A pregnant woman is murdered in cold blood in the heart of suburban Mumbai.
By her father who didn't want her to marry the man she did.
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports on the crime that has shocked the city.
"Body lambah hai? (Is the body long?)" they are asked roughly.
The family quietly shake their heads.
On the fly-infested cement ground, near the gate outside the mortuary at Rajawadi hospital, a municipal hospital in Ghatkopar East, north east Mumbai, two funeral ambulance workers are tying together a bamboo bier.
They have placed two long, green bamboo sticks on four pieces of brick.
The second man, who posed this question, emerges from the mortuary with a length of jute rope, that he has dampened, and starts to tie nine little horizontal strips of bamboo onto the vertical sticks.
A length of grass matting lies nearby.
No. The corpse, when it arrives, is not long.
Just four feet 10 inches about.
Tiny. Slender. Defenceless.
It is tied up in a piece of bright-white cloth.
The relatives, severely composed, mildly dumbstruck by the enormity of the tragedy, move forward to open up the bundle.
She is a tender, young girl.
The pretty, elfin face, its eyes closed for eternity, its expression now composed, bears large, dark bruises and contusions on the forehead on its left side. There are deep wounds on the side and back of the neck, stretching to the face. The matted hair framing the face is luxurious, jet black, and flows behind her.
It is a sweet face.
The face of a girl-woman who knew love and happiness once.
Before it, along with her brief life, was stolen from her by the blade of a kasai (cleaver) knife.
She is Meenakshi Chaurasia, 20, five months pregnant, a resident of a tiny rented room, with a shiny blue door at Shivpuri Chawl, Hill No 2, Narayan Nagar, located in Ghatkopar West, just below the busy and noisy flight path of planes taking off from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj international and domestic airports.
Murdered on the evening of Saturday, July 13, 2019 -- the time of death is not on the autopsy slip -- near the Madhuban Toyota dealership on LBS road, a few lanes from her home, Meenakshi was apparently the victim of an honour killing -- a murder the kind Mumbai rarely sees many of.
An honour killing?
In the heart of Mumbai?
A crime -- that we think can only happen in dark medieval, rural corners of our country, thousands and thousands of kilometres from here -- occurred, shockingly, in a busy by-lane of suburban Mumbai.
Meenakshi, called lovingly Anu or Sonu by her husband of hardly four months Brijesh Shahdev Chaurasia, 24, who operates a paan stall opposite the Union Bank, near Akshay Bar, off LBS Marg, Ghatkopar West, was allegedly killed by her father Rajkumar Chaurasia, 55, also a paanwallah, running a stall next to the Chheda General Stores at Matunga, north central Mumbai.
Her terrible misdeed, in her father's and family's eyes, was marrying another Chaurasia, originally from the same village, without their due consent.
Both sets of Chaurasias, who belong to a special caste of paanwallahs, hail from Numaaya Dahi village, west of Allahabad city, in Allahabad district.
Brijesh and Meenakshi knew each other from the village, their homes hardly a kilometre apart, they both studied there, he till Class 10, before they separately migrated to Mumbai. Brijesh has been in Mumbai for nearly ten years now.
Four years ago, that acquaintanceship blossomed into something more.
Meenakshi and Brijesh hoped to wed. Or as Rakesh, Brijesh's elder brother put it, "Love marriage chal raha tha."
Meenakshi's family was against her marrying Brijesh since he was also from Numaaya Dahi, maybe because their gotras were common, Brijesh’s family is not sure, Rakesh adding disdainfully, "Hamare gaon mein sab chalta hai, par uske baap logon ko nahin manjoor tha (Everything is possible in our village, but not with her clan)."
Meenakshi's father and relatives instead arranged a match for her with an older man of 35, they say, outside the village.
Meenakshi refused to go ahead with that rishta (engagement arrangement), and even another, upsetting her father, brother and kinsmen and in February she and Brijesh ran away to Satna, Madhya Pradesh, where Brijesh has a friend, four hours from Allahabad, across the state border, and had a court marriage there on March 1, 2019.
Slightly alarmed by these developments, Brijesh's family -- he is one of six brothers, four of them work in Mumbai and Diva, Thane, as panwallahs, his parents are in the village -- organised, for reasons of safety, that they repeat the ceremony in Mumbai jurisdiction and took the advice of an advocate.
So they married again -- "love marriage karaya" -- on May 2, 2019 at the Bandra court, north west Mumbai.
Rakesh, Brijesh's bearded elder brother, who lived with Meenakshi and Brijesh at Shivpuri Chawl, recounts this awful, soul-shaking tale that he terms a "kand (tragedy)" to Rediff.com in a matter-of-fact, calm voice on Wednesday, just before Meenakshi's body is brought out.
He has returned from Diva. Two other brothers, their wives, a brother-in-law and several friends and the landlord of one of the brother's paan shops have also arrived to help and be of immense support to this simple, gentle family.
Brijesh is not there at Rajawadi Hospital.
He has gone back to the Ghatkopar police station to get some body release documents for his and Meenakshi's unborn child.
There is a constant traffic of ambulances coming in and out of the gate to pick up bodies of police cases from the mortuary -- accidents, murder and what have you -- accompanied by wailing or horrified relatives.
One ambulance accompanied by a khaki-clothed policeman arrives with a fresh corpse on a stretcher, covered partially in plastic, with just dusty feet sticking out. The policeman and the ambulance workers carry it into the mortuary. Relatives and random passersby sometimes gather and gawk at the ambulances discharging their grim loads.
Rakesh, who works as a paanwallah a few metres down from Brijesh -- Mumbai paanwallahs typically earn Rs 500 to Rs 600 a day -- explains that though for the sake of caution they asked Meenakshi and Brijesh to remarry in Mumbai, they never for once, in their wildest, wildest imagination ever believed she was in any danger from her family or her father. Or Brijesh could be. Because such things don't happen in Mumbai.
Describing his late sister-in-law, Rakesh says: "Ladki bahut achchi thi. Sanskari thi. Parivar ko leke kaise chalna hai, vaisi woh thi (She was a very nice girl. Traditional. Knew how to get along with the family)."
Rakesh recalls he received a call from Brijesh late at night on July 13. Rakesh, who is divorced, his family living elsewhere, was not in Mumbai that Saturday and had traveled to Diva to visit his youngest brother.
Brijesh who had just returned from winding up his paan stall at 12.30 am (he starts his shop daily at 7 am and closes after midnight usually) discovered that Meenakshi was not at home.
Rakesh got a call from Brijesh asking if Meenakshi had gone to Diva to visit them -- "Ghumne aayi hai kya?" He called his father-in-law too but was told he had not seen her. Rakesh suggested Brijesh register an "NC" with the nearby police chowki, but Brijesh didn't.
Enquiries with the women neighbours revealed that Meenakshi had been filling water for the home till about 4.30 or 5 pm and then was seen at approximately 6.30 or 7 pm exiting the chawl lane, talking on her cell phone.
When Brijesh woke up on Sunday and had finished his ablutions, the police came for him some time before 7 am and took him away to the chowki.
He was told that his wife was dead and he had killed her. Her blood-soaked body had been discovered about half a kilometre away between two plastic benches near the Toyota showroom on LBS Marg.
Rakesh: "Policewallah bahut mare. Pair bandh ke latka diye the. Aankh lal hai. Gala sujha hua hai. Hath pair lal hai (The police really manhandled my brother. Beat him up. Hung him upside down by his feet. His eyes are still blood shot. His neck was swollen. His hands and feet are red)."
Brijesh repeatedly told the police, who were interrogating him, that he could not have murdered Meenakshi because he had been at his stall all day on Saturday and that it had to be her father, her brother, her brother-in-law and Meenakshi's uncles.
Rakesh, rewinding the account slightly, said that shortly after Brijesh and Meenakshi married, Rajkumar Chaurasia, Meenakshi's father, started reaching out to the couple especially after he learned she was pregnant. He suggested they have another wedding ceremony, Hindu style.
He ostensibly wanted to help them and even came once to their home with some fruit.
Brijesh was wary, but not particularly over-nervous of Meenakshi's father.
Last week, Rajkumar Chaurasia brought/bought Meenakshi a phone and SIM so that daughter and father could be in touch. The gift of the phone worried Brijesh a bit. He told her not to take it and to tell her father they wanted nothing from him. But she took it.
On Friday, at 3 am, her father Rajkumar called her and asked her to meet him. Brijesh prevented her from going to meet him at that hour. Rajkumar called again on Saturday. Brijesh knew that the father had wanted to give her some clothes on Saturday.
Witnesses reported that Meenakshi and Rajkumar were seen violently arguing near the "Tota (Toyota)" showroom. Rickshaw drivers, perhaps alarmed or simply curious, gathered to watch. They were shooed away by Rajkumar who told them it was just a fight between baap-beti (father and daughter).
That was the last time Meenakshi was seen alive.
Police summoned witnesses around where Brijesh works -- watchmen, hotel employees etc -- to the station and were told he had not left his paan stall all day. His phone GPS records would have lent credence to that statement. As also the street camera positioned near his shop.
Brijesh was released from police custody on Monday.
Rakesh described to Rediff.com that a squad from the Ghatkopar police station finally went to Matunga and picked up Rajkumar on Tuesday who later confessed to the crime.
But the police did not, for reasons they do not understand, arrest the others from Meenakshi's family -- a brother, two uncles, a son-in-law -- who they feel were also involved.
Brijesh has now returned from the Ghatkopar police station with the necessary documents to release the embryo.
He is a quiet, polite, soft-spoken man of medium height. Slightly balding on the crown of his head, he sports long-ish hair and a small chin beard. He is wearing a striped T-shirt and three-quarter length checked shorts and rubber chappals.
His blank, shuttered eyes are bloodshot and there are wounds around his legs and calves.
He is still numb. Deadened.
He narrates: "Nahin thi. Aaju baaju log se poocha. Chawl ke log bole ki uske Papa aaye the. Matlab neeche the. Papa neeche bula diye the (When I reached home she was not there. The chawl people said her father had come. Meaning he had come to the end of the road and he called her)."
"Dophar ko phone aaya tha jab khana khane gaya tha. Wife bolee thi, 'Papa aane wale hai, mujhe kapda dilwane'. Toh mein bola, 'Kidhar jaana mat. Hum dila denge kapda'. Uske baad phone nahin ki doobara. Aur mein busy tha aur maine dhyan nahin diya (Her call came in the afternoon when I went for lunch. The wife said her father was coming and wanted to get her some clothes. I told her, 'Don't go anywhere. I will get you clothes'. After that her phone did not come again and I was busy and didn't think about it)"
"Raat ko phone lagaya unke Papa ko. Woh bhi nahin uthaye. Mere wife ko phone lagaya. Nahin uthaya. 3 (am) baje. Subah phir phone kiya toh woh bolte hai mere paas nahin hai (When I came back and she wasn't there I called her father. He didn't answer. I called her phone. No answer. This was 3 am. In the morning I called again and he said she was not with him)."
He says he had not met Rajkumar Chaurasia too many times, just twice or thrice after the marriage, but something about the man made him uncomfortable. "Kabhi socha bhi nahin tha (Could never think he could do this)."
He had told Meenakshi's father to stay away from them. "Thoda darte the unse. Kabhi kya karega (I was a little afraid of him. Maybe because who knew what he could do)."
In a low tone, he says he is waiting for the day when he gets justice: "Mujhe insaaf chahiye. Phansi ho jayae ya kuch bhi ho. Jitne log involved hai un sab ko saaza milni chahiye (I want justice. Hanging or whatever. Whoever was involved, all should get punishment)."
"Mera ek bachcha mara woh bhi char-paanch mahina ka. Itne behrahemi se nahin marna chahiye. Agar mere se koi dushmani thi, toh mujhe maarna chahiye tha. Usse kyun maara? Meenakshi toh aurat jaat ki thi. Woh kuch bhi nahin kar sakti thi (A child of mine has died that too of just four or five months. How could he have killed them so heartlessly? If he had enmity with me why didn't he come to kill me. Why did he kill her? Meenakshi was a woman. What could she do to protect herself?)"
Describing his bride, Brijesh says in a broken voice: "Meenakshi bahut achi thi. Kabhi jhagda nahin. Mein kabhi kuch bola nahin unko. She was a quiet person... Usko mobile lena tha. Mein bola thoda din baad dila doonga... Char mahine hi hue the (She was so good. Never fought. I never had words with her. A quiet person. She wanted to buy a mobile. I told her I would get one in a few months... We had been together just four months)."
Brijesh goes inside the mortuary.
The fresh documents allow the release of the 150-day embryo. Brijesh comes out bearing, in a white plastic bag emblazoned with the logo Murugan Palace The Steel Shop, the unborn baby in a 6-inch high plastic bottle.
He tells his gathered relatives in a flat, hollow tone that it is the baby. The embryo is to be buried as per customs.
Then Meenakshi's body is carried out. A lady cop, who says the Ghatkopar mortuary had never seen such an incident before in recent times, assists them.
Brijesh, his face bearing a shuttered, vacant expression, proceeds to start the rituals.
Instead of taking Meenakshi back home to the Shivpuri Chawl, where Brijesh says he has no one, the family has decided to take her straight from the Rajawadi hospital to the nearby Ghatkopar Hindu Smashan Bhoomi burning ground.
The Chaurasias make arrangements with the undertaker-type, ambulance provider, who works out of a stall just outside the gates of the mortuary. They are charged a whopping Rs 4,000 for the use of the ambulance to go one kilometre to the ground.
Rather than unwrapping the body, Brijesh unveils Meenakshi's face and looks at her carefully, his expression still passive.
His eyes fill with tears, but he quickly gets a grip of himself. It seems any unbearable sadness he had since Sunday has been wiped out and been quickly replaced with anger.
Brijesh begins to drape the bright bridal red, that married Hindu women, who die before their husbands, are clothed in, around Meenakshi -- a ruby-coloured sari, with big black polka dots and a blue border, is spread on top of her. Then the red petticoat and sari blouse material.
Finally, he tenderly stretches a wispy, see-through, red chunni with gold trimming over her face, batting away the multitude of flies.
Meenakshi's bhabhis (jethanis), their faces in ghungat (veiled), strip the white cloth from her feet and slip silver bichoos (toe rings) onto her toes, payals (anklets) around her ankles and paint the soles of her feet with mahavar (red dye). They take out a strip of bindis, sindhoor and a mangalsutra.
Meenakshi's hair parting is filled with sindhoor by Brijesh. These procedures all happen in grave silence, with hardly anyone saying a word.
Brijesh and his brothers swathe a series of floral malas over Meenakshi's body and heaps of flowers.
The ambulance workers then wrap the grass matting around the bier and she is placed in the ambulance and taken to the cremation ground.
The body is deposited on a cement platform outside the gates of the cremation ground and the ambulance workers quickly disappear.
But the cremation ground workers, a few minutes later, stop the Chaurasias from entering, with the corpse, because they don't have the requisite BMC paoti (corporation permission slip).
The family, who are simple folk, not particularly well-off or educated and seem to have never dealt with a death in the family before, are clueless and pained. It has been such a long and dreadful week for them and the torture does not end.
They wonder why no one at the hospital told them about the paoti. Or that if they had gone to the BMC-owned crematorium at Chembur, which is a little further a way and therefore more petrol for the ambulance, this problem would not have arisen.
A family member is despatched to the nearest BMC office.
Meenakshi tragically remained uncremated for the next four to five hours, her body quickly decomposing in the stifling heat, under the sharp glare of the sun, ravaged by flies, as more well-to do mourners for other funerals streamed by in white and a flurry of coconuts, flowers, Hondas, Toyotas and Hyundais.
When the paoti finally arrived close to sunset, the cremation ground staff said they needed documentation for the embryo too. The BMC refused to give a death certificate for a child that was never born. The hospital had no help to offer.
Wrangling went on for many hours after that.
The cremation staff said they could cremate Meenakshi if the embryo was put back inside her. The Rajawadi staff said they could put the embryo back if the body was brought back to them. But the ambulance had, of course, departed hours before, richer by Rs 4,000 for half an hour of work.
Finally, with a bit of aggressive persuasion on the part of their friends, the Rajawadi hospital agreed to send an ambulance to the cremation grounds. The body was then sent back and the embryo placed back inside Meenakshi and changes were made to the Rajawadi medical report that was in English. The family was worried they might write on her documents that she was not pregnant. But they could not read the papers.
Meenakshi Brijesh Chaurasia, whose only crime was to have loved wrong in her father's eyes, was cremated close to 8 pm.