“In prison, I found freedom”

“In prison, I found freedom. The kind of freedom I’d felt during my growing up days in Jalandhar. As I lay on the cold floor trying to process how my life had changed overnight, glimpses of my happy childhood days flashed in front of my eyes. Now, 4000 miles away, 7 seas across, I’d found myself another home amidst a bunch of criminals.

As a kid, my 8 older siblings and Bebe made sure I lived life queen-size. My father passed away when I was just 3 months old, but Bebe never let me feel the lack of not having a father; I was always pampered.

My fondest memories include playing in the fields with my friends, doing bhangra whenever and wherever I could. I was a naughty kid–this once, when a new teacher had joined our school, I scribbled her name all over the walls and got a big slap from her. I was good at studying but wouldn’t do my homework!

I didn’t believe in following the rules. Nor did Bebe. When the other girls were taught to cook and embroider, I’d be out riding my bicycle. When I told Bebe that I wanted a blazer, she went to town specifically to buy me one. I was the only girl in our village who wore frocks and skirts. Our neighbours would taunt, ‘Girls from good families don’t show their legs,’ but Bebe would ignore them and tell me, ‘Poochi, tera jo mann kare woh kar… main hamesha tere saath rahungi.’

But when I turned 15, she was diagnosed with cancer. My brothers wanted to take her to a bigger city for treatment but she refused, ‘Poochi is giving her board exams, I can’t leave her alone,’ she said. I knew Bebe wasn’t well, but no one told me that she was dying. The day I came back home after my last exam, she gave me the tightest hug and asked, ‘Will you sleep with me today?’ I refused because I had the habit of sleeping with my leg over her stomach; I was afraid I’d hurt her. So I tucked her in and slept on the floor.

The next morning, when I woke up, she was no more. I felt the earth slip beneath my feet; I cried my eyes out. After Bebe, my life was never the same again. I went to Ahmedabad to live with Bindhi Praji, my second brother. I had all the luxuries in the world but nothing even came close to lying on Bebe’s lap as she told me stories about her childhood. Sometimes, you don’t realize how good the good old days are until they’re gone.After I started adjusting to my new life in Ahmedabad, my brothers asked me, ‘What would you like to do next?’ I knew that if I didn’t study further, they’d start looking for a suitable boy for me; all three of my sisters were married at the age of 17. So, I told them that I wanted to pursue my graduation in Arts.

They hired two private tutors to teach me English and Hindi; I worked hard and scored decently. After graduation, I wanted to work but Praji said, ‘Tujhe jo chahiye bata, hum dilayenge. Par auretein ghar ke bahar kaam nahi karti.’ I used to get a lot of pocket money; they even gifted me a bike for Rakhi. They gave me everything except the freedom to make my own decisions.

After, I joined a law college hoping that it’d keep me away from all the wedding talks for a few more months. But one evening, when I returned from college, my Aunty insisted that I wear a Punjabi suit. She handed me a tray and made me meet the prospective groom’s family.

As a dozen strangers inspected me up and down, passed comments on my looks, I felt a fire raging inside me. How could my brothers do this to me without my knowledge? After they left, I locked myself up in my room and wrote a letter to my sister who lived in Canada– ‘Take me with you!’ I was so inconsolable that my family had no choice; in 1977, I flew to Canada.

A few weeks later, my sister told me, ‘You have to get married someday… Trust me, I’ll find you a good boy.’ I met 5-6 men but rejected all of them.

Then came Deepak’s rishta. My sister who lived in London, had met his family and couldn't stop gushing about Deepak– ‘He’s so handsome, so funny… he’s perfect for our Kiran!’ Deepak had liked me and wanted to come to Canada to get to know me better. When we met for the first time, he looked very smart; he was wearing a blue suit and tie. We were left alone to talk– I told him hesitantly, ‘After marriage, I want to study and I don’t want to wear a saree… I can’t walk in them.’

He laughed and said, ‘Done, as you wish’; I was happy. He also got along well with my family. So, a week later, we got married on paper so I could apply for a UK visa. 3 weeks later, I came to London; he invited me for tea with his family. I chatted with them for a while and then went to the washroom to freshen up.

Out of nowhere, Deepak appeared–he pushed me, pinned me against the wall and slapped my head hard. I almost blacked out but he just stood there, laughing. Before I could process this, he took off my heels and mocked, ‘Who wears such heels?’

I was shocked–I’d met a totally different Deepak in Canada! The same evening, he smashed a plate in the sink because he didn’t like the food. If only I hadn’t taken these warning signs lightly, my life would’ve been so different today. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of my sorrows.On 21st July, 1979, we had a proper Gurudwara wedding in London; at 23, I became Mrs. Deepak Alhuwalia. Throughout the ceremony, I had an eerie feeling that something bad was about to happen. Underneath my ghunghat, I kept crying.

On our first night, Deepak started kissing me forcibly. I needed time, but before I could tell him that, he climbed atop me and had his way while I shrieked in pain… I was raped on my wedding night.

The next day, when his sister and I were opening our wedding presents, Deepak barged in and yelled at her, ‘Bitch, you have no right to talk to my wife,’ she ran away; terrified, I lay crying in one corner.

A few hours later, my sister came to pick me up for the Pat Phera ritual–I was happy to get away. When she saw my swollen eyes, she said, ‘Shuru shuru me aise hi hota hai… things will get better with time.’

When I returned to my in-laws, I bought presents for them. We were all sitting together in the living room and chatting when Deepak returned from work. In front of everybody, he dragged me into our room and started undressing me. When I resisted, he pointed his penis at me and said, ‘Shut up or I’ll put this in your mouth and piss into your body.’ He raped me again.

Then, it just became a routine– he used my body whenever he felt like and I had no say in it. He’d yell at me over things like– ‘Why are you having black coffee?’, ‘Why are you talking to my mother without my permission?’, ‘Why can’t you make round rotis?’ And a few minutes later, he’d apologise, ‘Kiran… I love you,’ and carry on as if nothing had happened. Whenever my in-laws interrupted him, he’d say, ‘This is between me and my wife… stay out of it’; even they were terrified of him. He forbade me from talking to my family members without his knowledge– I was caged.

This once, when his sister and I were in the kitchen, he accused her of revealing family secrets to me and pushed her. He then slapped me until I bled. I cried in pain but he kept strangling me until his younger brother dragged him off me.

I was traumatised. My husband was a monster and I couldn’t even talk to anyone about it. We hadn’t even been married for a week and I had bruises all over my body. I felt broken inside. The endless cycle of abuse, beating and screaming had just begun.3 months into marriage, I found out that I was pregnant; Deepak wouldn't let me take birth control pills. I was so worried about my child’s future that I even thought of committing suicide–‘If I just jump in front of the train, I could end the pain,’ I’d think. Somehow, I convinced Deepak that his income was not enough to sustain a child and got myself aborted.

I then enrolled myself into a typing course to keep myself occupied. But during classes, I’d be so disturbed that all the alphabets would become blurry. I failed the course and lost my confidence.

From there, things just spiralled out of control. Deepak continued to be abusive; it was as if he owned me, so only he was allowed to brutalise me. Whenever my mother-in-law taunted me for not doing the daily chores properly, Deepak would jump in and tell her ‘She’s not your servant. She’ll only obey me.’

5 years passed. Fed up of our daily fights, my father-in-law asked us to move out and live on our own. My mother-in-law told Deepak, ‘Tu mard hai ki nahi? Why don’t you make her pregnant ? Then, things will get better.’ So that’s what he did.

9 months later, I had my first son, Sanjay but nothing changed between Deepak and me. A year later, I became pregnant again. But when I told Deepak that I was expecting, he pushed me down the stairs and said, ‘This is not my child’; my head hit the stairs and it started bleeding. I was devastated.

As time passed, he stopped talking to our boys; he wouldn't come back home all night. Moreover, he insisted that I borrow money from my brothers for him. I felt so desperate that I thought of ending my life by overdosing on sleeping pills. But one glance at my boys and I’d think, ‘Mere bina inka kya hoga?”

I found out the real reason behind his changed behaviour only when a friend told me that she’d seen Deepak with a British woman; they were having an affair. When I confronted him, he announced that he was leaving me.

But by then I didn’t know life without my abuser, so I begged him to stay– ‘I promise I won’t touch black coffee… if you want my body everyday, I’ll let you have it.’ He came back, but it killed me to know that I was giving into all his demands. For months, I didn’t sleep all night. I was so angry that I wanted to hurt him. But the tipping point was when he kept demanding more and more money from me. That night, our argument escalated and he almost burnt my face with an iron box. Minutes later, he went back to sleep as if nothing had happened. For 10 years, I’d done everything to please him but after that, I’d had enough. Chahe aar ya paar. I wanted him to regret his actions.

He’d burnt my face, so I wanted to burn his feet. That way, he wouldn’t be able to run after me. 2 hours later, when Deepak was fast asleep, I went to the garage, fetched some petrol and poured it on his legs. Then, I lit a candle and set him on fire.Once his feet had caught fire, I picked up my sons and ran out into our garden. There, I sat in hiding and blacked out for the next few minutes.

When I regained my senses, our entire house was on fire; about a dozen policemen and firemen had gathered around. Both Deepak and I were taken to the hospital in separate ambulances–I caught a glimpse of Deepak screaming at me. He looked as if he was fine, so I thought, ‘If he comes back, he’ll surely kill me.’

At the hospital, I asked the police about my boys; they said that they were safe with my mother-in-law– that was all that mattered to me. Then, they started interrogating me–‘Who did it?’ they asked. Without a moment of hesitation, I said, ‘I did.’

The same evening, I was taken to the nearby prison. There, they gave me sleeping pills, so I slept for most part of the day. The next day, I wrote a letter to Bindhi Praji saying, ‘There is no need to come visit me…I am happy here. Deepak deserved it.’

I always thought that Deepak would get better and I’d be out in no time. But 5 days later, my doctor told me, ‘Kiran, he is no more.’ A chill ran down my spine; I said, ‘I never intended to kill Deepak, I just wanted to hurt him.’ But it was too late.

From that day on, my mother-in-law refused to allow my sons to meet me; I’d cry all night thinking about Sanjay and Ravi. For the next 7 months, several trials happened and finally, on the 7th of December, 1989, I was sentenced for life.

At the court, Bindhi praji burst into tears and said, ‘If only I could exchange places with you, I would. Bebe ko kya muh dikhaunga main?’ I had no regrets but this one: my sons would have to live without both their parents.”My lawyer apologised to me and said, ‘Sorry Kiran, I tried my best.’ Even I’d made peace with my fate. And that’s where Pragna came into my life.

She was the founding member of Southhall Black Sisters, an NGO that fought for the rights of Asian and Black women in the UK. She and two of her colleagues reassured me that they’d help me get out.

At the beginning, I didn’t trust them; many lawyers had made false promises. So I told them, ‘Help me meet my sons first.’

Meanwhile, in prison, I made some great friends. I also started taking English classes and learnt hairdressing. I ate whatever I wanted to; I could laugh out loud without fearing anybody. Strangely, the things that I couldn't do outside, I could do in jail. I used to make 2.50 pounds every week from doing prison chores and would save every penny. At the end of the month, when my children visited me, I’d use that money to buy chips for them.

You know what they say– think good and good follows, that’s exactly what was happening to me. As days passed, I became more confident; I started speaking in English chatar-patar. And on the outside, Pragna was campaigning for my case by speaking to the media and organising pop-up shows.

Pragna asked me to write a speech sharing my experiences and I poured my heart out. 10 years of abuse and marital rape wasn’t even considered by the court when the judgement was passed. We argued that the law favoured men more than women and that it needs to be reformed.

At one point, every newspaper in the UK carried the headlines– ‘Kiranjit Alhuwalia: The woman who burnt her husband alive.’ I started getting letters from women everywhere saying, ‘Kiranjit, we are with you’, ‘We want you to reunite you with your children.’ Finally, in 1992, the 200-year-old biased provocation law was amended; I pleaded guilty for manslaughter, not murder. It was historic!

After staying in prison for over 1200 days, I finally walked out of the court a free woman. People gathered in large numbers to support me; they were cheering and clapping. As the cameras flashed, I grinned and hugged my lawyers. I had no idea it would become such a huge moment, not just for me but for women all over the world fighting domestic violence. I came back home and sat in silence for a few minutes. I then made myself a nice cup of black coffee, savoured it till the last drop and called it a day. “After getting out, I barely had any time to wallow in self-pity; the responsibility of my 2 children pulled me out of deep waters. I rented an apartment and started looking for work.

I came back home and sat in silence for a few minutes. I then made myself a nice cup of black coffee, savoured it till the last drop and called it a day. “After getting out, I barely had any time to wallow in self-pity; the responsibility of my 2 children pulled me out of deep waters. I rented an apartment and started looking for work.

I did odd jobs at local kirana stores, catering companies before I started working at the post office. For 15 years, I did night shifts; during the day, I’d look after my children, help them study. They never asked me about their father, not once. But I always told them one thing, ‘Don’t grow up to be like your father.’

Along with Pragna, I gave over a thousand interviews and motivated other women to speak up against domestic violence. In 1995, when I was at a refugee home, I met Princess Diana and shared my story with her. She encouraged me to write a book about my experiences; ‘Circle of Light’ was born. A film was made on my journey too.

After my acquittal, my mother-in-law and I had lost touch. But as time passed, we understood each other better; both of us had suffered at the hands of Deepak. If I was sick, she’d take care of Sanjay and Ravi; I’d go to her place once a month to check in on her. Just last week, she told me that she was having a headache, so I took her out for pizza and coke.

Years passed by in a jiffy. Now, my sons are grown up. After marriage, my older one moved to Canada; he has a 2-year-old son now! My grandson and I talk everyday. He keeps saying, ‘Dadi, Dadi…’ all the time and just looking at him brings a big smile on my face. To tell you the truth, I’d never thought that I could be this happy! My younger one is a law graduate– 3 years ago, he moved out for work. And since then, I’ve been living alone.

Sometimes, when I look at the scars on my hands, I think of Deepak–I wonder what life would’ve been like had he been nice to me… I wonder what life would’ve been like if I’d known love. But then, I tell myself that maybe it was my destiny to lead the way–to show other women that it’s okay to go to any lengths to stand up for yourselves. I mean look at me now– I’ve gained more than what I had lost. And all the pain and abuse just seems like a bad dream.My younger one is a law graduate– 3 years ago, he moved out for work. And since then, I’ve been living alone.

These days, I wake up at 4 AM, go to work and in the evenings, watch Hindi TV serials. I go on long drives in my newly purchased car; visit relatives in India every now and then. Finally, I’m living the life that I had dreamt of. And guess what? At 66, I still don’t know how to make gol rotis!”

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