I watched Kaatru Veliyidai with my husband last night. He, being from the opposite end of the world from Mani Ratnam, wasn’t very familiar with Mani-saar movies, and wondered why this was something I would watch with such excitement, much less drag him along. He also wondered why our wedding didn’t have a rave like in Sarattu Vandiyile. Because, I said, he didn’t make a music video for me with ten of his friends, like Jugni.
We laughed incredulously at the Escape from Pakistan bits. I mean, come on, you can’t swat a fly in Pakistan without the ISI knowing.
And when the movie moved on to the VC-Leela relationship complexities, we stopped laughing. It got too real.
Both of us had nearly been Leela at one point or another in the years before we met. And I don’t mean we wore chiffons in the cold, or spoke to people while referring to them in the third person (“VC-ku enna pudikum?”, she asks VC).
Here’s the thing about abusive relationships. They sneak up on you without warning. Often, the abusive bits are so far apart and interspersed by good times, that by the time it all gets totally abusive, it’s all normalized in your mind.
Take Leela in the movie. She is breathtakingly beautiful, raised to be willful, is completely aware of when a man is being abusive, and yet, is powerless against the abusive relationship she is in. The love she feels for this man, the closest she can get to her dead brother, keeps her coming back. Also, the abusive episodes are separated by eloquent poetry, thrilling adventures, charming conversation, and love.
It also helps that the man in question is an IAF pilot, a profession for which you totally need a cocky confidence, and which almost always ensures you get your way – we see in the first few scenes of the movie VC’s CO telling him he insulted the Brigadier for not raising his daughter well – there’s enough people who will make sure nothing comes in your way. When you’re faced with someone who has never been told no, the rules of engagement are completely different.
There’s another class of people who are cocky and have always had their way.
Indian men with IIT and/or PhD on their resume.
And being from the background I am, I regularly got set up with men like this.
It would start off well enough, with mutual interest and engaging conversation. Lots of humor, lots of obscure pop culture references I appreciated. And the shining approval of friends who were happy I found someone who ticked all the boxes, and was the ‘right’ sort of person. Some who even went on to tell me how lucky I was.
But as it went on, that shiny image would show blemishes. Dismissiveness. Dismissiveness and demeaning jokes while in a group of friends. Attempts at controlling my career choices. Attempts at controlling my wearing makeup. Demeaning references to my past life. Annoyance at how I didn’t like chores.
It would go on. Jokes about beating and other abuse. Arguments about how I called myself a comedian but couldn’t even take those ‘jokes’.
I would begin to disengage. At this point, there would be snide remarks at how I would never find anyone else, and I’d come back crawling to them. The stern confidence that they would definitely wear me down, and this was just a temporary setback. I once said “I don’t think I could love you”, and the response was “But how important is that when it comes to marriage?”.
At this point, I would know I couldn’t get into a confrontation, because that would only draw me in more. I couldn’t express my concerns about the relationship to them, because it would be met with, at best, dismissiveness, or worse, the ‘happy’ facade would come on and I would be convinced against leaving.
And I would know I wanted to leave, because I found myself becoming a circus lion. My opinionated talkativeness would be turning into a prop by then, as would my degree. I would feel like I wasn’t me, growing and learning and changing, but an actor hired to play a specific role. And like I’d be handed demerits if I veered from the script.
But I couldn’t do the breakup conversation. Because then I’d become the bad person for breaking the heart of such a kind and genuine person. Or worse, I’d become the stupid girl for walking away from someone who was so clearly a meal ticket. I remember one of these things devolving into some rather intense online stalking, and a friend saying “See? He loves you so much. What more do you want? Where else are you going to find anyone who cares this much? You aren’t getting any younger”.
So I had to improvise. I’d become Me. You know like how Hanuman grows to ten times his size? I’d amplify my personality similarly.
I like a little back-and-forth? I’d go full on argumentative. I like jokes? I’d make them rude and cutting. I have issues? I’d make myself all about the issues.
And that would be the end. Without my having done much at all.
It scares me how easily women I’m scared of get into abusive relationships. There was this girl I found particularly domineering at NITK. Imagine my shock at seeing her get slapped and called names in public by the boy she was dating. Imagine my further shock at her not saying a word in response.
After witnessing that and similar incidents, I came up with a set of rules to abide by:
- Don’t be afraid of making a scene, when it comes to calling someone out for being disrespectful to you. Even if it seems petty. It’s okay if you lose respect in public. It’s better than losing your mind in private.
- Don’t stop knocking on doors for help if you have started. There is going to be at least one person to help you.
- A relationship that involves losing your financial independence is probably not worth it.
- Don’t hide signs of abuse. Tell everyone about it, including the cops. Trevor Noah’s mother got shot at by her ex-husband. He got away scot free because she survived, and because every time she had tried to complain to the cops about his abuse, they wouldn’t register a complaint.
- There’s women out there who started afresh with no friends, family or money, and they manage to be healthy and happy.
- Be very clear about your boundaries always. Don’t be hesitant to discuss boundaries, even if it seems like a buzzkill. That way, if someone crosses a line, there is an unambiguous reason in your mind to stay away from them.
- 99% of the time, there is a valid reason why you feel the way you feel. Talk it through in your mind and verbalize it. It will be difficult at first, but it gets better. This is how you prevent being shut down in arguments and being gaslighted.
- If someone doesn’t brook any discussion on some topics important to you, especially by virtue of being loud and/or big and/or intimidating, run very far away.
- Give in to your fear. It is a gift. Listen to your instincts. Think them through slowly and patiently with self-love. You get scared for a good reason usually. Ponder through it and let it inform your next steps. Do not be dismissive of yourself.
- Being single isn’t the punishment your mind makes it out to be. It is always better than being in a relationship that makes you lose your sense of self and happiness.
- Above all, never blame yourself for being in a relationship you don’t like. Mistakes happen. It happens to the best of us. Heck, Hillary Clinton remains stuck in a marriage where she is cheated on repeatedly. The difference is, once you realize it, you can always take appropriate steps to get away from it. Half the battle is in your mind. Once you convince yourself you must leave, it becomes a matter of logistics.
And believe you me, these rules are gender-neutral. Men can be stuck in as scary a relationship as women. Everyone deserves love and respect. And everyone can obtain love and respect. The first step though, as both of us will say, is moving away from places and people where you aren’t able to get love and respect.