Social Commentary

Sabarimala Woman Hit by Mother-in-Law: Who Gives Indian Elders the Authority to Beat Family Members?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Kanaka Durga, the 39-year-old woman who made history by entering the Sabarimala temple, is now in hospital after being hit by her mother-in-law. But when does punishment go from an act of disciplining to a gross violation of someone's rights?

My mother’s fascination with the cane started when I was about 11 years old. She first laid her hands on one courtesy a generous Catholic neighbour aunty who seemed to have found a solution to all of her son’s antics in the cane. “Arré, just give them a whack of the cane, men,” she told my mother. “All their masti will go in one minute. See Dominic na. Go to the Bandra Fair, nice ones they have re.” Suddenly, the fair didn’t seem as much fun.

From there on, I was caned for climbing up trees, playing with the boys, coming home late, answering back, fighting with my brother, messing up the house. Basically I was caned pretty much every day. And the cane was just a choice on bad days. On good days, my brother and I got beaten by the broom, chappal, combs, and even cooking ladles that happened to be in the vicinity.

I’ve grown up believing that sparing the rod is spoiling the child and that the politically correct nonsense of “talking through issues with your child patiently” is just a whole lot of bunkum. So when I saw everyone on my timeline posting a video of a crying girl being whacked while being taught maths two years ago, accompanied by captions like “Hahahaha” and “Cute AF”, I clicked play. If a bratty kid deserved a good caning, I was all in.

But as the video played, I felt my stomach curl up in fear. By the time I reached the end, I was speechless. I watched it again to see if I’d missed something. Why the fuck were people sharing this? 

In the video, a four-year-old girl, tears streaming down her face, is begging a woman to let her be. The woman, who appears to be her mother, is intent on teaching her numbers. She pleads that she has a headache and an earache, and that she can’t do this but her pleas go unheard. The fear shines on her face and she rambles out the numbers her mother wants to hear. There is a slap in between somewhere. The video ends with the child clenching her teeth in frustration and repeating the numbers.


The video of the angry girl didn’t remind me of the beatings of my childhood, but the raw fear on that child’s face reminded me of another time I was hit.

And just today, I stumbled upon the news of 39-year-old Kanaka Durga, one of the two women who made history by entering the Sabarimala temple, being rushed to the hospital after being hit by her mother-in-law. The incident occured when Durga returned home this morning after two weeks in hiding, following threats to her life. It’s ironic how a woman who becomes the torchbearer for gender equality for the world, is made to cow down in our own home, punished for her rebellion.

Kanaka Durga’s story or the video of the crying girl didn’t remind me of the beatings of my childhood, but the raw fear on that child’s face reminded me of another time I was hit. I once forgot my cell phone in the rickshaw, and when I told my husband about it, the casual interrogation started. What were you doing? Were you talking to someone? Did you meet someone? How can you be so lost and careless?

I tried explaining that I obviously hadn’t done it on purpose and didn’t mean to lose my phone. All this while I was preparing breakfast and lunch because I had to leave for work. With every question, his tone started getting angrier and I was trying to wrap my head around two things: One, being stressed about losing my phone, and two, being late for work. When I couldn’t take the questions anymore, I told him politely, that it’s okay, I’ll manage without a phone for a couple of days and will file a police complaint on my way to work. It wasn’t such a big deal.

And just like that, he slapped me. I told him again that it’s not such a big deal and I didn’t deserve being slapped for it. So he slapped me again. And then he dragged me by the hair to the bedroom and punched me in the face.

I didn’t understand where I’d faulted. I didn’t know what was happening but I kept getting hit. After a point I was ready to say whatever he wanted me to say, in whatever tone he wanted it just so the beating would cease.

Every subsequent time that I was hit – because this sort of thing never appears as an isolated incident – I probably had the same fearful and pleading expression that I saw on the face of the crying girl. When she barks out the numbers and agrees with whatever her mother is saying, all she wants is for the torture to stop. Yes that is a 3. That is whatever you want it to be. Just stop doing this to me.

The upside of being an adult, though, is that you can speak for yourself and ask for help. I did too. When it happened to me, I reached out and asked for help. It was my mother who saved me.  

When does corporal punishment go from an act of disciplining to a gross violation of someone’s rights? The answer is when fear is being perpetuated, not love. 

This is an updated version of a previously published story.