We are walking in Calcutta’s drizzly humid weather – Suzette, her two daughters and I -- trying to flag a yellow taxi to her home for a quick post-interview photo shoot. A few taxis go by. When I flag one, Suzette calls out, “No! Let’s take the one up ahead, that guy has a nice face. I can trust him.”
And yet Suzette, grappling with the confusing task of honing a sixth sense at the age of 38, is as trusting as a child.
There is something about the way Suzette Jordan says “my rape” – emphasizing the ‘r’ – that makes you flinch each time you hear it. Life, for Suzette, is divided into two tight compartments: “before my rape” and “after my rape”. She speaks using her whole body as a symbol of protest. She’s fiercely confident and laughs heartily, which are not what a ‘rape victim’ is entitled to be and do.
Her speaking hands are hard to ignore, with beads and bangles falling over an old Yin-Yang tattoo – a symbol for the interdependent male and female energies. In a world where that balance has become horribly upset, Suzette Jordan is fighting a remarkable battle to restore it.
Being an Anglo Indian single mother, with two teenage daughters aged 15 and 17, amounts to being relegated to a shadowy corner within Kolkata’s daunting minority space. Yet for Suzette, growing up in Kolkata, the city always felt rightfully hers. She took up odd jobs working at a sales counter selling t-shirts, as a receptionist at hotel Taj Bengal’s health club, then as a call centre executive, juggling work with the running of her family as a single mother. In a bold move she and her sister started a call centre in 2011, but by January 2012 they had been cheated, lost massive sums of money, and were forced to shut down.
During the lull after the call centre shut down, while wondering what to do next, Suzette sometimes met friends over a drink. Their favourite hangout was Tantra, the Park Hotel nightclub on Park Street that often features in local newspapers’ Page 3s.
On the night of February 5, 2012, Suzette accepted the offer of a lift home from a man she had befriended at Tantra. As she sat in his car, she was surprised to see four other men from his group suddenly enter. By the time she sensed something wrong and reached for the door, she realized it had been auto-locked and the car was moving.
“That’s when I realized that I was trapped,” she says.
When she resisted with all her strength, one of the men began hitting and punching her violently. “It was as if he had some years of vendetta against me,” she says, shuddering at the memory.
She was beaten and raped.
At 3:30 am, a barely conscious Suzette Jordan was thrown out of the moving car at Kolkata’s Exide Crossing.
At that point, she had two options: She could lie where she had fallen and be run over by a speeding car, or she could move. Suzette picked her broken self up.
Suzette had learnt to fend for herself from the age of six, when her parents put her in Kolkata’s Pratt Memorial boarding school. Struggling Anglo Indian families were given free schooling and boarding in Kolkata back then. Cut off from her family, especially her fond little sister who was packed off to another boarding school in Darjeeling, Suzette’s independence took firm roots. She excelled in debates, elocutions, in sports like basketball, and even dreamed of pursuing a career as an athlete. She was a fearless girl who could take on anybody. “I would fly kites and play marbles and beat up boys,” she remembers with a laugh.
When she reached class X, her parents shocked her with their decision to get divorced. She had never seen them fight, and couldn’t understand how this could have happened. Desperately rebelling, she refused to attend school. She passed class X and never went back to school.
Some years later, Suzette got married to a man she fell in love with. They had two daughters. Unfortunately, the marital boat began to rock early on and when his abuses turned physical, she decided to move out.
An Endless Night
February 6, 3.30 am:
Bleeding and stumbling, Suzette tried to fix her tattered clothes, and began running in the dark. At first she ran just to get off the road, in case her attackers came back to run her over. Then she ran because of the fear and the rage, not knowing where to go or what to do. When she finally found a taxi and got back home, it was early morning.
The image that looked back at her in the mirror was gruesome. Her hair was falling out in clumps. Her face and body were bloody and blue. Her neck bore the imprints of the fingers and nails that had tried to strangle her.
“My daughters live with the trauma of having seen me that way,” says Suzette.
It took three days for her to muster up the strength to get out of bed and walk to a police station to file a complaint. Her family was a stumbling block; they didn’t want her to report it at all. “My father warned me of the consequences of reporting a rape…that the police were going to make a fool of me,” she says. “He warned me of all the humiliation that would come.” But flashing nightmares of the animals who had violated her recurred; their laughter as they shredded her body and her dignity rang endlessly in her ears; the memories of them ripping her body apart kept her awake at night. “The thought that made me want to go (to the police) was that they were going to get away with this. And do this to how many more?” she asks.
On the evening of February 9th, Suzette walked into the Park Street police station with her uncle and a friend to report the rape. When she began telling the events of that night, the policemen laughed and asked her how she could be sure it was rape. The station’s officer-in-charge pointedly asked what positions the rapists had taken to rape her.
Later, as they listened to her horrific story, the policeman asked one another if they too were going to go for a drink that night. Then they laughed, looking lewdly at Suzette; one of them said, “Who knows, we could get lucky tonight.”
“I had seen this happen in Hindi movies. Trust me,” says Suzette, “reality is much worse.”
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2012 suggests that West Bengal has the highest number of crimes against women, with 2046 registered rapes. With the reported numbers being so high, there’s probably even more pressure on West Bengal police stations to not register rape cases.
After two hours of ‘questioning’ and after her uncle pleaded with them to register a case, the cops finally asked Suzette to write her complaint. “My hands were shaking. I couldn’t write. I wanted to run back home,” she says. It took five hours in the station for the police to merely accept her complaint. And when she turned it in, she didn’t receive a copy of the FIR or the complaint number (that would come only a week later, after persistent members of her family repeatedly called the police to ask).
The next day, on February 10th, Suzette got a call from the Park Street police station that she had to get a court order for a medical examination. At court, they were asked to come for the medical examination the following day. But the next day she got a call from the Investigating Officer saying that the test couldn’t happen since there were no doctors available. She was given a new date of February 14 – eight days after the rape. When Suzette pleaded that all her marks would fade by then and there would be no proof left, the officer’s matter of fact response was, “Nothing much would be found after so many days anyway.”
On February 14 at the medical examination, Suzette had to stand naked in front of four women – three doctors and one assistant – while they poked and prodded at her like she was a waxwork. She felt degraded, deeply humiliated -- again. One of the examining doctors told her she was lucky she was fair and the marks could still be seen after a week. And so it was proved finally, with the words: “injury marks to private parts”.
Her rape was, at last, officially recognized and ‘luckily’ registered.
Taking her story to the media was not Suzette’s idea. Her aunt suggested it, arguing that it would make her case more secure. The day they collected the copy of the FIR report, her aunt took her to the office of the Bengali newspaper Bartaman, and Suzette told the story to a journalist there.
The media’s interest spiked sharply, and Suzette came to be universally known as the ‘Park Street rape victim’. From here on, her battle for justice would be fought under the disbelieving eye of the State. The nightmare included hearing in the media that the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had called her case a cooked-up story. The West Bengal sports minister Madan Mitra said on a television show, “She has two children, and so far as I know, she is separated from her husband. What was she doing at a nightclub so late at night?” Kakoli Ghosh, an MP from Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress party and a medical doctor, contemptuously explained the case as “not a rape but a misunderstanding in a professional dealing between a lady and her client.”
“The government blamed me for making the issue political and for all the frenzy it generated,” Suzette says, a wealth of sadness in her voice. “But I never blamed the CM. I just wanted justice.”
Every day brought fresh ‘stories’, new horrors. Bengali society wanted an explanation for why that ‘Park Street woman’ had been drinking, or why she had gone out late, or why she had agreed to take a lift from a stranger – as if doing any of those things meant giving all the men of Kolkata permission to rape her.
In gossip-loving Calcutta, people quickly found out who she was. Some heard, others guessed based on her TV silhouettes. From potential landlords to job interviewers, nobody wanted anything to do with the Park Street Rape Victim.
“It wasn't just me who suffered,” recalls Suzette. “It was my sister, my brother, my dad who were discriminated against because of me.”
When her sister was looking for a job at another call centre they told her, “We know you are the sister of that rape victim. We don’t want to be associated with the Park Street case in any way.”
For Suzette, the nightmare had come full circle. First, she had been raped. And now she – and everyone her life touched – was being debased, humiliated, censured, discriminated against.
Knights in Saris
In March 2013, more than a year after the rape, help arrived in the form of Santasree Chaudhari, a philanthropist and entrepreneur who ran corporate guesthouses. Santasree read about Suzette in the media during a work trip abroad. She made a mental note to help out this “Kolkata girl” upon her return.
On her return, Santasree set out to track down Suzette. It took her a month to find out where Suzette – by then broke, and living a life of quiet desperation -- lived.
She rang the doorbell. When Suzette opened the door, the first words she heard from the stranger on her doorstep was, “I’m here to help you”. Santasree had also been a victim of domestic violence, and she offered Suzette moral support and money to pay the pending rent. With her family of lawyers and her social connections, she helped Suzette fight her case. Santasree also set out to find her a job.
Thanks to her involvement with Suzette, Santasree began hearing about more and more crimes against women in and around Kolkata, and decided to make room in her office for a more formal form of support. On April 18, 2013, she began what she calls her ‘helpline’ – a Facebook page called Survivors for Victims of Social Injustice.
“We are trying to advocate for certain policy changes that prevent this ‘re-rape’ of a rape victim at the hands of the police,” says Santasree. As happened in Suzette’s case, the process of filing a police complaint is often as bad as the rape. Santasree, like other activists across the country, is advocating that the police, accompanied by a doctor, go to a victim’s home when she calls to report a rape. This would reduce the survivor’s trauma and ensure she received swift medical care. Given that three out of four rapes happen with some one familiar and not very far from home, there is a good chance this would secure the crime scene too.
Santasree employed Suzette, via her Facebook page, to counsel other victims of domestic violence, abuse and rape. Even before survivors go to the police or an NGO to seek justice, they need someone to hear them out and help them come to grips with what has happened. Suzette now provides this comfort, this much-needed empathy. She connects with rape victims across the world through various online forums, responding to their posts, chatting with them, offering counselling. “Women are weak not just in India but across the world. We need to stand together,” she says.
Even as she picked herself up again, the Park Street Rape Victim stayed anonymous. She would give occasional media interviews, with her face appearing blurred or with her back to the camera, as is the convention.
On 18th June, something changed.
‘Are You Also Fighting?’
Earlier in June, Suzette had gone to visit the family of a college student who had been raped and murdered in Kamduni Village, near Barasat, on the outskirts of Kolkata. Suzette stood there shaken, once again pushed to the edge by the violence visited on other women, wondering whether every rape would make her remember her own personal nightmare.
The mother of the murdered woman had spoken to no one until then. When she saw Suzette, she asked her, “Tumiun lodcho? (Are you also fighting?)”
To Suzette, that moment and that woman gave her new resolve. “I realized I was alive,” she says. “It’s such a feeling to be alive and fit!” She realized there was so much more she could do with the life she had been gifted.
On 18th June, she decided to attend a Kolkata rally organized by the network of women’s rights organizations called Maitree to protest the recent spate of rapes. She intended to be just another woman at the rally -- a woman who had once flown kites, who had run races against the boys and played marbles, who had left a bad marriage, who had two daughters, who lived in Kolkata.
Just a woman. Just another woman, protesting the serial indignities visited on her tribe.
Her family was scared for her; her mother was vehemently opposed to her going and yet, Suzette knew she had to go. It would be the first time since her rape that she would appear in such a large public gathering without a dupatta hiding her face. At the venue, she couldn’t believe the number of people who had turned up.
“There were so many women, men, school kids, old people. When I saw the solidarity among the women…it touched me when I met a 74-year-old woman with a walking stick coming out to protest,” she says.
That is when Suzette Jordan decided to reclaim her identity.
“I was sick of being called ‘Park Street’. I realized that I can’t fight this behind a mask. I had to make the point that we have nothing to be ashamed of. Society should be ashamed to make rape victims feel a stigma. Me? The ‘Park Street Rape Victim’? Bullshit! I‘m a mother, I’m a daughter, I’m a sister. People depend on me and love me!” The beads and bangles on her hand jangle as she makes her point.
That day, Suzette made headlines again in the Indian media. The international media, which had been squinting at India ever since the massive December 16 protests last year, also applauded Suzette’s move.
Today she is Suzette Jordan – daughter, sister, mother, counsellor to women in distress and oh yes, a rape victim. But her search for justice still has some distance to go. Trials have begun at the fast track court for three of the five accused who have been caught. Two are still absconding, including the prime accused. Suzette still wakes up to her phone ringing at odd hours. The calls are invariably blank; there is a humming sound in the background.
One recent day, while we were in Suzette’s home talking, her phone rang. She picked it up. “Hello? Hello?” There was the same staticky silence.
“You’re such a coward!” she screamed, and I could see her breathing hard.
Finding the way home
Having found a driver whose looks Suzette trusts, we are driving in the taxi to her home. Instinctively protective now of other women, she has taken the front seat and put me in the back with her daughters.
The girls in their school uniforms sit close together so that the MP3 player earphones they’re sharing don’t fall off. Although only two years apart, the older girl is calmer; she keeps a protective eye on her mother. The younger one has Suzette’s radiance and sense of style.
After driving in silence for a few minutes, I ask the girls what their mom’s pet advice is. They gasp in unison: “Advice? She screams if we don’t keep calling to let her know we’re okay, even when we’re just at school!” On one of their phones is a selfie of the three of them all dolled up and posing. “Our home is our studio. We don’t go out. We get dressed up and click pictures for fun.”
When I ask Suzette what is it that she really wants to do with her life now, she smiles.
“Actually, I’m doing it already,” she says.
Suzette has found her calling in the work she does to help other survivors. Now she wants to do more. She wants to see the Facebook support page offer an actual helpline number. And she wants to educate school kids about abuse – she thinks they need to know of the potential dangers when they're young.
We reach their home. I ask Suzette what she loves doing most. “Partying!” she says with a twinkle in her eye. When I peer at her through the viewfinder of my camera, she laughs and dances and flies across the room in leaps. I get a heartbreaking glimpse of the woman – happy, carefree, secure, safe – Suzette could have been, if not for a few hours on the night of February 5, 2012.
Her daughters watch her, adoring her for this madness that they think they’ve somehow missed inheriting.
Suzette stops, out of breath. She says, with some sadness, “I know that story won’t sell.”
Shriya Mohan is an independent journalist and researcher whose writings have been published in Tehelka, OPEN, Down to Earth, The Hindu and Hindustan Times.