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A Young Mother's Death Raises Questions Without Answers

The grave of the 27-year-old Indian woman who died on Monday from head and spinal injuries.
Wilbur Sargunaraj for NPR
The grave of the 27-year-old Indian woman who died on Monday from head and spinal injuries.

On April 20, 2015, the body of a 27-year-old mother of two was laid to rest in a village in India. She had been admitted to the hospital ten days earlier, with bleeding in the head and a spinal injury that left her paralyzed. She told authorities she had slipped and fallen. NPR contributor Wilbur Sargunaraj had the opportunity to speak with three of her close friends, who said her husband caused her death. Family members would not comment. He will likely not face charges because in India, many people view domestic violence as a family matter and not a crime. Even the wife did not accuse him. So the truth may never be known. But her friends did share some things about this young woman. Here is her story. [Note: We are not using her name to protect her family.]

She was born in a small village in Tamil Nadu. Her father struggled to find work as he was disabled, so she was forced to look for work to provide for their family. She was very independent. She spent most of her teenage years working as household help for a middle class family in a large city. She would cook, clean, make afternoon tea and wash clothes. Sometimes she would get into trouble for bluntly speaking her mind. Yet the family that she served loved her as she loved them. She enjoyed nice clothes and a variety of dishes. Chicken curry with the fermented rice-lentil cake called idly was great, but even better for her was fish head curry. Nothing went to waste. She even loved those tasty eyes!

In her early 20s she fell in love with a boy from her village. But her family quickly arranged a marriage for her instead since they wanted her husband to have a higher social status. She pleaded with her father not to give her away, but he would not change his mind. Being married is of utmost importance for the status of women in the village world. Caste, education, wealth and skin shade are typically what matters in a spouse. Love and respect within the marriage are often secondary.

The marriage was rocky from the start. One of her friends asserted that she was verbally and physically abusive to her husband and eventually was hit in return. She ran back to her family one night, pleading outside the gate to be let back in and to escape this marriage. But since her family believed that she had not behaved as she should toward her husband, they weren't about to let her walk — especially after having paid a large dowry in the form of gold and furniture.

Village burials happen quickly as bodies are not embalmed or kept in a funeral home. The funeral took place beside the gravesite on the day she died. She passed away early in the morning; the body did not arrive for burial until nightfall, when the cemetery was shrouded in darkness.

A gang of young men had asked her family if they should beat the husband at the funeral, but the family declined. A shouting match started right in the middle of the funeral about why she died. But like so many other things in this case, the shouters were hushed.

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Wilbur Sargunaraj