In 2013, Anandi, then a 33-year-old woman, lived in Chennai with her husband and two children—an infant girl, and a seven-year-old boy. Anandi’s nine-year marriage had been tumultuous. Her husband was an alcoholic whose emotional and physical abuse had become a regular feature of her life. Her constant anxiety was exacerbated by the financial problems that had propelled their family into debt. “I could not step out of my house without creditors questioning me about the money my husband owed them,” she said. One evening that year, after 40 days of sobriety, Anandi’s husband came home drunk. An altercation ensued, during which he beat Anandi. She could not sleep that night. “I thought things were getting better. But that night I felt that he had not changed at all. I was very upset and his alcoholism kept coming back to me again and again,” she told me when I met her in November 2016.
It seemed from my conversation with Anandi that such incidents of abuse had pushed her towards thinking about drastic measures. On the morning that followed that particular evening, she took one. She seized her opportunity when her husband left the house, telling her that he would be back soon. “I don’t know what came over me,” Anandi said. “But when I saw the can of kerosene, I picked it up, poured it on myself and lit a match.”
Anandi’s mother-in-law had taken her infant away earlier, but her older child witnessed the incident. Nearly 44 percent of Anandi’s body was burnt. Her mother-in-law took her to a hospital immediately. She instructed Anandi to tell the authorities that the burns were a result of a stove that had burst; otherwise, she claimed, the hospital would not admit Anandi.
Anandi’s case is not an aberration. She is one among many Indian women whose burn-related injuries—and the patterns that these incidents reveal—have been long ignored. Such injuries, most often a result of the marital circumstances that are imposed on these women, are shrouded in secrecy because of the stigma that surrounds domestic abuse in India. “Although officially, the women say that these are accidents, it is really due to violence,” Regina Menezes told me. Menezes is the director of the Sakhya Women’s Guidance Cell in Mumbai. The cell works in the Thane Civil Hospital, and two social workers from the organisation regularly interact with patients in the burn ward. “The women face different kinds of violence in their marital homes, and they are faced with an atmosphere where the woman is pushed to attempt suicide by burning herself,” she said.
Burns among Indian women are often, either an act of violence by their partner, or a case of self-inflicted injuries that are preceded by a long history of domestic violence. Officially, however, most of these cases are recorded as kitchen accidents. In July 2016, Padma Bhate-Deosthali, who works with the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, a public-health research organisation, published a paper titled, “Busting the kitchen accident myth: Case of burn injuries in India.” Deosthali analysed 22 burn cases in three hospitals across Mumbai, of which 15 had been recorded as accidents in the kitchen. However, as she discovered through her interviews with the survivors, only three among these cases could be categorised as accidents with certainty. Of the 19 that remained, she noted, 13 were suicide attempts; two, homicidal attacks; and four, cases in which the survivors admitted to a history of domestic abuse, even though they continued to claim that the injuries were a result of an accident.