When the caged bird flies – breaking out of domestic violence

Ever since I can remember my life has been a battle. My father became seriously mentally ill when I was 4 years old. He would wander here and there with no clothes. We had to tie him up. My mother needed food, so she took my younger siblings and moved to Nagpur where she started a vegetable stall. We had always had trouble with money and struggled, but after my father went insane, the burden of supporting the family fell on my mother who started doing various kinds of work from morning till night. I left school after kindergarten to watch my father. I would travel between the village and the city. My whole childhood was taken up in caring for my father.

When I was 12 I took admission in 4th class, but my father became more erratic and after 5th class I left school to care for him. We would admit him in the mental institution for  Shock treatment, after which he became more calm.  My father would wander the streets while I did the house work, cooked food, cared for the children etc. It was too exhausting to keep him restrained all the time. He travelled to various places, but we lost track of him. He vanished. To this day we have not heard from him.

My dream was to help people  by becoming a nurse or a doctor, but my life has been consumed by the struggle with poverty and caring for my family. My family didn’t have enough money for studies, even if I had had time. I have completed 2.5 years of school and am now 42.

After my father left I was 13, but then my mother was pregnant with my brother who was born just as my father left. I watched my younger siblings. When I was 18 my mother pressured me to get married. I said I was too young, but she threatened to throw me out so I had no choice. My husband is 14 years older than me. At the time my husband was a painter. In a plot the size of 600 square feet (that was a hut made of bamboo with a tile roof) there was my mother in law, my husband, his younger brother,  and two younger sisters. My mother in law oppressed me.

My mother in law told me I could not venture outside. My sister in law also mentally tortured me and criticized my every action. There was always tension in the house because there wasn’t enough money and my husband had to pay to marry off his sisters. Basically there were conflicting interests.  Two years after my marriage I had my first son, then my second who was born with visual impairment, then finally my last son.

I feel that my mother in law and her daughter poured all the misery and frustration of their poverty stricken lives on me. My husband would regularly beat me and broke my collar bone and my front tooth, he also damaged my spine and hip and broke my arm. My husband started drinking two years after our marriage because of all of the fighting. He hasn’t stopped to this day. Four years after my marriage, my husband’s brother got married and our families separated. My mother in law went with her younger son. After that my husband beat me less, but still occasionally.

People ask me why I stay with a man like my husband. My answer is that in India it’s hard to divorce. We are not just individuals, we are first and foremost part of a family and community. I had to think of my families’ honour and how I’d be seen by society. Also I had to think of the welfare of my 3 sons, how they would get food and education. I want them to study. My oldest son is working for a phone company, sadly he didn’t go to college. My second son is studying social work, and working as a social worker, which I’m very happy about, and my younger son is studying at a community college. My younger son’s growth was delayed due to malnutrition. Even after all the grief my husband has given me, I can say he has given me money to run the house and has worked hard to support us. I also work part time, but don’t earn much. I suppose in a strange way I have a kind of love (and some hate) for my husband. Even now there are times when I feel like  leaving. I left for a period when my sons were younger, but my mother couldn’t support me and my sister is also divorced. I also saw that divorced women are shunned by society and I knew from my own mother how much single mothers struggle.

I had never been travelling for pleasure, or even had any kind of holiday until I found Bodhicitta Foundation and Ayya Yeshe. I learned about meditation and women’s rights from them. I felt I had found a supportive spiritual family. It’s really the first time people have asked me about my life and given me a right to speak. I really admire Ayya Yeshe as a strong woman who helps poor people, although I’m usually too tired to remember the Dharma teachings, but I know the heart of the teachings is compassion and to be a good person. That ‘s what I’m trying to do with my life. I have also done some work for Bodhicitta Foundation, cooking to feed poor children. Since I learned sewing through the Foundation, I have made extra money and can be more independent. I don’t have to ask my husband for money.

When I went travelling, I felt I didn’t want to come back! Ayya Yeshe fixed my front tooth (that my husband broke).

Now I can smile again without having to hide my mouth.

We met the Dalai Lama, saw Delhi and went to the holy Buddhist places of Buddhism, where the Buddha first taught. I was so impressed to see the beautiful temples of the Tibetans and the holy Stupa where the Buddha first taught. I feel my mind is more broad now and that I received many blessings from travelling. It was so nice to have a rest after 23 years of marriage!

I have few hopes for myself. Now my hopes are for my children. I want them to study and get out of poverty.  I feel old now, but I will keep fighting the good fight to the end, for myself, my kids and my community. When politicians here say women are equal and have a good life, I feel like asking the men where their wife broke their collarbone or to show me a photo of a slum where the women don’t have bruises. Maybe I will run for politics and fight for poor people. I can rest when I’m dead!

* Names and photos may have been changed for privacy and safety reasons.