On a cloudy day in a quiet neighbourhood on Pune’s outskirts, a young man in a puffy jacket and sunglasses rode a red motorcycle on the mushy road leading to his 1BHK rented house. As the 25-year-old, slightly built and shy, dismounted and removed his dark glasses, his three younger stepbrothers waiting inside greeted him.
In a house with little furniture except a plastic chair and a table to place a television set, he leant against the wall while the younger ones sat on the floor.
“The three of them remember nothing about our mother’s past. They were too young,” he said. Pointing at his youngest brother who is in class IX, he said, “He was only six months old when Mummy was taken to jail. I had to be their mother and father both.”
The three younger brothers visit their mother Renuka Shinde and aunt Seema Gavit at Yerwada central prison for 30 minutes every fortnight. A recent change in prison rules, however, no longer permits their elder brother to visit her as his surname doesn’t match. “I have not been able to visit her for seven or eight months,” said the eldest, born of Renuka’s first marriage.
The boys know their mother and aunt have been handed the death sentence and that the President has turned down their mercy petition. The half-sisters, set to be the first women to be hanged in the country, have since moved Bombay High Court for commutation citing an inordinate delay in deciding their mercy plea, and the government has told the court that it will not execute them until the matter is disposed of.
“I was about 10 years old when we were sent to a children’s remand home in Kolhapur and Mummy, Mavshi (aunt) and Aaji (grandmother) were arrested. That is where we were raised,” said the eldest son.
Renuka and Seema were arrested on November 19, 1996. Along with their mother Anjanabai, since deceased, they were accused of kidnapping 13 children between 1990 and 1996 from various places in Maharashtra, using them to gain sympathy after committing thefts, and later killing many of them. Of nine murders, the sisters and their mother were convicted of five.
“I have memories of my mother and my aunt. We all lived together when I was young,” the eldest said. “I am the only one who has read the chargesheet. It’s hard to believe that my mother and aunt could be held guilty of such crimes.”
Renuka married Kiran Shinde, her second husband, in 1989. Kiran, who allegedly drove vehicles in which the children were kidnapped, turned approver against the sisters but proceedings against him, too, are pending in Bombay High Court.
The boys keep no contact with him. “He never came to visit us at the remand home or anytime after that,” says the second eldest, 22. “A police officer once told me that he lived in Hadapsar. But Hadapsar is such a big town, how were we going to locate him?”
While still in a children’s home in Kolhapur, the boys were taken to prison to visit their mother. In 2000, they were moved to a children’s home in Pune’s Shivaji Nagar, which the elder three left after turning 18, followed by the eldest taking custody of the youngest.
The eldest brother hopes to graduate in commerce this year through a distance learning course in University of Pune. His marketing job helps cover his rent of Rs 3,500 with scope for savings. His second and third brothers, who studied up to classes IX and X respectively, work as office boys in a builder’s office and live in a one-room-kitchen flat a short distance from their brother’s.
“My two elder brothers don’t get along very well. That’s why we live separately,” said the third son, 18. His cellphone started ringing to the tune of Marc Anthony’s Let rain over me. “It’s some English song. I don’t know which one but I like it,” he said.
“Our elder brother is very strict,” the second brother said. “He puts all our money in the bank and leaves nothing for us to spend. Whenever I visit Mummy in the jail, I complain to her; she tells me not to fight with him. She worries about all of us. Every time we visit her, she breaks down. My aunt doesn’t talk much.”
“My aunt is only seven or eight years older than I am. When all of that happened, I am not sure she even knew what she was doing. She was too young,” said the eldest brother. The second brother added, “Some lawyers had asked us to go to her school in Kothrud and try to get her school-leaving certificate to prove her age but we did not know how to get it.”
The brothers rarely step out of Pune and have few friends. “Not too many people ask us about our family. But when they do, we say our mother lives in our village in Kolhapur. Nobody knows she has been in jail so many years,” the third brother said.
They had all learnt to cook at the children’s home. “My youngest brother makes the best chapatis and I cook brinjal the best,” said the third.
The eldest believes that in a children’s home it is very easy to go down the wrong road, though he adds, “It is entirely upon you. It is what you decide to make of your life. That is why I got my brothers out of there. Now things are all right but if we had our mother to raise us, things would have been different.”
He has no elders to find him a bride but he does not believe in arranged marriages. “To register your name and find someone else who has registered is not how marriages should be. I want a partner whom I can tell everything about me and would expect the same from her. I am in no hurry. I leave it to destiny.”