Widowed. Divorced. Unmarried. Single mothers in India face an uphill task
While writing a school essay on his family, 11 year old Judhajit wrote about his father in the present tense, although his father had died almost two years earlier. His mother, Benani Dutta, has desperately tried to fill the void in the boy’s life, a void that she is afraid she may never be able to fill. The task she faces is formidable. Not only must she cope with the loss of a companion, but also financial problems brought in the wake of his death. Plus her children look to her for support and she must smile and be brave. ‘I cannot let them see my despair,’ she says. ‘I have to keep up the act.’
Indian women often grow up with the Cinderella syndrome, believing that once they meet their Prince, they will live happily ever after. When that dream is shattered, they realise that they neither have the qualification, the work experience or even the mental make-up necessary to go out there into the world and fend for themselves.
Benani was luckier than most. She has a talent for designing clothes and was working even before her husband’s untimely death. After his death she expanded the business and today successfully runs a boutique. The money from the boutique does not cover all expenses however and she has to depend on relatives at times. ‘The family income has gone down by half. Plus I have to pay back my husband’s debts,’ she admits.Life was once a cosy ride, but today it’s work work work 17 hours a day, both inside and outside the home.
She considers herself lucky that she has an apartment of her own because many Indian women (even from affluent families) find themselves without a roof over their heads if they lose their husband. The in-laws, the brother and the father, all could deny her a right to a human being’s basic need – shelter.
‘The economic problem always turns out to be most serious one,’ says Rinki Bhattacharya. Daughter of the famous film director Bimal Roy, Rinki divorced her husband BasuBhattacharya (also a film director) after 18 years of a turbulent marriage. ‘When I divorced my husband I had no place to stay, and I had to support myself and my three children. Though my husband sent us money, it was never sufficient.’ Rinki worked day and night, wrote for newspapers and sold her jewellery to make ends meet. She managed to make a name for herself, and also co-directed a film called Char Diwari, on battered wives. She runs an organisation in Bombay for victims of domestic violence. ‘Even today, what is uppermost on my mind is to earn enough to support myself,’ she says.
Being both mother and father
For a woman it is not only the daily financial struggle, but also the myriad little daily domestic tasks which drain her both physically and mentally. Single mothers do not get enough time with their children and this can cause problems. ‘My being away for long hours does have an effect on my son,’ admits Suhasini Kohli,mother of 12 year old Varun. Suhasini is one of those rare women who never married but opted tobring up a child by herself. A member of the executive committees of several development organisations, Suhasini’s work demands a lot of traveling and leaves her little time with her son. ‘I have now decided to cut down on the traveling, because my son needs me more than before,’ she says. She admits that there are discipline problems with Varun, but otherwise he is a very happy, and confident child. It is hard for kids like Varun, but now he has accepted that he doesn’t have a father. His craving for a father figure is met by Suhasini’s brother, who is a bachelor. ‘Varun identifies with my brother and is very close to him,’ says Suhasini.
Innumerable studies have shown that the father’s presence in the house is an important factor for healthy development of the child. While boys look up to a father as a role model, a girl’s future relationships with the opposite sex is largely shaped by her interactions with her father and the image she has of him. Moreover, husbands and wives generally balance out each other’s personalities and thus provide a secure environment for children.
A father’s mere physical presence is not enough. Due to cultural factors however, many Indian fathers consider it enough that they bring in the moolah. ‘Many Indian women, even when married, have to function as single mothers,’ feels Rinki. She points out that even she was married, she had to bring up her children single-handedly. ‘I gave my children the time they demanded because I believe that if one has children one owes them time. As a result, I was left with very little time for myself.’ Though her children were close to her, they were nevertheless attached to their father. The divorce took it’s toll on them and particularly affected her youngest, only six at the time. It was a case of contested custody and the child had to go on the stand and testify.
Single mothers not accepted
Today, divorce is becoming common in Indiabut unfortunately society’s attitudes are not changing fast enough. Indian society looks harshly upon divorced women, invariably blaming them for the break-up. Widowed women are however, somehow ‘ennobled.’
Rinki felt the ostracism keenly. ‘Women who have the courage to walk out of a marriage when ill-treated should actually be admired, but instead they are looked upon as women who could not make their marriage work.’
Unmarried single women also face hostility. It is not a simple matter of turning a deaf ear to gossip, but a question of tackling practical problems like school admissions or getting the children married. Rita Bose is an unmarried mother who adopted Rahul four years ago, when he was just two months old. Says Rita, ‘During Rahul’s admission to a school I was questioned in detail about the adoption. I had to prove that I could support him. When I was waiting for the interview, people kept asking me, ‘Why hasn’t the father come?’ I have always had to face these kinds of questions.’ Family support is very important in these cases and Rita got it from her aunt, three sisters and close friends. ‘I always wanted to adopt a child, and my family was delighted,’ she says. With her job and spacious apartment in central Calcutta, Rita has no feeling of insecurity. She is happy. ‘After Rahul came into my life, everything changed. Everything revolves around him today, and I have become softer, more patient and more caring.’
Suhasini could not agree more. ‘A child makes your world fuller, he makes you more human, less selfish. Today even though I have to work so hard, it’s worth it.’
Divorce is becoming common in India now and in certain classes of society single women are going in for adoption. Sadly however, women who live alone are still considered oddities.
The story of a woman
When Supriya Dasgupta’s husband Dilip walked out on her four years ago, leaving her with two young children, it seemed to her that her whole world had been torn apart. Brought up as she was on the ideals of motherhood and the sanctity of marriage, she could not cope with the break-up initially. ‘I was dependent upon my husband in every way, financially and emotionally,’ she says. ‘I always had the feeling: He’s there, he is my infrastructure.’
After living a life of comfort for so long, Supriya was ill-prepared for the situation she found herself in. She did not even have a house to live in, and she was in Bangalore, far away from her home in Calcutta. When her husband was transferred to Bombay, it was clear that Supriya would have to stay on in Bangalore alone with the children.
She found that extremely hard. Her teacher’s salary was of little help. Eventually Dilip did buy Supriya an apartment, but he also persuaded her to sell all her family jewels as a contribution. Even today Supriya finds it difficult to describe the horror of that break-up. ‘It was as if two sensible sane people had gone berserk,’ she recalls. ‘It was very hard to cope. It is easy for the one who walks out. As far as he is concerned he has got rid of the problem.’
She herself found it difficult to handle the loneliness, and the despair that comes with the feeling of being rejected. ‘I was only human and could not handle the situation. Also, I found it difficult to handle my adolescent son who was finding it difficult to adjust to the new situation.’ After six months of living like this, she decided to return to Calcutta. She craved for the comfort of familiar surroundings and friendly faces. When she came back however, she found that her friends and family were unable to offer her the solace and the moral support she needed. She found that she no longer fitted into their lives. The turning point in her life came a year ago, when she decided that if anyone could help her, it was herself.
She found out that her inherent creativity (she is a writer and an artist) and her teaching work could help her carve out a new life for herself. ‘Teaching is my first love,’ says Supriya. ‘From the world of children, I get an emotional satisfaction. They show me how to be honest.’ Supriya has now decided to move back to Bangalore. She wants to start living in her own house and take up teaching again. She feels she had run away from Bangalore and is now ready to face it again. ‘I am woman who meets all my commitments,’ she says. ‘I want to recreate a home for my children who are now in a hostel. Whenever they want to come home, I want to be there for them.’
(This was published in The Telegraph in the nineties. It is an old article but reading it again aroused strong emotion in me. Not much has changed in Indian society. There are more single women than ever before, but society is still suspicious of them.)
Note: Indian Law says that divorced women can only recieve one-third of the combined income of the both marriage partners. A big disadvantage for working women who get divorced. After a divorce they do not just have to support themselves, but also kids and the money is not enough. They are not entitled to a car or a house. As often they work simply to supplement the family income (as they want to give attention to the family) this hits them in the gut if they get divorced. If they are simply housewives, they get more alimony from their husbands. And if they opt for high paying careers, they don’t need the alimony. Recently a man demanded alimony from his wife after the divorce as he was jobless…and guess what? Our ‘equitable’ Indian courts gave it to him!
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