Time flies, but not for kin of Sulakshna | Latest News Delhi - Hindustan Times
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Time flies, but not for kin of Sulakshna

ByJignasa Sinha
Apr 22, 2024 06:12 AM IST

Sulakshna Narula, who lived with her husband and children in a house at Pandara Road in Delhi, has been missing since September 2018

On a chilly January morning this year, 64-year-old Sunil Kumar Narula was woken up by a strange WhatsApp message: a photo of his beloved wife Sulakshna in a hijab. Calls followed, and a man who identified himself as a “maulvi” demanding 20 lakh if Sunil wanted to see his wife alive.

Sunil Kumar Narula in his house at Pandara Road. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)
Sunil Kumar Narula in his house at Pandara Road. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

“She is with us... If you want her back safely...,” the caller threatened on the phone.

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Was this a dream, wondered Narula, as he zoomed in and out on the photo on his phone. Was this really Sulakshna – the love of his life, the mother of their three sons, the joy of their living room parties, and the diligent Air India worker – who went missing from their Pandara Road home in September 2018?

Had she finally been found after six long years?

The caller first told him that Sulakshna was in Haridwar. Then he said, no, she was in a small town in Uttar Pradesh; then, no, no, Pakistan.

Narula received at least four calls for the next two days.

“Someone is fooling you again, Papa. Please, please don’t listen to this man, don’t send the money... Call the crime branch,” Anurag Narula (40) told his father over a call from Arunachal Pradesh, where he was posted as a doctor. While Narula didn’t transfer any money, he held on to hope that the woman in the photo was his wife. Days later, on January 17, a crime branch officer of the Delhi police called Narula with some disappointing news. “It’s not her, Sunil ji. It’s a morphed photo. Someone tried to scam you,” the officer told him. And just like that, Narula’s heart broke again.

“My Sulakshna just disappeared into thin air on the evening of September 30, 2018,” said Narula, fighting back tears as he remembered that day. “It was a routine morning. She asked me to have breakfast, and inquired about my mother’s health... And then I left. In the evening, she went out and didn’t return.”

Since that day, the Narula family has left no stone unturned in their search for Sulakshna – they announced a reward of 1 lakh for any credible information; started an app called “Help Find Mrs Sulakshna Narula;” pasted posters with her photo, phone numbers, and a message: “Bittoo, please come back home!”; travelled to Haridwar, Varanasi, Rishikesh, Bhopal, even Jammu, to look for her; and dealt with half a dozen investigating officers (IOs), and cruel strangers who feigned help and duped them instead.

Six months after Sulakshna went missing, the case made headlines when Vijay Samaria, the crime branch inspector investigating the case, went to an astrologer with her horoscope, and told the Narulas that there was a problem in her horoscope and his own. “Instead of looking for my mother or clues to find her, this is what the Delhi police were up to,” lamented Anurag Narula.

Samaria was the third IO on the case. Disciplinary action was taken against him, and he was shunted out.

Sulakshna is among the 270,000 people who went missing from the national capital from 2017 to 2023 and haven’t been traced yet. The case is presently with the Crime Branch of the Delhi police, who haven’t closed the file, but also haven’t submitted a status report in the case.

DCP (crime) Amit Goel said “The case was transferred from the district years ago and our teams have taken all necessary and adequate measures to find her. But she has been untraceable. We have still not closed the case and are looking for her.” He added that after seven years, if there’s no headway in the case, it can be “closed after the court approves the final report.”

The family claimed that a crime branch police officer told them that since it’s been years, there’s a probability that Sulakshna has left for a place of pilgrimage. “They keep telling us that she must be with a relative or a friend, that she might come back when she is tired. But who is this relative or friend? It makes no sense,” said Anurag Narula, his grief interspersed with anger.

Six years on, no one seems to know where Sulakshna Narula is.

But at the family’s three-room house in New Delhi’s Pandara Road, memories of Sulakshna are scattered all around – a hand-painted papyrus of the Sphinx on the living room’s wall that she had picked up from an exhibition in Delhi in the ‘90s, two framed photos of a younger Sulakshna on the bedside table, one with her boys dressed in bright yellow, and a painting of Hindu deity Hanuman on her bedroom wall.

Sulakshna graduated from Delhi University’s Hindu College in Economics and when she turned 21, she began work at Indian Airlines, a state-owned airline that later became a division of Air India Limited.

“She was the pride of her family,” said Narula, a retired doctor. In the 1970s, the two met at a Radha Soami satsang and fell in love. “Our families knew each other, but we met at the satsang. She was different, sweet... We got married in 1981. It was both a love and arranged marriage.”

In 1984, Sulakshna gave birth to Anurag Narula, who is now a doctor; then twins Anubhav and Anuroop Narula, eight years later. “She was a cool mom and never put any restrictions on us. She used to go out for lunches, parties and exhibitions with her friends and colleagues. She loved hosting parties... We were children when she made us meet Indian cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who was also an Air India employee at that time. We also met the Dalai Lama with her once,” recalled Anurag Narula. In 2012, she brought in a black pug, fondly named Sachmo by her son.

Sulakshna worked at Air India Limited for 37 years and was due to retire as senior manager (commercial) in 2019. “She loved going to work and barely ever skipped a day. She worked across all Delhi airports and airline offices...,” said Narula.

But it all changed in 2018. Sulakshna didn’t go to work for two months starting May that year.

“She had a falling out with a senior official at work over some expense sheets. She told us that the senior official had humiliated her in front of everyone. We took her to a doctor in June and she was diagnosed with depression,” said Anurag Narula.

In 2019, after she went missing, a laminated retirement certificate from Air India reached home.

Sulakshna’s former colleague, who asked not to be named, told HT that she was kind, and “always stood up for what was right.”

While the police have maintained that after Sulakshna went missing, they followed due procedure and checked all CCTVs in the area, the family alleged that the police didn’t do much initially. “They kept telling us that our mother is a religious woman and left on her own will. I know she was religious, but does that mean she would just leave us? There have been six IOs in the case. We repeat our statements, they repeat their theories,” said Anurag Narula.

He said that the police were informed about the issues Sulakshna faced at work, and how they feared that she was being blackmailed.

A senior police officer, who is a part of the investigating team, told HT that they had reached out to Air India Limited, but found no evidence of the involvement of any of her colleagues in her disappearance.

“Probe revealed that she was not being blackmailed or threatened by anyone at work,” said the officer.

HT sent a detailed questionnaire to Air India regarding the case, but has not received a reply. The airline’s ownership has also changed since.

Even though it was a day like any other, Narula recalled that Sulakshna looked “unusually worried.” “She told me that she was aware of some wrongdoings at work, so I asked her to send an official complaint to her boss. But nothing had happened, and she continued to take leave... That was odd.”

Few hours before she disappeared, Anurag Narula said that Sulakshna sought his brother’s help to delete a few contact numbers from her phone. “My brother thought they were numbers of bank people who call incessantly to offer loans... He didn’t question her.”

And then at 6pm, as she usually did, Sulakshna stepped out for a walk. That was the last time anyone saw her. “We waited till 9pm and assumed that maybe she had gone to a temple. When she didn’t come back, we realised she had left her phone in the room. That was strange. She never left home without her phone,” said Anurag Narula.

Sensing something wasn’t quite right, Narula and the sons called up her friends, colleagues, and her brother to inquire if she was with them. “None of them had a clue. We walked for hours to search for her that night. Nobody had seen her,” recalled Anurag Narula.

Around 11 pm, the family approached the police. A missing person’s report was filed around noon the next day at the Tilak Marg police station, and after four days, a kidnapping case was lodged against unknown persons.

Police said that most CCTV cameras near the house and in Pandara Road were not functional at the time. “Footage was recovered from two-three CCTVs that were functional,” said the officer.

The family claims that the police delayed the search, and that it was Shilpa, Sulakshna’s daughter in-law, who retrieved footage from near home and submitted it to the police. “She was seen walking near the house. We approached the auto rickshaw drivers, and asked them to carry her posters,” said Anurag Narula.

In March 2019, six months after the complaint was filed, the case was transferred to the crime branch of the Delhi police. During the investigation, Sulakshna’s phone was analysed by the forensic science lab, but nothing came of it, said the officer. Police said they also questioned Narula, the three sons, and other members of the family, but found no evidence of foul play. “Police teams visited old age homes, night shelters, temples, shrines and hotels, but we couldn’t find her,” added this person.

While IO Samaria was shunted out after it was revealed that he had sought help of an astrologer and refused to work till the bad period in his horoscope was over, other IOs – claimed the family — gave excuses such as being busy with Covid-19 duty, Republic Day security arrangements, Prime Minister’s security, riot duty, and G20 arrangements.

A second police officer from the Crime Branch who asked not to be named said, “We don’t know where she is, but we have investigated the case properly. The allegations against us are false, but we don’t say much because the family is also suffering. There were no lapses in our probe. We looked for her across Delhi and in other cities such as Noida, Faridabad, and Haridwar.”

Tossed from one officer to another, the family was also taken by one of the IOs for a “psychoanalysis” in 2021. A third investigator told HT, “The psychoanalysis is a regular test which is a part of investigations in several kidnapping and murder cases. This is done in the presence of a trained doctor who can check ‘behavioural’ changes while a suspect or a witness is questioned.”

As if a missing parent, and a police investigation with no leads wasn’t enough, the Narula family has also had to deal with scamsters – extortionists who posed as relatives or acquaintances after seeing posters, some who pretended to be kidnappers with morphed photos of Sulakshna, and those accessed details of the missing person and then posed as police personnel from the Delhi police’s missing persons’ cell.

Each time, Narula was hopeful. Maybe this time it was a genuine call, a kind informer, a good Samaritan moved by his family’s plight.

“Each time someone calls and says something about our mother, we get excited. We know most of these people are scamsters, but do we have any other option? It’s only when they ask for money that we realise the con,” said a dejected Anurag Narula.

On January 27 this year, when a morphed photo of Sulakshna in a burka was sent to his father, Anurag Narula knew instantly it was a scam. “My father was going to pay him the money he demanded, especially since that man had said that she was in Haridwar. The police had also told my father in the past that Haridwar was a possibility due to my mother’s religious bent of mind. But he called the police and asked them to check the caller’s number… It was an untraceable international number from Pakistan.”

Since December last year, a cruel scam has put the Delhi police in a spot – the ZIPNet scam. The zonal integrated police network (ZIPNet), which displays information of missing persons, including phone numbers of their family members, has been used by scammers to fool aggrieved people looking for their kin.

The Narula family fell prey to this in February this year. “A man called us, posed as a sub-inspector, and told us he was on the case. This time, I believed the caller without verifying his identity. I even paid for his bus ticket from Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh to Delhi. He said my mother has been traced to Haridwar and we need to go there. Then, he demanded more money, and I became suspicious and called up the crime branch. It took them two days to get back to us. It was a scam,” Anurag Narula said.

And then last December, another scamster posed as a kidnapper and threatened to kill Sulakshna if he didn’t get the ransom. This time too, Narula was hopeful.

“We did call him back, but he refused to reveal his location. The caller kept demanding money and said they will drop my mother at home, but when we asked questions, there were no answers. Finally, they stopped engaging,” recalled Anurag Narula.

Time has stopped for Narula, who retired from Safdarjung hospital in 2019. While Anurag Narula has moved to Gurugram, and the twins live in different parts of the world, he continues to live in the Pandara Road house, surrounded by Sulakshna’s memories. “He’s waiting for my mother to return. He says what if she comes back and no one’s home...,” said Anurag Narula.

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