Dressed in a pale brown housecoat, her tonsured head still bearing marks of the attack, Kowsalya Sankar sits forlorn on the floor of her in-laws’ house in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
On the wall of her room hangs a framed photograph of her and her husband Sankar Velusamy, 22, taken on their wedding day. In it, Kowsalya, in a gold-and-red sari, her long hair adorned with a string of jasmine flowers, stands close to her husband, who is in a traditional white wedding suit – both unsmiling and seemingly tense.
There was a reason the young couple were not beaming with joy. They were marrying against the wishes of Kowsalya’s family, and were apprehensive of the fallout. But neither of them really expected the grave consequences that were to follow. ‘I knew my family would be upset if they got to know we were marrying against their wishes. But I never imagined they would do this – leave me a widow,’ 19-year-old Kowsalya says.
On March 13 this year, eight months after their marriage, three men attacked the couple in broad daylight in a shopping area in Udumalpet town. Their crime: they belonged to different castes and had got married against the girl’s parents’ wishes.
Armed with long knives, the men attacked the duo, shouting ‘love marriage – face the consequences’.
Sankar died in hospital later the same day, while Kowsalya battled to stay alive, suffering deep lacerations to her head and hand. In all she had to have 36 stitches to save her life and limbs.
Ten people were arrested on charges of murder and attempt to murder, including Kowsalya’s father, mother, uncle, cousin and some members of the community who have admitted their crimes.
In an exclusive interview with Friday, Kowsalya says: ‘My family does not exist for me anymore. I never want to see them again. For me they’re my husband’s murderers. I have no emotions or affection for them any more and I hope they get the death sentence. I will never forgive them.’
Kowsalya first met the mechanical engineering student Sankar two years ago while travelling on a bus on their way to the nearby PA College of Engineering and Technology, which they both attended. ‘I remember this cute guy coming up to me and talking to me. But I wasn’t interested in him at the time, so I ignored him,’ she says.
Two days later he approached her again and attempted to speak to her. ‘He was very polite, so I started talking to him,’ says Kowsalya, looking at the framed picture on the wall.
It did not take long for love to blossom and a week after they first spoke, Sankar revealed his feelings to her. ‘He told me that he loves me and cares a lot for me,’ she says. ‘We used to talk to each other often and by the end of two months my feelings for him too grew to love. It was Sankar’s caring and sensitive nature that endeared him to me.’ The duo then exchanged mobile numbers and on weekends would spend hours on the phone chatting.
‘But even as I fell in love with him, I knew that it would be difficult for us to marry,’ she says.
Kowsalya, who belonged to the politically and financially powerful Thevar community, knew her family would never approve of her relationship with Sankar, who was a Dalit, which in India’s hierarchical caste system was below hers.
‘I hate India’s caste system,’ says Kowsalya. ‘I knew my family would not accept him but I thought I could convince them. I thought my father loved me, and I thought I could persuade him.
‘Sankar was the most wonderful person. I was everything to him. He cared for me like no one else. I couldn’t stop loving him just because he belonged to a different caste. I knew I couldn’t stop loving him even if I tried.’ After 11 months of secret chats and sneaking around corners to talk, Kowsalya finally plucked up the courage to reveal all to her businessman father, Chinnaswamy, 38, and mother Annalakshmi, 34.
‘They disapproved as soon as they found out who Sankar was,’ she says, welling up. ‘In fact my father went mad with rage when he learnt that Sankar belonged to a lower caste and was in love with me.
‘For more than a month, I tried to convince him every day that I just could not think of anyone else to marry but Sankar; however, he didn’t change his mind.’
Then one day she overheard her father on the phone, telling someone he had already fixed her marriage with a boy from an upper caste, an MBA graduate.
‘I was devastated and approached him again and told him I wanted to marry Sankar. But he warned me that there would be severe consequences if I did.’
By then Kowsalya had made up her mind. ‘I knew Sankar’s family were fine with our marriage and would stand by us,’ she says. The same day she spoke to her father, on July 12, 2014, Kowsalya decided she’d marry Sankar.
‘I couldn’t think of spending my life with anyone else. I loved Sankar and I wanted to be his wife. And I knew Sankar felt the same.’
As soon as Kowsalya left her home she called Sankar, and the pair quickly bought new wedding outfits. They then got married in a traditional Hindu ceremony in a local shrine in the presence of Sankar’s family.
‘It was the happiest day of my life,’ says Kowsalya. ‘My dream of marrying Sankar had come true. It was so magical and I didn’t even care that my family wasn’t there. I don’t think there will be another day like it, ever.’
But Kowsalya knew the consequences if her family found out she had married behind their backs. So, as soon as the ceremony was over the couple went to their local police station to report their fears and seek protection.
Kowsalya moved in with Sankar and his family, which is customary in India. She didn’t even tell her parents she was married.
‘I’ve never believed in the caste system and think children should be left to make their own decisions in life. It is their life and nobody should interfere, not even parents. I took the decision to marry Sankar even though my parents didn’t approve. It is my life and I believed I was making the right decision.’
However, within hours, news of the marriage reached Kowsalya’s parents.
The police informed them about the marriage and warned them not to do anything.
Then a week after the wedding, Kowsalya’s parents arrived at Sankar’s home, demanding Kowsalya return home.
‘My parents were furious. My father was going crazy, demanding I leave with him, but I refused. He even threatened to kill us if I didn’t leave, but I didn’t budge from my stance. I did not marry Sankar to go back and live with my parents. I was serious about my marriage. I knew what I wanted. I married him because I loved him and felt there was nothing wrong with it. I ignored their warnings, believing they were only threats.’
But sensing that her father might carry out the threat, a week later Kowsalya decided to quit her studies, fearing she might be spotted on the street by her father and dragged away home. Sankar decided to continue with his studies and on weekends worked as a porter in the marketplace, earning Rs400 (about Dh22) a day.
‘In spite of the fear surrounding us he decided to continue studying and work. He had dreams for our future and there wasn’t anyone who would stop him.
‘I lived a happy life with him. Every day was more beautiful as I felt complete with him. It was a perfect life. He wanted to buy me jewellery and save to buy our own house. He wanted to provide for me,’ she says.
On their eight-month anniversary Sankar bought her a box of chocolates to celebrate. ‘He knew I love chocolates,’ she says, wiping away a tear.
On March 13 the couple went out shopping for Sankar’s birthday, which was on April 9. They had just walked out of a clothes’ store with shopping bags in their hands and were crossing the road when three men on a motorcycle suddenly drove up to them and started attacking them with knives, Kowsalya says.
There were over 100 people in the area watching but no one stepped in to help.
Kowsalya was the first target of the attack. ‘One minute Sankar and I were talking and the next I heard a bike approach and felt a sharp pain on my head.’
She fell down in pain, bleeding and flitting in and out of consciousness. ‘I remember seeing Sankar step in to try to save me but he was attacked too. The attack lasted less than a minute. There was blood everywhere, we were just lying on the road.
‘I remember police and an ambulance arriving and we were taken to a hospital. I was in my senses in the ambulance and I could hear Sankar telling the ambulance staff to treat me first. His fingers were chopped off and he was bleeding profusely from his neck but despite it he was pleading with the attendants to save me.’
The horrendous attack was captured on CCTV cameras attached to a nearby store, and the footage showed the men attacking Sankar and Kowsalya with weapons, with two others instructing the attack and abusing the couple.
At a government hospital in Coimbatore, Kowsalya and Sankar lay side by side in the emergency ward. She says she still remembers Sankar shouting to save her.
‘I kept screaming and telling him not to leave me, that I cannot live without him. He was sobbing in pain and kept saying “I’ll never leave you, I will always love you” and “We’ll be together forever.’’’
Minutes later, as Kowsalya was being wheeled into surgery, a doctor told her the devastating news – Sankar had died from his injuries. He had lost too much blood from his neck.
‘I just went numb, then broke down. I couldn’t believe what the doctors were telling me.
‘I cried and cried. I felt my life was over. I wondered why I was still alive. We had so much planned. I was sure he’d be OK.’
For the next 16 days Kowsalya remained in hospital under police protection. She had severe skull injuries. Her treatment meant she couldn’t even attend Sankar’s funeral.
No one from her family came by to see her in hospital. Two days after the attack her father Chinnaswamy turned himself in to the police, admitting that he intended to kill both his daughter and son-in-law because they had married against his will.
The attack led to major protests in Tamil Nadu against the increasing number of honour killings, and news of the incident and the 22-year-old’s death hit all national news channels. The police arrested several members of Kowsalya’s family.
Deputy superintendent of Udumalpet Police, Vivekanandan, said: ‘A total of 10 people involved in planning and executing the brutal murder have been arrested.’
Kowsalya just can’t make sense of the ruthless act. ‘I wonder how a father could do this to his own daughter. I thought he loved me. I never imagined any parent would do this to their child. I am their only daughter. I don’t understand why they were so angry. I fell in love, what is so bad about it?’
Kowsalya is now under 24-hour police protection, living with Sankar’s father Velusamy, 48, a farmer, and grandmother Mariaayi, 75, after his mother died in 2013.
She is still trying to come to terms with her horrendous loss and finding the strength to live her life again.
‘My life has no meaning now, I have lost the love of my life, the meaning of my life,’ she says. ‘Issues like caste rule our hearts and brains and kill the humanity inside of us.
‘I have lost my husband because of these attitudes. The emptiness can never be filled. I just have memories now. I only hope another Sankar and Kowsalya will not be left to suffer for life because of their caste.
‘Parents like mine should be given the strictest of punishments for what they have done.’