The first sign of trouble came on the wedding night itself. Raj, her husband, turned out to be impotent. At first Vineeta was shocked, but she decided to deal with it.
Things were to get even worse. One night, during an argument, Raj went berserk. He put his hands around Vineeta’s neck and squeezed. When he took his hands off, she dialed 911. Raj cut the phone off, but it was too late. The cops arrived almost instantly.
Vineeta backtracked and tried to tell the officers that nothing was wrong. But they had already seen the red marks on her throat. They told her that they could lose their jobs if they failed to book him, especially if something happened to her afterwards. Raj was taken away. Vineeta had to find a bail bondsman so that she could post bail for him. A few days later she testified in court that he had not tried to assault her. On the surface, things went back to normal.
Then came the final blow. Vineeta caught Raj groping one of the employees at the store they ran together. It was after hours. Raj had remembered to shut the door and turn off the lights, but he had forgotten to turn off the video camera. When Vineeta viewed the footage, she could see her husband with his hands all over another woman.
This was not the first time—one of the women at his previous workplace had threatened to file a sexual harassment complaint against him. Even at this store, there had already been one incident with a customer. But for Vineeta, somehow, this was the breaking point. For the first time, she thought seriously about divorce.
DREAM TURNED NIGHTMARE
Every year hundreds of Indian men come to the United States, hoping to find pots of money and lots of success: the American Dream.
Every year, hundreds of Indian women hunt for husbands among those men, hoping to achieve a lifetime of prosperity and freedom in the United States: the Indian Dream?
And then these women arrive, and those perfect husbands turn out to be violent. And the wives start thinking about divorce.
Domestic violence is one of the biggest causes of divorce in the United States. The national domestic violence statistics in the United States suggest that a woman is battered every 15 seconds. Among South Asian women statistics from domestic violence organizations indicate that one in five South Asian families experience domestic violence at some time.
Sadly, little can be done to prevent this. The traditional arranged marriage system had an inbuilt background check: you always married someone who knew someone who knew your family. But a lot of this protection is lost with overseas marriages. Last year, the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act sponsored by Congressman Rick Larsen sought to address some of these issues. The bill proposed that American clients of International Marriage Brokers (IMBs) should inform both prospective fiancées and U.S. immigration of any past history of domestic violence. Although it was primarily aimed at protecting foreign women who meet their spouses through IMBs, the bill also suggested that all U.S. citizens sponsoring a foreign fiancée undergo a criminal background check, an idea that has far-reaching implications.
Domestic violence is just one aspect of the story, though. The causes of divorce are as varied and as complicated as the process itself.
THE 10-YEAR ITCH
Suman and Akbar first met in college. It was attraction at first sight, followed by a turbulent relationship between two strong-willed people from different religious backgrounds. When the couple decided to get married five years later, both sets of parents opposed the decision. But love, or stubbornness, prevailed and the parents finally consented. The two got married.
There was more to come. Akbar left for the United States in search of a better future, while Suman stayed back in India. The painful separation lasted for two years before Suman arrived in the United States in 1999 to join her husband. They had been together for almost nine years.
But things had changed. Suman began to feel that Akbar was critical and irritable, and that they could not talk about things. Simultaneously, she began to taste the heady sense of freedom that the new country seemed to offer, the sense of limitless possibilities. The United States is a fiercely individualistic society, one where a person can legitimately abandon social and emotional ties to go “find oneself.” Suman decided to do just that. She also decided to lose Akbar.
Perhaps you could call this the 10-year transition. Some experts believe people change their lives every 10 years, and that change is usually healthy. It’s a somewhat frightening hypothesis—does that mean all relationships are doomed to end every 10 years? Hopefully not.
The reality of living together is another factor. Love marriages often start out with unrealistic expectations, expectations that are reinforced by pop culture staples like Hindi films.
So divorce rates continue to remain high. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. lifetime divorce probability stands at 48.8 percent. Compare this with the 1970 figure of 15 percent. That means that every year, about half the people who get married may decide to get divorced because their spouse is violent or unfaithful, or just too hard to live with. And then these divorced people, many of whom are Indian-Americans, begin the slow process of starting over.
The Decision THE DECISION
Living in Indian society makes the decision to divorce that much harder. All societies protect their rules by punishing those who violate them. American culture punishes the transgressors by law; Indian culture punishes them by shame. Divorce is something to be ashamed of. Many Indian women in the Bay Area go to great lengths to conceal their divorced status. Men, on the other hand, are generally more open. Self-esteem issues also come into play for Indian women, who may not be used to making decisions and begin to wonder if they can survive without a man.
Financial considerations may not be as important as they were to an earlier generation of women, but they still matter. For men too, divorce can result in significant lifestyle changes because of child support and other payments. Sunil Raju, a Bay Area-based consultant whose wife divorced him because of domestic violence, says that he lives with his sister’s family because he cannot afford to rent his own apartment. He explains that he has very little take-home pay left because of an arrangement where he continues to pay the mortgage and taxes on their former joint house, as well as a large portion of their joint expenses such as day care and insurance.
Sometimes, parents choose to remain together for the sake of the children. “I hear this a lot from women,” says Alzak Amlani, a Bay Area-based clinical psychologist. “‘He’s a good man, a good father, kind to the children.’ Yet, her needs are not being met, so she wonders: Is this enough of a reason to get divorced? Am I being selfish?”
Sunil and his wife, too, went through a three-year separation before they finally got divorced, to a large extent because of their 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. Sunil recalls an incident during the separation period—he was dropping his son off at his wife’s place and the son began pulling at his shirt to come “home.” “It is heartbreaking,” he says.
The end of your marriage can feel like the end of the world. Divorced people often fall into a deep depression. When Suman announced her decision to leave, Akbar’s first reaction was to laugh it off as a joke. When the truth hit him, he was devastated. He stopped going out, took the phone off the hook, and sat at home, drinking heavily.
The despair is often accompanied by anger at the other person. When Sunil talks about his ex-wife he says, “My ‘ex’ lives by the novels she reads. She does not have a role model of a happily married family. She does not understand my role as a husband and her role as a wife and a mother. To her, a husband or friend or servant makes no difference.”
In divorce there is generally a “leaver” and a “leavee.” The leaver almost always feels guilty. For months afterwards Suman had nightmares in which Akbar called to her for help and she turned away. Even after that, she continued to live in limbo, unable to move on and unable to go back.
The loneliness can be overwhelming. There is no one to go home to in the evening. No one to spend weekends with. As Sunil says, “I am alone and depressed outside of work hours. I miss my kids. My son, Nitin, once showed me a picture of his mom at his daycare facility and told me, ‘This is my mom,’ and asked, ‘Do you want to see her?’ He describes where he sleeps and where he keeps his toys as if I am a stranger. He was a 1-year-old when we separated, so he does not remember my ex-wife and me living together. But he now understands that I do not come to his home.”
Good support is perhaps the best coping mechanism. Amlani stresses the importance of making sure you are not alone and having people to talk to. He adds, “Women are usually better at reaching out. Men sometimes tend to throw themselves into work in order to avoid dealing with their issues.”
Divorce support groups can also help. You can find Indian divorce support groups on the net, including the Silicon Valley-based Wings, which has around 150 members. The founder, Shamyo Chatterjee, says, “We have found that by simply re-living all the fun times that we used to have during happier times in our lives (going for trips, camping, picnics, celebrating religious occasions such as Holi and Divali)—in short, living a normal life like any other individual—is probably the best ‘therapy’ that anyone can ever receive. It makes one realize that not only is there a life ahead (after all!), but also that it’s worth living.”
Experts advise against finding another partner immediately. “People may get into ‘rebound relationships’ without learning how to be alone in a healthy way,” says Amlani. In general, he recommends waiting for a minimum of a year.
Two other things that he advocates are exercise, and activities that give you meaning and pleasure. “Exercise increases the serotonin levels in the brain and leads to a healthier brain chemistry,” he explains. “So you automatically end up feeling less depressed. And creative hobbies such as pottery, art, or even working in your garden can be cathartic. It’s a way to make something beautiful that is an expression of you.”
Helping others can also help. Chaya Sinha, a Santa Clara-based PR Professional, whose marriage ended when her husband declared that he was not in love with her, considered mentoring younger children when she was going through her divorce. Another option is to volunteer. The Bay Area is home to several Indian volunteer organizations, including the San Francisco-based Vibha, which seeks to educate underprivileged children. Amlani, however, adds a word of caution. “People seem to be so stressed nowadays that I usually suggest activities that involve relaxing. It depends on the patient’s lifestyle, but I do not often recommend volunteering.”
What if the depression is too severe? “If you find yourself unable to function properly—if you have started drinking heavily, if you are not getting up to go to work, or if you are not taking care of your children, then you should see a counselor,” says Amlani. He lists other danger signs. “Sometimes the person may eat only half a sandwich or drink one cup of tea a day. Or the person may begin to isolate: he or she may just come home, close the blinds and watch television. And you should absolutely see a counselor if you have any suicidal thoughts.”
The classifieds section of any Indian magazine or newspaper is a good place to look for South Asian therapists. Domestic violence organizations such as Maitri also offer free counseling and support. As Amlani puts it, “Asking for help is an act of courage and a service to one’s children, parents, and the community as a whole.”
And it’s clichéd, but true—things will get better. You have to grit your teeth and bear it for a while. Today, Chaya is happily married to Ajay, a divorced man she met through IndianDating.com. Her one specification was that the man she married should also be divorced. “A man who has never been married before cannot understand me,” she says. Suman and Vineeta are not married, but they are happier now—discovering themselves and enjoying the single life.
Sunil, however, is still struggling to live in a society, which, to him, offers very little support. He says, “I feel that there is no confession system in the Bay Area like there is in the churches. It gives relief to people who are guilty. There is no safe outlet for Indians.”
It’s a valid complaint. “In Indian community centers such as temples and mosques, divorce is still shunned,” observes Amlani. “ People still feel shame. Basically, there is very little support in the South Asian cultural community.”
The bottom line is, resources to help Indians cope with divorce do exist, but they are horribly inadequate. Yes, family helps, but for a lot of people, their family is thousands of miles away in India and the only person here is their third cousin’s aunt. Yes, you can find a handful of divorce support groups, but that’s it. Yes, there are other divorced people, but most of them don’t even want to talk about it. Yes, there are domestic violence organizations, but almost all of them are inadequately funded.
As Sunil says, “Indians do not interact with the families here. There is a big void between the mainstream and us. There are no social leaders who can solve or address divorce issues at a level that connects with the Indian value system. In India, we have relatives, and elders in the community who will volunteer to bring the two parties together and help bridge the gap. But here, I have no Indian network to go to and the American network is unsuitable.”
You cannot help but feel bad for this man who was once arrested by the cops for violence against his wife when he asks, “As an Indian, where do I go for emotional help?”
Sandhya Char writes from San Francisco.
* THIS COST OF DIVORCE
It is hard to think of practical things when all you want to do is to lie down in a dark room and hide from the world, but it has to be done. If you do decide to pull the plug, the simplest and the most expensive way is to hire a lawyer. Here are some cheaper options:
Perfect for simple divorces.
How to Do Your Own Divorce in California: A Complete Kit by Ed Sherman.
A paralegal can do the paperwork for you.
Affordable Legal Clinic
Oakland (510) 268-1516
LegalZoom (www.legalzoom.com) will correct your paperwork for free if it is not accepted by the court.
Complete Case (www.completecase.com) will return your money if the paperwork is not accepted by the court.
ATTORNEYS SPECIALIZING IN FAMINLY LAW
Law Office of Allan A. Samson
San Francisco (415) 391-4949
Anand Paul Singh Judge
Redwood City (650) 326-8422
Raji Rajan, Sunnyvale
Law Office of Randhir S. Kang
Fremont (510) 790-8204
Uma Subramanian, J.D.
Walnut Creek (925) 935-1976
Law Offices of Amy Ghosh
Los Angeles (213) 479-834, (818) 481-9284
Law Offices of Sunita N. Sood
Santa Ana, Los Angeles, Upland, Riverside, Lake Forest (714) 480-1600
Law Offices of Steve Kassam
Tustin (714) 838-3880
Kalra Law Firm
Los Angeles (213) 487-2700
Torrance (310) 325-9012
Law Offices of Haresh Jambusaria
Los Angeles (213) 386-7148
* SUPPORT GROUPS
Divorced Women of Indian Origin
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RESOURCES
Asian Women’s Shelter, San Francisco
(877) 751-0880, (415) 751-7110
Maitri, Santa Clara Valley
(888) 8-MAITRI, (408) 436-8393
(800) 215-7308, (510) 540-0754
National Hotline for Women
Artesia (888) SAHARA2
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D.
Psychotherapy, Consultation & Workshops
San Francisco (415) 205-4666,
Palo Alto (650) 325-8393
Marriage and family therapist
Marriage and family therapist
Marriage and family therapist
Marriage and family therapist
Marriage and family therapist