The year was 1995. Anaroo Devi had no money,her vegetable cart was her only means to an income. All she intended to do was report a fire,but,somehow,Anaroo found herself in the newspapers,as the first witness to a horrific murder that caught a nations attention.
In the 18 years since,there were several occasions when she had the chance to escape her life of poverty. When money was offered to her to feign ignorance about what she saw that night a man in kurta-pyjama running away from the scene of crime and smelt burning flesh in the air she rejected it.
The year is 2013. And little has changed. Anaroo is still poor. She still owns the vegetable cart. But her eyes shine bright as she speaks. She speaks,undeterred,because as principal witness 7 in the case which came to be known as the tandoor case,her testimony was one of the key ones which resulted in Sushil Sharma,the main accused,being sentenced to death a sentence which was commuted on Tuesday.
On the intervening night of July 2-3,1995,Anaroo had just put the eldest of her six children to sleep and had told her husband Khetanram to make the bed. Before she turned off the lantern,she saw a fire at the Bagiya Barbeque opposite the pavement where she slept. Aag lag gayi hai, she screamed.
I saw the flames and ran towards it. I woke my husband up and noticed the disc plate on the tree (the disc plate made of tin,was a signal used in those days by the Delhi Police to indicate that the beat patrol in charge was in the area). I called out to Abdul Nasser Kunju,the constable who was walking back from the Connaught Place police station. I ran towards the Bagiya and saw Sushil,dressed in a white kurta-pyjama running and getting into a car, she said.
At the entrance to the Bagiya stood Keshav Kumar,a restaurant employee. He was guarding the gate,so as to not let anyone through. But by then,Kunju and Chandrapal,the home guard,had scaled the walls and entered the premises. I asked Keshav whether he was burning garbage or cooking meat, she recalled.
In response,Keshav told Anaroo Amma,we are burning old papers. But Anaroo didnt buy this. I saw Sushil running and I could smell human flesh burning.
By then,Kunju and the home guard had detained Keshav and Kunju and Anaroo ran to the phone booth in the area and called the fire department and the local police.
The next 18 years were a test for Anaroo. I couldnt sleep that night. The next day,police came to my shanty and asked me to accompany them. They took me to the police station in a Gypsy my first ride in a car and wrote down my testimony.
Three days after the incident,Sushils men came to my shanty and offered me Rs 10 lakh to change my testimony. But I refused. My husband supported me but was always scared for me. He sometimes told me that we should leave the city. But I said no, she said. Khetanram died last year.
Over the years,the threats and the bribe offers continued,but Anaroo remained firm. That girl needed justice and this was my duty.