The Spirited Survivor – Jhilmil Breckenridge

Swapna Narayanan

My sister is a lawyer and a strong advocate of women empowerment. When she started her career, and we both were much younger, she used to say that women in affluent urban families also go through a lot of mental and physical torture.

Naive that I was, I never believed a word of hers and debunked this theory.

In my mind, those were the experiences that women from less privileged backgrounds went through! Words like marital rape, mental abuse, controlling husband were all, I believed, only part of the vocabulary of women from the lower rungs of the society. A strong believer in education, I thought educating women will enable them to fight and face their oppressors.

And, the ultimate belief of it all – educated women are not abused!

But, the more I saw of life, I realised that women, even educated ones, are indeed abused, just as my sister said back then. The ones that can contemplate handling abuse are the ones who a) realise that they are being abused, b) have enough courage to accept their own realisation and, c) love themselves enough to fight back.

Invariably, the buck stops at first point. More often than not, educated and affluent women do not realise that they are being abused – both mental and physical. What we see from outside may be a very happy family or a loving couple, but what goes on inside their homes, nobody is privy to. And even if they do realise it, most of them do not move onto the second point – blame it on our patriarchal and paternalistic upbringing which silences women from speaking out.

jhilmil1Today I would like you to walk through the life of an achiever in my eyes, Jhilmil Breckenridge, who went through major upheavals in her life and still emerged strong to live a life on her terms in our strongly patriarchal society.

An achievement indeed!

Jhilmil is today a very successful poet, writer, activist and the Founder Director of Bhor Foundation, a mental health support charity. She is pursuing her PhD at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and also teaches in the same university. Her poetry and other writings have been widely published and anthologised.

download (1)Her debut collection, Reclamation Song, was launched in May 2018 and has been getting critical praise and was shortlisted for the prestigious RL Poetry award.

But this is not the Jhilmil you would have seen earlier, even a few years ago.

If you had met her then, you would have seen a trophy wife, happily married to a white man, having four loving boys and leading a busy life filled with candlelit dinners, fun parties, destination holidays, being a soccer mom, etc., even though she worked and had a career as well, but of course, as long as she put the needs of the family first.

A fairy tale life from the eyes of an outsider!

And life would have gone on as such had she not realised, at some point, that she was being controlled from all ends. And, contrary to what others believed, she was actually trapped in her seemingly exciting and happy life. Her mind, her body, her actions, her behaviour – everything had to be impeccable, meeting the social standards and criteria of the world she lived in. And she was trying hard to fall in line and be there and fit in that milieu. In addition, all these pressures coupled with sexual trauma were too much and like a pressure cooker, there was no safety valve. Something had to give.

It was her divorce that brought out all the reality in the open. And that is when all the beauty turned ugly, leading to a very painful period of her life that took away all her happiness and peace. In short, the clichéd phrase, her world turned upside down, is something that she lived through.

Being a mother is an integral part of being a woman. And there is no worse trauma for a mother than being separated from her children. Well, Jhilmil went through this trauma and is living it to the day – all her four children were taken by her ex-husband when he removed them from India contrary to court orders. I do not even have words to describe this and explain the agony that she must have gone through and is still going through. She has not seen three of her younger children, since the last six years. In addition to her children being taken in this fashion, she also found herself homeless, penniless and without the support of family. And this was not very long ago, all these events took place in 2012.

A trapped and angry lioness, when pushed to a corner, shows her frustration in many forms and shapes. And when an intelligent, capable and strong woman gets trapped and is angry – at her husband, at the pressures of society and most importantly with herself, our patriarchal society immediately takes charge and brands her into the most common slot – mentally unstable. Jhilmil was sent to a mental asylum in Delhi and went through so many experiences there that were inhuman, senseless and heart wrenching, to say the least. Her journey of forcible incarceration has been made into a documentary called Come With Me, and this has played in many national and international venues, leading to thought and discussion about women, support structures, what family means and how the systems fail a lot of women.

We all need an anchor in life. More so when we are going through the toughest of the times. Unfortunately, at the worst time in her life, the best anchor she could have had, her parents, also chose not to support her. Unable to comprehend the magnitude of the situation, and eager to conform to the norms of the society they lived in, they did not step up and give a helping hand, and what is worse, colluded with her ex-husband in having her incarcerated and continued to support him financially while she lived penniless for a while. Although the tide changed, and they are reconciled now, and did indeed start helping financially, what she needed was emotional support at the time and she did not get that, not just from her parents, but from most of her friends and ‘wellwishers’ from her old life, who just shunned her.

However who can control a spirited human? More so, if it is a spirited woman! It is often said, true strength is when you have a lot to cry about but you choose to smile and take another step forward.

Jhilmil did just that.

And how!

She found her anchor in spirituality, meditation and her pen. Her pen was her soul mate, her anchor and her lifeline.

She took to writing her angst and agony through myriad forms and formats. And finally found her home in poetry which always acts as a classic prism to perceive life and its happenings.

She also paints and finds joy in some form of daily exercise, be it yoga, kung fu or cycling. She also believes that we are what we put into our bodies and treats food as medicine. In fact, these days she is writing a book on Cooking As Coping, journaling her story of cooking through the hardest of times, adding some of her favourite recipes, and also inviting a few selected peers to share their stories of cooking as coping.

BeFunky-collage (1)Using writing, painting and more, she expelled or purged all the anger, hurt and agony from her system. Here are a few verses, from her debut book, Reclamation Song, that portrays her immense pain as well as her inner strength and spirit:

Mum shall we smell the new day?
I almost hear Liam, my five-year-old, say
But that was an eternity away:
smelling a new day with children has passed
Now, grateful for tea, a scented candle, and dawn,
I wait for train whistles, truck toots and birdsong.

I find her words showing a woman who has immense courage, while she masks a heart filled with pain, and moves on.

Through Bhor Foundation, Jhilmil wants to build awareness on mental health issues, and wants to remove the stigma associated with it. Bhor is a Hindi word meaning dawn and with this Foundation, she wants to usher in a new dawn of mental health in India where there are more open conversations and sustainable solutions to the problems of domestic violence, and women’s rights, while working towards eradicating the associated stigma and creating more inclusive spaces around disability and mental health.

For me, Jhilmil is a strong woman who has seen it all, fought it all, and has survived and emerged as an inspiring woman! And that is what womanhood is all about.

In Jhilmil’s own words – ‘To me, being a woman means embracing all my femininity, female power, sexuality and creativity to live in a world which keeps trying to box us in, to marginalise us, to make us feel less than. Less than and labels like those mean we are constantly competing, sometimes with men, sometimes with our own self. In a world of vigilantist approaches to feminism, which sometimes make me cringe, I believe the time has come to accept equality and a more humanist angle. My advice to women is accept, own, and celebrate your womanhood – it’s only when you accept all of you in this single breath, that’ you can seize the moment and make the world your own.’

So, all you women out there who passionately love and constantly fret over all the people around you – husbands, family, children – do love, nurture and support them. However, do take a moment, step back and love your own self too!

The beauty of a woman is that she is built both soft and strong, provided she realises it!

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