Her parents called her bitiya, or little daughter. She was her family’s biggest hope. In a country where women are routinely pushed into subservience, this 23-year-old who dreamed of becoming a doctor was going to lift them out of poverty.
“Without her we are lost,” said her father, rocking on the edge of a bed in the family’s tiny basement apartment, hugging himself as if to hold in the grief.
The sadness enveloped him as he talked of his daughter, who died after she was gang raped in a moving bus in New Delhi in December, a case that galvanized public anger in India over sexual attacks and the inability of authorities to stop them.
Indian culture has a deeply rooted preference for sons, and many daughters are expected to spend their lives caring for first their brothers and later their husbands. Yet these parents encouraged their bright, hardworking daughter to shine. The time for the two younger boys would come later, when their sister had a toehold in life.
“I never discriminated between my sons and daughter. I could see nothing else in this world, but my children. They had to study at any cost,” the father said, gracious even in his loss, handing steel cups of tea to a reporter.
Because of a legal gag order, the victim and her family cannot be identified until the end of the trial of alleged rapists.
The family reflects a small but growing part of Indian society that is changing. When their daughter said she wanted to go away to study physiotherapy in a hill town far from New Delhi, her father did not think of holding her back. He asked the older son, who is in his late teens, to delay enrollment at an engineering college until his sister finished her studies. Money was scarce and she was first in line.
“She was the hero of the film in our family. Always happy. Always laughing,” the father said.
For most women in this country of 1.2 billion, there are few real choices. Tradition says they will get married and become mothers, preferably of boys. If they work, the money will go to their fathers or their husbands.
The mistreatment starts early — with sex-selective abortions and even female infanticides that have skewed India’s gender ratio to 914 girls under age six for every 1,000 boys. Girls get less medical care and less education than their brothers.
Twenty-five years ago, the victim’s father got through high school, left his north Indian farming village and moved to New Delhi to escape poverty. He is still poor, he admits freely, gesturing around the tiny bedroom that passes for a living room when guests arrive.
However, he was able to give his children something else.
“My own father could not educate me very much. He had no means. I wanted different things for my children,” he said.
He struggled for years, working as a security guard and making parts for washing machines. Three years ago, he got a job as a baggage handler at the New Delhi airport. Since then he has worked 16 hours a day, six days a week for about 12,000 rupees (US$220) a month.
“We were struggling, but life was good,” said the father, a heavyset man with graying hair in his mid-50s.
The kids fought, as siblings do, but also loved spending time together. After dinner they would crowd into the room where they slept or watched Bigg Boss, a reality show, and laugh at the contestants locked inside a house for several months.
In the father’s absence, it was the daughter whom both parents trusted most.
“She was the head of the family in the real sense,” he said. “Now that she is gone I can’t even see tomorrow clearly. I have no idea about the future.”
It was a responsibility she took seriously. By the time she was in the ninth grade she was already working — tutoring younger children in her neighborhood — to help pay her school fees.
She also watched over her brothers to make sure they weren’t falling behind in class.
“She gave us direction. She would ask us about our studies. We would ask her for help,” said the brother who gave up his place in an engineering college.
The father had big dreams for her, but her dreams were bigger.
“She wanted to become a doctor. A really good doctor,” he said.
Maybe that dream would have come true eventually. However, she chose a less expensive route. Four years ago, she enrolled in a physiotherapy course at a school in Dehradun, a tiny town in the Himalayan foothills. She got an overnight job working at a call center to help pay for rent and school fees.
On most days she slept only a few hours in her rented room.
“We would have to call her every morning to make sure she got to class,” the brother said.
Relatives in their home village, not used to a family giving a girl so much freedom, pestered the father to get her married. Such things are wrong, they told him. She was not behaving as a woman, as a daughter, is expected to behave.
He ignored them.
“College cannot be in your home. If you have to go out then you do,” he said.
With a job as a hospital physiotherapist, her salary would have started at 12,000 to 15,000 rupees a month, already more than her father’s pay.
By December, she was nearly finished. She was back in New Delhi, living at home and awaiting the results of her final exams.
On Dec. 16, everything changed. As they did every Sunday, the parents washed everyone’s clothes. The daughter cooked a family meal of kidney bean curry and lentil fritters soaked in spicy yogurt.
“Everything was so normal,” her brother said.
Later, she went to a mall to see a movie with a male friend.
Ordinarily she rarely came home after 8pm, and always called if she was late. However, that night the family heard nothing. When they called, her cellphone was switched off. By 8:30pm her brother had called all her friends.
At 11:10pm the police called. They were told their daughter had been in an accident.
The truth was much worse.
The woman and her friend had gotten on a bus after the movie, looking for a way back to her home. However, the bus turned out to be driven by six men out for a joy ride, according to police documents. For nearly an hour, they were driven through the city. He was beaten. She was gang raped, and penetrated with metal rods, causing such severe internal injuries that doctors found parts of her intestines floating inside her abdomen.
Eventually, the two were dumped, naked and bleeding, by a busy road on the cold December night.
“Imagine how much she must have suffered,” her brother said. “We would fight, you know. Brothers and sisters fight too. And if I pushed her too hard she felt pain.”
However, still, she fought to live.
“For almost 10 days her brain was alert,” said her mother, a slim woman wrapped in a sari, her eyes red from weeks of weeping.
Police and a magistrate took statements from her in a New Delhi hospital. She remembered the names of her attackers. She recognized the faces in the photographs police showed her.
She broke down only once.
“She told me: ‘Mummy, they beat me a lot.’ That was the only time she showed her pain,” the mother said.
When infection began to ravage her body, she was flown with her family to a Singapore hospital, but on Christmas day she slipped into a coma. Her family never got to speak to her again. The girl they called little daughter died on Dec. 29.
Now, they feel varying degrees of rage and helplessness.
“Sometimes I want to kill them myself, but I know that would be wrong,” the brother said.
If convicted, five of the attackers could face death sentences. A sixth, declared a juvenile, would likely serve three years in a reform home if convicted.
“I want them to hang. They should not come out alive after what they did to my child,” the father said. “This is not just about my daughter. If there is no justice in this case it will hurt the progress of girls in the whole country. Every parent will be afraid for their daughters.”
“I always told my children, if you study hard you can escape this poverty. All my life I believed that,” her mother said. “Now that dream has ended. My faith has left me.”
Three weeks after her daughter died, her final exam results were announced. She had passed.