“On my wedding day, my mother-in-law asked me to first clean the house, then go for the reception”
Married at 17 and a mother by 18, Meena Chabbria was set up to fail. But she did the exact opposite.
I come from a conservative Sindhi refugee family in Coimbatore. I was always expected to be a wife and a mother, nothing else. It was ten days to my 17th birthday when I married my husband. He was 12 years my senior, and at the time, I had just completed my 10th board through tuition.
We shifted to his home in Chennai, where we lived with his mother and brother. On my wedding day, we came home in the afternoon after the pheras. There were still some rituals left to do – but I was greeted by a pile of dirty vessels. My mother-in-law asked me to first clean the house, then go for the remaining rituals and the wedding reception.
My family wasn’t highly educated, but I grew up pampered. From day one in my new home, I was responsible for every household chore. My mother-in-law suffered from incontinence, so I would have to constantly follow her and clean up after her. It was a huge shock, but when you’re young, you think this is how it’s supposed to be. You live life on others’ terms.
I was 18 when I had my daughter. My parents were poor, so I had to deliver in a government hospital without even getting anaesthesia for my stitches. The pain was traumatic beyond belief. My in-laws and husband were very happy, but looking back, I feel at that age, you’re not a mother. You’re still exploring your own body.
From the day my daughter was born, I didn’t have much support in my husband’s home, and my own mother had health issues. When I became pregnant with my son a year later, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with skin cancer. So I’d spend the whole day tending to her and taking care of my daughter, all while being pregnant.
She died shortly before my son was born. When my husband missed the delivery due to a work commitment, I knew my marriage was over, too. Since I was handling so much, I had slowly become more mature. I knew I could be strong and raise my kids. When my husband didn’t turn up, that was the moment I started to gain independence in my mind.
I realised I needed to educate myself so I could support myself. I completed my 12th grade and enrolled in an online BA. With my mother-in-law no longer with us, I had a lot of time on my hands. The best investment is in ourselves, not in properties or business. I had an intuition this divorce would come soon, and I wanted to be prepared to fight. The truth is, he never was fond of me. I was young and fell in love, but you have to grow into a relationship. I had to accept that however much I tried, my marriage would not work that way.
When I left, I had no place to stay. I took my son first as he was not even two years old; until I had a space for myself, how could I take my daughter? Young girls aren’t safe in a motel. I used to meet her every second day, and my plan was to send her to my mother’s if I couldn’t find a place within three months.
At that time, I had a few part-time jobs: a call centre worker, a mehndi artist, and a helper at an autism clinic. I had saved up some money. Sometimes self-belief is more important than matter of fact, and I was feeling confident in myself. I would find a place for my kids.
It was harder to tell my family about a divorce. My father spent his entire life savings on my wedding, and I felt horribly guilty. I was afraid they’d convince me to go back. When I began having problems, I’d spoken to my mum once or twice, but she just said this happens in every marriage. For her, these things were okay. Women allow others to take us for granted.
After three months of living apart, I got my husband to discuss the divorce. We’ve maintained a decent and transparent relationship in terms of the kids, and my children are in a different league of maturity. When they come back home after visiting him, they wonder what life would have been like growing up there.
Today, my daughter is a commercial pilot and a film actor (lead in the upcoming Tamil film Chiro), and my son is a college student and content creator. As for me, I went from being a receptionist to joining Inox and eventually working my way up to assistant vice president of PVR Cinemas. I was lucky to have mentors who believed in me and helped me get here. Now that I’m a coach myself, I know when a woman is hungry, she just needs to be given the right direction.
As told to Kahini Calcuttawala.
You can read more of Meena Chabbria’s incredible life story in her book Unstoppable.