HER hair in an unfussy bob, the confident young woman steps on to the podium. A few others have spoken and it’s now Kausalya’s turn. She adjusts the mike and begins straight away. Referring to a remark in an earlier speech about caste being tied to occupation, she says, “If caste had anything to do with occupation or job, why was my Shankar, an engineer, killed? Caste stays with you, doesn’t get wiped off even if your occupation changes.” It’s been exactly a year since her husband of eight months, V Shankar, was hacked to death by three men on a motorbike at Udumalpet town. Theirs was a match that challenged one of Tamil Nadu’s deepest faultlines: while Shankar was a Dalit from Kumaralingam village in Udumalpet, she is a Thevar, an OBC caste with social and political clout in the state, from Palani, a temple town 40 km from Udumalpet.
The grisly murder near the town bus stand where Shankar and Kausalya had gone shopping, captured on a CCTV camera, had gone viral on social media. It later emerged that the gang had been hired by her parents to kill both Shankar and Kausalya.
Over the last year, says Kausalya, she has never ceased to ask questions — about caste and why her Shankar had to die for falling in love. Many of her questions were addressed to God, and she says she realised He had few answers. “So I don’t believe in God anymore. It’s only after reading Periyar (social reformer E V Ramasamy) and B R Ambedkar that I could find reasons for many of my problems. I no longer think God will take care of everything,” she says after her speech.
Today, March 13, marks the first anniversary of Shankar’s death, and she has spent the day not at a prayer meeting or a temple but at two functions at Udumalpet against caste atrocities and honour killings. Over the last six months, Kausalya — who spells her name in English as Gowsalya — has attended dozens of public meetings at Salem, Namakkal, Coimbatore and Chennai, speaking on the need for society to break away from the shackles of caste.
She admits she is no longer the Kausalya that Shankar knew — a shy, diffident girl in salwar-kameez whom he had proposed to on her third day at their engineering college in Pollachi. “He was my senior. He simply came up to me and proposed,” she says.
They married despite threats from her parents, and she went to live in Shankar’s village. While Shankar graduated with a BTech, Kausalya dropped out when the threats got unbearable.
Eight months after their wedding, in March last year, they had travelled to Udumalpet town to buy clothes for Shankar’s birthday when the killers struck.
From her hospital bed, her head swathed in bandages, she had testified against her parents and relatives, leading to the arrest of seven in the case. Later, Kausalya had moved back to Shankar’s single-room house in the village and resolved to stay there, looking after his parents.
Her parents are lodged in Coimbatore Central Prison and Kausalya says she hasn’t met or contacted them since they were arrested. She doesn’t even want to “think about them”, she adds, and would rather talk about her “family now” — Shankar’s grandmother, his labourer father and two brothers. “The elder brother is doing his BSc in computers and the younger one is giving his Class 12 exams,” she says.
While mainstream parties, afraid of losing the powerful OBC-Thevar vote, had remained largely indifferent to Shankar’s murder, Kausalya had found help from activists of CPM affiliates All India Democratic Women’s Federation (AIDWA) and Untouchability Eradication Front and Thol Thirumavalavan’s Dalit party VCK, which had donated Rs 1 lakh to Shankar’s family after his murder. She used the money to build a new house for Shankar’s family in Kumaralingam village. “Our new house has four rooms now,” she says.
Six months ago, Kausalya cleared an exam for a job in the Ministry of Defence, and now lives in a hostel some 140 km from Udumalpet. (She is afraid to reveal the location.)
“After Shankar’s death, my biggest dream was to get a job so that I could support myself and his family. Now I go home (Kumaralingam village) once a month,” she says.
Kausalya has made many new friends, she adds, including among the AIDWA and several rationalist and anti-caste groups. She is doing a correspondence course in BSc Computer Science from Bharathiar University, and in her spare time, has been trying to pick up new skills such as karate and playing the drum-like instrument called Parai. “It is an instrument usually associated with Dalits and other oppressed sections. I want to popularise it and make it a music that’s acceptable to everyone,” she says.
Though all this fills up her day, there are times she is lonely. “Yes, I am alone. But I have vowed to fight all the way against caste and everything else that destroyed my life,” Kausalya says.