A Tale of Two Survivors

Dia Rekhi @ Chennai, Jun 24

Bruises take time to heal but scars, they fade but rarely disappear. For women who are victims of domestic abuse but also burn victims, it is not just the trauma of physical abuse but the mental agony of dealing with burn scars that takes a heavy toll on them.


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She is petite and exudes a warm and friendly demeanor. Dressed in a blue and white saree, 58-year-old S Vasantha is soft-spoken and has eyes that glint with pride every time she talks of her daughters.

However, she 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 times,” she said somberly. “It was very hard for me to rationalize with him when he was in that state. One thing led to another and the argument escalated very quickly. I reached a point where I could not take it any longer and put kerosene over my arms and set myself on fire. I just wanted to die.”

The easy smile makes way for a grimace as she remembered flashes of the incident. It was an incident that would shape her life more than she knew then. Both her arms have burn scars running through their length and her fingers too shrank after the fateful incident.

“It was so painful,” she said as she winced briefly at the memory. “It was a very 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. But one good thing that came out of this episode was that my husband stopped ill-treating me after that. He continued to drink but that was all.”

But Fate works in mysterious ways. Though her husband had 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 everyday and sell it to those in the locality. It is tough but I managed 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 doing a Diploma in nursing. While talking of her children’s achievements, one can almost see her heart swell with pride. However, 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 makes it a point to visit the church regularly. She also enjoys cooking and continues to sell delicious savouries in the neighbourhood.

Her burn 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 though it was successful, she gets blisters on her arms from time to time, which aren’t painful, but constantly give her an 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.”


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In a fit of rage, R Malathi’s husband set her saree on fire to ‘teach her a lesson.’ Fifteen years down the line even if she  wants to forget the incident, the scars all over her torso, arms and neck are a constant reminder of the incident.

Though she felt she was better off dying than living with her abusive husband, 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 said with a straight face. “For him, nothing comes above his alcohol – not me, not our children, nothing. How could I leave my son who was only three years old then with someone like him?”

Yet, she hesitates to elaborate on how the incident took place. She brushes it off as an “accident.”

“It was unintentional,” the 38-year-old said. “He was angry and without him knowing 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 was burnt.”

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,” she said. “She does not do anything without consulting him. She barely goes out, doesn’t meet anyone and constantly 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,” said 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 everyday because we fight so often,” she says smiling. “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 – sometimes with his hand and many times he hits me with whatever he can find 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 doesn’t listen, only beats.”

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 said seeing her children do well, makes it all worth it.


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