You’ve filed for divorce, so why aren’t you free?

Vandana Shah
Grist Media

Tick, tick, tick…this was the monotony of court dates. It was like eating dal and rice everyday without respite, with never a vada pav in sight and no point in dreaming of pizza. What was going on? Did our legal system suck so much? Did we all have so much free time that we could spend whole days in court only to come back with the princely prize of…NOTHING? You’d maybe get a new court date after four months and then needed to fervently pray that the judge would not be on leave.

What you see in the movies or on television where there is immediate resolution of a crime with punishment swiftly following after is just a fantasy world. However, the horror stories you hear about two generations fighting in court are true. I shuddered to think of my fate. I yo-yoed from one court date to another and the court date became the walls separating each compartment of my life. Then I saw that each court date was the defining point of my life and everything else was in-between. Even then it seemed like a sad waste of a talented young woman.

Nothing ever changed. The courts were never painted, the clerks were transferred after two or three years, the judges also got transferred to other cities, and the lawyers were still demanding money and lording over the clients unless you were someone really important.

I always went to the little makeshift temple. It was just a foot-high deity lodged in a niche created on a tiled platform below a shady banyan tree just outside the court. There would be people behind me queuing up to say their prayers too, and sometimes I would meet the same litigants on my floor in the court or who I had seen from time to time coming again and again to court. I would rush and finish in one minute, take my prasad and hope my prayers would yield benefits (it’s ironic that we pray to God for a minute in this rushed buzz of the day, and that too for a case that goes on forever). I would then get off on the right floor and reserve a seat outside my courtroom, where my case was going on, by keeping my bag there. The courtroom also evoked a sense of ownership because, after all, I had been coming here for almost eight years now. I would then have my name checked on the roster and would sit staring into space, trying to avoid my fellow inmates because the family court was a mental and emotional jail.

Vandana Shah

I’d look at the news, read the gossip, listen to my iPod, eat a little and wait. It’s the waiting that kills you, and there is so much of it you do. Each date was like a drop of water waiting for freedom. It was like undergoing Chinese water torture because it is the waiting for the next drop that drives you crazy. You wait for a court date, your lawyer, the judge, the money, the spouse, the acceptance, love of people, and wait and wait for this hell to be over. Sometimes words cannot sufficiently describe the dreary atmosphere and the feeling of loss and listlessness in the family court.

My routine in the court remained exactly the same. When my lawyer would arrive, we would go inside the court and listen to some nonsense from the judge about settling the matter amicably. He would also talk about disposing some new minor petition in my matter which was a frivolous petition filed by my soon-to-be ex-husband’s family to delay the proceedings. We would then present our answer, after which they would counter it, and so the whole interminable whirlpool continued to spin. When this petition was dismissed, my lawyer and I would file a frivolous petition asking for the inspection of some papers. Clearly, we weren’t going to back off and stop filing frivolous petitions. The game of cat and mouse becomes catch me if you can. It is amazing how these petitions can delay a case for up to six months at a time – it gives you a real perspective on the sheer amount of time involved in divorce cases.

Both, my soon-to-be ex-husband and I continued with these petitions for such a long time that by the time the main case came up for hearing, we each had about 2,000 pages worth of petitions in our files, and they were all filled with junk. I could précis all of that in less than 100 words, maybe even twenty-five. Does anyone care about the system? Nope, each litigant, lawyer and every person in India who has had even a brief interaction directly or indirectly with the legal system has millions of excuses right from the ever-increasing population to not having enough judges. But no one questions the system or tries to change it. If the law minister couldn’t provide a principal for the Government Law College in Mumbai for a number of years, what hope do we have of changing this system?

What happens to us poor litigants in all this? It seems unfair that we come into the divorce courts as bright young people and leave as disgruntled and cynical adults having wasted, if we are lucky, fifteen years of our life here. The physical changes in our body from slim frames to thickened waists and wrinkled necks are obvious for all to see. These changes perhaps reflect the wizening of our souls as well. The mental changes are not visible but are far more devastating and far too numerous to enumerate, but it’s like surviving and learning to live again after a nuclear bomb. Can’t we logistically streamline the process of divorce or use alternate dispute resolution methods like arbitration and make them binding on a couple? They may be simplistic solutions but perhaps there is collusion in the system to avoid resolving divorces so that the judges can justify their jobs, the lawyers can loot their clients, and the villains can just file one stay order and have the matter in court for years.

The litigant also wastes her time, money and peace of mind in a fruitless exercise because sometimes when the judgment comes in, it’s too late and all the time wasted doesn’t make the entire process worth it. Of course, there is always the recourse to appeal the judgment, which wastes even more time. The appeal can go to the High Court and then Supreme Court and finally the judgment comes in and you are happy…that’s if you aren’t dead, if not physically then in all other ways.

Another heart-wrenching fallout of the socio-legal system of divorce in India is the absence of communication between the two parties unless it is through the lawyers. You can’t even be civil and say hello. The parties will, however, talk when there are accusations to be hurled. Every word is challenged in and out of court and each penny fought for and every insult traded and exchanged and all the drama. Everyone says “my marriage was unhappy from day one,” but I cannot understand why it takes people ten years and two kids to walk out.

But there are always a few poignantly humorous episodes in court: a woman took out a bottle of poison in the courtroom and in filmy style flung it at the lawyer before the judge, cursed her husband and said, “If you don’t give me my money, I will kill myself.” The poison was fake, but she made her point! Another woman came to court with her ‘boyfriend’ and it didn’t go down well with the judge. It was weird and everyone both inside and outside the courtroom kept wondering why on earth someone would come with her boyfriend to a court where she was divorcing her husband. The brazenness of it added to the foolishness and desperation of it. Another time, a woman openly called her mother-in-law a slut and proceeded to tell her father-in-law about all the men his wife was involved with! The poor man promptly engaged the son’s lawyer himself. There was another time that a clerk went on long leave and took up a job as a private detective to supply information about the cases to the respective parties. He never got caught, though. It was all happening in the divorce courts. They were like an epic movie packed with the ingredients of love, sex, humor, action, villains, vamps, heroes, heroines, item girls and the extras. But the question remains – how had the court impacted me?

The Ex-Files by Vandana Shah, Shobhaa De Books

My appearance had gone from catwalk model to rat walk and it was when someone jeered at me, my looks and predicament, and said some very cruel words, that I snapped out of my morbid reverie. It is a tragic state that the courts put you in, and then because of the self-fulfilling prophecy, you become a court rat. You live the life, dress bad, look bad, and feel bad and of course, bad things happen to you. But that cruel jeer saved me; like they say, you can always turn around a negative into a positive. I decided I wanted no part of this misery and was determined to live a life. I would not just be defined by the start and finish line of court dates for the rest my life. I would live well and not mope at all. Whatever I would do, I would love my life and that would for sure be the best that I could do for myself. Like they say, the best that you can do for yourself is live well – because living well is the best revenge.

I cleaned up my entire appearance and also my mindset and I felt as shiny as a new penny. It took me six months of friend therapy, avoiding relatives, my lawyer, skipping a few dates, and praying until I felt healed and ready to take on the world. I was ready to be churned out as a brightly minted coin. No one was going to stop me whether it was my relatives, my detractors or my in-laws.

This is an edited excerpt from the book The Ex-Files, published by Shobhaa Dé Books.

Vandana Shah is the founder of 360 Degrees Back to Life, the first Indian support group to help people going through a divorce. Since going through a divorce herself, she has come full circle from being a litigant to being a divorce lawyer and practises at the family court in Mumbai. She writes a monthly column in the magazine, Black and White, Oman; edits Ex-Files, India’s first divorce news magazine, and won the Lead India Programme from Mumbai in 2010. In 2008 she wrote her first book, 360 Degrees Back to Life: A Litigant’s Humorous Perspective on Divorce.