamed.
2019 is the year in which our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month gets bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry. The writing cue for February 2019 is from the poetry of Mary Oliver, passed away on 17th January 2019, aged 83. This is a tribute to her, and her memorable words, taken from her poem, The Summer Day.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
The second winner of our February 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Vijayalakshmi Harish.
The woman was terrified.
“The noise…the alarm…I don’t understand how to make it stop,” she said, pointing to the wide open door of the adjoining apartment.
Jyoti rushed into the apartment, stopping to pick up a magazine lying on the coffee table. “Open all the doors and windows,” she instructed the other woman, as she waved the magazine under the blaring smoke alarm.
In a few moments, silence descended. The woman heaved a sigh of relief.
“Hi! You must be Sohini. I’m Jyoti. Firstly, congratulations on the wedding! May the both of you have a happy married life! When did you reach home? Must have been really late last night. I didn’t see you arrive.”
“Yes, I’ve heard a lot about you from Dipankar. Sorry I came to you for something so silly! Opening the doors and windows should have been an obvious solution!”
“No problem. These kitchens aren’t really built for our Indian style of cooking and this happens. The first few times it can be quite startling! Next time, leave the doors and windows open while cooking and keep a magazine handy.”
“Ah! You’ve met!” exclaimed Dipankar as he walked in.
“Idiot! Who leaves their new bride alone in a new country and goes off to work without giving them time to acclimatize,” teased Jyoti.
“Jab tum ho to kya gham hai!” Dipankar chortled. “By the way, do you have any of those brownies you keep making? I’m hungry. And where is our wedding gift? You’ve started scolding me without even congratulating me on my marriage…”
Sohini watched this banter between Jyoti and Dipankar and was amazed at their easy camaraderie. Her husband had spoken a lot to her about Jyoti even before the marriage. In fact, whenever she had called him from India, he seemed to be hanging out at Jyoti’s house. She felt a pang of jealousy rise within her, but she pushed it away. She too, would get to know her husband eventually, and they too would share this ease. And Jyoti seemed friendly, warm and authentic.
As the days passed, Sohini found herself getting increasingly comfortable with Jyoti. The three of them would go out on trips and movies together and they spent a lot of time in each other’s houses. Dipankar and Jyoti were both avid readers, and they would spend hours talking about books. Even Sohini, who wasn’t keen on reading, would enjoy these talks.
But such perfect contentment never lasts.
At an office Diwali party, Sohini was having a wonderful time, interacting with Dipankar’s colleagues and their wives.
“You are Dipankar Basu’s wife, isn’t it?” Sohini turned around to find a tall, stern looking Indian woman staring at her.
“Yes! Hi!” she replied enthusiastically.
“Hmm…be careful. Keep your husband under your control. You never know who may try to steal him away.”
“Excuse me!” Sohini shrilled, offended.
“He is friends with that Jyoti woman, isn’t he? They know each other from New Jersey. She was his manager’s wife. She divorced her husband and got him thrown in jail, just so she could be with Dipankar. I know because my husband used to work in the same office. The affair created quite a scandal. That’s why Dipankar moved to Philly. But then she followed him here too. I’m warning you for your own good.”
Sohini was shocked. The woman’s words swirled around in her mind, making her reevaluate everything she had seen and experienced so far.
Her perception was coloured now, and all the mischievous exchanges between Jyoti and Dipankar took on a new form. She started resenting the time they spent together, and insisted on spending time only as a couple. Dipankar would oblige, but after they returned home from eating out or watching a movie, he would disappear into Jyoti’s house and spend time with her too.
Jyoti had come over for evening chai. She rummaged through the kitchen drawers for a knife to cut the tea cake she had brought along. Finding it, she smiled.
“Dipu, remember this knife? Soni, this mad fellow gave me so much grief over this knife. I was helping him with the pre-wedding shopping to help set up this house, and this guy tells me that these knives are too sharp and that you might hurt yourself! I don’t know what he expected you to do with blunt knives.”
Dipankar guffawed, and said, “But I really don’t know what I would have done without you Jo. You really must thank her, Sohini. She did so much to make this house ready for you.”
“Well, if she has done so much, she might as well have moved in with you. Isn’t that why she came from New Jersey to Philly? Why am I here like a third wheel?” Sohini snapped.
Jyoti looked as if she had been slapped. Without a word, she went back to her own apartment.
Dipankar was furious.
“What is wrong with you? How can you say such things? Jo is so kind!”
“Why aren’t you with her then? You know all about her favourite things. Do you know anything about me?”
“That is so unfair! We’ve only been married for a few months. I am trying to know you, but it will take time. And that is no excuse to speak to her like that! Go and apologize right now!”
“Apologize? Me? Why? She is the one monopolizing your time. How will you get to know me when you don’t spend time with me? You were too tired to watch a movie with me, but the moment she walked in with that stupid tea cake, you had all the energy in the world.” Sohini burst into tears.
“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this!” said Dipankar. Going into the guest bedroom, he banged the door shut.
Sohini spent the night crying. She felt angry and humiliated. When she woke in the morning, after a fitful sleep, Dipankar was leaving for work.
“Oh! You’re up!” he said. “Have made some bhurjee and toast. It’s on the table.”
“Wait!” Sohini exclaimed. Dipankar looked at her curiously. When she did not speak, he spoke again.
“Listen…what happened was not ideal. I’m sorry. I realize that from your point of view, my relationship with Jo looks like an affair. But it isn’t. She is a really good friend who has been through a lot. I promise to spend more time with you and to get to know you. But you have to apologize to Jo, Sohini.”
“Why can’t you tell me about New Jersey?” Sohini asked.
“Because it is not my story to tell,” said Dipankar, before kissing Sohini on the forehead and leaving.
Going about her routine, Sohini was restless. She trusted Dipankar. But Jyoti? Squaring her shoulders, she marched to Jyoti’s apartment, and knocked.
Jyoti opened the door. She had obviously been crying. She looked worn down and miserable. Sohini, who hadn’t expected this, was taken aback.
“Come in,” Jyoti said.
Sohini stepped in and Jyoti closed the door. They stood silently for a few moments. Finally, Sohini spoke.
“I need to know about New Jersey.”
Jyoti sighed, “Yes. Sit. This will take some time.”
“All this happened two years ago,” Jyoti began. “My ex-husband worked in the New Jersey office. We were newly married then. All that seemed to matter to my parents was that he had a green card. In the few conversations I had with him before marriage he came across as a decent guy. But once we were here, I began to see a different side to him. He refused to let me get a job. He controlled what I spent and what I purchased. He even held on to my passport and other documents and did not give me access to them. When I protested, he kicked me in the stomach and belted me on my back. I was frightened, but I threatened to call 911. So he took away my phone. He used to disconnect the wi-fi router and take it away with him. He would let me talk to my parents on the weekends only, and that too under his supervision. I was trapped.
One day, he took me to an office picnic in a park. By this time I had broken down and was depressed. I wasn’t interested in socializing with his office people and their families, so I had taken a book with me, and was quietly reading it under a tree. That’s when I met Dipankar. He asked me about the book and we got talking. He was sweet and gentle. He reminded me a bit of my brother. He was lonely too, and we became good friends. He would often drop by at home, to give me a book or to have a cup of tea. He encouraged me to start writing.
All this made my husband insanely jealous. He wouldn’t say anything in front of Dipu, but later he would tear up the books if he found them, or hit me. He would delete all my writing from the laptop. Dipu suspected that something was wrong. He asked me, and I was so grateful to have a listening ear that I told him. He told me that I was being abused and that I should leave. I didn’t listen. Domestic abuse sounds like something that always happens to someone else, not to ourselves. I could not accept that an educated woman like me was being subjected to it. I was ashamed.
Meanwhile, he started creating issues for Dipu at work. He managed to get Dipu transferred to the Philly office and told everyone that Dipu had seduced me. He completely ruined my reputation and cut me off from everyone. That is when realization finally came. One night, when he was drunk and fast asleep, I took the keys to the safe, took my documents and ran away. From a convenience store, I called the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Then began the series of accusations and counter accusations. Police and courts and social workers. Finally, one day I was free. I found a job in Philly and moved here. I didn’t contact Dipu then. I’d given him enough trouble, I thought. But we bumped into each other while shopping and Dipu insisted that we keep in touch. Eventually he moved to this apartment here, so that he could be there for me. Trust me, Sohini, he is a great guy and he would never do anything to hurt you. We are just friends, I swear!
“I had no idea! I’m so sorry, Jo!”
“No…Please don’t! I’m sorry if I’ve been intrusive. I promise to be more careful now.”
“No Jyoti. I am truly sorry. I realize now what you are for each other. I am sorry I misunderstood.”
“Thank you for understanding” Jyoti said. “Dipu is a wonderful man. He will always be faithful to you. I owe him so much. It was a book that he gave me, that motivated me to get out from under my husband’s thumb.”
“Yes. The last book he gave me before he left for Philly was a book of poems. He’d marked one of the poems for me to read, with a piece of paper with the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The poem was The Summer Day by Mary Oliver. The sense of freedom that poem evoked, and the last two lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –they stirred something up deep within me. I knew then that I did not want to compromise on my freedom. And then, I flew.”
Silently, Sohini stretched her hand out towards Jyoti, who took it and gave it a squeeze. A circle of trust had just been formed.
National Domestic Violence Hotline (USA): 1-800-799-7233/ 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
For India, this link has useful resources for women dealing with domestic abuse.
Vijayalakshmi Harish wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from the movie Badhaai Ho
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