letter from chennai

Murder in Nungambakkam: A computer engineer's killing forces Chennai to confront its big-city fears

S Swathi embodied the southern city's ability to accept change and yet remain rooted to its past.

S Swathi was the girl next door until she was killed on a platform of the Nungambakkam Station on June 24 by an unidentified killer using a sickle. Chennai, known for its serene lifestyle, has been shaken by the crime.

The jasmine sellers are still busy knotting the flowers on the street where Swathi used to live in the crowded locality known as Choolaimedu in Chennai. The holy cows still pause to lick the remnants of the prasad that devotees have left behind them as they leave the precincts of the Gangai Amman Kovil temple, one of the oldest in the area. This is close to where Swathi lived for the short duration of her young life. She would have heard the ringing of the bells from the temple on the last morning as her father sped her on his two-wheeler to the short distance from their home to the Nungambakkam railway station.

She would have walked past the beggars lining the steps that lead from the street to the raised station platform and held her nose at the sharp stench from the “Pay and Use Toilets” built at the top of the stairway. There are so many visual obstructions hiding the entrance of the station, she would not have noticed the young man hiding behind one of them as she took her place on the bench facing her designated platform.

It was only 6.30 am when she sat down. Chennai is an early morning city. Many commuters like Swathi take the early morning train to get to work. Those who are returning from a night shift from their call centers stop by the teashops lining the platform. The owners usually from Kerala sell tea, buns, bananas and bidis.

The underbelly

The Nungambakkam station that services the Choolaimedu area is also popular with students. For in this area you will not only find some of the city's best educational establishments, such as the famous Loyola College, the Pachaiyyappas College, the Meenakshi Engineering college and scores of tutorials and computer institutes, but also purveyors of drugs. If there is a railway line that defines one of the boundaries of Choolaimedu, the other is the River Cooum, along the banks of which are some of Chennai’s oldest slums. As in other cities, these are the softer underbellies of what used to be a prosperous habitat that shelter the dropouts and drug-peddlers.

Not many people will remember that Choolaimedu was the place that the once-powerful Nawabs of Arcot stabled their horses. It was known as Godabagh. The horses had their own trained keepers and breeders, since of course, the horses themselves were an Arab import and a luxury that only Nawabs could maintain. This may explain an older community of Muslims in the area living close to their Hindu neighbours as also the Christian missionary and teaching communities that have made Choolaimedu their home. There is even a Sowrashtra Nagar not far from the Station and a quarter devoted to Jains and their money-lending ancestors. Each of these communities have also invested in schools and teaching institutions that have made the area a hive of upwardly mobile aspirations.

From outside, the area is a fascinating chequerboard of mosques, temples and churches all raising their singular outlines. In recent times an additional ingredient has been added into the ethnic pot by members of “Little Tibet’ as anyone from the North East have been labeled. Some of them prove the point by setting up stalls selling momos and noodle soup that the young men make in dark and dingy corridors and that their dazzling fair counterparts, the young women, sell on the streets attracting a certain kind of clientele.

“How long can I keep dropping you like this?” Santhana Gopala Krishnan, Swathi’s father, is reported to have asked his daughter as he took her that morning. There is no confirmation about this, so we cannot therefore say that he was voicing his concern about her getting off to board the train at such an early hour to go to work. Perhaps his anxiety also underlined the distance that his daughter had to travel from the safe warren of her home at Choolaimedu, to her workplace at the Infosys conglomerate at Mahindra City, 60 kms south of Chennai.

To some extent Choolaimedu represents the best of Chennai’s ability to accept change and yet remain rooted to its past. Swathi embodied this spirit. She made the leap from a traditional way of life from the ancient village of Choolaimedu to the electronic entrepot of Mahindra City. As a budding engineer who earned her place in the sun through hard work and determination Swathi was also in some ways the archetype of the modern South Indian woman who could be both traditional and modern. She wore a salwar kameez, sported a simple bindi, not necessarily the more elaborate caste marks.

From what one can understand, Swathi did not have a mother at home. Her father as a single parent was very dignified in his grief. What pained him the most was that her body was left uncovered and unattended on the railway platform for more than two hours before the police and other personnel could take charge of her mortal remains. “What was it?“ he wondered that led people to walk past the body of the slain girl and board their trains. “Is it that people have become too selfish?”

Much speculation

There are conspiracy theories. There is a North-South divide. There is an educated-impoverished nexus between girl and her murderer. There are rumors about the "outside hand" in this case, the Biharis, the Nepalis, the jihadis. There are mutters about the evil influence of films, filmy lyrics, advertisements and the ghoulish media who are accused of wanting another replay of a candlelit vigil that was one of the responses to the tragedy.

Swathi’s image as seen in the photograph of her that appeared in the media after her murder show her to be as sweetly smiling. She is filled with the glow of intelligence as those of the goddess in the temple in which she would have worshipped.

What the papers do not underline, though the vox populi does, is that she was the epitome of a Brahmin girl, born to succeed. Even as she lay dying, no one dared to touch the body of a Brahmin girl.

Is this another manifestation in reverse, of the hateful contradictions of a society mired in caste?

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Attitudinal barriers

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Lack of healthcare services

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Economic burden

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After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.