By: Tamanna Basu
Three Delhi based sisters, yet little children, lost their parents to cancer. Aabha, the youngest, was only one year old at that time. Their paternal grandparents took up the responsibility of raising them. In 1998 the oldest sister, Reshma, got married and set up her own home while the younger ones continued to live with their grandparents. In a terrible reverberation of their tragedy, soon after Reshma’s marriage the sisters lost their grandparents as well. The two younger girls became homeless.
Reshma and her husband brought them into their own home and began to provide for them. In 2009 Lekha, the second sister also got married and moved to live with her husband in Rohtak. This is the story Aabha, the youngest of the three girls.
She was of a slightly different grain than her older sisters. She was ambitious and adventurous. She went to a government school daily and worked hard. After completing her 12th she managed to get a job as a teacher and counselor at Org.B. In addition to that she took admission as a student of Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) at IGNOU and balanced work and study together. Her hard work and sincerity had paid off.
However, Reshma, Aabha’s oldest sister who had given her shelter, provided for her needs, sent her to school and been, in so many ways, a parental figure to her, had begun to change colour. Aabha was in her early twenties and wasn’t showing any signs of marrying and moving out. Reshma was becoming impatient.
Domestic peace and happiness resides in small, unregistered factors, in the dynamics of love and support operating between the individuals occupying a singular domestic space. Reshma knew how to upset the delicate balance of her home to make it inhabitable for Aabha. The violence was subtle but persistent, operating in bits and pieces that together turned Aabha’s former home into a hostile, predatory and alienating space.
Reshma became incessantly argumentative and abusive towards Aabha. When one is simply looking for an excuse to spark off a fight and throw blame, then ample opportunities present themselves. Every little word, silence and action by or in relation to Aabha served as a cause for abuse and contention for Reshma. Aabha didn’t complain for years hoping time would make things better and restore her loving sister to her as she had once been. She tried to understand her own flaws, blamed herself, correct and change herself to become more tolerable for Reshma but it was to no avail.
“You are educated, you are working,” Reshma would say, “make your own arrangements. We have nothing to do with you. I have three children whose future I have to think about. I cannot cater to you anymore.”
However, Reshma’s concern did not hold any ground even on a practical financial level. Aabha was a financial asset to Reshma not a liability. Aabha earned Rs 10,000 per month and gave Rs. 8,000 to her sister. She would keep only Rs. 2,000 (1/5th of her total earning) for her own basic monthly expenses. Then why was Reshma so keen to throw her out?
Reshma was worried that she would have to fund Aabha’s wedding. She had already managed the arrangement of Lekha’s wedding. But more than anything, it was ideological, it was cultural, it was a disease of the mind. Ravindranath Tagore in his exceptionally moving short story ‘The Wife’s Letter’ wrote:
“Unwanted refuse easily finds space for itself around the room, for people ignore it, but an unwanted woman who is not only unwanted but also difficult to ignore is not accommodated even on the rubbish heap.”
Reshma did not have space for her sister, not even on the rubbish heap.
She arranged Aabha’s marriage to an unknown man and began to coerce her into the marriage. This man lived in a village, was not educated and earned through basic agricultural work. Aabha on the other hand, had grown up in Delhi and wished to work, complete graduation and make a good career. Her sister however cared little about her preferences or happiness.
Aabha fought back. She resisted the marriage and the oppression thus inviting a volley of abuses, hurtful words, comments, arguments and fights. Aabha went to her neighbors for help and advice and was told by them to respect her sister and to listen to her. Women get trapped in our society, from all sides. Her neighbors and the community around her sent her one clear, unsupportive message: your sister raised you and provided for you so now be grateful to her and listen to her, listen to her at all costs.
On the 12th of May, 2016, a fortunate day, Aabha came to our office. There were red scratches all over her face as if somebody had pealed across it with their nails or with a sharp object. It had come to physical violence. But she was with us now and so long as she wished to take our help, she was safe. She did go back once though. She yet nurtured some dying hope that her sister, with whom she had faced so many harsh trials of life, would accept her and wanted to try for a last time. The attempt failed. The doors of her sister’s heart were closed and she returned to us.
She is currently in our shelter home. She is 25 years old and is in her final year of BSW. She goes to work everyday and got a raise in her salary to ₹12,000. Aabha has also become the night caretaker of our shelter home. Her counseling sessions continue and she takes part in activities at our home when her work permits. She is smart, educated and a brave fighter.
Below is a link to an online copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, ‘The Wife’s Letter’, if you wish to read it. It is also a story of a girl who has lost her parents and has to move in to her sister’s marital home where she suffers unspeakable violence. It’s eerie parallel with Aabha’s journey demonstrates an instance of fiction and fact translating into one another. It’s highly recommended.