Rape Tragedy in India Dreams of 'the Fearless One'

The case has shaken India and shocked the world. Relatives and friends describe the fate of the 23-year-old woman who was raped in mid-December in New Delhi and died.


By and

He is standing in the doorframe, leaning on a crutch, with his right leg in bandages. He is the man who was there when six men raped the woman who was so close to him and rammed an iron rod into her body. His name is Awindra Pratap Pandey, and he is staring at the gold rings on his hands. The men took everything from him that evening, but they were unable to pull the two rings from his fingers because they were too tight.

The narrow ring is the one he gave her. She had returned it to him a few days before the two got on the bus where everything happened. She said that he should wear it, but only for a short time. Awindra, standing in his parents' house in Gorakhpur, a city in northern India, says: "I like wearing it. I try to think of the good things."

In his native village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the young woman's father is sitting on a plastic chair as he recalls how his daughter looked at him for the last time in the hospital's intensive care unit, how she gestured to him as if to ask if he had eaten yet, how he placed his hand on her forehead, and how she had kissed his hand. Tears well up in his eyes, and he can no longer speak. Finally, Badri Nath Singh says: "I always see her face in front of me."

In a small, windowless shop at a market in Delhi, a girl points to a lilac purse with gold rivets. It's the same purse her friend bought in the shop. The two women often went shopping together. They were so similar, both petite with long hair and fond of wearing jeans, and they both painted their toenails. They even used the same cherry-flavored Avon lip gloss. Bhawna Singh turns around so that the salesman can't hear her sob. "I miss her so much," she says.

The Indian media have dubbed the 23-year-old woman "Nirbhaya," the fearless one, and "Amanat," the treasure. Some simply call her "India's daughter," an icon. Under Indian law, the identity of a rape victim must be kept secret. But her father decided to release the name of India's daughter -- his daughter. He wanted the world to know her name. It was Jyoti Singh Pandey.

From Fields to Malls

Jyoti's fate has touched people around the world. A group of men raped her on a bus in Delhi on Dec. 16. She died in a Singapore hospital 13 days later. Since then, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in India to protest how their country treats women, humiliating and discriminating against them. The presumed perpetrators have been apprehended.

Jyoti's story also says something about a country that is changing rapidly. It's the story of people who come from mud huts and fight their way into modernity. They are either filled with hope or devoid of prospects.

The evening that began with chocolate ice cream ended when six men left Jyoti, bleeding and naked, on the side of a highway to the airport, where trampled plastic cups and cigarette packs lie in the dust, and where the filth of the city piles up.

It was the kind of evening Jyoti loved, spent together with Awindra, whom she called Awi, a 28-year-old software engineer. He took her out in Delhi's most popular shopping mall, Select Citywalk. They walked across the marble floor, passing shop windows displaying brands like Armani jeans and Estée Lauder. Jyoti loved brand-name articles and had a Levi's leather jacket.

They bought an ice-cream cone before they went to the movies to see "Life of Pi." When they were finally sitting in the movie theater, Jyoti told Awindra that he should fill out the form from the airline that the cashier had given him. It was for a drawing, and the prize was a flight to Europe. She wanted to go abroad so badly, preferably to stay there and work, perhaps in the United States or Canada.

In the shopping mall, she felt closer to the life she wanted to lead than anyplace else, and farther away from the world her father came from: the village of Medawara Kalan, surrounded by wheat fields and reachable only by paths through the fields. It's a place where children play on the sugarcane press, farmers repair their houses with lumps of mud, cow dung is laid out to dry on the walls lining the narrow streets, and the local shop is nothing but a hut made of wood and corrugated sheet metal.

A Woman with Dreams

Jyoti's father moved to Delhi in 1983. He worked in a washing-machine factory at first, and then he tried his hand at running a business selling voltage measuring devices. But the business didn't do very well, so he took a job as a security guard. Later he went to work loading aircraft at the airport.

He had to work overtime to earn enough to support his three children. All told, he made about 10,000 rupees a month, or roughly €140 ($186).

First he sent Jyoti and his sons to a newly opened private school. She was the first girl to be admitted to the school, he says. Jyoti's friend Bhawna Singh attended the same school, located in a poor neighborhood where cows stand around in the garbage. But it's also a school that encourages children. The entrance gate is painted in rainbow colors and decorated with flowers and butterflies, and sayings are written on the wall here and there, such as: "Education opens the door, but you must enter yourself."

Jyoti did walk in. She was a good student, so good, in fact, that she eventually began tutoring other children in English, Hindi and math. She used to berate her two younger brothers for talking instead of studying. "Boys cry when you send them to school," says her father, "but she would cry if you didn't let her go to school."

Jyoti knew early on that she wanted to be a doctor. She grew up to become a young woman who read the newspaper, the Hindustan Times, and books. She spent time in the library in the city of Dehradun, where she was learning to become a physical therapist. She worked in a call center at night because she needed the money. Her father was proud of his daughter and had already sold a piece of land to pay for her education. "Jyoti had a lot of self-confidence," says her father. "She wanted to stand on her own two feet."

Jyoti was one of many young Indian women in the capital. She had her own laptop and her own opinions. It was clear to her that she would eventually marry, but only an educated man. But first she wanted to have a career and a little fun.

When they left the movie theater on the evening of Dec. 16, Jyoti saw on her phone that her mother had tried to reach her. She became anxious and wanted to go home. The pair had initially intended to take a three-wheeled autorickshaw, which are considered relatively safe. They are open at the back so that passengers can call for help and jump out, and there is only room for one driver. But none of the rickshaw drivers wanted to take them to Jyoti's neighborhood, Mahavir, because they thought it was too far.

Instead, the two took an autorickshaw to the Munirka bus stop first. As her friend Awindra says, Jyoti was the one who had suggested that they board a white, privately operated bus. He adds that he had even told her that she should never take one of those buses if alone. But he thought it was okay this time because he was with her and could protect her.

It was on this bus that Jyoti encountered Ram Singh at around 9:15 p.m. The police believe that Singh was the leader of the pack of rapists.

Men without Dreams

The piece of land where Ram Singh and his brother Mukesh, who has also been arrested, spent their first few years is on a hill above a small river in Karauli, a district in the western state of Rajasthan. There are so many holdups there that even some taxi drivers avoid the area.

Their 70-year-old mother, Ram Bai, and her second husband are squatting on the ground in front of a hut made of mud and straw. They are emaciated, and their bare feet are covered with dust. The mother stares at the fields and says: "My sons have done something terrible. Now they are in the government's hands. I can do nothing more for them. I can only pray."

Ram and Mukesh's father died early, and their mother moved to Delhi with her new husband and the children 25 years ago. She says that they wouldn't have had enough to eat in Karauli, where the family owns only a tiny wheat field.

But life was hardly any better in the city, where they lived in the Ravi Dass Camp, a slum in the southern part of Delhi. The stepfather worked as a gardener for rich households, and even as children Ram and his brothers were expected to earn money. Ram was probably about 11 when he left school, although no one remembers exactly how old he was.

Ram and Mukesh later worked as drivers. Nine years ago Ram, the eldest, married a divorcée, but she fell ill and died. Then there was a traffic accident in which he suffered a compound arm fracture. Ram received a disability pension of 1,000 rupees a month, and he was able to take the train for free with his certificate of disability.

Ram's mother says he is religious, adding: "He worshipped all Hindu gods." Other than that, she knows little about him, except that he left the house early in the morning and returned late in the evening. Yes, she says, he did drink and smoke, "but he showed respect for us," she adds, with tears in her eyes.

Did Ram have any hopes for the future? "He earned so little, and it wasn't enough to fulfill any dreams," says his mother. "He had no dreams."


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