An unnatural calm had settled in the bylanes leading to Madha Nagar in Mugalivakkam. The bumpy ride, the pock-marked roads and the dust that had collected on the streets did little to distract one from the grim expressions that residents bore. Their eyes uneasily scanned posters that were indiscriminately plastered on several buildings. The posters had the picture of a smiling 7-year-old girl - who had gone missing on Sunday - and the contact number of her father.
The streets looked like any other Chennai suburb, but every person, from storeowners to pedestrians could direct visitors to the girl’s house.
About 30 furious women were gathered at the entrance of the road that led to the girl's home. The women, young and old, were from houses in and around Mugalivakkam, and were angrily demanding justice for the girl's family. Holding posters up in the air, one of them asked, "What kind of animal can do this to a child?"
The class two student who went missing on Sunday evening had been murdered and her body set on fire, allegedly by a 22-year-old man who lived in her apartment complex. The police say that the accused, Tushyanth, has confessed to the crime.
"We knew he was a mechanical engineer and worked somewhere, but never really interacted with him," said Sudha*, a neighbour who has been living in a flat opposite the victim’s home for the last two years. "We had several complaints against him. He would ride his bike too fast, crash into the gate loudly to open it, leave the main gate open and even play music very loudly. But he never spoke to us or the children. "
About three weeks back, when Tushyant bought a dog, he started getting friendly with the children, according to Sudha. Sudha has a five-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, and had warned her children several times against going to play with the puppy. “I was afraid they will get some sort of an infection. Not even in my nightmares did I think that he would attack a child in this manner,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady.
The Mangadu police, which investigated the case, told The News Minute that Tushyant lured the victim into his house with the intent of sexually assaulting her. He invited the child to his home around 6.15pm on Sunday, on the pretext of letting her play with his puppy. The child, who was waiting for her friends to finish their homework and come play with the puppy, readily agreed. But the girl realised that she was in trouble and was going to scream for her parents. "To calm her down, he put a bedsheet on her face, but that killed her. She died due to the suffocation, " said Inspector Ravikumar.
Tushyant then put the body into a large travel bag and left the apartment to hide it. “He bought petrol on the way and burnt her body at a nearby highway," explained the inspector. The child's mortal remains were found on Wednesday by the police.
For the residents of Mugalivakkam, discovering that the murderer was from their own neighbourhood has come as a greater shock than the incident itself.
Twenty-five-year-old Siva stood with his one-year-old daughter outside the gate of his house, and was looking at the red and yellow shamiyana, giving the tear-filled faces outside the victim's house some shade.
"If it was someone from outside, maybe it wouldn't be so shocking. How can we trust anybody now? My wife is so scared for our child," he says, looking at his daughter. “This is a safe area, that's what we always thought. It is a safe area," he says, repeating himself and glancing at the grieving relatives.
Seated inside the house are colleagues of the victim's mother, all of them teachers at a school in the neighbourhood. “You can teach children to not talk to strangers. But how do you tell them to not trust anyone?" asks Aishwarya, one of the teachers. “The easy access to child pornography is responsible for this. There needs to be a control on these websites. The murderer here was clearly influenced by such material,” she claims.
Tushyanth lived in the second floor of a three-storey building in Mugalivakkam while the victim's family lived on the first. Family and friends of the victim’s family were manning the staircase, making sure only known faces go up to the house.
"They are in no condition to talk to anybody. The parents have hardly eaten for three days," a friend at the staircase warns. I assured them that the family will not be disturbed, and they made way for me.
On the first floor too, the anger is simmering. "That murderer is worse than an animal. People like this must get capital punishment. He must be hung to death,” said an angry Asha, a friend of the family. Many feared that the accused will be let off with a light sentence. “What if they say he is mentally imbalanced and let him off? What if he moves to another house? What will he do to the children there? " she asked.
For some of the protesters, street justice seemed more apt. “Ask the police to hand him over to us,” said 42-year-old Devi. “We will cut him to pieces and feed him to the dogs. He doesn't deserve to even be hanged for his actions," she threatened. Women around her nod vigorously, acknowledging her graphic threat. Their anger was palpable, but all of them had one question, "What if it was our child?"