Smita Sharma was molested by a professor and then, her cousin committed suicide after facing abuse. Today, this photojournalist traverses India to hear the stories of rape survivors.
Nobody has asked Shanta how her life changed after that fateful night. Nobody has uttered the word “rape” but that day, for the first time, someone will come asking, and Shanta will speak. She knows, like Smita does, that if no record of her horrific rape ever exists, it will be like it never happened.
Steeling herself for the emotional rollercoaster that was soon going to follow, Smita raises her hand and knocks on the door.
Sexual abuse haunts Smita’s waking moments. It also surfaces as nightmares. Her childhood was marked by the horror in more ways that one. As an adolescent, she was molested by a trusted professor in college, and years later, the crime repeated itself, a hundred times worse, when her innocent 13-year-old cousin Kamalika Das was molested in school by a classmate. “She was very close to me. I was in Std X when she was born. As her elder sister, she brought out all my protective instincts,” Smita says. When her little sister tearfully confessed, Smita reeled in horror. “Kamalika’s father was travelling when this happened. She called me and I knew exactly what she wanted. All she wanted to know was that it was not her fault.”
Unfortunately, the school’s principal, who was a woman, did not think so. She ridiculed Kamalika, called her an arrogant child, and threatened to expel her for attracting undue attention. The school and some of its teachers ganged up on Kamalika. What followed was a spate of character attacks for four years – four long years of being punished for small misdemeanours, being ridiculed in class. But she stood up against them all because she had Smita on her side, Smita who had convinced her that she had not done anything wrong. But, in the end, the accusations of the world became a burden she could not bear. When Kamalika was suspended for not completing an assignment and her mother insulted for “not raising her child properly”, she (Kamalika) committed suicide by jumping out of a seventh-floor window.
Kamalika’s death changed Smita’s life forever. “I was like a wild horse after my cousin’s death. It was an institutional murder. No one should lose their identity, their dreams or their lives because of an abuse that the world does not even acknowledge.”
The silence of abuse survivors screams out loud in a culture that accuses them of provocation instead of offering protection. The silence wouldn’t let Smita sleep. She was haunted by the idea of giving these women, if not justice, then at least a voice. She’d been a photojournalist for many years, but now she had a responsibility. She had been dabbling with the idea of a project that documented rape in India, but after Kamalika’s death it acquired a new meaning.
It was an ambitious project, one for which Smita had no funds. An editor friend from New York suggested crowdfunding and “Stories of Rape & Sexual Violence in India” was launched as a project on Kickstarter. The response was tremendous. In 45 days, it raised more than $30,000 from across 30 countries.
Smita packed her bags and flew to India.
It’s been 19 months since then, and Smita has covered West Bengal, Haryana, Delhi, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand and documented 35 cases of rape like Shanta’s. During interviews, Smita sits with the women, talks to them, eats with them. Sometimes she doesn’t use her camera at all. She never prods them, but the story always comes out. There have been times when she could not shoot because she was crying so hard, shattered by the stories she kept hearing again and again.
Smita has met teenage mothers who were made to marry their rapists, girls who were raped on their long commute to school, or some when they went out in the fields at night to defecate. A young mother, whose six-year-old daughter’s broken body was discarded like a rag doll by her rapist, asked Smita brokenly, “Why did he have to kill my daughter?”
Rape is not an easy subject to live with. The stories leave their mark on Smita and there are days when she cannot eat. “I meet these survivors and all of them have a different story, but the dead eyes staring into the darkness remain the same.”
Smita plans to be on the road for another two years, raising money along the way to fund her project and also helping these girls by donating bicycles. She doesn’t know when it will end or what it’s going to take, to shift the needle even an inch. If nothing comes out of the stories she’s collected, it doesn’t matter to Smita.
What’s important is that the story has been told.
Smita is currently raising funds to purchase bicycles for victims of sexual assault. You can contribute at http://kamalikafoundation.org/.
"Unearthed: Stories of Courage in the Face of Sexual Violence" initiates a visual dialogue on rape and sexual assault in India
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