HYDERABAD: At about six in the morning on Friday, 16 May 2008, Bharti Mandal rang the doorbell at L-32 Jalvayu Vihar. This was her temporary workplace, and the home of the Talwars, Rajesh, Nupur and their teenage daughter Aarushi. A couple in their early forties, they were beginning to make a name for themselves as successful dentists. Aarushi, who was about to turn fourteen, was a star student at Delhi Public School, Noida. Nupur’s parents, the Chitnises, lived in the same complex in an identical flat.
Like many middle- class working couples the Talwars needed the support of Aarushi’s grandparents as they brought up their child. In a way, Aarushi had two homes in the same neighbourhood and this worked for everyone.
The Talwars weren’t wealthy by Delhi’s high standards. Bharti Mandal had come into the Talwars’ lives only the previous week.
Their regular maid, Kalpana, was on leave and had found Bharti as a replacement. She came in twice a day, once early in the morning and again in the evening. The Talwars’ live-in servant, Hemraj, usually opened the door for her.
The doorbell was situated next to the outer grill gate of the flat and no one responded. So she pressed the doorbell again and went to fetch the bucket and mop kept on the stairway to the terrace at the flat’s entrance, thinking Hemraj would let her in shortly. But he didn’t. Instead, Nupur Talwar appeared at the inner door of the flat.
To enter the Talwars’ flat you had to get past three doors. The first was the iron grill door which opened on to a short passage. At the end of the passage was a pair of doors built into the same frame. Of these, the one on the outside was a mesh door. Behind it was a wooden door that led to the drawing room of the flat. The wooden door had a standard mortise lock-that is, it locked when the door was closed, and could only be opened from the inside or with a key. The mesh door had a two-way lock. It could also be bolted from the outside.
Nupur Talwar was woken by the repeated ringing of the doorbell. When Nupur opened the innermost wooden door, she found the mesh door shut from the outside.
She told Bharti that Hemraj may have gone to fetch milk and had probably bolted the door as he left. Bharti suggested that Nupur go to the balcony and throw down the keys in any case so that she could come back up and let herself in.
Meanwhile, Rajesh Talwar woke up. When he walked out of his bedroom he saw a bottle of Ballantine’s Scotch whisky on the dining table. The family had retired at about 11.30 the previous night, and no one had had a drink. Alarmed, Rajesh asked Nupur what the bottle was doing on the dining table. The two of them then went towards Aarushi’s room, found the door ajar, and entered. The walls of the room were spattered with blood, but the soft toys on the bed including a large Bart Simpson were undisturbed. Aarushi lay on her bed covered in a white flannel blanket with a cheerful-and now completely incongruous-pattern of multicoloured rings on it. When Nupur Talwar lifted the light blanket they discovered that their only daughter’s throat had been slit, and her skull, just above her forehead, crushed. Her pillow was soaked in blood which had dripped on to the mattress and the floor below. Her head had been partly covered by her favourite camouflage-print tote bag.
Her mobile phone, which was always on the bedside table, was missing. It was a scene made more macabre by her untouched belongings: a few currency notes lying on a side table along with an iPod, its headphones attached as if someone had just taken them off, and the soft toys, which, with their button eyes, had seen everything.
Aarushi’s head was hanging loose to one side, as if about to fall off. Even though he would have known his daughter was dead, Rajesh lifted her head and straightened it. At the time, he thought, she looked like a red doll.
But he couldn’t get himself to touch her face. In a daze, he walked in and out of the room, sitting on her bed and then getting banging his head violently against the wall..
In the meantime Bharti Mandal had climbed back up, pushed the outer grill gate open, and found the second mesh door bolted. She undid the latch and walked into the flat and found her employers hysterical. Bharti thought there had been a theft. ‘Aunty threw her arms around me and started crying, when I asked her why are you crying so much, she said go inside and see what has happened.
I went with Aunty and stood outside Aarushi’s room.’ As she stood at Aarushi’s door and took in the scene, not much except the slit throat of the teenager and the blanket that covered her body seems to have registered. In three statements to the investigators, the first of which was recorded the same day (the last on 11 June 2008), she could not recall, for instance, any details concerning the blood in the room. When she had recovered from the shock, Bharti asked the Talwars whether she should inform the neighbours and security guards. They said yes. She hurried down to the Tandons’ flat.
Puneesh Tandon, who lived in the flat below, informed the security guard, who called the police. They arrived about an hour later. The first investigating officer (IO) on the case, Dataram Nanoria, of the Uttar Pradesh police, would interview Bharti later that day.
Just a week into her job, Bharti Mandal found herself at the centre of one of India’s most bewildering murder mysteries- as its first witness. But as she left the flat that morning, she had no clue that she had seen only one half of a crime sliced in two.