The Sunday Story: ‘It took 5-10 minutes for my wife, daughters to die’
Family photographs of Praveen Manwar with his children Sharvari, Parineeti, and wife Shilpa.
Nobody saw anything amiss about Praveen Manwar, an IIT engineer, husband and father of two. Except when he walked to police one day and talked of a suicide pact and an HIV ‘fear’, and gave a story riddled with holes.
The signboards on the last stretch of a 6-km ghat between Varud in Maharashtra and Prabhat Pattan in Madhya Pradesh warn about accidents and blind curves but end with the promise of a “vihamgam drishya (a bird’s eye view)” of the deep valley.
As Praveen Manwar drove down this stretch on March 3 in his WagonR with his family, he was concerned neither with the signboards nor with the view. He was looking for a flattened portion in the barrier along the curve.
Around midnight, the 39-year-old would spot the gap. And, by his own admission, drive through it, ending 500-600 ft down. He would then step out, set the car on fire and watch his wife Shilpa, 38, and daughters Sharvari, 9, and Parineeti, 2, burn to death.
For a week, the deaths would remain undiscovered. Then, on March 10 morning, Manwar, a manager with NTPC who did his M.Tech from IIT Kharagpur, would lead police to the spot and claim the deaths were the result of a suicide pact, and that he had panicked and pulled out at the last minute. He would also claim he was HIV positive and that he suspected he had transferred the virus to his family.
Twelve days later, police are wondering if any part of that story is true. In tests since, Manwar, his wife and daughters all tested negative for HIV. Manwar is currently in Multai jail on charges of murder.
“I never saw him smile,” says Shilpa’s brother Ajay Dhanke, who lives in Amravati, Maharashtra. He refuses to address Manwar by name, calling him “aaropi (accused)”.
“The motive is not what he wants others to believe. He fled from the crime spot and sought legal counsel,” alleges Ajay’s wife Sharda.
Another brother Sanjay, a textile engineer who lives in Mumbai, alleges Shilpa, Sharvari and Parineeti were either drugged or poisoned by Manwar before he rolled the car into the valley.
Shilpa’s sister Arju, who lives in Mumbai, was probably the last person to speak to her, around 2.45 pm on March 2. “She said she was drowsy and did not want to speak,” Arju says.
Shilpa and Manwar had got married in 2003. Also an engineer, she had recently expressed a desire to work.
The relations between Manwar and his in-laws had got strained after Shilpa delivered Sharvari in 2004. Manwar wanted the delivery to take place at a private hospital, but Sharvari was born at a government hospital in Amravati. He rarely visited his in-laws’ place after that, though he never stopped Shilpa from going.
Five-six years ago, Manwar bought a two-bedroom flat in Shankarnagar in Amravati, where his in-laws live. He had recently booked a bigger flat.
The in-laws also accuse Manwar of being petty with money and his family members of not bonding with the Dhankes. While Shilpa never complained of any harassment by him, they are now agreed that he was “normal” till only a year after the wedding.
That’s not the Manwar they know, his family counters. “Praveen is the happiest of my children. I don’t know why he is in the midst of all this,” says his mother Shashikala, whose health has taken a beating since his arrest.
Manwar’s father Gyandev had been a teacher at a Kendriya Vidyalaya and had settled in Karanja Lad, around 70 km from Amravati, because the family owned land nearby. Gyandev died the year Sharvari was born, of haemorrhage.
The youngest of four children, Manwar had got into Government College of Engineering, Amravati, and later IIT. The family called him “super brilliant” and focused on his career.
However, they admit, he wasn’t too happy about how it was proceeding. Manwar’s first job was as a lecturer at NIT, Surathkal, for two years. He joined NTPC a decade ago.
For the past four years, Manwar had been living in Chhatarpur, a town near Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, and he hated it, considering it inferior to Amravati. He wanted a job with the Maharashtra State Electricity Board but had tried once and failed.
Unlike the in-laws, Manwar’s relatives remember him as a jovial presence at family functions, who hardly ever shouted at anyone.
However, they add, he also spoke little and was possessive about his daughters, especially the younger one.
This quality is also something Manwar’s colleagues at Chhatarpur, where he worked at an upcoming NTPC power plant, remember well. One of them says he wouldn’t let his wife venture out as often as she wanted.
The Green Avenue Colony where Manwar stayed with his wife and children is located 25 km from the plant. While it is probably the best address in Chhatarpur, Manwar never felt at home there. Neighbours recall him as a quiet person who didn’t interact much, though Shilpa was social.
In the colony of more than 300 houses, NTPC employees number a dozen. Manwar was required to visit the work site only once in two days.
Neighbours also recall that Manwar even preferred to make most of his purchases from outside Chhatarpur. Before leaving Amravati, he would stock up from a Best Price shop there. He did not trust even the local medicines and would often check with a friend in Amravati, Ravi Bonde, who is associated with a government-controlled tuberculosis programme.
“Except for the squeals of the young daughter, I did not hear any sound from their house,” says Rajni Jain, who lives right behind them. She admits she never heard them quarrel, but adds, “I did not get the impression they were very close either”.
No relative from either side visited the Manwars in Chhatarpur.
Another colleague recalls how Manwar would take offence at “non-veg” jokes on WhatsApp. “It was strange… he worried his daughters may use the phone,” says the colleague. Two months ago, he suddenly deactivated his Facebook account.
On February 28, a Saturday, he texted a colleague that he and the family were leaving for Amravati in their WagonR, a distance of more than 800 km. Their friends didn’t think anything amiss. Manwar would do the drive at least twice a year: for summer vacations and for Diwali. They thought he must be missing home as usual.
On February 28 morning, Shilpa even attended her aerobics class. “She had lost weight. She was on a diet too,” says Vijeta Sethi, a friend.
It was raining heavily that day, and the family spent most part of it inside. But despite the downpour, they left Chhatarpur sometime late evening. Soon after, police have discovered, both switched off their phones.
It was around March 4 that Manwar’s WhatsApp group realised he had not corresponded for days, and approached one of his friends in Amravati, who in turn contacted his in-laws.
The family, including Manwar’s aunt, was surprised to hear he had been to Amravati. They had not got in touch with anybody, spending their two days in town inside their Shankarnagar flat, getting food parcels from outside.
It was around one and a half years ago, Manwar told The Sunday Express in police custody, that he had started visiting prostitutes on Delhi’s G B Road, when in the Capital for official trips. “But only when drunk.”
He went seven or eight times, he says, spending between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 each time. Then he got ulcers, and feared the worst. He claims he got himself tested at a pathology laboratory in Chhatarpur, and the result said he had HIV.
He thought of going for another test in a bigger city, but did not have the courage to do so, he says.
He also considered sharing his “plight” with his mother, but gave up the idea. He did not want to talk about his HIV over the phone to anyone, he says. “On hindsight, maybe I should have shared it with someone.”
Immediately before the February 28 trip, Manwar adds, he attended a four-day session in Delhi on HIV/AIDS. “I sat on the last bench.”
However, his primary source of information was “Google”, he admits. “I googled AIDS symptoms. The more I read, the more I wanted to end it all.”
His fears worsened when his wife too started showing “symptoms” that he had read about, Manwar says, like “ulcers, weight loss, pain in the joints, weakness and fast-growing nails”.
Around late February, he claims, he told Shilpa what may be wrong with her. He says they fought, and after some time, she accepted what “needed to be done”. Claiming a suicide pact, Manwar adds, “She said no matter how much people empathise with us now, the infection will bring infamy to us and our daughters.”
Around 4 pm on March 3, the Manwars took off again in their WagonR, presumably for home. He hasn’t said much about the trip, but recalls in exact detail how he approached that break in the barrier along the road after a temple, midway between Varud and Multai, and drove through it.
“It takes a lot of courage to commit suicide,” he told The Sunday Express, trying to explain why he got out of the car. As he stood watching, he adds, “it took five to10 minutes for my wife and daughters to die”.
He says he tried to hang himself from a tree near the spot soon after, but the shirt got torn.
By his own admission, Manwar then walked away, trekking 15 km to Varud. Over the next four-five days, he claims to have travelled to Nagpur and Nashik among other places. With
Rs 3,500, he says he bought a chappal, a shirt and a train ticket, “all the while thinking of committing suicide”.
During daytime, there were too many people around, according to him. “I wanted to end my life at night when nobody would save me.”
He claims he mulled drowning, jumping before a train, cutting his wrist, but couldn’t gather the courage.
Manwar’s story has few takers, among his in-laws, friends, colleagues or neighbours. His own relatives too are sceptical but see no other reason for Manwar to have done what he did.
Shilpa, who used to regularly talk to her sister and relatives over the phone, did not give any hint of trouble. In fact, till a few days before, she shared videos and jokes. On February 25, she posted a photograph of Sharvari holding a certificate of achievement she had got for a 4×100 m relay race.
On March 9, five days after the deaths of Shilpa, Sharvari and Parineeti, by which time the family was frantically looking for them, Manwar met close friends Ravi Bonde and Rahul Wankhede in Amravati and told them what had happened. He told them he had sprinkled petrol on the car and switched on the air-conditioner.
Bonde and Wankhede convinced Manwar to go to police and surrender.
“Life mechanical ho gayi thi,” Bonde recalls “Manya” — as they call him — telling them. He also talked of depression, suicidal tendencies, but didn’t say a word about HIV, they say.
Wankhede, who studied engineering with Manwar, says they read in the papers later that Manwar had claimed to be HIV positive. “Instead of being credited with making him surrender within 75 minutes of him approaching us, we thought we had courted trouble,” says Bonde, talking about the local coverage on their role.
Police are puzzled. When they brought Manwar to his house in Chhatarpur, residents recall, he showed no signs of any emotion. The Shankarnagar flat in Amravati has more photographs of his daughters, but no one recalls seeing him crying there too.
“We were shocked. How do we explain to our children that you are not safe with even your father?” says a neighbour whose daughter was very close to Sharvari.
Having questioned him extensively and escorted him to his homes and the scene of the crime, throughout which Manwar has stuck to his story, police have little in terms of a motive except what he claims. However, his story is riddled with holes.
* When police asked him to recreate the crime, he could not get out of the car the way he claimed he did.
* Manwar initially claimed he and Shilpa wanted to make their deaths look like an accident. Then he said he and his wife poured petrol on the car and lit the fire together. Later, he changed this to him “lighting the matchstick from a safe distance”.
* He admitted it was pitch dark (“don’t remember the exact time”) but said he found the matchstick as the car indicators “came to life”.
* In another version, the 39-year-old claimed to have pulled out at the last moment because Shilpa asked him to save the younger daughter. But the fire was already raging by then, he said.
* Police also dispute Manwar’s claim that none of them got injured despite the car rolling such a long way down and turning turtle.
* The owner of the laboratory where Manwar claimed he tested positive has denied such a test. He believes Manwar gave their name as the laboratory is located at the busy Chhatrasal square in Chhatarpur town. Asked for the report, Manwar said he tore it because he did not want his wife to see it.
* There is no evidence to indicate Shilpa knew of his HIV fears, or that she consented to the “suicide pact”.
Local doctors could not perform postmortem on the badly burnt remains of Shilpa, Sharvari and Parineeti. Police are now waiting for reports from Bhopal. Betul SP Rakesh Jain says investigation is still on.
Asked about the possibility of its occupants being already dead when the car went off the road, he says police are not ruling out anything. Jain adds that police did not seek extension of Manwar’s remand because there was nothing more to be recovered.
Sent to judicial custody on March 17, Manwar remains convinced he acted for the right reasons. “I considered Google my doctor,” he says. “I don’t know why people are finding it difficult to accept my story. My only remorse is I failed to end my own life.”
Source:: Indian Express