Conflict & Justice

Death of a Bangalore Law Student

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Badamaraluru village. (Photo: Michael May)

Newspapers in the city of Bangalore India are full of lurid tales that reflect the stress that's accompanied the city's rapid growth and modernization. Some are funny. A developer builds too close to an ancient shrine and ends up with a haunted apartment building. Others are more serious.

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Reporter Michael May become fascinated with one of these stories and decided to look into it.

The story was on the front page of several local papers. A 22 year-old law student in Bangalore named Bhramarambika had died mysteriously while visiting her family in their rural village. Details on how she died were murky, but she was quickly buried without the police being called.

Authorities were investigating her death as a possible honor killing. In other words, the family may have executed her for some transgression — for instance, falling in love with someone from the wrong caste.

The story fascinated me for the same reason it fascinated everyone else. It gave a face to the tensions underlying Indian's urban growth. Rural Indians are flocking to the city to escape their humble roots. Not everyone makes it.

I called a local crime reporter named Rajiv to ask him about the case. He told me what made the death suspicious was that the parents didn't notify the police.

"The second thing is her friends went to the village and asked why did Bhramarambika commit suicide, and everyone gave a different version," Rajiv said.

When the students came back from the village, one of them wrote the state high court saying they suspected an honor killing. The high court opened an investigation.

So Rajiv and I headed to the Seshadripuram Law College to meet with some of Bhramarambika's fellow students.

They seemed flustered by the attention, and none of them would admit to writing to the high court. The students said they weren't sure if Bhramarambika's death was a murder or a suicide. Neither made any sense to them.

We also paid a visit to the head of the school, a woman named Asha. She was tiny and wore a traditional silk Sari. She seemed more like a Hindu mother superior than the dean of a law school: smart, maternal and no nonsense.

She described Bhramarambika as decent, simple and obedient.

"She was a small, shy-natured girl," Asha said. "But when I remember her, I remember her smiling face."

Bhramarambika was the first woman from her village to go to graduate school.

So I asked if she thought a simple rural girl like her would have trouble adjusting to law school in a city like Bangalore; Asha didn't think so.

"We are not so hi-fi here," she said, meaning modern. She said many of the students at the law school are from traditional rural backgrounds.

"We follow Hindu traditions. We have dress code. The ones who want to enjoy life and go around in the city, they drop out. They don't continue here."

But Asha said that Bhramarambika was suffering from a kind of culture shock. She only spoke Kannada, and her classes were all in English.

"She found it difficult to interact with teachers. She failed in many subjects, maybe because of her lack of English knowledge," Asha said.

At the end of the semester, Bhramarambika skipped an assigned presentation in front of the school. But Asha said the student didn't seem depressed and had paid the fees for her exam in June.

A week or so later, Asha read about her death in the paper.

We left with more questions than answers. So we took a drive out to Bhramarambika's village to speak to the family.

After an hour or so the city's tangled traffic loosened and the concrete buildings gave way to mango and palm trees. Monkeys darted across the road. White buffalos with long curved horns grazed in open fields.

As we drove I pondered Bhramarambika's strange death. Could it have been a suicide? It's possible. Just last month a study in the medical journal the Lancet reported that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young Indians, especially among highly educated young people from rural areas in the more developed south. Bhramarambika fit the profile exactly.

After a couple hours, we turned onto a deeply rutted dirt road and started slowly moving towards her village. We spotted a young man named Ghangadhar in a T-shirt and sporting a thin mustache. He said he went to school with Bhramarambika for ten years.

He told us Bhramarambika seemed happy when she'd come home; she would tend the cows. When he heard she had died, he rushed to her house. He saw her lifeless body laid out on the floor and a noose hanging from the ceiling. He didn't understand why the papers reported her death as an honor killing. Sure, he said, parents in the village get upset when someone marries outside their caste, but they learn to accept it.

Ghangadhar didn't really have a theory as to why she killed herself. But he did say that when she would take tests, she'd get so nervous her palms would sweat uncontrollably.

The village itself was full of small concrete block homes, dirt paths, bicycles and cows. When we arrived, a crowd of about 50 villagers gathered. We asked them about Bhramarmbika's death — everyone said it was a suicide.

Eventually, we were waved into Bhramarambika's small home. Her mother, father and sister sat quietly in the dark living room. A single candle burned on a shelf. Their faces were barely illuminated in the flickering light.

In a steady, bitter tone, her father, Narasimhaiah, began to tell his story.

He told us the day Bhramarambika committed suicide, he and his wife were on pilgrimage to a Hindu temple 400 kilometers. They got a call saying Bhramarambika had hanged herself, and they rushed home. By the time they got back, she had been dead for a day. According to Hindu custom, the funeral rituals should have begun immediately after death, so they rushed to bury her without bothering to call the police.

Narasimhaiah, a retired school teacher, said he'd wanted both of his daughters to be educated and that's why he'd sent Bhramarambika to Bangalore. Now, he said, he's full of shame because she killed herself for reasons he didn't understand.

As we walked to the door, Bharamarmbika's mother Parvathamma tore into the crime reporter, Rajiv. She said, don't you media people have sisters or mothers? Leave us alone so we can grieve. Or go ahead and kill us first, so we don't have to answer anymore questions.

Rajiv bowed his head, mumbled condolences and we walked out into the night air.

We got in the car and started heading back to Bangalore. In the absence of any other evidence, it seemed Bhramarambika had probably killed herself. Instead of a sensational story of a brutal honor killing, we'd found something more ordinary and sad. It looked like Bhramarambika was another young Indian woman who found life's pressures too much to bear. If she had a dark secret, she took it with her.

Rajiv was brooding on the drive back. I could tell he felt bad for bothering the grieving family.

"I felt really guilty, when he said you media people have tarnished my daughter's image," Rajiv said. "But what to do? This my job, I have to ask questions."

And with that, he called the office and started dictating his story as he drove. He needed to get it done in time for the morning paper.

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