Sunday, November 22, 2009


Prajwal Hegde, The Thorn in the talk, Times of India (Bangalore Edition), November 22, 2009

Sneha Mohan lives in a beautiful house, has a fairly successful career and drives her own car. Shes 38, married, and the mother of two healthy boys aged 14 and 10. On the face of it, it appears like a good life. However, the truth is another story. Shes a victim of domestic violence.

She carries no physical wounds, broken bones or burns or even so much as a black eye. Her husband rarely raises his voice when speaking to her. The violence is in the talk. Words are his weapon, thorny and tormenting. Her body maybe intact, but her spirit has been steamrolled. Scarred for life, shes a victim of verbal abuse.

Early in their relationship, when she narrated congratulatory instances or appreciative words from friends or colleagues, he would act as if he hadnt heard her. The compliments she received from her husband always came with the but factor. From the less damaging, youre looking good, but your hips are way too heavy for this outfit, to the choiceless , Rohan is doing well in school, its a good thing he didnt take after you or your family, to the brutal business of name calling. At first, the insults would come in softly spoken, cleverly woven sentences. Gradually, the sophisticated attack gave way to a daily routine that was both tasteless as it was relentless. Sneha, today, is battling a dark whirlpool of doubt and despair.

Sneha's is not an isolated case. Verbal abuse is the most prevalent form of abuse in urban society. It has spread its stench to all forms of interpersonal interactions from marriages to parent-child relationships and other social and professional situations . It thrives best, however, in the marital domain, with the woman being at the receiving end nine out of ten times. That may have something to do with the fact that the nuptial knot, like the invisible umbilical chord, is tougher to snap unlike the fragile ties made in associations of choice. Verbal abuse is showing up even in long-standing (read as anything lasting a year or over) romances at the school and college level.

Dr Lata Hemchand, a leading Bangalore-based psychologist, reports that 20 to 30% of the cases she encounters each day centre around verbal abuse, making it more common than physical abuse. Preeti Naik, a noted advocate, who is currently dealing with several such complaints, says this phenomenon mostly crops up in the affluent , educated class. Not so much in the lower income bracket, where physical violence precedes all else, and in case of verbal abuse, the women generally give as good as they get.

Anita Gracias, a counsellor with SAHAI helpline, says: Its absolutely criminal that a normal, giving, person is defined by her failures, if you can call them that in the first place. Sometimes a person may go through his entire life enveloped by an unhealthy darkness, not knowing if he or she was abused. However, if you listen to yourself carefully, you will be able to recall an unfair situation. Over a period of time, you may even learn to question it.
Gracias adds, The key to survival is to understand where the attack is coming from and to always know that youre better than the abuse. Its tough to believe in yourself in hostile environments , but the moment you start doubting, youve lost the battle.

Abusive behaviour stems from a certain selfishness , where an individual eyes an advantageous position, material or psychological. Ambient abuse is a deeper, more skewed form of abuse than the verbal method. The weapon is the same, however. The perpetrator creates an ambience of threat and uncertainty, planting in the victim, the seeds of doubt.

Ambient abuse is beautifully captured in the 1944 Ingrid Bergman-starer Gaslight. Gregory Anton, played by Charles Boyer, wants his pot of gold, which is in his wife (Bergmans ) physical space. He does everything in his power to convince her that shes going mad, so he can have her certified insane and institutionalized.
Sam Vaknin, the author of Malignant Self Love, wrote: In the long term, such an environment erodes the victims sense of self-worth and self-esteem . Often, the victim adopts a paranoid or schizoid stance and thus renders himself or herself exposed even more to criticism and judgement.

Dr Hemchand explains: Physical injuries heal, but the symbolic effect of the abuse eats at the victim. Its humiliating to know that your husband or whoever it was had no qualms in beating you. But the memory of verbal abuse is longer. It refuses to fade even decades after.

Verbal abuse is being increasingly scrutinized by lawmakers. The 2005 Protection Of Women From Domestic Violence Act has a subclause that deals with verbal and emotional abuse. It lists ridicule, humiliation, insults, name calling and threats as punishable by law. However , with the law, still relatively new, and with no high profile, landmark case of this nature fought and won on public grounds, it remains a largely unchartered territory.

I wont for one moment pretend that this is an easy case to fight and win, its not easy to prove, Naik said. It often takes people years, to recognize or identify the problem. On the face of it, if youre not physically scarred or bleeding , then you must be fine, right It may also have something to do with the fact that in more moneyed sections, theres a status factor attached to being married. But once people face up to the truth, they confront it. Thats the key, more and more people are confronting it.

Its time to watch the word. The weapon has been blunted. Someones listening, maybe noting whats being said, and perhaps reporting it in.

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