By Mansi Choksi
MUMBAI – Three days have passed since a 22-year-old photojournalist said she was gang raped while on assignment in Mumbai, a city lined with luxury apartment buildings, glass office towers and marble megaliths of malls.
As the police hunted down the suspects one by one – officials announced the fourth and fifth arrests on Sunday – a stream of journalists made their way along a green tongue of sewage winding through a slum covered in blue tarpaulins, where thousands have packed themselves in, or on top of, roughly 300 tenements.
They were hoping to find out more about the men who have been accused of the crime, which, in its described brutality, has punctured Mumbai’s image as the rare Indian city where women could move in relative safety.
Past a man transporting a television set on a rusted wheelbarrow, under the flag of the Islamic crescent moon and star, was the house of Chand Hussain Sheikh, a one-room structure with chipping walls. Sharnabai Sheikh, his grandmother, squatted at the dusty doorstep. She said that on the day of the attack, her grandson had received a call on his cell phone at 5:30 p.m. – soon before the rape is alleged to have taken place — and took off abruptly, leaving his cup of tea half-full.
When he came back three hours later, she said, he was shivering and feverish, so she gave him medicine and put him to bed after dinner. But later he emerged, and told her he was scared.
“He said his friends had done something to a girl and she had been lying unconscious in Shakti Mills,” she said. “He never lies to me — his friends have committed the crime and blamed him.” Inside her sari she had tucked a precious piece of paper – her grandson’s birth certificate, testifying that he is 16 and a minor, which could help him get a lighter sentence if he is convicted. She had raised Chand and his two siblings after their parents died, supporting them by selling limes from a cane basket.
“He didn’t do it,” she said, in a weak-lunged voice. “He couldn’t do something like this.”
Shameen Sheikh, a neighbor, said Chand would occasionally bring home some money from sorting garbage, but more often he spent the days hanging out with his friends in the abandoned mill where the rape is said to have taken place, sometimes coming home drunk.
Women in nearby houses stepped out of their homes to debate how a child from here could be accused of such a crime.
“Two of the accused are from Madanpura,” another slum located nearby, said Sameera Shaikh, who was holding a howling baby. “Only one is from here.”
A ribbon of almost 130 textile mills once operated here, but many closed as the industry struggled in the early 1980s. Many of the mills have been leveled to make way for malls and high-end apartment complexes.
From the glassy height of those buildings, one can look down at Madanpura, the slum that was home to another suspect, Mohammed Kasim Sheikh. His house is outside a mountain of trash collected from the slum. His mother, Chandbibi Sheikh, was storing water in red plastic buckets when a mustachioed neighbor, passing by her house, taunted her about her son. She dropped the bucket with a thud and stepped out to shower vibrant abuse on him and his family.
She said he had returned home at about 9 p.m. on Thursday night, and was eating dinner when he got a call summoning him to the police station.
“He got scared and ran,” she said. “His mobile has been switched off ever since.”
Mohammed Mumtaz, who lives in the adjacent house, said few in the slum believed Kasim to be innocent. “He drank, he smoked, he lusted after girls,” he said. “If he even tried to look at a girl in our neighborhood with those intentions, we would not have spared him.”
Ms. Sheikh, who earns a living washing plates at weddings, raised Kasim and his three siblings alone after their father died of liver failure. She said Kasim, 18, had dropped out of school twice, and could do nothing to earn money but sort garbage. “He didn’t have any bad habits except chewing tobacco,” she said. “There were young girls living right next to us, he didn’t misbehave with them. But he is human, who knows what he did.”
Mansi Choksi is a journalist based in Mumbai.
Published in the New York Times India Ink; August 25, 2013.