Hear no evil; see no evil
The tragic death of Pallavi Purkayastha is a chilling commentary on urban life today
It’s a nightmare scenario that every woman replays ever so often in the dark corners of her brain – along with the fevered prayer that it never comes true. But for Pallavi Purkayastha, that nightmare became all too real when she was attacked and killed in her Mumbai apartment by a building watchman, Sajjad Ahmed Mughal, who had become obsessed with her.
It was sometime after midnight when the lights went out in her flat; she called the building’s maintenance to complain. The electricians came upstairs to repair the fault, accompanied by the watchman. When the electricians had departed, the watchman saw his opportunity. He stole the house keys, waited for a while and then let himself in to attack Pallavi, who was by then asleep in her bedroom.
He tried to rape her, she resisted; he attacked her with a knife, she fought back. He slashed her wrists and throat. Bleeding profusely, she ran out of her flat and rang her neighbours’ bell (there are four other flats on the floor; she is believed to have rung the bells outside at least two). Nobody responded. Her assailant dragged her back into her flat and continued to attack her. He then left Pallavi Purkayastha, a 25 year old lawyer with a bright and glittering future ahead of her, to bleed quietly to death. Her murder was reported only at 5.30 am when her partner, Avik Sengupta, came back home and found her lying in a pool of blood.
I can only marvel at the bravery of this young woman who fought so doggedly against a man who was holding a knife to her throat. I can only salute the courage that led her to escape his clutches long enough to run out for help. And I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of fear and desperation her last moments must have been when nobody came to her rescue.
And while we all mourn for Pallavi Purkayastha today, her death is much more than a personal tragedy for her parents, her soon-to-be husband, family and friends. It is also a chilling commentary on urban life today.
It doesn’t matter how hard you try to stay safe. You can live in a gated community, you can have private security, you can install CCTV all around, you can have intercoms to summon help. But in the end, you are on your own. You can’t rely on the security guards who are supposed to safeguard you. And you certainly can’t hope for any help from the people next door.
It has become something of a cliché now to complain about how neighbourly ties are breaking down in our metro cities, and how people are becoming increasingly anti-social. There is certainly no denying that everyone increasingly lives in isolated silos, not caring to even know the name of the person next door. We revel in the anonymity that city life affords us, allowing us to do our own thing. And while we all have stories about neighbours from hell (whose children deface our walls with graffiti; who throw garbage over their walls into our backyards; who lure our staff away; who play loud music late into the night) our choicest abuse is reserved for those who are perceived as being ‘nosey’ – as in taking an interest in your life.
I have to confess that like most people of my generation, I have always been leery about neighbours who try to pry into my business. But today, as I sit down to write this, I can’t help but wish that Pallavi Purkayastha had been blessed by such ‘nosey’ neighbours, people who were curious enough to peep out when the bell rang late at night, and who would then take the trouble to investigate if anything was amiss.
Instead, the people living on Pallavi’s floor seem to be part of the ‘let’s not get involved’ fraternity, who turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the goings-on next door, on the grounds that it is none of their business. But even so, I imagine it takes a special sort of indifference to not respond to a blood-splattered woman ringing your doorbell in the early hours of the morning; to turn away and go back to sleep even though the landing outside is soaked with blood; to not even pick up the phone and call the police control room or emergency services.
We do not know whether Pallavi’s life could have been saved if her neighbours had intervened – if not personally than by summoning help – but at least she would have died knowing that she was not alone. The knowledge that there were people out there who cared enough to come to her rescue may have been of some comfort to her as life bled slowly out of her.
And at the very least, if her neighbours had been vigilant enough – leave alone caring enough – they could have helped apprehend her attacker who dumped the murder weapon and fled the scene. It was a stroke of good luck that the police caught up with him at the train station before he boarded the train to Kashmir. But he could just as easily have gotten away – and that really does not bear thinking about.
I can only hope and pray that those people who claim to have not heard the bell ringing in the dead of night never find themselves – or their children – in trouble. And that if they ever do, they are not met with the same indifference with which they treated that desperate, frightened young woman.