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With a Little Help from my Friends

To the Women Who are not Bound by Stereotypes is an anthology series compiled by Surbhi Thakur. For this series, our Community Education Lead, Binty Mehta, wrote this short inspired by one of Aks’ cases.

Shyama sat by the window and looked out at the busy road. It had been raining since last night and since she had moved to Mumbai twenty years ago, she had fallen in love with the incessant rains that the city experienced during monsoon. She sipped on her tea and relaxed as today was not such a busy day for her. The rest of week she barely had time as her work exceeded beyond the school time where she was a senior coordinator for International students. She looked at the photo of her daughter who was now working for a start-up in Singapore, and smiled. Last evening when Ankita had called there was a lightness in her voice and she sounded happy. Shyama let out a small prayer and touched the wooden table also. Her mind wandered to the scene almost a decade ago when she had left home with a small bag of essentials and Ankita who was barely 5months in her womb.

She had just completed her Master’s degree in Education when her parents met Vikram at a family function. They were charmed by his looks and behaviour. They had met his parents socially a couple of times and knew that he worked with a bank. In their mind he seems like a good match for their daughter. Shyama, their only child, wanted to study further or pick up a job but the families and especially Vikram convinced her that she would be able to continue whatever she wants later. Like many girls of her age she gave in to the pressure from family and reluctantly agreed. Over the next couple of months, after a few meetings between the families an auspicious date was set for their wedding. Meanwhile she got an offer to teach from a school nearby which she accepted. Shyama had always wanted to be a working woman and wanted to excel at what she did. Now after her wedding she was looking forward to a new happy phase in her life, balancing both work and home. 

She knew it was going to be hard to manage both as her in-laws were also going to be living with them. But being the perfectionist that she was, she wanted to do her best for everyone. For the first few days everything seemed normal but as soon as the last guest left she was noticed a big change around her. The tone with which Vikram spoke to her was not like she had experienced in before. She was nervous and thought that there must have been something she didn’t do right! Slowly she tried to ask Vikram if she had made a mistake in doing some chore or said something out of line to a relative. He simply brushed her aside, gave an uncaring look and went out. Her in-laws also didn’t say a word to her. She lay on the bed tired, physically and emotionally, and relived the last few days looking for where she could have gone wrong. She had been rushing to her school in the morning after finishing the cooking and cleaning and many other chores, worked at school throughout the day standing on her feet from one classroom to another, came back and did all the pending chores. She had found it very hectic but told herself that all married women have to do the same. And now nothing seemed the same, it looked as if she was now in an entirely different household, and people were so different too! 

Vikram started spending a lot of evenings out with his friends and even when he was home he was always in an angry foul mood. She had started to become a little fearful of him because even at the slightest of things he would raise his voice and look at her with razor sharp eyes. Her father-in-law in fact blamed her parents for everything, the things they gave, the way they had raised her, even her complexion. He also told her plainly that he would expect her to hand over her full salary from the month end. Her mother-in-law found faults with every chore she did, never lent a helping hand and always praising her son. Over the next few weeks Shyama kept trying to figure out the reason for this shift in everyone. She couldn’t even talk to her parents about it as her father was not keeping too well lately. One day led to another in the hope of things changing. But the worst was yet to come!

Shyama wanted to buy a new sari for her cousin’s wedding. When she asked Vikram for some money, her own money for which she worked hard at school, he flew in to a rage. The moment she insisted, he pushed her against the wall and slapped her across her face! Shyama was shocked and slumped to the floor. In a daze she wiped the tiny blood drop-lets from the side of her bottom lip. She knew by now that his job was not going well and he didn’t earn as much his family had mentioned earlier. Still he spent lavishly on going out with his friends and clothes. Her head was reeling with thoughts and trying to make sense of the situation she had landed up in. “You are good for nothing, we only agreed for our son to marry you because you were earning. And your father had promised to give a starting amount to Vikram to buy a shop, which he still hasn’t done! You deserve nothing!” her mother-in-law’s words kept ringing in her ears. She felt completely alone and scared and had no one to turn to.

Slowly the abuse be it be physical, emotional or financial, became a part of everyday life. She was only allowed to go for work and not even to meet with her parents using some pretext or the other. A few months later Vikram lost his job and then things started to really go downhill. For Shyama time had stood still, one day of torture blended in to next day. She had now learnt to hide the bruises which Vikram often left on her body when she went to work, she had learned to paste a smile on her face while her eyes were stinging with unshed tears. She had lost all her confidence and felt broken from inside. She couldn’t even keep her food down and a few days later a test revealed that she was pregnant. For a while a ray of hope ran through her body as she was sure that this may bring a change in Vikram. But little did she know that it would make matters worse. Vikram said, “You must not keep this baby! Your salary is not enough and I don’t want a baby now.” His mother was clear that they didn’t want this responsibility as keeping Shyama in the house was already such a big deal for them. One day while walking past her in the house she pushed her on purpose with force. Shyama grabbed the edge of the cupboard to break her fall and not fall flat on her stomach but hit the side of her head against it. With tears mixed with blood running down her face, she knew things would never change. She had to save her baby and herself.

Shyama’s tears now were turning in to anger. She wanted to get away from an atmosphere where she and her baby to be born would not be cared for or loved. If not for her own self, she definitely wanted to shower all love and happiness on her baby. She wanted to be rid of this constant feeling of anxiety and fear in each and every part of her body. Till now she had not shared what was happening at home with anyone but then suddenly she thought of Bharati in Pune. Her cousin of the same age as her, who worked with an NGO for women. She gave her a call one day when everyone else had gone for a function at the neighbour’s home. Very hesitatingly, breaking in to sobs narrated all that was happening with her. Bharati was very supportive and heard her with compassion. She shared that she was working with Aks Foundation, a Pune-based NGO that worked for Women Empowerment and Domestic Violence. She explained the various ways a woman is abused and also assured Shyama that she was a victim of emotional, physical and financial abuse and that she needed to make a choice of either getting away from it for her mental and physical well-being or stay as she was. Shyama was already clear in her mind of the path she wanted to take. Bharati arranged for a call with their Legal department who could guide her with resources and all legal knowledge of how to go about it. Shyama felt a little hopeful though this decision to leave and walk away from her married life was not going to be easy. But now her mind was made up and she was certain that she wanted to start over. It was not going to be easy but it was possible. For a fleeting moment she thought of telling her parents but then quickly discarded it. They were old and traditional and their first reaction would be to tell her to adjust and be patient. 

Over the next few weeks she spoke with the team at Aks whenever she could find the time to talk privately and came up with a plan. She would apply for a job in Pune, Bharati had offered that she could stay with her till she found her bearings. She planned to take her jewellery which she had just taken out of her mother-in-law’s locker for a family wedding when she left just to help her start. And now she was aware that legally all jewellery given to her from both sides during the wedding was hers to keep. Slowly without anyone’s knowledge put away important documents in a small bag. She was very careful that no one found out about what she was going to or else she was sure they would not let her go for work. Anyway there was no place she ever went!

On the chosen day she left for work as usual, very discretely carrying her small bag with a bag full of notebooks of her students. She took a detour to the station where one of Bharati’s friend handed her a train ticket to Pune. As she boarded the train, she had such a feeling of loss and failure that she almost got down. Collecting her courage she reminded herself that however tough the future may seem, but it will certainly a life of dignity. Once the train started, there was no looking back for Shyama. On reaching Pune, things happened as her plan. A few weeks later she got a job at a school and made money to take care of her basic needs at least. She would often feel lonely and guilty especially when her parents spoke to her. They suffered a lot of verbal abuse from her in-laws when Vikram was served with divorce papers. But slowly after listening to various incidents about her life with Vikram and now on hearing the kind of life she lightness and an occasional small laugh in Shyama’s voice they too had come had extended full support to her. Slowly and slowly Shyama gained back her confidence and gathered pieces of her life, some voids and regrets still remained, but she was sure she had done the right thing. When little Ankita was born her parents were there with her to help her in yet another new phase of life. 

Today, like an old film that you have watched before, everything flashed before her eyes. Her journey from Pune to Mumbai, Ankita growing up to an intelligent sensitive girl, her parents passing away a few years ago and her strong bond with Bharati. Shyama also said a prayer of gratitude for Aks Foundation, without the support and guidance from there she would never have been in this more content, respectful and dignified space.