Monday, February 27, 2012

My daughter will always have a refuge

I spent most of the morning today sitting in a hospital waiting room. One of my second cousins is in the burn ward, with 80% burns, struggling to stay alive for another hour, another day. All I could think of, in that antiseptic, impersonal space reeking of disinfectant is why daughters are still burning in educated, modern, urban India, and that all of us should hang our heads in shame.

Tuesday, (after eight-odd years of marriage, and a two year old kid) J was rushed to the emergency room of the biggest hospital in her city with massive and severe burns to all her upper body. They immediately sent her to the better hospitals in this city because the injuries were too severe for them to handle. This current hospital, one of the best in the country, has refused to give any kind of a prognosis until at least fifteen days have passed, because with burn victims, things can go wrong at any time. Yesterday she was doing well, had even been given a little solid food, and this morning she crashed again and was back in the ICCU.

There is a very real doubt that she will survive this, her 3 month foetus hasn’t (she was pregnant at the time of the incident). If she does survive, this once extremely pretty girl will be hideous for the rest of her life. Her looks are not only gone, they are now the opposite of good. And that’s the least of her worries (although normal looks, if not beauty, is a big part of most peoples’ self esteem, and disfigurement or severe scarring can take years of counseling – which she is not likely to get in India where seeing a psychologist is still a huge taboo – to get over). Best case scenario is that it will take her months, if not years, to get back to some semblance of functioning normality, both physically and psychologically.

How that is to be managed is anyone’s guess. With a small child to manage as well as her own recovery, doing all that is necessary to ensure her return to former health is likely to be slow and problematic at best, even assuming there is no permanent damage to any of the organs. Add to this all the emotional and psychological aspects, and it becomes more and more complicated. Getting back from any kind of severe trauma is a long haul of sorting out one’s head, dealing with various sorts of monsters, and learning to feel oneself to be whole and human all over again.

However tough the future looks, the real issue remains what has happened in the past, not merely from the viewpoint of punishment of the guilty, but also because much of it will affect how the future needs to be handled. First of all, why did this happen? Bengali families are renowned for their superior treatment of women. Bengali daughters, wives, and daughters in law have a much better voice in the family than women from most other communities, and the whole dowry issue is much, much less of a problem because traditionally most Bengalis have no concept of dahej. Bengali women, most people who know Bengalis will tell you, are stronger, with a longer history of women’s education, bolder, and much more outspoken.

Given that all of this is, by and large, true, it is a matter for grave concern that incidents like this one are on the increase. Dowry has started to become more common, or more open, as have cases of domestic violence, spousal abuse, and yes, burnings. And no, they are not all in the villages or happening to uneducated women with no other option except to live on in the marital home. In fact, in many cases the women are well educated, often working, and most of the reported cases are in the cities. So, obviously something is wrong with the way we are bringing up our girls that educated, financially independent, urban women are unable to leave even after undergoing years of abuse and mental, physical, and emotional torture. Why is it that these women feel themselves obligated to continue the charade called marriage in these situations, even unto a horrible and painful death?

This case is a prime example. Although all the facts are not all in yet, what we know as of now is bad enough. It was a love marriage, which is probably part of the problem, because – especially in India where marrying for love is still the rarer and not so socially acceptable way of finding a mate – women often tend to take a lot of abuse, endure a lot of torture, without letting their families know. Their logic is along the lines of “I made the choice now I must live with it”. Of course I find this completely meaningless, and wish that parents would teach their girls that people make mistakes, everyone does, and having made a mistake, and realized it, one does not have to live with it for 8 or 17 or 50 years! Especially not when living with the mistake involves insults, abuse, and physical and emotional torture!

She is highly qualified, has a masters degree in life sciences, and teaches at a college. For all the FEMINISTS who think that just having an independent source of income will magically emancipate women from all the nastiness they face everyday in every society, this is what the world really is like! We have still not been able to teach our girls that nothing, NOTHING, can excuse any kind of abuse, and that they have all the right to walk out of ANY relationship at the first hint of it! We are still unable to give them the mental and emotional support that are essential if their financial independence is to mean anything. We are still unable to say “your home is always open for you, and you can come back at anytime if things get bad out there”.

Everyone is bickering about whether he set fire to her or she set it herself. The point is that regardless of who did the actual striking of the match, things obviously didn’t get to this point in one day. How is it that we cannot make our daughters and sisters strong enough to walk out at the first sign of abuse? Why is it that a beautiful, educated, working, above middle class woman (among the more empowered minority in India) cannot leave a philandering, cheating, abusive husband? Why can’t she leave a man who, in all the ways that society measures eligibility, is less of a catch than her? Looks, family, roots, Ghar bar, she trumps him in every way! So what is it that makes this power imbalance just as bad as, if not worse than, any of the typical repressive marriages around us?

And even now, when she is lying there between life and death, there is still no strength being shown about what the future will be like if she does make it. I’m still hearing “lets see, if she wants to go back then …” instead of a firm “she will stay here at home until the matter is sorted out, and forever if necessary”. And its not a lack of financial strength. Not only are the parents perfectly financially able to take care of her and the child for the rest of their lives, she IS educated and employed, so she is not likely to be a burden on them. It may take her a while, maybe 6 months maybe a year, but she WILL be back on her feet. And having her parents’ support would surely make her recovery faster.

Instead, what’s likely to happen is that she will go back to the same abusive marital home which tried to kill her or drove her to try to kill herself. And, this time, she is not likely to get out of there alive. It makes my blood boil. As a mother of a girl, I CANNOT imagine ANY situation in which my naak, reputation, image, biradari, what will people say, would EVER be more important to me than the happiness and well being of my child. I CANNOT imagine any situation in which I would put my girl in a position I know is likely to kill her merely to save face in some mythical social circle.

My daughter already knows, as I am fortunate to know, that my father’s house is my house. That I am DEFINITELY NOT paraya. That I can just pick up a suitcase and arrive on their doorstep when things get too much to take, and I will be most welcome. That my parents, and my brother, are THERE for me… no matter what … in the most important ways. That I ALWAYS have their love and support when I need it the most. That I will NEVER be turned away if I need to come to them for shelter and succour, and that I need not kill myself, or allow myself to be killed, as my sole escape from hell.

My daughter knows this is true for her too, and she is told so everyday. I just wish we could tell this to all our daughters, to make them believe it, and to really give it to them, so that I would not have to spend any more mornings weeping in the cold impersonal disinfectant reeking hell of a hospital waiting room.


  1. that's truly troubling. you tend to imagine that things like this happen in 'other parts' of India - not, as you say, in Bongland, and not to educated women. not even sure what to hope for your cousin, except that it be what SHE wants.

    1. yes soma, it is troubling and shocking. i'm still quite stunned. and, as you said, one really doesn't know what to wish for her...wishing her life might just be wishing her years of physical, mental and emotional trauma, not to mention whatever she may have to face if (as seems likely) she goes back to her marital home. and we are just not comfortable with the idea of wishing someone death, especially with a kid involved. first of all, i just need to wrap my head around the idea that this could happen not just in bongland but in an educated, urban, fairly open minded (she had an intercaste love marriage, without any family controversy), upper middle class family!