The locked grille gate leading to the room where the teenager used to live and was found aflame. Picture by Sanjoy Ghosh
Calcutta, Jan. 2: The 16-year-old girl who was gang-raped twice and who died from burn injuries on Tuesday had killed herself, say her neighbours at the locality near Dum Dum airport where she used to stay. But that does not mean that the neighbourhood had spared her in any way.
The morning of December 23 began ostensibly with a fight over water, at the tap where several women had queued. But it was really about something else, says a woman who had become close to the girl’s mother and the girl during their one-month stay there.
“Whatever was being said to them, whatever the language was, whatever was being talked of, there was only one point,” says the woman who will not be named. “The girl was being told that she had brought shame to the neighbourhood. She was a bad girl,” says the woman.
The showdown at the tap drove her to set herself on fire, say the residents of the locality, one of the many “colonies” along the airport towards Barasat. It was the final spark after what she was subjected to for days.
The girl lived in a one-room tenement with her parents at a rent of Rs 2,000 per month, cheek by jowl with the other neighbours on one side and the landlord’s rooms on the other.
It is impossible to have secrets here. But the family, who had been hounded out of their previous Madhyamgram locality because the girl had been raped, had managed for about a month. Then the neighbours came to know.
In Madhyamgram, the girl had found one friend, Chhotu, a fish seller. Chhotu apparently surmised that she was “available” and invited five friends to join him in raping the girl.
She was raped by the six men first on the evening of October 26, not far from her Madhyamgram house, after which she was thrown onto a field.
Two days later, when she was returning after lodging a police complaint with her father on a cycle van, Chhotu and his friends grabbed her and raped her again in a taxi, this time to punish her for daring to go to the police.
Then they dragged her to the railway tracks, where they would have left her to be run over by a train, when a group of people saw them and stopped them.
The six were arrested by the end of October but life in the Madhyamgram shanty became unbearable. Threats followed. The loose comments blaming the girl for the rape were worse. It was constant humiliation. Sometimes abject fear.
To escape, the girl and her family moved into the airport locality about a month after the rape, in end-November. They lived quietly for about a month. The girl and her mother would join the woman who had befriended them to go to the temple for “Shiv charcha”. They had no other social life. No one knew.
But matters began to change with the visits of Minta Sil, the nephew of the landlord’s wife. Minta was a resident of the neighbourhood till two years ago and a frequent visitor. He is also a friend of Chhotu, the prime accused.
Minta would drop in at his aunt’s and other houses, which started the whispers. Then the landlady’s daughter, a resident of Madhyamgram, came visiting.
The twice-tormented girl was at once “outed”; the landlady’s daughter declared the girl’s “true identity” loudly in the close neighbourhood.
There was no stopping the tongues after that.
First, landlord Ranjan Sil, a barber, asked the girl’s family to leave. His wife Bela confirms this. But their response was perhaps the most restrained.
“We didn’t want trouble,” she says. “We didn’t know who they were. We wouldn’t have rented the room out had we known,” says the 55-year-old, shaken by the turn of events.
Her husband, emaciated and barely able to walk, is breaking down repeatedly, saying he had no role to play in the death.
But his son Ratan, enlightened by his sister and cousin Minta, did have a role to play, say the neighbours. Some of them supported him wholeheartedly.
People began to whisper again. There were loud comments. The family was being asked to leave the neighbourhood, relentlessly, not only by the landlord.
The girl’s mother began to look for another house with the help of her new friend, the woman who did not want to be named. “We had found one too, on another side of the colony,” says the woman.
But the people wouldn’t stop talking. Or pointing out.
On the night of December 22, around 2am, Ratan, who works as a driver, scaled the wall outside the girl’s part of the house, got in and shouted the girl’s name. He went away only after the mother came out.
Something was building up in the neighbourhood. Next morning, it broke at the “time kol” — the tap that yields water at particular hours.
The girl’s mother was at the tap, apparently complaining about the family’s plight, to which a neighbour retorted, triggering a bitter exchange and a gesture of insult that may have been the immediate trigger for the girl’s death.
“I told her (the girl’s mother) to go away if she found living here a problem,” said the neighbour who feels the mother misunderstood her and retorted.
But the mother’s friend says that the woman at the tap was one of the neighbours who were constantly talking about the girl’s “misdemeanour”.
That morning, the verbal duel took another turn when the woman at the tap waved her slippers at the girl’s mother who retaliated with words. Everyone had gathered: a spectacle was going on.
It was then, say the neighbours, that the girl ran into her tenement, barred her door, and set herself on fire.
Was she murdered? That is for the investigation — the police have registered a murder case — to prove.
The tragedy perhaps lies less in how she died and more in how she was forced to live.