In 2012, single mom of two, Suzette Jordan, 37, was gangraped in a moving car on the intervening night of February 5 and 6, by five men who offered her a lift to her house from a night club situated at Kolkata's famous sunset boulevard Park Street.
After the incident, she famously came to be known as ‘The Park Street Rape Victim’. But through it all, she decided not to hide her identity of being a rape victim, rather she declared herself to be a rape survivor and went public with her actual identity. She encouraged other rape survivors too to come out in public.
Suzette died of meningitis in March this year.
And yesterday, a Kolkata court held three men guilty in the 2012 Park Street gang rape case. The two prime accused are still absconding for almost three years since the incident was reported.
This is a moving tribute to Suzette Jordan by Shriya Mohan - written after she passed away earlier this year.
When the Jordan girls walk in to Kolkata’s St Mary’s Church, heads turn and the hall echoes with hushed whispers. Their heels click, their skinny jeans give their walk a swing, their bracelets jangle and their teenage features stand defined with strokes of eyeliner and highlighted cheekbones. When did they grow this fast, somebody whispers. Behind them follow several men carrying a coffin decorated with a wreath. It is gently placed down at the altar and its lid slowly removed, as if the men are being careful to not awaken its occupant. The paparazzi close in, paying their tribute in a lightning parade of camera flashes. Show some respect, screams someone in the family, who asks them to step back. It grows quiet again. The girls walk up holding some lipstick, eyeliner and tissue. They bend down adjusting her hair, keeping her wild curls untamed and then applying make-up in firm strokes – a smoky kohl on the shut eyelids and a scarlet red on the gently parted lips, infusing her face with vigor. “When I die, I want a party!” Suzette Jordan had told her girls. So now, bending over, they dress their mother up for her last one. In the end, even death couldn’t take away her oomph – Jordan looks ready for a drink, good to take your hand and hit the dance floor.
When I met Jordan for the first time in June 2013, I was six months pregnant, writing a profile on her for Yahoo! Originals. It had been a year and four months since she was gang-raped and thrown off a moving car, two months since she started an online helpline for rape victims, and a week since she decided to reveal her identity and fight for justice without hiding behind a mask. “Me? The ‘Park Street Rape Victim’? Bullshit! I’m Suzette Jordan – a mother, a daughter, a sister. People depend on me and love me!” she asserted then. What struck me most about her was how uninhibited she was, about how giving she was of herself. Soon after we’d spent a while together, she’d asked if she could touch my belly to feel the baby move. And just like that, while telling me how much she loved being pregnant with her girls, she held my belly and made her daughters touch it too. And while I just stood there embarrassedly laughing, feeling like a stuffed toy, she declared, “It’s going to be a girl.” In October, days after she appeared at the high profile Tehelka THiNK Fest in Goa, which itself became embroiled in a sexual assault controversy, she’d send me daily messages asking if the baby was out. Then she would cajole me to hold it in until her birthday on the 21st of that month, so I’d have a daughter as exasperating as her. My baby decided to arrive three days before. And it was a girl. Jordan was ecstatic in the way that your closest family would be.
* * *
“What the world and we could not give her, the Lord will. He will give her justice and peace,” began the parish priest to a packed hall of 400-odd people – Jordan’s friends, family members and the media – gathered for her funeral mass. Jordan always said that rape didn’t refer to the act of sexual violence alone; it included facing everybody who questioned her innocence in the rape – the police who mockingly asked her what position her rapist used; the examining doctors who poked her naked body checking for injury marks, humiliating her further; the state’s chief minister who called it a fabricated story to defame her government; her neighbors and friends who asked her why she had to bring it upon herself by being out at a bar instead of being home, and her landlord and employer who asked her to move out since they didn’t want to be associated with the “Park Street rape victim”.
“I salute her fighting spirit. She was an icon to rape survivors everywhere,” says Anirban Guha Thakurta, her lawyer since the beginning. One time when the charges were about to be framed in court and three of the five accused came along with their well-wishers, Thakurta had advised Jordan not to be present. But Jordan had insisted on going and facing them. “Why are you scared? Don’t worry, I’m there,” she told him in all earnestness. Explaining the legal standing of the case, Thakurta clarified that three accused are still being tried in custody and the final hearing is later this month.
"Her death should not affect the legal proceedings," says Thakurta. Three out of the five accused have been nabbed, while the other two – including Kader Khan, the prime accused, who is said to have strong political connections – are on the run. If they are ever caught, the same deposition will be used to frame charges against them. Jordan’s case, said to be with a ‘fast track’ court, has dragged on for three years. "Look at the Nirbhaya case in Delhi. Or the Mumbai rape case. It didn't take more than a year to pronounce judgment at their fast track court," says Thakurta. “The judicial infrastructure in this state needs to be improved tremendously. We need more qualified manpower,” he said.
According to a close friend, Jordan was offered Rs 2 crore by the prime accused to withdraw her case. The friend had told Jordan to think about the offer carefully, given how bad her financial situation was. She could go abroad, start a new life and give her girls a good future with that kind of money. “If I were in her shoes I’d have taken the money. For the sake of the girls,” she says. But Jordan only felt humiliation and anger, and it strengthened her resolve to fight harder.
* * *
Jordan’s older daughter steps up with a crumpled piece of paper that she’s about to read from and looks up from the podium, which suddenly seems to barricade her petite frame. Jordan always called her sutki maach in jest, Bengali for dried fish, to poke fun at her tininess. The crumpled paper she holds is an essay she had written just days ago for her Class 11 English final exam. “I told my mom, you know I wrote an essay on you – on what you mean to me, not what you are for this country,” she tells me later. (Read the whole essay here.)
“She’s had bad days, she drinks, smokes, gets into my clothes, never kept a job for long. She was a rebel. She taught us that it was never important to fit in. That it was ok to stand out. That no matter how rough the days…at least we have each other…that no matter how much money we make, our coffins come in the same size. That being alive is worth it just to live for the small moments. Like our first kiss…My reality was my mother and the person I aspire to be.” As she reads out from the essay, the words run into each other.
As Jordan had been divorced when the girls were barely toddlers, her daughters were raised by their mother and their maternal grandparents. Jordan’s father ran a local call center and was in and out of odd jobs, barely making ends meet. They were financially supported by extended family. The abrupt end to Jordan’s education in Class 10 and a turbulent personal life meant bleak job prospects.
"She had a golden heart. Suzie was the kind who would see a beggar or homeless person on the street and would remove a warm piece of clothing off her and give it [away] while going home cold but deeply happy. She lived for the small moments," says her friend, Rally Bhowmick. It was after being offered a job by Santashree Chaudhuri – a social entrepreneur and women’s rights activist – to help set up an online helpline for rape survivors, that Suzie found her calling. "If there was a protest against rape anywhere, Suzette would be there!" says her aunt Jenny. Reaching out to other rape victims suddenly seemed what she was meant to do. She wanted to educate schoolchildren about sexual violence. She wanted to set up an NGO for rape survivors. There was too much she wanted to do. Suzette was all heart though, more a catalyst, less an organizer. Even the effort of focusing on a career in rape counseling seemed to box her in.
But Jordan was a loving mother and fiercely protective of her girls, although some of her friends shy away from using the word ‘responsible’ when it came to her daughters.
When it came to responsibility, her girls watched out for her more often than the reverse. Her friends say she needed it more. After the rape, it was Jordan’s girls who saw her in her distraught bruised state, something even close friends felt uncomfortable being associated with. The girls washed her, helped her change into fresh clothes, and watched her sink into depression. They were by her side like a rock, even at their fragile ages.
“The rape made her sink into bouts of depression. Sometimes she wouldn’t get out of bed for two straight days,” says her friend Rally. If there was one thing Jordan was frightened of in the years since the assault, it was loneliness. She loved her drink, cigarettes and joints. She would call up her friends to say she was coming over and that often meant a night of getting wasted. Her older daughter, always intuitive, would call at night. Aunty, is my mother at your house? Please don’t give my mother too much to drink, she would say. And then when she returned, the girls would tuck her into bed. Her girls saw her through it all.
“Did you know that your mom looked up to you? She was proud of you.” I tell her elder daughter who is about to turn 19. She smiles, a bit hesitant, then says almost inaudibly, “I know”.
* * *
“God my father, walk through my house and take away all my worries and illnesses and please watch over and heal my family. Jesus Amen.” Those were the words Jordan had sent on WhatsApp to Rally on the night of March 5, 2015. After a few minutes she messaged, “Rally, I’m sick,” and then after another minute, “Very sick”.
“We all know that once depression bites you, you become a reservoir of diseases,” wrote her close friend Harish Iyer. For the last year, she suffered constantly from severe backaches and headaches. She would keep popping in Disprin, drinking her pain away. She reluctantly went to see a doctor in September last year, who diagnosed her with spondylitis. "Towards the end she kept vomiting repeatedly. Her headaches got worse and she would lose sense of what she's saying. She'd be talking nonsense. We never guessed that these were symptoms of meningitis or encephalitis," says her mother.
On March 6 she suddenly had convulsions and a seizure. When they rushed her to a city hospital and did a CT scan, it showed a swelling in the brain. The doctor wondered if it was the heavy drinking and marijuana that caused her brain to swell.
On March 7, they took her to Aarogya Maternity Nursing Home – which did not have an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) – where the doctor said Jordan had low sodium in her body and started pumping her with sodium. On March 9 her family shifted her to Kolkata’s Life Line Diagnostic Center cum Nursing Home, where her heart beat was monitored in the ICU. Her heart rate was 173 beats per minute, while a normal heart beats between 60 and 100 times a minute. It came down to 146. Then it came down to 120. It was nearing normal. They said that although her heart was stabilizing, her brain wasn’t reacting. She was slipping into a coma. Jordan was sent for an MRI scan. It was only the next day, on March 10, that the MRI report showed that she had meningitis and encephalitis. “They said it was going to be very costly, something like 10,000 to 12,000 rupees a day to treat her. We are a poor family. For us that was too much. Who all can we go asking for help?” says her daughter. Early treatment at a good hospital might have saved her.
That’s when they shifted Jordan to Kolkata’s School of Tropical Medicine. The doctors there said they couldn’t bring Jordan, who was still in a coma, back. It was already too late. At 3am, March 13, she breathed her last.
“I asked her, Mama, Mama, can you hear me? And for a brief moment she regained consciousness and said, ‘Yes baby, I can’.” Those were her last words to her daughter.
* * *
Two days later I visit the hospital. The research director's office on the second floor of the School of Tropical Medicine looks like a haunted alley. Huge cardboard boxes and pieces of broken glass rest against its walls. At 11.30am, the research director Nandita Basu's room is still locked. There’s no one to speak to about Suzette. The junior staff all claimed to not know anything.
I speak to a trauma specialist from Fortis hospital in Kolkata, who didn’t wish to be named. "Meningoencephelitis, or the swelling of the meninges of the brain, is very preventable. Early treatment and care could've nipped the disease in its early stage. It was the prolonged neglect of the backaches and headaches that led the condition to become so serious that she slipped into a coma.” The specialist also adds, “An overdose of drug use and alcohol lowers any person's immunity to disease. They become that much weaker to fight infection."
* * *
The coffin is finally being taken to Bhawanipore Cemetery. There are more people here. Different faces. Children, teenagers, her daughter’s friends have joined. The sunset is beautiful and the cemetery is still and peaceful. One of her aunts suddenly says excitedly that Jordan is being buried next to her father, who was Jordan’s grand uncle. “Oh this is wonderful! Pa will be so happy! He’ll welcome her with a drink!” she exclaims. There is some laughter and cheer. “Yeah, I’m sure they’ll drink together!” someone retorts. People are more at ease – this is the first light moment since morning.
After the prayers are uttered and the body is lowered, Jordan’s own grandmother, whom she called ‘Nana’, steps back and takes out a pack of smokes. She passes them around.
Before the funeral, earlier that morning Nana told me that she had turned 78 the day Suzette died. Nana was the one person Suzette affectionately called her 'soulmate'. When she heard how ill Suzette was, she quickly made her way back from Dubai where she’d gone with some other members of her family for a holiday. "I thought Suzette might just wake out of her coma upon hearing my voice. I sent Eric [Suzette's uncle] a voice file telling her to wake up and wish me. 'Suzie! C'mon! Get up! Where's my birthday wish? It’s not a birthday until you wish me.' They played it to her at the ICU," she recalls, in floods of tears. "I'm telling everybody now, don't ever wish me happy birthday again."
“The worst is over,” a relative says, hugging Jordan’s mother. Strangely, there is relief on the faces of her parents. Her mother has developed a slight trembling of hands. Everything that happened to Jordan has taken a toll on them.
I ask her older daughter if she will fight for justice for her mother. She looks uncomfortable, making me wish I hadn’t asked her this soon. “It’s a very dirty thing,” she says, about fighting in a rape case. “No matter how good a person you are people take it wrongly…In this city, it’s a dirty thing. People are going to realize she was speaking the truth. It will probably go in her favor. She died fighting,” she fumbles for words.
The cemetery is emptying as it gets dark. Everybody is headed either home or somewhere else that they have to be at. The Jordan girls hang around with their friends, who are their world – they bring smiles to the girls’ faces. “My sister’s boyfriend, he spent four nights outside the ICU, taking care of Mama,” says the older one with some pride. They stick up for each other as a group. But eventually, the friends have to leave too. Where are you headed from here? I ask her. Suddenly she looks lost. “I don’t know.” Where’s home? I ask. “Home? She was my home. I don’t know where to go.”
Shriya Mohan is a journalist based in New Delhi. She is a Save The Children-National Foundation for India fellow and is currently researching urban malnutrition.