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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, August 18, 2012

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.


O P Tandon said...

It is very true. The modern life style has made us selfish, emotionless and self centred to a perverse level. We daily hear about gang rapes and murders in broad day lights and in the presence of a mute sizeable crowds who just watch the scenes and disperse. According to my perception it is on account of the following reasons:

1) The culprit is assured of acquittal or minimum punishment, if at all he is apprehended.
2) The onlookers even in some cases may be ready to give evidence or deterred by the crude & brute behaviour of Police and are not afforded any protection from criminals; and
3) Only laws cannot prevent these incidents. There is an express need for moral education at home & educational institutions.

Cyn said...

As much as nosy neighbours can be irritating, they can be life savers indeed. I always told all my friends that I preferred independent houses in Bangalore, some questionned my sanity saying that gated communities offer superior security and safety. I lived in both gated communities and independent houses over the year. It never failed getting whatever help I needed was always far easier in a house than it was in a an apartment building. In the one I currently live in here in Mumbai I know none of my neighbour, I've been living here for a year and the only friends I have are the moms of the other kids going to my daughter's school, nobody at the playground approached me with friendly talk or even responded to my attempt to make small talk. Have we all become so stressed out and in a hurry that we can't say hello to one another?

Roshan said...

rather than be ashamed following the Guwahati incident, we seem to have become more assured and brazen in being vile. The crimes have been getting more heinous with each passing day. you've hit the nail on one key point... what was the use of CCTV or apartment life if the neighbours don't even open d door and the protector of the building is the one who plans and kills u.

Anonymous said...

You are just trying to pin the blame on the neighbours for not helping - I doubt whether you would have opened the door in the middle of night immediately? It's easy to blame others, the article would have been useful had you provided how these can be avoided!

J.M.Manchanda said...

Pallavi's murder is really tragic since it was committed by someone employed to protect the residents. It is possible few, if any, would have opened the door while a gruesome murder was being committed but calling the police is no big deal & one can always do it from behind closed doors. The problem is that we have adopted the attitude of 'not getting involved', conveniently forgetting that we too can be at the receiving end some day!The author has rightly observed let none be in Pallavi's placew ho fought valiantly and alone to save her life & honor! May her soul rest in eternal peace!

Ramesh Iyer said...

This incident yet again reflects the dark side of our urban setup and our dysfunctional social and legal systems. Urbanization has dented our social support systems, making us dependent more on govt agencies rather than one another for our safety & security. Hence, this unfortunate incident once again highlights the remarkable collective failure of our systems. Had proper systems been in place, perhaps this unfortunate episode could have not occurred and a young woman with a promising career and bright future would have been alive today. While it has become fashionable to blame politicians for all our problems, I feel people are equally responsible for their plight. Why didn't the security agency do its duty of due diligence on the guard before hiring him ? Why didn't the housing society ensure that the CCTVs were functioning ? No politician was involved in such lapses, I presume. Also, blaming neighbors for their callousness is unfair, as the whole legal system has become so dysfunctional, that the witnesses go through an ordeal if they reach out to victims of crimes (even road rage, hit-and-run cases). The police and Courts should be sensitive to such situations and ensure that people come forward to help each other and the legal system to book criminals and also ensure they are punished severely to deter others. However, there are innumerable cases where the well-healed have been let off either due to police inaction &/ judicial insensitivity (the media has forgotten how Maria Susairaj was let off by the Courts on technicalities !). Hence, unless rule of law is followed in letter and spirit we will have to put up with avoidable crimes, be it such cases against hapless individuals, or mega-scams involving public servants (both netas & babus).

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sandeep mangat said...

I would have opened the door and just kicked the dog, that's what I was tought by my father , and yes i do it always. Shame on the people staying next to girl house who missed the opportunity to do something good . And they ll realise when they Will face something of this sort when this happen to thier dearones.