As the audacity of Neetu Solanki’s murder drew wide media attention, parents and relatives of more than 50 missing women came forward to identify the victim. Among them was Hansraj Arora, a retired official of the Delhi government’s education department. It was 10 years ago almost to the day that Arora’s daughter, Rupa, had walked out of their home in Geeta Colony, a typical east Delhi mixed neighbourhood of middle- and working-class residents, and gone missing.
The youngest of three siblings, a shy, quiet woman who kept to her books and studies, Rupa had been lonely and withdrawn since her sister Rajni’s marriage a few years earlier. Her loneliness gave way to depression when her parents started talking of getting her married as well. Worried about her emotional state, her family made her give up her job as a science teacher at a local primary school and seek psychiatric treatment. It made matters worse. She became more disturbed and resentful. On a couple of occasions she left home without telling anyone and went and spent hours at a beauty parlour or in the market. Her family tried to keep a close watch but on the evening of 2 February 2001, barely a month after she turned 24, Rupa slipped out without anyone noticing her.
Hope or fear? Though he can’t quite articulate why, Arora is convinced his daughter is in Uttar Pradesh. Sarang Sena/Mint
She left no note. She never called home. She has not been seen or heard of again.
Her grieving mother Nirmal died in 2007. That same year, after chasing up false leads and reports of sightings across various Uttar Pradesh towns for years, the Delhi Police gave up and was ready to close the file. But 65-year-old Arora doggedly kept up his search, “There’s no peace till I know what became of her.”
When the news of the body at the railway station broke, Arora turned up at the police mortuary at Sabzi Mandi to see if it was his daughter. It was unlikely, he knew—Rupa would be 34 now, while the police and media reports claimed the murdered woman was in her early 20s; nor was his shy, introverted daughter likely to have got a peacock tattoo like the one the victim had. He went nevertheless, on the outside chance it might be her. “It wasn’t. But I’ve seen enough to know not to trust the initial reports, they often get details wrong. As we now know, the murdered woman was not 22, but 28. So every time I read of such cases, I think it might be Rupa, and then I have to go and find out for myself,” he says.
Arora has been on countless searches—to hospitals and morgues, to nearly every police district in Delhi. He has become an expert in dealing with the judicial and police bureaucracy. His speech is peppered with legalese as he speaks about the “case”. The strangely distanced word is perhaps a conscious choice, to deal with his anguish. He rarely mentions Rupa by name, and as he stoically narrates his story, he adopts a tone similar to officials. In the early months, he took leave from work to look for his missing daughter. But as the days went by and the chances of finding her dimmed, he opted for a transfer to a school near their home. It meant he had to forgo a promotion, but it also meant vacations and shorter working hours to devote to his search.
In the years since then, he has followed up the faintest clue and chased up calls from pranksters and crooks claiming to have seen his daughter. “A few months after Rupa went missing, the police inserted an ad in Hindi dailies seeking information. They offered Rs 25,000 as reward. We too offered a reward for any clues to her whereabouts,” he says. The calls started soon after.
The first one came from a small-time crook from Incholi in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. Izhar, alias Zharoo, claimed to have abducted Rupa and demanded Rs 30,000 as ransom. “We readily agreed to pay but asked to speak to her on the phone first. He would just not agree to that. That made us suspicious and we informed the police. The police too doubted Zharoo’s claim. Since the ransom amount demanded was so low, the police suspected he was just a fraud,” he says. They went to Meerut and raided his hideout. But he had fled. Eventually he was arrested. “Zharoo confessed to having no information about my daughter. He had never even seen her, let alone kidnapped her. He saw our ad and was trying to make a fast buck,” Arora says. A case was registered, the man was even tried in a Delhi court, but acquitted.
Though he can’t quite articulate why, Arora is convinced his daughter is in Uttar Pradesh. “Delhi mein hoti to zaroor dhoond lete (had she been in Delhi we’d definitely have found her),” he says. His conviction has made him place ads every couple of years in the local editions of Hindi dailies. Every time a fresh ad appeared, the calls came—from places as far-flung as Kanpur and Baghpat, Bulandshahr and Haridwar—and with his son Narender, Arora went looking for his daughter. “But it’s all led nowhere so far. The callers were all frauds,” he adds.
Arora’s wife died of diabetic complications arising out of a knee injury. “It was nothing life-threatening, but she had lost the will to live. She refused to get operated. It was as if she just gave up,” he says. It has never occurred to Arora to give up: “A father can’t. Ever.” In 2007, when the police wanted to close the case and declare Rupa “presumed dead”, Arora and his son, an advocate, moved the district court at Karkardooma, appealing for the case to be moved to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The court is yet to rule on their plea.
His two elder children, Narender and Rajni, worry that at his age it is too much of a strain, but they are afraid to ask him to stop. “It’s the thing that keeps him going. I’m afraid that if we ask him to give up, he too may lose the will to live. Besides, as an advocate, I’ve seen cases where a missing person turns up after 15 years. How can we say that my sister won’t return?” asks Narender.
But even more than her return, what Arora is waiting for is closure. As he sits in his drawing room, directly across the framed photos of his wife and daughter—the older woman’s has a garland around it—and talks about the body found at the railway station, he seems quite resigned that it could well have been his daughter. Whether it was more hope or fear that it would indeed be Rupa, he can’t quite tell.