As I knocked uncertainly at the front gate and walked around the low wall to see if anyone would respond, a woman in her early thirties appeared in the ground-floor window, talking on the phone. I couldn’t hear her, but she seemed concerned and I assumed, rightly, that she must be talking to her husband, Yubraj Poudel, whom former Kamlaris had accused of murdering 12-year-old Srijana Chaudhary, a house-help who’d been with the family for two years.
After she received me at the front gate, the woman told me her name was Sharada, or as people called her, Sangita, from Lalmoriya, Dang, where Chaudhary hailed from as well. Her husband was not home that afternoon, but out with her brother, Shankar Adhikari, at the call of the investigation team the government had recently formed to probe into the girl’s death.
It was early June and Kamlari activists were on the streets demanding justice for Chaudhary and for all other Kamlaris like her. Sangita was eager to tell her side of the story.
In her words, Chaudhary was not a Kamlari bought from her family, but because she happened to be a Tharu, her death had become a rallying point for Kamlari activists.
“The last two days have been tense,” said Sangita, taking me into the living room where her 12-year-old son was watching the movie, Ra.One, on TV.
According to Sangita, on the day Chaudhary died, her husband had already left for work at around eight in the morning. Yubraj was an engineer at the Himalayan Hydro Construction Company at Sitapaila. Sangita herself had been in Dang visiting her relatives. Two hours after his brother-in-law left, 25-year-old Adhikari too had gone to work at a computer institute nearby. “Srijana was the only one left in the house when she went up to the roof and burned herself at around 11 in the morning,” said Sangita.
“I don’t think she wanted to kill herself,” she added. “She must have just tried to hurt herself, just so she didn’t have to sit for the exams.”
Sangita said Chaudhary, who studied in grade three at the nearby Kumbheshwor Secondary School, had already repeated the grade and was worried she would fail again.
She denied that Chaudhary was ever maltreated by the family.
“We’ve had regular house-helps, four or five before her.”
Sangita might have been speaking the truth that the Poudel family never mistreated Chaudhary, never physically hurt her. But as she gave a tour of the premises, the discrimination the young girl faced would become crystal clear.
The house, rented from a man named Sunil Shakya, was an unpainted, three-storied building. It had a little vegetable garden out front, with budding pomegranates and sprawling creepers.
Although the building looked huge, it only had five rooms in total and until Chaudhary’s death, housed six people, including the Poudel couple, their 12-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, and Adhikari.
The ground floor contained a kitchen, a living room and a toilet. The room directly above the living room belonged to Adhikari. The one next to it belonged to the Poudel couple’s son, which he had to share with Chaudhary every night. A makeshift bed would be laid on the floor for the girl.
The second floor contained just one big room for the Poudel couple. Above it was the roof-terrace. In between the couple’s bedroom and the roof was a staircase landing, which functioned as Chaudhary’s dayroom, with three old sofa chairs as a wall and a curtain as a door.
At the time I was there, remnants of Chaudhary’s life still dotted the landing. A comb, a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, a bar of soap and a jar of Nivea cream perched on a little shelf carved into the wall. A low bed meant for her to study and rest on was pushed against the wall with a stack of blankets on top.
Her pink slippers, with pink bows, were left outside the door to the roof, next to a stove in a bag. Before the incident, there would be two 10-litre bottles of kerosene stored by the stove as well. The door to the roof opened immediately to a parapet, where remnants of Chaudhary herself could be found. Parts of the low wall were burned black and dark, gooey substance lay scattered over the wall and on the floor. A sheet of polystyrene foam covered most of the melted flakes of skin, preventing birds from eating them.
The real expanse of the terrace lay a bit further down to the right. Chaudhary had been seen burning right next to the door and not on the terrace itself—a fact that had led Sangita to believe the girl did not intend to kill herself. “If she had wanted to die, she could have done so unnoticed down there,” said Sangita, pointing at the terrace.
Unfortunately, the truth behind Chaudhary’s death—whether she was just a curious girl playing with fire, whether she wanted to hurt herself just a bit to avoid exams, whether physical or psychological torture had driven her to douse herself in kerosene, or whether it was someone else who had lit the fire—will probably never be known.
The report of the government investigation team was never made public. In mid-July, Chaudhary’s mother collected Rs 500,000 from the state in compensation. If the Poudel family had been found guilty of murder, she would have received an additional Rs 500,000, as per the agreement between former Kamlaris and the government. But she was never summoned to the Capital to collect the additional amount, implying that the Poudel family had been acquitted of any involvement.
The only silver lining was the proclamation that the government was forced to make on July 18, the day the Kamlari system was officially abolished.
Published on 16 November 2013, The Kathmandu Post