Failing health,continuing mystery

Preeti Rathi has stopped writing notes to communicate and is too weak for surgery

Written by Tabassum Barnagarwala | Mumbai | Published: May 31, 2013 12:34 am

Nearly a month after a masked man flung acid into her face,Preeti Rathi’s future remains as uncertain as the identity of the attacker.

Preeti,25,remains at Bombay Hospital,blinded in the left eye,unable to speak,and no longer writing the notes she had used to communicate with her family in the initial days of her treatment. The nursing graduate from Delhi,so delighted at bagging a job at Mumbai’s Army Medical College,has lost it after failing to join. She is too fragile for any operation,with internal bleeding,failing kidneys and a collapsed lung.

The probe has hit a dead end. The only arrest has been critcised by the family of the accused and also dismissed by Preeti’s father. The Mumbai police have returned to her bedside in the hope she can provide clues.

Preeti,eldest of three,had spent months applying for nursing posts before landing the AMC job,one of 200 selected from 15,000 applicants. “She was so excited. She started shopping instantly,” says younger sister Tanu,who is struggling to concentrate on her B Sc exams at the family’s home in Narela,on the outskirts of Delhi. “She has always been hardworking,focused on her studies,” says her father Amarsingh Rathi,a foreman with the Bhakra Beas Management Board,a state-run electricity provider.

On May 1,Preeti boarded the Garib Rath from Nizamuddin with her father,aunt Sunita Singh and uncle Vinodkumar Singh. The train reached Mumbai around 8 am the next day. Preeti followed her father and aunt out of the coach. Her uncle was unloading their luggage when the attacker arrived.

“We were standing a little distance from the train,” says Preeti’s father. “Suddenly,a man tapped Preeti on the shoulder. When she turned,he threw the contents of a plastic bottle into her face and ran. Some of the acid fell on me and Sunita. Preeti screamed and collapsed.” A man working at a stall poured cold water on Preeti’s face.

Also injured,say police,were passenger Sudesh Deepender Singh,23,ragpicker Samir Shaikh,18,and a woman in the crowd. Shaikh chased the attacker but lost him in the crowd.

The slightly injured woman was treated at Bhabha Hospital and discharged. “Is it possible the attacker accidentally hurled acid at Preeti instead of that other woman?” wonders Preeti’s father. The police have not named the woman or listed her as a witness.

The ordeal

For 16 days,Preeti was under intensive care at Masina Hospital’s burns ward. The ingestion of some sulphuric acid has robbed her of the power of speech.

While she could still scribble,Preeti had sought to reassure her puzzled family. “I have never been in a relationship with any boy,” reads one of the notes,in Hindi. Another thanks her uncle for carrying her from the platform and rushing her to medical aid: “If Mausaji weren’t there,where would I be?”

By the time she was shifted to Bombay Hospital on May 19,she had stopped writing the notes. A CT scan revealed chemical pneumonia and water in her lungs. Since then,she has undergone a few procedures to repair damaged organs.

She depends on a machine to supply oxygen to the blood. A team of 13 specialists is treating her. “Preeti’s platelets count is low and her kidney is not functioning properly. With her collapsed lung and chances of infection spreading further,we are only focusing on stabilising her before thinking of any operation,” says Dr Ashok Gupta,a plastic surgeon heading the team.

“We have placed temporary skin on her face and arms,but our biggest concern remains how we can block the blood leaking into her lungs and blocking her respiratory system. A blood clot in her stomach is another concern,” Dr Gupta says. The respiratory pipe and food pipe have fused,making it difficult for her to breathe.

“Preeti weighed 54 kilos before she left from Delhi. Now she must be hardly 20 kilos,” says her father.

For as long as she wrote notes,Preeti’s parents were hopeful. “Now she cannot even move,” says her mother,Roshni. “I fear we’ll have to leave Mumbai with neither our daughter nor the name of her attacker.”

“It is her willpower that is keeping our hopes alive,” says Dr Gupta.

The mystery

A Government Railway Police team travelled to Delhi and narrowed down on two suspects. Delhi University student Satyam Verghese,a former boyfriend of a close friend of Preeti,proved he had been elsewhere when the attack happened. Pawankumar Gahalon,a family friend based in Rohtak,has been arrested.

Tanu says it was Preeti who had advised her friend to break up with Verghese,and suggests this could have given him a possible motive to attack her. Verghese was able to show CCTV footage that he was in Delhi University at the time of the attack.

Gahalon became a suspect after he called Tanu to ask about Preeti’s health. “When he called her,Tanu was with the police and they instantly asked who the caller was and suspected he was the attacker,” Amarsingh Rathi says.

Gahalon,24 and a B Tech student at Bhiwani Institute of Technology and Science,was arrested from his home on May 8 and brought to Mumbai the next day. On May 18,Amarsingh Rathi submitted an affidavit,saying,“Pawankumar is a nice boy who would never be involved in such a heinous crime.” He has sought that the probe be handed over to the CBI.

Gahalon’s aunt lives in Narela and his uncle is a colleague of Preeti’s father. Preeti’s mother says this is why her husband believes Gahalon is innocent,but “I trust no one.”

Azadsingh Gahalon,Pawankumar’s father,says the latter hadn’t stepped out of Rohtak for four months and was waiting for the results of his final exams. “How could he have attacked Preeti when he was in Rohtak on May 2?”

The family has not been able to prove this. “Pawankumar had visited PGIMER’s out-patients department that morning and police demanded CCTV footage from the hospital,” his father says. “But hospital authorities told us the CCTV cameras in the OPD were not working.”

“It is possible that Pawankumar Gahalon hired someone to carry out the attack,” says Vijay Dhopavkar,senior inspector with the Bandra GRP. The police are yet to identify a motive.

The probe is now being handled by the GRP’s crime branch. Gahalon is in judicial custody till June 10.

According to the police,Tanu remembers having seen Gahalon at Nizamuddin before Preeti left,Gahalon “resembles” the masked attacker captured on CCTV,and Gahalon’s call to Tanu creates “reasonable doubt” that he may have had a motive to harm Preeti.

The police are also trying to identify new suspects. “They keep asking us if we suspect anyone in our neighbourhood. We have lived there happily for 15 years,” says Preeti’s mother. Preeti’s cousin Lalit Solanki says,“The police spent three days in Delhi and the only questions they asked us were: ‘Do you suspect anyone?’,‘Did Preeti have any enemies?’,‘Did anyone threaten her at any point?’ and ‘Was anyone ever jealous of her?’ ”

“We have spoken to all members of the family and their friends in New Delhi but haven’t found anyone with a clear motive,” concedes B N Shirsat,Deputy Commissioner of Police,GRP (Western Railways). “We may send another team to Delhi to find further suspects.”

Preeti had reportedly given Shirsat a statement that she suspected Gahalon after he was seen at Nizamuddin,leading to the arrest.

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