Chronicle of a Death Not Foretold

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Media stress? A day before Sunanda’s death, the couple had asked the media to respect their privacy
Media stress? A day before Sunanda’s death, the couple had asked the media to respect their privacy.
Photo: Vijay Pandey

The mystery surrounding Sunanda Pushkar’s death in a posh New Delhi hotel has taken a murky turn with the sub-divisional magistrate heading the inquest asking the Delhi Police to investigate if it could be a case of suicide or murder. The 52-year-old wife of Minister of State for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor was found dead on the evening of 17 January in suite No. 345 of Hotel Leela Palace in Chanakyapuri.

In her last days, Sunanda had alleged that a Pakistani journalist, Mehr Tarar, was having an extramarital affair with Tharoor. The controversy started when tweets, which were allegedly cell phone messages exchanged between Tharoor and the journalist, were sent out from the minister’s account. Later, Sunanda and Tharoor issued a joint statement saying all is well with their marriage, though Sunanda continued to allege that Tarar was “stalking” her husband.

Sunanda’s autopsy revealed that she died due to “poisoning”, possibly caused by an overdose of anti-anxiety pills (Alprax). The death seems to have occurred between 4 pm and 6 pm on 17 January. What is puzzling medical experts is the fact that Alprax, which belongs to the benzodiazepine category of anti-anxiety drugs, is not known to have the toxicity levels normally required to cause death by an overdose. “However, the reaction to an overdose varies from individual to individual,” explains Dr Puneet Dwivedi of Fortis Hospital in New Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. “In people with respiratory disorders, a very high dose could prove lethal.”

Other doctors TEHELKA spoke to voiced the same opinion, though most of them were wary of commenting directly on Sunanda’s case. “Any medicine that the body wants to reject irritates the stomach first and causes vomiting,” says a doctor on condition of anonymity.

“But it’s possible for a person to fall asleep before puking out the drug. In such cases, sometimes the vomit remains within the food pipe. Reports suggest that Sunanda had consumed at most 27 pills, which can knock out a person for 24 hours. But it can cause death only if combined with a huge amount of alcohol. Sunanda could not have died just because of the pills unless she choked on her own vomit.”

Making things murkier, the autopsy also showed minor injuries on Sunanda’s body that could have been caused by a scuffle. The viscera report, which will reveal the exact chemical agent that caused the poisoning, will be out in a month.

Eleven people were questioned during the SDM’s inquest, including two personal attendants of the couple, Narayan and Bajrangi, who were at the hotel on 17 January. The others include Tharoor, Sunanda’s brothers Rajesh and Ashish Pushkar, Shiv Menon (Sunanda’s son from a previous marriage) and journalist Nalini Singh, who claims to have spoken to Sunanda a few hours before she died.

According to the sequence of events on the fateful day recorded in the inquest report, it appears that the two attendants had knocked on the door of Sunanda’s suite at 4.30 pm and again at 5.30 pm. When she didn’t open the door, they called Tharoor at 7.30 pm. By the time Tharoor reached the hotel and opened the door with his key, Sunanda was already dead and rigor mortis had set in.

Narayan and Bajrangi told the SDM that the couple had a number of ugly spats in the days leading up to Sunanda’s death, including the night of 16 January and the following morning. But the SDM has reportedly ruled out any conspiracy by a family member. Though Tharoor will certainly be questioned by the police, Shiv Menon has stood by him. “Anyone who knew my mother would simply know that she was too strong to commit suicide,” reads the 21-year-old’s statement. “I also do not believe that Shashi was capable of physically harming her, let alone the speculation that he could have taken her life. They were very much in love, despite occasional differences, which they always overcame. It was an unfortunate combination of media stress, tensions and a wrong mix of different medication.”

Sunanda’s behaviour in recent times, though, revealed a gnawing anxiety beneath her smiles for the camera. On 12 January, Dubai-based Khaleej Times reported that Sunanda had allegedly threatened to throw a drink at one of its reporters while he was interviewing Tharoor. The newspaper quoted Sunanda saying, “I have thrown liquor at (Times Now anchor) Arnab Goswami. You think I can’t do that to you?” This had apparently put Tharoor in an embarrassing spot.

A sharp businessperson with assets worth over Rs 100 crore, including flats in Dubai and a house in Canada, besides shares in several enterprises, Sunanda had a meteoric rise in celebrity circles. The daughter of an army officer from Jammu & Kashmir, she had married and divorced twice before meeting Tharoor in 2009 in Dubai. Their marriage in 2010 was widely covered by the media. And a few months before their wedding, Sunanda got embroiled in a controversy over her Rs 70 crore sweat equity in the Kochi IPL team, leading to Tharoor’s resignation from the post of MoS (External Affairs) in the UPA-2 government.

In an interview with TEHELKA (The Parable of the Vamp by Shoma Chaudhury, 1 May 2010), Pushkar had accused the media of carrying out a “medieval witch-hunt”. She had also said, “You know, all through my life, at different phases, things have fallen apart and each time I have just picked myself up and put the pieces back. I am a very positive person: I always say, this too shall pass.”

It is indeed a tragedy that it will take a police probe to find out why she couldn’t remember her own lines this time.

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