Dubai: Her voice resonates in the kitchens of millions of Malayali homes across the world every day. But this week, instead of sharing a recipe or introducing a new place she visited, Dubai-based celebrity food vlogger Veena Jan raised her voice against the dowry system in India.
Though she says she may not be able to give expert opinion on such issues, Veena’s fans feel she is the best person to talk to about the subject and motivate girls and young women as she herself was once a dowry victim in the south Indian state of Kerala.
Her second husband Jan Joshi, who gave her a new lease of life after Veena got divorced from her abusive first husband, also joined the conversation through Veena’s YouTube channel ‘Veena’s Curryworld’, which has more than 2.16 million subscribers.
Vlogging in Malayalam, Veena had first opened up about her life story two years ago. That particular video has had more than 3.7 million views.
Showing her wedding photo with Jan, in which Avneeth — her son from her first husband — is also seen, Veena shared how she had become a victim of the dowry system in India.
Speaking to Gulf News on Wednesday, Veena said she had never thought she would have to speak about the same subject again under such painful circumstances, following recent cases of dowry suicides by young women in Kerala that caused quite an uproar on social and mainstream media.
“I couldn’t sleep after watching the news about Vismaya (the 24-year-old Ayurveda student who hanged herself at her husband’s house) and the other girls who died after that,” said Veena. “It was so shocking and saddening to see young women ending their lives like that.”
Veena recollected that she was gifted gold ornaments weighing 2.4kg and a luxury car for her first wedding with a man working at Techno Park in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. Yet, her former husband later wanted her father to register his transport business (including 20 buses) and other properties in his name.
“It took three years for me to understand his true colours. Things were terrible after the birth of my son. He turned physically abusive when his demands were not met. He even held my baby upside down and told me to cut him into half.”
Though he behaved like a psychopath in front of her, Veena said her relatives could not believe he was such an abusive husband as he used to act in an entirely different manner in their presence. “He used to be extremely good with them. So, they blamed me for not trying to make adjustments. They didn’t realise that he was acting in front of them.”
However, after her husband went violent with her child, Veena decided to end that relationship. “I was worried for my son. I didn’t want him to become a victim of abuse and be depressed or grow up to be a rebel or criminal. I gathered the courage to take that decision [of divorcing] after his [husband’s] own sister told me not to go back to his house. She knew I will not be able to live peacefully with her brother. I will always be grateful for her God-send call.”
How Jan came to her life
The desire to give a better life to her son led Veena to opt for a second marriage. She said it was by coincidence that she got the proposal from Jan, whose house was only 15 minutes away, through a matrimonial site. “I was looking for an alliance from a divorcee or a widower who could support me in taking care of my son. I never expected an unmarried man to show interest in my profile, which didn’t even have my photo or any other detail.”
However, Jan, who was then working in Saudi Arabia, had made a decision to give a second lease of life to a deserving woman and did not think twice when he heard Veena’s story. “He is the only son of his parents. But, he is a unique person with a very different approach to life. I am so grateful to his parents for supporting his decision to marry me and considering me as their daughter later,” said Veena.
The couple got married and moved to Dubai in 2006 after Jan got a job as a business analysis manager with an airline here. “I had told my story to my son even before he started going to school. I didn’t want a third person to tell him about it.” Her son with Jan, Aayush, is also aware of his mum’s story and both her children are part of her family vlogs.
Her advice to women facing abuse
“There is no point in hiding such things from kids. I even shared my story with my subscribers, whom I consider as my family, because I thought it would help at least one girl to take the right decision in life. I wanted to tell all those girls — who silently bear the torture, fearing shame — to speak up and put their foot down.”
It was a moment of realisation about her power as an influencer when Veena started getting feedback about girls who changed their decisions after knowing her story. “I made the recent video against dowry deaths to motivate girls who continue to be victims of abuse at their spouses’ houses. We need to end this horrible practice. My story has helped at least 100 girls change their decisions. Many who thought divorce was a sin, took the right decision and are now living happily. I will be more than happy if my new video can save the life of even one girl facing harassment over dowry,” she said.
“Girls shouldn’t feel guilty if it [abuse] happens even after a love marriage. There is no point in hiding everything, thinking their parents will be hurt or it will be a shame on their family. There are women who can’t even seek counselling as it is a taboo in many families. Friends and colleagues should also support such women as many parents are not great friends.”
However, Veena was quick to clarify that she was not advocating divorce. “Sometimes some girls seek divorce for silly reasons. There are young men also who suffer in marriages. My request to youngsters, especially young women, is not to end their precious lives when they face dowry-related or other harassments after marriage.
Veena’s husband Jan pointed out that girls in most Indian families are conditioned to grow up, thinking that their ultimate goal was to get married and make adjustments in married life. “There needs to a be a change in this attitude. There is life beyond marriage. Bigger celebrations should be held when a marriage is long-lasting and successful — not at the time of the wedding,” Jan says in the latest video.
How Dubai changed Veena’s life
It was in 2008 that Veena started blogging about her favourite recipes. “Though I was an engineering graduate, I had not worked. I used to love cooking since my childhood. I started blogging to share my favourite recipes. It was Jan who encouraged me to start a YouTube channel in 2015 when some of my blog followers started asking me to share the videos of me cooking those recipes.”
Sharing authentic recipes from different Indian states, ‘Veena’s Curryworld’ is now the go-to place for new and experienced home cooks — including men — to make their cooking easy and tasty.
“Living with Jan and our sons in Dubai helped me avoid nagging questions about my first marriage from some people back home and also to find my workspace in my own kitchen. Now, vlogging is like a full-time job for me,” said Veena whose videos have attracted more than 100 million views.