I was sitting on the edge of my bed, waiting for him. He had woken up that morning earlier than usual, taken a bath and told me to wait for him to come back with my jewelry. I wasn’t sure if he would do what he said, as he never did. He had been asking me to leave his house for a few days now.
“He” was Palash (not his real name), the guy I was married to. It was an “arranged marriage” that took place in India, and after four years of misery, I was about to embark on a terrifying experience. Having been raised in a traditional Indian culture, I was now being forced out on my own without any support from my community, in a city, Washington, and in a country, America, that I knew nothing about.
Palash’s deep insecurity, inability to communicate, and strong desire to control everything I did as his wife had brought our relationship to a point where I was forbidden from using a cell phone, I could only drive to certain places and was not allowed to make friends or socialize. He mocked me and verbally abused me, saying it was my “dharma” as his wife to do what he wanted me to do and be happy with the way he treated me.
I love my native culture, but I love it enough to address its flaws. It is a culture that treats women with respect; yet it often represses those same women in the name of tradition. I am a victim of my own Indian community, which endures a manipulated set of Indian values and practices and often misinterprets traditions and beliefs. Members of my community here in the U.S. completely failed while the so-called “Westerners” showed respect, compassion, sympathy, and, most importantly, were courageous enough to help me and stand by me.
But on March 11th, 2008, I wasn’t thinking of any of that. I was thinking of survival. My eyes were puffy because I had been crying for several days. Lifting my heavy eyelids, I glanced at the carpeted floor of the bedroom full of my belongings. Everything that touched my eyesight took me to a time in my past. My sarees, hand-embroidered blouses, salwar suits, picture frames from our wedding day, mementos gifted by relatives, gifts and cards from my friends, holy water of Gangee in a sealed spherical container made of copper and brass, and my “Panetar” — a very colorful sight of artistic souvenirs of my roots, relations and traditions that I embraced, icons evocative of culture, religion and practices that worship goddesses like “Lakshmi” for wealth, “Saraswati” for knowledge and “Durga” for unlimited power. In a split second I realized how far I was from all of the above at that very moment. Most of the stuff was already thrown in suitcases; some of it was waiting to get packed.
I was scared, exhausted and in immense pain. I got up and walked to the bathroom. As I was getting into the shower I accidentally caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror, took a double take, and stared at myself for a few seconds, as if I couldn’t recognize myself. I refused to admit the image of the stressed out, weak and helpless female in the mirror was me; my lips trembled with such thoughts. Taking a shower while crying and pressing my fists against the standing shower walls made me feel like I was bathing in my own tears.
An hour and a half passed. I remembered to call my office; my boss John knew almost everything that was going on in my life.
“John, I may or may not be at office today…” I could feel my hands trembling while saying that. I briefed John about the situation. He offered to be there to support me. I told him I would call him back if I needed him.
I heard the main door of the house open; Palash entered with five other people — his older brother Sandeep, Sandeep’s wife Alpa, Mr. Patil, Mr. Thakur, and an Indian woman who I had never seen before. It didn’t take me long to understand why they were there. They were all acquaintances of Palash and his family. They didn’t know me, had never talked to me and had decided to support Palash and his family in forcing me out of my marital home without giving me a legitimate reason for why they were doing so.
Palash handed me a document that he wanted me to sign in order to get my jewelry from them. The document was a waiver of interest in my husband’s properties; it also included a list of a few pieces of my jewelry that they were willing to return. After I refused to sign it, they all took turns intimidating me.
I realized I needed help. I called Cassandra, the in-house attorney of the company where I worked. Palash and his brother brought my belongings from upstairs to the living room while she was on her way. She arrived within 20 minutes. It didn’t take Cassandra long to realize what was going on. After learning who my husband was, she introduced herself and asked each one of them why they were there. The Indian lady introduced herself as Anuja Das, an immigration lawyer, and claimed she was not representing anyone there. Cassandra told her that if she wasn’t representing anyone, she shouldn’t have been there. She asked Sandeep why he was in possession of my jewelry. She asked for a copy of the “waiver.” They all felt threatened by Cassandra. Mr. Patil called the police while Cassandra was making changes to the “waiver.” A female police officer arrived and talked to each of us separately. Cassandra and the police officer recommended that I leave my marital home that moment with my belongings and whatever jewelry I could get from them and allow the rest to be taken care of in court.
I looked at Cassandra. I was fighting within; images of my entire life ran through my mind in those few seconds like a print of a film. I heard the echoes of my father’s teachings, the sounds of chants on my wedding day, bells of the temple near our old home in India. I saw images of my parents, my grandparents, my siblings, my entire family and my community. I felt guilty and accused myself of letting my parents down as I was on my way to becoming the first female in my family to get divorced in generations — or maybe ever.
I left the house with Cassandra.
I had always heard that the United States was a country where people are only concerned about money and material things. I now know that it is a place with a big heart, full of people with compassion. The warmth of Westerners helped me to look ahead and move on.
Almost a year and a half later, after proving that I could survive without the support of my community and a few members of my extended family, I was at work in Washington when I noticed it was October 2nd — Gandhi Jayanti (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday), an important day in Indian history. I worked near Dupont Circle then, very close to the beautiful statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Massachusetts Avenue. I wanted to go there to pay my respects to the great freedom fighter and philosopher. I went there with a flower, put the flower near Gandhi’s feet and prayed for his soul. I did not feel like leaving, so I took a seat on a bench near the statue. It was a beautiful day. After a little while, a white American family walked towards the statue with a big bouquet of flowers and a few candles in their hands. While they lit the candles, put flowers near the feet of the statue and stood there to pay tribute to the messenger of peace and non-violence, I saw several people walk by without even noticing the statue. Some of them looked like people from my own country.
Tejal Panchal was born and raised in Gujarat, India, where she worked as a TV anchor for a women’s video magazine. She is a freelance writer and currently works for a non-profit in Washington, D.C.