Thenmuzhi, The Sweet Language of a Tragic Situation
This story is a narration of a young woman I met in a slum in Chennai in 1999. Her name has been changed to protect her identity. I had decided to use the pseudoname "Thenmuzhi" which means sweet (then) language (muzhi) in Tamil. To me, her life is a sweet, and at the same time, tragic, language of a subsection of Indian society. However, do not use her situation to stereotype situations in India. Her story has touched me deeply and I remember her frequently.
As a warning, before reading, the narrative may disrupt your mood, as some of her tragedies are unthinkable.
My classmate and I worked with a twenty-year-old woman named “Thenmuzhi”. (“ZH” is pronounced like a flat ‘r’.) She did not live in a tenement. She lived in a flat in the cement building, Gandhi Nagar. Thenmuzhi is a very beautiful and kind person that was tormented badly. When we first met her on October 14, 1999, she was looking for some help to her problem. However, she was not able to open up to us immediately. Over the next month, we had met her at least once a week, and over that time she had opened up to us. Thenmuzhi grew up with four brothers and two sisters. She was the youngest child in her family and enjoyed to play and listen to film music. Due to the family economic situation, she was only able to study until third standard (grade) and from then she worked manual jobs. She noted that her favorite job was laying iron. She did not give a lot of details about this job, but noted she enjoyed this job very much and wanted to do this through out life. Due to this job, she felt more independent than her brothers, as they had not attended work or school.

However, she had to quit the job when she married as a late teenager a few years ago. She had a happy marriage day, but soon realized her and her husband could not conceive. Though she understood this may not be her ‘fault’ and it could also be the husband’s ‘fault’, there was nothing she could do. They kept trying to have children, with no avail. The husband became physically abusive, and one day bought home kerosene and doused her and set her on fire. She was burnt from the neck down. When we met her we could see some of the burns but most were under her sari, and healing. She noted she tried to leave her husband after this and live with her sister. There, though, she was sexually abused by her sister’s husband. She was brave enough to tell her sister, but her sister told her she was lying and trying to cause problems for her marriage since Thenmuzhi ‘obviously’ couldn’t keep her marriage together. She was forced to leave her sister’s for good and return to her husband’s house, as her parents also would not have her live with them. She says she is in a lot of pain because she wants to leave but she can’t go anywhere. She can’t even go for a job since her husband keeps her locked in all day.

She even felt scared to tell us all this. She also knows her husband is out with other women, having children, as she has met some of the women and children out there (she notes, though we never talked to the man as he was never home when we were there). We had tried on several occasions to get her admitted into a government hospital specializing in burn victims, but there were financial and social problems that prevented her. She did not state her husband would not let her go for treatment, she was willing to go, however as the unit was empty most of the time and only staffed by men, she feared that environment. There was no other hospital near to her home that could be looked into. We feel the best way we helped her was just to listen to her, since all the closest people in her life refused to listen to her. Whenever she saw us in the area, she always smiled and invited us inside.

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