It was a 15-day holiday Manoj Soni had planned for his family in August 2017, and visiting Shirdi was not a part of that. But then, the date on the train tickets he booked from Ahmedabad to Vaishnodevi was July 9, instead of a month later.
“I realised this on August 9 after we had visited Somnath, Dwarka and Nageshwar Jyotirling temples in Gujarat. We could not have travelled such a long distance in the unreserved compartment with our two children. That’s when my wife and I decided to catch a bus to Shirdi from Ahmedabad,” said Soni, 42.
On August 10, the family from Indore visited the famous Saibaba temple. “While the children were enjoying the rides at a fair, my wife wanted to take a look at the shops nearby. I felt she should go without the kids or they would demand a lot of things,” said Soni.
His wife Deepti (38), wearing a pink saree, has not been seen since.
And now, Soni’s relentless efforts to find her have prompted the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court to ask Maharashtra’s top police officer to probe similar disappearances reported from the famous temple town and investigate the angle of human trafficking.
On October 29, taking note of a plea by Soni that he had run from pillar to post for three years and found the police “least cooperative”, the Bench expressed dissatisfaction over the action of the Shirdi Police that had, it felt, failed to examine the disappearances through the human trafficking angle.
“More importantly”, the court said, the state DGP should “unravel the mystery of the missing persons vis-a-vis a human trafficking / organ trafficking racket”.
According to data submitted by police, 279 persons were reported missing from Shirdi between 2017 and October 27, 2020, of whom 67 still remain untraced, including married and unmarried women.
Referring to Soni, the court noted: “It is more than three years that his various attempts to trace out his wife have been rendered futile. He is a resident of Indore and despite the distance, he is tenaciously trying to find his wife even today.”
According to senior police officers, the matter is “being investigated from every angle”. “The court will be appraised of the progress made in tracing the persons reported missing from Shirdi,” an officer said.
It’s not the first time that the court has taken note of the problem. On November 22, 2019, it observed that 88 persons were reported missing from Shirdi in one year. In almost all the cases, the Bench said, the missing persons had come to the temple.
“When poor persons are involved in such cases…their relatives are missing, they are helpless. Most of them do not approach police and very rarely such poor persons can come up to this court,” the Bench had observed.
Soni married Deepti, a nursing assistant, on February 27, 2009. “It was an arranged marriage but no less than a love marriage. We understood each other so well. She was mild-mannered and I loved her dearly,” he said.
Over the last three years, Soni says he has been to Pune after a stranger said he may have spotted his wife at the railway station, scanned hours of CCTV footage with the help of police, visited the red-light area with a lump in his throat, come to Kalyan near Mumbai twice on a tip from a tantrik, and even alerted Shirdi police about a group from Kopargaon known for kidnapping people.
But he was only met with disappointment.
Soni takes a pause before speaking about the insinuation that Deepti may have had an extramarital affair and left of her own accord. “I have examined that angle, too. I thought if people, including some police officers, say that it is possible I should find out more. I have inquired with people we know but have found nothing to suggest that. Even if I had the slightest doubt, would I continue looking for her?”
While Soni is mostly away searching for Deepti, or taking up driving jobs for a few days in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra or even Uttarakhand, their children — a 10-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl — are looked after by their grandmother.
“I have no other help. My mother is 85 and I cannot expect her to do much. I take up jobs where people need a driver for a few days and make what I can to support my family. My income has reduced, things become difficult sometimes but how can I stop looking for my wife?” Soni said.
And yet, he does not lose heart. “Her family members are helpless, too. Her parents are poor. Her father worked as a security guard and her mother worked in a doctor’s clinic. She has two other sisters. But the loss has been mine more than theirs,” he said.
The children, Soni says, have matured beyond their years. “My son and daughter now suggest ways to find their mother. At their age, it is particularly hard to be without the mother. They break down sometimes when they miss her too much.”