The narrow lane that leads to the Shakti Mills compound near Mahalaxmi station in Mumbai is alive with the hustle and bustle of a working day at 10:30 am. Office-goers with backpacks or hand bags, motorcycles, cars and trucks all jostle for space as the work day gathers pace.
But today the lane is narrower still because news vans line both sides of the street and a police van is parked outside the entrance to the mill because five men gangraped a 23-year-old photojournalist inside the compound around 6:30 yesterday evening.
The cops are there to prevent further trouble. They sit in their van or in some of the nearby shops, while cameramen and reporters tramp into and around the mill compound, looking for evidence of the crime or the best place for a shot.
A watchman from the Handmade Paper Sales Company across the street from the entrance, people-watches. The signboard for Handmade Paper is so old, it advertises a seven-digit phone. Mumbai switched to eight digit numbers in 2002. But the mill is in much worse shape.
The entrance is strewn with garbage and rubble and there is a narrow path that leads to what is left of the main building through a sea of plants, with the grass about three feet tall. A local mechanic says the area is full of snakes, and they think twice before going in there.
The mechanic, Mohammad, runs a small garage whose back wall is the wall of the mill compound. He was there at 6:30 pm the previous day, but says he heard "only the regular daily sounds". He mentions the mill is used for shoots quite often - "two days ago some college kids came " - but he hadn't seen the photojournalist and her colleague and says they must have entered from the back.
He says there are normally people walking up and down Shakti Mill street because of the number of offices there. "Hungama channel is here and their employees come and go at all hours," he said. When asked about the rumoured drug addicts in the area, he says "they use the mill compound". Mostly they are young men from the surrounding areas, he claims. "They have no fixed time. They constantly come and go."
Once inside, it is clear the building itself is weather-beaten and dilapidated. The ground floor is dark, dank and also covered in rubble. Pieces of broken concrete and brick lie everywhere, as if the place had been bombed. The walls have large gaps between pillars, making it look like bay windows had been removed and never replaced. Bits of broken bottles lie on the staircase, which is cracked and crumbling.
There is vegetation growing wild everywhere. The second floor is open to the sky and the grass has taken to growing even there. But it provides a view of the back of the compound, which is where the photojournalist and her male colleague had reportedly entered from. There is a wall that separates the compound from the railway tracks that abut it, but in one corner there is an opening big enough for a person to use.
The ground between the building and the wall is covered in foliage so thick it is impenetrable to the naked eye. It looks like a jungle. The mill could be the remnants of an ancient civilisation, now decayed, that nature has reclaimed for her own. From the ground floor, with no view of the tracks or the surrounding construction, it is easy to believe the city has been left behind.
Police has cordoned off the area where the rape took place – it was overrun with plants – and a few policemen stand guard.
Inside the mill building, it's hard to hear much of the outside world except for the occasional sound of trains passing by. In that moment, it was possible to understand how such a horrible crime could take place without anyone hearing or seeing anything, even in a crowded city like Mumbai.