Suzette Jordan left the high school in Kolkata I attended by the time I got there. But mutual friends remember her oiling her hair in the corridor and telling ghost stories with great passion. And then, to our great shock, she suddenly burst into national news in India in 2012, for the saddest, most horrifying reason.
She was gang raped in Kolkata, after a night out at a nightclub, when a man who had befriended her offered her a ride home in his car. He and his friends then raped her and dumped her on the streets, clothes torn, body covered in bruises.
That should have been the main tragedy. But a bigger tragedy was to follow. Her father discouraged her from filing a police complaint, because he was worried she would be humiliated, but her mind was made up. In a later interview she would say it was the smells and laughter of the rapists that haunted her, that made her decide to embark on the perilous journey for justice. Heartbreakingly, her father was right. Police officers questioned her story. Some officers apparently made crass remarks.
The chief minister of the state, despite being a woman, stated that this was a cooked-up affair aimed to destabilize her government. Another minister, also female, said the victim was a prostitute and it was just a matter of a deal having gone wrong. (Suzette later pointed out that such comments endanger the life of actual prostitutes. “You are trying to say her word does not matter and anyone can do anything to her.”) The female police officer who cracked the case and quickly arrested some of the alleged perpetrators was unceremoniously transferred to the boondocks. When the case went to court, a lawyer said Suzette’s presence was “ruining the sanctity of the courtroom.”
In India, apparently, a rape victim is the one who must be held responsible for the rape.
But Suzette wasn’t one to cower. In a country where rape victims must remain unnamed by law, because of the stigma attached to the association, she decided to speak out. First, she appeared as a silhouette on local and national television, framed by her long curly hair, and she spoke articulately and courageously about the experience. She made it clear she didn’t believe she had done anything wrong. That was what the fight was for: the right to be taken seriously and to be treated with respect, to fight the ignominy people were forcing upon her by making them see her as a person. Then, in a bold, unprecedented move, she came out in the open. She said she didn’t want to be known as the “Park Street rape victim” anymore. “I am Suzette Jordan,” she said, her face unblurred, washed by studio lights.
While the media courted her, and she made high-profile appearances on national television and other avenues, her life didn’t quite come back together as it ideally should have. Despite her experience as a call center executive and a five-star hotel health club receptionist, there was a pattern of interviews repeatedly falling through. On the one hand, everyone in the country knew her and one of the biggest movie stars in India, Aamir Khan, interviewed her on his show covering social issues,. On the other, nobody was willing to give her a real chance by giving her a real job. For a short while, she worked at a helpline, supporting victims of abuse.
According to newspaper reports, she died last week from meningitis and encephalitis, at the age of 40. To connect her death with the torment she was made to go through for the last three years may seem like a stretch. But this must be asked: in an India where articulate, English-speaking people find jobs easily because of the call-center economy, why didn’t she find one after she was raped? Had she had a job, if society had firmly stood behind her, she might have had better medical treatment, and sooner. She died in a government hospital, and it is ironic that she had to turn to the government during her last hours, even though it didn’t stand by her as she fought for her rights, her dignity, and by default, for the rights of all Indian women who deserve to be treated justly. In the end, she didn’t make it, but she left a mark. She created a little dent in India’s conscience.