A sketch of Vijay Jadhav, one of five accused rapists
At 2:30 AM on August 23, Nitin Yadav’s cell phone rang. Outside his house, a Mumbai Police jeep waited under the dim glow of a streetlight next to a man in a dusty wifebeater sleeping on a pushcart. Nitin peeked out of his door to confirm that the jeep belonged to the police and then scurried back inside to throw on a shirt. His wife Vaishali nervously followed him around in her nightgown, asking questions that her husband didn’t quite know the answers to.
Eight minutes later, he was sitting in a room with Mumbai police Commissioner Satyapal Singh and Joint Commissioner Sadanand Date. A young photojournalist had been gang-raped while on assignment for an English-language magazine in an abandoned textile mill in south Mumbai. Her male colleague, who sat in another room at the police station, was tied with a belt and beaten while five men allegedly took turns raping the photojournalist. Nitin, a primary school art teacher, was tasked with interviewing the colleague and producing sketches that would be used to identify the perpetrators. The crime, which came only months after the brutal Delhi bus gang rape (the perpetrators of which were sentenced today), was yet another horrid instance of violence against women in India. Even in the cosmopolitan media center Mumbai, once considered one of the few Indian cities where women were safe, something like this could happen. “I was determined to do good work,” Nitin told me in Hindi two weeks later. “This was a high-profile case and the accused had to be caught as soon as possible.”
For three hours, Nitin questioned the rape survivor’s colleague at the police station. With the help of what he calls a “software book”—a yellowing collection of sketches outlining various shapes of heads, noses, mouths, hairdos, and moustaches that Nitin has drawn over the years—he produced three of the five sketches that the Mumbai police released the morning after the attack. “Usually, victims are too traumatized to remember details,” he said. “But in this case, when the sketches were being made, the woman was in hospital. Her friend had witnessed the whole attack and the fact that he is a photographer and remembered details helped me. I went through my software notebook, asked him to point and then reworked the sketches with the information he gave me,” Nitin said.
The police fanned out with Nitin’s first sketch, of a man who they learned was named Chand Hussain Sheikh, at roughly 6 AM. In Jai Bhawani Nagar, a patchwork of slum dwellings covered in blue tarpaulins that sits behind the abandoned mill where the rape took place, residents said the sketch was strikingly similar to a garbage sorter who lived in a one-room structure with his siblings and grandmother. “The minute we saw it, we knew it was Chand. He had fallen into bad company,” Haseena Sheikh, a woman in an emerald-colored shalwar kameez and tightly combed hair, told me in Hindi. She lives in the same slum and helped the police identify Chand.
Chand was arrested the same day and he gave the police details about the other four accused. Within three days, all five of them were behind bars. As television channels flashed Nitin’s sketches, alongside breathless discourse about the status of women in Indian society, Nitin was turning into a local celebrity.
Chand Hussein Sheik, as drawn by Nitin Yadav
In the lane leading to his house, which is now dotted with clay idols of an assortment of Hindu deities, unfamiliar faces are greeted with: “Want Nitin Yadav?” A group of boys, led by Nitin’s son Pratik, wait for visitors outside their house so that one of them could go running in to tell Nitin to get on to his swerving maroon chair for the photographs. Last week, his appointments included being honored by the bilious leader of a right-wing political party, giving a lecture about patriotism at his primary school, and being interviewed by local papers. Next week, he has an invitation from the largest organizer of the Lord Ganesh festival in Mumbai. “People tell me I’ve worked for my country. When I look at photographs of the accused men on TV and compare them to my sketches, I can’t believe it myself,” he said, sitting in his swerving maroon chair.
Nitin, a man in his late 40s with a penchant for thick gold chains and a square moustache, has been helping the police for more than two decades. After his father, who worked at a textile mill, joined a mass strike when the industry struggled in the last 1980s, the responsibility to bring home money fell on the family’s youngest son, Nitin. Then, between painting signboards, rickshaw number plates and portraits of dead people, he found himself in a police station assigned with painting a giant map of the city. “A constable was trying to get information about a robber. All he was able to get was his height and the color of his shirt,” Nitin said. “So I asked him if I could take over.”
Since then, he has lost count on the number of cases he’s worked on, mostly for free. A sepia-toned photograph of a younger Nitin dressed up as Chhatrapati Shivaji, the 17th-century king of the Maratha empire, smiled down at him from chipping wall as he pulled out a dusty folder that has the sketches of hundreds of criminals. The collection includes a man who robbed and raped a Spanish woman in Mumbai in November last year, a man who raped an eight-year-old and a gun-toting henchman accused of threatening a local politician. “People remember everything except for the eyes of a perpetrator. So it is my job to fit them in depending on the rest of the description,” he said.
Vaishali, sitting cross-legged in a printed nightgown with her hair tied up in an untidy bun, prefers to lock up this folder of sketches at night. “I don’t like to see them,” she said. “It reminds me that he could get into trouble.” A few years ago, Nitin received a call from someone who claimed to be part of an organized gang. The person on the phone threatened to kill Nitin if he continued to work with the police on the case of a murdered lawyer. “I know what he is doing is right but at the end of day, I stand to lose if something happens to him,” she said.
A neighbor stumbled into the house with a copy of a Marathi newspaper in which Nitin had been featured, laughing nervously, tickled by knowing a local celeb. “You see, God has given me this talent for a reason,” Nitin told me philosophically. “But the Mumbai police should train more people like me.”