The first thought that hit me when I saw Sheela for the very first time was that this woman seems to have gone through hell!  Her hair was uncombed, clothes were crumpled and she was trying to hide a burnt body. I have a Civil Court practice and do not have to deal with dowry victims or anything to do with Criminal Courts. My first impression of her was that of an extremely dazed woman. After cancelling several appointments she had finally landed in my office.   She handed me her papers which I found was a Divorce Petition filed by her husband Ramesh, who had also claimed the custody of their only son Raju.

In the Petition there were allegations that Sheela had suicidal tendencies and she had tried to commit suicide which had resulted in the burnt marks on her body.

Ramesh had further alleged that Sheela was of a bad character and he sought a Divorce. There was one line in the Petition which caught my eye, that their matrimonial home belonged to him and that he would deal with it subsequently, although at present he and the child were not living in the said flat at the time of filing of the Petition.

My first question to Sheela was as to what was her defence. Did she want to contest the Petition or she wanted to agree for a Divorce and the custody of the child. She had no answer. She seemed to be in a daze. She just kept on looking at me. From the papers I had gathered that she was a qualified registered Nurse employed with a Government Hospital earning a good salary, but at present her mental faculty did not seem to be functioning properly. On further probing her very gently, I found out that the Divorce Petition had been filed one year ago and  she had been running from pillar to post with no proper support and advice, and it was the Judge’s final warning that had brought her to my office.  The Judge had warned her that if she did not file a reply on the next date of hearing, he would pass the order granting the divorce and give the custody of her son to the husband.

Sheela told me that for the past one year she had gone into depression and today she had reached a stage that she was agreeable for a divorce and to accept the fact that her son did not want to stay with her and she was prepared to give up the custody to her husband Ramesh.

In a place like Bombay, a roof over one’s head is of paramount importance.  So my next question to Sheela was that if she was conceding divorce and the custody of the child, what about the ownership of the matrimonial home i.e. the flat where she was residing since the husband had specifically mentioned about the flat in the Divorce Petition. Sheela told me that she had purchased the flat out of her own earnings. She received her salary in cash which she deposited in the Bank where she had a joint account with Ramesh. He had taken a loan from HDFC, purchased their flat and had repaid the HDFC loan by his cheques. The flat stood in his name. To my mind this is the biggest tragedy that befalls our Indian women.  The Adharsh Bhartiya Nari cuts off her own feet by trying to be the ever obedient and docile servant of the Lord and the Master the husband! Generosity without boundaries leads to this victimization.

Ramesh was totally unemployed, had never earned a farthing, but on paper the flat stood on his name. He had abandoned her; he had taken away the child and was now equipped to remove the roof from above her head. I explained to her all the legal consequences of the Court proceedings and told her that very soon she would be on the streets, if she did not put her Reply to his Petition especially about the matrimonial home.

I had hardly a week to file the Reply in Court. She was in no frame of mind to give me the particulars of the bank statements and money transaction regarding the flat. Unless she provided me with the details I could not draft the Reply regarding the ownership of the flat. After much coaxing, Sheela was able to tell me about the allegations regarding her suicidal tendency. She told me that the burnt marks on her body were the result of an accident when she was five years old. She was playing near the stove when the pot of boiling water accidently fell on her and she was burnt by the scalding water. The rest of her story was the common story which I hear so frequently of unemployed, unfaithful, alcoholic and abusive husbands.

I completed the dictation and gave her the draft of the Reply for her to check up all the details and fill in any gaps.  She went through the draft and Okayed it, and suddenly she started weeping which turned into uncontrolled sobbing which was beyond my understanding. The Reply was ready within time which she could file in the Court within time, so I failed to understand as to why she was sobbing heart-brokenly. I supposed that the snatching away of the child by the husband, dragging her to Court, making her run from pillar to post had taken its toll on her. I let her cry within the quiet and peaceful sanctuary of my office.  My experience with women in distress has taught me that women do not even have the luxury of crying out to their heart’s content in private.

She got up to leave but sat down once again.   I sensed her desire to tell me something. I thought that she wanted to ask me about my fees but looking at her disturbed state of mind I thought that preparing the Reply was more important than talking about fees at that time. So I told her not to worry about the fees and to meet me in Court the next day. Yet she would not go. Finally she told me that she could not leave my office without telling me the truth. She told me that she had lied about the accident of the boiling water falling on her. She confessed that she had tried to commit suicide when she was eighteen years old when she was in the 12th standard.   I immediately jumped to the conclusion that a broken love affair must have prompted her to attempt suicide at the vulnerable age of eighteen.

She was sitting across my table and tried to continue her story. There were long gaps. I sensed her searching for words.   After hearing so many sad stories my profession has taught me to be a patient listener. Besides the legal help that I offer women in distress, they have a greater need for someone to at least patiently hear their tales of distress. That listener might not be able to offer any solution to their woes but at least the pain is poured out of their system. They feel much better and lighter after this catharsis.

I was quietly waiting for Sheela to continue her story.  Finally Sheela started.  Sheela’s mother was also a nurse and used to go on private duties. Sheela being the eldest daughter had to look after household duties and the younger siblings. Sheela’s father was unemployed and an alcoholic. Her mother used to be away from home on day or night duties. Sheela stopped her story there. She just could not continue with the story. She again started sobbing. I just looked into her eyes and asked her, “Did your father abuse you?” I have never ever witnessed a forty year old woman cry as if there was no tomorrow.  She was shivering like a leaf.

Sometimes in life there is a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing.  In the face of such suffering all we can do is to silently bear witness so no one need suffer alone. That is exactly what I did. I just silently witnessed her grief, her guilt, her anger, and her helplessness.  I just extended my hands and held both her hands in mine, allowing my hands to pay homage to her tragedy.  The warmth of my feelings must have been conveyed to her through my hands because she suddenly became very calm and told me that it she could not bear the trauma day after day and that is why she set herself on fire.  Unfortunately the neighbours came and saved her. Her body was saved, but her spirit just died.

After she recovered from her burns she took up a course of nursing where she had to stay in the students’ hostel. She kept herself as far away from her father as she could manage to do so. She had just completed her nursing course when she met Ramesh who at that time used to come to meet her friend in the hospital.   After a few months of acquaintance with her Ramesh offered marriage to her. To permanently get away from her father she agreed to marry Ramesh.   At the time of her marriage her father had told Ramesh that she had suicidal tendencies and had tried to commit suicide which has resulted in the burnt marks on her body.

From day one the marriage had never worked.   Ramesh’s mother who herself was a woman abandoned by Ramesh’s father had seen to it that Ramesh and Sheela never enjoyed a normal married life. She was so possessive of Ramesh that she always made him feel guilty that Ramesh’s father had abandoned her and now Ramesh had abandoned her in her old age by marrying Sheela.  She never missed the chance of insulting Sheela and imposing her presence and wishes on the newly married couple.   Finally Sheela managed to convince Ramesh to hire a flat on leave and licence and move out.  Sheela was employed as a nurse and Ramesh was a free lancing singer earning occasionally.

Over the years Sheela had earned substantially and after taking loan from the Bank they had purchased the present flat. After all the material needs were taken care of, her thirst for knowledge started increasing. She was not satisfied with her degree in nursing. She wanted to study more.   She started attending medical and nursing seminars, workshops and conferences. At one such conference she met Dr. Smith from the U. S. who on seeing her enthusiasm for learning new nursing methods offered to sponsor her further education in the U. S. Here was a chance to go abroad and learn new techniques for helping relieving pain and suffering.  She asked Ramesh for his permission. Ramesh willingly agreed to send her and take care of their son Raju in Bombay. Ramesh encouraged her not only to go and study there but also establish herself there and if possible call him and Raju to the U.S.A. He wanted to try his luck at singing in the U.S.

Although her education and her travel were sponsored by Dr. Smith, Sheela had to earn her money by doing small jobs. She was living with a family so her food was taken care of,   but   she required money for daily expenses.  Dr. Smith had a friend whose father was very old and bedridden and required a night nurse. The friend was prepared to pay money for the night duty.   Dr. Smith suggested to Sheela to take up that job.

Sheela started attending daily to the old man at night. He was in the last stages of cancer and had hardly any time left. Next, what Sheela told me has been deeply etched in the inner most recesses of my soul. Sitting next to the old man every day and watching his life ebb away she was suddenly reminded of her father who also must have been of the same age then. In spite of the irreparable harm and damage that he had done to her she was suddenly filled with forgiveness for her father and started praying for him that he may die peacefully. After she returned to India she learnt from her sister that their father had died on the very day when she was praying for him.

It takes a very large heart to forgive such a sin against the very dignity of human life. By forgiving her father she had freed herself. She had risen above all the human failings. She had broken all the fetters of shame, guilt, anger, and resentment. She had risen like the Phoenix bird, risen from the very ashes to which she had   banished herself for life.

After Sheela had unburdened herself of the secret locked deep inside for more than 20 years she felt a free woman, free of all the fetters which she herself had put around her feet. She appeared in Court very smartly dressed and her body language had changed so drastically that even her husband was taken aback. Even the burnt marks on her body had changed a shade and become much lighter colour.

Reading the reply and seeing the confidence in Sheela the husband who was sure of getting a divorce on the next date, became shaky and unsure of his immediate victory in Court. Sheela was ready to fight for her rights and the battle could continue endlessly.

Life has taught me much more than I could have ever learnt from Law Books. Within one week’s time Ramesh was ready for a Divorce by Mutual Consent and agreed for granting access to the child and paid Sheela Rs. 2 lakhs as alimony and handed to her the documents pertaining to the flat.

As a gesture of goodwill Sheela returned all the articles belonging to Ramesh including his music books. I was genuinely touched when Sheela brought to the Court room and handed over to me the golden nose ring which Ramesh’s mother had given to her during her wedding. Sheela told me that I should return the nose ring to Ramesh although it did not form part of the Consent Terms.

I really admired the calm and peaceful way in which Sheela behaved in Court. She had genuinely let go of all the animosity which she had towards Ramesh and his mother. There was no pettiness in her. She had cleansed her heart, mind and her very soul of all bitterness and negativity which circumstances had filled her with.

There are so many questions in life which have no logical answers. How Sheela was able to forgive her abusive father or how she was able to gracefully withdraw from her husband and mother in law, I really never understood. I only know that today Sheela has healed herself and she is living in an Ashram doing voluntary service in the Ashram hospital. She is indeed the Phoenix which has flown out of its own ashes.

I have learnt the meaning of forgiveness and wholeness from her.

The Author, Ketaki Jayakar, is a well known Advocate in the Family Court, and is also a prolific writer on Women’s Issues.