Neighbours since birth, they first spoke to each other at the Sri Ram Kishan inter-college, the only co-educational school in the neigbourhood of Nainana Jat, five kilometres from the Taj Mahal.
In 2015, Sheelam Kumari, 17, dropped a year and enrolled in Class IX where Sonu Mohammad, also 17, was her senior. They fell in love and kept this secret for a year from friends, family and siblings. Until their charred bodies were found in Sonu’s room in the early hours of May 14.
On March 21, Sheelam’s father Rammu Naayi gave her Rs 800 for an LPG cylinder before heading out to work in the stone quarries. The third of his seven children, Sheelam was alone when her father gave her the money and left.
Without phones, and without anyone to confide in, Sheelam and Sonu met at school and decided to leave Agra.
At 11 am, Mohammad Wakeel Khan received a call from the school. They were looking for Sonu who was late for an exam.
When the parents reached the school, they were told he was seen leaving with Sheelam on his motorcycle.
“He bought the bike on Diwali because there was a discount,” Sonu’s 16-year-old brother Ali Mohammad, who waited to open the door for his brother every night, said. “He had never been anywhere outside Agra. Nor have I. But he told me that he kept reading road signs and drove around.”
With the few hundred rupees between them, Sonu and Sheelam drove to Ajmer, then Ahmedabad.
In four days, the money over, Sonu called home around 6 am. “He asked if he would get beaten if he came home. He admitted the girl was with him,” Wakeel Khan said.
On the evening of March 25, Sonu and Sheelam were back home. The families decided not to report the matter to police. In the village, where 400 Muslim families live with 700 Hindu families, they keep the peace by sticking to separate entry and exit paths, and interaction is bare minimum.
The boy and the girl were made to quit school — Sonu was told to assist his uncle at his electronics shop in the main market where his father runs a small paan stall.
On May 9, Rammu Naayi, advised by the elders of his family, arranged Sheelam’s marriage to a man from neighbouring Baroli Aheer. On the fifth day of her wedding, she returned to spend a day at her father’s house in Nainana Jat.
“She spoke to me at length. She told me she was happy, that there was no trouble with her in-laws,” her father said.
At midnight, he locked the house from outside — his wife and children were inside — and went to the terrace to sleep. “She had hidden a key. She knew she only had this night to do what she had to,” he said.
According to police, Sheelam walked to Sonu’s house in the dead of night. Because it was so hot inside, Sonu’s parents slept in the courtyard while his two younger brothers were on the ground floor. Unseen by anyone, she is said to have taken the stairs to Sonu’s first floor room where he often stayed alone.
“They locked the door. Around 4 am, they doused themselves with kerosene oil and set themselves on fire,” Kotwali Sadar SHO Aditya Kumar Dwivedi said.
When the family noticed smoke billowing from the room, they thought Sonu had committed suicide because of the heartbreak. “It wasn’t until the police broke the wall from the adjoining room did we realise that there were two people in the room,” Khan said.
Meanwhile, from his terrace, Sheelam’s father had been watching people collect outside Khan’s house. It did not take him long to realise that his daughter was missing.
“This started at 4 am. Her in-laws were coming to take her back at 8 am. I went to the house and I saw her body in that room. When her in-laws arrived, I told them what had happened,” Rammu Naayi said.
Sonu was buried near his house and Sheelam was cremated in the presence of her in-laws. The mothers in both houses are inconsolable. Visitors continue to debate whether the children “deserved the punishment”.
Khan simply shakes his head: “Why go near water when you don’t know how to swim.”