It has been six months since Rajesh* has had a complete night's sleep. The software engineer tosses and writhes at a residence in Chennai and sometimes even gets up gasping in shock. The friend that he lives with tries to put him back to sleep but even when his body obeys, his mind is battling just one thought - the man who molested and murdered his daughter must be punished.
In February, Rajesh's 'happy family' was torn apart by a brutal crime. A 23-year-old neighbour named Tushyant allegedly lured his seven year old daughter into his house, and sexually assaulted and murdered her. He then went on to burn the little girl’s body.
Overnight, their lives turned upside down. His wife, a teacher, could hardly recover from the shock of her daughter's death and fell into clinical depression. His five-year-old son, unable to grasp the reality of this horror, would constantly cry for his elder sister.
Unable to handle the constant reminders the city provided of their daughter, the couple was forced to moved back with their son to their native village in Andhra Pradesh.
The man allegedly responsible for this family's devastation was arrested immediately, but the police are yet to file a chargesheet against him. This means that the accused can apply for bail, as per the law. A possibility, that has kept this father awake through all these nights.
A father's fight for justice
The last time this reporter saw Rajesh, he was seated shell-shocked at his suburban residence, a day after his daughter's murder. His wife's head was on his knees and the only sound from their house was that of her loud wails.
Now, on this cloudy August afternoon, this father looks just as forlorn and wary. He joined work again just a week back, but he already seems tired and his eyes are sunken from lack of rest. He, however, still has a kind smile to offer when the TNM team gets into the vehicle he is seated in. But the warmth vanishes when we broach the status of the case he is fighting.
"For the last six months, I have visited the Mangadu police station countless times," says Rajesh. "From the time the case started, so many officers from the commissioner to even the constable have changed. We have to constantly explain the case to new people, and I cry every single time," he says, his voice dipping in energy.
The family and witnesses have all recorded their statements but the DNA test took 5 months to be completed. This was despite police marking the case as priority. The fact that the girl's body was set on fire, made certain aspects of the accusations against the neighbour harder to confirm.
"I want to kill him myself for what he did to my daughter," says Rajesh softly. "But I believe in the system, and want to take the right way to get to the bottom of this case. All my relatives and friends are telling me to just stop this legal battle and move on with my life. But if I allow this man to go free today, he will attack another child. And when he does that, I too will be responsible for that," he says, his voice cracking.
Rajesh demands that the accused be sentenced to death. "The nature of the crime shows that it was well planned and executed. This man is already a criminal and will be further trained by other convicts if he spends 10 years in jail," he says.
Tushyant had in fact pretended to help the family and other members of the apartment search for the young girl when her parents realised that she was missing.
Much to the surprise of the residents, the man who usually kept to himself and avoided company, was suddenly active in the search for the girl.
Eyewitnesses had told TNM that 5 months prior to the incident, Tushyant had bought a puppy and would invite children to play with it. This was the trap he allegedly used to make the 7-year-old girl come into his home in February.
"Do we want such a hardened criminal to be let loose among our children? No other parent must suffer through what I have been subjected to," he adds, his eyes tearing up.
Sherin Bosko, a social worker who is closely following the case, tells TNM, "The police and especially the investigating officer have been very cooperative and helpful. The Commissioner AK Viswanathan has promised us that the chargesheet will be filed this week."
The police, she claims, have even spent time outside duty hours to accommodate the time preferences of those who agreed to be witnesses in the case. "Our priority now is to ensure that the chargesheet has no gaps and the guilty person is punished," she adds.
'Chennai is hell'
For Rajesh, who had once dreamed of settling down in Chennai with his family, however, the city has turned into a nightmare.
"I keep remembering my daughter and the moments we spent with her," he says. "Chennai has become hell," he adds, impassioned.
The family has developed an aversion towards cities and Rajesh's son is now studying in a school near their native village. "We came to Chennai because the education here is good. But of what use is it if my children are not safe?" he asks. "It doesn't matter if my son's education is compromised. Only the village is safe. Only the village," he repeats, as if to convince himself.
Then why not get transferred to another location or stay with his family?
"My company was very understanding and even offered to move me abroad. But I can't go. I will leave Chennai the day my daughter gets justice and her murderer is hanged," he exclaims.