Saturday, July 29, 2006

stamped Impressions
A survivor’s tale
Reeta Sharma

Sheela Balu Bhai Patel
Sheela Balu Bhai Patel

There are more than 15000 deserted wives of NRIs from Punjab. These cases are not restricted to Punjab alone, as many girls from other parts of India who have married NRIs have gone through similar suffering.`A0 The following is the case of a girl from Gujarat.

Sheela Balu Bhai Patel was born in Balsara, Gujarat. She grew up in a lower middle class family along with three other siblings and did BSc. Within a year of graduation, she was married off to an NRI from the US. And then began sorry tale of the next 15 years of her life which were filled with misery and utter helplessness.

As soon as she arrived in the US, her in-laws searched her rather meagre belongings and were upset when they found nothing substantial. They began troubling her for dowry. She recalls, "At times I felt I was going mad. I was neither allowed to make phone calls to my parents nor write any letters. I was like a prisoner. From the very first day I was made to do all the household work.

"The treatment meted out to me by my husband, my father-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and even my brother-in-law was simply frightening. My husband physically thrashed me within 24 hours of my arrival in USA, saying: "Why didn’t your father send any decent gifts?" All my pleas that my father was a mere schoolteacher and that even my ticket to the US had been brought with a loan fell on deaf ears. But dowry demands were not the only worry of my life. For months my husband and I did not consummate our marriage till one day I learnt that he was impotent. The entire family knew about it and my brother-in-law tried to take liberties with me whenever I was alone at home.`A0

"They used to go to temples but at home treated me so cruelly. I was made to wake up at 3 am to cook breakfast as well as lunch for the entire family and leave with them by 8 am. On return at 6 pm, the entire dinner was again my responsibility and I would get free from the kitchen not before 11 pm. But this too was not enough for them. My father-in-law along with my mother-in-law would beat me up for no reason at all. There was no ray of hope. I did not know how to speak English. Whenever any guest came home, I was quickly pushed into the basement with instructions not to emerge till called for. Within six months of my marriage I had turned into a skeleton. My brother-in-law tried to rape me many times. I then somehow managed to call up one of my in-law’s relative living in New York and pleaded with him to inform my parents.

"My parents sent some relations living in the US to take me away from my in-law’s house to their place. During this period my in-law’s worked out a plan to damage me further. On the one hand they filed for a divorce and on the other hand they pleaded with me to return to their place and made all kinds of promises. I returned but to my horror the minute I reached their house they pushed me to the basement and then began a more horrific time for me. Basement was not heated and I did not have enough clothes. I was served food only once a day. Shivering with cold and hunger, I tried to commit suicide twice. During this period, they got blank papers signed from me. At the end of the four months, I was put on a flight to India. They said they were allowing me to meet my parents but the fact was that they were preparing the ground for a divorce. Within two weeks of my arrival, the divorce papers were sent to me. They did all this to deny me share in property."

The next one year in India was hell for Sheela. Everybody looked down upon her for getting divorced. Her own relatives taunted her that because of her divorce, her two younger sisters would not be able to get married. "But it was my father who stood like a rock behind me. He never allowed me to feel guilty over my divorce. One day he said, "Sheela you used to say that you would be like a son to me. You have the Green Card, so go back to the US and re-establish yourself. Soon all this social pressure will cease to upset you."

"During this time I met many NRIs visiting India and pleaded with them to give me shelter in their homes till I got some work. Not a single person responded to my pleas. Eventually, one family took me along with them but they had an ulterior motive. They wanted me to marry one of their relations, who was an illegal immigrant in the US. I left their house and accepted a job in a motel to clean 30 rooms in return for a corner to sleep in and some leftovers to eat. But this too did not work for long. The owner (an Indian) began harassing me as he wanted to exploit me physically."

All alone and without a roof on head, Sheela even went to the temples for help but nobody came forward. Finally, with help from an Indian girl, Sheela got the job of a clerk. At this juncture, she met Jyoti Uppal, who runs a real estate business. She advised Sheela to take lessons in English. Sheela heeded her advice and within three months began conversing in English. This changed her life forever.

During this time Sheela met an American boy Dylan Hedrick, whom she eventually married. Both of them worked hard. Sheela would put in as much as 16 hours a day all seven days of the week. The day I met her for this interview, they had bought a two-bedroom house after a 10-year struggle.

Meanwhile, Sheela kept her promise to her father and helped him marry off both her sisters and also lent a hand to her younger to get established in business. She even built a home for them in India and made her parents immigrate to the US. At present, they live with her.