This story is particularly amazing as it tells us of a subtle, on-going and persistent reinvention. A constant balancing act that requires a person to reinvent and reorient herself every day, every minute. I cannot say the reinvention was a dramatic turn of events, but it was more of an internal change, a change in her thinking, her attitude and her response to the challenges. It has created a resilient spirit and that is the reinvention here. It tells us of an unlikely warrior, a gentle spirit that refused to succumb, but fought to survive, with battle scars to show, but no retribution or remorse.
(She continues to live with this spirit, as she matter-of-factly narrates her story to me, encouraged by her daughter to capture her past and record it for the future. This is the first time someone has approached me to write their story and I am deeply honored to do this task. She does not want to be named and I value that need. Yet I want to give credit to her wonderful daughters, and Her for sharing this story with us, so that we may be enriched and empowered to value every life and every living person the way it is…the way they are)
Where it Begins…
Tamilnadu: 1951, September 19th, a girl was born to a traditional Telugu-Brahmin family of modest
means. She was the third of four children, with an elder brother and sister, and a younger brother who followed soon. Life in the conservative agrarian community was confined but filled with little joys. She was sent to a good Tamil medium school and passed her SSLC (11th std) and though she had a desire to study English, their financial means would not allow it,
so she passed Typing and Shorthand Intermediate and a Diploma in Tailoring.
Akka (Elder sister) married into a large family in Bangalore and moved there and so the path was clear for her own marriage. Yet dowry demands were huge by prospective grooms and they were unable to find a suitable match; till an alliance came from a rich and big family in Bangalore, whose son was working as a technician in a Chemical factory in Tiruchendur and was a talented and upcoming state level Cricket player.
The marriage was fixed and all preparations were being carried out in full swing. Necessary silver and gold was purchased for the wedding, along with all the “dakshina” that is usually given to the bride. At this time Anna (Elder Brother) went to Tiruchendur to take a look at the groom and to get measurements for the ring that is usually gifted to the bridegroom. An innocuous act in reality was construed very seriously by the bridegroom, who opposed this “checking out” by his future in-laws.
Things took a dramatic turn, as he informed his parents and immediately a telegram reached the family, which was opened by Father. It said very simply and bluntly; “Stop all marriage plans, rest in person”. Stunned, furious and extremely pained by this, Father was ready to file a suit against the family when he came to know that the objection was over the visit made by Anna.
Yet, such a move seemed foolhardy and so everything came to a standstill. Life moved on, but not for her. No other alliance was suitable and the pressure was building up. It was a difficult and confusing time for her, not knowing where her destiny lay and at the same time not wanting to be a burden on her parents.
Accidentally Akka met the same family at the Hanumantha Jayanthi function at Ragiguda and realized that both sides were still searching, so they decided to revive discussions and reunite the families. Soon they were married in September 1976. The groom had been laid off at that time due to some issues at his factory and was staying with his parents in Bangalore.
How different we are…
Raised in a conservation Brahmin family and coming from a village, she found the ways of the family very starkly different and difficult to adjust to. Her sister-in-laws were well educated and had doctorates in various subjects and the men were also very musically inclined. They appeared to lead a very sophisticated life, and the strangeness became even more real as she found from her younger brother that her Husband of two days had asked him money to buy cigarettes. Surely what went through her mind were revulsion and a trill of fear…
Navratri and Deepavalli are very important for a new bride in her Husband’s family. Yet she was sent both times to her parents place with nothing in hand and with no money. Soon a telegram arrived reinstating her Husband to the job he had and things seemed to be looking up. Borrowing money from his In-laws for the trip to Tiruchendur where he worked, her Husband left, vaguely promising to call her when ready.
In December unable to wait any longer the family went to Tiruchendur, where they met a friend, who showed them the house where he lived. Relieved they stayed on for a few days and left afterwards, leaving her to face this life on her own.
Things came to light slowly. He came back home very late one night and his eyes were red. She was shocked, to realise her Husband had been drinking. When confronted he did not deny it, easily admitting that he was used to drinking and that he would continue to do so. Her horror at this discovery was insurmountable, (she remembered hiding from the laborer who would sometimes come drunk, to till their small piece of land ), and to imagine leading a life with a similar person was indeed horrific.
It became a way of life. He would leave work every day, travel to the next village, drink with his friends and come back home…drunk.
He would take the little money she got from her father and use it for all his many vices, playing and betting with cards included. Every evening was spent with 2 bottles of liquor and every Sunday he would disappear to practice his Cricket. (He was a talented Ranji Trophy player and had won many awards and cups besides being a skilled technician at work…if or when he went to work).
They were transferred to Karaikudi, and as his salary increased….so did his habits. He moved from one brand of liquor to another, not satisfied with one, but needing to have many.
How do you raise children under these circumstances?
3 years later, she conceived and started her lone journey back to her parent’s house for her delivery. He did not come to drop her at the station and she saw him next only at the baby’s Punyavatchanam, in June 1980. He borrowed money yet again from her parents to get back to Karaikudi. No money was forthcoming from her In-laws as well.
She had not breathed a word about his drinking to anyone till now. Only she knew that back at Karaikudi, he had switched to drinking local toddy (saarayam), as he was unable to buy the other foreign brands. A letter from her neighbour (a North Indian-Seth Amma/Sethani) urged her to come back as quickly as possible, giving her details of her husband’s intolerable behaviour and strange doings.
10 months later she went back and saw that all the trophies her Husband had won had been taken away by strange men who would often come to leave her drunken husband home, as payment or as auto fare.
Things came to a precipice. One day, after Deepavalli and just after her daughter’s first birthday in the year 1981, there was a massive pounding at the door. She saw 5 goondas with sticks standing at her doorstep, shouting and abusing and demanding for the “Chemical Sir” to come out. The Seth Amma intervened and asked them to leave his wife and child alone. Her husband came back early morning with torn clothes and eyes swollen.
What should she do? What fate was this which had rejected this man once and then reunited her to the very same, only to experience all this? She contemplated death.
Yet that child who lay next to her and her sense of responsibility towards that innocent soul stopped her from that. She could not give up now. She could not admit defeat. She had to live for the sake of another.
One evening her parents arrived unexpectedly and stayed on to meet her Husband. The veil lifted. He came back drunk and they saw him. She was not going to hide the truth now. He was livid and left the same way he had come, angry that she had exposed him. But she did not care. She had lived the suffering silently for too long. Yet her Father tried to brush it off by saying that these habits could have been picked up from his cricketing friends, and She must try to talk to him and change him in due course of time.
She was fighting a lone battle, caught between traditional mentalities and her simple nature. But help arrived in the form of her husband’s cricketing friend, Chandru who approached the WM (Wing Manager) of the Chemical Company. He told him her plight and explained that she did not even have money to buy milk powder for her child as her husband used all the salary he got for his personal pleasures. The kind WM agreed to give the salary directly to her, on her signature only; a small but significant help.
Along with the money her Father sent on a monthly basis, she managed to eke a life. As his frustration about this increased, so also his drinking increased and soon he was working on a loss of pay salary. All the while searching and stealing money from his wife, (money that she would hide, wrapped in 2 or three layers of plastic and kept in the charcoal box).
She conceived her second child then and a baby girl was born in November 1982. The new baby, born under such stressful conditions was weak and had primary complex. The baby’s medication and food required more money than she was able to get her hands on. The house lost its electricity connection and she had to manage with castor oil lamps. No gas/ kerosene stove, she cooked in a charcoal fire stove (Kumuti adupu).
Along with all that was happening, her Husband would sometimes run onto the road shouting at her for money, to buy his drinks, waiting for the exact moment when their daughter came back home, making it impossible for her to refuse, as she did not want the children to become victims of this. So in order to avoid a scene, she started giving him money and urging him to drink at home and not elsewhere.
Unexpectedly she realised she had conceived again, but she was sure she did not want the child. How could she want another child? Who would look after another life under such circumstances?
Considering the difficulties she was facing, she decided to terminate the child. Yet, she had no money and once again she would have to ask her Father to help her out. She was unwilling to burden them again, emotionally and financially, so she convinced her husband to accompany her to the Government Hospital where she could get it done for free.
After the termination, in pain and drowsy with the medication, she realised her husband had left her. Alone with both the children on the hospital bed, unable to even reach out and give milk or biscuits to the crying babies; her husband having abandoned her to get his alcohol fix.
She returned home alone, inevitably forced to go about her daily work, cleaning the house, washing clothes, and cooking the food, scarcely thinking of the fact that she had to take bed rest.
Something had to be done
Her In-laws refused to accept that there was a problem. Blaming it on the evil eye and convinced that with appropriate “parihara” he would be fine. Her sister -in-law even went to the WM and argued against giving her brother’s salary to his wife.
The constant request for money from his parents and his increased dependence on them, finally made her In-laws decide to give him treatment at Nimhans Rehab Centre. With permission from his Company to take leave for rehabilitation, they left for Bangalore.
She could stay with her Husband, a small family room was given and constant monitoring and intervention would ensure successful de-addiction. That was her thought.
3 months later, at the last stage of intervention, when he was given some money and allowed to go out, in order to assess his control levels, he came back drunk. He now insisted they leave and used their little daughter’s education as an excuse. Her weak spot.
By now with 2 children at her side, all she wanted was to give them a good education and in her mind, subconsciously, she was probably feeling that education would truly give her children freedom; the freedom she did not have.
She worried that her elder child’s education was in jeopardy with all the changes, so she agreed to move back to her In-laws house along with her Husband. Yet this move was disastrous. For 3 years she went through the same painful cycle and finally in 1987 she could not take it any longer and moved to her Akka’s house, in East Bangalore
“How long can I be dependent on my Father and my sister? Enough was enough, now I must find a way to earn” she determined.
“What skills do I have? What can I do?”
Questions that took her back to what she was before this roller coaster ride called Marriage happened in her life. She could stitch and sew well. So in 1987, at the age of 36 years, she found herself working in a garment factory.
Unable to handle the huge scissors used for the cutting job, she settled into stitching Bibs and Quilts at 20p per piece/ Rs.2 per piece as per output. How much do you think she earned? With great difficulty at Rs.50 maximum on some days, she managed to earn Rs.500 per month. Hard, back breaking work, that has left her permanently scarred for life, with scoliosis and varicose veins.
Choosing to walk to her work place every day, in order to save even that 50-75p which was the cost of a ticket at that time, she tried to save every last paise that she could manage.
Meanwhile she had her elder daughter admitted into a good school nearby. The school Principal was kind enough to agree to educate one child free of cost, while she had to pay for one only. She was also able to buy few items for Akka’s household needs.
But, once again there was a turn of fate.
Her Mother-in-Law passed away and she was asked to come back to her In-laws house to take care of the large property. With reassurance from her Sister-in-laws (who were both pursuing lucrative careers and a prosperous life), that they would help her take care of the children (at least financially)she went back to stay with her Father-In-Law, Brother-In-Law and Husband.
Now she was cooking for the family, doing all the household chores, sending the kids to school and leaving for work, every day, to come back at 6 pm, sometimes even at 8 pm, depending on the work load. Her Husband had no job, was blaming her for his job loss and continued to drink every day, now joined by his Brother as well.
In a fit of rage her Brother-In-Law encouraged by her husband threatened to beat her for not giving him an extra cup of coffee, when he asked for it.
She walked out of the house at midnight with her children and all her clothes and went back to her Akka’s house. She was called impulsive and impatient for this act of hers.
This back and forth was on-going. In 1990, when her Brother-in-Law died, she was again cajoled to come back by her Sister-in-Law, to take care of the house.
By this time they had started some Ayurvedic treatment for her Husband, which probably made him psychotic. His behaviour turned bizarre and they had to keep him locked in a room by himself, to shield the world and the little children growing up there, from things they could scarcely understand or comprehend.
She would leave the house locked from all corners, leaving only one internal door and one bathroom open. The children would come back from school, open the back door, finish their homework, and wait for their mother to come back. In this state, he suddenly burnt all the bed sheets one day, and even ran out of the house after sawing the lock open with a Tortoise Coil stand.
She was at her wits end now and requested the garment factory to allow her to work only in the evenings. After stopping the Ayurvedic treatment and with some psychiatric help, he stopped his behaviours.
But on the day Her Father-in-Law died, in 1992, he started drinking again. She now made an agreement with her Husband, giving him a schedule for his drinking. So he would drink, morning 10 am to 1 pm, with a gap in between and then again drink from 6 pm to 9 pm.
It was now impossible to leave him in the house and go out. So she started bringing the cuttings home and worked from home for an income of 1600/- per month. With this and the rent that came from a portion of the house, life carried her on…painfully, laboriously.
He died in 1995, his heart unable to take the pressure, it finally gave up.
The beginning…of another story
The story of course does not end here, she continued her hard work and toil, to raise her children as well as she could. Guiding them, ensuring their basic needs were met and providing a more stable environment that they truly deserved.
The fruits of her labour are that both her children are Engineers now, merit students, who have worked their way to success and now stand on their own feet. The elder girl is married and has a cute son (for whose delivery She had gone to the US recently), and the younger one is a newly married bride!
What I could capture above are the hard facts. But…
Did she have a choice? What kept her moving on this path? (These are the questions that empower us and help us understand that even when there seems to be nothing and there is only despair, something will serve as a light, guiding us to shore.)
The commitment to marriage and traditions that go with it bound her to this path. When a person has limited resources and is dependent, then their choices become very sparse. Every day was a conflict; a challenge.
The conflicts in her mind at one point of time were whether to live or to give it all up. Yet she chose not to exercise that option, choosing to live and find meaning in her children as the purpose for her life. She found an answer for her questions from that. Once the decision to live and live for her children was made, it was only time that led her to other reinventions; to find a job, and pursue it to her best ability and to gain her freedom through that.
I leave you readers to judge for yourselves what her defining moments were, but I come away understanding how resilience and determination carved a permanent place in her, making her who she is.
Her daughters have this to say:
I want to share my mother’s story. I only want people to be inspired. I want a message to be conveyed to people not to take life for granted, even when a family is very educated. I must say, my mother has retained her innocence even now and is always happy and keeps a smiling face, no matter what. I have seen many people, including myself, who get so deeply engrossed when encountered with small or slightly bigger problems. But, trust me, I change my way of thinking, whenever I speak to her. A person who does not have any materialistic pleasures, someone who only desired an emerald necklace at one point of time in her life and nothing more!! I wonder how a person can be so selfless whenever I see her. She has shown good hospitality to everyone in her husband’s family and the daughters of that family, forgetting the injustice and ordeal she was subjected to. She fought this struggle all alone with no one’s help, neither parents nor brothers.
Yet to my father’s defence I have this to say:
My dad too was a very good person at heart and had a great helping nature, which is inherited by my sister. He used to help my mother at times. He loved his daughters a lot, my sister in particular. But I am not sure if he failed to express it well or if we failed to understand the same due to our ages.
“All I know is that my mother is a gentle soul, and we love her very much.”
I leave you with thoughts from Victor Frankl (author of Man’s Search for Meaning) here:
“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears, toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.”
― Viktor E. Frankl