Winner of MasterChef India: from downtrodden housewife to celebrity chef

For a decade, Shipra Khanna says she was a slave of her husband and in-laws, until her triumphant win on MasterChef India.

Indian Masterchef winner Shipra Khanna cooking with other contestants. Photo Courtesy Star Plus
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Exactly one year ago, Shipra Khanna says she was living a life unfortunately led by thousands of young Indian women: a slave of her husband and in-laws, ministering to every arbitrary whim, suffering dowry abuse, and being physically and mentally tormented by a husband who used to sneer, whenever Khanna threatened to leave, that divorce would impoverish her, finish her and "strip her of the respect of society".
He wasn't to know that all the cooking she did for his family during their 10-year marriage would be her salvation, nor that it was her love for cooking that kept her sane during bouts of mental torture that regularly punctuated her routine at their home in Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. Nor that, within a year of leaving him, his wife would win the popular television reality show MasterChef India.
This is the popular Indian version of the original UK television cooking game where the contestants have to win difficult challenges over several weeks to emerge as the winner. Khanna was given a great New Year's gift by being announced as the winner on January 2 in Mumbai where the programme, watched by 2.6 million viewers every episode, was filmed.
Khanna, a 29-year-old economics and psychology graduate, was different from the other 12 contestants. She is engaged in a bitter custody battle and divorce involving charges of dowry abuse against her husband, a factory owner, and his family. Married off at the age of 19 by her middle-class parents, she was expected to cook all the meals.
"Cooking was the best therapy for me," she says. "As long as I was cooking for my kids and making them happy, I was able to manage."
Most of it was traditional Indian food. After the birth of her daughter Yadavi, who is now seven and has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, she honed her skills further by trying to make what her daughter liked, such as pizzas, 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," she says.
In time-honoured tradition, whenever she confided in her parents about her mistreatment, they replied: Adjust. Adjust to him. Adjust to the in-laws. Adjust to the malevolent brother-in-law. Only adjust and it will be fine. Anything to avoid the disgrace and certain social death that divorce would bring.
So Khanna stayed on. In time, her second child, a son, Himannk, five, was born. "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."
Whenever Yadavi was naughty or broke something, Khanna says the family used to blame her and hurl insults at her. "They'd say, 'It's your fault she's disabled. You're responsible for inflicting a defective child on us'," she recalls.
Apart from her passion for cooking, there was little to distinguish Khanna's experiences from those which, for countless Indian women, seem as preordained and ineluctable as the monsoon rains.
Khanna insists it is a fixed script that many women are conditioned to believe they cannot deviate from: 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, parents say "adjust", get kicked out from the marital home, and then spend years in dingy court rooms fighting for custody of, or access to, your children. These stories are embedded 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.
Despite her education, Khanna was also identical to 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.
But Khanna broke all the rules by leaving her husband and triumphing on MasterChef India. Her win and subsequent fame turned her into a symbol of hope to other women; a proven example that it is possible to depart from the script society has dictated and start a new life.
The creativity that she nurtured in the kitchen during her marriage burst out on to the work stations of the MasterChef kitchen, stunning the judges. She made a mousse dessert from yams; a tandoori chicken-flavoured pâté; carrot cake with garam masala, an Indian mix of five spices used only in savoury dishes.
It was only towards the end of the show that the judges commented on her reticence and she told them her story. Known for the roller-coaster emotions the contest can trigger in the contestants, this could easily have been one of those teary-eyed moments on the programme when Khanna, following this time the script dictated by producers eager to push up the viewership figures, would break down and sob her heart out.
Instead, she remained dry-eyed. "I had made a promise to myself," she says. "I had cried enough. I was not going to cry any more." Before she went on the show, however, her moment of truth came the day when, during an ugly argument, she claims her husband insulted and manhandled her father. "For me, that was it," she says. "There is a limit to everything. I realised that if I am taking this from him, in this century, it is a big stupidity. They were inhuman. At that moment I decided to leave and decided to cope with whatever happened."
With only the clothes she was wearing, Khanna walked out and returned home with her father to Shimla in the hills of north India last January. The snide remarks from relatives and neighbours began, pushing her father to a near-breakdown. She, too, was so downcast that she ventured out of the house only when it rained, with an umbrella covering her face, to avoid familiar faces and queries about her marital breakdown.
She is not alone in her discomfort: divorce rates have doubled in India over the past decade, largely owing to changing lifestyles and mismatched expectations.
"Divorce is on the rise and divorced men soon remarry, but divorced women still struggle to find social acceptance," says Dr Ranjana Kumari, a prominent women's activist and the director of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi NGO.
Divorced women often find that their own families are equally hostile. Here, Khanna proved luckier. It was her own mother who entered her name for MasterChef India, in an effort to pluck her out of her depression and occupy her mind.
"For me, MasterChef was a miracle, a gift from God," she says. Her victory was tinged with sadness when she saw the other contestants celebrating with their children after the last episode. The last time she had seen her own was in a courtroom in May.
In her transmutation from downtrodden housewife to celebrity chef, Khanna's life has become pleasantly complicated. First there is the trip to London, a part of her prize. Then plans for a cookery show on television.
Later, perhaps, a book on the recipes that emerged during her unhappy marriage.
Her message to women trapped with brutal and cruel husbands is simple.
"Don't let your self-respect go," she says. "If nothing else, in your spare time, build up a skill that might help you become financially independent in future - cooking, sewing, anything. You have to be courageous at just one point and say 'enough'. Then all the rest follows."

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