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Indian Dream is hell for some

 INSP 20 February 2012

Just a two hour drive from Bangalore, Yeluvahalli is a far cry from the glass panelled, steel framed offices and ice white mega malls that have come to dominate the city during the technology boom. Surrounded by acres of rice fields, coconut trees and rock formations, nothing gives away the village's proximity to one of the world's most famous icons of globalisation. (1742 Words) - By Danielle Batist

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 6

Sugunamma on the road in front of her house in Yeluvahalli, India. She managed to escape her abusive husband and is now a role model for other woman in the village.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 2

Sugunamma with the cow she bought through the women’s self-help group in the village of Yeluvahalli, India.Photo: Danielle Batist

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 3

Sugunamma in her birth place of Yeluvahalli, 108 kilometres from India’s IT capital Bangalore.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 4

Sugunamma in her birth place of Yeluvahalli, 108 kilometres from India’s IT capital Bangalore.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 5

Sugunamma on the road in front of her house in Yeluvahalli, India. She managed to escape her abusive husband and is now a role model for other woman in the village.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 1

Sugunamma with the cow she bought through the women’s self-help group in the village of Yeluvahalli, India.Photo: Danielle Batist

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 7

Sugunamma in her birth place of Yeluvahalli, 108 kilometres from India’s IT capital Bangalore.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 8

Sugunamma in her birth place of Yeluvahalli, 108 kilometres from India’s IT capital Bangalore.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 9

Sugunamma in her birth place of Yeluvahalli, 108 kilometres from India’s IT capital Bangalore.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 10

Sugunamma inside the house she built herself in Yeluvahalli, India. She managed to escape her abusive husband and is now a role model for other woman in the village.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 11

Sugunamma inside the house she built herself in Yeluvahalli, India. She managed to escape her abusive husband and is now a role model for other woman in the village.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 12

Sugunamma inside the house she built herself in Yeluvahalli, India. She managed to escape her abusive husband and is now a role model for other woman in the village.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 13

Sugunamma in her birth place of Yeluvahalli, 108 kilometres from India’s IT capital Bangalore.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 14

Sugunamma in her birth place of Yeluvahalli, 108 kilometres from India’s IT capital Bangalore.Photo: Simon Murphy

SNS_Indian Dream is hell for some 15

Sugunamma in her birth place of Yeluvahalli, 108 kilometres from India’s IT capital Bangalore.Photo: Simon Murphy


When the renowned New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman announced in 2005 that 'The World is Flat', the prime example of his book was Bangalore. The world's next Silicon Valley was now "able to compete equally for global knowledge work as never before." India, he concluded, was at the heart of 'Globalisation 3.0', which was "shrinking the world from a size small to a size tiny and flattening the playing field at the same time".

Seven years on, millions of Indians have shifted to the middle classes. Women in particular have made a huge leap to freedom and independence, as part of a young and world wise work force. But 'Globalisation 3.0' did not have the trickle-down effect that many in the Western world assumed.

The World Bank warned in its latest Country Overview on India that "India's integration into the global economy has been accompanied by impressive economic growth that has brought significant economic and social benefits to the country. Nevertheless, disparities in income and human development are on the rise. A large section of the population - especially the poor, […] minorities and women - lack access to the resources and opportunities needed to reap the benefits of economic growth."

Last year's census showed although the urban population has almost doubled in the past 60 years, rural communities still make up almost 70 per cent of the total. In rural areas surrounding the city, life for some women continues to be a nightmare, rather than a dream.

Sugunamma (43) sits cross-legged on a colourful rug that almost covers the small floor surface. Her hands are resting in her lap, her fingers play with the fabric of her light green sari. Her long, black here is tied back in braids. She looks up and smiles at some curious passers-by, then focuses her attention back to the room. The place is no larger than some 50 square feet but it has got everything, from white painted shelves fitted to the wall to a tiny wood oven with a chimney.

Seeing Sugunamma in this peaceful environment, it is hard to imagine her in a world of domestic abuse, sexual violence, slavery, murder threats and suicide attempts. But throughout her married life, these horrors were all too real. Married at 15 to a traveller's family, she was sent on the road to perform songs and make money with fortune telling. "My husband was older than me and very dominant. I did not want to marry him but I had no choice. We used to beg and collect food along the way and cook in communal fire places. Whole villages came out to see us, wherever we went. I hated it."

"A number of times, he pushed my head down in a water tank and tried to drown me. He used to beat children, too."

After she gave birth to her daughter at age sixteen, followed by a son, the abuse started. "My husband was an aggressive drunk. He beat me with any stick he could find. Most of the time, no one interfered. Problems between husband and wife were never discussed in public."

Once the money ran out, Sugunamma's husband found other ways to pay for his drink. "First, he stole my jewellery. He even sold the earrings and bracelets I was wearing; he just ripped them off. Then it was my clothes, until I had no saris left to wear. He also sold all our items from the house, even the pots and pans. We had nothing left to cook with." When the beating got too severe, Sugunamma ran back to her mother's house, eleven kilometres away. She was no longer welcome: "She told me: 'You are married now, so you belong to them'."

But the worst was yet to come. When the couple walked home one day on the edge of the village water reservoir, they had an argument. The tank was deep and almost empty, and he pushed her over the edge. Sugunamma fell down to the bottom and luckily came out alive. But the attempts to seriously hurt her did not stop there: "A number of times, he pushed my head down in a water tank and tried to drown me. He used to beat children, too."

After one severe beating, Sugunamma's daughter, who was still a toddler, ran away from the house. She was missing for two days. Whilst her husband slept, Sugunamma searched for her day and night until she eventually found her, hidden away under a low bridge. Another time, the toddler had hidden herself inside a neighbour's coconut leaf shed.  Sugunamma recalls each detail of the painful memory: "The neighbour used the shed to breed silk worms and he had to keep the rats and the piglets away.  When he beat the outside of the shed with a stick to chase them, she came running out, screaming. The sound of the beating terrified her. These moments will always live with me."

Domestic and sexual violence within marriage are often not recognised as crimes within rural Indian culture. Sugunamma's arranged marriage with a man she deeply feared meant that the sexual encounters she had with him would fit the western definition of rape. "I used to lay in the dark waiting for him to come home. When he was drunk, I knew it straight away. He would be banging on the door, shouting my name. I would smell his alcohol breath and he forced me to sleep with him. It was very painful but I tried not to make any noise to keep the children asleep. Often, they would wake up from his banging on the door, and I could see their eyes from under the bed sheet. That was the worst of it all."

"Often, they would wake up from his banging on the door and I could see their eyes from under the bed sheet. That was the worst of it all."

Sugunamma suffered severe depression and twice attempted to kill herself. "I thought about suicide all the time. Looking at the children was the only thing that stopped me from doing it. Who would they have if I was not there? I even thought of ending all our lives together, but then I saw their faces and I knew I had to fight. I often thought of running away, but where would I go? I had no one and even my own mother did not want me back. I was stuck."

The breaking point came when Sugunamma discovered that her husband was trying to sell her and the children as slaves. He had taken them to the city of Hyderabad, but the person co-ordinating the trafficking had left town. During an overnight stopover on the way back, she woke up the children and ran. It was the last time she saw her husband.

Three harsh years followed, in which the mother-of-two wondered from village to village in search of work. With three stomachs to feed and nowhere to stay, life was a battle for survival each day. The children could not attend school and often helped out with labouring jobs on the farms. As a single woman, without the protection of a husband, Sugunamma often got harassed by strangers. Once she moved to Bangalore to work as a housemaid, she had to escape the hands of several of her masters.

It was the children's education which finally gave her the courage to go back to her birth place. "Their schooling and their future was more important than whatever hardship I would have to face."

She was frightened that her husband would find her again, but he never returned and she settled in.

As the first woman in the village to divorce Sugunamma had to fight a lot of stigma, including from her own family. Although her mother had allowed her to return to the village, she still could not join them in the family home. Instead, she was given a tiny piece of bare land next door. From coconut leaves Sugunamma built a small shed but with just one small piece of plastic it did not suffice during the heavy monsoon. "Every time it rained I had to wake up the children and put them under the plastic sheet with small kerosene lamp. Sometimes we sat like that for hours before it stopped."

When local charity Prakruthi started a women's self-help group in the village of Yeluvahalli six years ago, Sugunamma was among the first to join. With support from Scottish charity SCIAF, collective save and loan projects were set up, which enabled  Sugunamma to buy a cow and generate an income from the milk sales. Slowly, she built up some savings to buy more livestock and eventually had enough to build her own house.

Being part of the self-help group also provided Sugunamma with literacy skills by keeping books and doing administration. And when a job opened up for a cook in the local school, several group members helped her to apply and get it.

But most of all, she says, the group has given her the courage to face her past. "I am no longer afraid. I am very open to the children, we talk a lot about the life we lived It has had a huge impact on their lives. My son in particular has had hard moments. He gets angry and asks me: 'Why did this have to happen to us?' I tell him he should let go of it. The most important thing is that we are free now."

Sugunamma gets up from the living room floor and reaches out to one of the shelves on the wall. She opens a small box and takes out a picture. It shows two little children, aged six and four. The picture was taken just weeks before the family escaped their tyrant husband and dad. She strokes the image with her fingers and stops when they reach her son's face. "He looks just like his father, but he will be his own man."

The roadside from the village back into Bangalore is covered by bill boards speaking to the new middle classes. The biggest one shows a picture of a sky high white, shiny apartment block above the words: 'If you want an independent home, this is just for you'. For Sugunamma, the meaning of an independent home will never be the same.

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