How to cook up a fresh start

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am


The judges in the latest series of India's version of MasterChef, the reality TV show that originated in Britain, were curious about the talented young woman who cooked with style but kept to herself. Even with the other contestants, Shipra Khanna was reticent, unwilling to talk about herself and displaying little interest in them or their backgrounds.

It was only a chance question from one of the judges that revealed how mentally scarred Khanna was from domestic abuse - mainly psychological but also physical on occasion - by her husband at their home in Agra.

It turned out, as she told the stunned judges, the husband she had married at the age of 19 had been guilty of cruelty for years. One of his standard taunts was of her being a lousy mother because she gave birth to what he called a 'defective' child, a daughter who was born with cerebral palsy.

After relating on national television the story of how she had finally left her husband to start a new life, Khanna, 29, has become a symbol of hope for millions of young Indian women who are trapped in brutal and miserable marriages.

Khanna's escape route was cooking. Put down constantly both by her husband and her in-laws during her 10-year marriage, she found solace in the cooking that she had to do for the family, first as a compulsory chore and later as a kind of therapy that kept her sane as her marriage went from bad to worse.

But during filming in Mumbai and socialising with the other contestants, she told them nothing about herself. 'I avoided talking to them too much. I knew a time would come when they would ask me about my background and I didn't want to tell them about the abuse and that I was fighting a nasty divorce battle with my husband and for custody of my two kids,' she says.

Last week Khanna packed her bags for a trip to London - the holiday is part of her prize, along with 10 million rupees (HK$1.5 million). Eventually, she hopes to host her own cooking show on television.

Just a year ago, her life was very different. She was a slave of her husband and in-laws, ministering to their every whim, suffering dowry abuse and being physically and mentally tormented by a husband who, whenever Khanna threatened to leave, used to sneer that divorce would impoverish her, finish her and 'strip her of the respect of society'.

But within a year of leaving him, his wife would become the MasterChef India winner in the second series of the popular programme, watched by 2.6 million Indians every week, which ended last month.

Khanna used to cook mostly traditional Indian food at home. After the birth of her daughter, Yadavi, now seven, she honed her skills further by trying to make what her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, liked to eat, such as pizza, Chinese dishes, different breads, pasta and cookies.

'The doctors said she couldn't eat food from outside in case she got an infection from unhygienic food. Since she can't walk, we have to keep her weight down, so I began making healthy versions at home of whatever she couldn't go out to eat,' Khanna says.

It was her experiments at home that enabled her to shine in the studio. She made a mousse from yams, a tandoori chicken-flavoured pate, and carrot cake with garam masala - an Indian mixture of spices used only in savoury dishes, which wowed the judges.

Khanna stayed with her husband because her parents kept urging her to remain married - like all Indian parents, they feared the snickers and pity of friends and relatives. She had a second child, a son, Himannk, now five, but things became worse.

'My husband and in-laws took no interest in my kids. He used to hit them. I wanted to take my daughter out to the park and to birthday parties, but he told me she was an embarrassment and should be kept indoors. Once, when he'd ordered pizza for himself and I asked him to share it with her, he flew into a rage,' she says.

Apart from her obvious passion for cooking, there was little to distinguish Khanna's experiences from those that, for countless Indian women, seem inevitable. The customary trajectory of events is this: have an arranged marriage, discover the husband and in-laws are cruel, suffer torture over demands for more dowry, bear children (parents urge this as a 'solution' to the marital hell, saying children will 'humanise' the husband), confide in your parents, 'adjust', get kicked out from the marital home, and then spend years in dingy courtrooms fighting for custody of, or access to, your children.

These stories are reflected in the statistics. India's National Family Health Survey in 2010 revealed that 37 per cent of married women experience domestic violence. Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau of India reveal one dowry death every 77 minutes and one case of cruelty by husband and relatives every nine minutes.

Although well-educated (she is an economics and psychology graduate), Khanna was also like other women in similar circumstances in that she feared the unknown. Her confidence was low, she feared losing her children and had been conditioned into thinking that if she left her husband she would end up living off the kindness of relatives.

As always in these cases, she could never have predicted what would trigger the realisation that she had to get out of her marriage. One day in January last year, her father visited her, bearing gifts. 'My husband always kept asking him for jewellery and cash, and my parents kept giving what they could. But on that day, in my house, my husband manhandled my father; he pushed him. I couldn't take that. I couldn't see my father being insulted. I walked out with only the clothes I was wearing,' she says.

This time, her father supported her. For Khanna, that moment made her see everything with absolute clarity. 'There is a limit to everything,' she says. 'I realised that if I take this from him, in this century, it is a big stupidity. Why should a woman be treated badly? At that moment I decided to leave and decided to cope with whatever happened,' she says.

She wanted to take the children with her, but her husband refused. 'They [Khanna's husband and his parents] had never cared for them. They were affectionate only when visitors came; otherwise, they ignored them. But they kept them just to spite me,' she says.

Later, from her parents' home in Shimla - the hill town that used to be the summer capital of the British Raj - she asked her husband to let her visit the children. He refused. Her clothes and possessions are still at the house.

'This is really common in India,' says New Delhi lawyer Arpita Verma. 'A woman can spend years in the courts and money on legal fees that she can't afford, just to get her things. Her only security is the gold jewellery her parents have given her in the dowry, and that is never returned.'

Divorce rates have doubled in India over the past decade, largely owing to changing lifestyles and mismatched expectations. 'Divorced men soon remarry, but divorced women still struggle to find social acceptance,' says Dr Ranjana Kumari, a prominent women's activist and director of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi-based NGO.

If Khanna has given hope to other women, it's because she has shown that divorce does not necessarily mean social death. Her middle-class parents have accepted that her marriage is over. It was her mother who secretly entered her for MasterChef India last March to pull her out of her depression.

'For me, MasterChef was a miracle, a gift from God. It has turned everything around,' she says.

Her victory was tinged with sadness, though, when she saw the other contestants celebrating after the last episode with their children.

The last time she had seen her own was in a courtroom in May.

'I hugged them and gave them chocolate. I am just waiting and hoping that the courts will give me custody,' she says.

Other divorced women have written to Khanna to say that she has shown them it's possible to break the rules. Her advice is: 'Build up a skill that might help you become financially independent in the future - cooking, sewing, anything. You have to be courageous at just one point in your life and say 'enough'. Then all the rest follows.' She has not made any definite plans for after London but is thinking of taking some culinary courses to improve her skills. 'I am not skilled enough to open a restaurant, so I want to learn first and then I'll see,' she says. 'Everything is possible now.'