“She was not a bad mother. I don’t know what happened.” A few days after his daughter’s death, Kanchan Sarkar is a bewildered man.
According to the police, on August 27, his wife Swati threw their child Shreya off the corridor outside their third-floor flat in J P Nagar, Bengaluru. It is a drop of 30 feet and, as the girl fell, she hit the roof of a house below. A chunk of grey concrete came off. Shreya was bloodied but reportedly still alive. Her mother allegedly picked her up, climbed up to the fourth floor and threw her down again.
A pair of bright yellow sandals lies outside the house where Shreya Sarkar lived most of her life. She was 7.
“When we asked her why she had done it, she said, ‘She is my child. Who are you to ask?’,” claims Jagadevi, a neighbour. Inspector B Raju of the Puttenahalli police station, where Swati was taken after arrest, says she told them, “My daughter is now in a better place.”
After a few days at the Central Prison in Bengaluru, Swati, 32, was sent to the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) for psychiatric evaluation. She remains there in judicial custody. A few weeks later, says Kanchan, 37, he mustered the courage to meet her at Nimhans. “I don’t think she has understood what she has done.”
Shreya was a child with autism and could not speak — what doctors call a “non-verbal” child. “We tried to put her in a few schools but it was difficult for her. She could not sit still. She would cry a lot,” says Kanchan. “But it’s not that she knew nothing. She was a good child.”
She was especially good with gadgets, says the father, a business analyst with a software company. Every evening, after he returned from work, he says, Shreya would insist he hand over his laptop to her. “She could write A-Z and 1-100 on a laptop. She loved playing games on it.”
Shreya’s autism had been diagnosed around the age of 18-20 months “We did take her for speech therapy, but it was often interrupted,” says Kanchan.
In the last few months of her life though, her family had fallen apart. In January this year, Kanchan and Swati agreed to live separately for a while. He won’t elaborate why, only saying he he would visit once a month to pay the rent (Rs 9,000 a month) for the J P Nagar home and money for other expenses.
Hinting that loneliness pushed Swati to desperation, Inspector Raju says, “She had no support from her own family. She had no one to go back to. How long could she have done this [cared for Shreya] on her own?”
Both Swati and Kanchan are from Bankura in West Bengal, where they were first neighbours and then teenage sweethearts. “I was in Class IX when I first met her. She must have been in Class VI-VII,” says Kanchan.
In 2005, after he graduated and got a job, the couple eloped to Bengaluru. “Her father stopped talking to her. Eventually, he came around, but their relationship was never good,” claims Kanchan.
Swati’s father Suneet Nandy refuses to answer questions. “I have no comment to make,” he told The Indian Express. “If Swati has committed a crime, she should be punished.”
Swati had been living in the small, 1BHK apartment for the past nine years. Landlady S Padma says they hardly had any visitors. “I never saw either of their parents visit. In the early years, some friends would come. But that too stopped,” says Padma.
The Sarkars’ next-door neighbour, who refused to be named, says, “Swati was alone at home with the child all the time… About a year ago, she called her family in Bengal from my home. I too tried to call. I left a message: ‘Swati is suffering’. But they did not get back.”
A narrow corridor runs the length of all the flats in the building; it looks out on to other houses and shops. There are no balconies. “When our door was shut, she and her child would play right outside,” says Jagadevi, who lives in a barsati on the fourth floor with her toddler and husband.
The neighbourhood is in shock over how Shreya died, and like many others, Jagadevi blames Swati. “She was fully mental. She would pick up fights, and complain that our kids bothered her daughter,” says Jagadevi.
Vivekananda Education Society is a small school in the lanes of J P Nagar, minutes from Swati’s house. Sometime in 2013-14, says principal Naveen, Swati approached them with a request. “She asked that we hire her as an English teacher. She said we didn’t have to pay her, that instead, we admit her child in nursery,” he says. Naveen says Swati, a philosophy graduate, proved to be “an excellent teacher and spoke very good English”. Shreya, on the other hand, had trouble engaging with other children.
Ambika, a primary class teacher, remembers the then three-year-old as “a beautiful child”. “She would follow her mother everywhere, even to the senior classes when she was teaching,” says Ambika. “She would pull her mother’s hair and scratch her sometimes. She would take it [her anger] out on her mother.”
A couple of months later, the mother and daughter stopped coming to school. The principal says he doesn’t remember why, but adds Shreya would bite other children and they had informed Swati. Naveen adds, “Shreya was improving. It’s not as if we don’t have teachers to take care of such abnormal children.”
Swati had turned to at least one more person for help. Eeshwaran Krishnan, a speech therapist, saw Shreya on and off from 2013 until 2016, with sessions interrupted when the family went to Bengal. Shocked to hear that Shreya is dead, and that Swati is charged with her killing, Krishnan says, “Initially, both parents would bring her. They were not very regular.” Shreya was cranky initially, but over time, she improved, Eeshwaran says. “She would respond to her name. She was able to say two-word sentences.”
Eeshwaran says he advised the Sarkars to enrol Shreya at the nearby Apoorva Centre for Autism. “They said they would return from Kolkata and get in touch,” says Eeshwaran. That was in November 2016.
In about two weeks, doctors at Nimhans are likely to submit a report on Swati’s mental condition to the court. Even if they certify her as medically ill, Swati may still stand trial. “Under IPC section 84, it has to be proved that at the time of committing the crime, a person had lost his power to reason, to understand the nature of his act and its consequences, and that it is against the law,” says Dr Suresh Bada Math, forensic psychiatrist, Nimhans, adding they couldn’t talk more about Swati’s case.
Sarbani Mallick, a Bengaluru-based special educator who has been working with autistic children and their parents for close to two decades, says it would be a tragedy if Swati is held guilty. “I don’t think we should say Swati Sarkar killed her child. We should say we made her kill her child. The complete absence of a support system made her take this step. This was a cry of desperation.”