A procession of over 100 grief-stricken relatives and friends followed a Maruti Omni, decorated with flowers at Maduravoyal on Saturday. Tears streaked their faces but their gaze was fixed upon the body of 18-year-old Aswini, as it commenced its final journey.
The palpable silence at this Chennai suburb is broken by piercing cries from the young woman's mother, who followed the van screaming, "My daughter... she was everything for me. How could that b*****d kill her in this manner?"
Her wrath was directed at Alagesan, the 26-year-old who killed Aswini in broad daylight.
Aswini had been in a relationship with him for two years before breaking it off. They lived in the same area and it was public knowledge that they began seeing each other when she was just 16. But in Aswini's own words (in the complaint she gave to the Maduravoyal police on February 16), she came to know that Alagesan 'was not of good character' and told him that she was not interested in marrying him. But this man, who sold water cans and batter for a living couldn't take 'no' for an answer.
The street on which Aswini was murdered. The blood splatter has been blurred.
On Friday, he slashed her neck with a serrated knife as she was leaving the Meenakshi College of engineering where she was enrolled to study Commerce. According to her relatives, she had tried to stop the attack, resulting in deep wounds on her hands. But after the knife struck her throat, she died within minutes.
This, despite her having gone to the police and asking that be she protected against this man.
A furious family
As this reporter made her way into the 6th cross street of Dhanalakshmi Nagar, it was easy to identify Aswini’s house. A shamiana had been put up for those coming in to pay their respects.
Several women and children were seated outside the house on the second floor of a blue building. The one bedroom apartment where Aswini and her mother stayed had nothing more than a bed, a television set, a small kitchen and a photo of Aswini's father who had passed away when she was just 5.
"Aswini told us that she can't marry Alagesan because he was a psycho," says her cousin Usha*, holding her child tightly. "We came to know of their relationship during her 12th standard board exams because people in the neighbourhood informed us. We told her that this won't work and she must focus on her studies. She began to understand that the family situation required her to be more responsible. Aswini started distancing herself from Alagesan. That is when problems began," she adds.
Aswini's mother worked as a domestic help in four houses to pay for the young girl's education. When it came to her college tuition, the family says jewellery from the house was sold and money borrowed from employers to meet the necessary expenses.
"He didn't give the family any money. What Alagesan gave them was torture," says Vani*, another cousin who lives near Vandalur. "He would come and threaten to drink poison if she did not talk to him. We didn't want her to get harassed and so we took her to my house from where she went for her 12th standard exams."
Denying reports that claimed that Alagesan had helped pay Aswini's fees, advocate A Edinbrough, who won the case for compensation for Aswini’s father after his death at the construction site, told The Hindu that Rs 3.96 lakh recieved as compensation had been used to educate the girl.
Aswini's family says that the lack of male presence in her Maduravoyal home emboldened Alagesan. Some of their male relatives allegedly went and warned the 26-year-old, asking him to stay away from the girl. Alagesan, too had agreed and gave his word, they say. But it proved to be an empty promise.
The thaali incident
In February, Aswini's family went ahead to search for another life partner for the girl, and claim to have stopped the love affair in order to not disturb her studies.
"Yes, we were concerned about his caste but if our girl had insisted and said they were in love for sure, we would not have stopped them from living together," says Vani, referring to the fact that Alagesan belongs to a lower caste. "Aswini was very happy with the person we chose. But Alagesan ruined everything," she adds.
On February 14, Alagesan allegedly waited till Aswini's mother left the house, to strike. Knowing that the young woman would be alone at home, he came with a thaali and forcibly tried to tie it around her neck.
"He had gone completely crazy and threatened to kill her if she didn't let him tie it on her neck," says Usha. "After that Aswini and her mother immediately went to the police," she adds.
Did they ask the police to not arrest Alagesan?
"We just gave a complaint and asked for protection for Aswini. We didn't specify what must be done to Alagesan," says the family. The police told TNM that the 26-year-old was let off with a warning because it was a 'love tangle' and the girl too had been in a relationship with him.
"How is that an excuse to let him go?" asks Usha. "Everybody is so ready to blame our girl for being in a relationship. But how will you know what kind of person someone is till you engage with them frequently? Aswini left him and see what he did to her. Even after the thaali incident, she was scared for her life and kept saying he should be locked up," she adds.
Aswini did not go to college for over a week after the incident and later she moved into Usha's house in Jafferkhanpet, so that she could safely attend college.
"But she was still afraid. The only thing that gave her some courage is the knowledge that third year boys in college will protect her," says Usha, looking up at the college students who had walked into the house.
The 20-year-olds were the ones who had beaten up Alagesan immediately after he slit Aswini's throat. They say they would have prevented the incident if the college rules didn't stipulate women students to leave 10 minutes ahead of the male students.
"We all hit him so hard. We thought he was dead when the police arrived and stopped us," says *Hari, one of the students, angrily. "Two of us actually took Aswini's body to the nearest bike but we hadn't even moved the vehicle and she breathed her last. If that fellow ever makes it out of jail and back to this area, he won't live too long," he threatens.
Alagesan, after he was caught and beaten up by bystanders
Hardly 100 metres into the 13th cross street of Dhanalakshmi Nagar, a house with orange walls remained locked; its inhabitants missing. The scene outside this residence could not have been any more starkly different than what we saw outside Aswini’s house.
24-year-old Devi, Alagesan's neighbour was washing clothes when we approached her to talk about the incident.
"You have no idea what a good man he was. He did so much for his sisters - got them married, paid for their children's education and worked day and night," she says proudly. "I used to wish that I had a brother like him," she adds.
Pointing to a building under construction she explains, "Both Aswini and Alagesan used to live in the house that was previously standing here. That is how they met. He used to do a lot for her and her family,” she claims.
And was his behaviour odd in the last few months?
"In the last week, he seemed calm. I had seen him playing with the children. Even on Friday, he went to work and dropped his sister's children in school," she says. "We know that he tried to tie a thaali on the girl's neck. But that was because he was so much in love with her. In his mind he had decided that they will always live together," she defends him, pointing to Alagesan’s perception that he ‘owned’ Aswini.
But does that justify killing Aswini?
"No," admits Devi reluctantly. "He may have been a good man. But nothing justifies this murder," she says, turning her focus once again to the wet clothes.
Back in Aswini's house, shock has given way to insurmountable anger. "If people call this love, they are insane. How can you do this to someone that you love? Aswini was right, he is deranged. We don't want him to die. We want him to be punished in manner in which he will suffer his entire life for killing her. "