It is no surprise that Haritha Khandabattu’s story on Humans of Amsterdam page has gone viral with over 70,000 likes. Hers is the classic tale of David’s fight against Goliath, of overcoming adversity and oppression, of the power of the indomitable spirit in the face of a concerted attempt to suppress her desire for freedom and autonomy, to just live life on her own terms. The oppressors in Haritha’s story might be seem to be her husband, in-laws and parents, but they too are mere pawns in a society where centuries of tradition entrenched in patriarchy result in women being expected to conform, to behave in a certain way, and anybody who does not do so is seen as selfish, uncultured or even downright evil.
Haritha’s story is one that thousands of young educated Indian girls can relate with. In her own words, “My parents kept talking about finding a suitable husband for me but I kept refusing. I have always been an ambitious student and after I graduated l wanted to focus on my career as an engineer. My parents kept pushing me and the atmosphere at home changed. My father barely spoke to me anymore. The tension became unbearable and at some point I couldn’t take it anymore, so I gave in.” Like Haritha, who is just 26 now, many girls are married off in their early twenties because parents want to get them ‘settled’ and worry that people will ‘talk’ about their unmarried daughter.
Haritha’s nightmare was just starting. “I ended up marrying a man that I barely knew and didn’t love. Honestly, I can’t remember my wedding day. Whenever I look at the wedding photos I don’t recognise myself. After the wedding we went on our honeymoon. From the start we had no connection and it was very obvious that we both weren’t in love. I kept telling myself that everything would be okay and that it all would work out. When we got back I moved in with his family on the other side of India. My in-laws were very controlling and I was forced to give my salary to them. My husband turned out just to be as controlling as his parents. He would check my phone regularly and accused me multiple times of cheating on him. Every day the situation was getting worse. At the time I was working as a software engineer for Nike and my job became my ultimate passion. Whenever I would have to work late my husband would ask me who I was having sex with this time. It was humiliating.''
The start of a new life
Haritha tried her best to make her marriage work. ''For one-and-half year I kept trying to work on our relationship. I would buy plane tickets with my own money to take him on trips around the world. I hoped that if he would see other cultures he would become a more compassionate person. Unfortunately, nothing changed. One day, after a huge fight I could no longer take it. I talked to my manager at work and asked him if I could get transferred to another country. He told me I could work in Amsterdam. I didn’t need to think about it and I accepted his offer. When I arrived at the Amsterdam airport it felt as if I could finally breath again. Everything about this place made me feel relaxed. I felt at the right place at the right time. I enjoyed my work and found myself at home with my colleagues. One day I visited a storytelling event with women from all over the world who talked about their experiences with physical and emotional abuse. All these women came out of situations way worse than mine and it made me feel strong. When I got home I picked up the phone and called my husband and said: 'There is nothing you can do to change my mind, I want to get a divorce.' Never in my life had I been so certain of myself.''
The tough job for Haritha was convincing her family. Her father was extremely upset and suggested she travel back to India so they could all talk things through. She knew she would not change her mind but in order to get her divorce settled she took two week’s leave at work and flew home. When she arrived, her family was mostly emotional and angry with her for making the unilateral decision to get a divorce. Later that week she was taken to her husband’s house (in another city) to discuss the situation. Says Haritha, “For hours my family and his family were trying to convince me to not go through with the divorce. That night we stayed in his house. The next day I noticed that my bag with my passport, phone, documents and credit cards was missing. I panicked and confronted my in-laws. They said that they had nothing to do with my missing bag and that someone must have broken in and stole it. Then I realised how serious the situation was. My two weeks off were almost over and I had to get back to Amsterdam.”
Without an address proof, getting a new passport would be difficult. With the help of her sister, Haritha sneaked out of the house and went to the passport office and managed to place a fresh application. She received her new passport in a few days. She still didn’t have her residency card for The Netherlands. Haritha called up the Indian Embassy in Amsterdam and explained her situation. They were very helpful and emailed her a recommendation letter. They told her she had to fly to New Delhi and she managed to get a ticket and fly down. She got her residency card the next day and immediately booked a flight to Amsterdam.
The happily ever after
Haritha says, ''When the plane took off I could finally breathe again. When I landed in Amsterdam I took the train from the airport to my house. I didn’t cry, I couldn’t believe all that had really happened. I felt as if I finally had woken up from a bad dream. I had been gone for 45 days in total. The next day I found out that I had lost my job at Nike. I could have hired a lawyer and fought to be taken back, but I needed peace. I said goodbye to my colleagues and I now had three months left to find a new job. I wasn’t scared or sad, I had never felt so strong in my entire life. After all I had been through I knew I could handle any kind of situation. I took a deep breath and I started to apply for jobs. It took me 17 days to find work.”
All of this happened early this year. Haritha is still not divorced but says she is never coming back to India. She does talk to her parents but finds it really hard to trust them now. She works as a software engineer at a highly reputed company. In fairy tales, the happy ending is often in a marriage but for Haritha, the converse is true and she has finally got her happy ending. She says, “Amsterdam is magical, this is where I want to be. This is my home and my friends are my family.”
I ask Haritha what she would tell women who are trapped in abusive or unhappy marriages. This is her message,
It is very unfortunate that many women are subjected to cultural pressure and are forced to continue in unhappy marriages. Every woman (or man) on this planet, should be strong enough to stand up for themselves. Life’s not an easy journey. We live only once and we are responsible for own happiness. Women especially should break all the stereotypes and fight for their peace and happiness.