The past two months that followed the demise of my younger cousin Kamalika Das, on 20 January 2015, have been one of the most difficult times of my life. It was not that I had not encountered death before or faced it up close and personally; my uncle and twenty-two-year-old cousin, both passed away in a road accident in 2008. I saw them come home a day after the accident, enveloped in plastic.
But that was an accident, a tragedy, perhaps fate gone wrong. There was no one to blame, there was no one we could hold responsible for their deaths. It was sad, yes, but at least we only had to deal with overcoming our sense of sadness and loss.
What happened this year was different. It is a memory that neither my family nor I will ever be able to get over. Kamalika did not die in an accident; her untimely death at the age of seventeen was not a matter of chance. She chose to take her life and committed suicide by jumping off the seventh story of a building. She did this because her school, the very institution we had hoped would mould her into a good person and would help teach kids right from wrong, had failed her.
Actually, no, the school did not just fail her; it drove her to kill herself. And that was because she had dared to raise her voice and say that she had been sexually assaulted.
It all began four years ago. On a cold morning, during the winter of December 2010, I received a phone call from Kamalika, who was all of thirteen years old then. She told me that she had been sexually assaulted on her school premises—Kendriya Vidyalaya II in Salt Lake City, Kolkata—by a boy from her class. She had called me a day after the incident. She felt humiliated and went alone to the then-school principal to file a complaint. I still admire her courage for standing up for her dignity at such a tender age, for having the guts and mental fortitude to face it all alone.
Kamalika went on to tell me that the principal had refused to acknowledge her complaint. Even worse, she accused Kamalika of lying, of deliberately misrepresenting the incident to gain attention and for “self-promotion,” which begs the question: how does claiming to be sexually assaulted “promote” one's self?
Naturally, Kamalika was crushed and went home crying to tell her mother what had happened. Her mother went with her to the school the next day and met with the principal. Not surprisingly, she met with similar resistance, fortified by the claim that Kamalika had made it all up and that the boy was innocent. She was told that her daughter could take a transfer certificate and request admission in another school.
But Kamalika was not interested in running away. She was a fighter, she was brave, and she had nothing to hide. “If it’s not my fault then why should I leave the school?” she indignantly asked me when we spoke on the phone “He should be the one to leave the school! Not me!”
Two days later, I went with my aunt and Kamalika to meet the principal. I received the same treatment from the lady, although she did pepper her monologue with an extra titbit of information this time around. “These things keep on happening everywhere! In buses, streets, offices. Then why are you making a huge issue and trying to spoil the school’s reputation?”
I grew furious, whipped out my press card, and told her if she didn’t take any action, I would call every single journalist I knew and ensure the incident got plastered on every news channel and publication in the country the very next day. The principal caved under this threat, acknowledged our complaint, and said she would conduct an enquiry and take the necessary action.
The only step she took was to transfer the boy to a sister school nearby.
This was still better than nothing, and Kamalika, in particular, was happy at first. However, that didn’t last long. She soon started telling me that teachers from the school were furious with her for taking such a step. She believed that they were looking for a chance to get back at her. I told her to concentrate on her studies and to not pay attention to such things. She was a school topper, a good guitarist, a gifted singer and a painter to boot. She had won many awards and certificates for extra-curricular activities at school, which included quizzes, debates and science Olympiads. This was apart from being acknowledged by the Smile Foundation and Help Age India for social work.
In the spring of 2012, a year after this debacle, I was leaving for New York to further my education and career. Before I left, I asked Kamalika if everything was all right. She merely nodded and reiterated to me that everything was fine. And like a fool, I let it go at that.
I should have pushed her into telling me the truth. Reading her diary entries now, I have come to realise that, even back then, she was constantly being humiliated by her teachers for reporting the molestation. They bullied her, they judged her and they condemned her—all for no fault of her own. In her diary, I read how a teacher slapped her out of spite. I read how some of her friends had abandoned her, leaving her to deal with this onslaught on her own. She was a teenager, still a child. It was not surprising to learn that the daily stress of having to confront harassment at her school had taken a huge toll on her psyche and health. It was like Chinese water torture. Individually, each drop does not really do any harm. But let the drops keep falling and pile up, and you will break eventually.
Subsequently, there appeared to be a small improvement; she was able to make friends again. But these rekindled bonds were rooted in another tragedy, the horrific gang rape and murder of a girl on a bus in New Delhi on 16 December 2012. After many of her classmates heard of the incident and the discourse that surrounded it, their attitude toward Kamalika improved. She told me over Skype how many of them came and told her that they admired the courage she had displayed in standing up for herself.
In November 2014, I returned to India. Personally, I was doing great! I was living my dream of being a photojournalist and doing exciting work. I had come back to do a project on sexual violence and rape in India.
Kamalika was extremely happy and proud of me. She told me that she wanted to join my field of work after she completed her studies. She wanted to study human rights eventually and was looking to pursue an internship with a local non-government organisation working for underprivileged children. On 20 March 2015, Kamalika would have turned eighteen. Her birthday wish was to treat slum children in Kolkata to ice cream.
That never happened. She killed herself before that. After four long years, the school succeeded and broke her. They succeeded in breaking the mind, body and soul of a seventeen-year-old child.
On19 January 2015, Kamalika’s class teacher and Hindi teacher had Kamalika brought to the principal’s office for not completing a Hindi assignment. Under that pretext, her class teacher and the principal, Snigdha Deb, tore into her. They said that she was desperate for attention, that she did not have a good moral character and was a show-off. To further humiliate her, they asked her to turn in all the awards and certificates that she had won on behalf of the school. The principal suspended her from school for a week and asked her to bring her mother the next day.
On 20 January 2015, my aunt went to the school at 11 a.m. For the next two-and-a-half hours, the class teacher and Deb humiliated my aunt in front of Kamalika. They told her she was a terrible mother and that she had not raised her daughter properly. They told her that Kamalika’s future was dark. They threatened to expel Kamalika from school and prohibit her from sitting for her exams, which were to start the following week.
My aunt, in desperation, begged for forgiveness to save her daughter’s career. You see, in India, your grades from the ninth to twelfth standard make or break your future. They determine what college you can get into, and they are even used by employers when hiring people for entry-level positions. It is considered a really big deal, and a student who is not allowed to sit for an exam by their school is branded for life. They are seen as failures, as nobodies.
The prospect of a broken future is probably what made Kamalika crack. She committed suicide that very day. In her suicide note, she addressed her school principal:
Mrs. Snigdha Deb, just in case you ever get to read this, I went to a counsellor because I was molested. … There is a little advice from a dead girl. If you want to scold a girl for smoking, you scold her for smoking. Don’t bring up something from her past and mix it up. Ok. That’s all. Goodbye.
The school had won.
Twelve days after her death, my uncle—Kamalika’s father— vacated the house that the family used to occupy in Salt Lake and moved in with my parents in South Kolkata temporarily. He has taken an indefinite hiatus from his banking job. All he does now is play Sudoku and read books. Otherwise, he just keeps washing his face and drinking cooled water. He does nothing else.
My aunt, Kamalika’s mother, has been living with her brother in Shillong in Meghalaya since the day my uncle locked up their house in Kolkata. She visited Kolkata recently for a few days to give her statement before the magistrate. The atmosphere was, at best, cold. Every conversation inevitably came back to Kamalika and the fact that she was not going to return. Her mother is broken as well. You have to hand it to the school. They gave us a twofer—a dead cousin and a broken uncle and aunt. A week after her death, the school sent us a backdated condolence letter. Humiliated and agitated by the indifference, we refused to accept it.
Neither the teachers nor the principal attended her funeral and prayer service and none of them lit a candle at the memorial held outside the school premises. The school’s gates were locked and both my uncle and I were not allowed inside its premises. We did however catch a glimpse of Mrs Deb’s husband who was in the school compound that day, as he sipped his tea and smiled at us.
I can understand what my uncle may be going through. No matter where I go, no matter what I do, no matter how much I bury myself in my work, I cannot seem to get rid of the pain of what happened. If it hurts me so much, I can only imagine that it must be killing him.
Living together does not bring any real comfort either. You see, we aren’t living together only to be sources of support to each other. Unfortunately, life is not that convenient. Life is harsh and requires cold, logical thought and pragmatic action. We are preparing a case to fight for the justice Kamalika never received; we have to write letters to politicians; we have to go courting innumerable government agencies: the Child Welfare Department, the Women’s Commission and Human Rights Commission, and God knows how many others. We have to keep going back and forth from police stations. We have to give interviews to the Indian news media. Executing all these tasks becomes much easier if we are living together.
In the course of our battle to get justice for Kamalika, we have not had the time to grieve for her.
It does not help that I have an inkling of the predicament that Kamalika went through. When I was eighteen years old, I was sexually assaulted by a senior professor—a highly respected man in Shillong, my hometown—in the Physics department of my college, Lady Keane. When I tried to raise my voice, I was shunned and called a spoilt girl by some of the people to whom I had complained—including college mates, friends from the neighbourhood and relatives. I was judged, scrutinised and victimised by some of my classmates. Faced with the backlash, I kept quiet after that incident and suppressed my anger.
I had better closure, and I am now able to speak of the incident without being affected by it. I met with some success, and once I did, the same people who had treated me with disdain were suddenly convinced that I was a “good girl.” I still do not understand what that term “good” means, and still consider myself the same small-town girl who grew up in a Catholic convent in the foothills of the Himalayas. I do not think I have undergone a monumental change from the person I was back then. Recently, I was invited to the Yangon Photo Festival in Myanmar. Besides my exhibition, I spoke of my project on sexual violence in India and showed them a multimedia piece. During that interaction I realised how my project had become suddenly personal. Kamalika was now a part of what I was uncovering. It was beyond my imagination to have expected that I would have to retell the story of a family member who had been subjected to the horrors of sexual assault and the stigma that followed. In the course of my project, I had always empathised with the kin of victims that I had interacted with, but now, I was one of them.
It is natural to feel sorry for women who are abused and scarred, but they are always someone else, someone you never know. It is perhaps, a part of the psychology of why so many people tend to dismiss cases of rape as the girl “asking for it.” No one you know has had to face it—which through some mental gymnastics translates into thinking that the women it does happen to asked for it. They dressed like sluts, they behaved like sluts. They should not have gone to that party and stayed at home instead. They should not have gone out with a male friend, but only with members of the family. They did not need to be so adventurous. It is only when it becomes personal that you begin to realise that it truly could happen to any woman, at any time, without warning.
It is not even that violence against women is a recent thing; it has been happening since time immemorial. But women were told to keep quiet, and they did because they did not have much of an option. What has changed now, though, is that more and more women are speaking up against it. Even so, they represent only a fraction of those who have been abused.
This is why awareness is so important. Awareness builds empathy. Awareness brings acknowledgement. Acknowledgment brings social change. And social change means fewer Kamalikas. But all that can happen only when such women are allowed to speak and be heard.
My family has received a lot of support during this period, the lowest phase of our lives. People, both from India and the world over, shared our plight and joined our cause on social media. This only goes to show that we are not alone, that cultural borders and injustice don’t trump humanity and dignity.
Nothing is going to bring Kamalika back. But if there is anything we can do in this time of grief, it is to direct all our efforts towards building the kind of awareness that ensures that no more Kamalikas end their lives in the future.
If you would like to participate in the fight for justice for Kamalika in any way, join the Facebook group, here.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that the Delhi gang rape of 16 December took place in 2014. It was in 2012. We regret the error.
Smita Sharma is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer based between New York and Kolkata and covers gender violence issues. She tweets as @smitashrm.