Amitha Singh, 42 – ‘Anger can hurt only you’
She has had to pardon many people, but letting go of all the trauma has probably been Singh’s biggest gainAyesha Aleem
Amitha Singh knows a thing or two about forgiveness. Growing up in a family where the father had a severe drinking problem, and would go missing for extended periods, she and her brother were pretty much raised single-handedly by their mother.
An outcome of this turbulent home environment was that Singh was sexually abused for about six years, from when she was about six years old. Her mother’s brother was the longest perpetrator, as well as a teacher and a neighbour, on other occasions, who used the circumstances of an overworked mother to prey on the vulnerable little girl.
Although her father has been sober for the past few years, and today she shares a positive relationship with both parents, it has taken a long time to leave her painful past behind. “There was anger towards mom and dad,” says Singh, because she often felt taken for granted by them, as an adult, she adds, with them assuming that she would always take care of the family if something went wrong.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Early on in her career, when she about 20 years old, at a company dinner, Singh was raped by her boss. Her only fault? She had accepted a drink from him, which was most probably drugged. Even though she had immediately decided to quit her job, she made a last ditch effort to talk to an elderly colleague about it, hoping for some moral support, if nothing else, but was faced with only vagueness.
Two months later she found another job.
At 26, Singh got married, and went on to have a child. But the marriage ended. And at 30, she found herself getting divorced, and staring at a future as a single parent.
The dictionary struggles to define forgiveness, almost as though a book of word meanings doesn’t think itself fit to comment on the noble concept. Modern day culture loosely defines forgiveness as not holding a grudge, of not feeling bitter towards people who have done us harm.
Singh, who is now 42, has done all that, and more. She forgave those who not once apologised, without any closure. “I never confronted the abusers. I was way too angry then. Later, I let go and forgave them. Confronting them didn’t make any sense anymore.”
“I went through stages of forgiveness though,” she says. “At first, I blamed myself. Then came anger – towards the people – followed by indifference. And finally, I humanised them to understand why someone in their situation would do what they did.”
In addition, the motivation to forgive came from realising that she was treating these experiences like they were excuses, to hold herself back from leading a full life. “I decided that I wouldn’t allow anyone who’s wronged me to be part of my life story, to define who I am. I needed to take back control.”
Helping her through the process was therapy, which Singh was in for about a year, following her divorce. She describes a particular session as a pivotal moment, when she had to talk to her seven-year-old self and say, “I forgive you”, making clear the idea that to forgive, first, we must start with ourselves.
She says writing has helped as well, and her husband Nirmal George, 43, whom she married earlier this year. George, who is also a childhood friend, contributed hugely to her journey towards forgiveness. “Everyone in my life has always been around for a reason, because they were getting something out of me. He has always been there. Before marriage, during it, through the divorce, and once we started dating – the stability he provided helped me rebuild my relationship with my parents and improve my relationship with my brother.”
George has seen Singh change since she began to focus on her own healing. She’s more optimistic about people, more willing to see the good in them, he says. And she’s no longer overprotective to the extent of being paranoid about her daughter. “As soon as she turned 13 years old (She’s 15 now), knowing that she hadn’t been sexually abused helped let my guard down,” says Singh. “It was a huge achievement.”
Twenty-seventeen has been a year of many firsts for Amitha. She coanchored the Bangalore Poetry Festival, initiated and managed a crowd funding campaign for a project associated with a think tank she co-founded, and performed spoken word poetry. “I feel more confident. If an opportunity comes up, and it’s on my list, I’ll say yes. I’m not scared to show my true self. I don’t hold back, I don’t want to hold back.”
From the time she decided to lay anger to rest, Amitha’s life has also changed in tangible ways. “I sleep so well these days,” she says. “We think being angry hurts the other person. But it only hurts you.” Singh also encourages people to forgive, saying, “You’ll be doing yourself and the people you love a favour.”
Arunaraje Patil, 71 | Vikas Desai, 72
From bitter to sweet
Arunaraje Patil lost her daughter to cancer and her husband to divorce in the 80s. About a decade later, she was finally able to forgive him and it set her free
Arunaraje Patil thought she had the perfect life. She wasn’t just happily married with two children — a girl and a boy — she and her husband were making films together that did well enough for them to be considered “whiz kids”. People often said that she and husband Vikas Desai were made for each other. “Really, life couldn’t have been better,” Patil told Mumbai Mirror when we met her at her Versova home.
Then, her eight-year-old daughter Gaagi was diagnosed with bone cancer. Patil and Desai did everything they could, including taking their daughter to the Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York for treatment, but the cancer spread, and a year later, on a Saturday afternoon in 1983, Gaagi died at the age of nine. On Sunday morning, when Patil woke up, Desai asked for a divorce and said he wanted to marry Patil’s best friend, with whom he had been having an affair.
Patil had suspected an affair, but thought it was a phase that would eventually blow over. Divorce was not a possibility she had entertained. It would take her another two years to agree to it, and another three for the divorce to come through.
During this time, she grew so despondent, she made a “stupid, weak attempt” to take her own life. The mention of this is the only time her voice drops to a whisper. The rest of her story is related in a matter-of-fact manner with occassional interjections of laughter.
“I went to a psychiatrist friend of mine, and I said I can’t live and I can’t die either. I am hung between. I felt very sorry for myself and for my little boy [Hith]. He was so lonesome. He was seven when Gaagi died. It was terrible. And, I didn’t know how to make him happy.”
She was worried about her professional life as well. Of the two of them, Desai had been the more outgoing, and she thought he would get all the work. However, her fears turned out to be unfounded. A client called and asked her to make an ad film. She created her company letterhead that night on a sheet of paper — Gahi, named after her two children — and was back in business. She even wrote, directed and edited the feature film Rihaee while the divorce was going on. “I put everything into making that film. The work helped me to get back on my feet, and to regain my self-esteem.”
By this time, Patil says, she was outwardly “very bold, very happening, but inside I was such a miserable soul.” She knew she didn’t want to cling to the past, but she didn’t know how to let go. She tried therapy, past life regression, meditation, including vipassana, but nothing clicked. “I was searching, seeking some truth, some way to deal with life,” she says.
In 1997, she took a seminar conducted by Landmark Form, an organisation that offers personal development programs. During the event, one of the leaders told the participants that “suffering is a choice.” She did not take this well. “I said, ‘how can you say suffering is a choice? Nobody wants to suffer, nobody wants to be unhappy’.” But, she soon realised that by giving someone else power over whether she was happy or not, diminished her power to make herself happy. “If I can take responsibility for my life — if the remote control of my life is in my hands — then I can choose to be whichever way I want to be,” she says.
In order to complete the program, she had to call her ex-husband and her friend, who had got married. Her hands trembled as she picked up the phone and her voice quivered as she told them that she no longer blamed them for what happened and was taking full responsibility for her life. “It took a lot out of me to say those three lines but after I did, it was miraculous — I felt free. I said, ‘Oh my god, now I can live my life the way I want to live it.’ And I learned to be happy. It made me kind of unstoppable.”
Patil doesn’t know for sure, but she believes that call helped her ex-husband and his partner to get on with their lives too. “I think it made them more comfortable, let them off the hook.” She now talks to her ex-husband without any angst and has even written him a letter thanking him for all his contributions to her life. Letting go of the past has also improved her relationship with her son, Hith, who, on her instruction, took the same seminar.
She has forgiven her friend too. They met at a wedding recently and talked for about 20 minutes. The friend, who is now a grandmother, confided that she was happy, and Patil responded by saying she was happy for her. “I feel very blessed to not just be able to say that, but to actually feel that,” she says. “Is it really that necessary to hold on to some horrible past that you might have had? Forgiving is not weakness; forgiving is strength, but people don’t realise that. ”
Looking back, Patil, who is 71, and working on her latest film, says forgiving her ex-husband gave her freedom. “Freedom to live the way I want to live. To write, speak, make the kind of films I want to make. Just the freedom to be myself. That, I think is a great gift,” she says.
Father Tom Uzhunnalil, 57
If I’ve to go back to Syria, I will
The Salesian missionary, who was kidnapped by terrorists in Yemen in 2016, returned to India in September this year. He says that he harbours no anger towards those who abducted him and killed his colleagues
It’s impossible for a man, who had never bargained for violence in exchange of his services, and that too in the name of God, to ever recover from an incident such as this. But Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who’s originally from Kerala, isn’t just any other man. In fact, his calm, almost stoic, demeanour can be quite unnerving, more so when he recounts the horrifying 18-months that he spent in captivity. “I really have nothing new to say,” he says, as he settles down for the interview. “You probably know what I know.” But no news report — and there were plenty of those — can quite capture what he has endured. Uzhunnalil simply shrugs.
Uzhunnalil’s story is as nerve-chilling as a crime thriller, except for the fact that this is no novelinspired-film. Working in Aden, one of the southern ports of Yemen, the Salesian of Don Bosco (Society of St Francis de Sales) was there at the behest of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, which runs four old age homes in the country. He had been to Yemen in 2010 as a chaplain, and returned in 2014. But when he heard of the breakout of a civil war in Yemen, he went back. This was in 2015. There was a travel ban in place, but the priest posed as an aid worker for the UN and went anyway, a decision that changed his life. “It was an inner prompting. I was already given another assignment. But I still had a valid visa to Yemen, and they needed help. I had to go,” he says. Regret does not feature in his mind even for a moment.
While in captivity, Uzhunnalil kept his head straight, and he prayed. “If I was there, it must have been God’s will — he had something in mind for me.” As a man of God, he had surrendered to the almighty. “Nothing ever happens without His knowledge,” he says. The men who took him did not talk to him, except in the beginning when they asked him who he was, and what he was there for. “They did not hurt me at all. If they had, I don’t think I’d be sitting here talking to you. Maybe that’s why God let me live, so I could return and talk to others, and continue his work.”
“They brought me food, sometimes more than what I could eat. Later, I told them to reduce the quantity of food. I did not want to waste any — that country has a shortage of resources.” But there was a problem — the priest is also diabetic. “I had to manage that. There were no medicines available to me until December 2016. Once or twice when I got fever, they got me a paracetamol.”
When Uzhunnalil was released, he weighed 54kg. “I must be 72-73kg now — I think this much weight is enough. If I put on any more weight, I might have to go back,” he says, trying to make light of his ordeal.
Uzhunnalil has no idea how the rescue mission was conducted. He remembers being taken from the room, covered with a burkha and driven for several hours. “I was handed over to another group at some point. All I know is that when I was freed, and the head covering was removed, I was in Oman. It was September 12,” he says. The priest travelled to Rome and stayed there for two weeks, where he met with Pope Francis. Upon his return, he met with the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
News reports claim that the governments of Oman and India, along with the Vatican, were responsible for negotiating his release. The terrorists made a ransom demand equivalent to Rs 64 crore, which according to reports, was not paid.
Back in Bengaluru at the moment — Uzhunnalil will receive his new assignment in May 2018 — the Salesian missionary is resting and conducting his daily duties. Other priests and nuns from different countries, too, were caught in the middle of the raging violence in Yemen. “Most of them have been rescued and have returned to their respective countries. I am grateful.”
Is there really no anger towards the men who took him? “Anger? No. When the sisters were falling in front of my eyes, all I could think was may God have mercy on them, and on those who are killing them. We were working in a war-torn area — one minute people are going about their lives, and the next they’re killed by a bomb. We used to pray for the end of the war, and a change of hearts for those behind the violence,” he adds.
“I forgave the men then and there itself. There is nothing else to forgive. That’s what He asks of us — ‘forgive your enemies’ — and if I, as a priest, can’t do it, then who will?”
Sister Selmy Paul, 64, and family | Samandur Singh, 53
He killed her sister; now, she calls him ‘brother’
Samandur Singh, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Sister Rani Maria, was released 10 years into his sentence, following a mercy petition filed by the deceased nun’s family
On the morning of February 25, 1995, while travelling on a bus from Udainagar to Indore in order to catch the train to Kerala, Sister Rani Maria of Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC), a nun who worked with tribals in the area, was brutally murdered. A passenger, Samandur Singh, attacked her with a knife and stabbed her dozens of times. He dragged her out of the bus and left her to die in the forest area.
Starly Koluthara, who, at the time of the incident, was Provincial Superior in Bhopal, was to travel with Rani to Kerala that fateful day. She recalls, “Rani Maria was deeply saddened by the plight of tribal people of Udainagar, by the fact that the desperation of poor folk was being exploited by local landlords and moneylenders. Rani had a master’s degree in sociology and a lot of experience of having worked with the downtrodden. She was passionate about her mission to empower the poor, and helped many avail of government schemes and bank loans. As a result, people gradually stopped flocking to moneylenders, and local landlords, therefore, nurtured a grudge against her.”
Incredibly, today, Rani Maria’s younger sister, 64-year-old Sr Selmy Paul, her parents and siblings count Singh among their close friends. Sr Selmy tells us Singh telephones her often, as he did this year for Christmas too. In November, he even attended Rani Maria’s beatification. The event, which was held in Indore, involves a declaration by the Pope and is a stage of the canonisation process of the Catholic Church. Taking us through her family’s journey to forgiveness, Selmy tells us it was her mother who inspired her strength.
Selmy was in Bhopal undergoing treatment for cancer when she first learnt of her sister’s demise. A tumour in her intestine was removed in 1991, and Selmy was receiving chemotherapy when she heard that her sister had been murdered. The next day, she travelled to the hospital in Indore where she saw her sister’s dead body, covered with gashes.
“I sat there and held her body,” Selmy recalls. “My sister would often say that she wasn’t afraid of dying for her cause. She used to say that if we nuns give into fear, who will help these people?” At a time when Selmy had been mentally preparing herself for death, the thought that her elder sister had preceded her was unbearable. Selmy tells us that it was then that she heard, within her, “the comforting voice of Jesus.”
For months after the incident, Selmy and her mother would spend every evening praying at Rani Maria’s tomb in Indore.
One day, Selmy remembers asking her mother what she would do if she met her sister’s assassin. “My mother, a devout Christian, replied, ‘I will kiss his hands because my daughter’s blood is there.” Astounded, Selmy thought, “I’m sure that my sister — who, like Jesus, died for the poor has already forgiven her assassins. Thinking about all of this gave me the power and strength to forgive.”
Seven years later, Selmy was contacted by Father Michael Puratukara, a Catholic ascetic, better known as Swami Sadanand, whom Selmy had never met before. “He asked me ‘Are you ready to visit Samandur Singh in jail?’ I told him that I had been waiting for that opportunity.”
Selmy recalls visiting Central Jail, Indore. “Samandur was trembling…He prostrated before us and begged for forgiveness. I told him ‘God has forgiven you. We too forgive you… be at peace.’ It was Rakshabandhan day, and I tied a rakhi on his wrist, accepting him as my brother.”
In 2006, a decade after his arrest, Singh’s life imprisonment sentence was commuted following a mercy petition filed by Rani Maria’s family. Singh, who lives alone, and spends his days farming (in Udainagar), has visited Rani Maria’s house in Kerala four times. He tells us he feels like a member of her family. “Parivar ban gaya hai,” he says.
When Rani Maria’s mother Elishwa was seriously ill last year, Starly tells us, “in spite of her condition, when asked how many sons she has, she replied, ‘Three sons. Stephen, Varghese and Samandur.’”