One of the first memories Sudha* has is her father feeding her with his own hands. “He was wearing an elephant mask. I don’t remember much, but I think I was happy,” she says slowly.
After he passed away in 1997, the then five-year-old Sudha was distraught. When she was seven, her mother remarried on her family’s insistence. But Sudha never liked her step-father Ramesh*, who was working as a contractor in Bengaluru. From day one of the marriage, Sudha has witnessed Ramesh being violent towards her mother.
“He quit his job and just sat before the TV watching infomercials and drinking all day. He would be happy one moment and he would be blaming my mother for something the next. He used to beat her a lot. He never touched me, but he never spoke to me either,” Sudha shares.
Alcohol: The reason or an excuse?
Like Sudha, hundreds of children experience and witness violence at the hands of an alcoholic parent. The abuse (physical, emotional, financial or sexual) becomes a routine part of their lives.
For Sudha, it resulted in her not being able to complete her education and prevented her from being self-reliant until much later in her life. But for Ramya*, a filmmaker from Tamil Nadu, growing up with an alcoholic father left her unable to bond well with her elder brother and a rocky relationship with her mother. It also made both women vulnerable to abuse later in their lives.
Prasanna, managing trustee of Chennai-based NGO International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), says that 70% cases of domestic violence involve an abusive alcoholic partner. “But alcohol is not the reason behind the violence. It is used as an excuse. It also leaves the abused partner in a confused state because they believe the abuser is a nice person, if it weren’t for the alcohol,” she says.
Children from broken households are often isolated outside home as well, says Prasanna. They also tend to exhibit either aggressive or very submissive behaviour. The latter specially manifests in girl children, she notes.
As far back as Ramya can recall, drinking was a daily affair for her father, followed by beatings or shouting at her, her brother or their mother.
“I've only seen him angry and dissatisfied with everything,” the 31-year-old says, “it was more about him wanting to be angry than what he was angry about. Alcohol wasn’t really the villain.”
But Sudha was not able to differentiate between the abuse and the alcohol, which was an excuse. Although she lives on her own now, supports herself with a tailoring job and hopes to get a diploma in fashion design, she still doesn’t see alcohol as a beverage and fears people who consume it. “I never spoke about this (the abuse) to anyone, except one friend. I still am afraid to talk about it,” she admits.
Ramya recalls that she and her brother were never really in a position to comfort each other as children. “When you’re being abused every night, everyone is scared and shaken all the time. So, if we got beaten up, we just cried and went to bed,” Ramya recounts.
Ramya describes herself as a quiet child who did not have many friends. “I felt averse and alienated to children who would speak about their parents normally or would get them to school. I didn’t have the common socialising tactics of talking about my family. I was afraid I’d lose the little belonging I had in school if I spoke about them,” she shares.
The daily fighting left her unable to concentrate on her studies, which meant her poor academic performance became another excuse for her father to scold and beat her.
There were also times when Ramya and her brother suffered abuse from their mother. “Looking back, I know she was under a lot of pressure from getting beaten up every night herself. So, it came out on us when it got too much for her. But I still haven’t been able to let go of the anger against my parents and my family. No one intervened, they just let the abuse happen,” Ramya says bitterly.
“Everything falls on the woman if the husband is the abuser. The pressure is immense and sometimes, she also takes it out on the children. Instances of neglect are very high in such cases,” Prasanna explains.
Meanwhile, Sudha’s silence in school was misconstrued by others as arrogance.
What stops them from leaving?
Neither Ramya nor Sudha’s education and access were given as much importance. While Sudha was pulled out of school after she started menstruating in class 9, Ramya owes her education entirely to her working mother, as her father only spent on her brother.
Both of them tried convincing their mothers to leave their fathers multiple times.
“My mother is just a very nice person,” Ramya says, “she would still worry about him and think, where would she go and what would he do. I even try to convince her now. But now she says that he’s old and won’t hurt her as much. But it still happens in our absence sometimes.”
Sudha too asked her mother why she didn’t divorce Ramesh. But her mother, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly after Sudha quit school, didn’t think she had that choice. She passed away in 2009 when Sudha was 17.
While Ramya moved out in 2008 after she graduated got a job, life wasn’t easy. “I suddenly went from being a student to being an adult – I had to worry about a house, money, food overnight. The job was shitty… I used to think, why do I have to do this? Why can’t my family be normal and take care of me?”
Vulnerability to further abuse
Abuse like this often has a long-term effect on the emotional and psychological development of children. “They lose the ability to trust adults, and their notions about marriage and intimate relationships can also get affected,” Prasanna warns.
When Sudha was 19, her step-father got her married to his youngest brother, who was 11 years elder to her. While she felt happy to be away from Ramesh initially, she realised that her husband was lying to her and cheating on her. Eventually, the woman he was seeing left him. He started drinking then, and blaming and beating Sudha.
Sudha tried to stop him for five months. But she finally ran away with her savings to a friend’s house in Udupi after a particularly bad beating which left her with a bloodied nose. Her husband had found out about the tailoring lessons she had been taking secretly. Once in Udupi, Sudha filed for divorce.
Ramya meanwhile, has been divorced from her emotionally abusive husband for three years.
“Now that I think of it, the red flags were there all along. But I was in the need of validation, I wanted to make up for the lost time, my ruined childhood and I thought this (the relationship) was it. I realised later I was getting played at, and it wasn’t love,” Ramya notes.
“I wasn’t able to tell the difference between abuse of gaslighting and a normal relationship. When I was trying to please him every day, I didn’t see it as abuse, because for me abuse was people getting beaten up,” she adds.
Both Ramya and Sudha are wary of trusting people and being in relationships now. “My relationships with men haven’t been easy. I find myself unable to trust what they say. Though I am aware of it and can work on it, but it’s not good for any intimate relationship. And when something bad happens it's a kind of relapse, everything comes back,” Ramya says.
(With inputs from Theja Ram)