Storytelling with Sakhi: Bent But Not Broken: Uma's Story

This story is part of a series produced by Pooja Garg, with support from the USC Fellowship for Domestic Violence Impact Fund.

Other stories by Pooja Garg:

Empowerment Project: Storytelling with Sakhi

When Home is Not a Safe Haven

Domestic Violence Survivors Speak Up

A sprightly, ambitious young woman looking for fresh career horizons, Uma was one of the many Indians who came to U.S. for higher studies. Unlike many other women who are in U.S. on dependent visas, Uma was an independent woman with her own visa. When she got married, she added her spouse to her visa.

Yet this independent woman, now an IT Director with a well-known firm in U.S., went through domestic abuse. She put up with it for a long time hoping and wishing that things would change. When they didn't and she spoke with her family and friends, they told her to accept and bear it.

In the midst of a cancer diagnosis, she found the courage to leave the relationship.

This is Uma's story written by her as a personal narrative.

This personal narrative is part of the Empowerment Project's Storytelling with Sakhi undertaken by Pooja Garg for Khabar magazine in collaboration with Raksha and The Woman Inc. It is supported by USC Fellowship for Domestic Violence Impact.

Survivors of domestic abuse from Indian-American community are guided in writing their intimate stories of experience with domestic abuse. It is an endeavor to give them agency in sharing their stories which often go unheard.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the survivors.

* This content is intended only for mature audiences. Reader discretion advised.

* Content Warning/Trigger Warning: domestic violence. violent imagery, language, mental and physical health, depression, anxiety, trauma.

"I Am" by Alka Writes. Acrylic on Canvas.

"I Am" by Alka Writes. Acrylic on Canvas.

My name is ​Uma. I am a domestic violence survivor, and this is my story.

The girl that I was.

I grew up in India amidst a loving, middle-class, traditional family. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be someone who would get caught up in domestic violence. I was the enterprising one, the first girl in my family to get an MBA, have a job in the big city, and live in a new place by myself.

But life happens and who can stop destiny.

I got married. It was the start of my abuse.

I came to the U.S. almost twenty years ago for my M.S. and soon after met my ex. After a brief long-distance dating period, we decided to get married. His parents were against the marriage because I was from a different caste. We got married in India and then came back to the U.S. I came back to my studies. and he went to another city to his job.

Within a few weeks, he started making sarcastic remarks about my studying in a different city and not being able to come on the weekends to visit him. He told me that I should leave my studies and move to be with him. I told him that he knew that I was studying before marriage and wanted to finish my M.S. But he got angry at me and said that I was putting my studies ahead of my husband. I started seeing his temper explode more and more.

As it progressed, it turned into verbal and emotional abuse within weeks. Not having had much experience with relationships, I thought that friction was a normal part of getting to know each other for a newly married couple. But it grew worse.

And then I was hit for the first time barely three months into the marriage. He hit me on my jaw and then started choking me. Then he hit me again on the face and threw me on the bed. This was the first time he had ever hit me. I was shell shocked, I started crying. My jaw was hurting, and I had trouble swallowing.

 “Hit” is such a small word and does not quite encapsulate the despair and sadness I felt that night. The first time it happened, I remember looking at the mirror at the bruises on my face, neck and swollen jaw, feeling heartsick and numb as if I was in a bad dream.

The next day he apologized profusely, told me that he loved me, and promised not to do it again. I wanted so badly to believe him but there was a part of me that grew frightened. I was frightened because he had shown me what he was capable of if I did not listen to him or agree with him. However, I buried my fear and pretended to myself that he would change, and things would be fine. I was wrong.

I supported him in every way—studies, visa. And yet.

Soon after, my ex lost his job and was in danger of having to leave the country. I applied for an F2 visa on his behalf, and he became a dependent on my student visa. He then moved in with me and said that he wanted to do his MBA instead of a job. I supported him in his wish, and he started applying to MBA programs. During this time, he often yelled and screamed, but I put it down to his frustration of being at home. He would yell at me about going to meet my project mates, putting dinner a bit late on the table etc. It started becoming unbearable but then luckily, he got admission to an MBA program.

Things were ok for a while, but I started seeing more of his controlling nature and explosive temper. I could not read books because it meant that I was not paying him attention. I could not fall asleep in the car if he was driving since it meant that I was treating him as a servant. Sometimes we would meet for lunch at the university since now both of us were students there. If I was late by even 5-10 minutes, he would shout at me that I was selfish and wasting his time and I did not care for him enough to make sure I was there on time. 

After I graduated, I started looking for a job. It was difficult since the economy was bad, and no one wanted to hire an international student that needed to be sponsored. Finally, I joined a local startup.

Most of my salary went to a joint account that was controlled by him. When I suggested buying a car for myself, he forbade it.

When I got pregnant in 2006, I told him that with the baby, now I would really need to buy a car. He got very angry with me and told me that I was wasting ‘his’ money and he could not allow that.

When I got pregnant again in 2008, my pregnancy was much worse. I had terrible nausea and was very sick most of the time. He started getting more and more irritated and angry with me. His shouting at me became more frequent. He was angry that I wasn’t able to cook or clean like before. He said that it was just an excuse that food smells made me nauseous or sick. He refused to let me get help saying he would not waste his money just because I am lazy. Sometimes he would throw whatever was in his hand at me. Sometimes he would push me or shove me if I kept quiet when he was shouting at me.

In the next few years this cycle would repeat, few and far between at first, and then more and more as time went by.

His behavior towards me continued to worsen. He started threatening me that he would hit me or kill me or throw me out on the streets if I did not listen to him or if I disagreed with him on something. I remember when I enrolled one of my children in a class. He yelled at me and said they are ‘his’ kids; that I could make any decision regarding them; that if I did so in future, he would break my bones and throw me on the street. When I told him that they are my kids also, he got very, very angry and yelled at me that nothing in the house belongs to me—not the kids, neither the house, nor the car, nor the money in the joint account in which I had been depositing the salary for several years.

In the next few years, we bought a house in a good school district. If I bought even a small plant for the house by myself, he said I was wasting ‘his’ money and that he would beat me to a pulp. I started becoming very scared of him and was apprehensive whenever he was in the house. I did not know what would set him off. He started hitting me more regularly—slapping, choking and hitting me with his fist, shaking and shoving me. Sometimes he would do it in front of the kids. When I asked him not to do it, he said that the kids should know what their mom is like. He once choked me and slapped me because I had gone out for an evening walk in the neighborhood. He accused me of trying to attract men’s attention.

I tried to find support.

Whenever I talked to my family about our issues, they said that being a wife, I should not do anything to make him angry, that I should try and maintain the peace of the house. When I talked to my friends, I heard echoes of the same thoughts.

When our communication totally failed, I emailed him asking him to stop his abusive behavior and come with me for marital counseling. He refused. He said he did not like washing dirty linen in public, that it was not the Indian culture, that this was not abuse.

When I had no support and no way to save myself, I went and took a self-defense class. 

And then I got diagnosed with cancer.

And then one day, I got diagnosed with breast cancer stage 3. The next day, I wanted to go to the temple to pray. When we got there, he kept making jokes about others who were coming to pray. When I told him to stop, he said I deserved my cancer because of my behavior.

My parents came from India after my diagnosis. But my ex started showing irritation and anger especially the days following my chemo sessions. He was angry that I was no longer helping in cooking, household work or taking care of the kids. When I told him that I could barely stand or sit up due to severe nausea, dizziness and bone pain, he accused me of making excuses. He said I was using cancer, chemo and bone marrow treatment as an excuse not to do any work and that I was just a bad wife, bad mom and lazy.

After I lost my hair, I was very sad. Some of my friends took me out to take my mind off it. When he came to know about it, he created a big ruckus. He yelled at me that I was sick enough to not do much housework, but not sick enough to not go out with friends. 

During my entire cancer treatment, he has shown callous disregard for me and my health. He told me several times that he didn’t care if I lived or died. My friends would often take me to the hospital for treatments, therapy, meeting doctors, scan, etc. But he did not show even the slightest sympathy even when the cancer was suspected to have spread to the bones or when they said that I might lose the mobility in my left arm. He would laugh, crack jokes and listen to music loudly while I was upset and in pain. I could never have believed that he had so much cruelty in him if I had not seen it myself.

As I faced my mortality, I broke free of all fears.

And then it reached a point where I could not pretend that I was fine anymore. I was walking around with wounded eyes because of all the hurt I carried in my heart, not knowing what to do, how to get help.

After more than a decade of surviving like this, I finally had to call the police for help. My mother-in-law became very angry and furious with me for having taken this step. In the years since our marriage, she had admitted to knowing that my ex had a temper and abusive nature, just like his father. But when I called the police for help, she denied there had ever been any problems.

Divorce is a taboo subject in my Indian community and a huge stigma. The women, especially, are ostracized along with being blamed for “breaking up the family”.

But facing mortality up, close and personal made me finally break free of all my fears. I filed for divorce in the middle of my treatment and got a protective order. It was a difficult time but curiously enough, I felt relieved. I was no longer scared in my own home.

I have moved on.

Over the past few years, I have healed enough to be cured of my PTSD and found love with an amazing man. I volunteer and run a support group. Helping others helps me heal. I want to help others who are in abusive situations, bring them hope and remove them from harm’s way.

My message to anyone else facing extremely challenging circumstances: let that experience make you better. Let it bend you but not break you. Hardship presents a unique opportunity for us to become a better version of ourselves.

Pooja Garg is Member, Cobb County Domestic Violence Taskforce, Founder Chief Editor of The Woman Inc. (The Woman Inc. is a literary and advocacy nonprofit magazine which has been working for the past five years to provide survival resources for DV victims through sharing survivor stories, information and safety resources and network, and organizing phone donation drives for DV victims), and City Editor & Community Engagement Editor with Khabar. 

Alka Writes is a California-based poet, artist and women's rights advocate. Her work has been reproduced here with permission from The Woman Inc. where it had previously been published as part of a series

[This story was originally published by Khabar.]

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