By Clara ChooiKUALA LUMPUR, March 25 — Unlike most traditional Indian marriages, kindergarten teacher Indira Gandhi married K. Pathmanathan out of love.
Theirs was not the stuff of novels; it was just a run-off-the-mill high school romance that eventually resulted in an exchange of wedding vows.
What they did not know was that three children and 14 years later, their marriage would be torn apart by a highly-publicised inter-religious custody battle that, until today, remains unsolved.
In an exclusive interview with The Malaysian Insider in her home city of Ipoh recently, Indira vented her frustrations over the ambiguity of the country’s religious laws, and recalled the many trials and tribulations of the past year that had very nearly caused her to give up Hinduism just to keep custody of her children.
The drama, said Indira, actually began from the day after she and Pathmanathan became Mr and Mrs Pathmanathan. Once a doting boyfriend and first-love, Pathmanathan wasted no time in shedding his sheep’s clothing, she said.
“Shortly after we got married, he began to beat me. Over and over again. Most of the time over small, petty arguments,” she claimed. Her allegations cannot be independently verified and is not a subject of her legal case.
Indira, however, said she kept quiet about the beatings, not wanting to blow the problem out of proportion and praying daily that her high school sweetheart would soon return.
And so the couple moved on with their lives without much fanfare. In 1997, Indira gave birth to her first baby girl, Tevi Darsiny. A year later, a baby boy, Karan Dinish, joined the growing family.
The couple struggled through difficuly years as financial problems eventually began to cause serious dents in their marriage.
“I took a job as a kindergarten teacher. My husband switched from job to job and we had to move around Malaysia quite a bit. I hardly got to see my family members, not even during Deepavali,” said Indira.
To top it off, she had to settle the household bills and take care of the children all by herself, as Pathmanathan was frequently on the road.“Not only that... he began to have an affair with a Thai woman. I knew about it but what could I do?
“Even my children knew about this. Imagine what it felt like when my daughter came home one day and told me — ‘Amma, I saw daddy with another woman’,” said Indira.
Still, like many broken marriages, Indira and Pathmanathan stayed married for the good of the children.
It was in March last year that the real drama really exploded, she explained, barely a year after she had delivered her third child, Prasana Diksa, a chubby little baby girl who should have been the uniting factor in a disintegrating marriage.
“He came home that day, telling me he wanted to talk to me. When we got the chance, he told me ‘Why not we all become Muslims? Life would be easier, we would get better opportunities, money would come easier’. He said ‘Come to Kelantan with me, they will give us land’. I was shocked,” she said.
“I refused and so did my two older children. We fought and he got angry... he began to beat me. My daughter yelled at him, saying ‘Don’t you ever lay your hand on Amma’. He got angry with my daughter but he did not beat her. He is a very good father to them,” said Indira.
In the midst of the argument, she said, Pathmanathan grabbed 11-month-old Prasana and stormed off.
“The other two did not want to come with him so he just took Prasana,” she said.
Losing Prasana was just a harbinger of worse to come.
At the police station later, Indira was dealt with a stunning revelation — that Pathmanathan had already embraced Islam earlier in the month and had become “Mohd Ridzuan Abdullah”.
“I was shocked because he has always been the religious... he would even go with us to the temples on occasions,” she said.
It was the first mile of long, bad road from that day onwards, said Indira.
Mohd Ridzuan had even converted all three children into Islam without the presence or knowledge of their mother, after taking the children’s birth certificates from the family home.
“He changed all their names and even informed their schools they were now Muslims,” she said.
It was then that Indira discovered the flaws in the country’s religious laws and just how sticky a custody battle could be when it involved a Muslim-convert and a non-Muslim.
With little choice in her hands, Indira was forced to take her struggle to the courts, and until today, her dilemma has not been solved.
She sought two things — that her children remain as Hindus and that she gets to keep custody of all three.
Since her husband absconded with Prasana, Indira has been living with her two older children in Ipoh.
To date, two conflicting custody orders have been granted to the couple — one to Mohd Ridzuan from the Syariah Court last April and one to Indira from the civil High Court on March 11 this year.
Which order should prevail, however, is still unknown as the country’s laws are silent on that matter.
Meanwhile, Indira’s application to seek leave for judicial review to quash the conversion of her three children to Islam has been set for April 3.“I was happy when I was granted custody but yet a part of me also knew that the fight was far from over. I just wish that this never happened. I do not know why he has to do this. If he has found happiness in another religion, I do not care, go ahead with it, but leave the children out of it. I want my baby girl back...” she said.
Indira said that the last time she had caught a short glimpse of Prasana after a year-long separation was in January this year, when Mohd Ridzuan was ordered to bring the toddler to court to meet with High Court Justice Wan Afrah Wan Ibrahim.
Although she had been forewarned by her lawyers, the sight of her 21-month-old baby girl weighed down by a large tudung (Malay headscarf) had moved her to tears.
She voiced frustration at having missed out on so many firsts in Prasana’s growing years, like her first words, her first steps, and even her first birthday.
“I just missed so much... I missed so much. She was taken when she was just 11-months-old. I missed everything. She was such a pleasant child, very easy to care for and we all loved her. As a mother... and a kindergarten teacher, I see children everyday but I can’t see my own baby. Now, I do not know anything about her, how long her hair is, what she likes... I miss my child,” she said.
In fact, Indira said she had very nearly given up at one point and had even toyed with the idea of converting to Islam for the good of the family.
“It was my two older children who stopped me. My son said ‘If you want, you can go ahead. I do not want to be a Muslim’. He is a bold child... but my children were right... why should we convert?” she said.
She lashed out at the glitch in the country’s religious laws and condemned the government for not acting quickly on the matter.
To date, the government has given no indication on when it would amend the laws governing such religious conflicts.
Indira’s lawyer, M. Kulasegaran recently said that he would bring the battle back to the Parliament again soon, and blamed the legislative body for not moving fast to solve the deadlock.
In the meantime, Indira’s fight continues in the courts.
Tomorrow, the Ipoh High Court will hear Mohd Ridzuan’s application for a stay of the custody order granted by the civil High Court to Indira.
But the feisty 35-year-old said she was ready to do just about anything to win custody rights to her children, especially baby Prasana.
“There is no fight too difficult for me to handle, I will not give up, not surrender because my children’s futures are at stake here. I love them too much,” she said.
She said that she intended to fight this to the very end, even if it meant challenging the country’s 52-year-old system.
The system, Indira firmly added, may fail, but never the love of a mother for her children.