My mother was a victim of domestic abuse.
Except she doesn’t consider herself a victim.
She survived 23 years of emotional, verbal and physical abuse while single-handedly raising seven children on her own.
She is a survivor.
Twenty people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That is 10 million men and women per year. One in three women and one in four men are reported to have been victims of some sort of physical abuse by a spouse or significant other.
My mother’s story is part of an astonishingly large statistic. It deserves to be heard.
When she was 17-years-old, her parents arranged for her to marry a man, as was the custom in Indian culture at that time. She had no college career or job to support herself; my father became her everything. She did not know anything outside of his existence. So she endured the emotional and verbal torment silently.
My siblings and I never knew what mood he would be in when he came home. We would tiptoe past him, breaths bated, hoping not to incite him into his terrible fits of anger.
But even the smallest thing would set him off.
Somebody forgot to wash their dishes, somebody forgot to say hello when he came home, somebody didn’t iron his shirt on time.
Within seconds, he would be reaching for a glass to throw, a belt to beat us with, an onslaught of profanity to yell at us.
I, being the youngest, never had to face the full brunt of his explosive episodes. My mother and older siblings worked hard to keep me from harm’s way.
But they have been through hell and back—each one of them.
He kept us from seeing our mother’s side of the family, believing that they were a bad influence on us. So we grew up isolated, only having contact with his traditional Indian family, who supported his violence.
There were nights that were so terrible, and then there was that night.
April 9th, 2008. The night that I thought I would die.
I was 11-years-old, and I was sure my father would try to kill me. One night, he found out that my older sister, Sana, who was 21-years-old at that time, was dating a boy. This went against his tyrannical, religious rules somehow. He lined up the rest of his children and began yelling at us.
“Tell me your email password. I want to read your messages,” he screamed at my other sister, Farheen. “You’re probably talking to a boy behind my back. You’re [a] slut, just like your sister.”
But she refused to give in. “No,” she replied calmly. In response, he grabbed her arm and twisted it backwards.
Dena, the closest sister to my age and who was always the most outspoken one out of us seven children,
saw this, and without hesitation, bellowed, “DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH MY SISTER.”
My father’s face reddened in raging madness. He grabbed Dena and dragged her to
My sister Farheen ran to the other room to call the police, and I ran to the kitchen to see that my father had turned on the stove’s burner and was attempting to burn Dena’s hands. And in that moment, my 11-year old self became the most courageous I have ever been. All fear dissipated, and in that moment, the only thing I was aware of were Dena’s screams, so I ran to her and grabbed her away from my Father.
But my impulsive, brave moment was fleeting; all adrenaline seeped away, and I was left to face my father’s anger. His face was twisted in such agony that I could’ve sworn he would kill me. But he didn’t. As he came toward me with his body shaking in fury, I could see his senses snap back to him. He stopped in his tracks.
In retrospect, I think this change in his demeanor may have been because, as the youngest, I was considered his favorite. In his rare good moods, he would love to tease me playfully and call me “his darling.” And as the realization of what he was about to do dawned on him, he abruptly turned, grabbed his keys and left. This gave my mother enough time to usher all of us down to the basement where a trapdoor that led outside could be found. My father returned a few minutes later, parking his car recklessly on the lawn. With that, he began banging incessantly on the front
door, which my mother had preemptively bolted shut.
He broke in through a window, shattering the glass. My mother used her body to block the basement door, trying to buy her children more time to escape, but he pushed her aside effortlessly. We could hear his distinctive, pounding footsteps coming down the basement stairs. The trapdoor, which had not been used for many years, was jammed shut. Somehow, at the last possible moment, Sana was able to unfasten the lock that had rusted over, and we escaped out in the open, with my father right behind us. He yelled at us over and over again to stop. When I look back at this memory, I think I could hear remorse in his voice, but that could just be a hopeful child willing her father to be a good person deep down. We continued running.
My mom’s parents lived two doors down from us, so were able to run there for safety. I think it was seeing us grandchildren, beating on their front door, clad in pajamas at 3 a.m., panting and crying, that made them realize they needed to step up and help my mother finally leave my father.
My mom’s parents grew up on strong Indian values. Divorce was the unspeakable taboo.
But enough had been enough. My father had gone too far.
So five months later, when my mother finally gained the courage to leave him, they offered to support her financially for a while, until she was back on her feet.
Many might think my mother was weak to have stayed with him for 23 years. But I don’t believe that to be true. My mother is resilient, and in those years of their marriage, I never felt unsafe when I was with her. My childhood memories aren’t dominated by the visits from Child Protective Services or sirens whirring outside my house.
Instead, I mostly remember coming home every day from grade school to a house warmed with smells of homemade-pizza, the kind where I can literally smell the crispy crust rising slowly in the oven, freshly baked cookies sprayed with gooey chocolate chips that melted at the touch of my tongue and scrambled eggs peppered with salt and chili powder with a dollop of ketchup on the side, just because she knew I liked it that way. I remember stacks of pancakes glazed with syrup, Indian cuisine showered in wondrous, exotic south Asian spices and herbs that made my mouth salivate just by the aroma. These smells and flavors were inherent parts of my childhood, and they are what I first recall when I reminisce about my past. Not the yelling, the throwing, the hurting. None of that. My memories are of my mother’s cooking and cozy hugs right when I walked through the door after a tough day of kindergarten.
My mother is the most courageous person I know. She finally left him for the sake of her seven children, not of her own. It was in September of 2009 when she decided enough is enough. We had moved from Long Island to a county upstate by this time. My father had gotten a new job there. Two weeks into living in this new place, sequestered from her family and more susceptible to my father’s abusive ways, my mom, encouraged by my older sisters, knew that it was time to leave him for good. He had gone off to an overnight conference, so that night my mother came into my room to tell me to pack up my stuff.
A few hours later, my father came home to an empty house.
The abuse took a horrendous toll on all of us individually. I myself developed insomnia, anxiety and crippling distrust of anyone who approached me in a romantic way. I developed suicidal thoughts in my freshman year of high school. One of my sisters was also suicidal. Only she did try to kill herself by overdosing on prescription drugs a few years ago.
My mother was the one who kept us sane. When we moved to her parents’ house, she took on a full-time job, went back to college, got an accounting degree and played the dual role of both mother and father. She still sometimes has panic attacks and nightmares of my father, but she always fights through the day to make it to another night.
My siblings have all risen up from the pain through therapy and each other. One of my sisters is a successful doctor, another has just recently passed the New York Bar, one is about to graduate Harvard Law School, another has started medical school in NYIT-COM and yet another has just graduated from college with high honors.
My siblings and I owe all we have accomplished to my mother. She is a remarkable creature, so inspirational, in every sense of the word. Her vigor and grit are incredibly awe-evoking, and I am honored to be able to call her my mother.