It must be the stuff of every parent’s nightmares.

Your young child eventually grows up and spreads her—but equally, his—wings. She moves out of the home, going off to college perhaps, or for a training stint for her new job, or for the job itself. Maybe you go with her to help find her a place to stay, spend a few days making sure she knows her way around. You introduce her to relatives who live nearby who will be her local guardians. Check that she has everything she needs—phone, clothes, whatever—and try to think of anything you might have missed…until eventually you understand that you’ve done all you can, she is really on her own and will make her own way in her new world.

As she must.

And so you leave for home, telling her to call regularly. As the weeks go by, she makes good friends, hangs out regularly with them so you know she is ok. You’re reassured by that even though she doesn’t see her local guardians—your relatives—very much. She barely knew them, after all. She’s busy with everything she does, work and leisure, but she does call every few days to talk and fill you in on her new life.

In short, all seems well. You were worried when you left her, naturally, and you never quite lose that sense. But as time passes and she settles in, the worry loses the edge you started with. Perhaps you even wonder, once in a while, why you were worried at all.

And then the roof caves in.

Listening to Jonathan Prasad talk about his daughter, and perhaps especially because I have children myself, including a young daughter, it’s impossible to keep thoughts of such nightmares out of my mind. What’s going to happen when she—and equally, he—grows up? How will I ever let her go, even if I think I’ve raised her as a strong, confident young lady? What will I do if something happens to her?

What will I do if my daughter vanishes from the train terminus at the end of her journey back to Mumbai, and is found several days later, dead?

And if I’m reacting like that, I can only imagine how Prasad himself must feel.

***

The facts are simple, if horrifying.

Prasad’s daughter Esther Anuhya, known to all as Anu, was a 23-year-old software professional. She had graduated in 2012 with a B. Tech in electrical and communications engineering from the Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University in Kakinada, about 150km northeast along the Andhra Pradesh coast from her home of Machilipatnam. In the way that ordinary things seem to take on new meaning in the wake of a tragedy, the JNTU website carries these suddenly pregnant words from Jawaharlal Nehru: “A university stands for humanism, tolerance, reason, progress, adventure of ideas and search for the truth."

How much of that vision was shattered when someone murdered Anu?

In her final year, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) came to JNTU to recruit fresh graduates. They offered jobs to Anu and her two college roommates, Sushma and Melissa, as well as to several others on campus. After they graduated, they all went to Thiruvananthapuram for a three-month training stint. When that was done, they were posted to different cities. Some went to Chennai, some to Bangalore; Esther came to the Mumbai office.

After over four years with her roommates, it was hard to part. But at least they were in the same company and would anyway be in touch on the phone. Anu’s father came to Mumbai to help her find a place to stay, in Andheri. It was close enough to the office. Not more than 15 minutes away lived relatives, the Ramanas, whom they designated as Anu’s local guardian.

Anu started work. For a while, according to some of her friends, she wasn’t assigned a “project". Not that this was unusual for fresh hires at TCS. Anyway, eventually she did get assigned to one. Things got busy. But she made friends among her colleagues, and took to spending time with them on weekends.

In December 2013, she went south for the Christmas break. She spent a day meeting friends in Hyderabad, and then took an overnight train on to Machilipatnam, where she reached on the morning of 22nd December. She had a passion for singing, and especially carols. So she spent a fair chunk of her time at home with the local church choir. She had a reservation to return to Mumbai by train on 30 December. But as that day approached, she told her father, Jonathan, that she’d like to stay on for a few days.

“Fine, but will you get a reservation for a later date?" he asked.

“What, you don’t want me to stay?" he says she asked, in an echo of playful exchanges countless daughters and fathers will remember.

“Of course, I want you to stay," he said, playing the game. “Just see if you can get a ticket back."

Which she did. She got a 3AC ticket on the Visakhapatnam-Lokmanya Tilak Express, train number 18519, to travel on 4 January. Early that morning, she and her dad made the 45-minute journey from Machilipatnam to reach Vijayawada in time for the 6.05am departure from there. Anu was glad for the side-upper berth she was assigned. “She’d be able to sit there and use her laptop," her father said.

All that day, the train rumbled west across the Deccan plateau. Somewhere around Solapur, which they passed at about 8pm, Anu probably decided to go to sleep. If all went well, the train would be pulling into the Lokmayna Tilak Terminus when she woke in the morning.

And so it did. A little before 5am on 5th January, train number 18519 rolled into the LTT. Anu got off the train and that’s about the last thing she did that day her family knows about for sure.

***

But what likely did happen next is one of those odd things: known, but still a mystery.

Well, for a long time nothing was known. Anu seemed to have vanished off the face of the planet. She did not call home, nor any friends. She did not reach her home in Mumbai. She did not answer calls. As the hours passed like this, her family in Machilipatnam began to worry. Where was she, why was she incommunicado? By the end of the day, it was clear that something had gone wrong.

Over the next several days, her friends and relatives found themselves swept up in a baffling whirlwind of trips to police stations, meetings with sometimes sympathetic sometimes indifferent police officers, questions of jurisdiction, efforts to locate and examine CCTV footage—some of the LTT cameras were not working, compounding the difficulty here—efforts to get cellphone records, and more. None of which is likely to be much of a surprise to anyone who has ever tried something like this, or who even simply reads the daily news. The family had the sadly familiar struggle trying to register a complaint. That done, they had to listen to officers suggesting that she had probably eloped (something totally out of character for Anu, the family knew) and she would get in touch at some point. It all added up to what the journalist Kavitha Iyer, writing for FirstPost, called the “sorry tale of the Mumbai Police’s inaction, negligence and tragedy".

In frustration, the family began searching for Anu themselves. From phone company records, they knew almost from day one that her cellphone had last been heard from, electronically speaking, in Bhandup. They began their search there, her uncle Amith told me, showing her picture to residents, shopowners, asking if they had seen her. He said they even spoke to a madam in a red-light area there, following police suspicions and suggestions.

For several days, they drew a blank. On 16 January, they selected a stretch of highway near a couple of cellphone towers, splitting into two groups to cover both sides of the road in their search. Nearing 4 that afternoon, one of the groups found a body in the bushes beside the highway, apparently burned and with dogs hanging about nearby.

It was Anu.

Judging from how badly her body was decomposed, she had been dead several days.

In the wake of this, and of protest marches in which relatives held up signs saying they had got no help from the police, then-commissioner of police Satyapal Singh told CNN-IBN that “it is wrong to say that (the body) was not discovered by the police". In fact, he said, there were “vested interests" who were “making allegations against the Mumbai police".

Whatever the truth is in such police claims, the next mystery was how she got to the side of this highway in Bhandup. Clearly somebody had taken her from LTT, whether willingly or by force. Either of those raised hard questions. If she went of her own volition, who took her? And why? If it had happened by force, how? Why did nobody notice it happening? For all the chaos and uncertainty that’s on display daily at LTT, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking a grown woman away against her will: surely she would have struggled, screamed, fought, kicked, something?

For anyone getting off a train at LTT at 5 on a January morning—and certainly for a young woman—the routinely sensible thing to do would be to find a lit place to sit down to wait till light, till later in the morning, till there were more people milling about the station. This is such an obvious precaution that it hardly bears repeating. Surely Anu would have known it too. So what happened to make her do something nobody, and certainly not a young woman, would do?

But even after finding her, the sense of confused mystery that surrounds this tragedy only grew. For example, the police focused their attention on the taxi and auto drivers at LTT. One of them, their reasoning went, must have taken Anu to where she was eventually found. The investigation, though, only led to dead end after dead end.

One such came after a suggestion, from some of the drivers, that four other taxi drivers actually went missing after Anu’s disappearance. The police tracked down these men but concluded they had nothing to do with her murder. Turned out that those who had told the police these men were missing had some kind of rivalry or dispute with them, and wanted to make trouble for them. Another set of informers was annoyed that they had not been invited to a birthday party, so they gave the police the names of some of those who had been invited. Three days of questioning later, the police realized none of the partying men were involved either. Nor did this bizarre tragicomedy come to an end there. An informer claimed to have seen a third suspect, a taxi driver, taking a young woman to Churchgate that morning. When the police questioned that driver, he was apparently so terrified they would thrash him that he made up a story about killing the girl, saying a friend had helped him. This friend, he said, had then run away to UP. A team of cops went to UP and found the friend. But he was there not because he was fleeing the crime, but for his sister’s wedding.

But if these events spoke, even unwittingly, of a certain Keystone Kops quality to the investigations, eventually some CCTV footage emerged. In it, Anu is walking out of LTT, talking on the phone, an unknown man in front of her pulling her bags along. Here was a new mystery. Who was this man and why was he handling her luggage? Who was Anu talking to on the phone? A few more days later, the police located this man, one Chandrabhan Sanap, arrested him and he confessed to the crime. His story: He came upon Anu sitting there. He offered to take her home and they agreed on a price. When they went outside, she found he did not have a taxi or an auto-rickshaw, but a motorbike. When she demurred, he told her she could call a friend and give them his motorbike registration number, so she’d know she’d be safe. She doesn’t seem to have done that. But what she did do was to get on behind him on his bike. Off they went. To her death.

And here was possibly the greatest mystery of all: why did she get on that motorbike? That explanation Sanap offered makes no sense. No woman I know would do such a thing with a strange man. But if Sanap is to be believed, Anu did so, that morning after she got off the train. Which raises many more questions: What hold did this man manage to exert on her? Was she tired from her trip? Anxious to get home to a bath and a good breakfast? Did her judgement slip because of that?

All we know is that she got on that bike outside LTT.

***

The Lokmanya Tilak Terminus was one godawful place for years, though it has improved considerably since January 2014. I first encountered it in the early 1990s, and it must have been pretty soon after it first started being used. I know this because I boarded a train then somewhere in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh, and my ticket said “Bombay VT". When we entered the distant suburbs of the city, everybody around me started leisurely gathering their stuff, getting ready to get off the train at Dadar or VT itself, both of which we knew were at least 45 minutes away.

But the train began slowing soon after Ghatkopar and immediately after Vidyavihar, we veered left and came to a halt at what looked like a brand new station. My co-passengers were all befuddled, because all of us were expecting the train to go much further into the city. One said: “Yeh to voh naya Kurla Terminus hai!" Indeed, and so new was it, even our tickets did not indicate we were to finish our journey here.

And even at this brand new station, we were promptly set upon by a pack of touts: taxi- and rickshaw-drivers, men offering to carry our luggage, hotel reps, etc. I ran their gauntlet and eventually asked a chana seller, I remember, how I could reach the nearest local train station—I figured this man would have no incentive to tell me untruths. He pointed and I walked to Tilak Nagar, fought my way into the next local train and got home an hour later.

Since then, I heard plenty about the hellhole LTT was. Someone I know well and who knows her way around the city took a cab from there some years ago, made sure the driver turned on his meter, but ended up paying Rs700, by that same meter, for a journey that should have cost her no more than Rs200. Then, not long ago, I walked from the terminus to Tilak Nagar again. This time, it was over rubble and garbage and even, in one place, an inexplicable stretch of barbed wire. At times, the approach roads and pathways have been no more than bumpy dirt-tracks. For many years, a flyover stood there unfinished, making the business of getting in and out even more of a nightmare than ever. Every time I found myself there, I had the same impression: This place is forever a mess of rubble, dust, construction, confusion, chaos and too many men trying to take advantage of you.

Add to that this personal quirk: I’ve always associated the Kurla Terminus with a Shiv Sena gangster-politician named Khim Bahadur Thapa. Soon after that train ride when I returned from MP, two Chhota Rajan gunmen killed Thapa, and I remember it happening somewhere near the Terminus. For a while, the Sena demanded that some street or chowk should be named after him. I don’t know what came of that demand. Unfairly perhaps, this chorus to remember a thug has also forever tainted my impression of the station.

And so the Kurla Terminus, later renamed for Lokmanya Tilak, always made me wonder: we can build gleaming T2 and T3 airline terminals, no doubt. But what about giving our train travellers—well over a billion a year at Churchgate or VT, compared with the 40 million a year who will use Bombay’s T2—somewhere clean, modern and safe to board and alight from trains? Why was it so easy to let a 20+ year-old LTT become a sleazy, shady, chaotic place that anyone in their right mind would want to flee from as fast as possible? Does it say something that we can produce fabulous airline terminals, but let train terminals remain lousy?

Questions worth asking, because that’s the kind of place which Esther Anuhya stepped into, a little before 5am that 5th January.

***

Anu’s tragedy happened in the wake of a string of widely-reported assaults on women all over India over the previous 15 months. The first of these was, of course, the horrific gang rape of the woman we named Nirbhaya in Delhi in December 2012. Anu herself had thought about this. Raju Komaravalli, her classmate at JNTU, remembers her telling him afterward: “You wanted me to go to Delhi (for a job)—but did you see what happened there? Mumbai is a safe place!"

Since Nirbhaya, there was a tourist in MP, the young journalist who wandered into Shakti Mills in Mumbai, and plenty more. The old questions crop up all over again: Is it that because of the huge outrage over the Delhi rape, more such cases are being reported? Or is there a sudden epidemic of rapes?

Whichever it is, many people couldn’t help see what happened to Anu in this light. It set off the same anguished hand-wringing about the safety of our women, the attitudes of our men. For me, it brought most strongly to mind an eloquent speech by the women’s activist Kavita Krishnan, soon after the Delhi rape. What women deserve, she said, is what she referred to as “bekhauf azaadi": the freedom to live without fear. The freedom to do life’s simple things whenever you want, wherever you want, without having to look over your shoulder all the time. For example, if a man yearns for a cigarette at two in the morning, he can and will simply step outside, walk to the nearby corner store and get himself one. Why can’t a woman do the same?

Why can’t a woman get off a train at LTT at 5am and make her way home? Why is it that every one of us would advise her, instead, to stay put till a “saner" hour?

Of course, it is a perhaps impossible ideal that women should be safe at any time, anywhere. But like with every ideal, it’s worth working towards.

And in the meantime, this is the core of it all, of that nightmare every parent dreads. You know your daughter is going to reach her destination at a strange hour. You expect and hope she will do sensible things to stay safe, like keeping to herself, waiting for that saner hour before catching a taxi, etc. Because that’s how you raised her: to be sensible. You wait to hear from her, at first without serious worry, but then with increasing trepidation and fear.

And then you learn the tragic truth. The one time she deviated from that sensible path is when the nightmare became reality.

***

It’s one of life’s little truisms that after you die, people say the nicest things about you. Yet even with the cynicism a thousand such obituaries and epitaphs breed, it is a striking picture that people I spoke to paint of Anu. Raju Komaravalli remembers the day they all started at college—like many of us do—which was 29 September 2008. But it’s telling that he also remembers that he first met Anu only days later, that October. That’s a sign of the impression she made on him. Also telling were the first words he used to describe her to me: she was “talented, she acted and she was not involved in any disputes."

One of those talents was in singing, which everyone I spoke to about Anu mentioned. She never had any formal training, but she had a passion for it and sang in her church choirs from when she was a child. Sunday masses, JNTU’s “semi-Christmas" held before the December vacations, Christmas celebrations at home: she organized them, she sang in them. At home in Machilipatnam, her father told me that church choir groups had always wanted her to join, and she always did. She far preferred singing to sitting in the congregation. A local channel even recorded her singing carols, for broadcast during the Christmas season.

N. Rajasekhar, another college friend, said admiringly, and more than once, that Anu was always “bold enough". He meant she had opinions and never hesitated to express them. Rajasekhar had also noticed her warm, close relationship with her father. “They were like friends," he said, which is an impression that I took away too, when I spoke to Jonathan Prasad.

From practically their first day on the JNTU campus, Melissa Waring shared a room with Anu and another girl, Sushma. They also roomed together during their TCS training stint in Thiruvananthapuram. Naturally, the years together had made them close friends. When their respective jobs sent them to different cities, Melissa said it was “sad to split up after four years"—though they kept in touch via email and chat messages. And in June 2013, Anu travelled to Bangalore to spend a few days with Sushma and Melissa. It was the last time they would see her.

In college, said Melissa, Anu was quiet and kept to herself, but not to the extent of being an introvert. She had a circle of friends and was always involved in college extra-curricular activities, especially the ones that involved singing. And how did she do at her college work? Even with all the activities, said Melissa, Anu did her 14-15 subjects each year and if she didn’t top the class, she was a good, solid student.

Both Raju and Melissa mentioned her fondness for Manga, the Japanese comic books. “She would read Manga all the time!" Melissa exclaimed. But they both also mentioned that Anu was even more interested in something I would never have guessed, something that, if Melissa is to be believed, is now sweeping Indian engineering colleges like JNTU. Especially their girl students.

She meant, of all things, Korean films.

Why Korean? “They make very sweet films there," Melissa said, an opinion a Korean friend later confirmed, if using the word “mushy" instead. Some are romcoms, some are thrillers. And why engineering students? Melissa couldn’t say, but urged me to ask any young woman on an engineering campus. “You’ll find out," she said. “It’s a big craze." With Anu too.

A Korean film fan, a passionate singer, a woman “bold enough" with her views, a loving daughter… And for me, the flourish in this emerging picture of a young lady of unusual nuance lie in these few lines from Kavitha Iyer’s report:

“In sharp contrast to the wretched questions around her death [Anu] appears to have been a sunny 23-year-old, tweeting birthday wishes to Roger Federer, straightening her hair, asking Ian Somerhalder on Twitter if there would be a fifth season of Vampire Diaries. After a particularly bleak week of Mumbai’s rains last August, she tweeted: ‘In 3 mounths, this week is of ful sunlight outside with sun held high on the blue sky... Good afternun mumbai…’

And speaking of tweets: in that same way that ordinary things take on new meaning in the wake of a tragedy, there’s her last tweet, on 1 September last year.

“I rather have an honest enemy than a fake friend... Good night world!"

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

Twitter: @DeathEndsFun

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