RIP Suzette Jordan: All she had ever wanted was to dance

Like most of the rest of us I knew her largely as the “Park Street rape victim”. It’s ironic that she came out of the shadows of that rape in order to reclaim the rest of her life but was unable to escape the confines of that box.

But if anyone epitomised rape survivor rather than victim it was Suzette. She had a zest for life that showed through all the anger and sadness and pain of her story. Not everyone gets gangraped and thrown out of a car half-naked in the dead of night and dares to speak up. When I went to interview her she was feverish and had called in sick at work. I remember her sitting in her little room playing with a feisty little kitten she had adopted. And she talked and she talked.

Her mother puttered around in the next room in the little house. I wonder what she made of the journalists and television cameras tramping through the house asking Suzette to recount the details of that harrowing night over and over again.

Suzette must have been tired of telling her story over and over again. But she was tireless in recounting it. She knew she had few official allies. The state’s chief minister had already famously dismissed the Park Street rape story as a conspiracy to defame her. A minister had wondered what a mother of two was doing at a night club that late at night. And somewhere simmering under all of that was a prejudice against her as an Anglo-Indian and therefore a little too much of “girls who just wanna have fun”. She said politicians would say, “Oh she’s a single mom, her husband left her, she might have been a prostitute.”

And Suzette unabashedly wanted to have fun. She liked to party. She liked going out with friends. She liked drinking and smoking. But we live in a society which frowns upon all of these especially when it comes to women. We want our rape victims to be Sati Savitris. We assume our rape survivors will be textbook feminists. But the Suzette I met was not that person.

 RIP Suzette Jordan: All she had ever wanted was to dance

Suzette Jordan in this file photo. Image by Sandip Roy.

She certainly had guts. She did not want to hide in the shadows. She did not want to be the one covering her face as she left the courthouse as if she had done something shameful by being raped. She had to live with snide comments from lawyers on one hand while the accused’s friends and families took photos of her on their cell phones on her way out of court. She refused to flinch.

However along the way society started pushing her into a new role – a feminist role model for rape survivors everywhere. She had a short-lived stint as a counselor for a support line for victims of rape and domestic violence. She was a key speaker at the Tehelka Think conference which itself got embroiled in a rape controversy. She was nominated for a Femina Woman Award. She became the easy go-to person on speed dial for the media whenever they needed a comment about a rape story.

Recently when a nightclub refused her entry it became an enormous social media story. There were protests outside the club. Celebrities tweeted in her support. The club claimed they had not refused her entry because she was the “Park Street rape victim” but because it was late and contrary to what she had claimed, she had been to the club before. The case died away amidst a flurry of he-said, she-said but if anything it highlighted how difficult it was for her to resume life as normal.

The terrible truth was in trying to pick up the pieces of her life, she had little to fall back on except the tragedy that had happened to her. She told me she had struggled because she did not get a college education. As Nilanjana S. Roy writes in Scroll, “Violence against women in India is often meticulously covered and discussed, and yet the wellbeing of victims and survivors is seen as their individual burden, not as the responsibility of the community or the state.” The kinds of jobs open to her were limited. After her story became public many came to her promising jobs. But she said after the interview no one ever got back to her other than a couple of NGOs and activists like Santasree Chaudhuri. Suzette was, in the end, trapped in her own story.

In death she is being hailed as a sort of feminist icon and a trailblazer. But these were all identities foisted on her by what happened to her. They were in the end an uneasy fit for her. She gamely took them on because in a way that was what society expected of her and the only way it would accept her. In coming out as a rape survivor she had also unwittingly become a counselor, a sober role model, an expert on assault. A rape survivor who might want to party again – now that’s taboo.

But Suzette Jordan like many people I know wanted to have a perfectly ordinary life with friends, food and family. And she wanted to go dancing in a nightclub. She told me many harrowing details of that night and the aftermath of it – the sleeping pills, the anti-depressants, the hair coming out in clumps. But the one that really stuck with me was not about the futile job search, the ignominy of the rape tests, the meandering court case.

I love to dance she told me but I have not been able to go back to a nightclub since that night. I really want to dance again. When social media erupted with protests about the nightclub that barred her entry I remembered that comment again. And I wished that one day the case would be over and Suzette Jordan would just be able to go dancing again without remembering, or being reminded of the fact, that she was the Park Street rape survivor.

RIP Suzette Jordan.

Updated Date: Mar 16, 2015 07:27:01 IST