Monday, February 6, 2017

Life is not about hatred, but about love

Rupande Mehta
Rupande Mehta founded and runs The SAR Foundation, which works with the aim of eradicating violence against women and girls. Here is her story in her own words.

I was born in India to conservative parents. We were very poor and didn’t have a house of our own, so I lived with my grandmother and her family for five years. My parents bought a home and we moved there after that. My father is a very traditional man and believes in very sexist, gender roles and ideas surrounding that. And yet, this is perhaps because of having experienced poverty, he was also very keen on educating me and making me independent. I think he was hoping for a boy and may have been disappointed. He encouraged me academically and supported my choices when it came to academics and education. It was ironic, though, that he supported me with this, but was very harsh and sexist otherwise.

I close my eyes, and all of these memories are very vivid. My cousins lived in a joint family, and the house next door had a family friend of ours. He was married and had a daughter my age. I used to go play with her and spend time with her, and once, her grandfather told me to stay back and play with him. I had no idea what he meant by “play” – and I would find out, unfortunately. He molested me, and it happened to me twice more. I didn’t see him until much later in my life – but he had sowed the early seeds of violence in my life. It was my first experience being objectified and being seen as an object rather than as a girl, a person, a human. There is some research that says that sexual abuse can tend to make you favour the opposite sex or sex itself. My experience was similar. I was attracted to boys and got along very well with boys at a very young age. I had a few boyfriends, too.

I was six when my brother was born. We were very close, and grew closer over the years. We have a very good relationship, and I always make sure to let him know that he could always talk to me about anything in life. Not because I wanted to know anything, but because I always wanted to make sure that he was dealt with fairly and that he dealt fairly with others. I always looked at him as someone I needed to protect. I was a tomboy at school – and always tended to protect those around me. He was younger, and that automatically made me gravitate towards taking care of him. Until a few months ago, he knew nothing about my life. He had no clue that I was beaten and abused so much at home – he was always kept aside and safe in one part of home before they dealt with me. He grew up very protected, and they made sure that he got all that he wanted. He was babied. Our rules were different – he had none and I had very rigid ones. It was strange that we had the same parents.

I had a lot of friends when I was at school, but my father was very strict about it. I couldn’t step out, and so I didn’t make very deep friendships. The only thing that gave me solace was reading. I was a very good student, and was constantly with a book. I had a favourite spot in the house – and occupied it to such an extent that my father would tell me that whenever he entered the house, I had to be sitting there. That was the extent of his control – so the few friends I had were all driven away.

My father was extremely strict, and I think he controlled my mother, who turned out to be that way, too. My father would beat me up when he found out that I was in a relationship. My parents were vicious in their physical assaults of me, and that later became a way to control me. There was also vehement emotional abuse. There was never any fun for me outside of the cloud that hung over my head. My parents didn’t care if anyone was around – they would call me names, beat me and abuse me. I had faced all kinds of abuse in their hands, except sexual abuse.

When I was about 12 or 13, I had my first real boyfriend. He passed away when I was fifteen, in a tragic accident. He was very handsome – quite like Akshay Kumar, who was the heartthrob back then. He had come to see me, and the two of us walked on the road, not even holding hands. My father circled around, looking for us, and when we were about to leave, we saw him turning in a white Maruti Van. He began to speed towards me, and didn’t stop – he knocked me over and I was left with a bleeding knee. He got off the car and punched my boyfriend, holding him by the throat. It was all happening in the middle of the road in Mumbai. My father left, and the two of us walked our own directions. My father’s violence was uncalled for, and simply another way for him to control me. But, it didn’t change our relationship, though, and although later we did break up, we remained good friends till he passed away.      

I was in college when I fell in love with someone. My parents asked me why I fell in love with someone – my parents asked me why I looked for love outside – didn’t I get enough at home? I would always stay quiet in response to that question. The boy I had fallen in love with was the college darling. He showed some interest in me and I fell for him. I didn’t pick up on any clues. But, he also started abusing me – there were times when I would come home after being beaten up by him, and come home to being beaten by my parents. He raped me a couple of times, and I got pregnant twice. I had to abort the baby both times. I forgot all about them until a few years ago when I was doing surya namaskar, and openly wept in the memory of those I had forsaken.

I simply needed to get out of that life. Despite all the things that he did, my father supported my choice to go to the USA to study. It was an escape for me. Somewhere deep down, I always believed that life was not about hatred, but was about love. It was time for me to get tough and take charge of the situation – up until then, I just wanted to run away and be invisible. On the day of my appointment for a visa to the USA, I stood in queue behind four men, all of whom were rejected. I didn’t know what to do – if I was rejected, my life was over. Not figuratively, but literally. I clung to the hope that life was about love. The visa officer looked at my application, and looked me in the eye, and said that I could go, get my visa. Those words meant that I could live, that I would not die!

I left India on August 15, 2002. I looked at my family as I was leaving and said, the day India got independence, I got free. They laughed it off, but it meant so much to me. I landed in Lea Guardia and then arrived at Pittsburgh. I lived in a small town called Clarion. It was a reverse culture shock – there were no tall buildings, it was a really small town. I had landed in rural USA! I was coming to grips with reality, this new life where there was no fear in waking or sleeping or being a target for someone’s rage. Although I had left, my ex still controlled me. He would call me at odd hours, threatening to kill my brother and such. It was surreal. I summoned all the courage within, and decided that he had to go. It takes an average of 7 times for a woman to face physical violence before she walks away. I took nine months to break it off with him, in May 2003.

I became my old self, making friends, learning new things, partying and enjoying myself. I truly did find myself. It was the first time that I was finding who I truly was, and I absolutely loved it. Towards the end of 2003, I broke the last shackle. I dated someone in Clarion. I had told an aunt about it, who told my cousin, who told my father. He told me to pack my bags and leave to India the next day, and that he would get me married off to someone of his choice. He told me he would call me the next day for my response. I went to college, spoke to the dean, who encouraged me to take my own stand. I ran into a friend, who then told me she would take me to her mother, to help me find an answer. It was a mystical conversation – one that turned my life around and made me realize what my true purpose really was! I stood my ground, after that conversation, and told my father I was not coming. He told me that I was dead to him since then. That day, I became free. I had only one person to please: Me.

I came to New York City in 2005. From the day my purpose was revealed, those words never left my heart. I began to volunteer for a South Asian Domestic Violence agency.  I worked on advocacy, not services meeting victims one on one. Part of the reason was that I had issues that were still unresolved. From then on, I did a lot of different things – I didn’t think about abuse, and moved on. I met my husband, Andrew, and married him. He is the absolute anti-thesis to all things violent, and is a compassionate, kind person. My parents had nothing to say – they were happy I was getting married. They met him for the first time on the day we got married – and my mother once told me that had she found someone for me, she wouldn’t have found anyone as good as Andrew.  
When our daughter was born in 2012 – it was a magical moment. As she grew older, there were times when my husband would notice my reactions to her, and told me that I was replicating my parents’ behaviour with her. It was happening without any realization and conscious choice but a harsh reality to confront. My abuse hadn’t left me. I started seeing a therapist and told her about my old life I didn’t want to, but I started reliving it. It was the worst nightmare – and I had to go through it. I looked at good and bad responses, and began to understand them. I see my relationship with Sophie, our daughter, as a work in progress. I make sure that she is not impacted by what happened to me. I do all that I can to make sure that I parent my child while fighting what seems natural – and tell myself that it is perfectly okay. Sophie is a loving child, an angel, even. She changed my life, literally, and showed me what to do.

Growing up, no one knew that I was going through all of this. Today, my cousins and extended family ask why I didn’t go to them – some cousins even may have been jealous of me because on the surface, I had it all. But the truth remains that it was, and is not easy for a victim to find a way out of violence. There are many reasons – shame, denial and fear. The fact of the matter is that love and violence do not go together. My parents told me they loved me, but they controlled me.
Today, my father lives in denial. We speak once in a while, but there is no depth in the relationship we share. I realized that the environment I had grown up in was toxic and dangerous. My mother and I have a decent relationship.

I founded and run the SAR Foundation; an orgainziation working to end violence against women and girls. The idea is to use comprehensive approaches such as providing services, resources and information to victims of domestic violence so they can get out of dangerous situations and cycles of violence. SARF will also conduct workshops with corporations to promote awareness around the issue of domestic violence. Since the idea is to make it inclusive and all encompassing, and to start early, the goal will be to conduct workshops with schools and colleges to promote awareness of domestic violence, consent and healthy dating.