Almost 18 years ago, Vandana Shah was thrown out of her husband’s home in the dead of the night. All she had were the clothes on her back and Rs 750 in her bank account. She could have let life slip through her fingers, but what she did with it is not just inspirational, but will also teach you a lesson or two about how to deal with adversity.
Vandana went from being a litigant to studying law and becoming one of the most sought after family lawyers in the country. It is the empathy that she brings to the profession that stands her apart from her peers.
What was endearing about my conversation with Vandana was the focused attention and uninterrupted time she gave me, even though her days are divided into meetings, schedules or court hearings. In this exclusive conversation, she speaks about her journey from being a petitioner to a lawyer in Mumbai, the support group she founded, and valuable advice she has for women going through a difficult time.
Journey through divorce
There are very few people who would look back at the challenging journey of the past and call it exciting. Vandana says, “In retrospect, I would say it has been a very exciting journey. It has had its share of ups and downs, and there was never a dull moment. However, when one is going through it, all you want is a simple life.”
For Vandana and, in general for all, the uncertainty of when the problems are going to end, is extremely tough to face. When asked if she has any regrets about the way her life panned out, she is quick to say,
“No, I have no regrets. My life turned out just fine. It has been a wild ride, and I am happy that I went through it.”
Vandana’s husband filed for divorce in 2000 and it took almost 10 years for the verdict to come through. Armed with a degree in Psychology, Vandana decided to study law more so that she could understand what was happening with her own case.
One piece of advice to her younger self
Vandana laughs as I ask her this, and says, “I have so many things to tell my younger self. However, the one thing that I would have liked to tell my younger self is to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy. While we all work on being physically fit, we forget the importance of being mentally fit and that is what I would tell my younger self.”
The genesis of a support group
Vandana lost her parents before her wedding, and all she had for a family were some relatives. “Unfortunately, I did not have anything great to say or feel about the relatives I had. I did not find any support in them,” she says.
It was a trying time for Vandana; no support from relatives, absolutely sick of attending court hearings, and going through the same thing again and again. At that time, Vandana longed to sit with someone and speak, lighten her heart of all the burden weighing her down. Not being able to find that led her to start a support group.
Vandana speaks about how it is crucial for the support group to be accepting of people as they are. “Relatives usually come with an elephantine memory and very often that could come to bite you,” she says.
The support was a coming together of a bunch of women going through a similar situation and wanting to be in a space that was non-judgemental in nature, says Vandana. This was how ‘360 Degrees Back to Life’ – India’s first non-judgemental, gender-neutral support group came into being.
Experiences made her stronger
Narrating an incident from the support group, Vandana says, “While a majority of us were in our late 20’s, there was a lady in her late 40’s. I remember listening to her story, and it suddenly struck many of us that what she was going through was worse than what we were dealing with personally.”
The support group gave the women a chance to interact with other women struggling with their demons. Such interactions and open channels of communication helped them give each other strength and succour.
These are the experiences that have made Vandana far more empathetic and a keen listener when clients come to her with their share of problems.
Over the last decade, Vandana has set up chain-support groups and has counselled more than 10,000 people. “The USP of the support group is that it is easy-going and gives everyone a sense of dignity. It gives you the space you need and stands with you if you need anything,” says Vandana.
In conclusion, she says, “Being divorced is not a crime, and it is high time that we stop looking at it in that light. It is ironic why we make such an uproar about someone being divorced when there are people who walk with heads held high after committing heinous crimes.”
If you know someone who might need legal support or you would like to speak to Vandana, do reach out via her website here or download Divorcekart, an app which gives free legal aid to those seeking legal assistance.
(Edited By Saiqua Sultan)
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