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Sleeping with the enemy
They should have seen the signs when Rupa occasionally began to miss her weekly lunches with the ladies. But she put it down to the redecoration at home and they believed her. One day in yoga class, she sat aside, complaining of a sprained muscle. When Shalini offered her a back rub, she hurriedly declined. In the locker room, Shalini noticed the bruise on her shoulder. Many heart-to-hearts later, Rupa broke down and confessed Vikram had been hitting her every night for the past six months. Vikram is a top city doctor and Rupa, a qualified CA, works from home.
Like many others — and there are an alarming number of women like her — Rupa chose to suffer silently, unwilling to share her plight. The embarrassment of having to admit to something so horrific — something that only happened to her house maid — was almost as distressing as the violent act itself.
Ranjana Kumari from the Centre for Social Research confirms that domestic violence is on the rise in the upper middle class. "The biggest problem with this class is that victims break their silence after having suffered for long. They associate social stigma and a sense of shame with the situation and prefer to suffer in silence, " she says.
In a case that ended in a 'mutual consent' divorce a couple of years ago, a well known Mumbai socialite had initially put up with a harassing and abusive husband for the sake of the kids. Their days often ended with the wife getting battered. Finally a petition for divorce on grounds of cruelty was filed. Later, since both parties were seeing other people, it was converted to a mutual consent settlement.
"Close to 60 per cent of the cases that come to me are those related to abuse in marriage, " reveals psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh, MD, who has a clinic in Delhi's tony Greater Kailash area. "Violence at home is rampant in the upper classes of society, only these women don't admit to it easily, " he adds.
Which is the biggest problem. "The victim is emotionally paralysed by a mix of confusion, shock, numbness, helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, embarrassment, guilt, fear and depression, " says Dr Shamsah Sonawalla, consultant psychiatrist at Mumbai's Jaslok Hospital. "Admitting to violence at home — physical, emotional or mental — takes guts, and most women fail to gather those. "
While those who are not financially independent have nowhere to go, or stay silent for the sake of the kids, others hope in vain that the problem will just 'go away' one day. "Women in rich, super rich and poor families put up with abuse, not necessarily for the wealth and status, but because each woman holds hope in her heart that things will change, " says top family lawyer Mridula Kadam.
When people asked 31-year-old Asha Kapoor, an ad exec with a Gurgaon-based agency, why she stayed with a physically and verbally abusive husband for seven years, she had a simple answer: "At the back of my mind, I did know that our relationship was unhealthy, that this was not how a 'normal' marriage should be. But I was always hoping that things would improve, " she says.
Kapoor also had another take, a variation of the Stockholm syndrome (where the suffering partner becomes used to, even comfortable with, an "unhappy" situation, and develops sympathy for the offending spouse). "You feel it's not that bad and many other women are worse off. It's a huge decision to get married and an even bigger one to walk out of a bad marriage. So one tends to become used to being unhappy, switch off as and when necessary, and carry on with life, " she says.
That 'switching off and carrying on' is what saves many men. Take the case of Rajeev Vats, who works with a private airline. After years of being abused by the outwardly dashing pilot, his wife finally approached a legal counsellor and was on the verge of registering a police complaint when Vats fell at her feet and begged forgiveness. She has not returned for any further action to her counsellors. "Most women believe it will stop, but my experience has shown there's no end to domestic violence, " says Sonawalla.
Chugh has another alarming fact to share — in most cases, the abuse begins early on in the marriage. "Men who have seen their fathers beat up their mothers waste no time in meting out the same treatment to their wives, " he says.
What can be done? "The first thing to do is to ensure safety — physical, financial and emotional — to the victim. And then, depending on what the long-term decision is, one has to ensure the abuse does not recur, " advises Sonawalla.
It takes a very small trigger for the abused spouse to make that life-altering decision. For Kapoor, the moment came one night when she was driving home from work and her husband rang up, screaming about her being late. "Something just went off in my head. I drove to my father's house, never to return. "
(Inputs by Shikha Mishra, Ambika Pandit and Swati Deshpande) — Names changed to protect identity
Real time horror stories
Kiranjit Ahluwalia's story was not known to many people in India until Jagmohan Mundra got Aishwarya Rai to play the battered housewife in Provoked(2007). While critics felt the film had factual and legal inaccuracies, the basic premise — of a wife suffering from repeated abuse and finally revolting — was one many women identified with. Unable to bear the brutality of her husband, Kiranjit attempts to hit back and unintentionally ends up killing him. The rest of the film involved a legal battle that finally ended up redefining "provocation" in cases of battered women in the UK. In 1984, film-maker Basu Bhattacharya's wife and Bimal Roy's daughter Rinki, admitted she was a victim of domestic abuse. She later went on to make a documentary (Char Divari) and write a book (Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Violence In India) on how educated and financially independent women suffer physical and mental abuse at the hands of their husbands.
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