'What I have been going through for the last 17 years is much more than what I suffered in those 42 days.'
'I am dying every single moment of my life for the last 17 years,' the Suryanelli gang-rape case victim tells Shobha Warrier.
As I travel from Thiruvananthapuram to Kottayam to meet the person known as the 'Suryanelli girl', I was quite nervous. I knew it was inhuman on my part to make her rewind to what had happened to her 17 years ago, and go through the harrowing moments again.
She was down with high fever, chest infection and the night before my trip, I was told she was admitted in a hospital. I was going to talk to a gang-rape victim who was denied justice for 17 years and was now admitted in a hospital. The only consolation for my troubled mind was the warmth in her mother's voice over phone.
It was one of my toughest assignments as a journalist.
I knocked on the hospital room door gently and waited gingerly. The door was opened by a woman who had a very serious expression and an unsmiling countenance. It was her. The moment she saw me, a stranger, she moved back as if withdrawing from the scene.
Her mother stood up with a friendly smile and asked me to come inside. I cautiously stole another glance at her; she was wearing an oversized nightgown and that made her look overweight. Without looking at me, she moved to one corner of the room as if she wanted to just vanish.
After pleasantries with her mother, I took out the voice recorder and asked haltingly how they dealt with her disappearance on January 16, 1996. Perhaps her mother was saying the same thing for the umpteenth time, but she didn't show any impatience, and spoke quietly and clearly.
"That evening, one of her father's friends came to the post office (where he worked) and asked 'Hasn't your daughter come home? I saw her in the town an hour ago.' Immediately her father called the hostel and the warden told him that she left early, saying her mother was unwell."
Her father and his friend then started searching for her all over the town, and when they could not locate her even after dusk, they immediately registered a complaint at the police station in Munnar.
"We were worried because we had heard rumours about kidnappers catching hold of children for their kidneys. We only thought of that, and never in our wildest imagination did we think something like this would befall our daughter."
The mother was silent for a moment before she regained composure. It was quite evident that, even after 17 years, when she thought of that fateful day, she got jittery.
Days passed, and still there was no news of their daughter. The mother's blood pressure shot up and she had to be hospitalised. There was no phone connection at Suryanelli where they lived, so the father remained at Munnar with his friends, hoping against hope for a phone call to his post office with some news about their 16-year-old daughter.
As her mother spoke of how the family survived those fateful days, the girl, who was sitting quietly in the corner, got up, saying she was going out to see whether her father had reached the hospital. She left quietly.
The mother continued with the sordid story. A few days after she disappeared, the father got a phone call at the post office and it was his daughter. She could only identify herself and the phone was grabbed by somebody else who said, 'Don't worry. Your daughter is with us.'
The terrified father asked the man who he was and what he wanted. If it was money, he was willing to pay, he said. The caller said he was Raju, a bus conductor with whom the girl was in love.
After the police tracked down Raju, they understood it was only to mislead them that the caller said he was Raju. When it dawned on the family that she was not with Raju, they felt helpless and terrified.
After 42 days, one evening, the girl entered her father's post office. She had disappeared as a 16-year-old girl clad in a skirt and top, but came back looking like a woman, all bloated, with scratch marks all over her face.
For a moment, even her father could not recognise her.
The horrifying sight of his daughter shook him so much that he hid himself in the bathroom and sobbed violently.
When her mother saw her in the evening, she was shattered. "Though shocked and shattered, I was relieved to see my daughter. We suffered a lot in those 42 days, so we were relieved to get her back. But we had no idea what had happened to her. Then, her father's friends told me that our daughter was used by many people in the last 42 days. The police told me to talk to her and write down everything in detail; and give them the paper."
"Would anybody with a heart ask a mother to do that?"
Even after 17 years, her mother shudders to think of the condition her daughter was in. "She had advanced pelvic inflammation. She could not even sit down. If she had not come back for another week, she would have died. They knew her condition was very bad and that was why she was sent back. Otherwise, their plan was to sell her to some brothel in Mumbai."
After 10 days of hospitalisation, she was slightly better, then the police began their interrogation. "Those days were like going through hell. Hundreds of people used to gather to have a look at our daughter at all the places we were taken to. No one from my family had ever entered a police station."
"I used to cry thinking why such a fate befell me. Though we were heartbroken, we were enraged, and I wanted to see all the people who tortured my daughter punished. Though the circle inspector dissuaded me from going ahead with the case, we wanted to punish all those who used our daughter."
She had nightmares of her daughter being physically tortured, and it turned out to be true as S S Dharmarajan (the main accused in the case), used to "beat her mercilessly if she declined to go to his clients."
As we were speaking, her father entered the hospital room, sweating and breathless. He was in terrible pain and had to be taken to the casualty ward for emergency treatment. His worried wife rushed out to be with him.
That left me with the victim, and an uneasy silence encompassed the room.
"I don't like to talk to anyone, more so to the press. I am tired of reliving those gruesome moments," the victim said.
I apologised profusely and remained silent.
Then, she started speaking. In a low voice, without looking at me or raising her head.
"I feel guilty. I feel cheated. If I had not loved someone at the age of 16 and believed in him, all this would not have happened to me; my parents also would not have suffered so much. Whenever I look at my old parents, I feel terribly guilty. If not for him, my sister would have had a normal life, my parents would have had a peaceful old age. My mother and father are sick because of me."
"I will never be able to forget what I suffered those 42 days. Even after I die and become a part of mother nature, those dark days will remain alive. So agonising and frightening were those days."
"Whatever I had to say, whatever I suffered, I narrated at the sessions court, and the verdict of the court was fair to me. I thought I got justice. But it was the high court verdict that shattered me. It pained me and hurt me more than what I underwent during those 42 days. It was more cruel than the behaviour of all those men."
"I was in a very bad condition, suffering from back pain and pain all over the body when a well-known politician came to the room. I pleaded with him that I was not that kind of a girl and I was sick, but he refused to listen to me. I didn't know who he was. When he went out of the room, I heard people calling him Baaji."
"When I saw his photo in the newspaper my mother was reading, I told her, he was one among those who tortured me. Mother wanted me to be very sure. I was very sure. If I could identify so many people, why would I make a mistake about this man alone?"
"People didn't want me to expose him for the sin he did to me. It is like, because he is a leader he shouldn't be punished. Why can't he accept the truth that he made a mistake? What is the difference between him and the others? All of them did the same thing to me."
"I decided to come out in the open because I didn't want this to happen to any other girl. But what did I get in return from the public? Only abuses, humiliation and isolation. Do they not have young daughters? They still point out to me and say, 'See the way she walks around without any shame!' They derive pleasure by humiliating and hurting me."
"I know if this had happened in any other country, all these people would have been behind bars. Here, the powerful political class is never punished; they are above the law."
"There were moments in my life when I felt I should have remained quiet and not gone ahead with the case."
"My colleagues in office speak to me if needed, but I don't have a single friend now. I used to have a lot of friends when I was in school. Now, I am used to this lonely life. I like sitting alone in my room. I don't like to meet people or talk to them. Even our relatives shun us now; they don't invite us for any family wedding. They don't even inform my parents when there is a death in the family."
"Nobody from our family acknowledges me; they do not want to be seen as the relative of a girl who was gang-raped for 42 days."
"If not for the love and support of my parents and sister and a few kind people, I would have ended my life long ago. But I will never be able to love another man in my life."
"Those who kept me in custody sent me back only because I was terribly sick. They thought I would die. I wish I had died, then I would not have had to go through this humiliation and isolation. The girl who was gang-raped in Delhi was fortunate because she died. She didn't have to suffer like me."
"What I have been going through for the last 17 years is much more than what I suffered in those 42 days. I am dying every single moment of my life for the last 17 years."
Her voice trailed off... and she stared vacantly at the pale, empty walls of the hospital room.