The day we spoke, she was extremely fragile. Her raw wounds were flowing profusely. Even after eighteen years, the sensations of disconnect and dishonour were fresh like yesterday.
I have known her for the past five years, yet I never got a glimpse of the pain she had been holding within her. The only way I knew this woman was as a friendly individual with an ever-smiling face.
To me, it felt like sacrifice – all that she had endured – but she refused to call it that. “Calling it a sacrifice devalues all the effort I’ve put in for years to raise my children,” she said.
This is the story of an Indian woman living in a foreign land. A story that shocked me to the core. A story that must be told for the sake of many more women who suffer silently in the name of family and society, and yet are constantly judged by people who have no clue whatsoever of their circumstances.
With permission, I’m sharing her story with you, with the hope that it will give a glimmer of hope to someone, somewhere, and help them break the cycle of trauma, despair and dejection to begin life anew.
I also hope that reading this story will compel parents to consider that finding a ‘suitable’ match for their daughter is not the only way to show her their love.
We got talking when I received an email from her saying that she wanted to share her story with me. As she had moved to another country, it was no longer possible for us to meet in person. So, we had a virtual meeting when her family wasn’t around.
For the first time, I was able to see what lay behind the smiling face … a woman deeply wounded by our society and its traditions.
“I never wanted to marry my husband,” was the first thing she said. And this came from a woman who has given eighteen years of her life to her marriage. If you met her somewhere, you would never imagine the tsunami of anger, frustration, guilt, shame and resentment she’s been holding within, just so that her children don’t lose the security of a family.
“From day one, I knew he was not the one,” she continued. “I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew what I wasn’t. Did I have the courage to speak? No, never. It took me fourteen years to accept that it was my helplessness and not love that got me into this marriage, and then another four to say it out openly.
“If you ask me, ‘Is he is a bad person? Does he not love or respect you?’, there is nothing like that. He is one of the humblest people I have known. He takes care of me and our children and loves us a lot. But for a marriage to be successful, there has to be an emotional connection, and I’ve never felt that way for him in all these years.
“There was always something that didn’t fit. Call it my gut feeling or sixth sense, I never felt that ‘Yes! this is the person with whom I can spend my whole life’.”
Now the burden of marriage had become too heavy for her to carry, she said. “I remained in this relationship for the sake of my children. Now that they are independent, I don’t see any reason to stay in this marriage.”
As I listened to her, I struggled to understand how these two people continued to live a life together without any soul connection.
In an arranged marriage you are suddenly expected to develop love for the other person, but, as we all know, that’s not how emotions work. Unfortunately, the people guarding our culture fail to realise how much pain and suffering it causes two individuals to drag their family’s honour and society’s expectations on their backs. The woman’s financial dependency further adds to her vulnerability.
Even today, the majority of Indian women hardly know what they want in a life partner. Parents and aunts would know precisely what kind of husband and family will be best for you. They seem to have this superpower to find just the right person who they think will keep you happy. Whether you will be actually, truly happy is not really a concern. If you talk about your preferences and happiness, lessons on adjustment and flexibility come popping at you from all directions.
“‘No one gets everything. Something has to be compromised,’ is what you get to hear,” she said. “And you’re always reminded that because you’re a woman, you must learn to adapt and adjust.”
And that is exactly what she did. Adjust. Even if it squeezed the life out of her.
Her family started looking for a perfect match for her when she turned 21. Every weekend for the next five years, she was displayed in front of prospective grooms and their families, so that they could judge if she was a better match than the other girls they’d met or would be meeting after her. This one meeting was her only chance to present herself as a better choice that checked all boxes.
In the same meeting, she had to analyse whether she liked the person, although that was irrelevant. If she did not like the boy or his family, she was provided with enough reasoning and asked to compromise. “If the boy is good, nothing should matter,” she was told.
Eventually, after five long years of continuous rejection, she stopped expressing her opinion. With a simple nod, she accepted every alliance that came her way without ever opening her heart to anyone. “I was tired of rejections. Five years is a long time. Imagine, every weekend you hope for this time to be the last and then you get rejected again. After a point, you give up. I was looking for an escape, and the moment I received a yes from one person, I acted on autopilot and married the only man who accepted me.”
It was only after she moved out of India did she realize how much change we need to bring within our culture around marriage. She saw how women in the west have the freedom and authority to make their own decisions. Their decision to marry is based on love and companionship and not on the boy’s qualification or income or his family’s social status. Couples give time for the relationship to grow and to know each other. As a result, if things don’t work out, both know it was a conscious choice they made as adults.
We talked for over two hours, and I went through all sorts of emotions in that time. My heart was filled with sympathy. I would not say I felt empathy, because I could never gather the courage to see myself in the situation that she survived all those years. For a while I was speechless. The only thing I could say was, “I want to give you a hug.” At that moment, she burst into tears inconsolably, releasing the anguish she was holding within her heart and in her silence. “This is the first time I am saying it out loud and it hurts,” she said.
As a society and as parents, we need to consider for how long we want to overload our children with our expectations of somehow making their marriage work. For how long we are ready to force them to continue in an unhappy marriage, just because of our belief that marriage is not about two people but two families. To me it’s a huge cost to ask of the people you actually wish to see happy, and the irony here is that you can see how miserable they are.
She ended the call promising me that from that moment on she would start thinking about herself and her own happiness. She would build a life of her own choices and not one dictated by society. “I am going to make myself financially independent,” she added.
Afterwards, I kept thinking about how so many women crush their pride, passion, desires and love for the sake of their parents’ happiness.
How many would have silently surrendered to society to keep their ‘values’ intact?
How many must have accepted lifelong suffering as their destiny and forgotten about their dreams and ambitions?
How many must have created a life around their children and continued to carry the burden?
Why have we made things so difficult for our girls? If it was not a perfect match, why must they bear the load for their entire lives?
Finally, when will we let our daughters take responsibility of their own lives?
I am not asking to westernise our society completely. All I’m suggesting is that we contemplate over the thought that marriage is not the only way to keep our daughters happy.
I know that such discussions have already begun in some sections of our society. Maybe what we need is more voices and more stories to bring a 360-degree shift in our collective mindset.
Indian Women on International Soil is a safe space I am creating for you to share your story of joy, love, sorrow, pain, happiness, sadness or any other emotion you went through but couldn’t share it with anyone. You felt unheard or probably alone and now looking for support. Or you may feel that you could be a source of inspiration for another woman but need a platform, whichever place you are write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will definitely connect with you.