She was attractive, warm and ambitious. He was brilliant and good-looking. They met in college in Pune and exchanged notes. A few years later, they met again in Mumbai as professional lawyers, fell in love and decided to marry. But perhaps things were too good to be true. In August 2012, she was murdered. Traumatised, life was never the same for him. A year later, he died of an illness.
The morning’s torrential downpour has faded into the evening’s faint drizzle, allowing a flight hovering five times over Mumbai’s domestic airport to finally touch ground. One of its passengers, Sumita Purkayastha, hops into a taxi and reaches a hotel overlooking the iconic Queen’s Necklace on Marine Drive. For Sumita, the Queen’s Necklace, or the endlessness of the Arabian Sea, or even the vastness of Mumbai is loathsome. For, it was in this city, two years ago, that Sumita lost her daughter forever.
Sumita has come to Mumbai only for a day, to hear the court’s quantum of punishment for the man guilty of murdering her daughter. She joins her husband, Atanu Purkayastha, who checked in to the hotel a few days ago. Wearing a red T-shirt and cream trousers, Atanu swivels in a chair at the study table under the feeble light of the lamp, his eyes catching an odd glance of the Arabian Sea from the large glass window.
“Things were too good to be true. Everything fell apart just when it seemed to be perfectly in place,” he says, arms folded and gaze fixed on the floor. The Purkayasthas are still to come to terms with the loss of their 25-year-old daughter Pallavi to the lust of the security guard of the building she stayed in. The guard, Sajjad Mughal, molested and murdered her on the night of August 9, 2012, just a few months before her wedding.
Since then, the Purkayasthas, both Delhi-based bureaucrats, have flown 14 times to Mumbai to seek justice for their daughter. On June 30, a Mumbai court convicted Mughal of trespassing, molestation and murder. The court will announce its quantum of punishment on July 7.
At the time of her murder, Pallavi was at the “threshold of her life”, according to her father, and had found the “perfect match” in Avik Sengupta. “What more could we have asked for? He was Bengali, belonged to a reputed family and, above all, was a brilliant human being,” says Sumita.
Avik was Pallavi’s senior at Pune’s Indian Law Society’s Law College where the two had met. “She once called me and said she had met this intelligent senior whose notes were in great demand in college. She excitedly told me that she was lucky to get a copy,” recalls Sumita.
After completing the five-year law course in 2009, Pallavi moved to Delhi to stay with her parents and briefly worked in the Delhi High Court before travelling to Singapore. “She worked with a firm called Arfat Selvam there for about eight months. The firm merged with another company and Pallavi decided to head home,” says the mother.
Pallavi’s parents wanted her to go back to practising in the Delhi High Court, but she had other plans. “She decided to excel in copyright law, her forte,” says Atanu. In February 2011, Pallavi moved to Mumbai to work for Farhan Akhtar’s Excel Entertainment, aspiring to become the “leader in what she pursued”. It was in Mumbai that Pallavi and Avik reconnected and got into a relationship, says Sumita.
Life for the Purkayasthas seemed to be filled with exuberance and Avik had only added “texture” to their happiness. “While Avik was reserved and intellectual, Pallavi was outgoing and high-spirited. They complemented each other beautifully,” says Sumita, holding back tears.
Pallavi’s parents affectionately called her ‘Paakhi’, which means bird in Bengali. “She was confident and strong-willed even as a kid. Once Paakhi beat her classmate in kindergarten. When we asked her why she had beaten the boy, she said, ‘Tahole ki amake first marbe (is he going to beat me first)’,” says Sumita.
Atanu, now sitting next to his wife, recalls another incident that showed how confident their little Paakhi was. In 1997, when she was around 10 years old, Pallavi was travelling alone from London to Kolkata via Bucharest. “There was a technical snag and the flight made an emergency landing in Iran, but she wasn’t nervous. In fact, she asked the air hostess for a seat for her huge teddy bear and managed to get it seated right next to her,” he says.
Their daughter wanted to live her life to the fullest and would often ask them to “live for today”. “She loved eating and exploring new places, but she loved shopping the most,” says Sumita with a smile.
For her wedding, Pallavi picked items for her trousseau wherever she went, Sumita says. Recalling Pallavi’s visit to her when she was posted in Jammu and Kashmir, Sumita says, “Even when she was on her way back to Mumbai, she asked me if she could shop one last time at the Srinagar airport,” she says.
The time Pallavi spent with the family, according to her father, meant “celebrations” for all of them. “During Diwali, her shopping spree started straight after leaving the airport. From lightbulbs to crackers, she made sure we had everything. She celebrated Christmas too, and would decorate the Christmas tree and place gifts near it,” Sumita says.
Atanu interrupts his wife to say, “Our last Diwali was in 2011. Since then, we haven’t celebrated any festival.”
Pallavi shared a strong bond with her younger sister Mallika. “Given the nine-year gap between them, Pallavi was like a mentor to her. Mallika would confide in her,” Sumita says.
Pallavi’s wedding was to have been held in March 2012 but her parents had some reservations as the date would have clashed with Mallika’s Class X exams. “Avik had a formal talk with me when he came down to Delhi in January 2011. In November the same year, Avik’s father Dr Alok Sengupta and I met. It was merely a formality,” Atanu recalls.
After Mallika’s exams were over, the wedding preparations were on in full swing. “Her wedding was fixed for December 2012. From making reservations for guests to booking Delhi’s Subroto Park as the marriage venue, we set everything in motion. The wedding guest list still lies in some corner of the house,” says Atanu, facing the room’s large glass window, averting eye contact as he is overcome with emotion.
Pallavi’s last visit to their family home in Delhi, in June 2012, is clearly etched in the Purukayasthas’ minds. Pallavi had only informed her sister that she was coming down, and told her not to tell the parents. “Mallika unusually got up early that day and discreetly opened the main door. But I still got up hearing the doorbell and saw Pallavi standing there with her huge backpack. She craved for homemade food. I made her favourite potol posto when she arrived,” says Sumita, almost reliving the moment. Pallavi had to return a couple of days later, but stayed longer on Atanu’s insistence. “Her presence was enough to brighten up a dull day. She had a lot of zest and energy,” he says.
Sumita breaks the awkward silence again. “She was planning to go to Dubai on an official tour during the week she was killed. But it got postponed to a later date. If she hadn’t been in Mumbai, it (the incident) would not have taken place,” she says.
Pallavi and Avik had “big dreams”. “They paid taxes, were responsible citizens, then why them?” asks Sumita, who has been suffering from a sleeping disorder since her daughter’s death.
A few days before August 9, the day Pallavi was killed, Sumita had called her to seek her opinion about a bag she had decided to buy. “She had asked me to WhatsApp the bag’s photo, but I didn’t know how to use the phone feature then. She got a bit irritated. It was a typical mother-daughter moment,” says Sumita, her eyes now welling up.
For Atanu and Sumita, there is no substance in the saying that time is the biggest healer. “People keep asking us how we are coping with the loss. How can we explain it in words? We just cannot come to terms with Pallavi’s absence,” the father says.
With her daughter gone, Sumita despises the city she once liked. The fact that Pallavi loved Mumbai, however, led the family to immerse her ashes in the city. “It was time for her kanyaadan, not for lighting her funeral pyre. Shaadi ki tayyari achanak kriyakaram mein badal gayi (Pallavi’s wedding preparations suddenly turned into preparations for her last rites).”
“We take every day as it comes and live it on its merits. What is left to plan for now? Sometimes, I think the bell will ring and I’ll see my daughter again,” says Sumita.
‘MOST PROMISING NEWCOMER’
Pallavi Purkayastha, the daughter of two bureaucrats, went to school in Kolkata and Delhi. She was a bright and all-round student. She bagged the “most promising newcomer” trophy at Kolkata’s La Martiniere school, where she studied up to Class VIII. At Mater Dei school in Delhi, where her parents were later transferred, she excelled in academics and extra-curricular activities. She also received an award for academics at Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, where she completed her Class XI and XII.
“She represented her school in swimming at the national level,” says her mother Sumita.
After getting a law degree from Indian Law Society’s Law College in Pune, she practised briefly at the Delhi High Court, then worked in a law firm in Singapore for eight months and finally settled in Mumbai where she worked on copyright issues at Excel Entertainment.
She lived in a flat with her fiance Avik Sengupta at Himalayan Heights building in Wadala, Mumbai. On August 9, the watchman of the building molested and murdered her. She was 25.
‘He was cremated in the same crematorium as Pallavi was’
The story of the last two years were told in three phone calls made to Rumni Sengupta.
The first of them came about a year and a half before August 10, 2012, the day of the second phone call. “One day, he called me and said, ‘Ma, I found a girl.’ I didn’t ask him much about where she was and what she was,” says Rumni of her phone conversation with son Avik. Rumni admits with a chuckle she is poor with dates and does not remember when her elder son told her of the woman in his life. She never found out their how-I-met story, either. “You know how you people are. Parents can’t ask too many questions once you are grown up.”
The time between the first and second phone conversations were the happiest. Rumni, who taught English before quitting to take care of her younger son, went to Mumbai to meet the couple. “We went out for dinner together. The first impression I got of her was that she was so attractive. She was good-looking and smart. Knew how to dress well. And of course, she was very warm,” says Rumni during a conversation at the family’s residence, located along Marine Drive in Jamshedpur.
Avik’s parents had met Pallavi Purkayastha, his girlfriend, separately because Anubhav, his younger brother, who had septicemia after birth, needs constant care. The families met, the wedding was discussed, but they were so comfortable with each other that the parents decided to wait till the couple had breathing space in their professional lives. “Pallavi and I had grown extremely fond of each other, because both of us loved Avik. She made Avik very happy. I was keen to welcome her as the daughter I never had,” says Rumni.
Then came the second phone call.
Rumni does not mention the date, but it was August 10, 2012. Avik had arrived at the flat he shared with Pallavi at the Himalayan Heights complex in Wadala, Mumbai, at 5 am after work. Pallavi had contacted him the previous night, worried about a power failure in their flat. “Early morning, he called me. He was crying and said, ‘Mummy, there has been a huge crisis. Pallavi has been murdered’.”
“At that time, I became totally blank. But then I told him two things: inform your colleagues and friends, and inform the police. Then I said, ‘Don’t touch her.’ He said, ‘Mummy, what are you saying? She is my life!’ It seems he had held her and ran around asking for help,” says Rumni.
Avik was questioned by the police for the whole day and was excluded from the investigation after the arrest of Sajjad Mughal, the security guard at Himalayan Heights, in the evening. His parents, who had to arrange an alternative care facility for brother Anubhav, reached the next day.
“I was amazed by Avik’s calmness. He was looking haggard and tired, but there was a calmness about him. I saw so much fortitude and strength in my son,” says Rumni, who would stay on in Mumbai for about two-and-a-half months, helping Avik shift to a new flat.
Avik was advised by his and Pallavi’s parents to relocate to Jamshedpur, but he decided to stay on in Mumbai: “He simply didn’t want to leave Bombay,” says Rumni. Within a week of Pallavi’s murder, he was back at work. “And after that, it was work, work, and work. Somehow, that kept him going.”
That, and the songs. “We teased him about his music, his ambitions of joining a band, and he was touchy about it. They had formed a group and called it Wicked Saints or something,” says Rumni of her son, who loved Cactus, the Bangla rock band. “He had written a lot of songs after Pallavi died. He had bought a new synthesiser. He would come back from work and play it. Later, he withdrew into himself, and the songs stopped abruptly.” Now they could be lost forever: after Avik’s death, the Senguptas returned to Jamshedpur while his friends disposed off his possessions. One of his synthesisers was donated to a Don Bosco children’s facility.
Avik never told anyone what he was going through. Occasionally, the veil would part though. Rumni talks of the time when she was living with him after Pallavi’s death: “There was a small shop run by a young couple, from where I would buy groceries. He would say that if Pallavi were alive, she would have gone and made friends immediately.”
Later, Rumni travelled to Mumbai to be with her son in May-June 2013 for his deposition as a prosecution witness in the trial. “Recalling the episode in the court shattered him,” says Rumni.
The deposition could have had a cathartic effect. “He told me, ‘I have put it under the carpet. My way of coping was brushing it under the carpet. Naturally, it has to come out.’ This was about a year after he used to say that he had to take on the demons now,” she says.
The phone rang for a third time.
It was the first week of September 2013. “One of Avik’s friends called up. He was panicking. Avik had gone to sleep and wasn’t waking up,” she says. He began having troubles with his speech. Tests revealed lesions in his brain.
He was admitted to P D Hinduja Hospital and discharged after a short while. “There was no positive diagnostic conclusion. The diagnosis did not mean much for the doctors. First, they diagnosed autoimmune encephalopathy. Then, it was cerebral amyloidosis,” says father Alok, an orthopedic surgeon who retired as the head of his department at Jamshedpur’s Tata Main Hospital. “Then, on September 30, when he went for a PET scan, he just collapsed.” Avik had to be admitted and never left the hospital again.
With doctors unable to specify his condition, Avik was slipping away. “Throwing darts in the dark” is how his father describes the treatment. “It was more painful for me because I had to conceal it from him. I had to put up a brave face before Avik,” he says.
Since moving to Pune to study law, Avik had come home only for short periods — internships in Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta kept him occupied during holidays. “As parents, we have to let our children fly. But in the last two-and-a-half months that I was with him in the hospital, I spent 24 hours with him. We shared and talked so much that I knew it would have to last me a lifetime,” says Rumni.
Avik painted while in hospital. His last painting was gifted to a colleague. “He would stay awake at nights because he had steroids for his pain. And I would stay up with him. We would talk about all kinds of things. He talked of his responsibilities. He never thought he was going away. He thought he had a lot of responsibilities, looking after his brother, for example. Sometimes, he talked of how guilty he felt that he was not there.”
Pallavi and Avik had a lot of friends in Wadala. They called themselves the ‘Wadala family’. “He sometimes felt that because they had so many friends around, Pallavi could have walked across to somebody’s home and spent the night there. He regretted that he was not there when she needed him,” she says.
Rumni doesn’t join the dots between Pallavi’s death and Avik’s illness. “He died of a brain disease, yes. Maybe, at a deeper level, he was going through trauma that may or may not have triggered the disease. We don’t know. All I could see was his struggle to cope,” she says. She does not think of her son’s death in the singular: “A totally unthinking, cruel act. It has so many repercussions…two innocent lives lost this way.”
At the hospital, Avik held Pallavi close. “There is the sea behind. The Shivaji Park area — his father and he had attended the ceremony to strew her ashes in the sea. He would tell me that Pallavi is around here,” says Rumni. The Arabian Sea lies across the road from Hinduja hospital. A kilometre away is Shivaji Park and the Dadar beach.
Avik died on November 14, 2013, and was cremated at the Sion Cemetery. “He was cremated in the same crematorium as Pallavi was. It just worked out that way. It was the closest to Hinduja hospital. But when we gave the ashes to the sea, it was a conscious decision to do it at the same place as Pallavi’s,” says Rumni.
On August 9, 2012, Pallavi Purkayastha, a 25-year-old lawyer, returned from work to her flat in Himalayan Heights building in Wadala, Mumbai, and found there was a power failure. She called the electrician to fix the problem. The electrician, accompanied by security guard Sajjad Mughal, came to her flat and the latter stealthily stole the keys. He later entered the flat and tried to force himself on Pallavi. When she resisted, he stabbed her. When her fiance Avik Sengupta returned from work in the morning, he discovered her body in a pool of blood, and informed the police. A year later, Avik succumbed to septicemia and multiple-organ failure.
On June 30, the court convicted Sajjad Mughal on charges of murder, molestation and criminal trespass. On July 7, it will announce its quantum of punishment.
‘A POLITE BOY’
Avik was born on September 20, 1984 at his mother’s house in Calcutta. In 1985, the family — Rumni, born in Ranchi, and Alok, born in Patna — moved to Jamshedpur after the latter began working at the Tata Main Hospital.
He went to Loyola School, Jamshedpur, and decided against a career in medicine. “His teachers wanted him to do MBBS as I’m a doctor and he was good in biology. But he said he didn’t want to have a hectic life like mine,” says father Alok Sengupta.
He also began a relationship with synthesisers. “We Bengali families want our children to learn music and the Rabindra Sangeet. He began on the harmonium and went on to like synthesisers so much,” says Alok.
Teachers from school remember him as a polite boy. “We had gone on a trip from school. I fell ill and Avik refused to leave my side the whole day,” says Mitali Das, his schoolteacher.
“Avik would always be at the Durga Puja pandal to help out. He would come and meet us and even ensure we got an extra helping of the prasad,” says Jayashree Sharma, who taught him English in Class X.
Partly because he was a good orator, Avik zeroed in on a career in law and joined a law college in Pune. He began spending his holidays in internships and eventually joined J Sagar Associates after multiple internships there. He was a senior associate at the time of death, the cause of which was multiple-organ failure following septicemia. Despite his parents’ repeated efforts to have him shift to Kolkata, Avik settled in Mumbai because he began specialising in capital markets.
Abhinav Mohanty, his junior from school, talks of the time they were part of a larger team that travelled to Bangalore to attend a cultural festival: “On our way back, he began talking of life in such an intellectual way that the rest of us went to our teachers and asked for permission to playfully beat him up.”
Avik remained affected by life around him. He would often write reflective pieces and email them to friends and family. “After the 26/11 attacks, on his way back from work, he would stop at the Cama & Albless hospital to interact with victims. He would often help people with money there. Once, he asked me permission to do so. I told him he was doing a good deed. He later wrote a piece about it,” says Alok.