The Face that Haunts Me

By: Tamanna Basu

She sat across from me at Pehchan Shelter. Her hollow eyes spread a haunted look across her face. Her three daughters aged ten, six and three years respectively played around her. Sometimes she would respond to them; only for them emotions of love, concern and interest flickered across the deathly stillness of her face. She just sat there unmoving and still. I saw her just once during my visits to Pehchan and I have carried her in my memory ever since. It isn’t easy to forget such faces. They haunt us. Every now and then, they suddenly flash across our minds telling us to remember the horror we have inflicted upon them.

Hardly out of school, just about eighteen, Malti’s marriage was arranged to Hitesh Singh. Hitesh was is driver based in Raipur, Chattisgarh. The eternal duty of Indian parents towards daughters often consists of getting rid off them at the earliest possible by enslaving them to some male through marriage. Having concluded the aforementioned duty, Malti’s parents, Hori and Sona, were convinced of their righteousness. However, girls in India often go on to pay the price for the decisions of their parents and Malti was no exception. On a bleak day in 2004 Malti’s marriage took place. Her marriage day, the day of her dreams, commemorated the beginning of twelve long, endless years of violence and abuse: twelve years of a precious life, twelve years of a precious youth.

Hitesh would come home every evening, drunk and dangerous. He would beat her. He would gag her to silence her screams of agony and he would beat her. He would abuse her physically, sexually and psychologically. It’s the matter of a simple routine: wake up in the morning, eat the food the wife provides, go to work, go out with the menfolk, get drunk, come and beat the wife, go to sleep and repeat. Beating the ‘Maltis’ of the world is just a part of the daily routine of many husbands in India. It is also just as normal for a woman to silently endure for society makes it taboo for a woman to publicly speak out against her family, her marriage, her husband (her patidev?). Hence, Malti endured.

Malti became pregnant with her first child. A pregnancy cannot interfere with Hitesh’s daily routine. He would continue to beat his pregnant wife. The first child was a daughter. The violence increased. Hitesh and his mother would both abuse Malti repeatedly. The logic was simple: Malti had given birth to a daughter = Malti had given birth to a burden = Malti had not given birth to a son = Malti was cursed = Malti had committed a crime = Malti had to be punished. She got pregnant a second time and prayed with all her heart that the child would be a boy. However, she again gave birth to a girl and her nightmare just got worse. The violence extended beyond her. Hitesh would abuse not just her, but also her two daughters.

Her third pregnancy concluded in a baby boy. She had brought a son. Hitesh was overjoyed. He conducted various celebrations and ceremonies that had never been arranged for the girls. A ray of hope shone for Malti. She thought her husband would begin to love her now, maybe her in-laws would accept her, maybe her marital life would improve. She forgot the basic principle of a patriarchal world- a woman can never be good enough. The violence continued uninterrupted. Hoping against hope, Malti fled to her mother seeking permission to return home. How often do we encourage girls to walk out of bad marriage? How often do we not tell them to make their marriages work at all costs? Sona, Malti’s mother, is the child of the same culture. She told her daughter, ““humne teri shadi kardi ab tera pati tujhe jaise rakhe tujhe rehna hoga.” (We have married you off now you will have to live in whatever conditions or suffering your husband wishes to keep you)

We often deprive girls of the ability to economically sustain themselves. We financially handicap them so that they are forced to live in slavery with their husband for their basic survival even if he is a monster, even if they desire to escape. With no means to provide for herself or her children, Malti continued to live her daily horror and became pregnant for the fourth time. For the third time she gave birth to a baby girl. She had sinned too many times to be forgiven. Hitesh’s ‘generous mercy’ couldn’t extend itself any further. His violence knew no bounds. He threw his youngest daughter into the toilet causing her several injuries. Her hearing and speaking abilities continue to be impaired due to that incident. Malti flared into an argument and asked him to explain his behavior, and he did. He informed her that she would need to clear out because he had another woman in his life whom he wished to marry. With that, he threw her and her three daughters out of his house. Naturally, he held back her son, his prince. As the door slammed on her face she, a poor woman, was left to fend for herself in a culture that preys upon the poor and upon women.

Her trauma of the first night of homelessness with her three daughters is beyond description or comprehension. For a few days she lived on the streets of Raipur. When one has nothing, one tries everything. As all doors of possibility continued to remain closed, Malti spontaneously boarded a train to Amritsar, her hometown, and received shelter at the Amritsar Gurudwara for three months. Yet another bleak day caused her to board another train. It so happened that the station at which the train deposited her and her children was Nizammudin, Delhi. For another three months Malti lived at Nizammudin Railway station. Railway stations are threatening, menacing spaces for homeless women and children. They are the hub of all forms of abuse, violence and trafficking. Malti’s experiences during the months at Nizammudin Railway station are terrible and painful. She does not speak of them.

One day in July, 2015, Malti’s condition was observed by an NGO that works for child rights at Nizammudin Railway station. Thereafter her life improved. The NGO brought Malti and her children to Shakti Shalini. Throughout her marriage and particularly during her months of homelessness, Malti had lived in conditions that were threatening, predatory and fearful. Thus, her immediate need was for safety. We immediately installed her and her family at Pehchan Center, Shakti Shalini’s shelter home. She received a safe and comfortable shelter to live in with regular food supply and sanitary facilities. Soon after Malti came we realized that she had a skin infection. Her entire body was itching and a rash had spread across her arms. Shakti Shalini got her infection treated at Holy Family Hospital.

The process of recovery from a lifetime of abuse and trauma is long and arduous. Malti required intense psychiatric aid. We provided her counseling session at Shakti Shalini’s department for CICC (Crisis Intervention and Counseling Centre) and initiated her into regular psychiatric treatment at IHBAS. She was emotionally very restless, insecure, scared and untrusting and would not talk about her suffering. Gradually however, psychiatrists and counselors were able to engage her in conversations. They came to the decision that Malti was not in a condition, currently, to cater to the needs of three children. However, Malti was very protective about her children and would constantly keep them near her. It was a very difficult task to convince her to let her children be moved to a shelter home where they could receive educational opportunities, at least till such time when she can provide for them. Through regular psychiatric treatment, her permission was finally obtained and Shakti Shalini contacted the Juvenile Justice System viz CWC. The CWC was very supportive. They found a single shelter home for the girls to be moved to where they could live together and grow with the support of one another.

The day of parting was traumatic for Malti and her children. Malti somehow found the strength to leave them at the shelter home but on returning she began to impatiently ask for them to be brought back to her. She wanted to return to them and was scared for their well-being and safety. As a frightened and apprehensive mother she could not believe or understand in that moment that her children were assuredly well taken care of. Through rigorous counseling she given reassured and convinced that her children were safe and healthy and she began to grow calmer. After a few days of psychiatric treatment she was taken to visit her daughters. It was a most exciting event in Malti’s life. The mother and children were overwhelmed and delighted to meet each other and Malti was happy to see her children being well looked after. The day, however, ended and Malti had to return to Pehchan. Disregarding all the facilities surrounding her children, Malti wanted to bring them back with her. Shakti Shalini had to again conduct a difficult intervention and explain to her the realities and needs of her present condition. Enduring another painful parting, Malti returned to Pehchan.

Currently, Malti is 36 years old and resides at Pehchan under the protection of Shakti Shalini. She is being provided with skill development classes that will enable her to create a source of income. Her psychiatric treatment also continues and her emotional health has shown vast improvement. When she visits her children now, she is able to acknowledge the necessity of them living at their shelter home and does not insist on keeping them with her immediately. The home provides safe and clean living conditions, medical and sanitary facilities, nutritious food and educational opportunities. Surrounded by toys and other children, the daughters have begun to experience a better childhood. Through efficient training, the three girls put up a group dance performance and gave a speech in English during the Independence Day celebrations at Shakti Shalini. Malti is now content that they are getting a safe and protective environment to grow in and has begun to work towards the improvement of her own life so that she can ensure a better future for herself and her children.

Domestic violence is shockingly recurrent and usual in our society. It is often supported and encouraged by various social and legal institutions. The Home Minister and Minister for Women and Child Develoment have recently denied the existence of marital rape as a concept that does not apply to India because ours is a country that considers marriage sacred. Malti’s is a tale of violence- sexual, physical and psychological- within this very “sacred” insitituion of marriage. It is an old and typical tale. It is so commonplace that for many people it borders on ‘boring’. A culture that has normalized such horrors within systems of marriage thrives in many parts of India and has to be actively fought. Marital rape and domestic violence is a widespread, brutal, physical reality of India. We at Shakti Shalini attempt to counter a culture of gender violence by providing aid to victims and by spreading awareness through our articles and case studies.

If you wish to join us in our endeavor or give your views on this article, do leave a comment below. Thank You.

*All names have been changed

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