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Chapter 1 Rajini


The migration journey of Rajini’s husband,
Unnikrishnan, as one of the many so-called “Gulf-workers,” has taken him from the Indian state of Kerala to Saudi Arabia. From there he sends regular remittances to Rajini who manages the household and family income back home.

Their horoscopes matched perfectly, and their community gives a lot of importance to the matching of horoscopes, so nothing else really mattered: Rajini and Unnikrishnan were to get married.

Rajini grew up in a small town called Kotakkal, in India’s small south-western state of Kerala, the youngest of four brothers and sisters. Her father was a pharmacist in a company that produced herbal medicines.

Rajini led a very sheltered existence. She went to a local school and received a bachelor’s degree in history through the Open University, which meant she did not have to travel to college to attend classes. Rajini never went anywhere alone, and her father took all decisions for her, however big or small. When he died in 1999 her elder brother, as the new head of the family, took charge of her life. Traditional Nair families like Rajini’s take hierarchical relationships seriously. Respect and regard is due to elders: younger members of the family, especially women and girls, rarely defy their decisions.

So in 2002, when Rajini was 20 years old, it was decided she would marry Unnikrishnan, who was working as chief checker at the harbour in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Their families were not known to each other, and it was a neighbour who had proposed the match to the would-be bridegroom, then on home leave. Unnikrishnan readily agreed, even without having met Rajini and knowing that they would not be living together, because Saudi Arabia would not allow his wife to join him.

But Rajini was against it:

I knew there would be long periods of separation and I would have to live with his widowed mother. But there was really very little I could do about it. My family saw it as a good alliance because he was working abroad and felt that the financial security and well-being that would come with such a marriage were of prime importance. Moreover, our horoscopes matched perfectly, so nothing else mattered.

Rajini and Unnikrishnan met for the first time at their engagement ceremony; their wedding day was just a few weeks later because both families were keen on solemnizing the marriage before Unnikrishnan returned.

Luckily we immediately liked each other. The month and a half we spent together before he went back to Jeddah was perhaps the happiest time in my married life. He is a warm, gregarious person and the house was full of sound and laughter. His friends would come over and we would go out a lot to shop and see movies. When he left even the neighbours commented on the difference because suddenly there was no sound from the house.

In a few weeks, Rajini had become a “Gulf wife”, one of more than a million married women in Kerala who are living without their husbands, who have migrated to the Gulf countries. This means solitude but at the same time can be empowering for a young woman: with her husband gone, she is the one taking decisions, handling family finances, running the home and caring for children and elderly in-laws.

Suddenly, I was no longer a carefree, pampered daughter. Before leaving, my husband told me that he would be sending me money every month and that it was up to me to manage everything. I found myself burdened with responsibilities.

Rajini had to deal with the running of a large house in constant need of repairs, care for an elderly mother-in-law and in due time for their baby daughter.

Initially I was very frightened because I had never done such things before and there was no one there to tell me what to do. I just learnt from experience, and over time I started to enjoy these responsibilities because I knew I have the full support of my husband in everything I did. So I feel positive, strong and greatly empowered compared to my pre-marital days when I had absolutely no control over my life.

But the real turning point, Rajini says now, was two years ago, when she almost single-handedly had to oversee the building of their new house. The plans had been drawn up during Unnikrishnan’s home leave and a loan from the bank had been taken in Rajini’s name.

The fact that I was able to oversee the construction, handle the workmen, and manage huge amounts of money, have given me the confidence that I can cope with any situation.

But this does not make up for the huge emotional vacuum in her life. Rajini speaks to her husband almost every day, but she misses him all the time, and particularly when her daughter or her mother-in-law falls ill or during festival times when everyone is rejoicing. Every so often, Rajini and her husband talk about ending this separation: he is also not happy being away from her. But they are aware that their options are limited. Having completed no more than secondary school, there is little chance of Unnikrishnan finding a job in India that would enable him to earn as much as he presently does. And the other option of starting his own business, something most migrants dream of doing, will have to wait until they pay back the loan they took to build their house.

"The clear benefit of remittances is to mitigate the effect of poverty on families back home and to raise living standards."

So Rajini is now hoping that he will be able to find a job in a country that would permit the family to be with him.

That would be best because we have got used to a certain standard of living, and not having to stint on food, clothes or medical care.

Rajini goes to the local government hospital only for routine procedures like vaccinations and booster shots for her daughter. For everything else they can afford to see more expensive private doctors. She plans to send her daughter next term to one of the best and perhaps most expensive schools in Kotakkal. The tuition fee has already been set aside

But still, Rajini feels she has to pay too high a price:

I don’t think any amount of money can make up for the terrible loneliness that a Gulf wife has to deal with. People who have seen me evolve, from being just someone’s daughter to a woman who is managing a home and family all by herself, are very impressed. They speak well of me and give me a lot of respect but they don’t know how lonely I am, especially at night with only a mobile phone for company. Others have someone they can talk to. Who do I talk to?

Rajini’s loneliness is further compounded by dreary domesticity and an endless routine of cooking, cleaning the two-bedroom house, taking care of her three-year-old daughter, shopping and going to the bank. Her day begins at 6.30 in the morning and most evenings she is in bed by 10 pm, too tired to read or even watch the soaps on television. The only break she gets is for an hour or so every evening, when she walks across to visit her family about half a kilometre away.

Would you like to see your daughter marry a Gulf worker?

Never, may God bless her so that she does not have to.

The only respite from her monotonous routine is when her husband comes home, once every two and a half years – for two months. He is not able to make it more often: the ticket is expensive, he has to bring gifts for everyone in the family, and his employer is sticky about giving leave. That is why Unnikrishnan could not be there when their daughter was born.

I went to my mother’s place for my delivery as is the custom and my family did everything they could to make me comfortable. The hospital I went to is one of the best in Kotakkal but I missed my husband, especially when I was in labour. There was no one to give me moral support and strength the way he would have, and when the baby arrived I wept because he was not there to share the moment with me. He saw her for the first time when she was one and a half years old.

So, now, Rajini doesn’t want to have another child. Unnikrishnan is keen that they do, but she has told him she will not unless they live together. And she is concerned with their daughter starting her school life without her father. He seems to agree; the last time he was over he talked of returning by the time she starts school, because he wants to be part of her growing up.

He also realizes how important it is for us to live together, because the realities would be quite different if he was here. What we are now doing is just “play-act a marriage”. We haven’t dropped our masks and it’s all very unnatural. When he comes for just a few weeks we both put our best foot forward. We are loving and caring and I do everything for him, like cooking the things he likes to eat. And he does everything possible to make me happy. Even if we have differences and arguments it is soon forgotten because he’s here for just a few weeks and we want to make the most of it. The sorrow of separation is also so new each time. As his departure date nears we start counting the days that remain and start to feel sad and unhappy. So he has only seen one side of me… my positive side. And I don’t think I know the real him.

Rajini dreams of living with her husband, but she is afraid it will not happen anytime soon. Her horoscope told her it was her destiny to be separated from him for some time: astrologers said it could be as long as 17 years.

I feel quite desolate when I think of such a possibility but I have never mentioned it to my husband, because I am hoping through my prayers to change my destiny.