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“And this is how it started. One little thing at a time, given up for my convenience or so he made me believe. I will tell you about a few such instances.”
“I would like to record this interview; hope you don’t mind. It helps me when I write the article.”
“So, tell me a little bit about yourself?”
“There’s not much to tell….., that is about myself.”
“But you have a lot to say about what happened to you.”
“Yes,” she nodded, a little lost in her thoughts. She then sighed deeply and gathered her wits and looked directly at me for the first time since I had arrived at her small but cozy apartment in Versova a stark contrast from her posh sea-facing four bedroom flat in Juhu where I knew she used to live.
“Sorry, let’s do this properly. I am Aruni Sharma. I was born into a privileged and well-respected business family. The only child, I had everything. But my parents made sure I was grounded and that I never forgot our humble origin.”
“So, basically your life was set, as they say,” I smiled.
Smiling wryly in response she said, “Yes, you could say that. I studied at NID, Ahmedabad for two and half years and then for a year at one of the world’s leading design academy, Florence Design Academy, France. I had aspirations and plans to open my own interior designing studio. I was half way through that when tragedy struck.” She looked away, lost in her thoughts again.
“Yes, the news of your parents’ car crash and their untimely death was front news for many days. I am so sorry for your loss.”
She nodded acknowledgement and continued with a sad smile, “It feels as if……”
“I have lived two lives. With my parents and with my husband. I am two different women. Some times it makes me so angry. How could I let this happen to myself? I had education, friends, money and yet……, I can totally understand how difficult it must be for women who don’t have any or all of this. It’s for them that I want to do this.”
“Get my story out there. And I am already in the process of setting up an NGO for this specific issue.”
“Tell me about this issue. What is it? How did it start?”
“Oh, it started very slowly. That is why I didn’t even realize it was happening. After my parents’ death, I was thrust into the world of business. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about it. So, between grieving my parents, trying to oversee the company – even though it was in good hands – and despairing over the fact that I will have to postpone the plans for my studio, I was in an emotional tizzy.”
I could well imagine that. As I sat opposite her, I saw agitation, grief, anger flit across her expressive face.
“It had been three months. I was working on auto pilot. I was not sleeping well even though I was exhausted. This administration, as I thought of it, was not my work, creativity was. The only time I felt at peace was when I went to the orphanage where I had been volunteering for many years. Suddenly I felt an affinity with them. You know, we didn’t belong to anybody and nobody belonged to us. It was here that I met Harsh.”
“Your future husband?”
“Yes. He had recently moved to the neighborhood. He told me he used to volunteer in an orphanage in Vadodara and wanted to continue doing the same, here in Mumbai.”
“So, it was here that the two of you bonded. And just after your parents’ first death anniversary you were married in a very private ceremony.”
“I see you have done your homework.”
“That’s my job. Moreover, this is public knowledge,” I shrugged.
“Yes,” she was lost again. I cleared my throat after a minute or so.
“Right, married we were. And happy we were. Atleast in the beginning. But soon he started telling me to take it easy. To slow down. That I didn’t have to handle the grief, the office, the orphanage, my plans for my studio which I had tentatively started working on, all alone. He said that it was important that we grieve our loss and let our souls heal. Oh, how I had thought it was concern for me and felt so happy to have him as my life partner.”
The yearning on her face was heartbreaking. Here was a woman who had taken a chance on love and lost.
“Then slowly his tune changed.”
“Aruni, I had asked you to make lemonade for me, not coffee,” he said one morning.
“Last night after dinner, I told you I wanted lemonade in the morning. Remember we talked about taking a vacation.”
“And did you, that is talk about vacation?” I asked.
“Yeah, I had remembered talking about that vacation, but nothing about the lemonade and I told him so.”
“See you forgot. There are other things occupying your mind. You need sometime for yourself, to relax and unburden. I think for some time you should stop going to the orphanage.”
“Where’s my blue shirt?” he shouted.
“It’s on the bed,” I said from the kitchen.
“Really, you call this blue?” he indicated the neatly folded pink shirt kept on the bed as I entered the room. “Now we need to have you checked for colorblindness.”
“But…,” I was confused, “I was sure I had kept the blue one.”
“So, it changed colors spontaneously. I had asked you to do a simple thing. Geez Aruni,” he said shaking his head.
“Aruni, where is that black file I gave you two days ago to keep in my desk drawer? I can’t find it.”
When I entered the fourth bed-room which we had converted into his home-office I saw him frantically searching for the file.
“I kept it in the top drawer like you told me too.” I said with growing unease.
“Well, as you can see it’s not here. I bet you have kept it in some other place and forgotten.”
He then went to rummage through our wardrobes and found the file where I kept my important papers.
“See, here it is. You knew it was important so you kept it in a safe place, but not the right safe place. I don’t know what do with you. I should do my own things.”
One night at dinner, “Wow, something smells great. Thank you for cooking, I know you don’t like it, but I hate the maid cooking for me. Guess I am spoilt that way, Amma always cooked for the family.”
“That’s ok. Sit, I will serve.”
The moment he chewed the first bite he spat it out. “What is this? You’ve put too much salt in it. I bet you put it twice. Why didn’t you taste it before serving? It looks great but is worthless, just like you.” He slid the plate with enough force to spill the food on the glass table and left the dining room.
Tears rolled down my face.
“Oh, for God’s sake stop crying. I will order Chinese. It will be here soon,” he said returning with his phone in his hand.
“I..d..don’t like Chinese,” I stammered.
“So now you don’t like what I order. Always complaining. Did I scream and shout at you for making horrible food? No. At least we will have something to eat.
Once he came over with his friends on a Friday night. Guess he understood the look of shock on my face. He excused himself and asked me to follow him into the bedroom.
“Please, please tell me you haven’t forgotten that I had invited my friends over for dinner today.”
“Oh my God, you forgot. I should have known. It is my fault I should have double checked. But I keep hoping, that with not going to orphanage and me taking over the business you would have sometime on your hands to relax and you will not forget small and simple things. But God knows what is going on in your brain? What kind of a partner are you? I can’t even rely on you for simple things. Shit, shit. Anyway, I will order food now. This is so embarrassing.”
“I am sorry Harsh. I just…don’t remember when you told me.”
“My God! Are you accusing me of lying? I don’t have time for this now. At least go and be polite and serve some drinks. You can do that, can’t you? Now I will have to make an excuse for you not cooking,” saying so he stormed out of the bedroom.
“Aruni, I hope you remember that we have to go to the Mehta’s party tonight.”
“Yes I do. See I don’t forget everything,” I said pleased with myself.
“A late meeting has come up, so I won’t be able to make it home. I will meet you there. Remember the dress-code is red.”
“Yes, I remember that too.”
“You know, I was so happy that evening. But when I walked into that party I was the only one in red. Everyone else was in black. It felt completely ridiculous. The hostess was nice, she offered me a black dress to change into. At that moment Harsh came over and laughing blamed my forgetfulness for the mix up and apologized and told me to change. I was grateful to him for coming to my rescue. It was only when I was changing and had calmed down enough that I remembered it was he who had told me to wear red. Why would he do that? So that night when we got back home, I asked him,” she said angrily.
“I told you to wear red? Are you crazy? Why would I do that. Deliberately embarrass myself.”
“Well I was embarrassed too that night. But he was right, why would he do that? That is what made me doubt myself,” she frowned and said.
“Well, it seems that he was undermining your confidence and creating doubt in your mind,” I remarked underlining the words ‘undermining confidence, creating doubt’ in my notepad.
“A few days after that incident at the Mehta’s party, I informed him that I was going out with my friends.”
“I don’t want to spoil things for you but I feel I must warn you. That night I heard a few of these friends of yours making fun of you. Saying how you are losing your mind and how difficult it must be for me. Believe me I wanted to walk-in on them and tell them to mind their own business. But I realized they were speaking the truth. Don’t believe everything they say. They will lie to you.”
“So, obviously when I met them, my mind was already poisoned. It was a miserable afternoon. I hardly spoke and they looked at me as if I was going crazy. Though in hindsight I feel they were really concerned for me, but at that time I thought they were making fun of me,” she said regretfully.
“Wow, he very cunningly cut you off from the orphanage, your dad’s business and then your own friends.”
“And during this time there was no physical abuse?”
“But didn’t you think this was still mental abuse or torture?”
“No, he was not abusing me or atleast that’s what I thought at that time. He was pointing out my shortcomings. On the other hand, there were times when he was kind too. He bought me flowers, candy or sat through the evenings and talked about all the success he was achieving and how my father would be proud of this had he been alive. Laughingly he would say that I was losing my mind and that I was driving him crazy, but he loved me so much, he didn’t know what to do.”
“Okaayyy,” I slowly nodded trying hard to put myself in her shoes and see what it felt like. I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that someone who was so confident so self-assured could be slowly but surely made to feel completely useless, that too without physical brutality and her realizing it. For me this was a whole new level of mental manipulation to control a person.
“I see you don’t believe me,” she said with a ghost of a smile playing on her lips.
“Sorry, I am not here to judge. I am here to report the facts,” I replied sheepishly.
“Sometimes a story is not facts but feelings,” she said with such pathos and her eyes urged me to understand her plight. It almost made me cry.
“Tell me then, what changed?” I said trying to divert the attention back to her.
“My friend Annu came,” wistfully smiling she said, “She was in America. She had to leave immediately after my parents’ death due to her commitments. She really regretted having to leave. Over a period of time our conversations grew shorter and the duration between calls grew longer. She was busy and so was I and I had found Harsh too.
“Since I lived in my parents’ apartment, she just turned up one morning and surprised me. When she saw how I looked, she was shocked! I had been married for three years and for me the change was gradual but for her it was abrupt. I was a pale shadow of my old self; she had said later. I don’t remember much of that day. Ironic isn’t it? Annu told me later that I didn’t smile the whole day. That she had to coax me to talk. But something in my demeanor alerted her to keep this visit to herself. She said, I knew not to talk to your husband.
“For the next few days, she came after Harsh left for office and left before he came back. Slowly she got me talking and once I started, I couldn’t stop. I told her everything.”
“Oh baby. He is trying to manipulate you. To make you think you are incompetent, incapable of taking care of yourself and others. He is making sure that you are dependent on him for everything. He has slowly stripped you of your personality.”
“But he is not abusing me, not physically not mentally. He is only trying to help me, protect me.”
“This is not your typical form of abuse Aruni. The physically and mentally abused know they are being abused. But your case is different. He is doing this to confuse you, to create doubt in your mind about your sanity, to keep you unbalanced and at the same time making you feel that only he is in your corner, that only he is looking out for your benefit. And for that reason alone, he criticizes you.”
“Oh God, this is bad. I am being abused and don’t even realize it,” I bawled my heart out.
“No sweetie, you were being gaslighted. To manipulate someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity is gaslighting. And its affects are equally devastating.”
“Why, but why would he do it?”
“Isn’t that obvious babes? Your money.”
“But all that is mine is his anyway. He could have asked?”
“And would you have stopped donating to various charitable causes you support, or to let him spend money as he wished on extravagant parties, vacations and homes? No. He wanted control over you and your money and this was the best way without raising any suspicion. Even yours.”
“From that day onwards she helped me. As a paralegal she had seen my kind of cases. She told me to maintain a diary jotting down important points of conversation and to What’sApp an image of that page to her daily. She even scolded two of our other very good friends for leaving me alone during these times. But in their defense, they too didn’t know gaslighting. And since then they have stood by my side.”
“Wow, it’s so unbelievable.”
“Yes, but believe me it’s more common than we realize. Annu helped me in my darkest hour, and it’s now my turn to pass it on. I have been in touch with lawyers, NGOs, psychologists and hundred other people to help in this endeavor. It’s been almost two years since Annu’s visit and a year since I walked out on Harsh. Each day has been a struggle but I won’t give up, either on myself or on the women out there who are completely ignorant of what is happening to them.”
“Hence your initiative – Don’t Give Up.”
Image source: Unsplash
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