As preparations begin for International Women’s Day, Soma Basu talks to an emotionally battered S.Kanthimathi, whose struggle mirrors the trauma women undergo the world over.

Simakkal, Madurai’s nerve centre for business, is where S.Kanthimathi spent her happy childhood days. The eldest daughter of an oil mill owner, she was married off with pomp into a large joint family when she was barely 18.

Though she could never be herself again, the new bride took everything in her stride, including an alcoholic husband. Siva Senthil was not a family man and didn’t care a hoot about his wife and son. He thrashed her each time something angered him or his mother and sister complained about her.

Kanthimathi says she “locked her thoughts and sufferings in an empty mind”. “My parents had taught me however your husband may be, he is your security for life.”

When her second son Nandakumar was born with mental retardation due to malnutrition, her elder son Karthikeyan, then five years old, fell to brain fever. Even after 22 years, Kanthimathi is unable to hold back her tears when she recalls how she was prevented by her in-laws from taking the child to a doctor. “He suffered severe meningitis and lost his speech and motor coordination.”

For two decades, Kanthimathi shared the bond with her violent and abusive husband and even bore him another child, a daughter. With her children totally dependent on her, Kanthimathi worked as a domestic help in homes and sold vadais on the streets in the evenings. Her in-laws often suggested that she kill her sons or sell their organs and get some money. “There was not a single day of harmony in my 27 years of married life. I couldn’t think of leaving him because I also had a daughter to be married off,” she says.

Kanthimathi used to go to Government Rajaji Hospital to get free medicines for her sons and from there got referred to M.S.Chellamuthu Trust and Foundation. She went to the Trust’s Sellur day care centre for the boys in 2006. Hearing her shocking story, the founder Dr.C.Ramasubramanian took her in as a vocational instructor for the centre.

Single-handedly, Kanthimathi took care of her three children even as she was forced to adjust to the twisted dynamics of a relationship that enslaves a woman: “With each passing day, I sank further into a mental struggle. My husband was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis. I took care of him till his death in November 2009.”

That was also the time when she suddenly disappeared from the Centre. “My daughter was due for delivery and I had to be with her.” Not sure whether she would be redeployed at the centre, she joined a garment factory for a salary of Rs.2,000 per month. The factory van would pick her up in the morning and drop her back in the evening. Since she moved out of the family house and was staying alone in Thiruvadhavur, she had no choice but to leave both her sons locked in the room like animals with food kept in front of them.

Every evening when she returned she cried seeing their condition as they would have messed up everything, urinating in one corner and food spilled over in another. “I would be tired but had to clean up everything, give them a bath and cook dinner for them.” There were days when she just couldn’t move and wanted silence. “I even contemplated suicide,” she says.

Just when she was feeling lost, a Trust member found her in the locality and saw the reality of the situation. Depression was overwhelming. The boys were getting worse and she was losing health.

Two months ago Kanthimathi was reinstated as a caretaker of the inmates in the Thirumogur Centre run by the Trust. She gets Rs.3,000 per month and has been given a room on the campus. She brings both her boys to work and they get trained in activities of daily living and self care. Kanthimathi is trying to regain her independence and self-worth. But has she yet found the time to heal?

“Kal aanaalum kanavan, pul aanaalum purushan,” she says. (A husband cannot be changed whether he is a stone or grass.) The pain of all these years is still bottled up. Can Kanthimathi ever break free? She gives the answer when she tells her daughter: “Tolerate everything and take life as it comes.” Dealing with a difficult marriage, facing the world and struggling to raise the two boys on her own has made her let go.

Hers is a story that gets repeated in so many homes across the globe year after year. Often, destiny is blamed. But it is their willpower that truly makes brave hearts of such women. They suffer in silence and continue to wait for justice. There is little hope but they keep moving forward.

“I have lived through this horror. I can take on anything worse that comes along,” says Kanthimathi.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)