Her Facebook photos reveal a young woman who liked to travel, dress up, pose and smile. You see her patting her hair and sticking a hip out like the Marilyn Monroe wax statue behind her; in a business suit with San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge as the backdrop; in a black, leather jacket and pink scarf in Las Vegas; in a skirt at a Delhi mall; in oversize sunglasses and picnic hat at a Mughal monument; and as a glowing bride in a green-and-gold-bordered pink silk saree, dangling gold earrings and armloads of bangles.

Manjula Devak, 28, appeared to be living the Indian dream, but this world of travel and self expression was, in large part, made possible by the considerable academic achievements of a girl who grew up in provincial Bhopal.

Devak’s world expanded dramatically when she was admitted to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. She became a civil engineer, and in the course of her PhD research, she published papers in three reputed international journals and two books chapters. Three more papers are currently under scrutiny, her supervisor CT Dhanya, told me over email, explaining how Devak was the topper of the water resources engineering master’s class of 2013 at IIT Delhi. “She completed her doctoral research in a short period, while still making significant scientific contributions, which will remain with the research fraternity for decades to come,” said Dhanya.

Devak’s latest paper caught my attention because it explored a topic I follow, climate change. The paper predicted an alarming decrease in recharge water in the Ganga river basin over 79 years between 2021 and 2100, with melting snow spurring a rise in winter precipitation and extreme offseason rain events. The paper was published in an international journal in May – the month Devak hanged herself at her flat in IIT-Delhi.

When the police broke open the door on May 29, they found her hanging from a fan. There was no suicide note, and it wasn’t clear why Devak hanged herself. What was clear was that her death represented the clashing worlds of old and new India, and, so, from celebrating a young woman in the prime of her life, this column must now turn to the darker impulses of society that clash with the dreams of women who strive to break free.

(Photo credit: Manjula Devak/Facebook).
(Photo credit: Manjula Devak/Facebook).

Dowry demands

Outside a morgue in India’s capital, Devak’s father told a Hindustan Times reporter: “It was a mistake to educate my daughter and send her to IIT. I should have saved all the money for her dowry.”

It appeared that behind her achievements, Devak’s life was shackled to India’s darkest traditions. She had been living apart from her husband Ritesh – he and his family were hustled from the mortuary door by Devak’s family – for a year, and her mother accused Ritesh and his parents of demanding a dowry of about Rs 20 lakh. With this money, the Hindustan Times quoted her mother as saying, Ritesh wanted his wife to quit her research and help him start a business. Could Devak not divorce her husband? Her mother had told her to go ahead, but Devak apparently was worried about the effect this might have on her family’s reputation. Why did this young woman on the way to her dream marry him anyway, when she was only 24? Said her father: “Because their horoscopes matched perfectly.”

The exploration of Devak’s life is important because millions of young women now set out on similar journeys, during which many are visited by envy, harassment, hate and worse, particularly from men – within the family and without. Many women overcome, and many succumb. Many women breach boundaries set for them, and some, as Devak’s story indicates, find some barriers too formidable to cross. I do not know what her feelings were about early marriage and horoscopes, but she did agree to the marriage, and in her wedding photos, she is smiling.

Many women achievers live and are, perhaps, happy within the bounds of Indian tradition, but most are either brought up to agree or find they have little choice in the matter. The old India and the new live cheek by jowl. If ambitious Indian women want their freedom and manage to find a path to their dreams, compromise is common. Devak appears to have followed that path.

(Photo credit: Manjula Devak/Facebook).
(Photo credit: Manjula Devak/Facebook).

Women in India

On a recent trip to the US, I was struck by the confident body language of young Indian women who filled the business district of Jersey City, a suburb of New York that teems with Indians. Many of these women feel unshackled and free when they live in the West. My cousin, a single woman who divorced her husband, told me she missed home food and her family back home, but felt the weight of intrusiveness into her personal life. “I come across the ‘loose divorced woman’ attitude even here [in the US] from Indian men mainly,” she said. “It’s diluted and cloaked... but they carry those attitudes everywhere.”

It is not my case that every woman in India is held back – indeed, a minority live life on their own terms – but physical or mental restraints hold back the overwhelming majority.

Few Indian women with Devak’s qualifications and marital status manage to break those restraints. No more than 27% of India’s women work, the lowest among BRICS nations, and in the group of G-20 nations, only Saudi Arabia does worse. The Indian conundrum is that as the numbers of women in schools and colleges rise, the number of those at work drop. Over seven years ending 2012, India’s most educated women dropped out of its workforce at a rate faster than other women. Devak was among the privileged few who defied statistics and tradition, contributed to India’s intellectual heft and pursued her dreams. Her death indicates the limits placed on those dreams.

Samar Halarnkar is editor, IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.