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"It is the story of Romeo and Juliet. Again. Still so sad, so sad.' : Together in Death as They Were in Life

June 28, 1993|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — According to Hindu tradition, there are five basic elements of life: air, water, fire, earth and space. There is no mention of passion.

But for Hema Sakhrani, passion was all.

So when the man she loved was slain last month by a family acquaintance, the 20-year-old woman leaped from the window of her parents' 16th-floor Rego Park, Queens, apartment. She left this world, friends say, to meet her beloved in a better world.

In death, the young lovers left behind the murderer--a man police say was obsessed with his own passion for Sakhrani. And they left behind a story of sorrow that has entranced this city--where crime is just another headline in the Post--like a modern-day "West Side Story."

"It is the story of Romeo and Juliet. Again. Still so sad, so sad," says Hindu community leader Nathir N. Lalchandani.

But no longer so shocking. This tragedy is another example of the many forms violence against women can take: through violence against their loved ones. This city well remembers three years ago when a scorned lover set fire to the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx after a fight with his former girlfriend. The blaze killed 87 but spared the ex-girlfriend.

*

In many ways, the doe-eyed Sakhrani was a modern, independent woman with a promising future in science. She was also a loving, dutiful daughter who helped her mother run the family candy store in Queens and who respected her faith and its customs.

When her family announced her engagement to Shaleen Wadhwani, a fellow student at New York University, the families--immigrants from Pakistan and India--were delighted. The couple, who had known each other since childhood but fell in love at NYU, planned to marry July 16. Wadhwani was to begin medical school in August on a full scholarship.

But on May 26, the eve of his 21st birthday, Wadhwani was gunned down in the doorway of his family's Long Island home. Early the next morning, Chandran Nathan, 35, a friend of the Sakhrani family, was arrested. According to Det. Sgt. Daniel Severin of the Nassau County Police, Nathan was obsessed with Sakhrani.

Police say Nathan, an actuary for the city of New York, used a semiautomatic rifle to pump 11 bullets into the young man's chest. In a six-page statement to investigators, Nathan described Sakhrani as "my very close friend" and suggested he was trying to help her avoid a loveless, arranged marriage.

Four years ago, Nathan's marriage to a fellow Sri Lankan was arranged by his parents, as are the majority of marriages in the Hindu community here, according to Nathan's lawyer, James McCormack. But Sakhrani and Wadhwani, say their families, were marrying for love. And the day after Nathan's arrest, Sakhrani "proved her great love," says family friend Lalchandani, by leaping to her death from the family's high-rise apartment.

Friends of Hema Sakhrani said that while she may have wanted to follow Wadhwani to another world, it was the power of grief and despair and "her refusal to go on living without him," as one friend put it, that caused her suicide two days after his death.

Before it was outlawed in India in 1829, and even for decades after, it was not unusual for wives to follow their husbands into death. In the ancient ritual of sati , wives ceremonially threw themselves upon their spouse's funeral pyre.

Moments before Sakhrani jumped, a neighbor said she heard her cry out, "Why did it happen?"

*

Minutes before their funeral in Elmhurst, the couple were symbolically wed.

"They were married in a cosmic sense, united in a way that they will be together for all eternity," says Lalchandani.

"By proclaiming their love for one another when they were alive, they took a vow to live and die together. And by sacrificing their lives for this love, their souls are now joined forever."

In the robes newly brought from India for their July wedding, the couple was dressed as bride and groom and their open caskets positioned so that their heads were separated only by a large heart-shaped wreath. The caskets were joined by a knotted bond of orange silk to signify their eternal union.

*

In the Hindu faith, there is a strict prohibition against suicide. But in such a desperate case as this, Hindu leaders assured the families, the rule would not apply.

Like most religions, Hinduism views death as an opportunity to step into another kind of existence. But for Hindus, the new form--or incarnation--is dictated by the goodness or badness of the previous life.

Murder is not good karma , nor, under usual circumstances, is suicide. "But in this case, it is acceptable. She could not live without him. She bound herself body and soul to him. What she has done has stirred the whole community," says Lalchandani. "Look at it this way: How many people today have the courage to do what she did?"

Nathan, who is being held in the Nassau County Jail without bond, appeared in court for pretrial conferences last week. He has pleaded guilty and his attorney says he will likely use an insanity defense.

When told of the death of Hema Sakhrani, whom he had known since birth, Nathan had no visible response. "He was cold, emotionless . . . , " recalls a police officer investigating the case.

Earlier this month, the young couple's remains were cremated together. According to Hindu tradition, cremation frees the soul by returning the body to the five elements from which it was created.

Only the passion remains.

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