Here at India Currents, our writers are constantly working on high-quality reporting that supports and uplifts our community. I sat down with India Currents’ Contributing Editor Meera Kymal and India Currents Writer Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney to talk through their experience of working on their investigative series on domestic violence – DesiDost and Chai With Sahelis
IC: Can you tell me a bit about what this series is about?
MK: This series is about transnational abandonment – which is being called the new face of domestic violence especially in immigrant communities like ours. It’s a phenomenon that happens when perpetrators abandon dependent spouses domestically or abroad.
ANB: This phenomenon is particularly prevalent within the South Asian community, and in marriages where victims face domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, or financial exploitation.
MK: So we specifically focused on survivors of Indian origin and explored their stories – the pattern of violence, the abandonment, and the aftermath – what happens to survivors battling legal systems in two countries – India and the US – without adequate support networks or access to legal or financial and resources.
ANB: Many of these immigrant women are dependents of H1B visa holders employed by Silicon Valley’s tech sector. If they are abandoned or divorced, they not only lose their immigration status but often access to their American-born children. We focused on the legal chasm these women have to navigate between Immigration and Family court, while they are fighting for their family and legal status in this country.
MK: We also wanted to examine why our community does not step up – why DV is such a taboo subject.
ANB: Our project used a culturally sensitive approach to investigate the dynamics of domestic violence in South Asian families. We want to draw it out of the shadows and raise awareness through honest conversations with survivors, advocates, and community members.
We partnered with Narika – a Bay Area domestic violence advocacy group. And we got a grant from the USC Center for Health Journalism from its 2021 Domestic Violence Reporting Fund to support our project.
IC: What brought you to write this story?
MK: Anjana and I were exploring the impact of the pandemic on Domestic Violence within South Asian communities for the impact reporting fellowship at USC. When we talked to Bindu Fernandes of Narika, she said transnational abandonment had spiked significantly during the pandemic. In the US there was no coverage of the issue. We decided to investigate further – spoke to survivors, lawyers, immigration experts, DV advocates to build out a clear picture of the complexities.
ANB: We realized immediately that this story needed to be told. Meera and I have covered many stories over the past 8 or so years but domestic violence is one that was rarely covered or discussed in our community and definitely not from the perspective of the survivor. We realized that this was a topic that needed to be aired and the survivors to be respected and supported as they deserve.
IC: What did your reporting process look like for this story? Did you do anything differently with this compared to other stories you usually write?
ANB: This was a long investigative process of over 6 months. In the beginning, it took a lot out of us, emotionally and we had a hard time processing the depth of the agony of the survivors. But that made us even more passionate about telling their stories.
MK: We spoke to each survivor over a period of four months, recording interviews in hour-long to 3-hour sessions. I think we have about 15 hours or more of material from them alone which we had to consolidate into three audio stories of under ten minutes each. Then we used that material to develop the detailed written pieces. It took time – we had to gain their trust first, exchange MOUs. We also gave them full vetting rights over the final version of their audio story – there were some nail-biting moments for us!
We interviewed about 12 other experts – hour-long interviews to understand the issue from other angles – cultural, emotional, safety nets, legal, and immigration. Sifting through the volume of material to build a coherent story was challenging. Weekly meetings with our mentors kept us focused and our monthly cohort meetings with the amazing USC team kept us on track.
IC: What major takeaway do you hope readers get from the story?
MK: We hope readers will be more empathetic towards people who are victims of DV. We all know somebody in our circles who is suffering silently. Our community survey made that abundantly clear. Reach out and take action. Don’t be a silent bystander. Familiarize yourself with signals for help – and the resources you could share. You could save someone’s life. You could take a tiny but important step rolling back toleration of an unforgivable behavior that taints our community.
ANB: Women facing violence need proof that they can take control of their lives and know their rights. It must begin with balanced, straightforward conversations about our prejudices and fears. What survivors need most from our community is support and respect, agency to reclaim their lives, and acknowledgment of the injustice perpetrated on them. We have to help them break the cycle of hopelessness.
MK: A recent survey in India (reported by the Indian Express) asked if husbands were justified in beating their wives. While 42 % of men said it was justified, a shocking 52 % of women agreed. Is this really who we are? Why do we tolerate this abusive behavior?
ANB: We also want to bring focus to the fact that in the US, immigrant women fall through the cracks between family law court and immigration court, because the two courts don’t talk to each other. We want to support the campaign on Change.org, to find a solution for abused H4 spouses by changing the law to give them a Grace Period. With enough signatures, we can start talking to legislators about real action.
Ultimately, we want these stories to shape the narrative and shift perceptions on what healthy relationships mean so that survivors in our community get the help they deserve. Doesn’t everyone deserve healthy relationships?
IC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
ANB: We as South Asians are very proud of our culture, as we should be. But culture is not “log kya kahenge.”
MK: We have to hold a mirror up to ourselves. Yes – so many Desis are achieving their American Dream. It’s great that there are so many Indian-origin CEOs in Silicon Valley and a VP in the White House. Yes – it’s great that Indian-origin philanthropists are building business schools on American campuses and donating dollars to cancer research and other diseases. But DV is a disease in our midst – it exists in affluent families, and across every income and ethnic group. So teach your sons to be gentlemen. And teach your daughters to walk tall.
ANB: When will we start living and raising our children to live their lives with honesty, compassion, and generosity and not care about what others think of us? When we can do that, survivors and their children will get the real support they need from their own families and the community at large.
Isha Trivedi is a journalism student at George Washington University. She enjoys reading and listening to podcasts in her (limited) spare time.