Why are 18 years not enough to escape your rapists?

In 1996, she was 16. She was raped by 42 men in 40 days. Since then, the attempts of the woman, forever known as ‘the Suryanelli girl’, to live a life with dignity have been derailed by public ridicule and an endless legal battle. Our writer meets the survivor of one of India’s most infamous rape cases and discovers how, nearly 18 years later, her ordeal continues; how we won’t give her justice but remain pruriently obsessed with every detail of her life

Why are 18 years not enough to escape your rapists?

In 1996, she was 16. She was raped by 42 men in 40 days. Since then, the attempts of the woman, forever known as ‘the Suryanelli girl’, to live a life with dignity have been derailed by public ridicule and an endless legal battle. Our writer meets the survivor of one of India’s most infamous rape cases and discovers how, nearly 18 years later, her ordeal continues; how we won’t give her justice but remain pruriently obsessed with every detail of her life

“I’m scared about which officer is going to take charge at my office. The person who was in charge earlier was a good man. But he retired yesterday. I was shattered by rumours that someone who used to work in the office earlier has asked to be posted here again. He was one of those who tormented me the most…”

She speaks with a faded smile. Her voice has the innocence of a schoolchild. But in her eyes and voice is a detachment. Self-conscious about her body, she shrinks in a chair across the table.

The three inhabitants of that house seem like lifeless objects – the 75-year-old father, the 70-year-old mother, and she, a 33-year-old. Sofas, a TV, chairs around a dining table spread with books and medicines.
 
Her father’s face is swollen and marked by the pain of sickness. He speaks little, and that softly. Her mother speaks continuously, panting a little. Both have heart ailments. Her father is diabetic, among other things; her mother has bronchitis and uterine problems. Their condition stirs alarm in us, and anxiety about her. But she has few anxieties -- because there’s little that can trouble her beyond the horrors she has experienced already.She was 16, when she became the victim of the first child trafficking case that shook Kerala. A Class 9 student from a village called Suryanelli. Raju, the conductor of the private bus in which she travelled to school, pretended to be in love with her. He morphed a nude body onto the head in a photograph he snatched from her hand and threatened to publicise it.
 
As an alternative, he promised to marry her and lured her out of school. Than was on January 16, 1996. A woman called Usha sat next to her on the bus, pretending to be a stranger. At Kothamangalam, Raju disappeared. Usha approached the frightened girl, and promised to escort her to a relative’s house in Mundakkayam. Usha took her to Kottayam instead. 

A protest against PJ Kurien and retired HC judge R Basant. Photo credit: Harris Kuttipuram Madhyamam

Advocate Dharmarajan awaited them. He took the child to a lodge, where he raped her. He then took her to Ernakulam, Kumily, Thiruvananthapuram, Kottayam and then back to Kumily, selling her to 42 men over a 40-day period. When she protested, she was drugged and beaten. Then, three women called Usha, Zeenat and Mary, along with autorickshaw driver Jamal, took over ‘responsibility’ for her.  They served her up to many ‘big shots’.

On 26 February, she showed up at the post office where her father worked, a bloated, half-dead figure. The miseries she had experienced came to light. The list of those who had assaulted her included the name of PJ Kurien, a former professor of physics, at the time a Member of Parliament and Union Minister and today, Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. (Kurien belongs to the Congress Party, the leading partner in the alliances that rule both at the State and Central governments.)

She sought justice – but from that moment on, she and her family have been punished for her tragedy. As the case drags from court to court, her exhausted father, unwell mother, and a sister who lives in hiding continue to pay damages.

The woman whom Kerala calls the Suryanelli girl still has the face of a schoolgirl who is unaware of the deceptions practiced by the world. Her body, however, is bloated from her many medications and from being shut up in her house. She suffers intermittent fevers. She has other persistent illnesses, such as migraine, backaches, asthma, depression and fatigue. Every month the three members of the family seem to take turns to be hospitalized. The doctors don’t know who she is, or the wounds that were inflicted on her body, mind and spirit. And so she doesn’t quite receive the treatment she needs. Over the last two months, she and her father have spent two weeks each in hospital.

Last June, her father became very sick, with complications related to the cardiac bypass surgery he underwent in 2004 that included a hernia and continuous vomiting. The mother and daughter struggled to reach him to a hospital in the middle of the night. In the middle of the epidemics of dengue and chikungunya that were plaguing Kerala, no hospital had room. Eventually, they made it to a private hospital in Kottayam. The doctor who examined the patient was clear – the patient needed surgery immediately.

But with no rooms available, the patient would have to be admitted to the general ward. ‘And my daughter and I?’, the mother asked. You can sit in the ward on a chair by the patient’s bed; let your daughter sit outside. The father and mother looked at each other. They couldn’t say ‘This isn’t a daughter we can leave waiting on the verandah.’ Someone was bound to recognize her, as had happened many times in the past. Sometimes, the reaction would stop at ridicule. At others, it escalated to assault.

So they fled to Karnataka, to the hospital where the original surgery was done. Completed the surgery.  Stayed in hospital in the security of anonymity for forty days. Step by step her father returned from the edge of death. He cannot let himself die for if he does, three women will have to fend for themselves – three women who are weapons for some factions, and prey for others.

They have no one to help them. Their relatives gave up on them a long time ago.  When the father’s mother died, they were not told. They were not informed about the deaths of siblings and other relatives either. They are not invited to weddings or naming ceremonies of friends or family members.  There’s not a single house where they are welcome to visit. The mother’s family also keeps them at a distance, annoyed at the way old stories are repeatedly resurrected by the media. One aunt keeps in limited touch; they are ostracized by everyone else.

To the community, they are a spectacle. Should they wear nice clothes, people are uncomfortable. Should they be heard speaking or laughing, they attract comments of the “What cheek!” variety. Ideally, society wishes to see them miserable and dressed in mourning. It believes that women whose ‘character’ has been compromised and their families have no right to smile. So they don’t smile. Or speak. They have no social life at all. Few people darken their doors, apart from journalists who do so every time there is a new break in the ongoing news saga. 
A protest in Delhi asking for justice for the Suryanelli victim. Photo credit: Fotocorp


She can be attacked at any time -- physically, emotionally or economically. Her experiences are different from those of other trafficking victims. What wrecked her life was that fifteen days after she had managed to escape from the traffickers, she recognized a picture of Kurien (Minister of State for Industries and Minister of State for Non-Conventional Energy in the Union Cabinet at the time) in the newspaper and identified him as one of the men who had sexually abused her. The Congress party, the Church and the Nair Service Society (NSS) backed Kurien. Rumours began to circulate. She and her family were vilified. Character assassinations abounded.

“He is a big shot. Compared to his position, we are all just worms. Why would we need to malign a person of his stature? We had already gone through so much. Suffered the jeers and contempt and derision of the community for eighteen years. What could we possibly gain by lying and falsely accusing him?” asks her father.

What have they gained? They needed to raise funds through a public subscription for his last surgery. If they had kept their various tribulations under wraps, they could have fled somewhere to keep their middle class lives secure. Or they could have auctioned themselves to the highest political bidder and become rich. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they live for what they still believe to be the truth. Despite every blow, they insist on repeating the same truth. 

And for that very reason, she has become a political instrument. A life designed for the UDF (United Democratic Front: an alliance of political parties created by Congress party leader K Karunakaran) to beat up, and for the LDF (Left Democratic Front: a coalition of left-leaning parties) to ‘protect’. Except that the beaters-up and the protectors forget that she is a human being with the right to live with dignity.

“I was a nurse with the Harrison Estate hospital,” says the mother. And the children’s father was a postmaster. “We had a lot of expectations for our two daughters. Since the educational facilities in a remote village like Suryanelli were limited, and we wanted our children to get the best opportunities possible, we sent our children to boarding school. Our older daughter was very bright. She was courageous and intelligent and responsible. But she was sickly as a child. She underwent two major surgeries, at six months and one and a half years. The second one was particularly complicated, and she ceased breathing for a while during the surgery.  We made a vow to the Mother at Velankanni. After that, every year we went to Velankanni. Once we got caught up in the case, we couldn’t keep our vow for six years because we had the police guarding our house. We couldn’t even go to church. Even now, only the children’s father and I go to church. She rarely goes out. Three or four months ago, at Suja Teacher’s insistence, we went to see a play. It was about the sexual harassment faced by young girls. We slipped in without anybody else noticing. And Suja Teacher escorted us home as well.”

“Anyone who happens to spot this young woman can’t keep the information to themselves. They need to immediately inform half a dozen people – did you see who that was? The Suryanelli girl,” says college professor, political activist, and member of the board of the Purogamana Kalasahitya Sangam (a Kottayam-based group of writers and artists), Suja Susan George.  She has been the mainstay of this family for years. Most recently, she was responsible for raising the money for the father’s surgery.

“I’ve felt sorry that not even political activists are able to find in themselves the sympathy that this young woman and her family deserve,” laments Prof George. “This is a middle-class family, like yours or mine. They had dreams – they wanted to give their children an education so they could achieve something and then get them married. But it grieves me to see how poorly they are perceived by the community. I was dismayed when even politicians told me that I should not visit this house. Right now, they accept help only from me. And that is because of the trust we have built in our relationship over many years. I’m always anxious when I have to leave them for a few days.  And I’m always anxious about the father’s health.”

On January 16, 1996, when his daughter went missing, the father registered a complaint at the Munnar police station. But the police were busy searching for an old Jeep that had also gone missing. When he discovered the involvement of bus conductor Raju, the father promptly shared this information with the police. On February 19, the police took Raju into custody. But they let him go because of interventions from ‘above’. At the office of the Deputy Superintendent of Police in Munnar, Raju grinned cheekily at the hapless complainant and walked free. If, instead of letting Raju go, the police had interrogated him, the culprits could have been apprehended right then and the child rescued. Instead, she returned, a living corpse, on February 26. 

The father registered a fresh complaint at the Munnar police station. After a preliminary investigation, the police advised the father to withdraw the complaint. When the father was unwilling to do so, the police warned him that he could expect much shaming and dishonour. The next day, the police asked the child to come to the police station to record her statement. They kept the shattered child and her father waiting on the station’s verandah till one o’clock in the morning. A huge crowd had gathered to witness their misery. They mocked the child and made lewd comments. 

The next day, the police took the child for a medical examination. Since this matter too had been publicized, huge crowds had turned up at the hospital as well. The pain of having to take his daughter for a medical examination in the company of the police and through the crowds still haunts the father.

The gynaecologist at the Adimaali Taluk Government Hospital, Dr VK Bhaskaran, conducted the medical examination at 2.30 pm on February 28, 1996.  His certificate records the following: cuts and bruises all over the body. Bite marks and scars of festering wounds where she had been beaten. The injuries in her private parts had become serious wounds because of bacterial infections. They were so bad that pus and blood spurted from the wounds when they were touched. The severe infections had affected the uterus and she would never be able to bear a child. Bodily fluids had collected to swell her body in many places. Her throat was festering.

The police released the child and her father at Adimaali. Since they had been with the police, the child’s father had no money with him. The child was unable to walk. In tears, the father walked with his daughter through the gawking crowds. They managed to reach home in an auto arranged by an acquaintance. That night, the child’s health took a turn for the worse and she was hospitalized. 

But the police turned up in the morning, insisting that the child needed to be taken to gather evidence. The police wandered through Adimaali town with the child and her parents. The purpose was to determine whether the girl could identify the places she had mentioned in the complaint against conductor Raju. Unprecedented mobs turned up to see the latest scenes in the drama. The media reported that the town had never seen such crowds.

By mid-March, the police began gathering evidence in earnest. They put the child, together with 40 of the accused, in a van, in which they travelled from place to place for the purpose. The van came to be known as the ‘Suryanelli vehicle’. The gathering of evidence – this grotesque travelling show – took two and a half years.

When she was snatched, the child was slim. She was dressed in a mid-length skirt and top. When she returned after a month and a half in captivity, she was swollen and bloated. Her old clothes no longer fit her. “The circumstances were such that we could not buy her new clothes. We had a woollen shawl.  People heard that she was being brought as part of evidence gathering and huge crowds gathered everywhere. Every time we got out of the vehicle, we would wrap her up in the shawl. Everywhere people mocked her, abused her, made obscene jokes. We heard this on all those journeys…”, her mother remembers.

“People simply could not understand that this was a child who had been nurtured and raised lovingly by her parents, when they treated her so cruelly. We insisted on going through the judicial process in spite of the relentless shaming because we didn’t want something like this to ever happen again. But to what end? Children continue to go missing. Trafficking of women continues.”

Meanwhile, some people began to protest the treatment of the child by the police and in particular, the way in which she was being paraded from one place to another on the pretext of gathering evidence. Treating a letter sent by an organization from Thrissur as a writ petition, the courts forbade the police to use the child in the evidence-gathering process.

When I asked her if she had met any of the policemen who had treated her badly later, she smiles with detachment. “All the local policemen have since retired. I once saw the then Sub-Inspector of the Devikulam police station at the collector’s office. He recognized me. He glared at me, and walked past.”

The political overtones of the matter created even more misery for the family. A police guard was stationed at her house. Not one or two, but six police personnel.

“That was torture all over again. The child could not step out of the house. If she stepped out, the police would whistle and jeer and make coarse comments. There were six police personnel, including women, stationed at a time. My quarters were close to the dispensary. When I went to the dispensary, she would shut the door and sit inside. If she happened to step outside, they would recall the forty days she had spent in captivity and make vulgar remarks. One day, she ran into the kitchen, poured kerosene over herself and screamed ‘I don’t want to live anymore, Mummy, I want to end it all here’…”, the mother wipes her tears.

The process of investigation created a ruckus in the Legislative Assembly. The case was transferred to the Crime Branch. On July 6, 1996, the responsibility of investigating the case was handed over to the Inspector-General in charge of Administration, Siby Mathews. The investigations were completed. 41 people were arrested. Only the accused called ‘Baanji’ in the records, alleged to be Kurien and named by the girl, was not apprehended. 18 years on, this accused remains the only one the police have been unable to trace.

The young woman recalls that day as follows:  “He came at dusk on the third or fourth day that I spent in captivity at the Kumily Guest House. By then three people had already assaulted me.  He came into the room when I was in the bathroom. When I emerged from the bathroom, I saw him sitting on the bed. I ran back into the bathroom. He banged on the door. I didn’t open it. Then a man came around the back to the window and abused me. He told me to open the door and said that I would be killed if I didn’t open the door. I was terrified and opened the door. I was exhausted and my body ached all over. He grabbed my arm and twisted it. He stamped hard on my foot. I screamed out loud. He raped me cruelly for half an hour. After he left, another man came in. He grabbed me by the hair and hit me with his fists. He said the punishment was for screaming and not treating the man they called Baanji well.”

After an investigation jointly conducted by Inspector-General Siby Mathews and then Deputy Superintendent of Police KK Joshua, suspects were taken into custody. The case was brought to court.  There were 97 witnesses. Given the seriousness of the case, the government appointed G Janardhana Kurup, senior advocate of the Kerala High Court, Special Prosecutor. After reading the investigation report and the child’s testimony, Kurup tended the legal advice that Kurien needed to be included among the accused in the case. Based on the child’s testimony, the police had arrested 41 persons. The girl was able to identify 38 of them. Kurup asked why the child’s testimony was disbelieved only in the case of Kurien, who could have been produced for an identification parade. If the girl was unable to identify him, the matter could then have been set aside.

Kurup took exception to the police’s stand that Kurien could not have been present that day at Kumily, as they had accepted Kurien’s own evidence at face value as proof for this stand. Some of the witnesses produced by Kurien in his defence have since gone on record on various television channels stating that their testimonies in the Suryanelli case were incorrect. It is amazing that back then, and even today, the
police have been unable to establish Kurien’s innocence beyond reasonable doubt.

Former Chief Justice Anand of the Supreme Court had issued certain guidelines to be followed in the context of a rape case that he had heard while he was a judge in the Supreme Court. These guidelines were circulated to all the district courts in the country. One of the guidelines was that rape victims were to be treated with sympathy.

“The trial began on November 15, 1999,” says advocate Anila George, who appeared on behalf of the plaintiff. “On the day the trial began, the judge read out the Supreme Court guidelines in the court. He stated that the trial would take place according to the guidelines. No questions on the rapes or assaults would be allowed. There would be no compromise allowed on the matter of the guidelines. This was how the cross-examination was carried out. To one of the questions, the girl’s reply was rather soft. Immediately, the defence counsel jumped up. He asked rudely, ‘Is this how you speak in court? Speak loudly.’ The girl broke down. The court intervened and said that the defence counsel had no right to speak like that. The girl could speak loudly or softly, as she wished. But the girl was unable to regain her composure and the proceedings were adjourned for the day. Several times during the trial, the girl was traumatized by the cross-questioning related to the forty days that she had spent in captivity. At every point, the court treated her with consideration.”

Meanwhile, on March 15, 1999, the young woman had filed a case before the magistrate in Peerumedu, asking that Kurien should also be made an accused in the case. The court ruled that there was sufficient prima facie evidence to make Kurien a defendant and that he should be subjected to cross-examination. Kurien lodged an appeal in the High Court.

On September 2, 2000, the Special Court delivered its verdict. 35 of the accused, including Dharmarajan, were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment and fines imposed on them. The verdict was delivered by Special Court Judge M. Sasidharan Nambiar. Public prosecutors Suresh Babu Joseph, Anila George, and CS Ajayan appeared on behalf of the plaintiff. The Special Court’s trial and verdict was a milestone in Kerala’s judicial history. Ninety-seven witnesses were cross-examined and charges were filed against 41 persons. Four were acquitted, and 35 convicted. Sentences ranged from 4 years to life, along with fines.

In the interim, the EK Nayanar government had given the young woman a job in the Sales Tax Department in the lowest grade. She began to go to work.

And then, in 2002, there was another strange development. The CBI team investigating the case in which Sr. Abhaya, a nun, was found dead in the well at St. Pius X Convent, Kottayam, summoned the Suryanelli girl to be questioned. With them was Mary of Kunnath House, Kuravilangad, the 38th accused in the Suryanelli case. The CBI had summoned the Suryanelli girl in the light of Mary’s testimony that the girl had told her that she knew many secrets related to the Abhaya case. When Sr. Abhaya was killed, however, the Suryanelli girl was only 11 years old, years before her 40-day purgatory. And she had never stayed in the convent hostel where the nun had been found dead.

“Apart from the fact that she had read about Sr. Abhaya in the papers, she had no connection with the case.  The aim was to get us entangled in another case and apply pressure on us,” the girl’s mother said. At this point, Kurien’s appeal was still pending before the High Court. The CBI official wanted to subject the young woman to a polygraph test. But the media, the opposition and the courts intervened and prevented this.

“The trial and the verdict gave the girl, her family and us the feeling that we had received justice. And that’s when the High Court’s verdict came like a blow…”, observes Anila George.

In January 20, 2005, Justice Basant and Justice Gafoor delivered the verdict on an appeal filed in the High Court by the 35 persons convicted. The High Court acquitted all but one of the 35 people convicted by the Special Court – Dharmarajan. Dharmarajan’s sentence was reduced to five years imprisonment. But Dharmarajan was convicted not on charges of rape, but on charges of inducing the child to enter the flesh trade.

Among other things this new judgement said, ‘She is thus shown to be a girl of deviant character. She was not a normal innocent girl of that age.’ The judgement also remarked on her tendency to friendliness towards strangers and added that ‘when such a girl had gone out of the custody of her parents for about 40 days and had been with several other persons, it cannot be said that her evidence regarding her unwillingness for sexual intercourse should be believed as such without insisting on satisfactory materials for assurance.’

The High Court came to the conclusion that the victim had opportunities to escape but did not use them. Instead, she seemed to have wandered the length and breadth of Kerala with the accused. The court believed that the girl had had consensual sexual relations with the accused. That there was no evidence that she had resisted or sought anyone’s help to escape. Moreover, the girl was 16 years old, past the legal age for consensual sex.  The judgment said ‘there is no convincing evidence to show that she was not an unwilling partner for the sexual intercourse.’ The judgment further stated that ‘many of the accused went to her only assuming that she is a prostitute.’

The court came to the conclusion that the prosecution had been unable to provide evidence related to abduction, rape or conspiracy. The High Court acquitted all the accused except for Dharmarajan, who was found guilty only of selling a minor for prostitution. His sentence was reduced to five years, and the fine reduced from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 5,000.

The Kerala government was reluctant to appeal against the High Court’s verdict. Eventually, under pressure from women’s organisations and the media, an appeal was filed in the Supreme Court, which admitted the special leave petitions (SLPs) filed by the Kerala government and others challenging the acquittal of all except Dharmarajan, the prime accused, on November 11, 2005. 

Meanwhile, the parents had retired from service. In keeping with their middle class desires, they built a house in Suryanelli and named it ‘Snehatheeram’ – the shores of love.  But with the High Court verdict, they were again dragged into the limelight. “Back then, tourist guides would bring people who visited local tourist spots to our house and say – ‘Look, that’s the house of the Suryanelli girl.’ Immediately, people would get out of their vehicles, and we became a mini tourist centre.  So we thought we would move from there and build another house. We invited my colleagues and friends to the housewarming ceremony, but no one turned up. So it was just the four of us at the housewarming. Finally, we sold the house at whatever price we could get,” said the victim’s father.

In 2006, the young woman and her family moved from Suryanelli to Kottayam district.  They bought an isolated house in a village.  The house did not have the comforts of the dream house they had built and they suffered a financial loss. But eager to escape public attention, they grabbed the first refuge they could find. Since there were no houses nearby, they managed to live there peacefully for a while.

In the matter of the appeal filed by Kurien in the High Court, after more litigation in the Supreme Court and the Additional Sessions Court, Thodupuzha, High Court judge KR Udayabhanu acquitted him on April 4, 2007 citing the earlier verdict that 34 of the earlier defendants had also been acquitted. The case was decided ex parte, with the victim not being served notice regarding the hearing of the case.

Later that year, on November 16, 2007, the VS Achuthanandan government appealed to the Supreme Court. Appearing for Kurien was one of the highest-paid lawyers in the country – Arun Jaitley, then a BJP MP. The then Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan summoned the case to his bench and quashed it. Along with Justice RV Raveendran, he delivered a single-line judgment that read, “The Special Leave Petition is dismissed”, with no explanation regarding the merits of the petition.  Because it was heard by the Chief Justice, there was no chance for it to be sent to any other bench.

Meanwhile, the young woman was transferred to the Sales Tax Office in Changanassery. The office was notorious for its involvement in sales tax-related scams. In 2011, her sister, who was then working in Calcutta, received a phone call. Lakhs of rupees had gone missing from the office. Until it was traced, she would not be allowed to leave the office. Her sister called her parents. Her father and mother rushed to the office where they found her, shivering in fear. 

The allegation was that a deposit receipt was missing. She was accused of not depositing a sum of Rs 2,26,006. Her superior officer pretended to be helpful and asked her to sign a confession and repay the money if she wanted to keep her job. Based on his advice, she signed a false confession. The family had some limited savings in the form of the parents’ retirement benefits and some gold. They sold the gold and paid the money. A departmental inquiry was held and three staff members were given punishment transfers. The family thought that the matter had ended there.

However, on February 6, 2012, while she was waiting for a bus, the Crime Branch arrived and dramatically arrested her from the bus stop. With that, the anonymity that the family had enjoyed came to an end.  The parents went to the police station with a lawyer, but the young woman had already been remanded by then. Many technical reasons were cited to deny the girl bail more than once. She was released only after a week. By then, because she had been jailed, she was suspended from her job as well.

Of all the horrors after the forty day captivity, this episode was the one that destroyed the family. She was broken by the allegation that she was a thief. One of her colleagues pretended to be her friend and made her take a housing loan on her behalf. She borrowed two lakh rupees from her, and then refused to repay.  She was forced to repay the loan from her salary.

“Her experiences in the Changanassery office completely shattered the young woman. She continues to be an innocent.  She is still unable to figure it out when someone is only pretending friendship. Whatever little happiness she was capable of was destroyed by this repeated experience of betrayed friendship. Now she is detached about everything…” Suja George observes.
 
Meanwhile, after five years, the Supreme Court considered the appeal in the original case. On January 15 this year, a bench comprising Justice AK Patnaik and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra ordered the High Court to hear the appeal afresh and expressed shock at the acquittal of the accused. It criticized the High Court’s observation that sexual relations had occurred with the consent of the girl. That the girl might have had consensual sex with one person was understandable, but the bench observed that the High Court’s stand that she had had consensual sexual relations with 42 persons was shocking. The Court also ruled that a verdict should be delivered within six months, and later extended this deadline to December 31 of this year. 

The Dharmarajan trial has been underway for over three months now. Dharmarajan, who was released on bail and went into hiding, gave an interview in February to a TV news channel in which he confirmed that PJ Kurien had indeed assaulted the child and that he had himself escorted Kurien to the Kumily guesthouse. Within days, Dharmarajan was apprehended by the Kerala police. The victim filed a petition in the Thodupuzha sessions court, asking it to direct the Peerumedu court to order a probe against Kurien. The Sessions Court served notice to Kurien, Dharmarajan, Unnikrishnan Nair, Jamal and the Government of Kerala. Dharmarajan retracted his statement in court, saying that he had made it while under the influence of alcohol. The Sessions Court rejected her petition.

The victim approached the High Court yet again on October 5, to get a case registered charging Kurien, Dharmarajan, Jamal and Unni. The court reserved orders in the case.

Meanwhile, Justice Basant was caught on camera by a TV channel, expressing his opinion that the girl was a child prostitute and that she had not been raped; an opinion that went public.  His views rocked the media and the community. Once again, she became the focus of media attention. I asked advocate Suresh Babu Thomas, one of Kerala’s most distinguished criminal lawyers who was familiar with the Suryanelli girl and her family, what he thought of their lives. 

“In a word, tragedy. I have never seen a greater tragedy in my life. When I see the trials that she and her family have suffered over the years, I feel a helpless rage. The father and mother are invalids. Her bright older sister has been unable to get a good job or get married. She has been in hiding for several years. It was when they had achieved some measure of anonymity and peace that she was arrested again. And that was the end. You wouldn’t wish this fate even on an enemy.”

Anila George adds, “When the Special Court passed its verdict, they thought they had received justice. That was when the adverse High Court verdict came about. Close on its heels came the embezzlement case and the arrest. The tragedy is multiplied by their sense that they have not received justice. The family has no hope left.”

She lives like an automaton now. She waits till the morning commuters’ rush subsides to set out to work so she can find a comparatively empty bus in which to travel. Someone is bound to recognize her on a crowded bus, she fears. She gets onto a similarly uncrowded bus on her way back from work. Watching her walk home from the bus stop is a painful sight. She covers her body with a dupatta and walks slowly, like a blameworthy person. Her constant illnesses make her appear exhausted and older than she is.

“When I think of her parents, I am very apprehensive. How will she manage without them? Even now she lacks the courage to take decisions or act on them. She is unable to distinguish between people she can trust and people who will betray her. Her sister received some marriage proposals. But the moment the boy’s side finds out she is the older sister of the Suryanelli girl, they abuse the family. And in any case, how can we get these girls married to anybody in good faith? What if the experiences that await them after the wedding are worse than they have experienced so far? What if the men who come forward to marry them have been hired [by vested political interests]? It’s a terrible situation,” says Prof George.

When the case came to trial, her parents had reasonable savings. Now, these have been wiped out.
“After all the deductions, I have a take-home salary of Rs 8000. Of this, Rs 5000 goes towards LIC payments. In effect, my salary is Rs 3000. Because my parents receive pensions, we can run the household. My sister got a job very recently. She earns Rs 10,000. If anyone falls ill, all our careful balancing acts fall apart,” she says.

“Although the colleagues I work with now don’t say anything, they don’t see me as one among them. Nobody speaks to me.  I am not close to anyone. I had to take a month’s leave because of my father’s illness. My colleagues deducted a thousand rupees from my salary as my contribution towards a party they held when I was on leave. My father’s treatment was paid for by a public subscription. When I asked for the money deducted for a party in which I did not even participate, they didn’t like it. Angrily, they refunded five hundred rupees,” she weeps. Even now, she is terrified if anyone speaks harshly. She sobs. She shrinks, unable to speak up for herself.

She also wrote letters to the Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, asking to be acquitted in the financial irregularity case in which she had been tricked into giving a false confession, and a second requesting investigation into Kurien’s involvement, and this matter was also raised in the Legislative Assembly in Kerala. While the Chief Minister replied neutrally in the first matter, saying that the matter was still under investigation by the Crime Branch and the investigations needed to be completed, he was more categorical about the latter request. His response was that while many cases had been filed, Kurien had been acquitted by all the courts, and so another investigation was impossible.

“Now we are terrified of the media. Our relatives say that we publicize everything through the media, and that is the reason they give for abandoning us. They ask us what we have gained by speaking to the media. They are right, we have gained nothing. In order to make society more secure, we thought it was important to talk about what had happened to our child. And we have been jailed by the community for 18 years for that very reason. People hate us. But as more and more incidents of this kind happen in the community, we wonder if we have endured all this for no purpose at all. This was a waste…”

Her mother’s words remind us that rehabilitation does not take place when survivors of sexual harassment are given jobs or married off. What needs to be rehabilitated is the survivor’s lost dignity and will to live. But 18 years on, we continue to destroy these. Meanwhile, the Suryanelli girl and her family try to stand up for themselves, again and yet again.

KR Meera is an independent journalist and one of the most widely read Malayalam authors of her generation. She has published four short story collections, four novels, a novella collection and two novels for children in Malayalam. She has won, among others, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. Her latest short story collection Yellow is the Color of Longing (2011) was published in English by Penguin.


“I’m scared about which officer is going to take charge at my office. The person who was in charge earlier was a good man. But he retired yesterday. I was shattered by rumours that someone who used to work in the office earlier has asked to be posted here again. He was one of those who tormented me the most…”

She speaks with a faded smile. Her voice has the innocence of a schoolchild. But in her eyes and voice is a detachment. Self-conscious about her body, she shrinks in a chair across the table.

The three inhabitants of that house seem like lifeless objects – the 75-year-old father, the 70-year-old mother, and she, a 33-year-old. Sofas, a TV, chairs around a dining table spread with books and medicines.
 
Her father’s face is swollen and marked by the pain of sickness. He speaks little, and that softly. Her mother speaks continuously, panting a little. Both have heart ailments. Her father is diabetic, among other things; her mother has bronchitis and uterine problems. Their condition stirs alarm in us, and anxiety about her. But she has few anxieties -- because there’s little that can trouble her beyond the horrors she has experienced already.She was 16, when she became the victim of the first child trafficking case that shook Kerala. A Class 9 student from a village called Suryanelli. Raju, the conductor of the private bus in which she travelled to school, pretended to be in love with her. He morphed a nude body onto the head in a photograph he snatched from her hand and threatened to publicise it.
 
As an alternative, he promised to marry her and lured her out of school. Than was on January 16, 1996. A woman called Usha sat next to her on the bus, pretending to be a stranger. At Kothamangalam, Raju disappeared. Usha approached the frightened girl, and promised to escort her to a relative’s house in Mundakkayam. Usha took her to Kottayam instead. 

A protest against PJ Kurien and retired HC judge R Basant. Photo credit: Harris Kuttipuram Madhyamam

Advocate Dharmarajan awaited them. He took the child to a lodge, where he raped her. He then took her to Ernakulam, Kumily, Thiruvananthapuram, Kottayam and then back to Kumily, selling her to 42 men over a 40-day period. When she protested, she was drugged and beaten. Then, three women called Usha, Zeenat and Mary, along with autorickshaw driver Jamal, took over ‘responsibility’ for her.  They served her up to many ‘big shots’.

On 26 February, she showed up at the post office where her father worked, a bloated, half-dead figure. The miseries she had experienced came to light. The list of those who had assaulted her included the name of PJ Kurien, a former professor of physics, at the time a Member of Parliament and Union Minister and today, Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. (Kurien belongs to the Congress Party, the leading partner in the alliances that rule both at the State and Central governments.)

She sought justice – but from that moment on, she and her family have been punished for her tragedy. As the case drags from court to court, her exhausted father, unwell mother, and a sister who lives in hiding continue to pay damages.

The woman whom Kerala calls the Suryanelli girl still has the face of a schoolgirl who is unaware of the deceptions practiced by the world. Her body, however, is bloated from her many medications and from being shut up in her house. She suffers intermittent fevers. She has other persistent illnesses, such as migraine, backaches, asthma, depression and fatigue. Every month the three members of the family seem to take turns to be hospitalized. The doctors don’t know who she is, or the wounds that were inflicted on her body, mind and spirit. And so she doesn’t quite receive the treatment she needs. Over the last two months, she and her father have spent two weeks each in hospital.

Last June, her father became very sick, with complications related to the cardiac bypass surgery he underwent in 2004 that included a hernia and continuous vomiting. The mother and daughter struggled to reach him to a hospital in the middle of the night. In the middle of the epidemics of dengue and chikungunya that were plaguing Kerala, no hospital had room. Eventually, they made it to a private hospital in Kottayam. The doctor who examined the patient was clear – the patient needed surgery immediately.

But with no rooms available, the patient would have to be admitted to the general ward. ‘And my daughter and I?’, the mother asked. You can sit in the ward on a chair by the patient’s bed; let your daughter sit outside. The father and mother looked at each other. They couldn’t say ‘This isn’t a daughter we can leave waiting on the verandah.’ Someone was bound to recognize her, as had happened many times in the past. Sometimes, the reaction would stop at ridicule. At others, it escalated to assault.

So they fled to Karnataka, to the hospital where the original surgery was done. Completed the surgery.  Stayed in hospital in the security of anonymity for forty days. Step by step her father returned from the edge of death. He cannot let himself die for if he does, three women will have to fend for themselves – three women who are weapons for some factions, and prey for others.

They have no one to help them. Their relatives gave up on them a long time ago.  When the father’s mother died, they were not told. They were not informed about the deaths of siblings and other relatives either. They are not invited to weddings or naming ceremonies of friends or family members.  There’s not a single house where they are welcome to visit. The mother’s family also keeps them at a distance, annoyed at the way old stories are repeatedly resurrected by the media. One aunt keeps in limited touch; they are ostracized by everyone else.

To the community, they are a spectacle. Should they wear nice clothes, people are uncomfortable. Should they be heard speaking or laughing, they attract comments of the “What cheek!” variety. Ideally, society wishes to see them miserable and dressed in mourning. It believes that women whose ‘character’ has been compromised and their families have no right to smile. So they don’t smile. Or speak. They have no social life at all. Few people darken their doors, apart from journalists who do so every time there is a new break in the ongoing news saga. 
A protest in Delhi asking for justice for the Suryanelli victim. Photo credit: Fotocorp


She can be attacked at any time -- physically, emotionally or economically. Her experiences are different from those of other trafficking victims. What wrecked her life was that fifteen days after she had managed to escape from the traffickers, she recognized a picture of Kurien (Minister of State for Industries and Minister of State for Non-Conventional Energy in the Union Cabinet at the time) in the newspaper and identified him as one of the men who had sexually abused her. The Congress party, the Church and the Nair Service Society (NSS) backed Kurien. Rumours began to circulate. She and her family were vilified. Character assassinations abounded.

“He is a big shot. Compared to his position, we are all just worms. Why would we need to malign a person of his stature? We had already gone through so much. Suffered the jeers and contempt and derision of the community for eighteen years. What could we possibly gain by lying and falsely accusing him?” asks her father.

What have they gained? They needed to raise funds through a public subscription for his last surgery. If they had kept their various tribulations under wraps, they could have fled somewhere to keep their middle class lives secure. Or they could have auctioned themselves to the highest political bidder and become rich. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they live for what they still believe to be the truth. Despite every blow, they insist on repeating the same truth. 

And for that very reason, she has become a political instrument. A life designed for the UDF (United Democratic Front: an alliance of political parties created by Congress party leader K Karunakaran) to beat up, and for the LDF (Left Democratic Front: a coalition of left-leaning parties) to ‘protect’. Except that the beaters-up and the protectors forget that she is a human being with the right to live with dignity.

“I was a nurse with the Harrison Estate hospital,” says the mother. And the children’s father was a postmaster. “We had a lot of expectations for our two daughters. Since the educational facilities in a remote village like Suryanelli were limited, and we wanted our children to get the best opportunities possible, we sent our children to boarding school. Our older daughter was very bright. She was courageous and intelligent and responsible. But she was sickly as a child. She underwent two major surgeries, at six months and one and a half years. The second one was particularly complicated, and she ceased breathing for a while during the surgery.  We made a vow to the Mother at Velankanni. After that, every year we went to Velankanni. Once we got caught up in the case, we couldn’t keep our vow for six years because we had the police guarding our house. We couldn’t even go to church. Even now, only the children’s father and I go to church. She rarely goes out. Three or four months ago, at Suja Teacher’s insistence, we went to see a play. It was about the sexual harassment faced by young girls. We slipped in without anybody else noticing. And Suja Teacher escorted us home as well.”

“Anyone who happens to spot this young woman can’t keep the information to themselves. They need to immediately inform half a dozen people – did you see who that was? The Suryanelli girl,” says college professor, political activist, and member of the board of the Purogamana Kalasahitya Sangam (a Kottayam-based group of writers and artists), Suja Susan George.  She has been the mainstay of this family for years. Most recently, she was responsible for raising the money for the father’s surgery.

“I’ve felt sorry that not even political activists are able to find in themselves the sympathy that this young woman and her family deserve,” laments Prof George. “This is a middle-class family, like yours or mine. They had dreams – they wanted to give their children an education so they could achieve something and then get them married. But it grieves me to see how poorly they are perceived by the community. I was dismayed when even politicians told me that I should not visit this house. Right now, they accept help only from me. And that is because of the trust we have built in our relationship over many years. I’m always anxious when I have to leave them for a few days.  And I’m always anxious about the father’s health.”

On January 16, 1996, when his daughter went missing, the father registered a complaint at the Munnar police station. But the police were busy searching for an old Jeep that had also gone missing. When he discovered the involvement of bus conductor Raju, the father promptly shared this information with the police. On February 19, the police took Raju into custody. But they let him go because of interventions from ‘above’. At the office of the Deputy Superintendent of Police in Munnar, Raju grinned cheekily at the hapless complainant and walked free. If, instead of letting Raju go, the police had interrogated him, the culprits could have been apprehended right then and the child rescued. Instead, she returned, a living corpse, on February 26. 

The father registered a fresh complaint at the Munnar police station. After a preliminary investigation, the police advised the father to withdraw the complaint. When the father was unwilling to do so, the police warned him that he could expect much shaming and dishonour. The next day, the police asked the child to come to the police station to record her statement. They kept the shattered child and her father waiting on the station’s verandah till one o’clock in the morning. A huge crowd had gathered to witness their misery. They mocked the child and made lewd comments. 

The next day, the police took the child for a medical examination. Since this matter too had been publicized, huge crowds had turned up at the hospital as well. The pain of having to take his daughter for a medical examination in the company of the police and through the crowds still haunts the father.

The gynaecologist at the Adimaali Taluk Government Hospital, Dr VK Bhaskaran, conducted the medical examination at 2.30 pm on February 28, 1996.  His certificate records the following: cuts and bruises all over the body. Bite marks and scars of festering wounds where she had been beaten. The injuries in her private parts had become serious wounds because of bacterial infections. They were so bad that pus and blood spurted from the wounds when they were touched. The severe infections had affected the uterus and she would never be able to bear a child. Bodily fluids had collected to swell her body in many places. Her throat was festering.

The police released the child and her father at Adimaali. Since they had been with the police, the child’s father had no money with him. The child was unable to walk. In tears, the father walked with his daughter through the gawking crowds. They managed to reach home in an auto arranged by an acquaintance. That night, the child’s health took a turn for the worse and she was hospitalized. 

But the police turned up in the morning, insisting that the child needed to be taken to gather evidence. The police wandered through Adimaali town with the child and her parents. The purpose was to determine whether the girl could identify the places she had mentioned in the complaint against conductor Raju. Unprecedented mobs turned up to see the latest scenes in the drama. The media reported that the town had never seen such crowds.

By mid-March, the police began gathering evidence in earnest. They put the child, together with 40 of the accused, in a van, in which they travelled from place to place for the purpose. The van came to be known as the ‘Suryanelli vehicle’. The gathering of evidence – this grotesque travelling show – took two and a half years.

When she was snatched, the child was slim. She was dressed in a mid-length skirt and top. When she returned after a month and a half in captivity, she was swollen and bloated. Her old clothes no longer fit her. “The circumstances were such that we could not buy her new clothes. We had a woollen shawl.  People heard that she was being brought as part of evidence gathering and huge crowds gathered everywhere. Every time we got out of the vehicle, we would wrap her up in the shawl. Everywhere people mocked her, abused her, made obscene jokes. We heard this on all those journeys…”, her mother remembers.

“People simply could not understand that this was a child who had been nurtured and raised lovingly by her parents, when they treated her so cruelly. We insisted on going through the judicial process in spite of the relentless shaming because we didn’t want something like this to ever happen again. But to what end? Children continue to go missing. Trafficking of women continues.”

Meanwhile, some people began to protest the treatment of the child by the police and in particular, the way in which she was being paraded from one place to another on the pretext of gathering evidence. Treating a letter sent by an organization from Thrissur as a writ petition, the courts forbade the police to use the child in the evidence-gathering process.

When I asked her if she had met any of the policemen who had treated her badly later, she smiles with detachment. “All the local policemen have since retired. I once saw the then Sub-Inspector of the Devikulam police station at the collector’s office. He recognized me. He glared at me, and walked past.”

The political overtones of the matter created even more misery for the family. A police guard was stationed at her house. Not one or two, but six police personnel.

“That was torture all over again. The child could not step out of the house. If she stepped out, the police would whistle and jeer and make coarse comments. There were six police personnel, including women, stationed at a time. My quarters were close to the dispensary. When I went to the dispensary, she would shut the door and sit inside. If she happened to step outside, they would recall the forty days she had spent in captivity and make vulgar remarks. One day, she ran into the kitchen, poured kerosene over herself and screamed ‘I don’t want to live anymore, Mummy, I want to end it all here’…”, the mother wipes her tears.

The process of investigation created a ruckus in the Legislative Assembly. The case was transferred to the Crime Branch. On July 6, 1996, the responsibility of investigating the case was handed over to the Inspector-General in charge of Administration, Siby Mathews. The investigations were completed. 41 people were arrested. Only the accused called ‘Baanji’ in the records, alleged to be Kurien and named by the girl, was not apprehended. 18 years on, this accused remains the only one the police have been unable to trace.

The young woman recalls that day as follows:  “He came at dusk on the third or fourth day that I spent in captivity at the Kumily Guest House. By then three people had already assaulted me.  He came into the room when I was in the bathroom. When I emerged from the bathroom, I saw him sitting on the bed. I ran back into the bathroom. He banged on the door. I didn’t open it. Then a man came around the back to the window and abused me. He told me to open the door and said that I would be killed if I didn’t open the door. I was terrified and opened the door. I was exhausted and my body ached all over. He grabbed my arm and twisted it. He stamped hard on my foot. I screamed out loud. He raped me cruelly for half an hour. After he left, another man came in. He grabbed me by the hair and hit me with his fists. He said the punishment was for screaming and not treating the man they called Baanji well.”

After an investigation jointly conducted by Inspector-General Siby Mathews and then Deputy Superintendent of Police KK Joshua, suspects were taken into custody. The case was brought to court.  There were 97 witnesses. Given the seriousness of the case, the government appointed G Janardhana Kurup, senior advocate of the Kerala High Court, Special Prosecutor. After reading the investigation report and the child’s testimony, Kurup tended the legal advice that Kurien needed to be included among the accused in the case. Based on the child’s testimony, the police had arrested 41 persons. The girl was able to identify 38 of them. Kurup asked why the child’s testimony was disbelieved only in the case of Kurien, who could have been produced for an identification parade. If the girl was unable to identify him, the matter could then have been set aside.

Kurup took exception to the police’s stand that Kurien could not have been present that day at Kumily, as they had accepted Kurien’s own evidence at face value as proof for this stand. Some of the witnesses produced by Kurien in his defence have since gone on record on various television channels stating that their testimonies in the Suryanelli case were incorrect. It is amazing that back then, and even today, the
police have been unable to establish Kurien’s innocence beyond reasonable doubt.

Former Chief Justice Anand of the Supreme Court had issued certain guidelines to be followed in the context of a rape case that he had heard while he was a judge in the Supreme Court. These guidelines were circulated to all the district courts in the country. One of the guidelines was that rape victims were to be treated with sympathy.

“The trial began on November 15, 1999,” says advocate Anila George, who appeared on behalf of the plaintiff. “On the day the trial began, the judge read out the Supreme Court guidelines in the court. He stated that the trial would take place according to the guidelines. No questions on the rapes or assaults would be allowed. There would be no compromise allowed on the matter of the guidelines. This was how the cross-examination was carried out. To one of the questions, the girl’s reply was rather soft. Immediately, the defence counsel jumped up. He asked rudely, ‘Is this how you speak in court? Speak loudly.’ The girl broke down. The court intervened and said that the defence counsel had no right to speak like that. The girl could speak loudly or softly, as she wished. But the girl was unable to regain her composure and the proceedings were adjourned for the day. Several times during the trial, the girl was traumatized by the cross-questioning related to the forty days that she had spent in captivity. At every point, the court treated her with consideration.”

Meanwhile, on March 15, 1999, the young woman had filed a case before the magistrate in Peerumedu, asking that Kurien should also be made an accused in the case. The court ruled that there was sufficient prima facie evidence to make Kurien a defendant and that he should be subjected to cross-examination. Kurien lodged an appeal in the High Court.

On September 2, 2000, the Special Court delivered its verdict. 35 of the accused, including Dharmarajan, were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment and fines imposed on them. The verdict was delivered by Special Court Judge M. Sasidharan Nambiar. Public prosecutors Suresh Babu Joseph, Anila George, and CS Ajayan appeared on behalf of the plaintiff. The Special Court’s trial and verdict was a milestone in Kerala’s judicial history. Ninety-seven witnesses were cross-examined and charges were filed against 41 persons. Four were acquitted, and 35 convicted. Sentences ranged from 4 years to life, along with fines.

In the interim, the EK Nayanar government had given the young woman a job in the Sales Tax Department in the lowest grade. She began to go to work.

And then, in 2002, there was another strange development. The CBI team investigating the case in which Sr. Abhaya, a nun, was found dead in the well at St. Pius X Convent, Kottayam, summoned the Suryanelli girl to be questioned. With them was Mary of Kunnath House, Kuravilangad, the 38th accused in the Suryanelli case. The CBI had summoned the Suryanelli girl in the light of Mary’s testimony that the girl had told her that she knew many secrets related to the Abhaya case. When Sr. Abhaya was killed, however, the Suryanelli girl was only 11 years old, years before her 40-day purgatory. And she had never stayed in the convent hostel where the nun had been found dead.

“Apart from the fact that she had read about Sr. Abhaya in the papers, she had no connection with the case.  The aim was to get us entangled in another case and apply pressure on us,” the girl’s mother said. At this point, Kurien’s appeal was still pending before the High Court. The CBI official wanted to subject the young woman to a polygraph test. But the media, the opposition and the courts intervened and prevented this.

“The trial and the verdict gave the girl, her family and us the feeling that we had received justice. And that’s when the High Court’s verdict came like a blow…”, observes Anila George.

In January 20, 2005, Justice Basant and Justice Gafoor delivered the verdict on an appeal filed in the High Court by the 35 persons convicted. The High Court acquitted all but one of the 35 people convicted by the Special Court – Dharmarajan. Dharmarajan’s sentence was reduced to five years imprisonment. But Dharmarajan was convicted not on charges of rape, but on charges of inducing the child to enter the flesh trade.

Among other things this new judgement said, ‘She is thus shown to be a girl of deviant character. She was not a normal innocent girl of that age.’ The judgement also remarked on her tendency to friendliness towards strangers and added that ‘when such a girl had gone out of the custody of her parents for about 40 days and had been with several other persons, it cannot be said that her evidence regarding her unwillingness for sexual intercourse should be believed as such without insisting on satisfactory materials for assurance.’

The High Court came to the conclusion that the victim had opportunities to escape but did not use them. Instead, she seemed to have wandered the length and breadth of Kerala with the accused. The court believed that the girl had had consensual sexual relations with the accused. That there was no evidence that she had resisted or sought anyone’s help to escape. Moreover, the girl was 16 years old, past the legal age for consensual sex.  The judgment said ‘there is no convincing evidence to show that she was not an unwilling partner for the sexual intercourse.’ The judgment further stated that ‘many of the accused went to her only assuming that she is a prostitute.’

The court came to the conclusion that the prosecution had been unable to provide evidence related to abduction, rape or conspiracy. The High Court acquitted all the accused except for Dharmarajan, who was found guilty only of selling a minor for prostitution. His sentence was reduced to five years, and the fine reduced from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 5,000.

The Kerala government was reluctant to appeal against the High Court’s verdict. Eventually, under pressure from women’s organisations and the media, an appeal was filed in the Supreme Court, which admitted the special leave petitions (SLPs) filed by the Kerala government and others challenging the acquittal of all except Dharmarajan, the prime accused, on November 11, 2005. 

Meanwhile, the parents had retired from service. In keeping with their middle class desires, they built a house in Suryanelli and named it ‘Snehatheeram’ – the shores of love.  But with the High Court verdict, they were again dragged into the limelight. “Back then, tourist guides would bring people who visited local tourist spots to our house and say – ‘Look, that’s the house of the Suryanelli girl.’ Immediately, people would get out of their vehicles, and we became a mini tourist centre.  So we thought we would move from there and build another house. We invited my colleagues and friends to the housewarming ceremony, but no one turned up. So it was just the four of us at the housewarming. Finally, we sold the house at whatever price we could get,” said the victim’s father.

In 2006, the young woman and her family moved from Suryanelli to Kottayam district.  They bought an isolated house in a village.  The house did not have the comforts of the dream house they had built and they suffered a financial loss. But eager to escape public attention, they grabbed the first refuge they could find. Since there were no houses nearby, they managed to live there peacefully for a while.

In the matter of the appeal filed by Kurien in the High Court, after more litigation in the Supreme Court and the Additional Sessions Court, Thodupuzha, High Court judge KR Udayabhanu acquitted him on April 4, 2007 citing the earlier verdict that 34 of the earlier defendants had also been acquitted. The case was decided ex parte, with the victim not being served notice regarding the hearing of the case.

Later that year, on November 16, 2007, the VS Achuthanandan government appealed to the Supreme Court. Appearing for Kurien was one of the highest-paid lawyers in the country – Arun Jaitley, then a BJP MP. The then Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan summoned the case to his bench and quashed it. Along with Justice RV Raveendran, he delivered a single-line judgment that read, “The Special Leave Petition is dismissed”, with no explanation regarding the merits of the petition.  Because it was heard by the Chief Justice, there was no chance for it to be sent to any other bench.

Meanwhile, the young woman was transferred to the Sales Tax Office in Changanassery. The office was notorious for its involvement in sales tax-related scams. In 2011, her sister, who was then working in Calcutta, received a phone call. Lakhs of rupees had gone missing from the office. Until it was traced, she would not be allowed to leave the office. Her sister called her parents. Her father and mother rushed to the office where they found her, shivering in fear. 

The allegation was that a deposit receipt was missing. She was accused of not depositing a sum of Rs 2,26,006. Her superior officer pretended to be helpful and asked her to sign a confession and repay the money if she wanted to keep her job. Based on his advice, she signed a false confession. The family had some limited savings in the form of the parents’ retirement benefits and some gold. They sold the gold and paid the money. A departmental inquiry was held and three staff members were given punishment transfers. The family thought that the matter had ended there.

However, on February 6, 2012, while she was waiting for a bus, the Crime Branch arrived and dramatically arrested her from the bus stop. With that, the anonymity that the family had enjoyed came to an end.  The parents went to the police station with a lawyer, but the young woman had already been remanded by then. Many technical reasons were cited to deny the girl bail more than once. She was released only after a week. By then, because she had been jailed, she was suspended from her job as well.

Of all the horrors after the forty day captivity, this episode was the one that destroyed the family. She was broken by the allegation that she was a thief. One of her colleagues pretended to be her friend and made her take a housing loan on her behalf. She borrowed two lakh rupees from her, and then refused to repay.  She was forced to repay the loan from her salary.

“Her experiences in the Changanassery office completely shattered the young woman. She continues to be an innocent.  She is still unable to figure it out when someone is only pretending friendship. Whatever little happiness she was capable of was destroyed by this repeated experience of betrayed friendship. Now she is detached about everything…” Suja George observes.
 
Meanwhile, after five years, the Supreme Court considered the appeal in the original case. On January 15 this year, a bench comprising Justice AK Patnaik and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra ordered the High Court to hear the appeal afresh and expressed shock at the acquittal of the accused. It criticized the High Court’s observation that sexual relations had occurred with the consent of the girl. That the girl might have had consensual sex with one person was understandable, but the bench observed that the High Court’s stand that she had had consensual sexual relations with 42 persons was shocking. The Court also ruled that a verdict should be delivered within six months, and later extended this deadline to December 31 of this year. 

The Dharmarajan trial has been underway for over three months now. Dharmarajan, who was released on bail and went into hiding, gave an interview in February to a TV news channel in which he confirmed that PJ Kurien had indeed assaulted the child and that he had himself escorted Kurien to the Kumily guesthouse. Within days, Dharmarajan was apprehended by the Kerala police. The victim filed a petition in the Thodupuzha sessions court, asking it to direct the Peerumedu court to order a probe against Kurien. The Sessions Court served notice to Kurien, Dharmarajan, Unnikrishnan Nair, Jamal and the Government of Kerala. Dharmarajan retracted his statement in court, saying that he had made it while under the influence of alcohol. The Sessions Court rejected her petition.

The victim approached the High Court yet again on October 5, to get a case registered charging Kurien, Dharmarajan, Jamal and Unni. The court reserved orders in the case.

Meanwhile, Justice Basant was caught on camera by a TV channel, expressing his opinion that the girl was a child prostitute and that she had not been raped; an opinion that went public.  His views rocked the media and the community. Once again, she became the focus of media attention. I asked advocate Suresh Babu Thomas, one of Kerala’s most distinguished criminal lawyers who was familiar with the Suryanelli girl and her family, what he thought of their lives. 

“In a word, tragedy. I have never seen a greater tragedy in my life. When I see the trials that she and her family have suffered over the years, I feel a helpless rage. The father and mother are invalids. Her bright older sister has been unable to get a good job or get married. She has been in hiding for several years. It was when they had achieved some measure of anonymity and peace that she was arrested again. And that was the end. You wouldn’t wish this fate even on an enemy.”

Anila George adds, “When the Special Court passed its verdict, they thought they had received justice. That was when the adverse High Court verdict came about. Close on its heels came the embezzlement case and the arrest. The tragedy is multiplied by their sense that they have not received justice. The family has no hope left.”

She lives like an automaton now. She waits till the morning commuters’ rush subsides to set out to work so she can find a comparatively empty bus in which to travel. Someone is bound to recognize her on a crowded bus, she fears. She gets onto a similarly uncrowded bus on her way back from work. Watching her walk home from the bus stop is a painful sight. She covers her body with a dupatta and walks slowly, like a blameworthy person. Her constant illnesses make her appear exhausted and older than she is.

“When I think of her parents, I am very apprehensive. How will she manage without them? Even now she lacks the courage to take decisions or act on them. She is unable to distinguish between people she can trust and people who will betray her. Her sister received some marriage proposals. But the moment the boy’s side finds out she is the older sister of the Suryanelli girl, they abuse the family. And in any case, how can we get these girls married to anybody in good faith? What if the experiences that await them after the wedding are worse than they have experienced so far? What if the men who come forward to marry them have been hired [by vested political interests]? It’s a terrible situation,” says Prof George.

When the case came to trial, her parents had reasonable savings. Now, these have been wiped out.
“After all the deductions, I have a take-home salary of Rs 8000. Of this, Rs 5000 goes towards LIC payments. In effect, my salary is Rs 3000. Because my parents receive pensions, we can run the household. My sister got a job very recently. She earns Rs 10,000. If anyone falls ill, all our careful balancing acts fall apart,” she says.

“Although the colleagues I work with now don’t say anything, they don’t see me as one among them. Nobody speaks to me.  I am not close to anyone. I had to take a month’s leave because of my father’s illness. My colleagues deducted a thousand rupees from my salary as my contribution towards a party they held when I was on leave. My father’s treatment was paid for by a public subscription. When I asked for the money deducted for a party in which I did not even participate, they didn’t like it. Angrily, they refunded five hundred rupees,” she weeps. Even now, she is terrified if anyone speaks harshly. She sobs. She shrinks, unable to speak up for herself.

She also wrote letters to the Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, asking to be acquitted in the financial irregularity case in which she had been tricked into giving a false confession, and a second requesting investigation into Kurien’s involvement, and this matter was also raised in the Legislative Assembly in Kerala. While the Chief Minister replied neutrally in the first matter, saying that the matter was still under investigation by the Crime Branch and the investigations needed to be completed, he was more categorical about the latter request. His response was that while many cases had been filed, Kurien had been acquitted by all the courts, and so another investigation was impossible.

“Now we are terrified of the media. Our relatives say that we publicize everything through the media, and that is the reason they give for abandoning us. They ask us what we have gained by speaking to the media. They are right, we have gained nothing. In order to make society more secure, we thought it was important to talk about what had happened to our child. And we have been jailed by the community for 18 years for that very reason. People hate us. But as more and more incidents of this kind happen in the community, we wonder if we have endured all this for no purpose at all. This was a waste…”

Her mother’s words remind us that rehabilitation does not take place when survivors of sexual harassment are given jobs or married off. What needs to be rehabilitated is the survivor’s lost dignity and will to live. But 18 years on, we continue to destroy these. Meanwhile, the Suryanelli girl and her family try to stand up for themselves, again and yet again.

KR Meera is an independent journalist and one of the most widely read Malayalam authors of her generation. She has published four short story collections, four novels, a novella collection and two novels for children in Malayalam. She has won, among others, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. Her latest short story collection Yellow is the Color of Longing (2011) was published in English by Penguin.


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