Anuradha Ahluwalia sits across a computer screen from me, characteristic to her style with her bold red bindi and red lipstick – her accessories of choice for the day. Her resounding laughter fills my room, engulfing me with her familiar enthusiasm despite the 220 odd kilometres that separate us. Today is a day I’ve put aside for Anuradha’s story, in its entirety, as opposed to the usual snippets she’s shared with me and many others from time to time.
The eldest of four children, Anuradha was born at home in Ambala on December 25, 1964. Due to complications resulting from the home birth, she spent the first month of her life in a hospital. While nosey patriarchal relatives hounded her family with questions about saving a girl child, it was her grandfather who said that she was their Christmas miracle and deserved to be celebrated as such.
Her father had established a factory in the industrial town of Ambala. Her mother was a homemaker, warm and kind – her husband and children were her whole world. And as was common practice in Haryana of the time, she sported a ghoonghat (veil) at all times. Anuradha however, was given complete freedom to be her own person. Looking back fondly, at her days in Ambala, she rejoices at the special treatment meted out to her by her father.
A relationship quite different from what others around her shared with their fathers; there were no secrets between them. Their evenings (Class 9 onwards) were reserved for an in-house mehfil where Anuradha would relay the events of her day. There was nothing his daughter was not ‘the best’ at doing. It was this affection that Anuradha took playful advantage of. Her idea of an allowance was simply taking the biggest rupee note from her father’s wallet. Characteristic to the values of her family, she never spent the money on herself and instead used it to treat all her friends.
Her father imbibed in her the confidence to face every challenge in life head-on, to never back down in the face of adversity and to never let her gender be a hindrance when it came to taking charge. This is why when her father spent two years in and out of hospitals, she took charge on two fronts; being the eldest, she provided emotional support while also taking over the finances of the family.
When she visited her father, she met him not only as a loving daughter but also as a diligent employee. Every day, she did the ‘hisaab’, maintained the factory passbooks and gave a weekly report to her father. When he succumbed to his illness, everyone saw this as an opportunity to fleece the family. She fought factory workers as they filled their pockets and when relatives, instead of being supportive, indulged in emotional abuse and manipulation to take over the family property, it was Anuradha who held her family in good stead through these testing years.
Having completed her masters, Anuradha was finally ready to get married. A classified advertisement in a newspaper led to Anil’s family reaching out. A favourable first meeting between the families meant a mutual confirmation. Fearing that Anuradha didn’t understand the nuances of his job as an engineer in the merchant navy, Anil requested another meeting. For Anuradha, this meeting meant that Anil had what she valued most – principles and morals. Fifteen days later, they were married.
Anil is the youngest of three brothers. When he wasn’t at sea he lived with his parents in a duplex flat in Chandigarh. Upon marriage, Anuradha moved into this house. Two months into the marriage, Anil was called upon a ship that was set to sail from Singapore to Africa. It was after he left that Anuradha first came to realise the stark differences between her maternal home and her marital home. Here, simple permissions like standing in the balcony were not granted to her. In the absence of telephones, she couldn’t call him to share her plight.
Anil’s return came as much-needed respite. They spent the next few months being the newly weds they were. This phase, however, was short lived and he got a call to go back to sea. This time, Anuradha insisted on accompanying him. Much too respectful of his mother, Anil never mustered the courage to ask her. He left without Anuradha.
Headstrong Anuradha did not succumb. She withdrew an FD her mother had presented to her at the time of her marriage to get her passport and visa. Finally, Anuradha was slated to join her husband in Singapore, from where the ship would sail to various ports on the eastern shore and then head towards Africa. To embark on this journey, in the absence of instant telecommunication, Anuradha spent a month in a guesthouse in Bombay, waiting for that one call asking her aboard, every day.
When she finally locked eyes with Anil once she was aboard the ship, he was on the way to his shift. A wave followed by a brief greeting was a meeting she couldn’t have even dreamt of in her wildest dreams. The four hours that she spent in their room waiting for his shift to end, she thought of all the things that could have possibly gone wrong between the last time they met and now.
When his shift finally ended, Anil met his wife whom he’d spent months waiting for. He then explained in great detail his duties aboard the ship that prevented him from being even a minute late for his shift and she finally breathed a sigh of relief. They spent the next three months at sea, taking advantage of every port the ship made.
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Anuradha, however, had to disembark before her approved period on the ship was over due to complications in her pregnancy. This meant that she was to spend a majority of her time on prescribed bed-rest. Nine excruciatingly difficult months later, Anuradha gave birth to a beautiful little boy.
So ecstatic was her father-in-law with the news of having a grandson (his previous grandchildren being daughters) that he vowed to quit smoking as soon as he saw him. In a moment that would become one she would cherish lifelong, with tearful eyes, her father-in-law offered her a rose and thanked her for bringing their grandson into the world. Six years later, engulfed in the love of her family, Anuradha gave birth to the most beautiful little girl and they deemed their family complete.
Over the next few years, Anuradha learned to navigate a life where she catered to the needs of her children and her in-laws, while fulfilling all her additional responsibilities when her husband was away at sea. Six years after their marriage, Anil handed over the task of looking over the family’s finances to her. The uncertain nature of Anil’s job meant that a large chunk of this responsibility would fall on Anuradha’s shoulders.
When they decided to build their own house, she contacted labourers, contractors, architects, and designed many parts of the house herself. With her son by her side, they built for their family what can only be called a ‘dream home’. The faith Anil reposed in her reminded her of the confidence her father had in her abilities to excel at everything she did and she accepted all the challenges that lay ahead of her head on.
The chaotic silence of the much-dreaded hospital came back to haunt Anuradha during the solemn summer of August 2003. A doctor’s negligence led to the fracture of her son’s leg turning into a gangrenous limb. Despite his telling the doctor of the pain he had been feeling for over two days, the doctor did not relent. When they finally went to another hospital, the doctors were taken aback by what they saw. Over the span of a month, multiple teams of doctors from across the country studied the case and conducted various experiments to save him.
With Anil at sea, all of their friends and family came together to be by her side, as she sat by a pillar at the hospital, too numb to deal with her reality. Despite the many troubles her friends were going through at the time, they stuck by her side. Having used up every possible resource, the doctors posed one final question to Anuradha – to choose between her son’s limb and his life.
Two days after Anil made it back home, the doctors amputated her son’s gangrenous leg.
While signing the forms for her son’s discharge from the hospital, his doctor warned Anuradha of the fear that loomed ahead. While he may have made it out of the hospital, there still existed a possibility of him trying to die by suicide.
The decision to save her son’s life could not be viewed in isolation from the many decisions she took thereafter to ensure the quality of the life he lives. The family collectively chose to live a life of dignity and not one of sympathy. Anuradha asked her son to take the time he needed to answer her question – “Should we spend the rest of our lives being careful of what we say around you or should we treat you like we used to before this accident?” His answer, “Treat me as you used to”, was all the motivation she needed to rebuild their lives.
She dedicated the next 17 years of her life battling a suit for negligence against the doctor and his hospital. Of the many silent struggles she’s survived, her most powerful is the battle she fought for her son. Over the 17 years that the litigation suit lasted, everyone, including Anil, surrendered in the face of the impossibility except her.
A sole woman against the system, she navigated her way through the civil court, Chandigarh, the high court of Punjab and Haryana, the Chandigarh state consumer disputes redressal commission, the national consumer disputes redressal commission and finally, the Supreme Court of India. During the final hearing at the Supreme Court, she commanded the floor for over an hour, relaying the many hardships she’s had to face throughout the years. Her only wish was to have the doctor accept the mistake he made, truly a heartfelt apology was all she ever wanted for her son.
A testament of Anuradha’s strength is her ability to share her story with people irrespective of her equation with them. For many years after the accident, she continued to give interviews to raise awareness about safe plaster practices around the country. The pamphlet we often come across at the orthopaedic’s office that differentiates a safe plaster from an unsafe one and tells us exactly when to be alarmed is a result of her perseverance. However, over time, with her story getting old, people’s interest has also dwindled. She wishes there was more she could do to help others like her, to share her story with them and to show them by example that smiling in the face of adversity is half the battle won.
Her son dejectedly asked her one day what he should do in life when it came to a career. The look that accompanied his question set Anuradha on her next mission. That year itself, she set up a gym in her son’s name where she commanded a staff of 12 instructors and other workers. For the next six years, she ensured her son would never question his ability to provide for himself. Her next encounter with the world of business was when her son, now a law school graduate, declared that he wanted to join the food industry and set up a food-delivery service of his own.
With Anil providing the financial resources and emotional support from sea through the miraculous advancement of technology, Anuradha leapt forward into a new world with her son. From preparing dishes to sharing her personal recipes with the chefs, helping them plan their daily menus, suggesting measures to control food wastage and at times being the solo manager of their venture – there isn’t a role left that Anuradha hasn’t played.
In Anuradha’s world, a woman’s strength once understood and embraced, stands to be challenged by no one. She treats the outside world with the same respect that she does her household. She is aware that running a house is no less than a full-time job. She mockingly asks the men in her life, “If men are superior to women, why do you take up the additional responsibility of providing for us and looking after us? Why don’t you enjoy your life of superiority all alone?”
The two most important people in Anuradha’s life are her daughter and her sister. The protectiveness she feels towards both of them does not allow her to share their parts in this story. However, having heard her story, there’s no doubt that they are two exceptional women much like herself, with lives just as wonderful that hopefully they’ll allow us a glimpse into, some day.
Even today, when Anil leaves to set sail, Anuradha is a bag of nerves. An underlying feeling of doom takes over as she prays that nothing untoward should happen during the time when he’s away. She takes great pride in the fact that her approval matters most to her husband and her children. She has been the final decision-maker in her family. However, having carried the weight of all their responsibilities on her shoulders for almost 35 years, She glances playfully towards her son and hints that it’s time for him to have her responsibilities divided.
Epilogue: I’ve had many conversations about Anuradha’s life with her, over shared cups of tea. So intrinsic to her personality is her ability to express herself, that a story this difficult flowed into these pages with exceptional ease. Her thoughtful pauses, her tearful eyes and her quick-witted one liners made this an experience I will never forget.
About the writer: Remanpreet Sandhu is a lawyer and is currently pursuing the Young India Fellowship. She lives in Ferozepur with her mother, and often beams with pride at the well-oiled telecommunication network she’s established to keep up with her friends across the country.
A poem composed by the author to narrate Anuradha’s story:
Ae zindagi mere sawaalon ka jawaab de
Inn ghamon ka kuch toh hisaab de
Yeh bemausam toofan jo tu laati hai
Kyun Bas aandhi sang hi meri yaad aati hai?
Sunehri dhoop mei mujhko bhi dede kuch pal
Kyun mujh par aakar hi sooraj jaata hai dhall?
Zindagi, mere kuch kam imtihaan le
Thodi khushi dede aur thode gham tu baant le
Kyun cheekhti hai hawayein mere kaanon mein
Aur barasta hai badal mere hi aangan mein?
Thoda sa patjhad mujhse lekar
Thodi basant tu mujhko bhi de
Baant le mere inn ghamon ko
Thodi khushiyaan meri jholi bhar de
Ae zindagi mere sawalon ka jawaab de
Inn ghamon ka kuch toh hisaab de
Tham kar, haar kar thak chuki hoon main
Teri har marzi se pakk chuki hoon main
Thaan liya hai maine, ladni hai yeh ladai
Na aandhi, na toofan, ab mujhe rok paaye
Zindagi, datt ke saamna hai karna, jo Thana hai
Ab na chalne wala tera koi bahana hai
Jo mere pita se seekha maine saleekha hai
Aaj se wahi mere jeene ka tareeka hai
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty