Five years ago, Usha Rani murdered her ex-husband. Now, the 49-year-old works as an investment consultant with a bank in Madurai.
Looking at Usha, dressed neatly in a pressed saree with the ID card dangling down her neck, it's hard to imagine her as the mother of four who picked up her son's cricket bat and bludgeoned her ex-husband to death.
The incident happened on 9 February 2012, but Usha did not spend a single day in jail for her crime.
The case garnered the state's attention in 2012 when this middle class working woman was not charged with homicide. But the circumstances under which she committed the crime soon changed public perception.
The marriage she was forced into
Usha was only 18 years old when her parents married her off into a family that they had known for decades.
"My husband's family lived in the neighbourhood and would come to my father, who is a banker for financial advice. My parents helped that family stand on its own feet," says Usha calmly.
Born into a family that prided itself on treating both its daughter and sons as equal, Usha had not been subjected to the crushing patriarchy that prevailed around her. She had studied till the 12th standard, played kabbadi and would ride her cycle around with her younger brothers.
But when it came to marriage, her say suddenly became limited.
"Jothibasu had only studied up to the 8th standard and had dropped out of school to take care of his family as he was the first son," says Usha, who was rather understanding of the situation. "They had seen me grow up and knew of my upbringing. So I assumed they would continue to grant me the freedom I had then," she adds.
But her in-laws had other plans for her.
They first made her father take loans in her name to help Jothibasu start his own business. They set up an appalam manufacturing unit but Jothibasu was most often too inebriated to take care of the business.
"I was handling the business and home but it wasn't enough for the family. They had bigger plans," says Usha. Her in-laws wanted to get their daughter who had not studied beyond the 8th standard, married to one of Usha's younger brothers.
"My first brother had a bank job and had just got engaged and the second one was doing his MPhil. So, they both refused," she explains.
Their refusal soon became an opportunity for the family to torture Usha, who had by now delivered four children in this marriage. "My in-laws decided I was poisoning my brothers' mind against them. They would beat me up and abuse me every day," she admits, her voice strong, as if recollecting mere passages from a book.
Educating her children
Despite being a businesswoman and single-handedly managing the Usha Rani Cottage industries, this young mother dealt with the daily abuse and dowry demands for the 'sake of society'.
"But when my eldest daughter became 14, that is when things took a turn for the worse," recalls Usha.
Her in-laws wanted to get the teenager to stop her studies and marry a relative who worked at a mutton stall. They worried that if she studied any further, she would refuse the marriage.
"I simply could not allow this to happen. My daughter wanted to study and so I informed the headmistress of the school about their intentions. She promised to keep her at school and help her continue studying," says Usha.
When her in-laws came to know of her interference, they were furious. "My husband and in-laws came home together and thrashed me. They broke my legs so I could not escape and left me bleeding and unconscious on the patio," she says, her voice trembling for the first time. "My two-year-old son was watching this and when he tried to stop them, they threw him against the wall," she adds.
Alarmed neighbours who heard her wails came running to see her sprawled on the entrance to the house and rushed her to the hospital. "When the police came, it was my son who told them what had happened," she says. A case was then filed against her in-laws for dowry harassment and assault.
â€˜Be financially independentâ€™
Following this incident in 2003, Usha went back to her parents' residence and the entire family supported her decision.
"My brothers reminded me that I was educated and should earn my own living. They said I shouldn't go back to the monster," says Usha. "It was time to become financially independent."
She started by filing for divorce and demanding that the family return her jewels and the money she had paid as dowry. Her in-laws in return alleged that she had swindled money from their business and began to cast aspersions on her character.
Unperturbed by their actions, Usha got her her first job at a cash counter at a government hospital in Madurai. She was quick to learn how the system works and was then employed as an administrator of the admission office at the Tamil Nadu Open University in 2007. Her hard work and zeal to succeed were recognised and she was allowed to pursue psychology at the same university while working.
"The fees was taken in installments from my salary. It was hard work, working, taking care of my children and studying but it had to be done," she explains.
Usha was also undergoing physiotherapy following the thrashing that she had received. She would walk with much difficulty but refused to give up.
"I used crutches initially and then slowly started limping without any external support," she recounts.
By then, her divorce had officially come through and she went on to do her Masters in psychology. Her elder daughter was studying outside the city while the two younger daughters lived with her. Her son was in the 10th standard.
"I was happy because I wanted my son to have a good example to follow in life," says Usha. "That is why I even left my husband."
It was not over
But while Usha may have legally left Jothibasu, he was very much present in her life.
With his parents facing a legal battle and the business collapsing after his wife left him, the bitter man would follow Usha wherever she worked and create a ruckus. "He told everybody at the university that I was having an affair with one of my supervisors. He never left me in peace. I shifted four houses just to protect my children from him," she says.
So in 2010, it almost came as a shock to the family, when Jothibasu came and fell at Usha's feet asking for forgiveness and a chance to spend time with his family. He was very ill, his body completely scarred and would not survive without help.
"My children then told me that I should give him a chance but I remained suspicious," says Usha. But when the children insisted, she agreed that he could stay with them as a father but would never be her husband again.
As it turned out, her skepticism was justified.
"He soon began forcing me to sign papers for withdrawing the case against his parents," says Usha. "When my children realised his motive, my second daughter demanded that he return my jewels and money and then I would sign the papers," she explains.
But it was not these constant betrayals that led to Jothibasu's murder.
A frail Usha, who stands at just above 5 feet, had come to expect this behaviour from the man she had married and divorced.
"After my daughter said this, we told him to leave the house and never come back," says Usha. "But the next day, he returned with papers and was extremely drunk. He said he was hungry and while I was disgusted, I agreed to make some food for him. That is when he said it was not that kind of hunger and tugged at my saree," says Usha, exasperated.
Fear gripped Usha's mind for the first time since she had left her husband. She had not told her children what illness their father had come home with but she was aware.
A doctor's appointment a few months ago had revealed that Jothibasu had AIDS.
"Even when we were married he would have affairs with other women but despite all this, I took care of him and applied ointment to his wounds in the few months he stayed with us," she says, her voice finally breaking.
Seeing her mother struggling, Usha's second daughter tried to push her father away.
"He then said it is okay if your mother doesn't come, you come and pulled her into a room and began molesting her," says Usha.
"I could hear my daughter screaming and I don't know what happened next. I just took my son's bat, broke the window of the room, went in and began hitting that man till he let go of my daughter's dupatta," says Usha.
"I hit him till he stopped moving," she adds.
When Usha was rushed to the station, even the police were understanding of the situation. Instead of charging her with murder, they invoked Section 100 and according to an investigating officer in the case, it may have been for the first time that law was used in Tamil Nadu.
As per the Section, if a death is caused in the process of 'Private defenceâ€™ (to prevent or escape rape or murder), the person need not be tried for murder.
Usha and her children were only required to record their statement in front of a magistrate once.
"I never even went to court," reveals Usha. "I had received a new lease in life and I knew God was with me."
She never looked back after this incident.
"I finished my Masters in psychology and worked at the University for some time before giving the bank exam this year. I was initially a little apprehensive but we were trained by bank for the exam and I managed to crack it," she says. She has been appointed as a â€˜life advisorâ€™ by the bank
'Always rise above'
Now, Usha Rani, who successfully brought up four children as a single parent, gives financial advice to those who require help with their investments. Her role involves helping people choose an insurance policy, invest wisely and maintain good relations with the bank
"The biggest favour you can do for yourself is to ensure you are not dependent on someone else for money. If I have got through this difficult phase in life, it is because of financial independence and the grace of God," says Usha.
"When my children turned 18, I opened bank accounts for all of them and gave them a passbook. The earlier you learn to save and invest your money, the easier your life becomes," she notes.
When asked what she would say to the millions of Indian woman who fight domestic abuse every day, Usha offers us a thirukurral, "Vellath thanai Malar neetam Manthartham Ullath Thannaiyadhu Uyarvu."
It translates to 'With the rising flood the rising lotus flower its stem unwinds; The dignity of men is measured by their minds."
"The stalks of water flowers are proportionate to the depth of the water, similarly man's greatness is proportionate to his mind," explains Usha. "Only we can help ourselves grow beyond what tries to drown us," she concludes.