MUMBAI, August 25; Saturday afternoon was like any other day for 35-year-old Chand Shaikh. She was busy fetching water when we tracked her down, part of her daily routine. She seemed unconcerned that her son was an accused in the gang-rape of a photojournalist earlier this week — a crime that has triggered widespread outrage.
“I don’t know where he is. He returned at 9 p.m. that night and changed his shirt. He was having dinner when he heard the police were looking for him. He left home and his phone has remained switched off since,” she said. Her son Quasim Shaikh is one of the absconding accused in the case.
The Kala Pani slum where she lives is a 10-minute walk from the Shakti Mill compound, where the gang-rape took place. Residents of the slum are mostly petty labourers, scrap dealers and maid servants.
“There are young girls in the locality and he has not misbehaved. But he is a man after all. Who knows what he is capable of doing?” she asks with an air of resignation. She knows her son — a school drop-out — had several police cases against him.
Quasim’s neighbours are upset that he has brought notoriety to the slum, but few are surprised. “He used to do drugs and spend most of his time near the Mahalaxmi railway tracks. I have seen him since he was a little boy, so tried telling him a few times that he should mend his ways. But he never listened,” said neighbour Mohammed Nadeem.
Jai Bhavani Nagar near Dhobi Ghat just a kilometre away has become a media circus, witness to a stream of press people and policemen. This is home to Chand Babu Sattar Sheikh, the first accused to be arrested. Most residents here are garbage collectors.
In stark contrast to Quasim’s family, Chand Babu’s maternal grandmother Sharna Shaikh is fiercely defending him. “He has been wrongly implicated. He is unlikely to commit such a crime,” says Shaikh, who also claims that he is a minor and just 16 years old.
Sharna said that she had raised Chand Babu and his two brothers since he was a little boy. “Their mother died in childbirth. Chand is the youngest. He was having tea around 5.30 p.m. on Thursday when his phone rang. He stepped out in 15 minutes. When I asked him where he was going, he said his friend had called him.” The only thing she found out of character that night was his return. “He returned home at 8.30 p.m. After a while, he told me he was shivering and didn’t want to eat anything. He just told me that he could see the face of a girl lying on the floor,” she said.