March 13, 2016
A day that left irreparable scars on 19-year-old Kowsalya's psyche.
The horror of watching her husband being hacked to death by three men at a busy junction of Udumalaipettai, is not a memory a young woman can recover from. And to know that, it was her own family that arranged for this murder, only made the wounds deeper.
Kowsalya was born to parents from the powerful Thevar community in Dindigul disrict. Despite her parents objecting to her marriage to 22-year-old Sankar who was a Dalit, she left her home for the sake of love. But her family’s ‘honour’ would not let them lead a blissful life for long.
Sankar's father had welcomed Kowsalya with open arms and made her a part of the family. They even shifted to Komaralingam to avoid harassment from the Thevar community. Many leaders of the community are known through the belt for their violent streak. Through the first few months of their marriage, members of Kowsalya's family would call her incessantly, demanding that she return to her parent's home. But Kowsalya, was stubborn and did not believe in the caste system that her parents rigidly followed.
After multiple calls and even threats failed to convince her, "they decided that they would rather have their daughter become a widow than let her be married to a Dalit".
"We had been married for eight months then. I had dropped out of my college, so that Sankar could continue studying. We had decided that we needed to take turns as it was important for one of us to get a job first. We had so many dreams and hopes. But all of them were dashed to the ground," says Kowsalya. "I had insisted that day that we should go buy him a shirt for the annual day in college. I wanted him to look smart and handsome. We had been laughing and talking even as we came out of the shop, right before we were ambushed," she recalls.
Minutes after the couple stepped on to the road, three men on a bike attacked Sankar with sickles and other sharp weapons. The CCTV footage of this violent attack has since played on national and regional media multiple times. A hysterical Kowsalya rushed to her husband's defence and in the process received heavy blows to her head. "Till today I wonder, what if I had not taken him shopping that day or what if we had gone an hour later, could we have avoided this whole tragedy?" asks Kowsalya, who got 36 stitches on her head and only just managed to survive the episode.
Her decision to take her life
The trauma she faced was one she wishes nobody else ever has to. "I saw my husband die because I chose to marry out of my caste. The first few months after the incident were unbearable. My father was sent to jail and my life seemed bleak," explains Kowsalya. "I wanted to teach all the people who indulge in caste violence, a lesson. I decided to kill myself," she says. On May 12, Kowsalya consumed poison to prove a point to the world, but luckily she was saved.
Following her attempt to take her own life, she was counseled by her in-laws, several NGOs and volunteers. "They told me dying was not the solution. I was told to live through this caste violence to prove the point that I wanted to. I decided that I will make the dreams that my husband and I had, come true," says Kowsalya. Now, a year later, that is what she has done.
A fight against society
Today, Kowsalya is a revenue assistant with the Ministry of Defence. She cannot disclose her current location because of security problems. She remains a crucial witness in the murder of her husband and even appeared in court on November 9, two days before she joined work.
After her suicide bid, she had moved back in with Sankar's family, where she initially started taking tuitions for children from 1st standard to the 12th standard. "I wanted to do something to remove my mind from what happened. Plus, there was nobody to teach these children from the locality English. So I decided that I should do it," says Kowsalya. But what she thought would be a favour to the students, turned out to be of great help to her, when it came to cracking the defence ministry exams.
But getting the job was not enough for people to accept her. The security guards looming around her made it difficult for people to approach her. Her colleagues soon became weary of this new entrant. "When they learned about my past, several of them were scared they will be attacked if they spoke to me. It took some time to reassure them, that it won't happen," she says. With this job under her belt, she gave the job offered to her by TN government under compassionate grounds to Sankar's father. Veluchamy (Sankar’s father) now works as a cook in the Adi Dravida department and earns close to Rs.12,000 a month.
With Sankar's family financially independent, Kousalya has set out to fulfill Sankar's other dreams. She has, with the money received from the Government and philanthropists, reportedly built a proper house and is also doing a BSc computer science degree through long distance. "I even stay independently now," Kowsalya, says proudly. "I didn't know I had this strength in me. I used to be a shy girl when I met Sankar. The first brave step that I ever took was when I left my home to marry him," she says, laughing.
Their brief romance
Kowsalya was a first year student in a private college in Pollachi and the first time she met Sankar, was in her college bus. "He used to stay in the street behind mine and would get on to the bus soon after I did. On the third day, since I started college, he asked me if I loved anyone. I was startled and said no. I immediately asked him why he wanted to know. He then told me that it was because he was falling in love with me. I knew, my parents would never agree to this and told him that I was not the right person for all this," says Kowsalya.
But as luck or rather love would have it, they struck a friendship, soon after Sankar's revelation. For three hours, to and from college every day, they would sit next to each other and talk. Soon, they were even using Whatsapp to talk between classes. "We were so happy then. We would talk all the time and I would even make fun of him. He took it all so sportingly," recalls Kowsalya.
"Even when I left my family, he did not question my actions. He took me into his home and married me. I had never done housework, so Sankar was the one who cooked for me. Even before he was killed, he was telling me that he is going to make pooris for me in the night," she says, her voice choking.
Sankar stood by their relationship, despite knowing that his life was under threat. "My father and relatives offered him Rs.10 lakh to leave me. Even then, he told them my 'paapu' is more important to me than any money. I will not leave under any circumstances," says the teenager. "Now, I do not feel like he has left me. Even today, if I miss him I simply read all our Whatsapp conversations and it immediately lifts my mood. I know he is with me and he gives me strength to motivate people to leave this ugly caste system behind," she says.
Kowsalya has also taken it upon herself to give speeches across the state on caste violence. She has so far, spoken in Coimbatore, Madurai, Chennai, Sivakasi and Salem about the evils of the caste system.
"What happened to me shouldn't happen to anyone else," she says emphatically. "Girls who are caught up with caste values their families force upon them, must know that they should follow their heart. Never compromise on what is right for someone else's satisfaction. You only get one life to be yourself," she says.