A case of rape and murder can make anyone cautious. Three can make one a detective. Inside the complicated geometry of Nehru Nagar in Kurla,a whole colony,moving in groups,is taking turns to keep vigil at night.

Written by Smita Nair | Mumbai | Published: June 28, 2010 3:33 am

A case of rape and murder can make anyone cautious. Three can make one a detective. Inside the complicated geometry of Nehru Nagar in Kurla,a whole colony,moving in groups,is taking turns to keep vigil at night. Three minor girls were abducted,raped and killed since February in the area.

For the locals,the biggest challenge is not just to find the killer,but to prepare themselves for the possibility that it may be one of their own.

In Nehru Nagar’s alleys,as in any other slum in Mumbai,“home” is four ramshackle walls enclosing tiny,dank spaces with a synthetic curtain blocking the doorway. Colony boy Deepak says,“Now,every house has bought them (curtains). They don’t want the world to know there is a girl child living inside.”

It is now the second week since the death of the third victim,and night vigil continues. With criss-crossing lanes and multiple access points to every major lane,the hunt has been difficult. Some new suspects have been identified.

It’s been a long week,with different groups of boys taking turns every night. The police force,in uniform and otherwise,are deployed too. Women constables near street corner candy shops are doing their best to spot unchaperoned kids and ensure they return home safe.

It’s 8 pm. The group has spent a good time all week walking to each door,along with NGO Pratham,to advise the womenfolk. Important advice: A two-rupee coin was found inside the palm of the second victim and in the roof of the shack where the third body was found. This is a guy who uses coins to lure kids,suspect policemen.

Sana’s grandmom,a 55-year-old,is arguing with a drunkard that “the rapist can’t be a Muslim”. The small communal debate attracts cops who reason it out with her and send the drunk man home. The lanes bear posters of the sketch of the alleged rapist next to the photo of the minor whose body was found last. A small group of Maharashtrian women walk to the poster of the young girl. “She is very pretty. She looks like my Guddu. Big round eyes,” says one. Another spits on the sketch of the rapist.

At 10 pm,K Rajesh,a sweeper at the Kharghar railway station is mumbling about the lack of light. Halogen lights have been strung up,for a sense of security,he says. Houses too sport a bulb outside their door now. “Expensive business,” says Rajesh. Oddly,nobody has put a bulb in the lane where the last attack had taken place.

One group of men has gone to the police station to give details of a possible suspect. “He kept peeping into a house and vanished,” says housewife Manjula Deepak Pawar. Pawar is the nodal point for all the boys on vigil. A travel and tours agency inside the colony acts as the control point,the reporting time for the private detectives is 11 pm. Post dinner,each one needs to report with “one long stick”. The search parties also have been given important dates,the attempts have been between the sixth and the 10th of every month.

The boys don’t know who they are looking for; they have never seen the killer. Their only brief is “do not trust anyone.”

It’s past midnight and word has spread that group two spotted a suspicious guy peeping into the house of a woman three times this month. Pawar,who spent her lifetime in these lanes,is busy giving instructions. She knows each and every corner and every access. She sends one team to plug the possible exits. At 1.30 am there is a repeat call,people are still scrambling. One more phone call and it’s bad news: “He escaped from behind the ladies’ toilet.” Pawar is angry. So are the other three teams.

The number of rats in the streets has increased. The constant barking of dogs has woken everyone. Young Priyanka peeps out. “Tai,(sister) khooni ko pakda kya? She asks,half awake and still clutching her pillow. Go to sleep,all the boys yell in chorus.

Another round begins. A police patrol passes the boys,one among the 300-odd policemen working on the case at any given time. The men-in-uniform exchange notes with the boys. Razakbhai,a social worker and also a witness in the third case,has been walking with the boys every night till 4 am,for a week. “We have taken an average of 10 boys every night to the cop station. There are boys seen walking alone in the night,and with no proper explanation on what they were doing out so late,” he says.

It’s nearing 3 am now,the boys spot another drunkard and trail him till the Kurla bridge,where an informal questioning session begins.

A housemaid in a Chembur home,Vitabai’s house is closest to Kurla bridge,also the place where sniffer dogs had traced last the footsteps of the serial killer. She cradles her six-year-old ‘Shona’ in her arms. “My husband and I are away till late night. My old mother is the only one to look after her. Shona doesn’t have any toys and now I am taking away her playground too. How long are we going to lock up our girls?”

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