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Leaving a marriage takes courage

Raised with the belief that marriage meant companionship and mutual respect, Kanchan Bhaskar was not prepared when her new husband turned out to be both alcoholic and violently abusive. Three children and twenty-three years later, Kanchan finally found the courage to finally leave her marriage.

Kanchan’s memoir, Leaving: How I Set Myself Free from an Abusive Marriage, chronicles her journey from victim to survivor. She spoke to Rasana Atreya about her journey.

IC: Tell me about yourself.

KB: Way back in India, I had a wonderful life when I was growing up. My parents truly cherished and treasured each other. And that’s what I saw while growing up. That marriage means that a woman is respected, and she’s an equal partner in a relationship. I did my bachelor’s from Lady Irwin College, and my master’s from Delhi University. I always wanted to work for the grassroots-level people. But then maybe life had a different blueprint for me. Things didn’t work out the way I wanted after I got into an arranged marriage.

IC: Can you expand on what you mean by grassroots-level work?

KB: When I say grassroots-level people, I’m talking about the rural India, where people are not economically or socially developed. So as part of my social work, we used to visit these areas to help them with economic development. During my Masters in Social Work, I also worked in red light areas where the women are forced into prostitution. So that is where I learned not to judge people because those were the women who were there out of mere either poverty or coerced by society.

IC: You mention life had a different blueprint for you.

KB: Having been brought up in a very progressive environment, the perception of marriage for me was that the woman was a partner and she was to be respected. There was no question of any violence arising in a partnership. But I found myself in an arranged marriage to a social charmer; inside him was a very angry and violent alcoholic. The first time that he hit me, my life turned upside down. I was shocked. I became lost, numb, depressed. By the time I woke up, I was already trapped and there was no way for me to get out. Within a year, my daughter was born. My twins came along three years later.

IC: What led you to finally leave the marriage?

I remained in that marriage for a very long time. And the reason was that the law did not protect me. The society shamed me, and I was always in fear of my perpetrator that he is going to be violent with me. So I had to plan my escape. If there was even a little error in my escape plan, my children would have gone to his custody.

Every time I visited them, the divorce lawyers asked, what do you do to him that he hits you? It wasn’t that he should not be hitting you. So they shamed me. And they clearly told me time and again that if I want a divorce and the children will be divided between the two of you, or all the three can go to him if he proves that you are having a relationship outside of marriage. So, until they grew 18, I could not divorce.

First thing was that I had to become financially independent. As soon as I became financially independent, I wanted my children to go away from that environment. So I sent them to boarding schools, which became more depressing for me, because the children were also not there anymore.

As the third step in my strategy, I bought a house in my own name so that he could not just push me out of the house in the middle of the night. When things did not change, I planned to go to the US.

IC: How did you go about getting financial independence?

KB: After the whole bashing started, I secretly appeared for a couple of interviews, leaving my children with my parents. And, of course, he later on secluded me from my parents also.

As soon as the offer letter would come and I had to tell him, he would not allow me to get out of the house. But he would not be in a job for a long time. So he knew that we had to have a source of income. And so when I started to work, he did not object. But I’m sure he kept it in his mind or heart somewhere and he would take it out on me on different occasions.

Financial independence came to me through my faith in the universe. An angel came in my life and said, you need to be financially independent. And I said, I’ve got these three toddlers? And she said, don’t make excuses, just hire a nanny, put them in day boardings, whatever it takes.

I went into the bathroom. I cried for some time and then I looked into the mirror and I said, I am going to be that Kanchan I used to be. And I just put some kohl in my eyes and I did my hair and I came out with this erect spine and I said I am going to do it.

IC: Abuse often happens in the privacy of the home. Did anyone know what was happening?

My family had some hint because there were times when I would go back to them with my children. And, in the initial years they did tell me that you can divorce him and we will look after your daughter. But I didn’t want my daughter to be adopted even by my parents.

And moreover, this is the classic case of a violent person, when they hit you, they come back to you pleading and crying. They will promise you they will never do it again, and they have nobody else in their life, and they love you. So I used to get into his manipulation.

I was an MSW by profession and I would think, I’m going to do social work outside, why don’t I do it at home itself? Of course, you know how Indian culture is. Once you leave your family, you are told that that is your house now. So I was in effect neither here nor there. I was somewhere like a homeless person.

IC: Did your children see what was happening?

So all the three, I put to the boarding schools. My daughter came back after one year. She was in 8th standard and she said, I won’t leave you alone because I know what’s happening with you. My boys didn’t see much. They don’t know unless I told, which I didn’t. And I told my daughter not to tell them because I didn’t want their psyche to be affected in any case. But she was there, and she was watching everything, and that did affect her when she grew up.

IC: Was it fear or shame that stopped you from telling your parents or friends?

It was both. My dad was a heart patient, and I was the most loved child in the family. And I knew that if he comes to know that this is happening with me, then something will happen with him. He already had two minor strokes, and I knew that he won’t live, and I could not take that guilt on me.

And as far as friends are concerned, I knew that there will be only one question coming back to me why don’t you leave? But I was fearful of this man that either he’s going to kill me or he is himself going to hang himself. And I did not want him to die.

IC: What challenges did you face when you were leaving your marriage?

First thing was that I had to work on myself to come out of that depression. For my physical strength, I got into substitutes and vitamins, B12 injections and all of that. For my mental strength, I started to believe in the universe. I accepted the fact that it is my friend. It is kind to me, it’s benevolent, and it’s looking after me.

And then I saw all these angels coming in my life, like this lady who told me, you need to be financially independent. The very first angel who came in my life was a therapist whom I went to after my daughter was born. She told me, Kanchan, you are an educated girl, but you are like a frog in a well. You need to crawl up to the periphery and see outside the world.

So I started to build a ramp one step at a time. It was very slow, because I could not just pack my suitcases and walk out. And the ramp broke a couple of times, but then I again would rebuild it.

I then started to be a seeker of spirituality. And I read books by Eckhart Tolle. I heard podcasts—Gary Zukav. Oprah was interviewing him. Michael Singer, Prem Chandra.

IC: So, you’ve decided to leave your husband. Walk me through it.

How I decided for the divorce was also a story because we came to the US, and he came along with us. And he was not working, he was at home. And the children were obviously in schools.

My daughter was going through acute depression. I had a therapist of my own and she told me, your daughter feels betrayed by you because you used to have a violent fight with your husband. And then you would go to your daughter, sit with her, cry with her, and she would hold your hand and coach you and counsel you. And three days later she would see you two together.

I started to go to a church for my peace of mind. And the pastor there told me that he is not your responsibility, Kanchan. So don’t feel bad in divorcing him, because my thing was that he will kill himself. He has nothing to look forward to. So they said, no, you have to free yourself.

There was a three-month separation, and the divorce was signed. I asked for one dollar in the divorce proceedings from him. And I came out of the court and called all my friends and relatives, and said, I am free today.

IC: What advice would you give to someone who’s in an abusive marriage and considering leaving?

KB: I would say the first thing is that they need to speak up. You need to also accept that you are a victim. It’s very important to know that this is not a normal life. Visualize your freedom. If you are not committed, you will keep going back to him, and that will harm you more. Because once your perpetrator knows that you’re planning to leave, they can harm you. Once you start on that journey, just remain on that journey till you achieve it.

Have a safe plan in place. Keep your main documents, like passports, and keys, outside the house.

The second thing society can do is to be aware of all the resources available. Just to tell them that these are the resources that you can go to, these are the childcare numbers, or these are places where you should go for medical help or even mental health issues that come up.

And the third thing that society can do is to educate their own children. The “man role” that is very prevalent, especially in the patriarchal societies like India, even in America for that matter, where we say men have power and the woman is there to serve them, that belief system has to change.

IC: For people who are women who are planning to leave their marriages, what are some resources?

You can go to an emergency [ER of a hospital] and they will give you help. There are mental health institutes, there are courts available where there’s free lawyers given to you. There are child agencies which can come and take care of your children. There are residential places where you can go and live. Women’s shelters. They help you with getting jobs and counseling.

IC: Obviously, you have no regrets with the life you have right now.

KB: I have no regrets of my past. What I think is that if I did not have that life, maybe I wouldn’t have become this stronger woman. Right now, I’m happy. I’m Joyful. I’m thriving. I have become an advocate to coach women or people of domestic violence.

IC: Any final words?

KB: Arranged marriages are still popular in India and where the girl doesn’t see the boy. The boy doesn’t see the girl. And I’m not saying that arranged marriages are bad, and love are good, because it is at the end of the day, it’s a gamble. You hear love marriages failing, too. The crux here is that the “man role” belief system has to change.

Resources For Survivors Of Domestic Violence

National Domestic Violence Hotline

  • Phone: 800-799-7233
  • SMS: Text START to 88788

Narika 800-215-7308

Rasana Atreya’s debut novel Tell A Thousand Lies was shortlisted for the UK-based Tibor Jones South Asia Prize (2012). She finds a mention in the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque’s "Emerging South...