CHENNAI: Bruises take time to heal but scars, although they fade, rarely disappear. For victims, women who have endured domestic abuse and burns, it is not just the trauma of physical abuse but the mental agony of dealing with burn scars that take a heavy toll on them.
S Vasantha is petite and exudes warmth. Dressed in a blue and white saree, the 58-year-old is soft-spoken and has eyes that glint with pride every time she talks about her daughters. Vasantha wasn't this happy 30 years ago when an argument with her husband turned ugly and drove her to immolate herself.
"He had come home drunk, as was the case a lot of the time," she said. "It was hard for me to reason with him when he was in that state. One thing led to another and I reached a point where I could not take it. I put kerosene on my arms and set myself on fire. I wanted to die."
The easy smile makes way for a grimace as she remembers flashes of the incident. Both arms have scars running through their length and her fingers too shrank after the fateful incident. "It was so painful," she says. "It was a hard time for me and I did not know what was happening around me. I only found solace in God. He was the one who made me pull through that period. One good thing was my husband stopped ill-treating me. He continued to drink but that was all."
But fate works in mysterious ways. Although her husband stopped his drunken antics, God had other plans. After the couple had their two daughters, her husband passed away. "I brought up my girls on my own," said Vasantha. "I sell snacks and manage to make ends meet. I make things like bonda and sundal every day and sell it to those in the locality. It is tough but I manage somehow."
Doing this work, she managed to educate both her daughters. One is married but works as a teacher in a private school while the other is getting a diploma in nursing. Now that her children are quite independent, Vasantha gets more time to herself. A pious Christian, she devotes a lot of her time to praying and visits church regularly. She also enjoys cooking and continues to sell delicious savouries.
Her scars don't bother her. She says she has accepted it as a part of her past that she cannot change but has found ways to work with it. She did undergo plastic surgery and although it was successful, she gets painless blisters on her arms from time to time. It gives her a constant itching sensation.
"It can get very uncomfortable and itchy when those blisters appear," said Vasantha. "But it has been 30 years now and I know how to deal with them. I just put some oil on it and it soothes that burning sensation. I don't let it stop me from working though — I continue cooking and cleaning in the house. You learn to live with it and accept it as a part of you that cannot be erased. When I used to get in a bus and people used to stare, I used to feel conscious but now I don't care. God gives you the strength to endure."
But another similar story doesn't have such a "happy" ending. In a fit of rage, R Malathi's husband allegedly set her saree on fire to "teach her a lesson". Fifteen years down the line even if she wants to forget the incident, scars on her torso, arms and neck are a constant reminder.
Though she felt she was better off dead, she prayed she would live just so she could be there for her children. "If I died, I knew he would not take care of my kids," she says. "For him, nothing comes ahead of alcohol. How could I leave my three-year-old son with someone like him?"
She hesitates to elaborate on how the incident took place, preferring to brush it off as an "accident". "It was unintentional," the 38-year-old says. "He was angry and, without him realising, he dropped the lamp that was lit near some kerosene that caught fire and spread to my saree and, before I knew it, my upper body till close to my chin got burned."
However, her sister-in-law, Sumathi, had a different tale to tell. "She will never admit it, but everyone knows that it was not an accident, it was a deliberate attempt to silence her and make her fear him," Sumathi says. "She does not do anything without consulting him. She barely goes out, doesn't meet anyone and fears being lashed out at because one never knows what will trigger her husband."
Malathi underwent treatment for 3 months at a local private hospital after which she went to Stanley Hospital. "The doctors said I would not live more than a year," says Malathi. "But it was the prayers of my mother, sister and sister-in-law that kept me alive. They were my biggest support system and even today they are unshakeable pillars in my life."
Her husband did not reform himself and continues to drink excessively and beats her regularly but Malathi is so accustomed to this treatment that she laughs it off as a routine occurrence — one that she must endure, no questions asked. "He hits me almost every day because we fight so often," she says. "It is so common that it doesn't bother me anymore. He comes home drunk, gets angry if I correct him in any way and beats me up — sometimes with his hand and, many times, with whatever he can find lying around, like utensils and so on."
Malathi is Christian, however, her puja room doesn't have a single idol of Jesus Christ or anything remotely resembling a cross. "My husband is Hindu and he would get angry with me if I kept anything that depicted Christianity," she said. "He beats me if I do anything he dislikes so I have stopped going against his wishes. I have done up the puja area the way he wants. It doesn't matter to me because all Gods are the same to me."
Malathi used to work at an organic goods store for two-and-a-half years but has had to give up her job because of health problems. Now, she is completely dependent on her husband's earnings. He lays cables for telephone connections. "I feel crippled now, so helpless," she said. "He just doesn't understand that he cannot work for a day and blow up all the money on alcohol for four days. I don't know what to do. He doesn't understand. And if I explain, he beats me up."
But Malathi feels she made the right decision to remain determined to stay alive. Her daughter recently started working in a bank while her son is all set to enter college. Even if she has to suffer being abused, she says seeing her children do well, makes it all worth it.