Mukuta Mukherji’s fatal plunge down 36 storeys along with her sister and mother early on Friday has left friends struggling to fathom how a feisty green activist who fought the system could suddenly lose the will to live.
“A spirited woman like Mukuta was the least likely person to commit suicide along with her family. I just can’t believe that she ended her life like this,” said Indrani Bhattacharya of Friends of Nature, an organisation active in the Golf Green neighbourhood where the Mukherjis lived.
Mukuta was the secretary of the club and a known face in conservation circles. Metro had on several occasions highlighted the 47-year-old’s campaigns against felling of trees, filling up water bodies and construction of concrete embankments along ponds.
“In 2002, she had started a public interest litigation in Calcutta High Court demanding a ban on concrete embankments along water bodies. Her petition explained in detail how aquatic biodiversity was suffering, prompting the division bench to ban such embankments,” recounted Biswajit Mukherjee, former chief law officer of the environment department.
Mukuta also campaigned against the age-old practice of using egret feathers in the traditional dhak and fought hard to save the Bikramgarh Jheel, one of the many threatened wetlands of the city.
Those who knew her say Mukuta was a woman of many parts. She had worked with a Bengali daily before trying her hand at running a leather bag business and becoming a pilot. “She had trained at the Behala Flying Club but couldn’t become a commercial pilot because of a problem with her eyesight,” said a neighbour who didn’t wish to be named.
Mukuta was the face of her family; even neighbours know little about her parents Nihar and Amita, and younger sister Kheya, 35. “They seemed to prefer a reclusive lifestyle,” an acquaintance said.
Neighbours whom Metro spoke to said they knew Mukuta but had hardly ever interacted with the rest of the Mukherji family in the 25 years they lived in their Golf Green flat, WIB (R)-24 Ph-IVA.
Kheya used to coach kids in table tennis at a local club. Father Nihar, who died at age 91 in a city hospital on Wednesday, was a central government employee.
“Both girls used to take care of their parents, who were ailing. But people in the area hardly knew anything else. Few knew that Mukuta had lost her father on Wednesday,” said Uma Basu Majumdar, who stays in a flat on the ground floor of the same building.
In hindsight, acquaintances say Mukuta’s behaviour in the days leading to her suicide might have held clues to what she was planning. She had apparently enquired from some people she knew about highrises in Calcutta.
“We have also come to know of this. But it is too early to establish that she was looking for a highrise to end her life along with her mother and sister,” a police officer said.
Investigators have found out that the Mukherjis had lately been planning to donate their property. Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, vice-chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University, recounted a visit by Mukuta and Kheya to his office on August 23 to discuss how they could donate their family property to the institution.
“I was at a meeting then. They waited till the meeting got over and talked about donating their property. When I informed them about the procedure of donation and some legal formalities that could take time, they said they were in a hurry,” he said.
The sisters told Ray Chaudhury that they owned a three-cottah plot at Panchasayar, off the Bypass, the flat at Golf Green and a car. A five-page note pledging their property to Rabindra Bharati — it was written in Bengali and addressed to the vice-chancellor — was found on the last landing before the South City terrace from where the siblings and their mother plunged to their death.
Although the police have yet to assess the financial condition of the Mukherjis, the family’s resolve to donate their property to Rabindra Bharati suggests they were not under financial strain.
Sources confirmed to Metro that the family had cleared a bill of Rs 1.64 lakh for Nihar’s treatment at Rabindranath Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences, where he died on Wednesday. The two sisters and their mother reached the hospital shortly after being informed of Nihar’s death.
“The mother was extremely upset but did not lose her composure. She and her daughters went inside the ITU and after coming out said they would take the body a day after,” said pulmonologist Aritrika Das, who was treating Nihar.
Hospital sources said the three women spoke to officials and arranged for Mukherji’s body to be kept in the morgue for a day. They reached the hospital on Thursday and took the body for cremation to the Sahanagar crematorium at Kudghat around 7pm.
A few hours later, Mukuta, Kheya and their mother were found dead in the rear yard of South City’s Oak Tower. In death as in life, the Mukherjis remain a mystery.