It was 1996 in Bangalore. Then 16 years old, Preksha Shah had broken her arm during the summer and was going to a local hospital for physiotherapy. That's where she ran into Puneet Vikram for the first time.
Four years her senior, Vikram was at the hospital to treat a bad back. She had never spoken to him but the familiarity of seeing him every day made her smile at him. "That," she said, "was my biggest mistake."
What followed was a traumatic 10-year saga of being stalked across the country. Vikram joined her school under the pretext of repeating his secondary year, followed her around, mutilated her male friends' belongings and called her home every day to profess his undying love.
When Shah's parents called Vikram home to talk face to face, he disappeared - for a while. But when Shah moved to Chennai with her family in 1998, he followed her. She moved to Mumbai; he moved too. He lost track of her when she moved to Chennai again, but traced her back to Bangalore in 2007.
"This time he called me on the pretext of looking for a job," said Shah, now 30 and a marketing professional in Bangalore. "I was nasty and told him to stay out of my life. It worked."
Shah is fortunate that harsh words warded off a potentially dangerous stalker. But the murder of 20-year-old Radhika Tanwar on March 8, by a man who had followed her around for three years, came as a jolt to thousands of Indian women under threat from the stalkers lurking in their shadows.
Beneath the headlines that Radhika made, a host of perturbing questions have emerged.The Tanwars repeatedly warned Radhika's stalker to leave her alone and even had him beaten up. Had they filed a complaint with the police, would she have lived? Could the police have nipped the problem of stalking in the bud? In 21st-century urban India, how did the man get away with three years of stalking in the first place?
The answers are not comforting.
Women's rights organisations working with victims of abuse know stalking to be a widely prevalent problem for women, but receive almost negligible cases of stalking compared with other forms of harassment and violence.
"Tanwar's case reached the media only because she was killed," said Nandita Gandhi, co-director of Mumbai-based women's organisation Akshara, which is about to launch a website to help women understand various forms of violence. The site has a clear definition of what constitutes stalking. (See 'What is stalking?')
Currently, there are no figures to prove the prevalence of stalking because it is generally not discussed - and India does not legally recognise it as a crime. Among the laws relating to violence against women, none defines stalking or classifies it as a separate punishable offence. To report a stalker to the police, one would have to book him under alternative sections of the law.
Stalking, however, falls in a nebulous area that could involve several offences and even a series of actions, such as texting or gifting flowers, that are not illegal in themselves.
In a survey conducted by HT in six Indian cities, half the women interviewed admitted to having been stalked, and an overwhelming 95% said that India needed a well-defined anti-stalking law.
But can a law alone solve the problem? Most activists, lawyers, and women think not.
"In most stalking cases the police let the offender walk away with a warning or lock him up for a few hours," said Srikant Bhatt, a Mumbai-based criminal lawyer. "An anti-stalking law can only be effective if the police implement it."
Raziya Choughule, a women's rights activist in Mumbai who was stalked for a year by a stranger six years ago, faced outright rejection from the police. "I went twice to lodge a complaint, but they told me not to make a big deal as long as the man didn't attack me directly," said Choughule, who eventually got the stalker told off by friends.
The police often lay the onus on the women. In late 2009, the Delhi police launched two helplines where women can report obscene calls and stalking. Together, the helplines have registered more than 23,000 calls and Delhi police commissioner BK Gupta claims the force has acted on 22,349 of them. "But people are still not comfortable about approaching us. Nine out of ten women barely tell their families, let alone the police," said Gupta.
Both police apathy and women's hesitance to approach them can be traced to the deeper problem of a society that is still deeply patriarchal. "Ours is a society that looks at women as property to be controlled," said Veena Poonacha, director of the Research Centre for Women's Studies at Mumbai's SNDT Women's University. "Women imbibe these notions and, instead of perceiving stalking as sexual harassment, often blame themselves and feel ashamed."
While women's organisations have helplines, counselling and legal services to help women tackle stalking and other forms of violence, they believe real solutions are possible only if the dominant model of patriarchy changes.
Some men's organisations such as Men Against Violence and Abuse conduct regular gender sensitisation workshops for young boys. Ironically, MAVA's current project is targeted at women, for whom it conducts one-day self-defence workshops.
"Self-defence is a preventive step," said the group's honorary secretary, Harish Sadani.
If a Radhika Tanwar is never to happen again, though, a larger step must be taken. Jasmeen Patheja, facilitator at the Blank Noise in Delhi and Bangalore, a women's rights group, put it firmly: "Street sexual harassment must be seen as a collective issue - as everybody's issue."
(With inputs from Radhika Raj)
The stalker | Prashant Sharma, 35
'I even hid behind a pillar and watched her wedding'
She was 15, pretty and popular; I was a sloppy 22-year-old with a bad haircut. It started innocently enough. We lived in the same colony, and from my balcony I would watch her playing with other girls. I liked the way she moved, so I began following her to the market, sitting in the same spots where she had sat and drinking juice from the glass she had put away.
Initially, I think she was flattered by my attention and would even smile at me. When she met Sumit, her first boyfriend, my presence began annoying her. She would say insulting things about me to her friends within earshot. But I believed that she was communicating with me and did not believe at all that she did not like me.
My obsession with her peaked during her Class 12 board exams. I would see her lights on and put on mine. At night, when she stayed up studying, I would throw notes written in blood into her window. Some nights, I would stay up and watch her through a pair of binoculars.
My friends realised I was seriously obsessed with her when she started going to college. I had taken up a part-time job close to Delhi University, which gave me time to ride on the same bus with her to North Campus and back. My friends tried to intervene and I told them I would stop following her around.
I never did.
But I didn't ever go up and talk to her either, because I felt our love did not need any words. Yes, I was very hurt when she started seeing Gaurav. I found out where he lived and started making crank calls to him.
Gaurav confronted me many times, but I believed it was only a matter of time before she broke up with him and come to me.
I waited four more years, but instead of breaking up with Gaurav, she decided to marry him. I was devastated. I began calling her house frantically. Her father threatened me with police action, but it didn't make a difference to me. I wanted to be with her.
I went to her wedding in a fancy sherwani. It was then that I realised she was gone. That's when I slid into depression.
Two years of psychiatric treatment later, I was married off to a family friend's daughter. My wife doesn't know what my past was like, and I know for a fact that I can't discuss it with her. She will always remain the love of my life.
(As told to Ruchira Hoon)
The stalked | Sayantani Maity, 20
'I was afraid to step out'
Three years ago, Sayantani Maity, now 20, an English Honours student, got a call from a boy she didn't know. He said he wanted to be friends. When she hung up, he called back. When she stopped taking his calls, he turned up at her college.
Maity politely told him she did not wish to be friends, but he would not give up. He started following her to college and back, calling her cellphone all night.
When he called from another number, Maity unknowingly picked up. He grew enraged and threatened to kidnap her if she refused to meet him. Scared, Maity finally told her parents about the stalker. They tried to reason with the boy, but he only became more furious.
Desperate, the family contacted Maity's cousin, who worked with the press. He advised them to go to the police, but her parents felt that would bring disgrace upon the family. It was only when Maity's cousin phoned the boy and threatened him with legal action that he gave up.
"There was a time when I was afraid to step out," says Maity. "The boy seemed insane."
(Reporting by Soumen Datta)