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 book 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.