‘Sister Susannah’: Shattering the Silence Around Abuse

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it checked all the boxes we had neglected for years. It steamrollered a barely functioning healthcare system and an economy hanging by a thread. Along with it came a shadow pandemic – the knee-jerk lockdown imposed in the country which left many women isolated in abusive households, unable to reach out to anyone for help. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that all available resources were devoted to immediate COVID-19 relief. Such as it was, the number of reported cases of domestic violence skyrocketed, hitting the highest they’ve been in ten years. This, when only online help was available. This, in a country that is woefully unequipped in terms of internet penetration.

How many women suffered in silence? And how many continue to do so?

Anoushka Shankar attempts to break this very silence with her latest release ‘Sister Susannah’, which builds upon the oeuvre established by her previous album ‘Love Letters’. Written as a celebration of women coming together and helping each other through loss and heartbreak, ‘Love Letters’ was remarkable for its ability to gulf the unspoken in relationships. But ‘Sister Susannah’ does more. Released on March 22, it bridges the personal to address what goes unsaid in society and delivers a searing indictment of abuse in so-called spaces of love.

The song begins with a chilling chorus of “Sister, sister Susannah, you lied to me/ Sister, sister Susannah, you let him be” as reminder of how abuse starts in spaces of trust, not just where the abuser is concerned, but also where communities of support are concerned. It goes on to talk of the rhetoric that abuse often adopts via a brilliantly written list of commandments (12, much like the originals) that the husband expects his wife to follow. That list, spoken by the abuser, takes the form of a prescriptive guide to “help you become the best version of yourself”.

It frequently draws on themes of motherhood and purity, comparing the wife alternately to the earth and a goddess as it demarcates her roles and areas of agency. This rhetoric denies her personhood by creating a space where the line between labour and emotional labour starts to blur. It also relies heavily on tokenism, in an attempt to gaslight the wife into believing that the abuse springs from love – “I have carved this beautiful seat next to me, just for you”. Most interestingly, the chorus that can be seen as the wife’s dialogue, is at all times drowned out by the poem, which is from the perspective of the husband – yet another comment on how voices are drowned, and trust broken.

So why is ‘Sister Susannah’ so great? It’s just a song, after all, a song that does nothing to stop abuse except make caustic comments about it. I believe what makes Sister Susannah so important is that it begins a conversation that we’d like to avoid, or don’t have the vocabulary for. Its sharp criticism shows the rhetoric of abuse for what it is, while also placing the listener into the shoes of the victim for a space of six minutes. It takes the very important first step of acknowledging a problem, which needs must preface any sort of action.

By reminding us about the existence of the monster, and roping in other voices to contribute to the discussion, Shankar has taken a step towards creating the very community the victim in the song lacks – of women standing up for each other. No time like the present, to take action, then, and as Faiz would put it, “Bol, jo kuch kehna hai, keh le (speak, say all there is to say) ”.

Hima Kriti is a student at the Indian Institute of Management, Indore.

Featured image credit: Instagram/@anoushkashankarofficial