“It’s not that straightforward, memsaab!” Parvati gently thumped the table with her bruised fists as she fought back her tears.
“Parvati, I understand.” I got up from my chair, crossed the table and stroked her back to soothe her. “I understand it’s not straightforward. Or even simple. But you have to do something or this will continue forever.”
She then burst into tears. I sighed, picked up a box of tissues from my table and handed it to her. She used the tissues to wipe the tears from her face and blow her nose. This is the worst part of my job. Dealing with someone in denial about their situation.
I am a psychology graduate employed as a social worker with an NGO that specializes in helping out lower income women in Delhi. My expertise is counseling women under the poverty line, typically from the slums, who have been victims of domestic violence. When these women get beaten up or otherwise mistreated by their husbands, the police often get involved. The husbands are dragged away by police constables, beaten up, and spend a couple of days in jail. The women are brought to NGOs like ours where we help them recover from the trauma and try to counsel them on the best ways forward.
The police and the courts in India are nowhere close to perfect when it comes to dealing with women, but they generally at least try. The biggest problem that cops face in such cases is simple. The women are angry in the immediate aftermath of their trauma and are forthcoming about the abuses they have suffered. But after a couple of days, some traditional or familial instinct kicks in and they are not willing to press charges or testify. So the cops have to release the husbands. The police department is under-staffed and over-worked so they have to prioritize more serious crimes like murder and rape. So they put the case file away and then send the women to us.
My job is to counsel such women against changing their minds. To convince them, gently but firmly, that it is in their best interests to leave these men and have them put behind bars. And that is what I am trying to convince Parvati about.
“He is good with the girls. He really is!” Parvati took a break from her sobs and said.
“I believe you.”
“He loves them. Always looks after them. It’s just me he has issues with.”
“Parvati, listen to me.” I said. “Yes, he is good with the girls. Which means he doesn’t hit them or abuse them. But he hits you. In front of them. Right?”
“Yes.” she softly replied. “But it’s only when he is drunk. When he is sober…”
“Don’t use alcohol as an excuse…” I interrupted her “to justify his behavior. Alcohol doesn’t change what a person is deep down inside.”
Parvati opened her mouth to say something, but then closed it again and wiped her tears.
“Now if you continue to stay with this man, what example are you setting for your daughters? Do you want them to grow up internalizing the belief that it is okay for a man to just bash up his wife? Using alcohol as an excuse?”
“When your daughters grow up, do you want them to be beaten up by their men? And accept it as normal?”
“NO!” Parvati raised her voice. “I don’t want my daughters to have a life like mine. I want them to be…”
She paused and looked at me.
“To be like you, memsaab!” she nodded and continued. “Educated, mature, strong, and independent.”
There it came again. The effusive praise for me from the female victims, a classic example of transference. In my rookie days, I tried to brush it off. But now I knew better. I still didn’t fully indulge in it. Just tried to channel it in the right direction.
“Well Parvati, if you really want your daughters to be like me, you have to set a good example. Which means you have to do something about…what’s his name again?” I flipped through the file.
“Lallan…” Parvati whispered with a shudder.
From the file, Lallan seemed to be quite the textbook problem case. No steady job, mostly lived off the money his wife made selling vegetables, habitual drunkard, got in fights all over, and beat up his wife regularly. The last time it happened, the beating had spilled over onto the street just as a police patrol car was driving by. They scooped up Lallan, put him in the station lock-up and one of the lady constables helped Parvati file a complaint. But in a couple of days, she had shown up to withdraw the complaint. And they had to let the guy go with a stern warning.
“So you see my point?” I asked.
“Yes, memsaab.” Parvati nodded earnestly.
“The only way forward is for you to file a police complaint, make him take his punishment as the law decides, and then we can help you leave him and divorce him.”
“Divorce????” she sounded shocked.
“If you care about your daughters, that’s the only way. So…are you ready to press charges? I know all the cops in that police station. They will help you. And we can also help you a lot.”
“I don’t know, memsaab…divorce seems so extreme!”
But I pressed on. I used all the persuasive skills at my disposal, all the things I had learnt in my training, everything I knew from my five years of experience in this job, to talk Parvati into acting on her own survival instincts. Finally, I seemed to have broken through.
An hour later, I was on the phone with Inspector Dubey who had referred her case to me. Parvati, I noted with a sense of accomplishment, was pressing charges against her abusive husband. As long as she testified, he would be sent away for a couple of years, and she could get a divorce as well as sole custody of her kids. Then another division of our NGO would help her resettle in another city so if her husband decided to get vengeful after getting out of jail, he couldn’t torment her more. I closed the file from my side.
I felt cautiously optimistic about this case. Part of this job was regular disappointment. An odd kind of reverse recidivism where women we convinced still changed their minds and went back to their battered lives despite having the option to escape. Whenever that happened, I felt sad and defeated.
Years of this had taken a toll on me, and my husband Anup had seen it from close quarters. He saw me go from a perky and idealistic aspiring social worker at 22 when we started dating, to a slightly hardened postgrad during my internships at 25 when I got married, to an often morose and cynical veteran now at 30. Anup often tried to convince me to quit the job and do something less stressful and depressing. I resisted, knowing that what I was doing made a difference. But as the years passed, it was getting harder and harder to resist his suggestions.
So when Anup’s company decided to send him to the US on an onsite assignment with the possibility of a green card, I decided to change my career tracks too. I took the GRE and starting sending applications to doctoral programs in social psychology. With a good score and a hefty experience in social work on the frontlines, I was optimistic that I would soon enter the world of academia and leave this soul-sapping job behind.
I was counting the months.
I saw Parvati again a month later. She walked into my office looking considerably more cheerful and entirely free of bruises. She was accompanied by a short wiry man. Maybe her brother, I presumed.
“Namaste, Shikha memsaab.” Parvati said, and was echoed by the man in a flat voice.
“Namaste.” I smiled at her and looked at the man questioningly.
“Memsaab, this is Lallan, my husband.”
What the hell? I thought this case was closed and the guy would be in jail by now. The inspector as well as the prosecutor had assured me that it was an open and shut case as long as Parvati didn’t recant.
“Oh umm… namaste!” I said, not sure of what to say now that this woman had brought her tormentor along. I couldn’t very well ask her in front of him about what happened with the police complaint. And why the man was here in my office with her. “Please sit down.”
“Memsaab, we have come to thank you. Because of your advice, our marriage is now on the mend. Lallan has given up drinking, gotten a job, and things are really great like they used to be.” she said, beaming and putting her hand on her husband’s.
He had been staring at the table until then. At her touch, he first looked at her and then at me. For a second I felt like there was a flash of anger in his eyes. But it passed. And he started talking.
“Yes, thank you very much, memsaab. I know I have not been a great husband. And I have made a lot of mistakes. But in the future, it will be different. I love my wife and my daughters, and will do anything to not lose them. I will change.”
Although his words sounded very genuine and sincere, there was a hint of rehearsed pretense to the way he said them. I did not believe he could change. More than that, I did not believe he wanted to change. I had handled many such cases, and the patterns are predictable.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I just looked at him and nodded. That’s when my cellphone rang. It was a cousin calling.
“Excuse me, I have to take this.” I said to the couple in front of me and answered the call. “Hi, Priya, what’s up? I am at work. Can I call you back in a little while?”
“Shikha didi, this will only take a second. I’m sending out the wedding invitations today and I just realized I don’t have your new address.”
My husband’s project had entered a critical stage and he had to go to the US nine months earlier than the original plan. Our lease was almost up anyway, so we had given up our old rental apartment, and after he left, I had temporarily moved into a house belonging to his cousin who was also away in the US with his family.
“Oh ok…I will text it to you.”
“Could you just tell me right now? I am typing out the labels and I have to get this done soon.” she said.
“Alright it’s House number 134, Sector G4…” I gave her the address right down to the pin code.
“Thank you, Didi. Bye.”
I hung up the phone and got back to Parvati and Lallan.
“Well, I am happy you recognized the error of your ways.” I said.
“I really have.” he nodded. “I haven’t touched alcohol in a week, and I have been hired as a cleaner by a transport company. I will be accompanying trucks on long haul trips to Bangalore. In fact I am leaving for my first one tomorrow.”
“That’s good. A steady job is the backbone of a healthy lifestyle.” I said, while thinking to myself, it’s good that he will be away for many days, and have less time to beat up his wife.
There was a little more polite small talk, and then they left, looking very happy together.
But I was troubled. I did not think Parvati was thinking straight. If she had been alone, I could have at least tried to talk some sense into her. But bringing the husband along meant that my options were limited.
I called up Inspector Dubey next. He and I had gotten to know each other well over the years. He was that rare honest cop who also had empathy. While most cops in Delhi believed NGOs were a waste of time, Anil Dubey was different.
“Shikha…I have been expecting your call.” he said. “I guess you heard about Sunita.”
“No…what about Sunita?”
“Oh sorry…I thought you heard. She was…found dead yesterday. Stabbed. Her husband is on the run.”
“Shit!” I felt sick to my stomach. I had tried really hard to convince Sunita to leave her husband just like I had with Parvati. But it hadn’t worked. I said, “I wish I could have done more, Anil.”
“You did all you could, Shikha. There’s only so much you can do. Anyway, what were you calling about?”
“About a similar case…Parvati and Lallan…let me get you the case number.”
“Oh, you don’t need to. I remember that case. Same old story. She agreed to press charges. We had the husband in the lock-up for a few days. But then she came and took the complaint back. We had to release him again.”
“Yes, I just saw her.”
“You know why I remember the case? That Lallan fellow…he really gives me the creeps. I can see that he is much more of a sadistic psychopath than the others. Usually in the lock-up, these guys are remorseful, begging for forgiveness, promising to change. This guy was like a stone. Not a hint of remorse.”
“I know exactly what you mean. Parvati just brought him along. He parroted promises of changing his behavior and everything. But there’s something ominous about him.”
“Hmmm…if she doesn’t wise up soon, I am sorry to say, I think she might end up going Sunita’s way.”
“Can’t you…do something about him, Anil?” I had seen how Delhi police worked and how much power they had at their discretion.
“I looked at that possibility. But other than the wife-beating thing, his record is clean. Nothing else that I can use to lock him up.” the good thing about Anil being a straight shooter cop who played by the rules could have some disadvantages as well.
“Maybe I should try talking to her again. Alone.”
“Maybe. But I doubt it will help, Shikha. I know you have tried hard. But trust me, when a woman like that backs off twice, chances are she is going to back away a third time and a fourth time and so on.”
“You know me, Anil. I still have to try.”
“Yes, I know.” he said. “We are really going to miss you when you go to America, Shikha.”
“I will miss you too, Anil.” I said.
“Madam…are you sure you have the right address?” the Uber driver said. I guess he was surprised and a bit worried to see an upper class memsaab like me wanting to go to one of the seedier slums of Delhi late in the evening. But I had to go in the evening, because according to Parvati’s file, she would be working during the day.
“Yes, I do. I am a social worker who deals with slum women and their problems.” I said.
“Oh ok then. You seem to know what you’re doing.” My answer seemed to satisfy him.
I had waited for a few days, trying to decide if I should really go to Parvati’s place. On one hand, Anil was right, it probably wouldn’t have a long term impact. But on the other hand, the Sunita case was weighing heavily on my mind. I felt like I had failed her. And now here was another case that could go the same way. In half a year, I would be away in the plush confines of some American university. That also made me feel like making my remaining months here count that much more. So I finally decided to make the house call, something that was unprecedented. I had never visited any of my cases in their home before.
I was dressed in a simple salwar kameez, but I still drew stares from men, women, and children as I walked through the narrow and dirty bylanes. I had a folder in one hand with a can of pepper spray inside, in case some men got any fresh ideas. You can never be too careful in Delhi.
Finally, asking a couple of friendly old women for directions, I reached Parvati’s house.
“Shikha memsaab!” she sounded surprised when I poked my head in through the door of a tiny single room brick house. She was serving her daughters a simple meal of dal and rice.
“Parvati, I need to talk to you.”
“Please come in, memsaab. Have a seat. Please join us for dinner.”
“It’s okay. I just ate.”
“Please memsaab, just a little.”
I accepted a tiny portion, knowing that refusing too insistently could be seen as a sign of condescension or ingratitude. I spoke to the girls, asking what they studied, what they liked to play, and so on. Parvati probably knew why I was there, because she didn’t make much eye contact. I did notice though that there was a fresh bruise on her arm that she kept trying to hide with her pallu.
“You girls go to Pinky’s place and watch some TV.” she sent the girl away after dinner, closed the door behind her, and then turned to face me.
“Do you know why I am here, Parvati?” I said.
“Who told you? Was it that nosy Naina? Anyway, it was nothing major, memsaab.”
“Told me what? What was nothing major?”
She stayed silent.
“I can see the bruise on your arm, Parvati. Are there more bruises…under your clothes?”
She nodded and started to sob.
“But it was nothing big, memsaab. At least nothing big enough for you to come here and get involved. He was having one last night of drinking with his friends to celebrate his new job before going on that truck to Bangalore. He just got a little carried away in bed and slapped me around a bit. It wasn’t like he was hitting me out of anger.”
“Wait…what are you saying? That these bruises are from sex?”
“Yes! That’s what I am saying. It’s not like that last time.” she smiled and said. “Last time it was from a fight. This is just from sex.”
“You think it’s okay for him to hit you during sex?”
“Yes…I mean no…no…it’s not that…it’s…you won’t understand memsaab. But believe me, he has changed.” she sincerely believed it.
I sighed, opened the folder and took out a Hindi newspaper. And I walked towards her.
“Sunita also told me something like that. That her husband had changed.”
I handed her the newspaper and pointed the story to her. She read slowly, moving her lips, as her eyes got big.
“What are you saying, memsaab?” she asked, her voice now almost a whisper.
“I have been doing this work for many years now. I see similarities. In fact, I think your husband is even more psychotic than Sunita’s was. And that nice inspector who helped you the last time? He thinks so too. Sunita was once sitting in the same chair in my office you were sitting in. She was making the same excuses, telling me her husband had changed. See where she is now.”
I was a little relieved to see that the news seemed to have shaken Parvati as much as I had hoped it would. She stayed quiet, just staring at the newspaper. Finally she started talking.
“Sometimes…sometimes…I really am scared that he will kill me.”
“Then leave him, Parvati. Leave him. Go back to the cops. I know Inspector Dubey. He will re-arrest Lallan. And our NGO can help you move. They had already started the process last time. I checked. We can expedite it. If you want, I can have you and your daughters on a train tonight.”
“I don’t know that. I can’t know that. It is kept secret from everyone except for a few people so it doesn’t leak to your husband. But it will be a train to a new place, a new life. Our people will put you up in a new home temporarily, help you find a job, put your daughters in a school, even get you new names if you want.”
“If you re-file the complaint, they will arrest him. And you won’t have to see him again. When you testify against him, it will be through video conference.”
“By TV…you can tell the judge what you want sitting in whichever town you are in. Even your divorce will be handled that way and expedited. We will take care of everything, Parvati. You just have to say yes.”
“But…memsaab…it feels unfair. He has changed.”
“He said in my office he had given up drinking. And yet you tell me he just drank…”
“But that was to celebrate.”
“You can make up any number of excuses for bad behavior, Parvati. But think about your daughters.”