Holding her head high, no matter what
First things first, let's get introduced. Hi, I'm Rachel Chitra, a journalist, single mom, dog lover and also curiously best friends with my first husband J. So, the question — first husband? Then did I have a second? Well, yes, and now I am a part of what my Mumbai lawyer friend wants to officially inaugurate as the 'Double Divorcees Club'.
Now, to go back to the beginning of how I ended up marrying not just one, but two Hindu men and proved to be an eternal disgrace to my conservative Christian family. So, I was interning with a media house at the age of 19 in 2005, when every day I would be sent to shadow reporters, covering beats such as politics, crime, high court and the corporation. And one day, I was sent with senior reporter J for Tamil Nadu politician Vaiyapuri Gopalsamy aka Vaiko's press meet.
It was a bad start. The first question I whispered to J when the reporters were assembling was, "Does Vaiko dye his hair?" J choked on his tea. He looked at me with alarm and said, "Err... if you want to ask any questions at the press meet, can you first tell me, before asking them out loud?"
After this, J was astonished, when after returning to office, I typed out a near perfect-copy in the classic inverted pyramid style — with the top news in the lead — crisp and no-frills. His impression, thanks to the first question, was that I was air-headed and flaky. He reported back to the chief reporter that I'd probably be a good hire.
To cut a long story short, I did get hired at the end of my internship. And I did get to know J better. And I was completely taken in by what I saw. J, then and now, is one of those really kind, dedicated, principled people who couldn't hurt a fly even if he wanted to. Our wedding was the stuff of Tamil masala movies — with an elopement, fight, chase, police, courtroom drama and everything that could possibly happen to an inter-religious couple.
So, if he was a really good person, what went wrong? Divorces don't happen with good people, do they? Well, to continue with the story, soon after I married him, I spent three blissful months with him in Madurai. They were some of the happiest days of my life. We discussed art, literature, sang old Tamil songs to each other, cooked half-burnt meals from a one-pot stove. We were in love, we were absorbed in each other, we didn't need anything else to complete us. When we packed up and left Madurai to go back to Chennai, we had only three boxes of goods that contained all our earthly possessions. But we never felt the lack of material things — love was all-encompassing.
And then, Chennai happened. J went back to his world of political rallies, journalists' union work, workers' union meetings and local area work. He was extremely busy and very much involved with his political and social activism. Being head over heels in love with him, I started following him like Mary's little lamb. If he went for political meetings, so did I. If he went to the union office, I would become the typist and stenographer to update their subscription lists. If he went for his local area work, I pretended to be really interested and not let the boredom show on my face.
By year two, this was getting exhausting. Also, my political views were rapidly transforming and as a 21-year-old, I started seeing the theoretical gaps in communist parties, their hypocrisies and their inconsistencies. So, that stopped after a point. And it was the same year when we hit the first rough patch in the marriage. For I started developing severe insomnia. I would not be able to sleep the whole night. I'd read till my eyes burnt. Finally at dawn, exhaustion would take over and I'd sleep till late afternoon when the cab came to pick me up for work. J would meanwhile try to wake me up and get me to drink milk in the morning. Failing to wake me up, he'd buy breakfast and lunch and leave for work. And as the months progressed, my condition worsened. Worried, he started seeking advice.
So, one day, despite my reluctance, he convinced me to see a psychiatrist. Initially, I was quite resistant and didn't open up to the doctor about anything. But slowly, some of what she said clicked and I said one thing, then another and then everything came out like flood waters. And the past, everything that I kept locked, stored and hidden away, was in front of me. The extreme physical and mental abuse of my childhood, the stray incidents of sexual abuse. It was like a catharsis. I talked and talked and talked till I could talk no more. Till I was drained. Till I felt defeated and dead. And surprisingly, the doctor said I didn't need medication and the condition (insomnia) could be managed by therapy, exercise, right eating and a better lifestyle.
And that was year two. Me confronting my own identity, who I was. The mirror had been wiped clear off all mist and fog, and I could see myself in all my twisted, gnarled self. And it was a miracle that J was around. He was there every minute, every time I needed him. Handholding me, trying to get me back on track.
Year three and four are now a blur. I don't remember too much of it. But two things emerged, one was my desperate longing for a child. I so wanted to be a mother. And secondly, J's own growing reluctance for a child. While in the first few months of the marriage, J was quite keen about kids, over the years, he felt a family would be a financial impediment to full-time social work. Our quarrels were short, bitter and bruising, but never lasting. Neither he nor I could ever hold a grudge, and we'd make up soon enough. But with the quarrels persisting like rain on a tin roof, we started following our individual pursuits, trying to maintain peace.
The last straw that broke the camel's back was his decision to quit his media organisation and become a lawyer. Now, I already had an inkling that he was planning something like this. But I had no idea he would take such a foolish and impractical step at the age of 40 (If I'd forgotten to mention, the age gap between us was 16 years). So, when he started studying Law, I did the whole Mary's little lamb act again and studied Law with him. I actually finished two years of Law with reasonably good grades, thanks to his tenacity and persistence.
But like I said, the decision to quit his media company and become a freelancer came like a blow. That he'd take such a decision with serious implications without consulting me, made me feel like a non-entity in his life — someone, something, entirely superfluous to the scheme of his social welfare plans. Hurt and terribly unhappy, I applied for a job in another city. I left.
Despite me leaving him, I still loved his family. His mother was and is one of my best friends. She was a wonderful person and always treated me the way she treated her own daughter. So, for a year, I kept commuting between Bangalore and Chennai keeping up the pretence and cherishing my weekend visits to meet my athai (mother-in-law) and J's siblings.
I still don't remember why we divorced or so many other things. But I knew I was traumatised by the whole thing. I married the next guy almost on rebound. It was a bad decision as I was still feeling super guilty about J, about the failure of our marriage, about not being able to make it with someone as nice and sweet and selfless as J. Something must be wrong with me, something must be terribly wrong. I wanted to kill myself. I had opposed my family, their values, estranged and hurt every family member for him — I lost so much. And for what?
About the second guy — the less said the better. He was terribly physically and mentally abusive. To narrate just one incident — when I was seven months pregnant, I remember him bashing my head repeatedly against the wall, my forehead bleeding as I tried to escape. The rest is blurred, I don't know if I blacked out. I remember waking up on the street, my clothes torn, my dog Maximus whimpering (he was kicked for trying to come to my rescue) and me curled up. I'd been trying to take the beatings on my back, limbs, anywhere but my stomach. This part of me is still confusing. I was a feminist. I should have left the first day he hit me. I think it was still the J after-affect. I was a walking somnambulist incapable of thought, action.
Rachel's daughter Indra with her favourite four-legged friends
It was the birth of my daughter Indra Sahana that rudely, but beautifully, shook me awake. I was suddenly alive, in love and back in sunshine. My daughter was the most precious, beautiful thing in my life. And the glass scales had fallen. I saw my life for what it was. That I'd married a guy who was violent, a raging alcoholic with a nasty veneer and personality. Someone who could break furniture, glass beer bottles a few metres away from his own daughter. I knew what to do. I filed a police complaint and left.
I let him visit only on her birthdays. He visited us on my birthday October 21, 2013. That fateful day, we had a bad argument and yelling, "You'll become a bit*h just like your mother," he tried to slam the door on Indra's face. I was there and it was my palms that took the full brunt of the impact. Indra was safe, I bolted the door. But I was horrified at what happened. And then I realised what I had to do. I filed for custody and divorce. Won custody without visitation rights in record time — an 11-month trial. I shifted back to Chennai.
I often joke with my friends, "First, I married a saint. Then I married a devil." But it was true. When I got the second divorce, I was celebrating, partying all night, painting the town red with my friends. My first divorce, however, was something I've never stopped feeling guilty over.
To continue, Jand I met again after nearly six years on November 18, 2017. It was at our close friend's memorial service. We were both really upset over his death. And just like that, as if the six years never existed, we started talking.
For me, it was like walking on heaven — a dream impossibly come true. He was equally happy and excited talking to me. Like teenagers, we started talking all night, every night. For hours and hours, we talked, despite knowing we had 16-hour workdays ahead of us. It was magical, intense and overwhelming.
We'd both missed each other so much in the six-year gap, there was an urgency, desperation to inform the person of everything that happened in the interim. To find out what happened to the other person. I told J, I missed being able to call and share with him my achievements, particularly when I crossed important milestones in life. J told me he'd felt the same way when he finished his Law course or won a case — he would start dialling my number, but then reality would hit and he'd hang up.
So, we spent six idyllic months dating. This time, it didn't matter he was a penniless labour lawyer defending migrant workers because I could see the value of what he was doing, of who he'd become. I also realised law as a profession suited him better than journalism, as he was actually making a difference in people's lives.
J's family, too, welcomed me for a second time as warmly as unreservedly as they'd done the first time. Indra got along really well with his people, but most of all with J. J and Indra are thick friends even now and have their own world of make-belief, silly stories and giggles.
Apart from his family, the small journalism community we lived in, was also keenly watching the progress of our dating, quite emotionally invested in the idea of us getting back together. Many of them hadn't been aware for years that I'd split with J as we both always presented a united front. Even after the divorce, J would still speak very warmly and respectfully of me. He could always be the bigger guy, the more magnanimous one, the one who always wished me well.
Due to a set of his and my personal circumstances that I cannot be open about, I had to move back to Bangalore, while he stayed back in Chennai. But this time it was less painful as we were determined to stay friends, determined to not lose each other.
And as I was filing some paperwork in Bangalore, I found myself listing — after a six-year-gap — J's mobile number as my emergency contact. I looked at the paper, I smiled. And the smile stayed with me through days, as I knew it was not just for an emergency, but for anything else I could always, always count on him.