All you see of her face are two beautiful eyes looking back at you. The rest of the face is covered up carefully with her dupatta. And all of her arms as well. She doesn’t wear new clothes, she doesn’t buy any jewelry or apply any make up like most twenty year olds do. She stays busy hiding her burnt and severely scarred face and arms from public prying eyes. She keeps her head down and walks fast when out on errands. Her ‘happy place’ is within the perimeters of the home she lives in now.
Gouri is employed as the domestic help in my parent’s house. My father had some initial misgivings about Gouri’s scars, he was worried that his grandkids, my children, would be scared of her disfigurement when they came to visit. I knew I was raising them differently. However, I had a conversation with them about this employment, about her scars and her life. They both agreed the scars and the disfigurement were a non issue and that didiya and dadai (grandmom and granddad) should ‘most positively’ hire her.
We went back home this summer and met Gouri for the first time, in person. Sahana gave her a spontaneous hug, maybe to show that her facial scars are no deterrent for love and affection. Ryan didn’t mention anything about the scars but behaved with her like he always behaves with any other women, shy smile and never looking up in the eye till the ice was broken and Gouridi became his winning partner in a game of Ludo every evening. Towards the end of our visit he was hanging from her arms and reveling in her love.
Her story is nothing new. She is yet another victim of domestic violence, who, unable to find any support or escape from the torture, in a moment of insanity, decided to put an end to her own life. She thought she would end it all, the pain, the degradation, the horror, the shame. Instead she gained a life of scorn, judgment and yes, shame – she left her husband and got a divorce, you see. The shame is indeed not hers, is it? Don’t answer that, that question was rhetorical. The shame belongs to those who failed her. Those who failed miserably to help her when she was flailing, trying desperately to get out of the clutches of her drunken father-in-law and abusive husband.
I will write about her life, I have her permission. She worked in Kolkata as a domestic help. A man came with a group of his friends to see a prospective bride for one of the mates. The man happened to see her, liked her and wanted to marry her right away. First Gouri’s father and elder brothers were reluctant at this match. It was too sudden they said, they were not ready. The man said he will take less dowry. That sealed the deal. I can’t judge the family. Extreme poverty, one less mouth to feed, you do the math. Her family borrowed, begged and finally married her off.
When Gouri followed her newly wed husband to his home a surprise awaited her. The man’s family was clueless about this wedding which was nothing more than a whim on the man’s part. The in-law’s disappointment knew no bounds. Families treat their sons as assets because they are wed to bring money in the form of dowry. Gouri didn’t bring much money to count. You must have figured out Gouri’s fate in her marital home by now. Let me just add a few more facts. She escaped to her neighbor’s house and saved herself from being raped by her father-in-law. She discovered that her husband has another family – wife and a son. She was beaten severely everyday when her husband turned up dead drunk. She pleaded with her father and brothers (mother and sisters don’t count and don’t have any say) to let her come home. They said “little things in life”. They said “Make peace, make it work”. They said, “God intended”. They said, “Fate.”
She was an eighteen year old young girl, trapped in a horrific marriage with no support, no chance of escape. And we say slavery is abolished? In which universe? So Gouri made a choice, she made a choice over the only thing she had some control over. Her life.
She didn’t die, of course. After 9 months of intense pain, medical intervention, antibiotics, surgery, she lived. Her father and brothers, didn’t have much to begin with, but went completely bankrupt to pay her medical expenses. ‘My brothers used to love me before, but they don’t love me anymore!’ She told me. When her brothers sit down to eat lunch, she is instructed to leave the room and sit outside till they are done so they don’t have to see her burnt face, which revolts them they say. She told me this matter-of-factly, without emotion. Her family holds grudges against her as the reason for their debts and bankruptcy. I try my best not to judge, yet at the same time, remind her she had asked for help, and didn’t get any!
Since I heard about Gouri, I wanted to make it better for her. She is twenty years old, I thought. She has her whole life ahead of her. She deserves a second chance, she deserves a decent shot at life. I wanted to raise awareness of her situation, maybe raise money if I couldn’t afford the cost of reconstructive surgery for her. Yes, I was playing God, in my mind. When I went back and talked to her about it, I discovered she has not healed emotionally. She refuses to take a simple pill for her cold, she made it clear she will not see a doctor or take another single injection as long as she lives. She is not ready for any surgery to reconstruct her face. She can’t even bear to think of it. The pain is still fresh, still immediate. She remembers too much. At least for now, she will hide her face from the world and smile inside the four walls of her home. But I can be patient. I will wait. After all, she is only twenty years old.
The silver lining in this story? Well, now she is determined to earn money. She has a goal to buy a little plot of land one day. She knows her family will not take care of her any more. She knows she is on her own. She gives money to her family when they are in dire straits, but she saves most of her money. She has a wonderful financial planner in my father. He takes pride in telling her (and me) how many fixed deposits she already has and in 5 years how much her money will multiply. She listens and smiles silently. Maybe, just maybe she sees the first light of the silver lining peeking out from behind the clouds?