The Suryanelli girl goes to the office in the morning with her long, wavy hair neatly combed, packed lunch in hand, like a normal working woman in India. But once she leaves her front gate, she holds her body tight, with shoulders hunched and arms wrapped around her, and looks down. After all, a stranger at the bus stop might recognise her and point her out as the former 16-year-old who was raped by more than 40 men over more than 40 days.
All but one of her attackers walked free, while it is the Suryanelli girl who might as well be in prison. For 17 years now, her life has been put on hold, frozen at that 1996 night. There has been no justice, no closure. Until, perhaps, now. The general silence on sexual violence gave way in December after a particularly vicious gang rape in a relatively smart part of the capital, New Delhi.
Tens of thousands of people mourned the death of a young university student brutally attacked with a metal bar. With the sudden spotlight on rape, the case of the Suryanelli girl was pulled out of cold storage, where it had languished for eight years. India's Supreme Court ordered a retrial to be completed in six months.
It was on 16 January 1996, around midnight on a trip in rural Kerala, that she met a man and a woman. The man offered to take her to their house. Instead he took her to a nearby guesthouse and raped her. The next 42 days passed in a blur of beatings and rapes by a parade of strange men. She was taken to homes and hotels, in cars and public buses, driven more than 2,000 miles across two states. She was forced to drink liquor made from fermented coconut flowers, and was sedated with pills.
Her attackers included a retired professor, lawyers, businessmen, and government officials. When she resisted, the first man who raped her threatened to kill her parents. "I'm a lawyer," he told her, "I will never get caught for this." One man seemed older than the others, and she begged him for pity. "You are old enough to be my papa. Please rescue me from here." He raped her too. When she thought she would die, they gave her a little money and left her at a bus station.
She took a bus straight to her father's post office. There she waited outside in silence. The memory of seeing his daughter that day is burned into his brain – her bloated body, her face covered in scratch marks. "When she left, she was a young girl in a school uniform. When she came back, she looked like a grown woman, her body puffy and swollen... I knew immediately what she had gone through."
They went to the local police, who tried to dissuade her from reporting the crime. It took two days to file the first report. The police took the girl and her father everywhere she had been forced to go, in a police van, like culprits – with several of the suspects. Every day was a humiliation. The police and the perpetrators seemed like friends, laughing and joking together. She was examined by a male gynaecologist. Rape victims in India generally have to undergo the so-called "two-finger test". Doctors probe the vagina to see if it is lax, the term commonly used, and if a hymen is absent. Both are taken as evidence the woman routinely has sex, so must have consented to intercourse.
In the case of the Suryanelli girl, the doctor did not perform the two-finger test. He said her vagina was simply too damaged. It took three years for the case just to reach a court in India's overburdened justice system. The men said either that they had never even met her or that the sex was consensual. Some had minor links to a political party and claimed they were subject to a political vendetta.
But at least the trial court offered the girl a chance at justice. The judge, who was liberal by Indian standards, believed that a woman's failure to resist could not be seen as consent. He found all 35 accused guilty and sentenced them to between four and 14 years in prison, for charges ranging from conspiracy and kidnapping to gang rape and trafficking. For one moment, it looked like the Suryanelli girl had won.
It was a short-lived victory. None of the men served any time in jail. They all filed appeals in the state high court and walked free on bail. Nine years later, the case finally came before the Kerala High Court. There the two judges spoke with sarcasm about her ability to befriend strangers easily. Most of all, they found, she was not a "normal innocent" 16-year-old. She had shown the nerve to pawn jewellery and give money to a secret boyfriend, risky behaviour that betrayed shaky character. And why hadn't she tried to escape when she was kept in guesthouses and transported in public buses? Her word couldn't be trusted. In fact, everything she said was to be doubted.
The "million-dollar question", the judges said, was not whether more than three dozen men had had sex with her over 42 days. It was whether she had been a willing partner, now turning on them to protect her reputation. The verdict was clear. "She needed money. She was prepared to raise it. She had needs which her parents did not know," the judgment said. "She is thus shown to be a girl of deviant character."
The judges acquitted 35 of the 36 accused. The men were found guilty only "of the immorality of going to a woman, who they thought was a prostitute".
SS Dharmarajan, the lawyer and the first man to rape her, was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. But he had already absconded, and never served any time. He was finally arrested two months ago and is in jail pending an appeal.
The life of the Suryanelli girl, now a woman of 33, has fallen apart. After her ordeal, friends vanished. Relatives slunk away. The family lives in Kottayam, about 100 miles from the sprawling bungalow that was once their home in Suryanelli, Kerala. Her sister, a nurse, works and stays at a hospital where nobody knows her background. Faith was the cornerstone of the family, but last month they lost the solace of church too. Their local priest gently suggested they stay away for a while because people had begun to recognise them.
The woman still known as the Suryanelli girl reads her Bible every night.
If she is finally proven right and the offenders are sent to jail, she says she will have some peace. She has been thinking of that other woman, the one who died after being gang-raped in New Delhi. She is almost envious. "God blessed her by taking away her life," she muses. "She does not have to suffer what I have suffered for these 17 years."Reuse content