TRAGEDY

Those Hemraj Left Behind

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When a victim’s loved ones are victimised
Khum Kala heard of her husband Hemraj Banjade’s murder two days after he was killed. A domestic help who worked at an apartment in Noida’s Jalvayu Vihar, he had died on the night of 16 May 2008, around the same time as a 14-year-old girl whose murder hogged the news headlines at the time: Aarushi Talwar, the daughter of Hemraj’s employers Rajesh and Nupur Talwar.

While Aarushi’s murder came to light on the morning of 17 May, Hemraj’s bludgeoned body was found only a day later—on the terrace of the flat. Their mortal remains bore similar injuries. They had both suffered fatal blows on their foreheads by a blunt object and had their throats slit by a sharp object, clearly the handiwork of the same murderer/s. The Talwars, both dentists by profession, have since been convicted of the twin murders.

The case has been one of India’s most closely followed by media audiences, but lost in all the coverage has been the grief of Hemraj’s family back in Dharapani in the Arghakhach district of south-western Nepal, some 1,500 km away from the scene of the crime.

Dharapani is a long drive through high brown mountains that winds through dusty towns and villages before you reach this habitation nestled in a verdant valley. The village is home to about 50 families, all very closely knit. They had been shocked by the sight of Hemraj’s snapshot on Indian television within just a few hours of his corpse’s recovery.

For a while, none of them dared tell Khum Kala. She would be unable to deal with the news, they feared, maybe even lose her mind.

The villagers were not entirely wrong. When Kala finally heard of her husband’s violent death, she was struck dumb. She didn’t cry. Her tears froze in her eyes, say those who were around her. Nor did she betray any other emotion. She just stood numb. She couldn’t feel her limbs, she says. For the next two weeks, she had no strength to attend to her daily chores. She was bedridden for months.

Now, says Khum Kala, she has finally come to terms with the reality that her husband will never come back to her and she alone has to take care of their son Prajwal, now 12 years old. “My limbs hurt, my heart aches,” she says. And she suffers from acute arthritis.

Prajwal, reed thin with ankle-exposing trousers that suggest a rapid gain in height, is seated by his mother’s side in the verandah of their mud house. The dwelling is more than a hundred years old, and Prajwal is the fifth generation of the family that first moved into the house. He looks at her mother’s face with an uncertain gaze. Behind his stoic exterior, he appears to hide an unrest he is too young to articulate. The only time the boy speaks is to spell his name out—in confident English.

The villagers gathered around are impressed. “He learns English and is a student of commerce,” says Bhuprasad, a distant uncle of Hemraj in his early sixties.

Asked if he has any memory of his father, Prajwal nods. All this attention from a visitor has already made a hero of the boy among his peers, who crowd around to complain that he doesn’t play with them. By his mother’s side, Prajwal listens attentively to what is being said about him. There is no change in his facial expression. “He is weak with a chest infection,” says Khum Kala in his defence, “He can’t breathe properly.”

Khum Kala depends heavily on the support of her elder brother Saligram, who lives in Arghakhach and helps take care of the family. He took Prajwal to Varanasi, a 15-hour journey by bus, for treatment of his asthma. Financially, the family has fallen on hard times. They once had several cows, but now all they have is three goats, and their meagre land holdings don’t provide food enough even for three months’ sustenance.

It is a traditional home. In its middle is a circular chula —a depression in the mud floor where a fire may be lit to warm the house. This is where the family huddles during the bitter cold of winter. Prajwal runs upstairs to the hut’s cramped attic, a bedroom he shares with his mother, to get Hemraj’s pictures. The pictures are in an envelope under a pile of clothes in a big trunk, hidden away from daily sight, a reminder of happier times. One of the pictures has Hemraj in Malaysia, all suited and booted. He’d lived there for three years, though the family doesn’t know much about what he did there. They just know he didn’t like it. He said he’d never go back.

The third member of the family is Krishna Kala, Hemraj’s mother, who is now 80 years old. He was her only child. Hemraj’s death to her was a cruel repetition of history, since she’d lost her husband in a freak accident some 40 years ago when he was working at a mill in Sonipat, Haryana. Hemraj was of Prajwal’s age at the time.

Krishna Kala looks at her grandson with an air of sadness, but doesn’t speak. She has been going deaf, of late, but is aware of who the visitors from Delhi are here to talk about; her swollen eyes are wet. She stays in a room attached to the main mud house that also serves as a storehouse of fodder and firewood.

Khum Kala is unable to say whether it is hatred of the Talwars or a desire for justice that has kept them going over the past five years. She has not had closure over Hemraj’s death. She didn’t even get to see his body, and it has left an emotional void, an ache from which there is little relief.

In the village, the story of Hemraj’s murder has acquired folklore status. It is told over and over, never failing to attract listeners. It was some of the village’s menfolk who went to Delhi to perform his last rites. “[The body] didn’t look like his,” they say, “The killer and the summer heat had deformed it beyond recognition.” They don’t want to talk about it any further.

To Hemraj’s family, for five elongated years, each day since his death had seemed like a day of lost hope. It was only after life sentences were awarded—on 25 November 2013—by a special court to the “Dr Talwars”, as they are known here, did they see a flicker of justice.

Khum Kala thanks the Indian Judiciary for doing a poor Nepali justice despite a vicious campaign run by a well-off Indian family to malign his character. However, she doesn’t believe the prosecution’s allegations: that the Talwars killed their daughter in rage on finding her in a ‘compromising position’ with Hemraj. “This is not possible,” Khum Kala remembers, “Hemraj often talked about Aarushi. She was a bright girl who was respectful towards Hemraj and called him bhaiyya. Aarushi had even sent a gift for Prajwal with Hemraj.”

Hemraj would not talk much about his work with his family, but he did complain that Rajesh Talwar was strict and finicky. Hemraj would often be hauled over the coals by Rajesh, she explains. “Dr Talwar was very particular about what was happening in the house.” So there was no question of Hemraj hosting friends for drinks? She clinches her teeth to reply: “He cannot have hosted friends for drinks because he was a teetotaller and he didn’t even host people here in the village. If he had to see someone, he’d visit them. Stop maligning a dead man.”

Her emotions of loss appear to have metamorphosed into a deep-seated anger that surfaces with the slightest mention of ‘Dr Talwars’. The only encounter she has ever had with the Talwars has been via TV. “I felt like breaking into the TV set and grabbing them by their necks. If I see them, I will pour kerosene oil on them and burn them alive,” she says in Hindi, shaking in anger before she bursts into tears. “They have destroyed my life. God will never let them rest in peace.”

Hemraj worked for the Talwars on a monthly salary of Rs 3,000. The last time Khum Kala met him was three months before he died. He didn’t send a single paisa for that period, nor did the Talwars bother to send them his dues. “They instead send the police after us,” she says. “I have to live without my man. They never tried to contact me. They have big money to pay, big lawyers to hire, but didn’t bother to pay Hemraj’s dues. They have said so many wrong things about my husband to save [themselves]. I am sad Aarushi is dead. So is my husband. But no one talks about him because he is a poor man. I know he didn’t do anything bad to Aarushi. I wish Aarushi was alive to say he is innocent.”

She is hurt at having been subjected to nasty words and allegations against the man she lost. “I know [Hemraj] cannot do anything wrong to Aarushi,” she says, repeating herself.

Hemraj’s son-in-law Jeevan was asleep in his room when the police knocked on his door early morning on 17 May 2008. Jeevan was a household help at Samir Singh’s house in Noida, and, like Hemraj, lived in a servant’s quarter attached to the flat. Hemraj himself had worked at Singh’s place for four months before he took up his job with the Talwars.

The police questioned Jeevan about Hemraj’s whereabouts and searched his room. He was handcuffed and chained and taken to a police station. He was slapped and beaten up, despite his telling them all he could. The police took his mobile to check the calls he’d made and never returned it, leaving him unable to get in touch with his family and friends. His employer Samir Singh, who heard the commotion and came out of the house to see what was happening, was confronted by the cops who said they were looking for Hemraj who’d fled after killing Aarushi. They had been sent there by the Talwars.

The same evening, a team of three policemen took Jeevan along and left in a car to nab Hemraj from his village. They travelled the whole night to enter Nepal from Nepalganj via Bareilly, Lahimpur Khiri and Nanpara by morning, pasting hundreds of pictures of Hemraj along the way that described him as a wanted killer. One of the policemen who made this journey told me that the Talwars had offered Rs 15,000 for the trip to Nepal to nab Hemraj, though he was not sure if his senior colleague took the money. The police were under pressure to catch Hemraj.

The police stopped and checked every bus entering Nepal from India. All this while, Jeevan sat handcuffed and chained. Once they reached the village, he was asked to direct them to Hemraj’s family, just as they had made him point out his associates in Delhi (such as Hemraj’s brother-in-law Rudralal, who lives and works in Bhajanpura). Jeevan was held and questioned for days.

By late afternoon, Jeevan could see that the three policemen had something hot to discuss. What it was, he had no clue, but they abandoned their search for Hemraj and decided to return to Noida. They did not tell him that Hemraj’s body had been recovered at the Talwar residence.

They reached Noida the next day, and Jeevan, who was dumped at a police station in Sector 20, was still not allowed to contact anyone.

At the police station, Jeevan met a local reporter who informed him that Hemraj was murdered the same night as Aarushi. Desperate to join his family, Jeevan created a ruckus. Why was he being held? Why was the police not going after the real killer? Why was the police trying to pin Aarushi’s murder on a Nepali? He was not released. Instead, he was ferried from one police station to another over the following week.

Finally, the police sent a message to Samir Singh to have Jeevan picked up—after nine days of detention without any evidence against him. That this was illegal was entirely ignored by the media. But when Rajesh Talwar was arrested on 23 May, the media went berserk. No one had a thought to spare for Jeevan and the rest of Hemraj’s family.

A police officer who was involved in the operation confirms that the police had believed the Talwars when they pointed a finger at Hemraj as Aarushi’s murderer. That the parents could be suspects just did not strike the cops. Set off on a false trail, the CBI team had interrogated Jeevan and Hemraj’s other friends. In all, the Talwars had it easy—until the evidence began piling up against them.

The ‘guilty’ judgment against the Talwars has come as a relief to Hemraj’s family. “Now I can concentrate on working to improve our lives,” says Khum Kala. She has made up her mind on one aspect of this, though. “I will never send Prajwal to work in India.”

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