Kasaragod: October 17, 2009, was Deepavali but the Acharya sisters turned off the lights and hit the bed early. Like any other day. Around midnight, loud repeated bangs on their door shattered their sleep.
Jeeps full of Karnataka police officers had landed at their house at Kuntar, a village in Karadka grama panchayat -- 35 km from Kasaragod town and on the border of Karnataka. "There were 15 gents and only one lady. And only one was in a police uniform," said Lolaskhi Acharya.
The officers were rude, she said. "They slapped my uncle sleeping on the verandah and ordered Jayanthi and me to go with them," she said. The police dragged the two sisters to their jeeps and drove away, leaving behind their mother Shesamma Acharya, and uncle.
The sisters were taken to Bantwal rural police station, 60km away, in Dakshina Kannada district. But their family was in the dark.
At Bantwal station, inspector Nanjunde Gowda asked Lolaskhi and Jayanthi if anyone from their house was missing. "I told him about our elder sister Pushavathi," said Jayanthi.
Gowda was heading a police team investigating a series of missing women, who ended up dead in public toilets in tier II and tier III cities of Karnataka. Invariably, the women had consumed cyanide, an extremely poisonous chemical compound.
Police had found that Pushavathi's phone number was used to contact a few victims.
"The police behaved rudely with us, perhaps thinking that we were responsible for the women going missing," said Jayanthi. Little did the police know Pushavathi was also a victim.
By the afternoon the following day, the sisters' neighbours and BJP workers Mohana Acharya and Gangadhara Rao and the sub-inspector of Adhur police station in Kasaragod found their whereabouts and reached Bantwal station. The Adhur SI gave an earful to Bantwal police for taking the young women away without informing him. The officer returned with the sisters by evening.
Four days later, on October 21, Bantwal police arrested Mohan Kumar Vivekanand, a physical education teacher, from the outskirts of Mangaluru city for the killing of 22 women between 2004 and 2009. The news media bestowed the moniker 'Cyanide' Mohan on him. He was then 46 years old.
On October 23, Inspector Nanjunde Gowda summoned the sisters to the police station. He showed them a photograph of a woman in a bright yellow churidar lying on a stretcher. The officer asked them to identify her. "It was Pushpa," said Jayanthi. The photograph was taken before her body was taken for autopsy. She was found dead in a public toilet in the Upparpet police station limit in Bengaluru city.
Mohan Kumar was convicted in the murders of 20 women, including Pushpavathi. "We had met him once at the Bavutagudde court complex in Mangaluru. He told us that he killed Pushpavathi," said Jayanthi. That was the closure the family was looking for. They never got her body.
'Dahaad' tells how society enabled 'Cyanide' Mohan
Creative partners Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar have made a police procedural series on the serial killings but they went beyond the murders to expose the communalism, oppressing caste system and patriarchy -- the real cyanide in society -- that enables such crimes and criminals. The eight-episode 'Dahaad' (roar or shrill cry in Hindi) is streaming on Amazon Prime now.
'Cyanide' Mohan preyed on women from the poor and Dalit and Adivasi communities by promising to marry them without taking dowry. After winning their trust, he would ask them to elope with him because he too was under pressure from his family to take dowry.
The unsuspecting women, with their savings and jewellery, would end up in a hotel room with him. The morning after while driving out of the city, he would give the women a contraceptive pill to avoid pregnancy. He would instruct them to take the pill in a public toilet because there are chances of them throwing up. The pill would be invariably laced with cyanide.
Few families filed a missing complaint when their daughters did not return home or phoned them back. If a complaint is filed, police did not take it seriously until given a communal spin.
Like in the case of Cyanide Mohan, Anand Swarnakar (played by Vijay Varma in Dahaad) was legally nailed by the testimony of an anonymous woman who survived because she threw up and fainted before taking the pill.
Sindoora Saini (played by Prashansa Sharma) -- the anonymous police witness in Dahaad -- said: "Initially, I thought of going to the police. But then I realised if I go to the police, everybody will come to know and people will gossip. So we decided to put the incident behind us and move on".
One cannot be faulted for thinking she could have saved several lives if she had gone to the police in the first place. But the social reality is harsh and Saini's fears are not unfounded. The Acharya sisters know it better.
How society made the sisters pay for the killer's sin
Pushpavathi was the fourth of six daughters of Shesamma Acharya and the late Shiva Acharya, a carpenter. He died in 2000 at the age of 52. She was 13 then. The six sisters studied only up to class 10 in Kannada medium school.
In 2009, when Pushpavathi turned 22, she found herself a job as a helper in a medical college hostel in Sullia, a town in Karnataka's Dakshina Kannada district, and 30km from her home in Kuntar.
By then her two eldest sisters were married. Her elder sister Yashoda, and two younger sisters Lolaskhi and Jayanthi were not married. The six sisters bonded well and took care of one another.
On July 9, 2009, Pushpavathi draped herself in her best saree, wore her gold pearl chain, earrings, and a ring, and told her sisters that she was going to Shree Chennakeshava Temple in Sullia, next to the medical college hostel where she worked. "She told us she would return home but she did not," said Yashoda, her elder sister. "We thought she must have gone to the hostel," she said.
But Jayanthi became restless after two days of silence from Pushpavathi. She was the first among the six sisters to buy a mobile phone and kept in touch with the rest. "When I called her multiple times, a male voice attended the call. He said Pushpa was in the bathroom and asked me to call later," said Jayanthi.
The youngest sister did not give up. Around 9 pm, she called again. This time, too, the male voice attended the call. "He told me that he and Pushpa registered their marriage and would come to meet us with gifts and clothes in August for Ganesh Chaturthi," she said.
Jayanthi was livid. "I shouted on the phone: 'Who are you, son of a bitch? Get my sister on the phone.'" After 14 years, the anger in her voice is raw.
The person on the other side hung up and switched off the phone. The sisters never heard from Pushpavathi again.
The sisters had no one else to take up the cause of Pushpavathi. BJP workers Mohana Acharya and Gangadhara Rao made some noise and met the police but did not make any headway.
"We hoped she would return and made an offering to our theyyam (guardian spirit of the village)," Lolakshi said. The sisters also met an astrologer. "He gave us an amulet with special powers to keep in our house. He said Pushpa would return home in five days," said Jayanthi.
The sisters had to sell a few pieces of their jewellery to raise Rs 5,000 to pay the astrologer. "After five days, we went to the astrologer. He was no longer there," she said.
But Bantwal police were closing in on the serial killer. They launched the investigation when Anitha Mulya went missing from her house at Barimar, a village in Bantwal taluk, on June 17, 2009. Her body was found at Hassan, 140km away, the following day. But the police did not know.
Investigation into her phone call records led to other missing women. Bantwal police found Mohan Kumar trapped Arathi Naik (23), a Scheduled Tribe woman from Pedra village in Kasaragod's Bedadka grama panchayat in 2006. She left home on January 3, saying she was going on an excursion with friends. But she went to Mysuru and checked into a hotel with Mohan Kumar. She was found dead the following day in a public toilet.
Mohan Kumar used to flee with his victims' money and jewellery. According to an extensive report in Indian Express, Cyanide Mohan snared his first victim in 2004. In 2005, he killed three women; in 2006, he killed four women; in 2007, he killed three; and in 2008, he killed two women. In 2009 -- the year he was caught -- Mohan Kumar trapped and killed nine women. Police were dismissing the deaths as isolated cases of suicides. They launched an investigation only after rightwing groups in Bantwal raised the bogey of love jihad in the Anitha Mulya missing case.
The sisters said they did not know how Mohan Kumar and Pushavathi got acquainted. "He was spotted by residents at the Kuntar bus stop several times," said Yashoda.
The arrest of Mohan Kumar, however, wrecked the lives of the Acharya sisters. "Neighbours stopped inviting us for social functions such as weddings and housewarming," she said. "They also dissuaded families from coming to our house with marriage proposals," she said, with tears in her eyes.
The three sisters -- Yashoda, Lolakshi, and Jayanthi -- did not get a marriage proposal for nine years after Pushpavathi was killed. "If someone showed interest, our neighbours bad-mouthed us and ensured they did not reach our house," she said.
The three sisters married in September, November, and December of 2018. Yashoda, the eldest of the three, was the last person to get married and lives with their mother in the house built by the five sisters. Shesamma suffered a brain stroke when police broke the news of Pushpavathi's death to her. She has not recovered yet.
The sisters had to pledge the cow-dung plastered two-bedroom house with a cooperative bank to raise Rs 75,000 for the three weddings. "We partly repaid the loan taken for five years. Now the bank has sent a demand notice threatening to evict us if we did not pay the remaining money," said Jayanthi, who works as a salesperson in a fancy store in Mulleria. The family said they are sinking in debt and the government has not yet compensated them. "But things are getting better in the village. Now neighbours call us for housewarming," she said.