Divorce – a word that is dreaded, a label unwanted…a taboo; at least in our traditional subcontinent culture.
But divorce is becoming a more acceptable reality in recent years. Marriage should not be a ‘do-or-die’ deal. After the ‘do’, it can be undone too. For any one of numerous reasons, when two people cannot continue to live together they choose to walk separate ways – but that walking away – is that so easily ‘do-able’?
It is hard to talk so objectively about it. Especially for someone who has been through this ordeal recently. But Sangeeta did. She spoke with a calmness in her voice and a composure in her demeanour that gave away nothing of the storm she had survived.
‘It is not the financial troubles that break you. It is neither the questionable reactions you receive from certain friends (and even family members), that let you down. Nor the wet-pillows of your teary-eyed child that shatter you on certain mornings, but that feeling…that feeling of rejection that you and your child have to put up with for the rest of your life…that breaks you’, Sangeeta admitted.
I felt a tug in my heart. She couldn’t have explained it more profoundly. How does one live with the feeling of being passed over for someone else? The most common reason that often leads to separation and eventually divorce, as in this case as well, was that he had looked elsewhere. But after having been married for almost 20 years? How? Why?
A marriage may be dissolved due to innumerable reasons. There could be compatibility issues due to differences in opinions and way of life; there could be mistrust in relationship; or one spouse may be persistently abusive physically or emotionally, to the other – Divorce becomes inevitable. A couple may be coerced into marriage due to family ties but finds it hard to get along and decides to part ways. There may be many other reasons, but most of these (one would assume) should arise in the early years of marriage so it becomes apparent for them to call it quits instead of prolonging each other’s misery.
But for a couple to be compatible, likeable to each other, and living together for years, to part ways simply because one found another, is a bit unforgiving. I find it hard to wrap my mind around the fact that human beings (the most superior of the animal kingdom), are capable of running astray so selfishly, of changing their loyalties so easily, whatever may be the circumstances.
‘We got married in Delhi about 20 years ago and lived there for a couple of years before moving here. I had a fantastic job, but had to quit when we moved here as do all trailing spouses.’ Soon after moving, they started expecting and had their first and only child in Singapore. ‘She was born prematurely, so she needed extra care and attention. I couldn’t even think of going back to work…my life revolved around her’, recounted Sangeeta. But when her daughter turned 7, Sangeeta started some freelance work in theatre. A year after, in 2010 she setup her own company. ‘Theatre is my passion. And seeing that I was eager to get back to work, he was very supportive and kudos to him. He encouraged and helped me in setting up my business’, acknowledged Sangeeta. She spoke only well of him. Not once did she throw in a single unpleasantry during our conversation. The entire discussion on this delicate subject was focused on how she has to take her work ahead to make it (and herself) financially viable, what she has to teach her daughter so she stands strong and proud in a world so unpredictable, and what others can take-away from her experience. I felt deep respect for her.
‘How did you find out’? I asked finally, the question burning in my head.
‘Oh it was a traumatic time’! She exclaimed. ‘He had had a heart attack and was admitted in the hospital. During that week of hospitalisation, I discovered I was not the only one in his life. There was someone else. And I wasn’t sure what to do’!
Sangeeta waited for him to stabilise before confronting him. First there was denial. Once he realised she knew better, his stance changed. It became more nonchalant and indifferent towards her. She understood there was nothing left in the marriage for her. Given his medical condition, she waited for him to be discharged from the hospital, and soon after, she left. She moved into a smaller place with her 14 year old daughter.
“Human beings have choices. We always do, in every situation. I chose to leave. We couldn’t continue to live together. Since he was still recovering, I moved out. It wasn’t easy, of course. But I decided to get up and continue, and realized fully how very tough it gets after divorce, especially for a mom. It is a difficult journey. But he has been kind, he is taking care of us financially. But dealing with rejection…” her voice trails off.
It has been exactly a year since their marriage dissolved. To have lived a comfortable life together for two decades, made memories, travelled together, built a home away from home, and then to see it all come tumbling down like a house of cards – is a grief that only the one suffering can fully grasp while others looking from afar can only begin to imagine. Going back to India was not a choice for her as she did not wish to uproot her daughter. ‘She was born here. She is so well-settled in school, with her studies and friends. Plus my business is also here. I also have dreams. Divorce taught me to love myself, to acknowledge myself’, admitted Sangeeta.
‘It is like a mini earthquake. Everything shifts. People, friends, beliefs, routine, faith… everything. Relationships are so fluid, one can never predict what will happen tomorrow. He said, she said. People don’t want to take sides and hence, it is foolish to expect anything from anyone. It’s your own battle. You have to fight it, and only you know the issues and sensitivities better than anyone else. You have to learn to shut out all that society does to you or says to you. You have to come to terms that all will never be over, that there will continue to be days when you will be miserable’.
When I asked her to give any advice she has for other women, she very honestly said there is none. Everyone fights their own battle. There is no right or wrong advice that one can apply across the board as semantics for every relationship are different. But women must be financially independent.
‘My mother inculcated this in me, and I will do so in my daughter. And I will urge all other women out there to do the same, to do something… anything. Be financially independent. And they must know their rights. Especially if they are expats on foreign soil. E.g. a trailing spouse on DP (Dependant Pass) has absolutely no rights in Singapore. God forbid if something like this were to happen to them, the husband has all the authority to cancel her DP and have her deported back to the homeland. If she tries to leave with the children, she may actually be convicted of kidnapping them, according to the Hague Convention. But if one is a PR (Permanent Residence) or better yet, citizen, then she can continue to stay and he will have to bear the children’s expenses. But she must still support herself, hence it is essential that she has a skill or some work to fall back on to be able to survive in an expensive place like Singapore’.
On her Theatre endeavour, Sangeeta elaborated: ‘First 2 years we did projects on and off. But when there are bills and rental to pay, one must take it more seriously. So I gathered strength to make it a full-fledged business by opening up an office at Parkway Parade and setting up Play Acting Performing Centre in 2012. Here we run acting and performance courses for children and adults, 6 days a week. This was the same year that she produced her first feature film called ‘A Gran Plan’ that went on to win a few awards internationally.
Divorce has taught Sangeeta much. She has a broader vision about things and more compassion for others. She needs to stay strong and measure her every step to set the right example for her daughter. It indeed is a massive leap for her emotionally, spiritually and financially. It took a long time for the now estranged couple to be civil to each other, until all the necessary paper work and legal obligations were met. They intentionally try to keep their interactions to a minimal; and communicate only on important matters where he needs to be in-the-know related to their daughter. She works harder to earn. And that’s just how life is now for them.
Sangeeta has pioneered a Theatre movement called ‘Finally She Spoke’. It focuses on the feminist angle. After her ordeal she has become an advocate for women, and is looking for avenues to reach out to others through her work. She also connects with various organisations and contributes to their cause through the sales proceeds of the tickets from her plays, like Daughters of Tomorrow in Singapore, Agape AIDS CONTROL in Tanzania and Sinar Sofia in Malaysia. You can find out more about her Singapore Productions at www.playacting.net.