Today, Bay Area-based Sheetal Ohri is a successful entrepreneur and radio show host on Bolly 92.3 FM KSJO, but behind her success lies an agonizing tale of a mother’s tug of war with the American judicial system to reclaim the son she lost to divorce.
In her recently published book, Custodial Battle, Sheetal chronicles the story of a mother who waited a decade for the US courts to return her son. But it’s also a warning about how the US legal system delayed justice to an immigrant mother, simply because her rights to a green card and permanent residence were withheld by an abusive husband who happened to be an American citizen.
The book is a fictionalized account of Sheetal’s own story, recounted by the protagonist Ritika – a thinly veiled disguise of the author – as she embarks on a daunting 10-year battle to rescue her son from a heartless husband and a legal system that’s stacked against her.
Custodial Battle is a raw retelling of that harrowing journey. In a narrative that’s brimming with emotion and distraught at times, the storyteller’s anguish is never far from the surface. Ritika finds solace in writing verses that capture the nerve-wracking emotional rollercoaster ride that follows the pain of separation from her child.
“I wake up and have your name on my lips, and somewhere in my mind I hear you say Mama.”
The story unfolds with Ritika describing the naïve start of a marriage that is destined to fail. As a young bride she falls in love with Sumit, the husband her parents find for her and hopes for a fairytale ending that is never to be. But amid the romantic haze of her wedding, Ritika misses the warning signs. She dreams, writes Ritika, “of becoming an obedient wife and caring daughter-in-law.”
For Ritika, that dream turns into a nightmare as soon as she sets foot on American soil. It begins with unexpected negligence, when to her dismay, nobody in her husband’s family performs any traditional rituals like the Grihapravesa – to welcome her as a bride to her new home.
Gradually her beloved husband Sumit’s demeanor transforms. He grows uncaring, and refuses to let her talk to anyone, including the neighbors. Her rare calls home to her parents in India are closely monitored by Sumit and his family “hovering around her.”
Her in-laws expect her to cook and clean for them in the manner of a traditional bahu but Ritika sees herself swiftly becoming “an unpaid maid.”
Within a year Ritika falls pregnant and gives birth to a son. As her toxic relationship with Sumit and his family worsens, she redirects her energies to nurturing and raising her new baby Rohan.
But Ritka’s fears build during this period, as her husband’s dismissiveness is compounded by his failure to register their marriage with the US Consulate. Ritika remains in the US on the tenuous merits of a fiancée visa.
Though the red flags are in plain sight Ritika fails to act on them. She does not understand that the devious machinations of her husband puts a target on her back – by remaining legally unmarried, she is at risk of persecution both by the immigration system and the family courts.
For the uninitiated, the immigrant status of a mother who gives birth to a US citizen determines whether or not she has rights to the child she has borne. In Ritika’s case, the lack of any legal status – neither a registered marriage nor a green card – forces her to forfeit any claim on her baby. What Ritika did not realize at that point, that as a fiancé and not a wife, in the eyes of the law, she had already lost rights to her home, any assets and her child.
When Rohan is two years old, Sumit takes the family to India and returns two months later to the US with the baby, leaving Ritika behind. She does not find out till later that he has filed for divorce and sole custody of their baby. Sumit ignores her desperate appeals for a reconciliation and eventually Ritika realizes she has a fight on her hands.
Custodial Battle is about that conflict – the traumatic sequences set in motion as Ritika navigates her way from abandoned wife to a green card holder who finally becomes eligible to be awarded full custody of Rohan.
Unusually for a traditional Indian family, Ritika has the unflinching support of her family, from both her parents and brothers.
They stand by her after she is abandoned in India and grapples with the minutiae of filing cases in India and the US. Ritika appeals to the US Consulate, the Indian Overseas Ministry and the child abduction unit in Washington DC. She also files a case for full custody of her son with the Indian courts.
The US Consulate asks for documented proof of her marriage certificate and her son’s birth certificate. With the help of her family, an attorney, and a Bay area-based non profit, Ritika is able to assemble the documents required.
Eventually, with US Consulate assistance, Ritika is granted parole through the USCIS on humanitarian grounds, because she is the wife and the mother of US citizens.
Once Ritika clears a path through the tangle of immigration protocols, judicial systems, family courts and legal matters first in India, she returns to the US. But her struggle continues as she tries to prove to the US family court that she is a fit mother and financially capable of raising her son.
The judge never asks Sumit why he did not file for Ritika’s change of immigration status after her fiancée visa expired. She is told that immigration issues do not belong in Family Court. And yet, while the Family Court is predisposed to rule in her husband’s favor simply because he is a US citizen, Ritika is only allowed to meet her son for an hour a day under supervision because of her immigration status.
Ritika submits to the court’s demands but the irony of the situation is inescapable – she is a mother who has borne, delivered and nurtured a child who is viewed as the property of the father.
“How would it feel to know that you lost your child, not based on your capability as a mother, but on the basis of something as meaningless as nationality?”
When Ritika gets her green card, her son is already four years old, but she wins shared custody of Rohan. But though her immigrant status is resolved, it takes ten years of judges rulings, minor counsels, reunification therapist reports, custody evaluator reports, the child’s parents and grandparent reports, and the court attendants permission, to finally be with her own child.
Ritika is scathing about the treatment she receives from the family court system. Unlike her spouse who knows how to play the loopholes of the system, Ritika says she is treated as ‘a flight risk’ and an unfit person as long as her immigration status remains unresolved. All that changes when she gets her green card.
Two trials later Ritika gets full custody of Rohan.
But it’s not an easy win. The aftermath of the ten year battle comes at a cost.
Ritika’s account bears witness to the toll this fight takes on her wellbeing, finances and the mother-child relationship. It takes years for Ritika to break through the shell of rejection that alienates Rohan from her. It’s a long hard road to re-establishing a connection with her child. She spends a small fortune in attorney fees, court orders for custody evaluations and therapy sessions to prove her character is “worthy of custody as a mother.”
It felt at times, says Ritika, that Rohan was kidnapped and she “paid ransom to the judicial system to see my child.”
What the book makes evident is that gathering evidence to prove your credentials is not a task for the faint-hearted or the financially insecure. Without the financial support of her family, Ritika would not have been able to afford an attorney to pursue her case. And even with a lawyer on her side, she has to endure a harmful disconnect between immigration and family law that treats immigrants as potential criminals. But Ritika says, “giving up can never be an option for those who are fighting for their children’s rights.”
Sheetal adds an invaluable section at the end of the book which provides resources, tools and explanations for the roadblocks an individual will encounter in similar situations.
Ultimately, Ritika’s story is a cautionary tale for Indian brides and their families mesmerized by the prospect of the American dream packaged in the promise of marriage to a US citizen. But at its heart, Custodial Battle is a story of hope and a mother’s steely will to ensure her child finds a safe haven.
“A road full of pitfalls, a journey full of obstacles…is just the beginning of a beautiful, carefree life where only happiness matters.”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney contributed to this review.
images: Sheetal Ohri