The spot lies off the Eastern Express Highway between Mumbai and Thane, a road too busy for anyone to throw a second glance at the expanse of land alongside the service road. For the same reason, however, it should have been difficult for anyone to carry and dump a murder victim there.
It was from here in Bhandup, on Mumbai’s outskirts, that the police recovered the body of Esther Anuhya, 23, a techie hailing from Hyderabad and working in Mumbai. Nearly a week later, no clear picture has emerged about what had happened after her disappearance on January 5; the body was found on January 16.
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Today, the lane leading to Thane bustles with traffic as usual. Even when a motorist stops occasionally, it is for a smoke or to talk on his cellphone, not to look at the expanse of land filled with rubble, sand and garbage, and now marked by a yellow police tape and the presence of two policemen. A slight incline formed by the rubble hides the spot where the body was found.
Esther, 23, working with an IT firm in Malad, Mumbai, left her Hyderabad home on January 4 after having spent Christmas and New Year with her family. She reached Mumbai’s Lokmanya Tilak Terminus around 5.30 am on January 5, and was supposed to go to her hostel in Andheri. She never got there.
After trying to reach her for a day, her father approached Vijayawada railway police, who forwarded his missing persons complaint to the Kurla railway police, who in turn sent out a message to all police stations in Mumbai.
It was the stench of the body that led to its eventual discovery in Bhandup, which is nowhere on Esther’s way to Andheri. A motorist called the police control room about the smell. When the police got there, they found it overpowering. “I still can’t get the smell out of my head,” said constable Dilip Mane of Kanjurmarg police station.
The level of decomposition made it impossible to detect how exactly she had been killed. There were injuries around the private parts, suggesting sexual assault, but the body had been burnt from the pelvis down. The spot still has evidence of the burning, the ground having turned black.
Esther’s family, meanwhile, is trying to come to terms with its loss. “The police may catch the person responsible tomorrow morning, or they may catch him 15 days later. The fact that Esther is gone will not change,” said her uncle Arun Kumar. “If the missing persons complaint had been taken seriously, maybe we would never have had to see this day.”
In the days following the discovery, the police scanned call data records of weeks and spoke to Esther’s family, colleagues and friends at her hostel. All of them described her as a dedicated employee, focused only on her work, with no interest in a romantic relationship with anyone. That effectively rules out a lover.
The police also explored the possibility of jilted admirer but failed to establish there was any. They wondered if a smooth-talking criminal had lured Esther somewhere and then robbed and killed her, but this too seemed unlikely as everyone who knew her insisted she was too smart to be taken in by a stranger.
The one theory not entirely ruled out is that Esther took an autorickshaw or a taxi from the station to her hostel in Andheri, and that the driver took her instead to Bhandup, where he robbed and killed her, possibly after raping her. Esther was not very familiar with the city’s roads, and may not have noticed a wrong turn along the way, police say.
The selection of the spot suggests a thorough knowledge of the area, once again pointing to the possibility of an autorickshaw or taxi driver being behind the murder. One original question, however, remains.
“What we cannot understand yet is how someone managed to drag a body to the spot and burn it around 6.30 in the morning without being seen,” said a crime branch officer. “The process would have taken at least 10 minutes and traffic is not so thin then. It is surprising that not one eyewitness has come forward.”
Over the last four days, over 50 autorickshaw and taxi drivers have been questioned by the Kanjurmarg police and the crime branch, which has put its unit-8 as well as property cell on the job. There are no leads yet. On Tuesday, the police found a bag with three pairs of trousers and a shirt some distance from the spot, but said it does not seem to be connected to the crime.
The decomposition, partial burning and possible gnawing by rodents has made it tougher for the police and doctors to ascertain what brutality Esther may have gone through.
“We are still not sure what chemical was used to burn the body,” said Sunil Shejwal, assistant commissioner of police, Bhandup division. “Several factors will be clear once we receive the postmortem and histo-pathology reports from J J Hospital.