A Death Refracted – Part 1
Refracting the multiple perspectives that led up to the suicide of a young Punjabi woman in 2013
Derry was born on the 27th of April 1981. She died on the 21st of September 2013, at approximately 18.30 at London Victoria rail station. Her father, in his journal, had noted that there was a full moon on the night of her birth. She burnt brightly during her life, bringing joy, happiness, love and, also sadness, anger and bitterness into the lives of those who knew her.
She touched many people, and many touched her. Many attended her funeral and thought they knew her, and they did in their own way, but who was she? It is easy to say she was a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend, a librarian, but she was much more than each of these roles and in a way much more than the sum of them.
First and foremost everyone should know she was an outcast, written out of her community, wiped, or so they told everyone, from her parent’s memory and spoken of in hushed voices, when no one thought they could be overheard – but there are ears everywhere listening for gossip – as “that bitch walking the streets somewhere.” This is what outcasts become, objects of derision, anger, and I will say it, in the communities she left behind, jealousy and hope.
She had decided on the path her life should take, a decision that broke the chains which stifle most women from her background. It took more courage than can be imagined. Her father, though educated, and professing, in public anyway, values of liberalism and independent thought, in private throttled his family, cutting off the air of originality and freedom. He allowed no criticism of his beliefs, his practices, the customs of a country he had left when he was 20, and met any dissension, from his wife and children, with violence, the surfacing of an anger born of a frustration of not being able to pursue his own dreams, and having bent to the wishes of his father to send him bonded into a foreign land.
Derry was from a Punjabi family. The Punjab is considered to be the bread basket of India, but it has another dubious distinction; more female feotuses are aborted there than in any other Indian state. This killing extends to those who are allowed to become full term. Female infanticide runs at nearly 100,000 every year. Studies show that this is not confined to the poorest in the state, the illiterate, but is most prevalent among the rich and the educated. It would be easy, and lazy, to say that women themselves are somehow complicit, mothers and sisters conspiring in the perpetuation of their own condition, of being the other; the fact remains that they are possessions, objects to be traded, moved across borders, used and discarded as needed in their abortive and aborted lives; it is men who ultimately dictate and preside over the fate of what is seeded in the womb.
A recent report stated “British Punjabis are employing contract killers in the Punjab to eliminate business rivals, unwanted spouses, mainly women, and to exact revenge.” The aim of including these statements is not to sensationalise the cultural environment which formed and informed the background to Derry’s life, it is to indicate the factors which contributed to the decisions she made and which shaped the path to her death.
Part 1 – The call
Bonny’s finished for the day, the medical centre locked up for the weekend, the phone system on forward and she’s in the garden when the call comes. It’s Friday, early evening, dry air still hot and she’s looking forward to a cool white, and then two days of doing absolutely nothing.
She hears the phone ring, lets it drift past her, then a few moments later her husband knocks on the French doors, calls out; It’s Peter. He’s saying your sister’s had an accident.
She doesn’t need to ask. She knows who it’ll be. It will not be Tuwi. Too cautious to put herself at risk.
Derry, Kris confirms her suspicion. Peter says she’s gone and done something silly, but he’s saying there’s no need to worry as Tuwi’s with her. He’ll call you later when he’s got some more news.
That’s okay then, she thinks, forcing herself to stay in the emptiness she’s been nurturing. She doesn’t lift her eyes, continues deadheading the roses, focussing on the buds, shuffling slowly along the sleepers on her aching knees, the right already stiff. Inside the emptiness a thought is beginning to gather, a cloud struck through with darkness.
A little later, Kris steps onto the decking and calls out again.
It’s Tuwi. She’s asking where you are. Apparently, Peter’s told her you were on your way. That you’ll be there any time now.
Way to where? she asks; her head is hurting and thinking is an effort, and her body is shutting down with the heat. If only she could close her eyes….
Victoria station. That’s where she is. She didn’t sound too good.
Is Peter with her?
Yes. He says he’s just got there, but she wants you there.
Why does Tuwi want her there? Peter’s already there. Surely he can deal with whatever’s happening? The brim of her hat is wet, an uncomfortable cold touch on her forehead. And why the hell does she have to drop everything whenever Derry’s done something stupid? What does she want? To go and hold her hand while she discharges herself from another visit to A&E, another bandage on her wrist, another cut to her face?
The phone’s ringing again and Kris steps inside.
Bonny waits for the update, watches for her husband to reappear at the door to the garden. She wonders where Jessie is; probably sleeping off another hectic day at the nursery. She’ll have to check in on her.
It’s the police, he says in a low voice; she knows he’s careful like that, doesn’t want the neighbours to hear, just in case, keep their personal stuff within their fences. They’re asking when you’ll be at Victoria.
She forces herself to stand, her right knee screaming, the skin, still healing, taut, wipes the bitter sweat from her eyes. A loud gaggle of geese flies overhead, spearing their way towards London. She watches them until they disappear behind the roofline, the sound still hanging an echo in the air.
You’ve got to go, Kris says. They’re saying you have to be there.
She knows she has to be there.
I’m going now. Give them my mobile number.
The trains run every 20 minutes. If she’s quick, glancing at her watch, the next one’s in 10 minutes.
They call her twice more, each time telling her that Tuwi is asking for her sister. Bonny’s head is heavy, a sluggish swell of water dampening the tide of her thoughts. She doesn’t want to think, is grateful for the drowning sound of the train tubing her towards London. Both times it’s the same woman, soft modulated voice asking how far she is from Victoria.
Do you know which platform you’re coming into? the woman asks.
Bonny checks on Trainline.
Ok, you come through the barriers, turn right, walk all the way to the end, and when you’re past platform 1 keep to the right and past the bend on the left you’ll see signs to “Transport Police Office.” We’re on the 2nd floor.
They’re sitting at a small table, Tuwi and Peter, when she runs up the stairs and is ushered into the room where they’ve been waiting. Cups of tea, still full, in front of them. A box of tissues, a spent pile beside Tuwi’s right hand. She looks up when Bonny enters, eyes red, shadows of recent ghosts bringing fresh tears.
Bonny knows, has known, has fought that knowing, since she left her house that Derry’s not going to come through the doors, that stupid grin of hers wide saying, “Hey guys, sorry for the inconvenience. Just needed to see who cares for me. And you definitely do!”
Bonny reaches out to her sister, can only feel the one heartbeat, had been expecting still, still another to join them and strengthen the rhythm. Tuwi stands, collapses into Bonny.
Peter’s sitting, watches as the two sisters stand swaying, holding onto each other, Bonny and Tuwi, howling, tears soaking into each other’s hair. He stands and comes forward, behind his wife, lifts his hand, wants to touch her, to comfort her, to fill the space that has just been emptied, but he can’t and bowing his head lets it fall.
I remember falling. For a long time. And then I was here. In the dark. Wherever this is, this darkness. All I hear is the wind outside this, this room. I call it a room, but not too sure what it is. There’s no light, just blackness on all sides. I’ve followed the walls, if that’s what they are, all the way around, at least I think I’ve come back to where I started. I can’t be sure. I’ve sat here, in this spot, keeping my eyes open, looking out into the dark, trying to make out any shapes, but there’s nothing. I think there’s a spark sometimes, but when I blink it’s gone. It must be me, imagining that there is light.