Kanchan Bhaskar Wants to Set You Free

Writer Pooja Shah talks to the author about her new book, and how she's transformed from an abuse survivor to champion of females everywhere

Kanchan Bhaskar

Courtesy of Kanchan Bhaskar

Words by Pooja Shah

When Kanchan Bhaskar got married in 1980, she expected what any newlywed would: a dreamy life full of love and affection. After all, she had left her home in New Delhi, India, to move to a smaller town to support her new husband and his career. Instead her arranged marriage was a nightmare: the gentle soul she thought she was marrying turned out to be a narcissistic and abusive man who emotionally, physically, and verbally controlled and hurt her. Forced into a world of isolation and self-doubt, Bhaskar knew she had no choice but to find a way out.

While not all arranged marriages involve abuse, unfortunately for Bhaskar this was her reality. In fact, according to a 2019-21 study by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 29.3 percent of married Indian women between the ages of 18 and 49 have experienced domestic or sexual violence, though the actual value is underreported. Bhaskar found herself to be part of that statistic, but she knew she didn’t want to continue living trapped in a marriage that was dangerous and toxic, especially for the sake of her three children (daughter, Nina, and twin sons, Kabir and Kuber).

In her book, Leaving: How I Set Myself Free from an Abusive Marriage, Bhaskar candidly shares the struggles she faced to separate from her abuser in a society where victims, especially Indian women, were faulted for their perpetrator’s indiscretions rather than the perpetrator himself. In a compelling and highly emotional memoir, she details the trials and tribulations she endured and the way she overcame these challenges to leave India, move to the States and support herself and her “lifelines,” as she describes her children. I sat down with Khaskar to hear more about her journey and what she hopes readers learn from her experience.

Kanchan Bhaskar's memoir, "Leaving: How I Set Myself Free from an Abusive Marriage," chronicles her story of leaving an abusive marriage.

Courtesy of Kanchan Bhaskar

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Pooja Shah: Let’s start by talking about whether there was a single defining moment that made you want to leave your ex, or was it a summation of moments?
Kanchan Bhaskar: It was a summation of many moments. I was under his power and control for many years, and I wanted to escape the trap, but my circumstances did not make it possible. In India, especially, the laws did not protect me. All the attorneys I spoke to told me that divorce was not an option and if it was a choice I wanted to go down, then I could lose custody of my three children. That was unacceptable to me, so I carried on letting him abuse me for years.

The turning point was when I met a stranger who I deem as my “angel.” This person came into my life and aided me in transforming from a victim to a strong woman. I realized that the first step I needed to take was to gain financial independence and gain the confidence to live my own life. That day I vowed to myself that I was going to set myself free and take my children to a safe place.

PS: Because of the society you were in, you had to go back to him a few times. What were some of the reasons for this?
KB: It was a mix of societal, financial, personal, psychological reasons that I initially went back to him, but mainly because of my children. In the early years, he would come back after an incident and plead and cry to give him one more chance. My compassion would give in, and I often wondered if I could amend him as a man, or persuade him to seek medical or therapeutic help. But, it never happened. I was also scared about telling anyone what was happening, and no one knew. My parents (who lived close by in India) secretly understood something was amiss, but they never knew all the details. My dad had a heart condition, and I could not face the guilt of hurting him with the reality of my marriage. Also, because I didn’t have any money to my name and Indian lawyers told me to treat him as my ‘fourth handicapped child’ and were more concerned about where he would go if we separated instead of me. Ultimately, my life changed once I came to the States and my horizons broadened.

PS:  Did you allow your ex-husband to foster a relationship with your children?
KB: My children went to boarding schools for their own safety, so they were immune from seeing how he hurt me. When he did have contact with them, he was on his best behavior and really nice to me. My daughter, Nina, was the one who was the most impacted because she saw at an early age the way he behaved with me, and she could not reconcile a relationship with him after we ultimately got divorced. My daughter and I also had a pact that we would never tell my sons the truth. Currently, no one has a relationship with him. My children have made their peace with it, too. My daughter refuses to read this book and my sons said they would be too hurt to know what their mother actually went through.

PS: There was a New York Times story recently that mentioned how women who are in arranged marriages in India are abandoned by their husbands who move abroad for work. Do you think there has been any progress towards women in India?
KB: When I was in India last month, I noticed that things are on the mend. The notion of female autonomy and standing up for yourself is spreading, and women are having their own voice, but it’s very slow. Though there is change to an extent, domestic abuse, violence and harassment towards women continues at a large scale. If you also look at the geography of India, 75 percent of it is rural, which means that those who live in those areas are without education and not privy to news and media exposure. The patriarchal belief system that prioritizes men having the power is what needs to change, and until that does, the progress will be slow. We need to educate people on what a healthy partnership looks like and that starts at a fundamental level.

PS: What are you doing to encourage women to speak up for themselves?
KB: Survivors, like me, should be given a platform to speak about their victories. I am doing podcasts, and press because I want to raise as much awareness as possible that I got out of an abusive marriage and those in similar situations can too. This is a global issue. I am in the process of creating a community dedicated to helping victims and survivors. Sure, survivors escape, but since they haven’t seen freedom they don’t know what to do next. How can they fully liberate themselves if they are still in pain?

PS: As time has lapsed, does a part of you want to date again, or are you dating someone? What are the challenges, if any?
KB: My children have been pushing me to have a companion for years now, but at this point, I don’t want to jeopardize my freedom if I don’t feel the need for it. I am whole, and I am free.

Published on August 23, 2023

Words by Pooja Shah

Pooja Shah is a lawyer and freelance writer based in New York City. She writes on food, culture, travel, wellness and lifestyle. More of her work is at www.pooja-shah.com.