I was sitting in the cheap coffee shop staring at my hot coffee, thinking about all the questions I would ask once Lisha was here. The bees were buzzing giving sound effects to my thoughts. I was waiting for Lisha, she was running thirty minutes late. I didn’t know her personally but I had heard a lot of things about her. I had heard people’s version of her story and I wanted her part of the tale. Not many people were fond of her, not many people invited her over for dinner, not many people smiled at her at the grocery store. I had seen pictures of her, and in them she looked jolly and bright as if all pictures were taken right after she had won or achieved something.
I noticed Lisha entering. Though she looked like she was in her early thirties, she has a sepia tone to her personality. She only wore sari and only a certain kind. I waved to her and she noticed me. As she walked up to me, I noticed she was not extremely pretty but there was something about the way she carried herself that made her look regal. Instantly I knew that she hadn’t been stranded in the traffic, she was just fashionably late, because that was something that suited her image.
She hugged me and took a seat. The way she sat timidly in her chair not touching the table, made me realize that she was not accustomed to going to places like these. I felt embarrassed that I chose the cheapest place in town, but then it was the best I could do. I asked her if she wanted anything. “Your questions. That’s what I am here for. Right?” She said in a motherly tone and a sweet voice that instantly put me to ease. I looked at my notepad, it was my first interview and I had made sure I had my pen and notepad ready for forty minutes.
“So, how did you meet him? How old were you when you got married to him?”
“My mother knew him. During music functions he used to play tabla in my mother’s group. He was a banker and in the beginning an occasional drinker. He had his cigarettes in a silver case and his money in a fat wallet. He was a good man and wore his heart on his sleeve. I was eighteen when I was married off to him. Oh! Don’t look at me with those dreamy eyes, Mili, it wasn’t romantic, it was sad. Nobody wants to get married at eighteen.”
I had seen pictures of him and I wouldn’t be bragging if I said you could fall in love with him at the first sight. I had expected her to say that it had been dreamy when she first married him. I realized that most of the times our perceptions about other people’s lives and emotions are terribly wrong.
“When did the physical abuse start?”
“Well, it started after the first month. He would come back from the bank in a foul mood and would pour himself cheap whiskey. He would sit and drink in complete silence, the sadist in him rising like bubbles in a fizzy drink. He would then call me with a deep voice as if he was craving for my affection. I would go to him, the bells in my anklets tinkling with anticipation. He would grab me by my hair and throw me on the floor, he would throw his whiskey glass at me. He would hit me and kiss me. He was a vile man in his own house. After he would be done, he would throw himself in the bed, defiling the softness and purity of it. Initially I would cry when I inspected my cuts and wounds, but then months later I stopped crying. I would always take a bath and sleep in the couch.”
I looked down at my next question, my hands were shaking. What a shame she had to go through all that alone.
“Did you tell anyone about it?”
“Some men take the trouble of being extra nice to people so that nobody would believe their wives when they complained about domestic violence. He was one of those men. My parents wouldn’t have taken me in if I told them. A married woman has no place in her father’s home, does she? So, I couldn’t tell anyone. Moreover who brings shame on themselves? Shame on my husband’s name would be shame on my name.”
“So why are you telling me now?”
“Well now he is dead, and humiliation doesn’t come upon the dead.”
Lisha laughed, her head tipping backwards, a shine creeping back into her eyes. I awkwardly smiled at her when she finished. She realized she was making me uncomfortable and in a wink of an eye she regained her composure.
“When did you decide to leave him?”
“I always intended on planning for a child, but there was no planning. He lived in the moment and did what his heart desired; often his heart wasn’t in the right place. He hit me and kissed me one night and in a month I knew I was pregnant. I wondered for months, ‘How could such a beautiful thing be done in such an unholy way?’
Her eyes glistened. Her long eyelashes lightly flicked the tears. A stranger was grieving in front of me and I didn’t know what to say.
She cleared the lump of sorrow in her throat and changed the tone of her voice as she continued, “When my daughter was born, I knew things had to change. When he held my daughter for the first time, I was still willing to give him a chance. He never did anything for the child, he never kissed her soft belly or marveled at her green eyes. He just brought back money to the house. I decided to leave him when day after day my four year daughter would stand by the door, her face covered by the shadow of the curtain and fear, watching her mother get beaten. Some men never learn to love and it is better to leave them?” Lisha mockingly laughed as she said the last sentence.
“How did he die?”
“One night I told him that I was tired of his rage and I wanted to leave him. He hit me and for the first time I hit him back. He hit me again and I hit him back again. I was finally learning to stand up for myself. My daughter had left the shadow behind and was standing at a distance, fear had left her eyes and she was curiously watching the play.”
Her hands remained in her lap never moving to demonstrate something as Lisha explained the events of that night, “I threw a glass at him and trying to escape the glass he slipped on spilled whiskey. I took my daughter and I ran out of the house. My parents lived nearby and I ran towards their house. A drunk man came after us, barefooted and in whiskey soaked pyjamas. His red eyes shone in the dark of the night. I panted as I came on the main road, the sweat on my daughter’s body shone like glitter under the yellow streetlights. I had to cross the road quickly and carefully. I kept praying because my daughter’s life and mine depended on me escaping that devil of a man.’
Lisha took a dramatic pause. She took out her handkerchief from the handbag moving her hands for the first time since she sat. She wiped her face and folded the handkerchief ceremoniously. She looked me in my eyes and smiled at me. Her eyes told me that the memory of that day didn’t haunt her anymore. She leaned back on her plastic chair and looked past my left ear as she continued.
“When I looked back I saw he was running towards us, his eyes watching us with a whiskey haze. I crossed the road. Heavy trucks were passing us by as my eroding willpower took me forward. The road constructed with cheap material by corrupt politicians and corrupt contractors shivered under the trucks’ heavy tires. Suddenly there was a deafening sound of a horn announcing the end of something. I looked back expecting a truck to hit me, but the truck had already hit someone. The red-eyed whiskey-soaked man wasn’t following us anymore.”
My mouth was wide open and the sugary coffee was sitting cold and untouched. I looked at Lisha and I saw her green eyes coated with softness and bravery. Those eyes had seen so much yet it hadn’t lost its beauty. Though her story was similar to other’s version of her story, it was different in a lot of ways. She was an unique individual yet she was you, me and every other woman on this planet. She was a victim and she was a survivor.
That night Lisha had ran to her parents, who had let her stay and had helped her during her husband’s post death rituals. Nobody knew that she had planned to leave her husband, they were told ‘he had beaten her and she had ran to save her child and herself, he had chased her and died when a truck hit him’. Lisha still uses her husband’s name and lives in his house, because she liked to think of herself as a ‘brave survivor’.
“Why don’t you remarry?” I had asked her. “And give up my happiness and my daughter’s? No, thank you.” She had laughed tipping her head backwards. He was a rich man and has left them a fortune. “The only good thing he did.” Lisha had told me.
Every year 29% of women in India are physically or sexually abused. Local police officers don’t entertain these women’s complaints and shrug their shoulders calling domestic violence, ‘personal problem between a man and his wife’. These women never speak up and rarely raise their voices for basic human rights. Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its November 2017 report found out that sexual harassment victims in India face significant barriers to obtaining justice and critical support services. The report, Everyone Blames Me’: Barriers to Justice and Support Services for Sexual Assault Survivors in India, found that women and girls who survive rape and other sexual violence often suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals.
Under Indian law, police officers who fail to register a complaint of sexual assault face up to two years in prison. However, Human Rights Watch found that police did not always file a First Information Report (FIR), the first step to initiating a police investigation, especially if the victim was from an economically or socially marginalized community. Most of the domestic violence, sexual violence, and marital rape cases in India are also never reported. Going by the pure numbers, these cases are grossly under-reported when comparing the National Family Health Survey and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data.
When I heard about Lisha, I knew I had to listen to her story and write about it. Women should never entertain any kind of abuse from their boyfriends/husbands, no matter how much they love them. No woman should let any man steal her self-dignity and self-respect. Every woman deserves a man who treats them right, nobody deserves to be tossed and played with like a plastic ball. If we as women never speak up, no law, no activist can help us. It all comes down to a choice. Do we want to be strong women or silent women?