It was bitter cold and not a morsel of food was in the house. Outside the snow came down in swirls of white, as winds shrieked and drowned the haunting beat of her cold existence inside her freezing apartment. She had not eaten for two days and was waiting for the storm to stop. She covered herself with all the blankets in the house, but she could still feel the cold air seeping through her nerves as her fingers turned blue. Even though it was early morning, the clouds darkened the sky.
The baby started crying. She got up and opened the refrigerator, and looked desperately for something to eat, milk, bread, juice, anything - but there was nothing. She ran to the door, furiously rattling the door handle hoping to attract the neighbor’s attention. She almost stepped outside to shout for help, but even as she did so, she suddenly froze gazing at a vision so terrible that she shrank in terror. She saw her husband’s hand on the riding whip. She saw it coming down on her bare back. She felt the rising welts of pain and she saw the tormentor breathing down her neck, “You dare to make any ruckus, when I’m gone and be sure you will not see your son again.” The images were vivid and rose like a phantom to put her in her place, again and again. Whimpering and sobbing she went back and closed the door.
Bunty started crying. “Poor child”, she thought, “What’s the use of having a mother like her? Scared, with no spine. What good am I?” She, with coveted degrees in software, and management ended up just like a mute and helpless fool. Suddenly, she put a finger to her lips, “Hush,” she said talking to herself. Her wide eyes looked wider with terror, “Shhh – Is he here?” Bunty cried louder. She looked around and except for the withered branches hitting her window pane, all was quiet. She ran to Bunty, held him close and crooned a soft song, the whimpering sounds coming straight from the deep depths of her anguished heart somehow soothed the infant and slowly lulled him into an uneasy sleep. She smoothed his soft hair and lay down beside him, thinking, and thinking. Anger, hatred, revenge rose like friendly ghosts to fuel her urge to escape her blighted existence, only to disappear as soon as the first blast of violence savagely chased them away. And so the door remained closed.
She got up suddenly, as panicky voices pounded her head, “Do something, do something.” Looking distracted, she continued, “the food, the milk, I have to find some milk, quick, quick before Bunty gets up.” She scratched her head, not knowing what to do, where to go, who to call. She just squatted against the wall and started crying, “God, tell me what to do, I can starve but what about poor Bunty, plea-ase, help.” And then suddenly as if in answer, she remembered her friend Brinda’s warning. “Listen, Rekha, listen good. Always keep some store of food hidden away and if possible some cash. It could be a matter of life and death.” And she mentally thanked her for writing this on her stony head.
She ran to the rope that pulled down a small ladder that led to the attic. She climbed up and opened a black box where she had hidden some glucose, powdered milk, and protein biscuits. She had built up her starving rations, piece by piece, collecting, storing and gathering with stealth whenever she could. She hid her rations in different places, and then slowly would use them up during her husband’s absences.
She brought a few packages of powdered milk and glucose and hid them under the mattress. Temporarily, they will stall the hounds of starvation. This gave her time to think. But her husband, Rakesh could walk in anytime. He had done it in the past, completely unnerving her, leaving her speechless. And whenever he did, he always found something wrong. If it is not the cooking, then it’s the washing or the extravagance of her living. But worse still were the punishments. First, he took her cellphone, then her laptop, then her jewels, then her money, then her pictures. One after another, she endured cringing at the absolute power he held over her. Her visa status, passport, credit cards, and driving license were already under his control. She was a submissive partner, lashed to obedience, by the dictates of an H-4 visa regime, and the draconian sword hanging over her head - the threat of losing Bunty.
Brinda had warned her three years ago when she was about to go to America “Do not go to America on an H4 visa. Anything can happen. It happened to me. Right?” But at that time, she had replied with the reckless confidence of love and youth, “Rakesh is a different man, he loves me. Brinda he lives for me. I can see it in his intense eyes. Besides we have loved each other for over five years before getting married. Our marriage is not arranged, but yours is. You only knew your fiance for a month.” “Listen, Rekha,” Brinda explained. “Love or arranged does not matter. People change and the H1 visa is all about power. I mean absolute power. Such power can corrupt anyone. He can throw you out for no reason. He can hit you, scold you, find faults with you, play havoc with your life and you will remain helpless because you have no legal status or rights in the country except as a dependent. Slowly you will lose your sanity, your ability, and will fall into pits of depression or suicide. You have to depend on him for getting your driver’s license, your cell phone, and your credit cards. You cannot work, you cannot have social security, and you will have no defense, none. If you have a child, he will be an American citizen and you cannot even take him with you if you divorce your husband or separate from him. Think hard.” Rekha didn’t think. Moreover she thought it absurd that Brinda would think Rakesh was even capable of treating her badly. Maybe, Brinda is just jealous. Or maybe working with abused women probably has made her paranoid and she sees abuse in every man. “Anyway, I don’t think I have to worry about Rakesh even scowling at me, forget about raising a hand,” she concluded merrily.
Again, the pounding in her brain started. She felt propelled by a vague urgency. Some voice warned her. “This is the only time you can escape. Hurry, hurry. Once the weather is good, he will show up and everything will be back to square one.” She went slowly to the door and trembled as she opened it. What if he is waiting outside? There was nobody. Very slowly, she tiptoed to the door and timidly rang the bell of her neighbor. No response. She went to the one downstairs. No response. She then thought of walking to the nearest place where there was heat and light and human voices. She would even swallow her pride and call Brinda. Yes, that’s what she would do. Yes, yes, but then the baby? She had to take him too. She ran upstairs and carried Bunty and suddenly stopped. She heard a scratching noise. She waited, the scratching stopped. Her heart gave a sudden jump. Is he here? Watching her, tormenting her.
He had done it before when she had first tried to run away with Bunty. He snatched Bunty from her and pushed her away towards the door, “Go to your parents. They will be thrilled to have a married daughter returning from the land of plenty and face a barrage of questions from taunting relatives. Good luck and good riddance.” The chance of being separated from her son was not an option. Rekha felt helpless. She could not speak to anyone about this. Nor was there any place to vent her frustration in a fiercely insulated society that kept things under wraps. There were no support groups as nobody would speak up, no legal or material assistance available for women like her. She knew the prevailing thinking, “he raised his hand once and you want to leave? Give him time, things will change.” Therefore, with a lot of pleading and humiliating gestures, of apology, she managed to come back. But that scene got etched in her mind and prevented her from trying anything.
The scratching noise started again and she jumped in fright. She followed the noise and saw the snow covered branches sway wildly with the wind and hit the window of her bedroom. “Oh, thank God, it’s not him,” she sighed in relief. But a glimpse of the gloomy terrain bathed in white whirling with churlish winds stopped her in her tracks. How long can she walk with Bunty in this forbidding weather? What if everything was closed? What if Bunty became sick? She would then face charges of child abuse and even get locked up. And then the thought struck her, all of a sudden. Her husband had planned the whole thing. He was confident that she would not venture out at this weather. He probably also knew that the old couple downstairs had moved to their Florida home in the winter and the young couple had gone off for vacation. She went back to her living room and shut the door. Her mind started wavering. Focus, focus, she said to herself. If only she had a phone, she would drop all her hesitation and call 911. She had avoided doing that as she felt that she would be deported. However now, she felt that her son had to live. Nothing else mattered.
But there was no phone, no computer, no satellite, and even no gas to heat the apartment. He had cut it off as an unnecessary expense. Wild with desperation, she walked to the French door screening her balcony and banged against it, hoping to attract attention. But the few stragglers were just hurrying to get to a warm place. Nobody looked at the desperate woman banging on her door, not even the homeless man living down the street from her. Even he had found shelter as he usually does in a Catholic church. But she, hailing from the upper crust of India, had no place of peace and rest, none in the whole wide world. “Don’t be imprisoned by the snobbery of tradition, live for yourself,” Brinda had said. But, at that time perched on lofty heights and riding high, she ignored the cry from the trenches. She thought Brinda was a fool to leave such a nice husband and pack her bags in 9 months and come back home, just because she could not endure a couple of slaps? Rekha, with her mentality at the time, had joined the rest of society and stoned the rebel, her own friend, Brinda. Now, with tears of regret, she thought of her good friend and cried more as she remembered her humiliation, her sincerity in risking it all and telling her the way things really are. Why did she not listen to her? Why did she wait so long? Why did she let herself come to this stage of frightful incoherence and dysfunction?
She looked back trying to figure out how she ended up in such a miserable state. Life was good in the beginning. She started looking for jobs, confident that her sterling credentials would land her a sponsor and a job in no time. But as the days rolled by and no sponsor appeared, she slowly lost heart. Her dependent visa prevented her from getting any work, even a cleaning job. She was forced to sit at home day after day, while her friends at home were progressing both financially and professionally. Reality set in, and she wondered if she had taken the right decision. Slowly the vague uneasiness and uncertainty took an emotional toll. Her self-esteem took a beating, and her confidence plummeted.
Meanwhile, grueling work kept Rakesh away for hours and the few hours he was at home, he did not want to be bothered with anything. Then the comments came, one by one, slowly at first, then rapidly. “What did you do all day?” “Do we need to go every week to Kroger?” “The table is a mess?” “Do you need to call home every other day?” “You should realize how hard I work to make money and all you do is complain.” His indifference and verbal abuse astonished her at first. Can a man change so much? If she was working or had her own money, would he talk down to her like that? She started feeling her dependent status more and more, and it came to a point where she dreaded even asking him for money. After a year, she thought about going back home. But what would she tell her mother, her friends, or her colleagues? That she is giving up her married life just to have a career? Who would support her? Once again, she thought about Brinda. How prophetic her words turned out to be. Living in a cocooned and protected environment Rekha realized that she had developed a blind spot for the views from the fringe. Would she have the strength that Brinda had and do what she did?
A bright social worker, Brinda had worked with people from all walks of life, and was very open-minded and free-spirited. She met Raj, through a mutual friend. After a couple of meet-ups, Raj approached Brinda’s family with the prospect of marrying her. Brinda was initially hesitant to marry someone she knew for only a short time. However, after a lot of wheedling from friends, relatives and family- Brinda, the twenty nine year old, freedom loving social humanitarian, reluctantly got married.
The first three months, things went smoothly. “I was so glad that I listened to my mom. Raj is the best thing that happened to me,” Rekha remembers Brinda writing to her. Then the wrinkles came one by one. Like Rekha, Brinda, could not get any sponsors for the H1b visa, Raj was facing problems in the renewal of his contract. There was a lot of lobbying against importing foreign labor and a slump in hiring. The economy was going south and problems outside, made their way into the cozy nook of their newly made nest. Raj was getting moody and withdrawn and kept a strict watch on expenses. Fights broke out between the two. The verbal cuts were hurtful. One fight rose to the point where Raj lifted his hand to almost strike her. This left her shocked and confused. Two months after this, there was an argument about sending money for her mother’s operation. This time it hit the roof with insults like how her parents could not do financial planning. She shouted back and said that his parents did not do that well either when they took such a big loan to buy an expensive car. And then the bickering escalated into a bitter fight and angry words flew like missiles with an accuracy that would astonish the ISRO. And again, as before, she would not shut up and received a big slap on her cheeks followed by two more on either side that took her breath away.
Brinda had some wisdom garnered from her social work with abused women. “Violence is in the mind. The very act that he wanted to hurt you, wanted to shut you up instead of empathizing with you is a mindset that is as solid as a rock. It is baked into the DNA of violent men, and it will not change.” One answer always came when she posed the question to severely abused women, “Why did you wait so long?” Invariably the answer was, “I thought we could change him. I thought things would work out.” “We, women are fools to think that an abusive man will change,” she thought. Things do not change for the better. Often, they get worse.
Brinda did not wait. The recurring and worsening verbal abuse, coupled with the future potential of violent physical abuse, was enough. Volunteering to rehabilitate abused women, helped her realize that waiting is not an option. She still had the 2000 dollars, her parents had given her as a marriage gift. With that, and a tote bag and a hurriedly packed suitcase, she left for the airport. She left Raj a small note, “thanks for the lovely time. Best wishes.”
With a 20-20 hindsight, Rekha realized how right Brinda was. Even though Rekha had not been on speaking terms with Brinda, Brinda had called her and wished her well. But she refused to be friends with Brinda. “She is an impatient renegade who seemed to have no respect for marriage. She had everything going for her. Not only that, she showed no remorse when Raj eventually lost his job. But darling, that would never happen to us,” she told Rakesh. How can people be so cruel to their spouse? That too to Raj, who wore gentility like his second skin. But that was then. Life with Rakesh taught her a few things in the school of hard knocks.
The drill is the same. Man abuses, woman packs up to leave. Man apologizes, says he will never repeat it again, woman acquiesces. Man again abuses, woman protests, man apologizes with more fervor. This happens a few times, then slowly abuse becomes worse and woman’s tolerance for abuse grows as she slowly loses her confidence and ability to plan an escape. Slowly by intimidation physical or psychological the woman winds down to a survival mode and then it gets to a point where even survival is at stake. Then things spiral out of control. As events prove its payback time and the abusive spouse is set on fire, killed in his sleep, or murdered by a hired hand. Brinda had warned her as she had done other women, “Women wait too long and when they act it’s too late.” Rekha also found herself reduced to being a dependent rag just to maintain the status quo of “wait and things will work out.” She had waited too long and she must find a way out.
With this new found will, born out of desperation, she fluttered around the apartment like a caged bird, whirling round and round, looking for an opening to fly away. And then it came. The crayons. Bunty’s crayons that etched in any material and would not get wiped out by any liquid except maybe acetone. She cut out a huge piece of white cloth and wrote: “PLEASE HELP, STARVING WOMAN AND BABY, PLEASE CALL 911”
She took the cloth and pasted it on the outside of the balcony in full view of the people walking. She could not stay long in the balcony due to the bone-chilling weather. But every few minutes she went to look if someone had looked at the number and called for help. It was almost 5 hours and she had almost given up hope when she saw the kids. They were straddling the ups and downs of the snowy mounds in their roller skates, laughing and racing each other. Due to the storm, it must have been a school holiday. And the high school kids had no intention of staying home when they could enjoy the bliss of skating on the ground covered with 2 feet of snow. She mustered all her energy and went to the freezing balcony and waved and waved. They all passed by and she broke down sobbing and disappointed. “Oh God! Please get me out of here, please, please,” and burst into giant sobs. Something made her look up as she dared to hope that someone would heed her cries. A lone girl who was not as fast as the rest of the kids, waited for a rest and her eyes scanned the horizon and lifted up to the sky as if to read its intention. In so doing, her eyes fell on the balcony with a thin lady frantically waving a white cloth. “Frank,” she yelled. “Come quick, look.” The boys zoomed back and took a look at Rekha, dialed 911 and waited.
Due to impassable road conditions, the paramedics came on a helicopter. They brought an emergency kit with medicines for cold and stamina. Meanwhile, the boys skated to a neighbor and brought flasks of hot coffee and sandwiches. While she was recovering, she thanked them for their compassion as she sobbed with relief. They waited till the paramedics boarded the weak baby and mother on to the helicopter and waved their goodbyes. Rekha kept waving at them till they were specks in the white background. After a long long time she started feeling human and held Bunty close and looked around defensively, as if Rakesh would show up anytime and snatch him away.
The next day Rekha woke up in the hospital and felt for the first time hope returning to her sorely tired soul. The storm subsided and the sun shone bright on the white snow. The laughter of children filled the air as they built several snowmen. The staff at the hospital took several readings and marked many things on her chart. She was put on drips of vitamins and glucose and her blood checked on a routine basis. When she was ready to leave, she met state representatives from the abused women’s shelter who took her to a half-way house that was protected by sheriffs of the state. However, for her own protection, she was not allowed to contact any one nor could anyone contact her, unless authorized to do so. Their legal representatives worked on her case as the evidence showed severe emotional trauma, mental disorientation, and physical scars from whippings.
After a few weeks, social workers found her an apartment, paid for utilities and food, found a day care for Bunty, got her a visa to work and eventually found her a job. She also got legal counseling to file for divorce. Her husband Rakesh was denied custody and could see Bunty only once every two weeks in her presence in a place of her choice for a couple of hours. He was denied any other encounter with his wife or child. Rakesh had no choice but to accept this as otherwise he would be deported.
Once she had her own place and found a job, she slowly got her strength and confidence back. It took her a year at the women’s shelter with a battery of psychologists, trauma specialists, good food and exercise, and plenty of counseling and support services to overcome a nightmare of abuse. No wonder Brinda had warned, “Get out as soon as you can or else you never will.”